So I had orginally planned to take a little break from gaming for a while to catch up on some other stuff. Those plans were ruined by an invitation from a group of people hungry for more of the taste I'd given them with the Burning Wheel one-shot. When a group of enthusiastic players prods you to run a type of game you've been wanting to run for years, you don't just pass it up. I've become quite the gaming group butterfly in recent years, a reputation I'm not glad to have but one I deserve. ;)
So what is it I've been dying to run? Ever since devouring The Song of Ice and Fire books, starting back in 2004, I've wanted to run a game where the PCs manage a noble house and all the politics, plotting, and fighting that come along with it. Intrigue-city, baby. I was able to do a little of this in Vampire: The Requiem game, but that ended prematurely due to my moving, wedding, and buying of a business. While that scratched the same itch, it wasn't exactly what I wanted (though I would happily run it again).
I even got a chance to play the AGOT RPG by the now-defunct Guardians of Order. The book is absolutely gorgeous and an excellent sourcebook for the novels, but the system, d20 OGL, didn't do it for me at all. There were no rules to handle the wheeling and dealing you see in the books, beyond the occasional roll here and there. It was meaty in all the wrong places, though I must say they did as good a job as they could with the d20 system.
This led to the other problem. There just aren't that many game out there that support this style of play. Sure, WoD does a good job and I'm sure someone will suggest tons of indie games where the players get to throw paint at a wall and interpret the design to author some part of the adventure, but of the games I knew and loved not many of them would bend the way I needed them to. Despite loving Savage Worlds, it's actually one of the least competent games for this,without some modifications.
So this idea has been on the backburner for some time now.
Fast forward to a couple months ago when I interviewed Luke Crane, the author of Burning Wheel. Fun guy. Burning Wheel had sat on my shelf for several years as it was delegated to the "far more complex than I'd like to run pile." I thought it did some fantastic things, but there was just so much to keep track of. Talking to Luke got me to take a look at it again and I'm glad I did. Between Beliefs and Instincts driving players and Duels of Wits making social combat just as interesting as regular fighting (and with bigger consequences, I'd say), it's exactly the kind of fuel that can get a good political sandbox game running.
I did a one shot of "The Gift" and it confirmed my suspicions that it had great potential for being a system that didn't just get out of the way of roleplaying but actually encouraged it. Good stuff.
So I had and excited group and I had a system. All I needed was a setting. Usually, developing a sandbox world takes me months, between designing NPCs, organizations, histories, and rivalries it's not an easy task. You've got to have all your dominoes in place so that when the players come along you can react to anything they can throw at you in a logical way that reinforces that the world is a living, breathing thing.
I didn't have months. I had excited players and given the fickle nature of gamers I knew I had to capitalize or lose the fire. I had to get to work.
Now he easiest way to do this would be to just use the setting from the Song of Ice and Fire. That carries with it too many problems though. I wanted the players to be major movers and shakers and AGOT already has those in spades. It's also a gigantic world with a thousands of years of history. Not something the players could jump into without reading the books, which would take too long.
Which meant I had to design my own setting, something I love to do…I was just very short on time.
What I did was take the easiest route possible. I drew a small continent on the map, divided it up into different regions and assigned noble houses to rule those regions. I then went and made family trees, histories, outlooks and goals for all the houses. I also detailed many organizations that were not run by nobility including The Mysterium and various trading houses.
With the framework in place, I began really talking to my players and seeing exactly what they wanted in the world. By bouncing ideas back and forth we were able to color the world in such a way that everything that would be initially focussed on was detailed enough to use, but still vague enough to the players that they could be sure they didn't know everything. Collaborative worldbuilding really worked well in this situation.
Next up, a brief history of the setting….just enough to give context to our story.