Song of Ice and Fire, Red Wedding

Last time in this series, I wrote about some additional ACKS content and Sine Nomine’s An Echo, Resounding, with full-throated praise for both. Today I’m covering a domain rulership system entirely separate from D&D: Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, by Robert Schwalb. In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past twenty years, this title tells you that it presents rules for roleplaying in the setting of George R. R. Martin’s series of novels, based on the hit HBO show A Game of Spoilers. (…nailed it.) Of necessity, I’ll include an overview of the Chronicle engine that SIFRP is built on, but mostly I’m here to talk about domain rulership. What with that being the title of the article and all.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part NinePart Ten | Part Eleven

 

Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying

The heavy lifting of SIFRP’s system comes from nineteen Abilities, rated 1-8. (In theory, this could go higher than 8, such as the Athletics, Endurance, and Fighting abilities of full-grown dragons. This doesn’t come up much.) Your rating is the number of six-sided dice you roll when you make a check with whatever ability. You further have bonus or penalty dice, such as from specialized training in a subset of a broader ability (Fencing within Fighting, for example). When you make a check with bonus dice, you roll your normal dice pool as well as your bonus six-sided dice (e.g., a +2B notation means “roll two bonus dice”), and remove the lowest-valued dice equal to your number of bonus dice. You add up all of these dice, hoping to match or surpass the Difficulty number. Surpassing the Difficulty by a lot gives you much better outcomes. So it’s a d6-based Roll-and-Keep system. Ability dice and bonus dice also satisfy prerequisites for various Qualities (feats, basically), but that’s not super important to this case.

A few standout items: SIFRP reflects its setting by having almost* no PC-accessible magic. (*Greensight is a thing, though its effects amount to GM fiat.) PCs start the game potentially very potent. Much like the books treat Jaime Lannister, Eddard Stark, and others as main characters, the rules open the door to a 7 in an Ability, which is utterly dominating. Even characters with such an option probably won’t take it, though – a 5 in a primary ability along with a bunch of other supporting abilities is more cost-effective and overall potent. Because you can start as anything from a child to a venerable elder, there are ways to start the game as a titan bestriding Westeros or someone just starting out; the difference in unspent Destiny points smooths out a bit of that disparity.

As probably everyone reading this knows, D&D 5e identified combat, exploration, and social as the three pillars of its gameplay. SIFRP more or less drops exploration (south of the Wall, the lands of Westeros and Essos are pretty well known, and dungeon-crawling is mostly not a thing) in favor of mass combat and domain rulership. One of the assumed approaches to the game is that all PCs belong to or serve the same House and face the game of thrones side-by-side; Chapter 6 is dedicated to exactly that.

Unlike any other system I’ve covered, SIFRP already knows everything about the setting you plan to play in, so the first thing you do is choose which of the ten realms of Westeros your House comes from. (The core book doesn’t have much on Essos.) SIFRP has the luxury and obligation to position your House within the peerage of Westeros, starting with identifying your regional liege lord. The game assumes you’re not playing one of the ruling Houses, though nothing in the rules makes that fundamentally impossible.

 

Let’s Talk Mechanics

SIFRP describes Houses with seven ratings that it calls resources (some of them can be spent like currency, some cannot). These are:

  • Defense: martial infrastructure (not fighting personnel)
  • Influence: your House’s relative importance and fame
  • Lands: your House’s acreage, though this is a bit complicated; a rating of 61-70 in Lands might contain many (or all) holdings rated 51-60. Considering that the North is as big as the other six kingdoms put together, it’s really hard to turn this number into a meaningful description.
  • Law: the loyalty of the smallfolk and the degree of danger you suffer from internal threats (banditry, dissent, whatever)
  • Population: does what it says on the tin, but much like Lands, a high rating explicitly contains ratings beneath it, making its use as a rating more confusing.
  • Power: your House’s ability to project military force and raise soldiers. This value is the natural companion to Defense.
  • Wealth: this is as much about your standing in trade relations as your cash- (or cattle-)on-hand.

