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.
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.