Story by Martin
It’s well-known that George R.R. Martin is a big fan of tabletop roleplaying games. Back in the ‘80s GRRM (as he is known to his fans) was gamesmaster for a super-hero RPG called Superworld. The Albuquerque group he played with – which included science-fiction writers Melinda Snodgrass, Victor Milan, John J. Miller and Walter Jon Williams – created a campaign setting in which an extraterrestrial virus brought to earth in 1946 caused ‘wild card’ mutations among the populace. Those few infected by the virus who didn’t die outright or suffer grotesque mutations were changed at the DNA level and became ‘aces’ – or superheroes, in other words. This campaign would form the basis for the long running Wild Cards series of books which are still edited by GRRM and Snodgrass. Since 1987 no less than 23 volumes of stories in the Wild Cards shared universe have been released, written by a rotating roll-call of talented science fiction and fantasy writers.
Given his background in RPGs, how much then has GRRM’s unfinished fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire also been influenced by his experience as a GM? In this listicle Games vs Play identifies 5 clues that we think prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that ASOIAF could only be written by someone who was both a master writer and a master GM.
Clue #1: There’s not just one hero in ASOIAF
Some people would argue that there are no true ‘heroes’ in ASOIAF, as even the most noble-intentioned characters in GRRM’s masterpiece have many shades of grey. But by ‘hero’ I mean a central character around which the story revolves, like Conan the Cimmerian in Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age stories or Garion in David and Leigh Eddings’ The Belgariad. To be sure, A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t the first fantasy epic to feature an ensemble cast, but I think GRRM is actually following one of the most important rules of being a good GM – all player-characters should have a fair share of the story. This makes total sense in an RPG, as it wouldn’t be much fun for the players if the GM paid all their attention to only one PC. As a seasoned GM, GRRM is simply observing this rule – all the characters in ASOIAF matter equally, and their individual story arcs need to be followed through to their respective ends.
Clue #2: Westeros feels like an RPG campaign setting
Like most fantasy RPG campaign settings, Westeros has a down-to-earth, lived-in feeling to it. Which isn’t to say GRRM hasn’t gone to some effort in worldbuilding, as the backstory to the Seven Kingdoms, the Free Cities and the continent of Essos is certainly rich enough. But that’s exactly where it is most of the time: safely in the backstory. Unlike a lot of fantasy writers GRRM doesn’t hit the reader over the head with endless history lessons about their invented world. Instead, Westeros only unfolds as the backdrop for the main focus of the story – which is the interactions between the characters, just like in an RPG. And for the characters in the books it’s the icy cold of the lands north of the Wall or the burning heat of Slaver’s Bay that matters more than which year the Andals conquered Westeros.
Clue #3: Random things happen to characters (and they’re not always good)
In most fantasy novels – and in fiction in general, for that matter – the heroes don’t die. Or if they do die, it’s for a noble cause and other heroes will arise to avenge their deaths. But in RPGs the immortality of a PC is never a given. This is something all players and GMs know – the unlucky roll of a die or the unscripted action of a PC (“They weren’t meant to open that door yet!”) means that sometimes bad things will happen to good characters. Characters that have been lovingly crafted over many campaigns can and do die, often suddenly and unexpectedly. So when GRRM starting killing off major characters in ASOIAF starting with Eddard Stark in A Game of Thrones, most readers were stunned, shocked, dismayed. But not so much for GMs and RPG players. This was something we’re accustomed to, as we’ve watched our own characters come to sticky ends. Even so, I don’t think anybody was prepared for the Red Wedding …
Clue #4: Westeros speaks the “Common Tongue”
It was J.R.R. Tolkien who coined the high fantasy convention of there being a “Common Speech” for characters from different races to converse in. It turns out Westeros also has a “Common Tongue,” based on the language of the Andals. Despite this obvious similarity I doubt that GRRM copied Tolkien. Instead, I think it’s far more likely that GRRM was influenced again by RPGs. As anyone who’s played Dungeons & Dragons knows, the language that human characters speak is also called “Common” (elf and dwarf characters start off as bilingual and can also speak “Elven” and “Dwarvish”, respectively. D’uh). Can this really be a case of spontaneous parallel evolution between Westeros and D&D, given GRRM’s history with RPGs? I can’t be sure, but it seems to me they have an awful lot in “Common” (see what I did there?).
Clue #5: GRRM split the party. You never split the party!
“Never split the party!” is a favourite catchphrase among RPGers. This happens when the PCs split up and wander off in different directions. It might sound like a good idea, but for players this can be quite boring as they sit around waiting for their turn to come around again, while for GMs it can be an exercise in frustration as they attempt to keep track of increasingly complicated multiple storylines. However, I think that splitting the party is exactly what GRRM did in ASOIAF, starting with A Feast for Crows and continuing through to the end of A Dance with Dragons. Unable or unwilling to condense the plot lines as his characters became scattered across Westeros and Essos at the end of A Storm of Swords, GRRM decided instead to write the next two volumes in parallel. Thus A Feast of Crows focussed on King’s Landing, the Riverlands, Dorne, and the Iron Islands, while A Dance of Dragons covered roughly the same timeframe for characters in the North and Essos. GRRM was acting exactly like a GM. I mean, he was effectively saying, “Right, first we’ll work out what happens with you lot over here in Westeros, then we’ll do the same for everybody else in Essos, and then at the end we’ll bring it all together.” I cannot stress how much this is such a classic GM move. A mere fantasy wrier would’ve just squeezed everything together in one book or never attempted to split the party in the first place. Kudos, GRRM, kudos.
So there you have it, the top 5 clues that prove ASOIAF could only have been written by a GM. Because it actually was! If you have any other favourite GMs turned authors, let us know. Either contact us via our website or tell us on Games vs Play’s Facebook page. Until then I guess we just have to wait until the next book comes out, which will probably be in 1D6+1 years (sorry George!)
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Featured image: Quora; GRRM portrait: Wikipedia; HBO Game of Thrones characters: Wilson K’s blog; map: A Wiki of Ice and Fire; Sean Bean as Eddard Stark: Wikipedia; Don’t split the party meme: Imgflip; GRRM meme: Nigel G. Mitchell’s blog.