If you create a new House for your PC group, each of these ratings has a base 7d6 value, modified by a chart of regional bonuses and penalties. For example, the Houses of the North have enormous… tracts of land (+20), good Influence and Defense, and penalties in the other four. Next, each player rolls 1d6 and adds it to one resource of their choice; players can double up on a resource, but no more than that. (I don’t know the designer’s thinking specifically, but I assume this is about making House generation feel personal for everyone, even the commoners.)

All of this means that, hypothetically, you could start with more Lands than House Stark. 9d6+20 doesn’t come out greater than 60 very often, but the average result is 51.5, the low end of results to equal House Stark’s holdings. My points here are that a) your House might be awesome and b) Land resources are particularly confusing.

Next, you generate a history for your House, which is just good emulation of the source material – whatever other opinion you may have of the series, its past is relevant to its present, and its past is meticulously detailed. There’s a bunch more random rolling, though if you collaboratively created a story for your House, it would be fine to fit into the charts as long as there’s a roughly equal balance of Good Stuff and Bad Stuff. With all of these random results, it does sort of feel like you could win or lose the game of thrones before the start of play, though you can’t reduce any rating below 0, so you could always claw your way back from the brink.

The thing I really like about this is that it emulates the tone of the series very well, it requires little if any pre-existing knowledge of the setting, and it helps you make your group’s own Westeros, including its all-important history. The downside is that the GM needs to be pretty strong on weaving things together, and if anyone at the table is a serious canon enthusiast, they’re probably going to have a bad time. (Admittedly, the serious canon enthusiasts in the SIFRP campaign I played in were wonderful contributors rather than being tedious.)

Great, you have a ton of ratings and (one hopes) a bunch of points in them. Next you allocate them into specific holdings. For example, there are five different defensive holdings, with costs ranging from 10 to 50. In earlier articles, I’ve talked about the depth some rulership systems offer on stronghold design. SIFRP goes very light here, with no detailing of corridors, wood paneling, or even arrow slits. Can you imagine? A castle without arrow slits that have been paid for a la carte? Each of the different defensive structures offers a bonus to defending units’ Defense values, ranging from +3 to a staggering +12. (Don’t try to storm the Eyrie, guys.)

You do the same allocation for Influence and Land. The Land one is interesting in a setting with a very well established map, but you’re drilling down to a smaller scale than the map of Westeros handles. You “spend” (the points aren’t gone, just tied up in a sense) Land points on terrain and features. It’s a little weird, but this part of the Land rating system makes sense. Law and Population simply convert to modifiers to your House Fortune roll (on which more later). Interestingly, Population imposes a penalty at the low and high end, granting only a modest bonus in the middle ratings.

Power is likewise allocated; in a surprising move, you purchase not only military units, but also banner houses. Interestingly, Power doesn’t buy you experience grades for your units – that costs (not allocates, but costs) Wealth. Starting play with one or more banner houses is a pretty good signal that the rules are comfortable with you starting play somewhere close to the power level of the Starks. There’s a stripped-down house creation system for your banner houses, and a few rules on what banner houses grant and expect in return. Though brief, it models the expected fiction well.

Finally, there are Wealth holdings, which represent status as well as carrying intrinsic benefits. There are also simple rules here for construction times when you add a new holding after the start of play. The list of options is fairly complete for what we see of Westeros, though other settings (including Essos) might want extensive additional options, such as gladiatorial pits.

This is the Song of Ice and Fire, so next we have seven pages on how to construct your House’s heraldry and house words. A few words on the role of each family member and each significant house servant follows.

 

The House in Action

At last, we come to the rulership portion. Each month, the House gets one House Fortune roll and can take one House Action. You can decline to take a House Fortune roll two months out of every three, which is a good idea if you have a big stack of penalties, or if you’re really risk-averse. The acting steward rolls Status (one of the nineteen Abilities I mentioned above), some modifiers apply, and you look the result up on a chart. Some bad things can happen even for quite good rolls, but the top-end rolls range from beneficial to very beneficial. This is pretty much a standard content generator for the month, but leaving it entirely on the GM to figure out what good or bad thing happens to the House this month.

