Described as a 'setting sourcebook' for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplayin - despite the game already being firmly set in the world of George R.R. Martins' novels - this provides a wealth of detail about the setting, a magnificent gazetteer, history lesson and more to devlve into: it makes good reading if you like the books and want to know more about the world in which they are set, never mind run a game there!
The Introduction sets out its stall, opening with the oft-heard words 'Winter is coming'. It's a foreboding, a growing sense that the state of affairs is precarious and teetering on the edge of total war, not just the petty bickerings of the various lordlings of the Seven Kingdoms but something far worse. Like the core rulebook, the assumption is made that the present day is just before the starting point of the books. Robert Baratheon sits on the Iron Throne, Westeros is basically at peace, and the exiled remnants of the Targaryen family are somewhere across the sea bemoaning their fate. It's before the War of the Five Kings but after Greyjoy's Rebellion. Specifically, the game focuses on the last year before the start of A Game of Thrones. This provides an interesting tension: will things play out as they do in the books or will what your group does literally change the path of history in Westeros. Maybe the book's events provide the backdrop against which your own adventures will be played out, sometimes sweeping the party up and other times occuring in the background whilst your game focusses on other things.
On to Chapter 1: A History of Westeros. A vast and sweeping history this is, and here we read of the knowledge commonly held by maesters, septons, and other chroniclers of history, the sort of thing a well-educated local with an interest in the past would know. A lot of that history is filled with warfare and bloodshed. We read of the earliest days before the First Men, of an age of heroes, of the building of the Wall and the foundation of the Night's Watch. The first houses are formed, and strands laid down that have an effect through the ages to the present. The effects of the peculiar climate are seen, with the Long Night condemning a whole generation to life in winter's grip, ending in the War for the Dawn. On to the coming of the Andals with their new gods, the Seven, and their new ways, adding six new kingdoms to the Kingdom of the North. Eventually about three centuries before the present, the Targaryens came to Westeros from their island stronghold complete with dragons. Under their rule, the positions of the noble houses were consolidated into the pattern known today. It makes for a fascinating read.
Next is Chapter 2: Westeros Culture. This explores what it is like to live on Westeros, and opens with the startling statement that there are few laws and little justice! It rests instead on the whims of local lordlings to keep the peace in their domains. Most agree that murderers, rapists and thieves need to be dealt with, but there is nothing like a code of law to refer to when deciding what to do with them and the severity of any punishment, indeed the finding of guilt, can depend as much on who the perpetrator was as on what they did. Other topics include hospitality, marriage, inheritance and lordship... not to mention how such a dynastic society copes with bastards! Pastimes such as hunting and feasting are covered, then we move on to the important topic of social status and rank. We also read about commerce, clothing, arms and armour and food and drink. Unsurprisingly for a place with such a long and rich history, songs and stories feature large as entertainment. Religion and knighthood are also covered, along with the work of the maesters. This section ends with a big map, covering two pages, which sets the scene nicely for the remainder of the book which contains an analysis of Westeros, region by region.
Beginning with King's Landing, each chapter follows a common pattern detailing the history and geography of the region in question. Then come notes on important locations and notable organisations and individuals to be found there. Many people come complete with a stat block: your party might encounter them, after all. Each chapter ends with brief notes (and the coats of arms) of the minor noble houses affiliated with whoever's in charge. Perhaps your group will form one of these houses, or use them as a model when creating their own.
Following King's Landing, complete with the ruling house of Baratheon, chapters cover Dragonstone, The North, the Iron Islands, the Riverlands, the Mountains of the Moon and the Vale of Arryn, the Westerlands, the Reach, the Stormlands and finally Dorne. But there's more! Chapter 13: Beyond Westeros looks at the eastern lands - the Free Cities, the Dothraki Sea and more, all again handled in the same manner as parts of Westeros; the finally Chapter 14: Exploring Westeros is mostly addressed to the Narrator (GM) and talks about creating the right look and feel, the atmosphere of Westeros, for the group as they adventure there. Many themes are suggested here, intrigue and scheming of course, but betrayal, cruelty and vengence also loom large. So do sex, tarnished victories and the need for children to grow up real fast. With all these things, care should be taken to find a balance between a gritty and realistic world and a repellant gore-fest. It also addresses the issue I mentioned earlier: with the game's timeline starting just before the events of the books, how do you accommodate the events portrayed therein? Various ideas are presented here, leading on to a discussion on stories and chronicles in general. Plenty of ideas to get you thinking round off the book.
This is a fantastic account of a wonderful setting, a great guide on how to translate the setting of a favoured novel or TV show into game terms, retaining the full flavour of the original yet providing ample support to help you make it your own. Winter is coming, to be sure, but what are YOU going to do about it?
Return to A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide page.
Reviewed: 9 February 2016