For years, I have bored my fellow gamers with the claim that the old TSR D&D Rules Cyclopedia was, overall, the greatest single role-playing game book ever published. Sure, there may have been books with slightly better art, crisper prose, or a more advanced playing style, but none of them could ever truthfully claim to be the only book you ever needed. Even after 15 years there are few books that stack up to the D&D Rules Cyclopedia in pure value. Until now. Guardians of Order
, with some help from the folks at White Wolf
Game Studios, have drafted the next greatest RPG book of all time based on one of the greatest fantasy series of all time.
George R.R. Martinís A Game of Thrones - D20 based Open Gaming RPG
This is a damn meaty book and let me say right off the bat it is worth every single penny of its $49.99 price. Before you pick up the book though, you may want to hit the gym for a few weeks because the dang thing weighs a ton and will take a toll on your poorly worked gamer muscles. The book is high quality both inside and out, Guardians of Order (henceforth known as GoO) did not skimp one little bit on the material needed to create this book. After multiple and regular readings, this tome of a game book is showing no signs of fraying or snapping. It seems clear that GoO knows what kind of punishment a gamer can dish out upon their books and constructed the book accordingly. The paper is thick and high gloss, which helps bring the excellent artwork (which I will get to shortly) to perfect life. The book also comes with a large removable map, allowing the players and GM to better visualize the continent of Westeros without having to flip through the book. (I also believe GoO is selling an even larger version of the map on their web site for a limited time.)
Learning about a Song of Fire and Ice
The book opens with what reads as a very bittersweet letter to the reader. I am not sure what the current financial status of Guardians of Order is, but it would appear that at the time of the book's creation things were not going too well. There is this great moment in the first Rocky film where Rocky Balboa is sitting in his studio apartment claiming that this is his one chance, that he knows he can make it if he gets the shot. The scene is even more poignant when you realize that by then the production was out of money and only had enough film to shoot this key character moment once. Like the young Sylvester Stallone, the writers and editors at Guardians of Order nailed it! After the opening letter to the reader, chapter 1 begins with an introduction and summary of George R.R. Martinís first book in the Song of Fire and Ice series: A Game of Thrones. While you do not need to read the book in order to enjoy this game, it is understood that you will have a more fulfilling game if you do. (Besides, the books are stunning and any fantasy literature fan should read them.) It also shouldn't be a big shock that A Game of Thrones RPG is one big spoiler, so new readers; be warned. Although this RPG does only cover the first book and in no way spoils the other books in the series. After the novel summary, the authors delve into role-playing and the history of fantasy. Normally, this is a section I find, at best, unnecessary and at worst, pompous as all hell. This was not the case this time, as the authors do not attempt to place some mythical and social reason for people getting together at a table and pretending to be fantasy figures. As for the history of fantasy, it is well written and a very well informed progression of fantasy literature. While you will rarely use the information in the first chapter after your first reading, it is interesting to see what novels and stories led to the current status of the fantasy genre. In addition, it provides a great reading list for folks who may be interested in fantasy's progression. Well, I've noticed that I am more then a page into this review and have yet to really break down what makes this book so great. Letís rectify that...
Character Creation - Chapters 2 through 11
Yes, you read correctly, character creation spans 10 chapters. Most books lump character creation into one or two chapters; and while A Game of Thrones is based on D20, there are enough changes that each aspect of character creation needed its own chapter. The type of character you create depends greatly on the style of game everyone agrees upon, with three styles staking center stage.
- The Noble House game in which the players all serve under one of the powerful houses of Westeros.
- Band of Heroes, the most traditional of games in which the players are low-birth adventurers seeking excitement were it comes.
- Finally, the Game of Thrones in which the players are socially powerful characters vying for control of the Iron Throne and all the power and danger that comes with it.
Speaking of society, it plays a very powerful role in A Game of Thrones, so much so that being born to a high family will actually raise your effective character level. Unlike a status ranking in a tradition fantasy or Dungeons and Dragons game, a Noble PC in A Game of Thrones has access to near unlimited amount of wealth, can have his or her enemies put to death (assuming they are not higher birth), and even call large armies to their banner with but a letter or word. Social status is only one of the new choices that help A Game of Thrones stand out from a tradition fantasy RPG.
