Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Sandbox Lessons from Westeros

I finally got around to reading the books of A Song of Ice and Fire at the insistence of one of my players.  I'm not quite done with the last book currently out, but I've enjoyed them quite a bit.  I think Martin has done a good job of providing plots that both provide for genre expectations at the same time as surprising me every now and again.

Anyway, as with anything I approached the books with the eyes of a DM and I found some simplifications Martin adopted to help him tell his stories that might also help DMs trying to run players in a big, imagined world.  Some simplifications you might consider for your fantasy world:

  1. Simple Family Names - There are some allegiances in the books that are complicated by marriage, but most are related to your immediate family and families in the books are clear because they have the same last name.  Bastards are also clearly marked by a traditional last name, and marked in such a way that you know where their family is from (Snow, Rivers).  This allows you to have a lot more characters floating about with out losing track of where they are from and where their allegiances most likely lie.  (Many, though not all, of the place names in the books function in similarly simple ways: Oldtown, King's Landing, Winterfell, Riverrun).
  2. Simple Coats of Arms - Along the same lines, heraldry is simple and almost always utilizes an object appropriate to the location and vocation of that family.  And soldiers wear badges of these arms.  So you can usually tell just by looking who different troops belong to.  That's the point of heraldry, but in real life it is much more complicated.  I think that for many of the arms of Westeros players might even be able to guess where the family hails from without former knowledge.
  3. Simple Long Range Communication - Ravens - By sending message via the ravens, word of deaths and crimes can spread relatively quickly.  And while uncertainty of arrival is always mentioned as a possibility, it's never been a plot point in what I've read so far.  So, in effect, the castles become points of civilization where news is heard and only someone traveling between them won't be privy to important goings on.  Individuals can also send messages, using the ravens like a mail system.  This means you don't have to have a complicated system to track the spread of news based on travel times of merchants or peasants, just have ravens carry the news and get on with the show.
  4. Assumed Knowledge NPCs - Maesters - Every castle has a source of history, technology, and healing.  And because of their vows, these maesters while serving that family, are generally neutral and not seeking power or wealth of their own.  Have a wound or question about historic lore-- head for a castle.  Priests are a similar resource, a septa or septon in every castle, but because of the low magic beginning of the series, they are less important in the books.  It might be more important in your world that every castle has a chapel and a priest.
  5. Assumed Dumping spot for troublesome NPCs - The Night Watch - It seems a neutral faction with its own military but concerns other than ruling, might be handy for many reasons.  Having an order to put criminals or potential threats to succession in means these threats never disappear, can be questioned by players, and can become threats again if they break their vows.  Also, the faction can be a place for players to look for aid, if it aligns with the order's goals.
Another smaller one might be simple cultural rules shared across the whole world, like any knight can make a knight, or that any marriage can be annulled if it wasn't consummated, or breaking bread with a host means they can't harm you.  Then, if players know these rules, they know the import of someone breaking them.

Anything you would add?


  1. A Night Watch-type order can work as an assumed dumping spot for troublesome PCs, as well. A clear consequence of law-breaking that isn't as boring and rail-roady as prison. Bonus points if they have to work with people they dumped into the order in previous adventures.

  2. I think the scheming centered on each center of power is something else that can be used to good effect; for every king, duke, earl, or whatever, there are at least two other people with material support (in the form of money/trade and troops) interested in taking that particular position of power.

  3. Only a few religions. Having a PC cleric of a god no one else seems to worship can feel silly in a long campaign.
    Monsters tied to place. Giants and Wights above the Wall. This lets the PCs decide if they want to fight these things by going to that place or not. And it's a big deal if they start showing up in other places.

    1. Re: few religions . . .

      In my world (which was originally populated via gates from Earth) there are three "religions" . . . Greek, Norse and Egyptian (in roughly 45%/40%/15% of the populous) . . . A cleric serves only one deity within a pantheon; but non-clerics pick three deities from within their chosen pantheon.

