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Top 5 GM Lessons from Game of Thrones

Written by loganbonner - Published on June 16, 2012

Welcome back to the column that breaks down gaming into what’s really important, five things at a time! (Okay, it used to be ten things at a time, but the posts kept running long!)

This is Game of Thrones month here at DungeonMastering.com, & GoT presents a detailed fantasy world with rival factions, complex characters, and a hefty dose of intrigue. Do you, as a Game Master, need to make your world that detailed? Well, probably not. That sort of approach works great for novels and TV series, but a game needs a little more room for improvisation.

Still, Game of Thrones has plenty of other lessons you can learn for your game. This article focuses on the HBO series more than on the novels.

1. Make Death Matter.

Throughout the series, we see major characters die, often suddenly or in unexpected circumstances. Still, their deaths matter because of the consequences that come after them. A character might die suddenly in your game, or the PCs might take down the big boss. How you deal with the fallout of that can shape the next adventure and the rest of your game going forward.

2. Give Antagonists Motivations.

Game of Thrones avoids making very many characters bad for badness’s sake. They feel they’ve been wronged or denied. Whether its their lineage, station, or self-deception, they act to get what they believe they deserve. Cersei Lannister/Baratheon is a great example. Because of her awful marriage, her family’s influence, and her wishes for Joffrey (among many other factors), we see how she makes her decisions. Give your antagonists their own internal consistency.

Remember that these motivations affect how antagonists deal with defeat and success. If the PCs in your game seize an antagonist’s outpost, he might send an army to take it back, send in assassins, or go to the king to cash in an old favor.

3. Use Societal Pressure.

When the heads of the Great Houses make any decision, they have to navigate a tricky web of allegiances, honor, and power. Bring this into your game. If the PCs strike first and ask questions later, whose feathers do they ruffle? If they trespass on the king’s land to take out a monster warren, what consequences do they face from the king? How do the people who had to live with monster attacks react?

4. Honor Has a Cost

Characters who follow a code of honor have to pay a price. See how Ned Stark’s honor made him ill-suited for the backstabbing and moral compromises at King’s Landing. See how taking the black and ending up on the Wall serves as one way to maintain honor, but comes at a heavy cost. This can come up in your game, too. A character follows a code of honor because it’s the right thing to do, not because its easy. A code gains meaning only when its tested, so test the hell out of it!

5. Keep the Next Danger on the Horizon.

Winter is coming.” We hear over and over that bad times are ahead. We see the White Walkers in the very first scene of the series, but their threat remains in the background during the first season. Even when your PCs have their attention pulled elsewhere, seed the next danger they’ll face in there. Hint at it. Have NPCs talk about it. Let it remain off in the distance until it grows into a serious threat!

Obviously these are not the only lessons that can be garnered from George R.R. Martin’s world, but these are a suitable starting point to launch your own ideas.  Tune in next week when Question Keith looks at this connection from a different angle.

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Written by loganbonner

Logan is a freelance game designer, writer, and editor. He worked on numerous projects at Wizards of the Coast, primarily for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.

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6 Responses to “Top 5 GM Lessons from Game of Thrones”
  1. Virgilio Benavides says:

    As a fan of the series and the books, I thought about these kind of things all through my readings mostly, but I couldnt put a finger on them. Great advice, thanks!

  2. Jake says:

    The cost of honor is such a fantastically underplayed element to so many D&D adventures. I’m so glad this post was made as I’m excited at the plethora of brimming ideas I have to challenge my PCs based on that simple idea. To parallel another obvious (and great) cinema-inspired plot twist- much like the cost of honor, create a scenario where the PCs much choose between being the ‘heroes’ that a town/people/city/kingdom/family need, versus the one that they want… knowing that doing the ‘right’ thing for a people, will likely cost you more in the end.

    Keep up the great posts!

  3. Point five is one I use every chance I get. Sometimes just because my players don’t pick up on something that was supposed to be a more immediate threat. Just leave it hanging there. knowing that the plot carries on happening in spite of the characters choosing not to deal with it.

  4. Darkwarren says:

    As I’m currently reading the fourth book right now the idea that death matters is a HUGE part of the low magic setting that is Westeros. There IS magic but it is so hard to come by that people die all the time. Knights, peasants, lords, and ladies alike all die. The other thing that makes the series so dramatic is that as major characters die, there is no reason to suspend disbelief regarding the dangers of the plot. I stopped reading many of the Star Wars novels because I knew that the characters were never. going. to. die.

    Not so in Westeros.

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