This post is going to use HBO’s excellent show Game of Thrones as a thinly-veiled framework for me to provide anecdotes about my misspent youth, playing fantasy role-playing games with my friends. (To clarify, these would be pen-and-paper narrative-heavy role playing games, and not Fifty Shades of Grey style role playing games. More D & D than S & M. Capiche?)
The show’s been on for four years, and if you’re reading an article about Dungeons and Dragons and Game of Thrones, I assume you’re up to date on the show, so this is your unnecessary spoiler-warning. (I won’t be spoiling anything from the books.)
If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary. – Ginia Bellafante, New York Times 04/15/2011
The above quote was taken from Ginia Bellafante’s rather ill-conceived review of Game of Thrones, published a week or two into the show’s initial run. Her review, although not super-negative, was pretty dismissive saying that HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was “boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.”
The “boy fiction” crack has clearly turned out to be crazy talk, as the show’s demographics are very broad and inclusive.
Despite what she says about someone needing an appreciation for the Dungeons and Dragons aesthetic (whatever that is), I don’t think you need to have played a lot of RPGs to appreciate and enjoy Game of Thrones.
But I think it helps.
The Gaming Advantage
Before I get started, I’m not trying to imply that my sitting around rolling dice in my parents’ basement (not a cliche) playing a game where I’d imagine I was a medieval hero when I could have been, oh I don’t know, playing sports or studying or trying to work up the nerve to ask a girl out (and hopefully having a plan on what to do in the disastrous circumstance that she’d say ‘yes’) makes me a better person or whatever. That’s not my deal.
I’m just saying that gaming (specifically fantasy role play gaming) provided me a perspective that facilitates watching Game of Thrones. And not in the obvious ways. Not just because, you know, there are dragons, knights, undead foes, and smoky vagina baby assassins. (Actually, I don’t think the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual had any entries on smoky vagina baby assassins.) I’m not talking about a familiarity and comfort with the fantasy elements. I’m talking about how the story is constructed.
(I expect this post will be long, so each block will have a Too Long; Didn’t Read section at its bottom, if you’re not into my excessive pontificating. It’s why I have so many typos… even I can’t handle reading my stuff; editing is totally arbitrary.)
GRRM is a Gardener, Not an Architect
The Perceived Problem: the expansive changing story.
I think everyone would agree that we’d all like George RR Martin to have already published the seventh (or allegedly eighth) book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and wrapped a nice bow on it. With the final books still (mostly) unwritten, the show runners of Game of Thrones will soon have to go “off book” and work towards their own series finale. They’ve reportedly been briefed on the big picture elements still to be revealed, but they’ll no doubt have to cobble together all the interstitial steps to get there.
This makes many book readers nervous, and rightfully so. Future book plot points will be prematurely (in their perspective) spoiled, or the show will deviate so far from the books that are still being written, that the two entities will no longer be telling the same story.
Or that George RR Martin will be overly influenced by the HBO series and will write the books to be in sync, essentially making the final books a novelization of the television show. Egad!
These are all fair points, particularly because GRRM has often described his writing process as gardening a story, rather than working from architectural blueprints. He doesn’t work up extremely detailed outlines and then translate those “blueprints” into words. He metaphorically plants seeds of the story then waters, nurtures, prunes, maybe lets some branchings die. Then he plants more things, etc. In some cases, the characters in the novel sometimes take a life of their own, and “demand” changes be made.
So the A Song of Ice and Fire story is predisposed to weird asides and chapters that might eventually go nowhere. And scrutiny from the fans makes things even more complicated. Since Martin writes so slowly, he’s working against a vast crowd-sourcing effort to deconstruct his works in order to predict where things are going. There are a lot of people actively working on meta-experiencing the story, rather than simply enjoying it.
This is a familiar situation to most RPG Game Masters.
The Gaming Perspective: No battle plan survives contact with the enemy; no storyline survives contact with the player.
Most Game Masters (or Dungeon Masters if you’re specifically playing Dungeons & Dragons) like to think of themselves as falling more into the architectural camp when it comes to designing a scenario for the players in their gaming group. (Particularly if a GM is planning on running a pre-made module like the legendary Keep on the Borderlands.)
