Game of Thrones part one: surviving Westeros

Rich McCormick

Rich's rules: 1. Play as ruler of the North, Ned Stark. 2. Don't die. 3. No honour, only backstabbing. 4. I'd really like not to die, please.

Welcome to the Game of Thrones diary, in which Rich plays as Ned Stark and tries to stay alive in the excellent Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings 2 . The diary may contain spoilers for Game of Thrones book one and season one of the TV show. This is part one. Once you're ready, use these links to make your way to part two , part three part four , part five and part six .

Crusader Kings II is a game about scheming, plotting and advanced nefariousness in a medieval setting. It has a cast of hundreds of characters with observable traits, from tactical geniuses to lackwit blunderers, via lustful philanderers and chaste holy men.

George R R Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books are about scheming, plotting and advanced nefariousness in a medieval setting. You can probably work out the rest. The two sync up so well, it only was a matter of time before Martin's low-fantasy setting was ported into Paradox's strategy game. Pleasingly, that time wasn't very long: the Game of Thrones mod was released in beta by a group of industrious CKII fans just eight months after the main game. It's now stable, comprehensive and easy to install. It's what I'll be using in this diary, and I heartily recommend you pop over to www.ck2agot.wordpress.com if you're interested.

A quick note: this series will contain spoilers for the Game of Thrones' TV series and books. I'll keep major revelations from the first book onwards under my helm, but if you've somehow managed to avoid the novels (first released in 1996, you layabout), and also the HBO series, then pick them up and gobble them down like a juicy capon leg before reading on.

Valar Morghulis. All men must die. I'm OK with that, but do all men have to die right now? There's a whole world to be seen, the continent of Westeros rendered in beautiful patchwork colours on Crusader Kings II's map screen. There's Dorne, jutting out into the sea in the south: sandy and warm, and split by culture – Dornishmen of sand, stone and salt. There's the greenery of the Reach and the Riverlands, filling the heart of the country. Highgarden's vineyards and Riverrun's, um, rivers, which one day I'd like to visit, be welcomed as a guest and a friend. To the west, Casterly Rock and Lannisport; to the east, the imposing crags of the Vale. I roll my mousewheel down and zoom in on the highest peak: the Eyrie, home of house Arryn. It's dusted white, like one of George's laboriously described cakes.

And then there's my (pretend) home: Winterfell. Westeros's north is big, more expansive but more empty than the continent's other regions. I'm expected to govern it alone, to manage a host of squabbling vassals and underlings, all while dealing with the seemingly inevitable: my own death.

I'm playing Crusader Kings II as Ned Stark, head of the Stark household, and boss of the north. The aGoT mod gives players a choice of starting period, and thus, their cast of characters. I chose to climb into Ned's armoured boots just after famous fatty – and Ned's best pal – Robert Baratheon has claimed the throne. It's supposed to be a time of peace after the loopy rule of mad King Aerys II, but George R R Martin doesn't make things easy for his characters

Ah, Winterfell, home sweet home to the Stark family. But for how long?

There's that morghulis thing, for one. Robert, after successfully rebelling against an incumbent king, loses a fight with a boar and unceremoniously dies in bed with his guts falling out. Ned doesn't even make it through one book before he has his head lopped off by his pal's son and kingly replacement: Joffrey Baratheon.

"Ned is naïve and unflinchingly honourable – to his own detriment."

In the books, Ned is naïve and unflinchingly honourable – to his own detriment. It's what gets him killed, and it's a trait I don't intend to take on myself. Crusader Kings II simulates all the intrigue of thousands of power-plays moving and interlocking across a vast political landscape. It lets you start plots against people, build spy networks, even kill your own wife. I'm not going to be like Ned. I'm going to scheme and sneak, backstab and betray. I'm going to take in the big picture, and play the pawns against each other.

One small problem: bar some minor dabbling, I've not played much of Crusader Kings. Its game mechanics are to me as courtly deceit and diplomacy were to Ned.

I must start small. Objective #1: not to die.

I spend the first year of Robert's reign jumpy. I'm not sure quite how much of aGoT's fiction is hardcoded into the mod, and I'm expecting Robert to die at any moment. If CKII had a letter-writing feature, I'd be sending him constant telegrams saying “FOR GOD'S SAKE STAY AWAY FROM PIGS” like a porcophobic weirdo.

I want to keep Robert on-side. He is, as king, the biggest presence in all Westeros. He's also got some seriously impressive claims. Claims are your ticket to more land in CKII: get a claim, and you can invade a territory without some higher power smiting you for your insolence. As Ned, I've got lordship of Winterfell – and therefore, the north – but nothing else. Robert has dibs on the southeastern Storm's End, as well as another four territories.

Fortunately, Robert likes me. Each CKII character – from king down to courtier – has two numbers on their character sheet. The first details how much they like you, the second how much you like them, dictated by a set of variables. Robert wishes Ned was a bit more hedonistic, knocking ten points off the score, but their shared bravery, battle history, and affinity for stabbing the shit out of things makes them fast friends. I could call Rob a fat bastard and he'd still share his capon with me.

I'm easing up as we hit the six month mark, when my spymaster brings me news of a plot. Shit! A plot! After so long spent mentally willing Ned to spend more of his time dressed in full plate armour and hiding in bushes, the p-word is enough to send me over the edge. I click on the plotter's tiny face and bring up the diplomacy menu. I have a set of options: I can revoke his land and claim it for my own. I can arrange a marriage to bring him to heel. Or I can imprison him.

