Question Keith #9: A Game of Dungeons

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Roberto V. from Stafford, NY asks…

Keith, all of the complex political maneuvering and back-stabbing (sometimes literal) plus the brutal battles in a low magic setting are what makes Game of Thrones so addictive to me.  How can we adapt those elements to our Pathfinder/D&D game while still making it fun for the players?  And myself as DM!

Hi Roberto!

One thing I’ll immediately point out is that there are two licensed Game of Thrones (GoT) roleplaying systems. The earlier Guardians of Order release includes D20 rules, while the more recent Green Ronin A Song of Ice & Fire Roleplaying including its own system. I haven’t used either of these, so I can’t provide you with a review. However, even if you plan to play using Pathfinder, I’m sure there’s something to be gained from seeing how these games approach campaign/story/party design. If you’re willing to delve into the past, another thing to examine would be TSR’s Birthright setting. In Birthright, the player characters are divinely-empowered rulers, and the domains that they rule are developed over time just as the characters themselves. But for now, let’s set these aside and assume that all we’ve got to work with is standard D&D/Pathfinder.

Honestly, it’s a difficult question to answer without knowing more about which period of the books/series you’re trying to replicate. The first book/season deals with a civilization which is at peace but teetering on the brink of war – both with the mysterious Others in the north and civil war within. As Hand of the King Ned tries to hold things together, while Lannister ambition and Catelyn’s pursuit of justice threatens to tear it apart. In a time like this, the question is who the player characters represent and what their goals are. Are they aligned with a single family? If so, are they all nobles – IE, the family is the Stark children – or do you have the heir supported by his master at arms, his Maester, his spymaster, etc? Are they trying to advance the goals of their own family – which may mean framing other nobles, or even engaging in assassination or similar acts – or are they attempting to prevent chaos?

One important point here is that Ned’s initial motive for going to King’s Landing is to solve the murder of a friend. Something like this – a clear, concrete goal – is an excellent way to start off a sandbox scenario. Through the investigation, they will learn who the other power players in the campaign are. Because this is a key point to A Game of Thrones: it’s got dozens of interesting characters at work. If we say that the Starks are the PCs and the Lannisters are your villains, the PCs meet and know the Lannisters well before they ever actually fight them. They get to know Varys and Littlefinger. Finding a way for your players to recognize and in some way care about the NPCs is far more important in a game like this than a dungeon crawl.

This ties to a second point you raised: “brutal battles.” One of the things that defines Game of Thrones is that there are real consequences. The greatest warriors of the land can still be maimed or killed. Good doesn’t always triumph and innocents suffer. As it’s a low-magic world, there is no raise dead to fall back on. This is quite different from the typical D&D game. With that same, I don’t see this as being so simple as just removing healing magic and letting PCs die all the time… because the utterly random death that can come out of D&D’s d20 rolls doesn’t necessarily give a sense of story. When the great warrior is defeated, he isn’t simply killed; instead, he loses his hand. The boy is crippled. These things then go on to define a character and become part of their story. So having a character reduced to negative hit points may not remove them from the game; rather it may give them a different role.

So if it was me? I’d do the following things.

  • I’d start by defining the overall story of the group. This is the family/nation you’re all aligned to. Looking to a Game-of-Thrones-like story, I don’t think I’d make them ALL part of the same family; I’d probably choose one or two PCs to be the representatives of the noble family and make the rest bannermen or wards – including at least one connected to a former enemy family. However, they are all tied to the same court – so one PC is Robb, another’s the Greatjon, another’s Theon Greyjoy, another’s Meera Reed.
  • I’d work with each player to define three or four NPCs tied to their character. These could be relatives – Jojen and Howland for Meera – or they could be friends or servants, like Jory and Maester Luwin.
  • I’d ask the player to define their motivations and the things that matter to them. As of this moment, where does the character want to be in three years?
  • I’d ask them to state a mystery they’d like to solve and a wrong they’d like to see righted – whether a personal injury or a great social injustice.

Only once I had all of these things would I actually start developing the backstory of the campaign. Knowing the mysteries the PCs want to solve or the wrongs they want righted, I can build up feuds or secrets. I can tie NPCs to the NPCs attached to the characters. I can plan misfortunes for those NPCs, or use them in positive ways; the PC’s brother is going to get married, which is important for the house; first, this draws the PCs to the wedding; second, if the NPC is assassinated, it’s both a blow to the house and a personal call for vengeance. Essentially, the key is to give the players as much personal attachment to the world as possible. Their success or failure no longer rides on their personal level and combat ability; instead it is tied to the safety and prosperity of their allied NPCs and the status of the mysteries and injustices they care about.

