In this blog, we take a look at the world of A Song of Ice and Fire through the lens of the hit HBO series A Game of Thrones and the game systems of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying for some ideas on how to incorporate themes and elements of the show into your own SIFRP Chronicles. There may be spoilers for both the books and the show, so be warned!
Season 3, Episode 9: "The Red Wedding"
In Episode 9, “The Rains of Castamere,” we see the fallout of a number of events and personalities in the form of a brutal wedding day massacre of the North’s forces, and the persons of Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark and his new queen Talisa, as well as their babe-in-womb. Walder Frey’s bitter resentments and Roose Bolton’s treacherous nature find ample opportunity in the Red Wedding, with the support and assumed protection of Tywin Lannister and the Iron Throne.
It is possible that this scene more than any other in the A Song of Ice & Fire series embodies the brutal nature of violence and intrigue, played hand-in-hand, that Martin’s setting is best known for. And really, let’s be honest: it’s part of the reason why so many of us enjoy playing in this setting. There’s a sort of expectation while playing that bubbles to the surface among those of us who know the books even peripherally. Even at convention demos I’ve run, the jokes that surface first are about how presumably lethal such a game must be; it’s even been a point of shared experience among total strangers at such events, the in-joking about who is likely to be brutally betrayed and killed first.
So, then. What can your Narrator do to help foster that without totally destroying his game? Here are just a few ideas to help mine this style of brutal storytelling without sacrificing the actual fun in the game.
Identify the Enemies: Part of the horror of the Red Wedding was the rank betrayal required to carry it off. No one would be surprised that Tywin Lannister would do such a thing, of course. The betrayal from those the Starks considered allies, on the other hand, truly stung.
For such events, the Narrator should consider not just who the obvious enemy is, but who the hidden ones are. Characters might betray their allies for any number of reasons: to assuage their pride (Walder Frey), out of ambition (Roose Bolton) or a desire for revenge against the victims. But even these are, to some degree, predictable motivations for betrayal. Why else might someone who has been a good ally up until this moment take part in such deceit and brutality?
As a simple exercise, the Narrator is encouraged to take his roster of Narrator Characters who are considered allies by the Home House and determine what it would take to make that character betray his lords? Is she treated poorly? Perhaps he believes he is unappreciated, and someone else will acknowledge his contributions more. (How many players do you know who can’t be bothered to keep track of Narrator Character names, take them for granted and frequently forget they are even around? Use that.) A character whose loved ones are in danger certainly has solid motivation (see the end of this article for such situations in an Intrigue), but so might an otherwise loyal retainer whose family might be elevated or aided by the enemy, especially if the Home House never even gave second thought to that knight or chamberlain’s relations.
It may even be that some allies and retainers who are in place are simply willing to sell their loyalty to a high bidder, or were even put there by one’s enemies in the first place (particularly in the case of long-standing enemies of the House and the like).
Cunning Plan or In the Moment?: What is the best way to orchestrate such events? Ought the Narrator carefully plan such things, taking the role of an enemy’s own cunning, or should she take advantage of situations that crop up and make it seem as though the enemy is cunning enough to have thought of everything?
On some level, the Narrator should we willing to serve up from both options. Part of the craft of running a role-playing game is being willing to improvise on a carefully-crafted plan. It’s probably fair to assume that enemies are doing the same sort of thing, of course.
Keep an eye out for moments of vulnerability that an enemy might either have known about or at least could also watch for. Part of the horror of the Red Wedding was the fact that the Starks didn’t feel threatened in that moment: they were surrounded by allies and bannermen, in the hall of a banner lord who’d given them the bread and salt of the Guest Right, as their Houses were joined in matrimony. This is, of course, also the reason that the rest of Westeros was so horrified by the Red Wedding: it was a brutal violation of Guest Right, of honorable conduct between vassals and lieges and (considering that Houses Frey and Tully were joined in marriage moments before) an act of kinslaying. A violation of any one of these institutions would have been shocking. All three were unthinkable. In fact, it might be fairly stated that violation of the institutions of both fantasy literature and societal norms are a big part of A Song of Ice & Fire in general. Many of the most cunning characters in the series are the lateral thinkers who consider the “impossible” options no one else does.