There are only four action options listed. You can convert one kind of resource to another, break ground on the construction of a new holding, wage war (opening the door to the whole mass combat system, of course), or host tournaments. The last of these is, of course, a key means of increasing Influence. Many of the actions supported in other games stay in the realm of personal actions in SIFRP, such as the whole Intrigue system. Westeros is not really the kind of land in which the narrative emphasizes new trade routes opening or lords enacting carefully crafted policies – at most, that sort of thing belongs in Meereen. (Converting Wealth to Influence, even at 2:1, is only marginally worse than hosting a tournament.)

And that’s it.

If you’re thinking this is curiously abbreviated, the thing to understand is that the Intrigue system (that I’m not really covering here) is as intricate as its combat system, with plenty of room of tactics and outmaneuvering one’s opponent. In SIFRP, and with apologies to Carl von Clausewitz, diplomacy is war by other means. Probably there should be an established way to covertly damage a rival’s resources, especially Law.

Overall, SIFRP’s domain management system stays pretty light. It chiefly provides context rather than being the engine that drives content, as we’ve seen in several other systems. My own experience with it suggests that growth is a little too easy, and the system kind of needs more internal pushback or cost. A lot of that might take the form of Wealth and Power going down the drain when you raise an army for war and get them all horrendously murdered, usually by freezing to death or wildfire. Good times, good times.

It wouldn’t be difficult to adapt SIFRP’s domain creation and rulership section to another game; at most you might need to retune the House Fortunes table to your system’s randomizer of choice. It would work okay, though it doesn’t have the rich sense of constructing a story in its every detail the way some systems do. In closing, I would just say that I love the rest of the SIFRP system (or the Chronicle system, as its setting-neutral version is called) enough to recommend using the domain rulership system along with it for any gritty-realism fantasy or historical settings you might run.

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  • MTi

    Nice. The system itself seems really flexible.

    I had seen a preview of the SIFRPG. Interesting enough, although had I run such a game I would like to see the players start as commoners and find (or fight) their way through the GoT rather than be established nobles.

    A dear friend of mine used to run a 3.5e D&D game based in Westeros. I hadn’t taken part in that, he just described what the game was about. Only one magic-user class allowed (cleric) and lots of tweaking to the rest. Also, sadly it had little to nothing to do with Domain Ruleship, it was mostly assassinations and exploring in uncharted regions.

    • There are a huge variety of valid approaches to SIFRP, from noble House politics to crows on the Wall to street rats in King’s Landing. It’s one of the few games where I feel like fantasy academia (maesters jockeying for status in Oldtown) could even be compelling, and I totally love that about it.

      It’s awfully unforgiving to be the basis of a hack-and-slash campaign, though. Characters have a MUCH lower tolerance for failure or enemy success than in many other games; once you’re 1D better than someone in one or two key stats, that fight is only going one way. (On the other hand, this is an even more valid criticism of D&D, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone there – that comes down to pure tonal differences.)

  • Colin McLaughlin

    I’ve never had the pleasure of playing SIFRP, though I have heard good things.

    I HAVE played the board game for Game of Thrones, which is equal parts awesome and friendship-ending.

    • I think you would really like its approach to Abilities and the wide variety of characters that feel fully-functional – it’s fairly easy for the GM to support characters that aren’t combat machines. I think you would find Intrigues to be a pretty compelling view of an extended skill challenge outside of D&D.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      But how easy is it to make friends shout profanities and begin weeping?

      Again, playing the board game, that’s the only measuring stick I have.

    • That’s entirely at the GM’s discretion. The campaign I played was a lot lighter and more heroic than the unrelenting squalor of GRRM’s work. I feel confident that a GM dedicated to imitation could cause everything to melt down into tears and recriminations pretty easily. #questionablelifegoals

    • Colin McLaughlin

      Good deal. I’ll bring it up with the board game group.

      #howtolosefriendsandalienatepeople

  • Sporelord0179

    I used to look forward to this series a lot. I’d wait all week for the new one to come out and I’ve been reading almost since this started. It’s been five months since you last talked about Dungeons and Dragons – the sixth domain rulership article – and eight months since you covered an actual class – the Assassin class. Not including your article on the new UA ranger but that wasn’t really a “History of classes article”.

