Like most RPGs nowadays, Game of Thrones begins with a character creation screen where we get to choose a fighting style and skill set and so on. It’s very standard until you start to pick your “traits.” These are permanent modifiers named in such a way that it encourages us to think of our character as more than a collection of stats (“Ambidextrous,” “Honed Reflexes,” “Gifted”), but the best part about these choices is that once we’ve picked three positive traits, we have to pick three negative traits that permanently weaken our character.
This forces the player to approach character creation in a very literal way. In other games, the mechanics of character creation limit us to choosing specific abilities from a group of abilities. This allows us to customize our character’s skill set, but skills aren’t the only thing that define a character. Such creation is very one sided because we’re only choosing what our character is good at. We’re only defining his or her positive aspects, and as a result, the character that exists on the creation screen is utterly boring. Characters in any story only become interesting once we see their flaws. By forcing us to define specific flaws at this early stage, the game forces us to flesh out our character’s personality and back story. Why these specific strengths and these specific weaknesses? The naming helps in this regard: “Hemophiliac,” “Paranoid,” “Collapsed Lung,” and “Inattentive” are all descriptions of personality and bodily characteristics as well as stat modifiers.
Usually this kind of internal character development happens during gameplay, when we’re interacting with people and the world reacts to us. There’s a back and forth to these interactions that allow us to discover our character’s likes and dislikes, make friends and enemies, and develop into a genuine character. There’s no similar kind of back and forth with a character creator. There’s no conflict or scenario that we can use to define personality or morality. So, that internal character development gets pushed back until we’re well into the game itself. Not so in Game of Thrones.
So Game of Thrones begins with a great twist on how we construct RPG characters, but sadly it doesn’t follow through with this idea as effectively as it could have. