Foreword: This post is a pretty long one. I try to think of all that I could said about ASOIAF, and what I would hope for the game to be. As I love the book and have high hope for the game, I wrote a lot. Also as I'm French and English is not my native language, you might find out a few mistakes in the grammar or the spelling. Overall, I think I wrote well enough, but I'll see it by yourself.
What do I think define the books? I can summarise it in two words: Wits
, and Guts
On Wits first:
In ASOIAF, characters face impossible situations. They should be defeated but most of the time one of the character get something clever out of his brain, confront the problem from another point of view, and win, because of a simple idea. I would call this cheating.
This is true for almost every aspect of the character. Daenerys get its unsullied by cheating, Tyrion won the Blackwater battle by cheating, Stannis takes Renly down by cheating, and so on...
Wherever you look, you see characters solving problems by bending the rules.
All rules are made to be broken, and so should be the ones of the RPG. The weak and smart shall prevail on the strong, even if stats and dices said it should not. Embeding this in a system might be a pain in the ass, but I sure it's the only way to get the feeling of the books back into the game.
Now what about Guts?
Guts are about Bronn not using armours to defend Tyrion, it's about Cercei poisoning Robert, its about the one true rule of the game of throne: You win or you die.
Great deeds may be accomplished, but that will be heroics deeds only if the odds are against the character and that he is ready to bet everything he has on a single move.
Most of the times, players have the choice not to act as they do, they can chose a safe way, or even chose not to engage in the game. Still once you play, the chances are fate will consume everything you put in the game.
So, I think that on important maters, the player should be given a way to risk everything on a single shot, even if they may be asked to figure out how to do so, as I explained earlier in Wits.
Guts are about choices and consequences. Using a dagger against a guard may be the right way for Arya to leave Harrenhal, but if she missed, she will be dead, and even if she don't, she will be tracked for the killing.
Well... Now that I define that are for me the central elements of the book, I have to admit that neither of this help much when it comes to game design.
So let's talk about situations...
First is Politics:
Social conflicts and influence are definitely key aspects of the universes, but I don’t thing they should be the core of the game system. There should be rules to manage social status, wealth and fealty, and also fear and reputation, but those rules should be kept to a minimum. I think social situations should be roleplayed by the player, and that the pertinence of his point shall decide of what happen. I don't think a player speech should be interrupted to role dices, so game mechanics, if any, should not be more than one roll, and very simple modifiers. It might also be good for the game master to handle social roles, as the effects might not be apparent for the character, and he could keep the story flowing...
More than influence and social rolls, Politics is about intrigue and plotting. There is no need for rules on this, but there is a need for guidelines to get as close as possible of GRRM work.
Here are a few things that I think matters in GRRM storytelling:
* Organizations and conspiracies don’t have agendas, but the character in command does.
* Past is the seed of the present, children are their parent's puppets, learning history is part of the game.
* Every character want something, find out what, and you will control that character.
* When you have a surprise, keep it and unveiled it only when the timing is good (which usually means that a very bad situation turns to worst, or that a good one turns to bad)
* Plans will fail, secrets will be told, or they are pointless as the PC don't have interaction with the story.
* Don't give the players time to think, something must happen to keep the busy, the world don't way for them...
* NPC are humans, they can fail, they have motivations and weakness, they're not white not black, and not grey either. NPC are colourful and deep...
* Attack the characters on personal level. Don't let the feel comfortable, unless you want them to get sleepy so you can strike them twice harder.
Here is a difficult one. Fight is random, there's chaos in it, and anyone shall be hurt. Still, in Westeros, real fighters are very dangerous, and very hard to take down. Relying on luck shall not be an option, even if luck is part of the game. So the training is the real important fact. When he comes at the wall, Jon is by far better than the other boys, even if he's young and thin, because he as been trained before. Hence he takes down bigger and stronger opponents.
So, as far as I'm concerned, skill is the key here (right after Guts and Wits, of course).
Personal edges, such as Clegane's might, should be include in his overall ability, but is not really what will change the deal. To me, it looks like a signature, his personal combat style.
I don't really know if it can be embedded in a simple system, but I would like to see more than one fighter type: Gregor Clegane is a very dangerous man, but he is quite different than Jaime Lannister, still neither of them fights like Oberyn Martell or Syrio Forell. It would be hard to say which one is the best, and it would mostly be a mater of tactical choices and luck than mere skill.
So I put skill first, but I want tactics and luck two.
And by tactics, I'm not talking about the 5-feet-squared dungeon maps, or flanking to get sneak attack. Tactics to me mean something different.
In deed, I'd like to see my players trying things in combat, solving it by intellect rather than just relying in dices. Like, "he's big, he should be slow, so I will strike him quicker than he can parry". If it works good, the opponent gets hurt, if it goes bad you give a chance to your opponent to hurt you and if it's not that clear, you can just try something else...
I think fighting should be about finding out the opponent weakness before being killed, but it's more a personal belief than a real conclusion of my reading of ASOIAF.
Fighting also means being hurt, and in Westeros, being hurt is bad. There are no hit points that a master would heal by laying hands. There are broken bones, hand amputations, nose cut, bleeding and dying.
