Monday, 15 June 2015

Rolling the dice on the Game of Thrones: Mother's Mercy

Still traumatised by this week's Game of Thrones finale? Join our guest blogger, Mexican writer and roleplayer Ricardo Victoria, as he takes a mischievous look back at the episode, and puts the game into Game of Thrones. Should you have managed to avoid the shrieks and wails of friends on Twitter and Facebook who have seen the episode already, then be warned: Spoilers are coming. 



Last night, after watching the fifth season finale of Game of Thrones, I thought I should write a review. But there are many of those across the wide web, ranging from the serious analysis to the foam-frothing-from-the-mouth angry-at-the-messed-with-the-books/characters variety. So rather than that, I will take a more fun approach - comparing GoT to the most enjoyable pastime ever: playing roleplaying games. And it fits because GoT is a story were you have multiple parties dancing to the tune of a very cruel Dungeon Master (or in the case of the show, two very cruel DMs). And it fits with the title. With that said, I open my first contribution on Altered Instinct with this first entry of Game of Dice (or the Dice Gods are the Many Faced God).




Maybe it's just us - but we're beginning to think the 
dice rolls of anyone connected with the Stark family
are just cursed... 
(Picture from ebay seller here - not connected to AI)

As an opening, we start seeing a trend among almost all the players: a massive loss of Charisma stats. Those that got away unscathed, supported that with lots of Wisdom and random luck.

Let's start with Stannis: any commander worth his stripes must be charismatic enough to rally his forces through the gates of Hell. Heck, Alexander the Great could have done miracles with Stannis’ forces. But alas the second Baratheon brother is not the Great, nor is he charismatic. Paying the price for his dreadful decision to hold a family barbecue (too soon?), he went from one of the most decent and liked characters of the show to one of the most despised, by fans and soldiers alike. Whatever magic +1 boon  he got from this act, it didn’t work, on the contrary, it altered his core stats (basically dranining him of his Charisma base stat, which wasn't as high to beging with).

Renly put it better, no one likes Stannis because he is that classic rule-lawyering player that sucks the fun of the session by not being flexible enough to even work along other players in the game (if he had supported Rob Stark or even his baby brother, the game may have had a different end). And as a result, he not only lost half his army and all the horses, but his wife (there goes House Florent) and then Mellie the psycho witch ditched him. So when it come to casting the dice to make a saving throw and rally his army behind them, Stannis rolled a Critical Miss and with him he took into smothering flames what was left of House Baratheon. Way to blow the only thing you were tasked with in the game.

In gaming parlance, what he did was betray his character aligment and the gaming gods don't look favorably upon those who decide to do that. Ironically, it wasn't because it was totally out of character, but because in his narrow view of life, Stannis commited the most common mistake of any player: think that this game can be only won by hacking and slashing. The lesson is to always have a plan B (maybe seek the support of other northen houses in taking out a despised common enemy? Not for Stannis, who wanted to hack his way to the throne)
. In any case, Stannis versus the Boltons wasn’t a battle, it was a massacre. That's is why is also good to balance your character sheet.

And to add salt to the literal wound, Brienne, she of the unfulfilled oath (two more seconds and she would have seen the light on the tower), had an IƱigo Montoya moment with Stannis, who was flat-footed and with no Armour Class. Easy pickings for Brienne, who may be the lousiest bodyguard of the seven realms. Maybe she needs to reconsider her choice of class.

One of the interesting results of the battle was Sansa’s daring escape, aided by Darth Theon who, in true Return of the Jedi fashion, dropped Myranda off the wall. I don’t think any cleric could heal that smashed head. There is a time when a session is resolved by casting the dice, but there are others, and usually are those that end in the legendarium of the campaign where good roleplaying and actual talking can do more good and change things for those involved. And that is what Sansa did with her speech. Like Stannis, she decided to be true to her character, but she had enough in her Charisma stat to wake up something in Reek and help him come back to the light side.  In any case, Sansa and Darth Theon started their escape with a literal leap of faith. And it was the only time that Sansa acted like a true Stark. The DM should reward that… albeit this is GoT, so she might get a worse thing, like frostbite. Sometimes I think the Stark players are gaming with loaded dice against them. Also I wonder if this will be door to the apparence of Lord Manderley and certain meat pies. 