A GM often will draw up detailed maps, stat up non-player characters and give them backstories, and run a lot of thought-experiments on how the players will act and react. In the ideal case, the adventure will start as the GM envisions, play out in a manner that they’ve anticipated, and conclude in a satisfying way that they’ve predicted. Just like writing a novel.
This never happens. (I really shouldn’t say never. I expect my master-level Game Master buddies to challenge that. It’s cool if I’m wrong. But let’s continue as if I’m unassailably right…)
At best, the GM can hope to be the gardener in charge of a bunch of insane gardening assistants who are armed with seeds, water, pruning shears, chainsaws, herbicides, and kerosene. The head gardener can get the initial planting done, then it’s game on. Anything can happen.
This type of collaborative storytelling can be stressful for the Game Master (unless he’s really good at improv. Calm down, my game mastering/improv comedy friends.) The GM who has prepared a great deal will see exactly how much things are going off The Ladder and into Chaos.
The players usually don’t care. Since they don’t know what the main story is, they can’t be concerned if they’ve gone off track. It’s more important to players, that, oh, they don’t die. And I suppose that they have fun.
Players are also notoriously and actively trying to guess what’s going on from a more meta-aware level. Since players know they are in a game, know that they are part of a collaborative story, this affects their decisions (and expectations of what’s to happen.) This has a similar vibe to people trying desperately to figure out who Jon Snow’s mother is, or just who sent that assassin to kill Bran with the Valyrian steel blade. WHO DID THAT? We still don’t know on the show! (And we only think we know from the books…)
So some people might be concerned with how the stories in the books and in the show are progressing, with the uncertainty on when we’ll get the true ending, possible irreconcilable differences between versions, and odd cross-pollination going on between the two media. But I think gamers might be less concerned, because there is comfort in familiar situations, and this is a pretty standard situation with players breaking a game master’s plans.
Too Long; Didn’t Read: GRRM and the HBO show-runners are making this stuff as they go? We gamers are used to crazy changes to the story we’re experiencing.
You Love That Character? Oops.
The Perceived Problem: Oh No He Didn’t! That was my favorite character. RIOT!
It’s kind of understood that no character is safe on Game of Thrones, and allegedly GRRM lives on the tears of his fans as he murders their faves. (Actually, because the cast of characters in the story is so freaking huge, the set of characters who’ve died is relatively small. I mean, everyone acts as if all the Starks are dead. Three Starks are confirmed dead. Three.)
The show gets some criticism aimed at it for the real risk of major characters dying. Although everyone agrees that it raises the dramatic stakes, the sense is that why should someone get invested in a character if they might be bumped off?
Because of this, some complain that there’s no legitimate emotional hook to bring a viewer in, because they’ve been burned before and won’t want to be burned again.
I don’t know. I mean, the heart wants what it wants. I get invested in characters still. And they do end up dying. (I find myself getting invested in secondary characters, who have a much higher death rate than Starks.)
The Gaming Perspective: Your favorite character died? Roll up a new one. (Or stop playing, that’s cool.)
It’s totally fair to stop watching a television show because a favorite character is no longer on it. I’d never suggest someone keep watching something that is not working for them, or feel that they’ve been emotionally manipulated. (If that kind of thing bothers them.)
I’m just kind of used to that, from years of gaming. Look, when my socially awkward buddies and I started playing Dungeons & Dragons back in ye olde dayes when dragons were only recently extinct (I’m old, yo) we didn’t have any idea what we were doing.
The relationship between the Dungeon Master and the players was a much less-collaborative one, and more of a competitive one. Certainly, the DM could just declare us all dead and that would be that, but even we gaming amateurs knew that wasn’t the way the game was intended to be played. We’d play and slavishly let the dice be the arbiter of fairness, and if the dice declared a character got hit by a killing blow, that was that. Rarely would a game master try to lessen the result.
So there was a high fatality rate among player characters. It was a bummer, but we somehow enjoyed the game and we’d keep playing. In general, it was jarring to roll up a stranger and add them to the party, so often a choice would be made to promote one of the non-player-character hirelings or henchmen that had been part of the adventuring party to full player-controlled status.
Things like that would have interesting consequences on the overall narrative.
Game of Thrones has the advantage of featuring thousands of characters (I’m only slightly exaggerating) and in many instances, secondary characters can have a depth that rivals the main characters of some other series. I don’t want to see main characters die per se (although I did did did want Joffrey to die die die) but when death does happen there are plenty of candidates to transfer the investment into.