While the exact description should be handled by the gamemaster, injuries should be bad. Injured character are weaker, slower, they are not as good in a fight as they should be and they need to be healed quickly to avoid aggravation, bleeding, sickness and so on...
Battle in Westeros don't work like most war-game do. Defeating the opponent doesn't mean killing his troops, it means making the troops leave the battlefield. Tywin Lannister has a good word for this somewhere in the books, but I can't manage to find it now that I need it...
So moral should be more important than troop strength or number.
So as I said skill was the key point of swordfight, I think now that the commanding skills are the determining elements of the battle. If the commander is able to feed his troops, to gets them move as he wants and to make them believe in victory, they should win.
But, as for swordfight, tactics should be part of the game. And now I don't speak of the character tactics, but the player's one. Placing archer in reach of fire, and the cavalry where it would do most damage, to me it appears to be part of the commanding skills, and it's not really what the books are about.
What the character bring to the battle, and what I expect the player to bring to the game, is surprise. It's the whispering wood, the one thing that you think of and the opponent don't. If the PC brings surprise to the battlefield, troops won't know how to react and most of the time they will flee and give you victory.
That's what I understand from the books. And that is what I would expect from a game system to allow me to put in my campaigns.
Also, in the book, when characters are in the middle of the battles, they don't have an overview. Battle means chaos, and so should the PC feel. So there should be a simple way to handle characters in the middle of a fight. They should have chances to get hurt, and chances to hurt people according to their actions, but we certainly don't want to draw every soldier on a map and to make a roll for each of those near the PC. I don't have any preference or suggestion on the way to solve this as long as the player feel like they're in the middle of a hundred lances and swords, with control on nearly nothing and a good chance to die even if they hide.
Magic is something rare and dark. It is hard to learn, it require time and sacrifices. So very few people should be able to use magic.
But even when characters don't want to use magic, magic can work. As far as we now, Stark's direwolves are a kind of magical effects, when Catelyn pray for Bran to stay in Winterfell, bran stays in Winterfell, when Bran dreams of a three-eyed-crow, he didn't asked for anything, and it is for all the song.
There is Magic, for everyone, but only those who dedicated themselves to that force can attempt to control it.
Also the use of magic does not rely on magic point, nor on spell slots. The way I understand magic in martin's work, it rely on sacrifice. You can use it as much as you want, but each time you call on magic, it will take something in return. The maegy, the one who know the mysteries, know the cost, and when he chose to use magic, he knows how to do so.
Melisandre use some of Stanis life strength to create killer shades. Bran lose part of his sanity has he take control of Summer. Daenerys burn a lot of things in the fire that wakes the dragons...
So I thing learning spell (or should I say gaing power as spells are only a tiny aspect of ice and fire magic) should be hard, and time consuming, and most of the time should require sacrifices. Faceless men spend year to train and prey before the can meld their face, and it appears that their god take them something, even if not always the same thing...
When a character has learn how to induce a magical effect on the other hand, doing it should not be very difficult, and the only limit should be the price the character is willing to pay. Powers should be ... well, powerful. There is not a lot of magic in ASOIAF, but when there is, it's always impressive.
The price is high, so characters willing to pay it shall not be cheated on the effects...
Ok, I think that with Politics, Swordplay, Battle and Magic, I've run with the major aspects of the song.
So I'm nearly done... Hang on.
My last consideration is about the system itself
As other has said before, I don't think a complex system should not be appropriate. Because some won't like to learn a new system, because some won't like to use it, but also because if rules cover precisely every aspect of the game, players and gamemasters rely on rules to solves thing and become unable to bend them.
And so, I think an exhaustive system will work against creativity and the "Wits" pillar of the books. When playing in the seven kingdoms, I would like to forget about the system and focus on what my character will do to stay alive, and looking on the character sheet or in the rulebook shall not give me any safety.
So please, please, keep it simple and efficient...
Also, and it's exactly the same thing, I'm bored spending hours designing D20 character, while at the end of the day, the only useful stat is Character Level.
So I would like to create character quickly, and I would like to be able to include a few customisation that allow to knight to be very different one from the other...
I don't think that in ASOIAF, abilities with strength, quickness or intellect would be relevant. As primal stats, I would like to see values related to the most frequents conflicts, that might be Politics, Weapons and Battle, or something completely different if you don’t like the way I enclose situations earlier. The point is we don't know whether is Jaime is strong or quick or smart, but we know that he is really good with a sword, and as a GM that's all I need to know to create the character quickly.
Then there should be secondary stats, that character life or reputation usually don’t rely on. Those abilities are used to describe the character and add colour to it, and would be Cersei beauty or Tyrion scholarship. This is certainly important, but I can't imagine a mind conflict between Tyrion and Oberyn where the one who has read the most books would destroy the other one. These abilities are secondary only by name, as they do not rely on conflict as the primary did. Still spending a few points in the "secondary" survival might keep a character alive beyond the Wall.
Now that's the end!
I hope at least some of it will prove useful, and even if it's a single sentence, it will be worst the time I spent writing this.
So have a nice day, play game, read book, and work hard on this one!