    I’m not strictly complaining and I know that you’ve taken two long hiatus’s (don’t know why but you have your life) but I wanted to know what you’re going to do with this series? I’m just getting confused on it myself.

    As for the article, it’s well written as always. I’m highly unlikely to ever play SIFRP but I’ll definitely plunder this for some ideas.

    • The point of this exercise is to examine a ton of different domain-rulership systems, in preparation for either:

      a) writing my own domain-management system, or
      b) commenting on a potentially forthcoming domain-management system from Unearthed Arcana (footnote 1), or
      c) both.

      Necessarily, this takes me far afield from D&D as published by TSR/WotC. Fields of Blood is third-party material written for 3.x; Ultimate Campaign is trivial to adapt to 3.x, what with being built for Pathfinder. Describing ACKS as “not D&D” is technically correct (the best kind of correct), but also ignores its highly respected place among BECMI retroclones.

      I want to be clear, in any case, that I have never offered specific guarantees of a narrow focus in this column. It’s a meandering history and critique of game design, generally centered on D&D-flavored fantasy gaming (which is how 13th Age and Dungeon World get in), but sometimes going afield even from that (as with SIFRP). The column received its title back when all I had written was the first draft of the history of the ranger and the druid, in Harbinger of Doom.

      Also… I haven’t taken any hiatuses longer than a week. What I HAVE done is written articles in my other column, Tribal Knowledge, which offers a mix of advice-column responses to questions from readers and original content, such as the current series on the fey. Since the beginning of my series on domain rulership, I’ve been alternating with the series on the fey, and sometimes both series get pre-empted by “I felt like writing something else this week.”

      On the other hand, this coming week’s article involves the unexpected discovery of a 2e warlock class, which is a wizard variant published in Player’s Option: Spells & Magic. After that, I’ll finish up domain rulership and the fey series, and finally move back to picking a class – maybe the monk.

      Footnote 1: This comment is based on a wishful-thinking guess about this tweet from Mearls: https://twitter.com/mikemearls/status/780450570196754432

    • Sporelord0179

      I should have been more clear then, Hiatus’s from this column. I haven’t read Tribal Knowledge.
      Thank you for the response.
      Also, excited for the Monk. My favourite class behind Bard.

    • I was surprised to discover this morning that there was an even remotely official 2e monk. All kinds of weirdness got into the Player’s Option books!

    • Shane

      Actually, if you knew where to look there were 2e monks aplenty. Not just Spells & Magic, but you can also find a monk class (exactly the same as Spells & Magic, if I recall correctly) in Faiths & Avatars (the first of the trilogy of 2e Forgotten Realms gods sourcebooks). There’s also a monk class in Greyhawk’s The Scarlet Brotherhood, which is extremely close to what we’d see for the class in 3e.

    • Thanks for the heads-up! I have Faiths & Avatars as well as Spells & Magic, but not The Scarlet Brotherhood (having never collected ANY Greyhawk setting material outside of what’s in the 3e core books). I’ll see what I can track down.

    • Shane

      What’s really amusing is that this runs counter to the events in WG8 Fate of Istus, the relatively-little-known Greyhawk adventure that was supposed to be the in-game transition from 1e to 2e. At the end of the last Test of Fate in the adventure, monks are removed from Oerth, either becoming fighters or thieves, or being transplanted to Kara-Tur (as “oriental monks”). Oh, and assassins are all changed into being thieves.

      The Scarlet Brotherhood (as I recall) doesn’t reference any of this, blithely introducing its own monk class with all of the aplomb of a honey badger.

    • How the hell about that?

      I mean, to be fair, that’s what I would do if I wanted to retcon the banishing of whole character classes – I would just ignore the thing that came before and hope that everyone else joined me in doing so. It takes such a weird logical leap to banish a CLASS in the first place (in a way that it should stay gone) that… yeah, I wouldn’t feel too bad about going for head-on contradiction.

      Thank you again for this history lesson. I’m really enjoying it! (If there’s more, by all means continue. ;))

    • Shane

      My pleasure! It’s rare that I get to show off my nerd-fu.