Twisting the Knife: Part of the brutality of the Red Wedding lies in the fact that those so trapped were basically helpless. Not all physical conflict has to be resolved through use of the Combat mechanics. Simply put, Robb Stark was without arms or armor, and could do nothing against the crossbowmen. This sort of dynamic in play requires a willingness on the part of both players and Narrator to be willing to adjudicate these sorts of situations cooperatively.
Describing such scenes in play certainly can bypass the normal mechanics of Combat. Robb being shot with multiple quarrels, Talisa being surprisingly stabbed and the cutting of Cat’s throat all feel like they happen outside of the bounds of what we’d think of as Combat. In some situations, it is fair for the scene to develop out in such a way that the characters can’t really do anything against the violent deaths, but this is something that should be figured out cooperatively. And keep in mind the effects of burning Destiny Points for such situations; for those who’ve read the books, it is very likely that Catelyn’s player had the Destiny to burn (although likely did not anticipate the form that reversal might take…).
Troupe-Style Play: A practical consideration for this kind of game element, of course, is the obvious: chances are good that someone dies at a moment of betrayal. In a book, this means losing one of the narrative’s actors, but in a game, that often means that someone loses a beloved character. Dealing with character death has, of course, long been a point of game theory and design when dealing with roleplaying games. Practically speaking, the player is probably going to make a new character, at the very least.
Rather than waiting until such events occur, however, the Narrator might wish to think about implementing some elements of troupe-style play to her chronicle. In this style of play, each player has multiple characters available for play. Even outside of brutal treachery, having multiple characters has some benefits: no matter the style of character created, there are simply going to be situations where the character doesn’t make sense in a scene. It might be scenes away from home and the House’s maester who doesn’t leave the seat, the lowly retainer who wouldn’t find himself in the ballroom during a gathering of the elite or a lady of the House when the scene takes place in a tavern (or brothel!) in town.
These characters don’t have to be made all at the same time, either. I usually begin my own chronicles with the players each making a single “main” character, and then encourage them to either come up with other character ideas based on play or to even make note of Narrator Characters that they think might be fun to play occasionally. Something as simple as having the players make a list of three Narrator Characters they might like to try their hand at playing sometime can go a long way towards opening up the narrative potential…and leaving alternate characters in mind should the brutality of Westeros claim their primary characters.
Ruin or Revenge?: A sort of addendum to the above point, the question in the wake of such an event isn’t just “Who is left?” In fact, the juiciest question is actually “What do those who are left do?”
In many ways, a terrible event like the Red Wedding serves as what I like to call motivating investment. A motivating investment does two things: it makes players invested in the continuing story, and it acts as a motivation for their characters’ action. Readers of A Song of Ice & Fire know well this principle. The Freys and the Boltons earned themselves some significant hate from the readers in the wake of the Red Wedding. How many readers do you know who are just waiting to see what kind of revenge Arya takes for the Red Wedding? How many do you know that got goosebumps when Barbery Dustin assured a Frey that “The North remembers?” Even moments of possible revenge, such as the hints of what Lord Manderly’s pies were made of, bring a sort of joy.
How much more potent might this be when it is the players’ own characters who were betrayed and murdered most foully? There is a sort of point where player characters stop simply reacting to what is going on in the world around them and start to make plans and take actions of their own that sometimes requires a tipping point for the players at the table. This sort of horrifying event can be just such a tipping point.
A Parting Intrigue Tidbit
In honor of poor doomed Catelyn’s last-ditch attempt to Intrigue her way out of the killing ground that was the hall at the Twins, here’s what it looks like if one character in an Intrigue holds a hostage the opponent cares about. Of course, it helps if the one whose loved one is being threatened actually gives a damn about the hostage.
Holding a Hostage (Modifier): When you hold a hostage who can be threatened with harm if your enemy refuses to accede to your Intrigue goals, he treats you as though you had the hostage’s Disposition, rather than your true one. Using this technique invariably shifts the enemy’s Disposition downward by two steps, to a minimum of Unfriendly.