The Martin series of novels, while fantasy, are still grounded in reality, and as such the only playable character race is humans. Although the book hints at more fantastical races, they have long since been lost to time. To reflect diversity within the continent of Westeros, your place of birth provides the players with various benefits and hindrances. As an example, people from the Iron Island, once feared throughout Westeros, receive a bonus to all Intimidate checks but lack social skills when dealing with non-Iron Islanders. Once a background is chosen, a player may choose a house affiliation. Like a character's background, their house affiliation grants benefits and drawbacks. Being affiliated with the powerful Lannister house may grant you many financial benefits, but you will be hard pressed to find anyone who trusts you. It should be noted that there are some backgrounds that prevent house affiliation. Rare is the Northerner who would be accepted in House Lannister. It is also possible for a player to lack any form of social background or house affiliation, although that all but guarantees the character will be "smallfolk" (series slang for peasant). That doesn't mean a player lacking social status or background can't enjoy the game. Indeed, such a character is free to design their own destiny and not follow house traditions.
Most of the character classes are fairly straightforward, although players will notice the lack of magic using characters, as magic is all but lost in A Game of Thrones. Even the religious Godsworn lack divine spells that traditional fantasy gamers are used to. From gifted Artisan, to the "knights of the mind" known as Maesters, to the dreaded Raider, the classes in A Game of Thrones fit all the possible social levels within the world created by George R.R. Martin. The prestige classes allow the player to control the type of character they read about within the novels, like the king defending Brother of the Kingsguard or the outcast but needed Sworn Brothers of the Nights Watch. While often used as a way to prevent ambush or lower the cost of buying a sword in a traditional fantasy games, Skills in A Game of Thrones play a key role. As so many of the contests within A Game of Thrones take place within the dangerous halls of politics, a character who lacks physical prowess but excels in walking the line of social combat may find themselves outliving others who do not know how to hold their tongue.
The familiar Feat system within a standard D20 is alive and well within A Game of Thrones. Staying in line with the system of Background and Houses, the Feats within A Game of Thrones help your character fit within their place in the world. Legendary Feats grant strong powers and are the closest A Game of Thrones comes to inborn magical abilities. While they do not break the game, it is recommended that the player and GM work out exactly how the Feat came to be with the character. As stated above, reputation and influence greatly effects how a player lives and dies within Westeros. Unlike a background (and to some extent, House affiliation) which never changes, a characterís influence and reputation can and will fluctuate as the game progresses. Wrapping up the character creation process is chapter 11, covering the various equipment a character will need to survive in the gaming world. The biggest change is in the armor section. Like Iron Heroes, armor in A Game of Thrones lessens damage a character receives when they are struck rather then deflect an attack. While more realistic, this does make combat far more dangerous, yet fitting to the world created by George R.R. Martin.
Chapter 12 - Game Mechanics
A Game of Thrones follows most of the rules that D20 gamers are used to and anyone who had been playing any D20 or OGL system will be very familiar with the rules. There have been some subtle changes. Players who are annoyed with the Attack of Opportunity system within D20 will breath a small sigh of relief. While not completely removed, it has been changed to only one per round regardless of skill or feat. Players will also notice that Bull Rush and Overrun are missing from A Game of Thrones. While some GMs and players may scoff at this choice, I agree with the writers who were going for a more story driven and not tactical combat. Coup de graces are now immediate deaths and not double damage, making combat far more deadly and better reflecting the mood of the books, where no one is immune. Many other tactical maneuvers familiar to most D20 players have been removed from A Game of Thrones. While you still need to plan out an attack you will rarely find yourself counting out squares and calculating range to determine attack. This style of gaming gives the GM a bit more work to do, as many elements within a combat scene are now open to interpretation but makes for a more dramatic game, which is the core of A Game of Thrones. To better reflect the gritty nature of George R. R. Martinís world, combat within A Game of Thrones is deadly and the lack of magic makes it darn near permanent. Even the staunchest of Knights will not be able to take on horde upon horde of enemies and expect to come out of it alive. As a balance, A Game of Thrones has a threshold of damage that a character can take before their character passes out, but not die, assuming their opponent doesn't take advantage of the situation and perform the dreaded coup de grace.
