To Play or Not to Play: The Song of Ice and Fire RPG
Unless you have lived in a cave somewhere for the past couple of years or rabidly avoid the Fantasy genre entirely, you have heard about George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series published by Bantam Books. The novels regularly reside at #1 for Sci Fi/Fantasy when they debuted in the in the early '90's and the more recent books have made the top ten bestselling lists worldwide, despite being rather dark, adult oriented and dangerous to the lives of the main characters within it. Take note, this is not Tolkien or Jordan that we're talking about here.
In addition to the excellent novels, HBO has aired Season 1 of Game of Thrones, a television series that adheres very closely to the novels on which it is based, as the author not only writes the scripts but has complete creative control, this past spring. The show was a smash hit and introduced a whole new legion of fans to take a look at the novels which resulted in more sales and more popularity.
The premiere episode of the television show attracted 2.2 million viewers its initial airing on April 17 in the U.S., and totaled 5.4 million viewers across multiple Sunday and Monday night airings. It averaged 743,000 and reached a peak 823,000 in UK and Ireland on its April 18 premiere. HBO announced that they would be commissioning a second season on the strength of the reception of the premiere episode. By the final episode of the season, which aired June 20, the ratings had climbed to well over 3 million.
The majority of reviews for the show were very positive, with critics noting the high production value, the well-realized world, compelling characters, and giving particular note to the strength of the child actors. Tim Goodman's review for The Hollywood Reporter stated, "a few minutes into HBO's epic Game of Thrones series, it's clear that the hype was right and the wait was worth it." Mary McNamara from the Los Angeles Times called it "...a great and thundering series of political and psychological intrigue bristling with vivid characters, cross-hatched with tantalizing plotlines and seasoned with a splash of fantasy." New York Post's Linda Stasi gave Thrones 3.5/4 stars stating, "The art direction, acting and incredible sets are as breathtaking as the massive scope of the series." Many critics praised Peter Dinklage for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, with Ken Tucker from Entertainment Weekly stating, "...if Dinklage doesn't get an Emmy for his clever, rude Tyrion Lannister, I'll be gobsmacked" and Mary McNamara from the Los Angeles Times stating, "If the man doesn't win an Emmy, heads should certainly roll."[
On July 14, 2011 Game of Thrones was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards that included Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series, and Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (Peter Dinklage as Tyrion).
And finally, the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game (SIFR) has been released by Green Ronin Publishing, written by Robert J Schwalb. Weighing in at 225 pages, beautifully illustrated and extremely well written, this game has a lot of potential and I was very excited to try it out after the disappointment that I suffered with Dresden Files RPG, Anima and the free Fate Systems.
After reading through the book once, I sat down with a few friends and we set out to give the game a test run.
Before I get into game mechanics and the like, let me describe character creation. Now, for me character creation is the most important part of a roleplaying game outside of combat. A really complicated and hard to understand creation process like that found in Anima will turn players off before they even get to play the game. If the rules and creation process is too bland then the players will have no interest vested in their characters. And that's not counting all the other pitfalls that plague the character creations process like munchkins, rules lawyers and cheats.
SIFR starts by having the players create a House as a group before making characters. All the characters work for the House and the House is more important than any of the individual people within it. As the players create the House, they have as much invested in it as they do in their characters. More so even, as the rise and fall of their House directly affects the fortunes of the player characters.
After the group's House has been created, the players either pick or roll the age of their characters. Player Characters can start off as a child of less than 9 years or an ancient of 80 years or older. There are 8 Ages that a character can be. For example, a Youth is 9 years old or less while an adult is 18-30 years old. For each Age a character has, they roll a background for their character.
For the record, I HATE randomly rolled backgrounds. I love writing out detailed backgrounds for my characters and enjoy coming up with new and inventive NPCs and the like. However, the Background tables for SIFR are detailed enough to add flavor to a background while being generic enough to allow the player to write fully flesh out backgrounds of their own.
I HGHLY recommend using the background
While this is a point based system, the number of points is based on the age of the character and is divided between Creation points and Destiny points. Creation points are used for stats, which are a combination of attributes found in normal games like Agility and Awareness and skills such as Fighting and Survival. Destiny points are a combination of Advantages like those found in GURPS only better, and Plot Points like those found in Exalted.
Young characters get fewer Creation points and more Destiny points as they haven't yet met their Destiny while older characters get the opposite. Characters older than Adult receive Flaws or disadvantages automatically. As with most point based games, Flaws add points to character creation. Unlike other games though, none of these Flaws are "good" to have.