Back to Dorne, the place where nothing really happens, we see the Dornish Prince sending the Lannister party in their way back to King’s Landing. There, Jaime and Myrcella had a really nice chat about incest and family love. Too bad that the DM decided that the Sand Snakes should finally do something and we are left with a distressed Jaime over a dying daughter. So much for Jaime being charismatic enough to earn Ellaria’s forgiveness. It is a shame the showrunners decided to drop all the political undertones of the Dorne plot, because this arc felt like one of those sessions where the DM is just going through the motions in his attempt to set up a major conflict (a war between the Lannister and the Martells) but ends up boring half of the table and the rest is just thinking in what to have for dinner.

Arya did what Arya does: jump from the pan to the fire. Yes she killed Meryn Trant in a very messy and sadistic way, but got punished for that. Arya in that regard, and in a similar venue to Stannis, is the kind of player that overplays her hand, thinking than just by being awesome she will get away, while ignoring the constant warnings of the DM to listen to the plot. She got basically railroaded for jumping without thinking. It remains to see if her player decides to learn the lesson. Also, on the matter of the serial mask pulling that would put Scobby Do to shame, I have the personal theory that Jaqen H’gar is actually an avatar of the DM (or the very real Many Faced God) and he is being used it in subtle ways to set up important pieces in the near future.

Dany got lost with her unruly son (Drogon) and in her usual way of screwing things up by not thinking ahead, she got him annoyed, failing her check in animal husbandry (at least she didn't roll a Critical Fail or she would be toasted). And to make his point clear, about how Dany doesn't think things through, she was left surrounded by a khalassar, which might remember her as the former Mrs Drogo. In that regard, Dany is the opposite of Stannis, the well-liked player that thinks she can get her way just by being who she is. But no matter how high her Charisma stat, from time to time you have to learn to use your other skills, otherwise you are not playing a character, but a McGuffin or even worse a Mary Sue and those make poor characters and die fast without a supporting party.  If you can see another pattern, most of the players of this game like to jump first, ask question later, which leave them facing serious consecuences. Let's hope that she can get a Critical Hit on her Charisma saving throw to get out of this one.



With a stunning performance, Lena Headey faced one of the most
gruelling moments in the show - Cersei's Walk of Shame


With that said, let’s go to the meaty parts of the episode. First we have Cersei, finally broken (up to a point) and confessing to the High Sparrow (which is your D&D garden variety version of an evil cult leader that the heroes will have to take down in the next session or two), but only confessing to minor crimes. The Sparrow, being more cunning than his pirate version, noticed that, so he went for a very fashionable walk of shame (that or the DM has serious, serious issues). They say that karma is a bitch and here she went the extra mile (incidentally, kudos to the awesome Lena Heady, who also went the extra mile. She is by far one of the best things of the show). Cersei ends bleeding and with penalties to her many stats, showing that even the lowborn of King’s Landing are assholes too. Which makes me wonder: usually NPC's are the least remakably thing in a gaming session: they are either there to give info, flavour of being the character version of the lousy jokes that the DM think are funny, truly few are remarkable. But here in GoT most of the NPC that you actually remember are those that make you want to put their heads in a stake. I mean, for four and a half seasons, we really hated on Cersei, but now we have someone even worse than her by being exactly her opposite. Good thing for her that she has her own lich and Frankenzombie warrior to exact vengeance on the Faith Militant. If anything, what Cersei lacks in Intelligence and Wisdom stats she compensates in Charisma and enough Gold Pieces to build her followers.




Will his friend be fine without him? Sam doesn't look so sure...

On the Wall (not the Michael Jackson’s album), Jon sends his only friend, stud and hero to us chubby folks, Sam, to become a maester. Even if he knows that Sam really wants to do the dirty deed with Gilly on the way. And in there he commits an uncommon mistake on rpg games, split the party willingly. Usually when you split yours, you do it in a balanced manner to deal with two concurrent problems or because the DM forced your hand as he needed it for his plot. But here Jon does neither. It is not like Sam would actually help him in a mutiny, but Jon is running out of friends and supporters for being the closest thing to a classical fantasy hero.

Think of it on this way, the character that usually no one likes in the party is the paladin, since he is usually played with strict adherence to its code of honor (whichever this is), aligment and because paladin players rarely know how to deal with situations where being a straightfoward hero barely works, such as diplomacy (despite being one of their main skills). And GoT is the kind of setting that rewards lateral thinking (or thinking like a villain if only to avoid being taken by surprise). Jon is a paladin. One that can see the real problem in front (the White Walkers) but to the cost of annoying the other players on the table. He also has another common flaw in a player: believing that everybody thinks like him and will see his reasons without actually explaining and you know... roleplaying. Jon is so immersed in the bigger picture that he forgets that is surrounded by criminals and people with grudges, not members of an ancient tradition.

