Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Song of Hark and Wood

My engagement with the various elements of geek popular culture is pretty hit or miss.  Outside of Boba Fett and Han Solo, I really don't give Star Wars much thought.  Monty Python and Hitchiker's Guide quotes leave me flat.  I am really freakin' tired of every damn RPG product having some kind of Cthulhu tie in.. I don't give a good god damn about any of the various Doctor's of Who, their companions, or the Tardis. The influence of Harry Potter, Twilight, and even (to a lesser extent) the works of Tolkien leave me usually more than a bit sad.  The Marvel superhero movies interest me, but are not appointment theater experiences for me.

I am not completely on a deserted geek island though.  I have a deep affection for Firefly. I like Star Trek, although my preference for DS9 seems to make me apostate in some quarters.  I can quote The Princess Bride (and often do), watch Walking Dead every week that it airs a new episode, and wait longingly for the fall return of Sleepy Hollow. My closest association with the cutting edge of geek culture, however, is that I follow Game of Thrones.  I have read all the books, and am working my way through the Dunk and Egg short stories.  I own all the legal seasons of the HBO series, although I am a haven't yet gotten to season 3.  Not an uberfan, perhaps, but at least I knew the red wedding was coming, and I periodically fret about how long Mr. Martin takes between literary installments.

Even their logo is bad ass.
I even own most of the Song of Ice and Fire RPG by Green Ronin.  Green Ronin is one of my favorite companies.  The publishers of Freeport and other nifty products over the years, they have earned a reputation for making quality games.  SOIAF is no exception:  it is beautiful, thorough, and elegant in its own, complex way.  It is also a game that I do not think I will ever run. The mechanics make internal sense, but the nuances involved look like exactly the sort of crunch-intensive game that I try to avoid. One of the things I really like about the system is the idea that the players sit down together and design their own minor house, with each player working out their own position within that house.  That is a brilliant design choice, but I once sat down with a group of three players to do just that and it took us an entire evening to design three characters and the house they belonged to!  When that game got scrapped before we even played the first session, it sapped a lot of my desire to go through that process again.

Also, there is the matter of the whole weight of the expansion weighing down on the enterprise.  When playing material set in a pop cultural universe, the game master often must face two problems that do not crop up in less well known material:  property familiarity an expectations.  As a game master with only casual engagement with the sacred cows of much of geek culture, both of these can be an issue.  If even one of the players is familiar with the property, then their perception of the major players and events of the property may be very much at odds with my own.  If they are deeply invested in the property, it may very well be that their perception is correct, and what I am presenting is less true to the source material than it ought to be.  Given the rant in my previous post, I should probably avoid that sort of thing.

Expectations are equally troubling.  The SOIAF game is set four years before the events of the first book.  In one respect this is good, since Mr. Martin seemingly created a cast of thousands and is determined to kill every one of them before the series is over.  Placing the game before the book ensures that all of the characters in the books are still alive for the game.  On the other hand, it can seriously rob the game of tension.  If the game master tries to preserve the game world in such a way that the events in the books will come about, it robs some of the tension from the game.  Why bother saving King Robert Baratheon in the game if you know that he will somehow make it to the boar hunt in the first book no matter what your actions?  Why engage in a duel with Jamie Lannister if you know he must survive the encounter? On the other hand, if the game master does allow the players to kill or save any of the major characters from the books, then the game can spin so far afield of the books as to no longer resemble the material the players found so engaging in the first place. Quite the pickle, no?

GURPS Banestorm. One of the few Fourth
 Edition products that wasn't complete rubbish.
Still, the backstabbing and political machinations that are the trademark of SOIAF are perfect for a roleplaying game.  So how can I as a game master who admires the spirit of that tension, but probably does not have the inclination to wade hip deep into Westeros' cast of characters (and their baggage) proceed?  By transporting the skullduggery to another, less burdened setting!

 One of the best things that Steve Jackson Games ever produced was their fantasy setting, the Banestorm.  In this world, a splinter group of elves cast a ritual to rid them of the rising Orc menace, by banishing their enemies forever.  The ritual catastrophically failed, and not only did not expel the Orcs, but the resulting backlash (the titular Banestorm) dragged individuals and even whole villages from other realities into their own world.  A large number of these new transplants came from our world circa the year 1000.  For the last nine-hundred years, the old races and the new have lived hand in glove.  Jealous of their prerogatives, magic users ruthlessly suppress many technological advances, especially gunpowder, leaving the world roughly in the same feudal condition as when the importees first arrived.

Banestorm's brightest spot is the Aaron Allston classic Harkwood,  set in the low magic nation of Caithness, a kingdom that has recently lost its charismatic leader.   Harkwood is a fiefdom loyal to the new, uncertain young king.  Forces loyal and rebellious conspire at the Baron of Harkwood's annual tourney, and the players are inserted into the middle of the activities. One of the best parts of this supplement is that it allows you to chose which of any number of NPCs might be the ultimate bad guy.  Even players who might have played in this scenario before might not have an inkling about what is going on.  I ran a heavily modified version of this years ago.  A change of villain, new players and the twist I envision, could turn it into an very different experience.

For all the goodness that Harkwood contains, I think it could stand to be a bit nastier.  As written these are the machinations of the costume dramas of the 1950s.  If a clever game master (or failing that, if  I...) mixed the interesting succession conflict from Harkwood with the nastiness of the politics in SOIAF, a very satisfying campaign could result.

This union could even be taken a step further.  The players could use the house construction system from SOIAF (known as the Chronicle System) to create their own minor house of Caithness nobility and determine their level of (dis)loyalty to the young king.  When the events occur at Harkwood, they already have a vested interest in the outcome.  From there, the game progresses into the full blown political and perhaps military campaign as the various forces vie against one another for the very future of Caithness.

For this game, I would probably convert the whole magilla to Savage Worlds.  Changing a system can often lead to different character choices.

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