      Greyhawk wasn’t the only one to try this, as I recall. The novel Waterdeep (the conclusion of the Avatar Trilogy) – in what I think was an event that was confirmed in the companion adventure FRE3 Waterdeep – tried something similar. It had Bane, the god of evil, cast a spell which, as part of its casting, killed all of the assassins in the Forgotten Realms. That was the basis for how they got rid of the assassin class going into 2e in that campaign world. (I can’t remember anything similar being done for monks.)

      There’s a hilarious anecdote where someone from TSR called R. A. Salvatore and said that he needed to think of a way to kill of Artemis Entreri because they weren’t keeping assassins going forward into 2e. They bickered for a few minutes, before Salvatore finally had a brainstorm and replied, “Artemis isn’t an assassin. He’s a fighter/thief who kills people for money.” The stunned TSR employee was silent for a few moments, before saying that that was doable.

      One more anecdote: The Apocalypse Stone – one of the very last adventures for 2E, was deliberately designed to be a transition adventure from 2e to 3e (being made to run in any homebrew world; a similar adventure, Die Vecna Die!, was meant to do the same thing for the official AD&D multiverse). The end of the adventure describes the aftereffects of what happened, and it’s basically justification for the changes in 3e, such as orc incursions now resulting in a lot of half-orcs being born, and a lot of people taking a new focus on inner spirituality and discipline (e.g. there’s monks now).

    • I mean, while we’re talking about RSEs (that’s Realms-Shaking Events, for anyone in the audience who doesn’t speak the Supernerd tongue), we’ve also got to talk about the Spellplague and how it basically existed to justify the much more in-your-face magic of 4e, right? As well as the merging of Abeir and Toril justifying dragonborn and god knows what else. (I did not really dig into 4e FR.)

      Which just makes the 4e -> 5e transition weirder: “Time passes, and we’re not exactly going to publish the setting in full. So, good luck, bruh.” Which has caused an enormous number of interweb question threads about the current year in Dalereckoning. I guess 2e -> 3e wasn’t cataclysmic either, though it did revert a lot of the gains that the good guys had made so that the bad guys presented more of a threat again.

    • MTi

      Oh, please keep on with this talk. I am currently a bit into transitional lore from 4e to 5e FRs as am pondering about a storyline based on Neverwinter.

      SCAG covers a lot of what has happened after the Spellplague and now I’ll start reading the 4e material.

      To be honest, I really do not like how they’ve “healed” the Realms after such a RSE, so I want to find as many as possible details on it to invent any drawbacks if necessary.

    • Shane

      The major problem with the Spellplague, to my mind, wasn’t the event itself, but that the setting was then kicked a hundred years into the future. That, combined with the extreme set of changes that were wrought, seemed to go out of their way to make sure that the entire body of work that had been published for the Realms up until that point were now inapplicable.

      I still find that mind-boggling. For all the complaining that people had done about “canon-lawyers” and over-abundances of novels, the fact that the Realms was so incredibly extensive remains one of the primary reasons for its popularity. Jettisoning that wasn’t “freeing up the setting,” so much as it was discarding the people who already liked the campaign setting in favor of trying to appeal to those who already didn’t. I’d call that madness, but I’m afraid that the fans of such a move would say “Madness? THIS! IS! FAERUN!” and kick me down a well.

      But for all of its faults, at least the Spellplague said what it was doing. The Sundering (the 4e -> 5e transition) has been, as you noted, completely opaque in what it’s done. We know some gods are back, but which ones? Unless you’re prepared to dig into the novels and draw some organizational charts about what you find, you’re not going to know (particularly since all D&D novels have ceased production, notwithstanding the ones by Salvatore and Greenwood, who have contracts saying that WotC must publish their work or they can sue).

      That said, I did like the 2e -> 3e transition, if only because bringing Bane back via emerging from within his own son wins the award for “weirdest Jesus parable ever.”

    • On a marketing level, the 4e shift makes sense. They needed to cut the setting way, way down to make it accessible to new players. I mean, a pantheon of 120 gods, and that’s just the HUMAN gods, is crazypants. They were trying to get the setting back within sight of “lean and mean,” but what they wound up with was “skinny and pissed.” It was a fairly cromulent setting, but it wasn’t the Realms as its fans knew it. More bizarrely, one of their most popular FR-linked releases of those years – Lords of Waterdeep – is absolutely based on 2e and 3e-era characters, many of whom are dead by the 4e era.