Just like in gaming that one time when my ranger got killed, and I started playing his younger brother that had only been a footnote on the character sheet before that. Little brother ranger was even more real to me, since he was carrying on a legacy.
TL;DR: It’s a personal choice on how much emotional investment to put into any particularly character on the show, but there are plenty of opportunities to transfer that investment onto another character. Particularly one who is also mourning the loss of that favorite and now deceased character. Gamers do it all the time, and we’re social misfits. Well-adjusted people should be able to manage that as well.
Beggars Can be Choosers
The Perceived Problem: Theon.
Ugh. Theon. Some viewers just can’t handle Theon. I mean, they can’t even.
Game of Thrones has a lot of different point of view perspectives and all the characters are in various locations on the spectrum between Good and Evil and the spectrum between Self-Actualization and Pathetic-ness, but Theon? Ugh.
Must there be so much time spent on this broken betrayer, forced into degrading servitude by the reprehensible Ramsay (nee Snow) Bolton?
His storyline is just one big awful torture-porn relentless abuse-fest, to make people feel unclean and uncomfortable.
Okay, I might be exaggerating somewhat on how some people feel about the Theon storyline, but I’ve read words to that effect, or heard comments to that effect on podcasts covering the show. I’ve previously commented on Theon and his torturous third season, so I won’t recap that.
I’ll just say that seeing Theon and his plight reminds me of some great, great characters in my gaming group.
The Gaming Perspective: A character is more than their stats on the page.
One of my favorite games to run was Chaosium’s RPG Stormbringer, based on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone books. The game system was radically different than Dungeons & Dragons, being one of the first games I encountered with a skill-based system using percentile dice (and I’ve put you all to sleep, sorry.)
One notable difference between Stormbringer and D&D: you’d randomly roll up a character’s national background in the Young Kingdoms, which would influence what kind of skills they’d have. Instead of choosing to be a member of the Fighter class or the Wizard class from D&D, you’d roll to determine what nation you were from and that would provide a set of possible professional backgrounds. Sometimes this would be a random set, sometimes not.
Back in those days, most of the gaming was done with my two friends, John and Dave. It’s hard to play D&D with only two people in a party, but we’d manage with the use of NPCs and so on.
Stormbringer’s game system was different enough from D&D that party-size didn’t really matter; a decent story could be told with a handful of people.
My friend John rolled up a character and hit the motherload of random characters. His starting location was Melnibone (the Melniboneans were Moorcock’s dragon-riding not-exactly-human race from the Elric books.) This granted him huge advantages, giving him a warrior background for combat abilities, a noble background for wealth, and because he had high enough stats he gained a proficiency in the game’s magic system. (He was like a combo of Robb Stark and Melisandre.)
John started the game rather overpowered.
My buddy Dave, interestingly enough, rolled that he was from a ruined city, making him a beggar. (In Moorcock’s books, beggars were secretly ruled by a beggar king from the ruined city of Nadsokor, but I’ll let you all investigate that detail.)
Beggars start the game with very little and end up with randomly determined deformities and issues that affect their stats. Negatively.
Because of this, the rules specifically say “if you’re not comfortable with being a beggar, your game master should let you re-roll and hope you get something better. Like a Melnibonean Noble Warrior Sorcerer like John.” (I might be misremembering that actual phrasing.)
Dave did not want to reroll. He was DELIGHTED to be playing a beggar.
Dave’s beggar became legendary. When the solution to a problem couldn’t simply be handled by John running up and chopping off a head (which he was proficient at), Dave would propose novel, interesting, sneaky solutions.
Sometimes, when you don’t have a lot of traditional options to fall back on, the options you come up with can be surprising.
And that’s how I think about Theon. Like Dave’s beggar, he has few options, so the likelihood is that when he does eventually act, it’ll be interesting and surprising. Something like Gollum biting off Frodo’s ring, which was the one act that specifically and unquestionably saved the day.
Did we have to see Gollum throughout Lord of the Rings? No. He could have shown up out of the blue at the very end and saved the day, but that it would have been weird.
Frodo: Ow, that disgusting thing showed up out of nowhere, bit off my finger, and fell into the Cracks of Doom. Where the hell did he come from?
Sam: I don’t know! Very convenient, though.