While one reason for having each player create their own cast of NPCs is to drive story, a second is so these characters can serve as back-up PCs. Thus, if Meera can be defeated in battle and her fate left unknown; is she dead? A prisoner? Perhaps she survives but is crippled and unable to adventure. In any of these cases, her player simply takes over Jojen, who’s already entirely integrated into the campaign and has attachments to the players. Essentially, this lets you have the brutality you want while still keeping the story intact – both avoiding a revolving door of characters no one cares about and preventing characters from having to play a crippled character if that’s not something that appeals to them. And if a character is imprisoned, then it can be a temporary thing; can the new PC rescue the old?

All of this just touches on the surface; again, there’s entire game systems designed around this. But I hope it gives you some ideas to work with!

5 thoughts on “Question Keith #9: A Game of Dungeons”

  1. Love it, love it, love it! Fantastic post and I’m glad the issue of politicking was discussed. Keith brings up easily what I consider to be one of the most integral parts of a sound campaign, why do the PC’s care? Especially with the freedoms we give in start-up character design, making everyone have a vested interest in the political nuances in your campaign can seem daunting. As discussed above, the most reliable technique is about consequences. Are they direct and immediate or slow but painstaking? For DMs who have difficulty deciding where to take the story next, adapting themes from GoT (or other novels, movies and literature) is an easy supplemental.
    I think one of the most important ‘extras’ I’d like to add to the conversation is that of ‘randomness’. While the entire story of Game of Thrones was planned, authored, and penned- what makes the story truly satiating is the experience of true surprise. For your campaign, while it’s important to build the scaffold story that overarchs the entire theme of the gameplay, leave even KEY elements up to chance. Often, I’ll write out a few, very different, paths for gameplay that lead the characters to either feel “triumphant, defeated, or confused.” Even then, I keep a hidden repertoire of enemy characters and random met and unmet NPCs to the side so that if the gameplay trends toward a direction I had completely unanticipated, it can still be managed. Sometimes, when the PCs seem too confident with how a part of a story is unfolding, I’ll use a false *check roll as a sort-of Two Face roll. A 50/50 chance that I alter the present story. I’m sure for many of you, these tactics are all quite familiar. But on occasion, whether they intend to or not, I find my friends trying to anticipate my actions as a DM rather than actively playing out their character. To stymie these actions, I often rely on chance. While they may think I am predictable, my d20 has yet to show sidedness :)

  2. They had various degrees of interest, the cleric was part of one of the factions to start with, as two other group member. One of them (the durid) was completely external to the schemes (but managed to meddle in quite well).
    Fun fact: they were a group of lvl 6 adventurers. There were two single NPC in the city which were above 7 CR, thus making them one of the main forces in the city. They never figured it out until the end

  3. Regardless of how you do it, for me the key to running a political campaign is to give the players a reason to care about it. Why do they care who’s king? Why do they care that the Acolyte successfully displaced the High Priest? If they don’t know what’s going on, are you creating a story for them or for you?

    There’s lots of different ways to do this. One is simply for the politics to directly affect their lives over time, as you describe; they learn what’s going on after being used by the forces at large. The Birthright approach is to make them the power players: the cleric IS the high priest; the paladin is a prince. Then there’s the approach I suggest above – working with the players to define enough of the elements of the world that there are things you know they care about beyond XP and loot.

    But the short form is that when you’re developing a complex political story, it’s always a good idea to think about how it will actually be perceived by the players and, ultimately, why you expect it to be an interesting story for them… which, after all, is a relevant question for any type of campaign.

  4. One thing I’ve tried with my players was to develop a complex political scheme in the whole region.
    It played out very well, my players were very often clueless about half of the thing people said/did at the start, then bit by bit they started unraveling some of the political plots.
    It was very interesting mainly because they were not the ones caught in the actual schemes, they were the pawns. They often realized why they had been sent to do something only after the consequences of their actions were unveiled.
    And as they got to know the politics of the city well, some of them actually started scheming and planning on their own. (the cleric of the group actually formed a coalition of lawful-aligned clerics and paladins,eventually becaming one of the most influential people in the city)

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