      Now, in my view, what honestly needed to happen was a firm, “Our bad, just go back to your 3.x materials and we’ll work on releasing an update to them,” because as far as I understand, they’ve reverted almost all changes, aside from renaming the ruling nobles of most cities and… whatever the hell goes on in Cormyrean politics. So many heads of state were immortal from being either liches, long-lived races like dwarves, or Chosen of Mystara that it’s less change than you’d expect for a 100+ year time lapse.

      I DO like that the 5e Realms are clearly a place with a lot on the ball in terms of large-scale conflict. However, I’d like to see more of that be kingdom-level bickering, rather than new armies of Obvious Evils getting raised out of nowhere and thrown at the Good Guys once again. To put that another way, I want the power groups to play their Goals, rather than playing their Alignment. (But I am an inveterate opponent of alignment, as it blinds people to a character’s actual motives.)

      As my wife is probably tired of hearing, I can’t help but want to FIX the Realms to be the post-GoT fantasy that Mearls talks about. Politics: not just a framing device for stopping the Rise of Tiamat.

    • Colin McLaughlin

      The appeal of FR from an anecdotal part of view is the fact it supports just about any sort of setting you could possibly want. Sand and sorcery? No problem! Howardian adventures? Sure! Wizard and noble intrigue? Absolutely! Maintaining that level of broad appeal going forward is a monumental task.

    • Shane

      I disagree that the Realms needed to be cut down. I can understand the line of thinking that led to that decision, but to me it’s not a coincidence that the Realms was the most popular campaign world and also the one with the most material (both novels and supplements) written for it.

      One of the great things about supplemental expansion for a campaign world is that everything is inherently optional. If you find that the setting has become too bloated, but don’t want to give up on it, it’s not that hard to jettison everything you dislike and simply keep the original campaign setting and just make everything else up from there. Heck, that’s why we got the recent Ed Greenwood Presents Elminster’s Forgotten Realms, which reminded us that even the originator of the setting doesn’t use (all of) the published materials.

      There are lots of campaign settings out there that has only modest-to-moderate levels of development (e.g. Greyhawk, Mystara, Eberron, etc.) but if I’m going to pay someone to do my imagining for me, then I want them to imagine the crap out of the world, darn it! (There’s another great anecdote here: in the 3e era, Realms scholar Eric L. Boyd wrote a trio of FR adventures for Dungeon magazine. In one of them, a monster called a grisgol – which was from one of the later Monster Manuals (III, I think it was) – appeared. A grisgol is a construct powered by a lich’s phylactery. Eric later wrote a letter that was published in the magazine describing the history and backstory of the lich in question for that grisgol, despite it having no bearing on the adventure. If you’re a fan of setting lore, that sort of thing is mouth-watering.)

      Interestingly, the reverse of this works too, though it’s talked about far less. That is, you can take a supplement set for one world and use it elsewhere. Shannon Appelcline, on the DM’s Guild page for FR14 The Great Glacier, noted that it’s the only fantasy gaming supplement to describe an Inuit-based culture.

      That said, I agree wholeheartedly on the issue of a lack of political development with regards to the contemporary Realms (I was never so happy to buy a 3e Realms book as when I finally picked up Power of Faerun, which I’d missed when it initially came out). In fact, I kind of wish we’d see that more across the board with regards to power groups, and especially as an incentive for PCs! When James Maliszewski wrote “On the Loss of D&D’s Endgame” over on Grognardia, it threw into stark relief (for me) how 3e and later editions have excised any formal nudges the rules made in the direction towards PCs becoming leaders, as opposed to eternal murderhobos. Your column has made a similar insight by noting how the strict measurement of Wealth By Level interferes with issues of tax-based income and governing-based expenditures that are part-and-parcel of rulership. All of this is something that I feel restricts the scope of the game, rather than broadens it.

      …of course, I have the same complaints about gods. As much as I liked Faiths & Avatars, there’s a reason why the The Primal Order remains best book about deities that WotC ever put out.

      Maybe you can do a series about divinity in D&D?

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