But enough about Gollum. I’ve seen enough weak and underpowered characters really rise to the occasion during a gaming session, because they had to. They’re wired to take the path less traveled.
GRRM wants to focus on a pathetic and broken character? That’s when I take interest.
TL;DR: A small man can cast a large shadow, yo. Nassty Bagginsses.
The Perceived Problem: I was Team Stark, but I’m kind of Team Lannister thanks to Tyrion. But do I have to be Team Dany too? And there are Team Stannis people? Why can’t the story be boiled down to simply Team Good vs. Team Evil? Like in Lord of the Rings?
Well, if you need to choose a Lord of the Rings style Team, then choose Team Stark. (Just like the ORCS do.)
I don’t know if this is really that much of a problem and you don’t necessarily have to be a gamer to handle it, but there does seem to be the occasional concern that there are too many sides going on and it’s not easy to just root for one side and root against the others.
Humans do seem to be wired to root for or against things in simple terms. This is particularly true in sporting events.
More and more, the show presents situations where no outcome would be perfectly great.
The Battle of Blackwater is an excellent example. Stannis is pretty crabby, so him winning probably wouldn’t be great, but we need Joffrey dead! So go Stannis! But that would probably mean Tyrion would be killed. So Boo Stannis! Yay… Joffrey? Ugh.
It’s like all the vows that Jaime had to swear. It’s too much.
The Gaming Perspective: There are no teams. It’s not about winning and losing.
Early on in our gaming, as I mentioned, there was a weird competitive relationship between the players and the game master. Who was winning? There was a sense that for the GM to win, the players had to die, and if the players weren’t dying, then the GM was somehow losing.
There’s a great examination of that mindset in the Dungeons and Dragons episode of the second season of Community, an episode (and SERIES) that I recommend everyone watch.
Eventually, our group realized that there is no conventional winning and losing in these types of games. There is either playing and enjoying, or playing and not enjoying (which often led to a cessation of future playing.)
Once this realization was made, gaming overall became more enjoyable. In my group, we’d do more experimental type of situations where we’d have multiple parties of player characters in different parts of the same gaming world, working different “sides” of a scenario. This was an exciting gaming time, and much fun.
There’s a specific game, the Amber Diceless Role Playing Game, which took this concept and really incorporated it into gameplay.
Based on Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles, each player was a member in an ancient and magically powerful family. And everyone pretty much hated one another. Game sessions were based on competition, but more importantly, on telling a good story.
The game used no dice, so resolution was done via some straightforward stat comparisons but also through the promotion of good storytelling. If a better story could be created from a particular outcome in a conflict, that’s what should happen.
I think this echoes the conflicts seen in Game Of Thrones. I certainly want specific characters to come out on top, but I’m fine with them experiencing setbacks and adversity, without my taking it personally or wanting to stop watching the show. I can root for and against characters.
Like William Shatner, describing in the movie Free Enterprise that he was planning on playing both Julius Caesar and Brutus in a Shakespearean production.
Wouldn’t that mean he’d be stabbing himself in the back?
William Shatner: I’ve done it before.
TL;DR: The more complicated the story, the more “real” it is. Things are seldom binary Team A vs. Team B.
So, why a gaming discussion? I’ve known a long time that George RR Martin was known for playing pen-and-paper role-playing games. The first book series of his that I read, the Wild Cards books, was based on a long-running superhero campaign he participated in, which used Chaosium’s Superworld game system.
While reading A Game of Thrones and the other books in A Song of Ice and Fire, I kind of felt like it was exhibiting the kind of story-elements that I’ve experienced during my years of gaming. I appreciated that at the time, and you know, I don’t need any urging to write about Game of Thrones, so there you are.
Full disclosure: although I’ve couched this article in saying that gaming has given me a perspective to be able to appreciate the foibles in Game of Thrones, the fact remains that gaming might have just made me more forgiving of weird situations (or possibly bad storytelling. WHAT? Could Ginia be right? Discuss…)
Any RPG gamers out there? Let’s have a poll!
(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)
Most Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) Image of Gollum is from New Line Cinema’s Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King. Image of Chevy Chase (as crotchety Pierce Hawthorne) from the second season episode of Community: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Images of games are respectively: Dragon Dice, Chaosium’s Stormbringer, Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game, and Chaosium’s Superworld.
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there.
If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2015 Some Rights Reserved