      Clerics throwing a CLW on someone from a different pantheon roll normally; for someone worshiping different deities within their pantheon, they roll one die size larger; and for someone worshiping their deity, they roll two of the larger size dice and use the better roll.

      -- Jeff

  4. Re #3: it's a minor quibble, but mention is made at least twice in the books of shooting the ravens leaving a besieged castle being a tactic that an invading army would use.

  5. Thanks, all.

    @ M. Diaz: Yeah, I almost wrote that myself, but was worried about the railroad implications. I think it would work best if this order is not too stuck to one geographic point and has broad goals-- like rangers tasked with keeping a big border region safe. Or maybe an organization meant to investigate dark horrors throughout the lands.

    @Frotz Self: Yes, the thing I noticed about these power politics are the pretty simple locations of the powers East, West, North, with the King's seat in the middle. The South is a little more complicated, but basically it is pretty easy to follow the geopolitics.

    @Lum: Yep, and that is interesting because it is counter to the Swords & Sorcery material everyone draws from, with it's millions of gods. (Yes, those appear in Easteros, but there are pretty much two religions that matter in the books, three if you count the old gods)

    @Patrick: That's true, I just meant they were reliable unless messed with. So, people shooting the ravens is like someone cutting your phone lines (well in the days of land lines).

    One thing that stands out for me in general is that you can simplify the movers and shakers, countries, and religions of a fantasy setting and still have tons of conflict and options that can lead to greater complexity later. I don't need to worry about mimicking the actual complexity of the world from the start.

  6. A couple of admirable things about GRRM's (very D&D/RPG-inspired!) worldbuilding:

    * Westeros has tons of interesting backstory -- the series is framed as the tale of two generations' bloody reckoning with the legacy of Robert's Rebellion -- but if you focus on the smallfolk/soldiers/minor lords, that stuff stays distant, and its details aren't important day-to-day. (The show pares away most of the lore/history to focus on smaller-scale melodramas, for good or ill.)

    * Lots of flavourful magic, none of it 'overpowered,' but a ground-level Westeros campaign will experience it only tangentially.

    * Periodic royal-court turnover presents a whole new set of roleplaying material, but that stuff is barely relevant to smallfolk even a hundred miles out from King's Landing.

    * Lots of layers, mutually interacting but able to be experienced independently: cosmic/magical (dragons/Others, theological combat), royal (the titular game of thrones), regional (fallout from the Game, various far-flung royal claimants e.g. Greyjoys), small mobile organizations (Brotherhood w/out Banners, Golden Company), local doings (a thousand little Hommlets, each w/thumbnail regional flavour), and then the Exotic East...

    * The canonical world map includes Carcosa and other cities/regions equally cool. :)

    * The broad-brush fantasy cliches (Children of the Forest, dragons, wights, Asshai, spicy Latin southlands, etc.) -- which in fairness Martin generally does interesting things with -- can be sketched in and used when needed. He gives detailed accounts of a few locations, a few houses, and leaves the most evocative stuff abstract, until it's needed...at which point it turns up *during* some character's quest (Tyrion uncovers Griff-lore, Daenerys peels back layers of the East, Oldtown acquires some detail only when the ice/fire cosmic conflict touches it, etc.).

    He really does have a fine intuitive grasp of how to build a campaign world. Yikes.

  7. Thanks for the great comment. I think the layering you mention is important, the books are great example of how the party might be 1 level wandering around the riverlands or the haunted forest, and yet political events back in the capitol change encounter table and encounter reactions and such. I think it is a good set of books for aspiring DMs to read to know how they might have things happening in the world without players necessarily being at the center of it all the time.

  8. Bit late to this but: no-one is all-powerful. Even the richest families and the Throne itself have money problems and must bow and scrape to the Bank of Iron. Even a rising empress must appease her dragons. Even powerful magic users must follow the plans of their gods. The Lesson: even those at the top have to problems that require pretending to be nice to someone to solve them.

  9. Interesting, and true, no Saurons, even the powerful have limits.