And then he falls foul of a lousy trick and that annoying kid who shares a name with the greatest superhero of all, Olly (Readers may notice a Green Arrow fan here - Ed), and ends in a pool of blood with the last shot very reminiscent of the end of Lost. Good thing that the con artist known as Melissandre came back to the wall at the same time as Ser Davos, which might mean that Jon could survive this. It is always good to have a thief that can abscond with your body and a healer than can bring you back your lost Hit Points. Even if she is a lousy con artist who ditched her former leader when she saw that she overplayed her hand. However, it is not uncommon even for the most experienced and loved player of all to roll a Critical Miss and basically kill the hero and doom the whole campaign. Maybe we need to create a new character, because basically the DM killed the hero of the campaign for giggles.

And one of the most interesting parts of the show is that the three amigos: Ser Jorah of the Rash, Daario of the recast actor and his magnificence Lord Tyrion (seriously, Peter Dinklage is the other best thing on GoT) get into a verbal sparring match which ends in two new buddy shows. Ser Jorah and Daario start their sidequest in search for her queen (very D&D) while Tyrion is left to guide Missandei and Grey Worm in ruling Mereen, the city that should be burnt by now.

You know how in every gaming group there is this grizzled, cynic player that has been around the block for a while, knows the rules and when you think he might be odious you realise he is actually a delight to play with, always making the appropiate sarcastic remark or joke to break the tension and at the same time bring the whole party's focus on the same spot. The kind of player that always has a plan B because he has learned his lessons from years and years of studious play of the game. And the one that in order to enjoy the game after many campaigns creates a character that from the outset has serious handicaps but he uses just to enhance the actual skills of the character and shows you that he is the only sane man in the assylum. Well, that's Tyrion. He is the ultimate experimented player's character. To play alongside him is a delight and a test - the best roleplaying sessions combine hack and slash with wits and actual roleplaying.

To enforce this point, this player is the only one that manages to make his character look like a cat that always lands on his feet, no matter how dire was the situation previosuly. Tyrion is that cat, who from despised Hand of the King, he ends as de facto ruler of a city as corrupt and evil as King’s Landing. If only he had an allied master of whispers to help him clear the place for when and if Dany comes back (if not Tyrion should become a king and be done with all). Lo and behold: Varys is back! Now we have the best comedy duo of magnificent bastards trading barbs and insults back and forth. As Tyrion said: I missed you. And since now they are actually on the same side, it will be interesting to see how King Tyrion and The Amazing Teleporting Varys will start their rule. Now that is a massive level up. You can see who are the favourite players of the DM. And they are the favorite because these two grizzled players make the gaming session a joy to behold and not a chore for every other Friday night.

On the miscellanea of the session report, the only two happy persons on this session of GoT were the players of Kevan and Pycelle, as they are not dead. Then again they didn’t play either. But this being Westeros, I doubt that will last. It was clear that the showrunners' intention was to clear the board of the extra pieces and set up the massive downfall of Westeros. However they basically forgot the Tyrells (and their very dangerous general Randyll Tarly, who is rumoured to be cast for next season) and by returning Mellie to the Wall just in time to - what most believe - save a certain Lord Commander.

My final thoughts:

- After that finale, both the series and the books are now entering uncharted territory. Which one will start to draw the map of the campaign will depend on how fast Martin can finish the next book (stop laughing back there, I’m serious, now pass another slice of pizza). If the book is out by the end of the year, readers will have the advantage again, though the show must be wrapping up filming by then.

- I have a major desire: to see Ser Davos (probably the only decent man still alive) stealing several ships, taking all the wildlings (which so far are the most decent inhabitants of Westeros), Brienne, Podrick, pick up Jaime and Bronn on the way as well as Sansa and Darth Theon and getting the hell out of Westeros, maybe towards Mereen or even Southoryos (yeah I know, that is the forbidden continent with Lovecraftian features that belongs to another campaign, but it can’t be worse that what’s coming), because as it stands now, most of Westeros deserves to be frozen alive.

- This was a very uneven finale for a very uneven season (at times downright boring) whose only three true milestones were Tyrion working his Charisma stats on Dany, Drogon rescuing his mommy in a superman-like fashion and Jon rolling a Critical Hit with his Vorpal +1 sword against a White Walker. This season/session wasn’t one of plot moving, but one of plot setting. Let’s hope the next one is better now that the showrunners have to create their own stuff.

You can follow Ricardo Victoria on Twitter here - as he plunges through fandom following Tyrion, Green Arrow and Turtles.

Previously on the blog, The Storytelling of Game of Thrones

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