I consider taking his land and scolding him for his impudence, but I convince myself he'll take offence and stab me in the night. To the dungeon with you, plotter.

Immediately, another of my vassals asks for his release. Are you in on it too, you capon-botherer? To prison with you, too!

"I congratulate myself on a guy well killed."

A mild panic grips me: what if they talk of their plan in my cells? I don't know yet how deep CKII's simulation runs. I'd better remove one of the problems. Diplomacy menu. Choose option 'execute'. I bring the interred out into Winterfell's yard, and as befitting the ruler of the north, chop his head off myself with my sweet Valyrian steel sword. A show of force, to deter future plotters. I congratulate myself on a guy well killed, take off my sword-handling mittens, and remind Ned to stay away from sharp objects.

Who was that guy I killed, anyway? I never checked. I bring up my message menu. 'Howland Reed'. Hmm, why do I know that name? I Alt-Tab and check the Song of Ice and Fire wiki, search for Howland Reed.

“He is one of Eddard Stark's closest friends and fought alongside him in many conflicts during Robert's Rebellion.”

Sending a friend to prison was definitely a bad idea.

Ah. I suppose it's tough to see who someone is when you're wearing full plate armour so as not to be stabbed, but I'm feeling a little embarrassed when I get news of yet another plot. I've learned my lesson this time, though, and I check to see who it is before clapping them in irons.

It turns out to be some minor vassal from the far northeastern isle of Skagos. I read a little further: his plot involves paying someone a bit so they like him more. Jesus, is that what Howland Reed was doing? Howland, buddy, you didn't need to pay me, I already liked you. And you could at least have mentioned that you weren't planning to kill me before I cut your head off.

"Breeding a generation of hyper-angry children: this is not the way to stay alive, old Neddy."

I let the Skagosi man go about his plotting and sadly mouse over Howland Reed's old land, now ruled by his eight-year-old daughter. She's called Meera – hang on, I know that name – and she is pissed off. She's eight, and her disposition toward me is already -100. I dig deeper into CKII's menus, and see that she has 'sworn vengeance' against me. She's just learning her times tables, and she's already dead set on killing me as soon as she can.

Killing your best friends and breeding a generation of hyper-angry children: this is not the way to stay alive, old Neddy.

Ned's particular way of drowning his sorrows at killing his mate does ensure the continuation of his legacy, though. A short while after, my wife Catelyn pops out a baby. I'm a slave to canon, so I name her Sansa. She joins her brother Robb and half-brother Jon in Winterfell's baby-cage or whatever they have, and I don't have to worry about her until she's old enough to need a teacher – or I need to sell her off to some other lord to preserve an alliance.

A baby! Better arrange its marriage.

The introduction of a new child to the family has seemingly upset the existing kids. Jon – my bastard son, already disliked by Catelyn – is begging for more toys in recompense. I have a set of options to quiet his mewling, and I choose to make him play outside. As is perhaps understandable when your back garden is where your dad regularly executes his best friends with a big sword, this choice makes Jon immediately cynical.

To really stick it to Jon and the other kids, I retaliate by having another child. This one's a boy, and I name it Bran because I am a Game of Thrones nerd. He will, I decree, have cushions strapped to his body until he reaches the age of 18, have his legs massaged by a team of court physiotherapists, and won't ever be allowed to climb anything on pain of wedgies.

Bran's birth signals the end of my first year in charge of the north, and I'm finally starting to relax. Robert, too, seems pleased to have seen out the year without being gored to death, and decides to celebrate by holding a massive feast. I attend, and eat so many capons that I'm sick.

"I retaliate by having another child."

Trotting back to Winterfell, I figure it's time for a new goal. Ned is one of the mod's better characters, lacking the massive personality flaws Crusader Kings II will often give its denizens. Robert, for example, is a drunkard, while Tyrion Lannister is ugly, reducing some of their stats. Ned is brave and honourable. My 'accidental' execution early in the year gave him a tiny bit of 'tyranny', but an innate kindness trait balances that out. Ned's strength, however, lies in war: he's a superb commander, and great in a scrap. Surviving the year has given me the taste for something more than merely existing. I want a fight.

But who? And how? The north has trouble with boats, the version of the mod I'm playing goes haywire whenever a northerner tries an amphibious landing. That takes an offshore invasion off the table. Going further north is pointless: the Night's Watch has a gigantic ice wall blocking off the tribal Wildlings up there.

Hmmm, where to strike?

The only way is south, and the only thing blocking my descent is the Twins: two castles across a river held by one of the Song of Ice and Fire books' most important families – the Freys.

This can't be a quick strike. The Twins are famously fortified, and notoriously difficult to capture. They're also the only way to travel between north and south. The Freys are pivotal to Martin's stories because they control these castles. Anyone who wants to pass has to get pally-pally with them.

I could choose to get pally-pally with them, to marry Sansa off to one of their countless number, but for many reasons, I can't bear to do it.

Walder Frey is the current lord of the Twins, 78 years of age. I bring up his character pane. Wouldn't it be terrible if something happened to this poor old man? It's time to do something Ned never did in the books or on TV. As I select CKII's 'intrigue' menu, I decide to play the game of thrones.

Return next Sunday for PART TWO of the Game of Thrones diary.

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