For example, in GURPS I can pick the Disadvantages Truthful, Honest and Cannot Harm Innocents if I wanted to play a heroic character with solid morals and stuff. While a little limiting, none of those Disadvantages really do anything besides give me points for the way that I already plan on playing my character.
In SIFR however, you have Honor Bound (compelled to tell the truth)... And that's it. The next weakest Flaws include Eunuch, Cruel Insanity (cannot see consequences of your actions) and Haunted (tormented by past memories). they get drastically worse from there.
Going back to stats, you have 19 combined stats and skills. You start with a Rank of 2 in each stat, which means that you are average in that ability. This is the first game I've seen where characters automatically have skills in everything. Going up a level or two in any stat is a big deal. "At rank 4, you have trained extensively in the ability, combining your natural talents with extensive training. Your skill in this ability far ex-ceeds that of the average individual, and you can confidently tackle challenging tasks without trouble and, with a little luck, can pull off some amazing stunts."
When rolling a stat, you roll a number of d6 equal to the stat and add up the results to determine success. If your Fighting skill is 3 you roll 3d6 and the sum is the result.
Each stat can be Specialized at starting levels. The specialization adds a number of dice equal to the specialization to the skill roll. The extra dice allow for low rolling dice to be subtracted before the dice are summed up.
For example, you have a character with a Fighting of 3 and a specialization of Long Sword 2. You'd roll 5 dice, subtract the 2 lowest and sum up the rest.
Example: Tomas hits Malakai in a sword fight. He rolls 5 dice for his Fighting skill (3) and Sword specialization (2) and gets 5, 6, 1, 3, 4. He removes the 1 and 3 and adds up the rest for a score of 15 (good hit).
This merging of stat and skill is new to me. The way specialization is handled is also new to me and seems much more balanced than other systems I've tried.
Where SIFR really excels though are the two areas that EVERY OTHER GAME I'VE EVER PLAYED DRASTICALLY FAILED. And here I am talking about mass combat and social combat.
As any experienced gamer can tell you, it is extremely hard to play a character in a battle of more than a few people. Most fantasy games have tried to include rules for mass combat because fantasy stories usually end up with a Helm's Deep or two, and a few have actually come up with rules that work, but none are fun to play.
While I won't delve into the actual rules in this already too long article here, I will say that as far as I can tell, the rules in SIFR will not bog the game down at all and will be fun to play out.
What I really want to talk about are the rules for social combat, called Intrigue in this game.
Most games have skills for social combat. Persuasion, Merchant, Fast Talk, etc abound in roleplaying games. However, these are static boring skills that boil down to a simple roll.
What sets SIFR apart is that the game treats Intrigue the same way that it does combat.
Very few games resolve combat with a single skill role. You never hear: "I rolled a 15 and he rolled a 12, he's dead".
Most games have a player roll to hit vs the opposing character's defense, then roll damage minus the opposing character's armor and the difference is the damage that character took, which in a lot of cases can be absorbed.
Some games are more complicated than others, but this is a fairly common generalization.
In contrast, these same games treat haggling with a merchant as a simple skill vs skill roll.
SIFR treats social and physical combat in very a similar manner. Both Intrigue and Combat have Initiative, Technique or Skill, Defense, and Hit Points. Intrigue goes a step further and takes into account each character's feelings for the other, the setting, time spent in negotiation (broken up into Simple, Standard and Complex) and the goals of each character involved.
The example given in the book is a knight trying to seduce a noblewoman. The noblewoman wants the knight to spy for her. They roll out the encounter and the noblewoman convinces the knight that if he spies for her and gives her something worthwhile, she'll sleep with him.
I have never played a game with rules for something that intricate. I've always had to roleplay things out and make up house rules for this kind of stuff.
This is the only game I know of where a smooth talking con artist, priest or princess is as powerful or more needed than a fighter.
Now, there are drawbacks to this game. The biggest drawback is the setting. The game is extremely faithful to the book series that it is based on and for you fans out there, this will be awesome. However, the setting and thus the game, does not have a magic system that you can play, so using these rules for your home brewed world or another published setting will not work as it is. You'd have to create a magic system from scratch that works with the rest of the game. The game does work in a fantasy or medieval setting that has no or extremely low magic.
The only other negative for this game is the lack of character sheets in the main book. I had to make my own using Excel. There is a Game Master Screen, whichmay come with character sheets, but I haven't checked into that.
And those are the only things that I didn't like about this game.
One last time, for the record, this is by far the best written roleplaying game that I have ever had the pleasure of playing out of the 30-something games that I've tried over the past 20 years. If you want to try something new, this should be something you consider. I give it my highest endorsement.