My buddy Corey has decided to take a turn at running a game and he went with Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG since he got a copy of the pocket edition for Christmas along with Peril at King’s Landing. I have had very limited experience with this game so seeing it back at the table made me giddy. And it wasn’t just because of the Game of Thrones series starting up.
First off, the basic mechanics of SIFRPG are a simple d6 dice pool system where you roll a bunch of dice and keep a few, with higher rolls being better. The number you keep is usually determined by the governing stat you are rolling, with specialties upping total number of dice you roll. In play it works extremely well and moves things along nice and quickly while still allowing for a wide range of specialties and definition among the characters.
The thing with A Song of Ice and Fire and Westeros is that it is very politically driven. When I first got my hands on the RPG I was curious how it would capture the intrigue that is so pervasive in the books. The game handles it well, making the purely social character who can’t swing a sword if his life depended on it totally viable. This is something that makes me all sorts of happy, as I like diversity in the characters at the table and didn’t want to see the social side of the stories get sidelined in favor of combat.
Another detail that is very important to the setting is where the characters come from. The game started with us making our house, which ended up being an old house set in The Mountains of the Moon. House Dugan, as it came to be named, had stood with the Targaryens in the War of the Usurper, being loyal to the crown but not the king. When Robert Barantheon won and the Mad King Aerys was dead, House Dugan’s loyalty stayed with the crown. The house creation affects more than just the history, also providing a framework for your character by letting them know where they stand in the world. All in all, the house creation is fun and is a much appreciated feature of this game.
For Peril at King’s Landing, there are three of us playing. Mike is an anointed knight, Ken is playing a scout and I’m playing a horse trainer/retainer. I liked the idea of playing a simple man, someone who was dedicated to his craft of horse training and who traveled with the knight to the tournament at King’s Landing because the knight’s horse needed work. Mike’s horse, in the beginning, was not war trained (which is a big deal) and was a horrible fit for a fighting man since he had spent most of his starting money on his armor. My character, embarrassed that a knight of his stature would ride such a humble steed, helped to purchase a new, more majestic mount for the knight and began training it on the journey from The Mountains of the Moon to King’s Landing.
One thing that I decided for my character was that I wanted him to fight with a spear. In many games the spear is just not a good decision for a primary weapon. It’s something that aggravated the hell out of me in D&D, as my image of a Spartan or a Hoplite was dashed quickly by the other fighter who was using a long sword and dishing out far more damage than my meager spear could deal, and the actual use of the spear was never very detailed. In A Song of Ice and Fire, that changes. Do you remember Oberyn Martell from the books? He was known as the Red Viper, a warrior who fought with a poisoned spear. I instantly loved that character.
The game allows for specialties, like I was saying, that add bonus dice to your roll. My character has a stat of Fighting 3D, Spear 2B. What that means is I roll five dice when fighting with my spear and keep the highest three. In addition, I was able to take the ‘Spear Fighter I’ quality that allows me to make a second attack with my spear if I miss, but it’s at a penalty. I think it’s awesome, as it starts to feel more like I can use both ends of the spear in a fight and it gives my guy a flavor all his own when a fight starts. In addition, the spear I’m using can be wielded one- or two-handed, with a two-handed stance adding to the damage I deal. It’s a minor detail, but one that I enjoy. Combine all that with the Animal Cohort quality that I took, which gives my horseman an additional Fighting die when fighting next to my animal (which is my horse) and my character, a man who hopes to one day be known as the greatest horse trainer in Westeros, starts to take form.
Speaking of combat, one of the things that has always bugged me in other games is the way armor functions. I don’t like how, in D&D, heavier armor makes you harder to ‘hit’. I understand people’s arguments that the AC is an abstract means of determining how much damage gets through and so on, but I have always preferred systems that demonstrate how encumbering armor is while at the same time emphasizing the point behind it – the protection it offers. In SIF, heavy armor causes penalties to certain areas but can absorb a lot of damage. Mike’s anointed knight with his half plate was slow, often going dead last in initiative order where Ken and myself were wearing little to no armor and going quickly, but I don’t think he ever got hurt during gameplay. For myself, protected only by padded armor, one solid shot could damn near flatten me. It’s a trade-off, and one that I appreciate.
I also really like how hit and damage is calculated. For my spear fighter, I use Fighting (Spears) to hit, but I use Athletics for my damage calculations. This allows for a lot of flavor in the different styles, as a Water Dancer is going to seem much different than The Mountain’s brutal style of combat. Since Fighting is used in almost every case to hit, a high Fighting score will be useful no matter what weapon you use. Since the damage is calculated based on other stats it keeps the combat from being One Stat To Rule Them All.
The final point of combat that I really enjoy is how you can elect to take an injury when you are damaged, which reduces or eliminates the damage you take. The reason you would want to do this is because if you are ever reduced to zero health, the person who dealt the ‘killing’ blow will get to decide what happens. You could end up unconscious, dead, horribly maimed and the list goes on. The injury you take will impair you but, in my opinion, it’s worth it to avoid handing your fate to someone else.
I know that this is going to seem very disjointed and biased as a review, but I am having a hard time not gushing about this game. So far I haven’t run into anything that is glaringly wrong with the system but I am keeping my eyes out for the flaws. Right now I can say that my group is enjoying it, except for the one player who never read the books (he tried, just didn’t like them). It’s not an issue with the system, just that the names and places don’t mean anything to him so he feels a little left out. I think that’s something that any licensed game can run into but it’s the first time I’ve really encountered it at the table. It’s definitely an eye opener for me, and one area where I feel that Green Ronin could have done better by expanding the setting detail in the RPG in order to help people who have never read the novels get a better grasp on the setting. If you remember Game of Thrones by Guardians of Order, they gave more information on the setting but also included a ton of spoilers which I am glad that Green Ronin avoided. GR has put out the A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide which I know has a ton of setting information, but I haven’t had any first-hand experience with it. I am betting that the book will clear up any issues I have with the limited setting detail in the core book. If I manage to get my hands on a copy I will be sure to follow up, letting you know if it does the setting justice.
In short, I am loving A Song of Ice and Fire. The mechanics are simple and work very well for what they are trying to do and the character creation is fantastic. The house creation is something that is both necessary and well implemented and the politics are definitely given the chance to shine. If I had to put a number to this one I’d give it a 9.5/10 – my only complaint being that the setting information in the core book being a little too concise though I can understand why it was done this way. Green Ronin and Robert J. Schwalb definitely deserve the accolades they have received for their work on this game and I highly recommend checking it out if you have ever wanted to play a game in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros.
Once we have gotten through Peril I will be posting my thoughts on the adventure.