Chapter 13 - Playing in the Seven Kingdoms
This is the chapter where both the players and the GM need to decide what type of role-playing experience they wish to have. Chapter 13 will help the player decide which type of character they wish to play and how they will interact within Westeros. It also gives suggestions how the characters may deal with the class system and the sexism that is rampant within A Game of Thrones. That doesn't mean that female characters are not strong. Some of the strongest characters are women, but their life is not easy. Players and GMs can decide to not let gender be an issue, or they can attempt to play a game more in line with the Song of Fire and Ice. The chapter wraps up with simple suggestions a player can take to make the game more enjoyable. While I didn't need most of the information provided, I understand its placement. A Game of Thrones RPG is not just written for the avid gamer, but for the fan of the novels that may have never rolled a polyhedral die and I can see how this section would help them.
Chapter 14 - GMing in the Seven Kingdoms
Similar to chapter 14, GMing in the Seven Kingdoms gives the GM strong background material for designing a game within A Game of Thrones. Although gritty and realistic, A Game of Thrones does have some fantastical elements, and chapter 14 presents the GM options for making the few supernatural moments within A Game of Thrones all the more impressive in the game. A few NPC only classes are also presented in chapter 14, the most dangerous being the Magi, the closest A Game of Thrones comes to a spell caster. This also leads to another large change to the standard D20 fantasy setting, the lack of traditional magic. In A Game of Thrones (indeed all of the Martin series) magic is rare, dangerous, and to be avoided. Traditional spell lists are completely missing from A Game of Thrones. Instead, a GM works with a player in designing a spell. The strength of the spell decides how long a character must spend learning the spell, ranging from weeks for a low-level spell to a few months for a more intricate bit of magic. However, a character must still be willing to spend a Feat in order to add the spell to their repertoire. Even after all the above, spells still come at a price that the GM will set. Player should take heed; this price will be high and will likely be felt for the rest of the character's life.
Chapter 14 also gives rules for bringing over standard D20 character classes and while the authors do a good job of converting, I would suggest against it, as the flavor of the books would be lost. (It would be possible to add the Monk and Barbarian class, but they would both be from lands not yet discovered in the first novel). It also gives rules for creating mythical and fantasy based creatures for the players to face in the game. Again, this should only be used in small amounts as the addition of multiple fantasy creatures would take away from the theme of A Game of Thrones. There are fantastical creatures within the world, the primary supernatural foes being the dreaded Others from the north and the undead spawn who rise from their touch. Only hinted at in the first novel (being the only once covered in this first game book), it is obvious that dragons will play a far larger role in the hopefully soon to be released sourcebooks.
Chapter 15 & 16 - The World of A Game of Thrones & Characters from A Game of Thrones
I lump these two chapters together because they perform the same function but with a different focus. Chapter 15 covers all the known history of Westeros revealed in Martinís first Song of Fire and Ice novel, while chapter 16 covers all the characters given any time within A Game of Thrones. In addition to covering the various locations within Westeros, chapter 15 also reveals the more powerful families that reside in those lands giving the GM a rich and full pool of story ideas to draw from. Chapter 15 and 16 will be enjoyed by both the casual and hardcore fan of George R.R. Martinís series. In fact, there is so much information contained with chapter 15 and 16 I found myself learning items that I missed after multiple readings of the first novel. A Game of Thrones RPG wraps up with a character glossary providing a short sentence for every major and minor character within the first novel. It provides a small glossary of standard D20 terms and will help the player or GM who still isn't completely familiar with the D20 system. The book also includes a character sheet for copy, but I recommend downloading the site from the Guardians of Order website. The book is tough, but don't push it by bending the spine beyond recovery to copy the page.
I just can't sing enough praises for A Game of Thrones RPG. The book is perfect. If there are any typos contained within, they were too small for me to notice. You can tell love, sweat, and passion went into crafting this book. My only complaint is that I don't have enough friends hooked on the books (yet) for me to begin my own Game of Thrones campaign. A Game of Thrones is more than a simple RPG book based on a fantasy series. It also acts as an encyclopedia for those who are just as addicted to the novels as I am. The art within A Game of Thrones is varied in style, but each and every piece of art is stunning and brings George R.R. Martinís world to life. With the standard book being this gorgeous, I simply cannot imagine what the deluxe edition looks like. I know this book is available as a PDF format and you will be hard pressed to find a bigger fan of the PDF market then your friendly neighborhood Geek, but not this time. If you can afford it, please make sure you own a copy of this fantastic tome of a game book. A Game of Thrones D20 RPG is gaming gold... Lannister gold!
It should be obvious by now; I give A Game of Thrones D20 5 out of 5 Critical Hits!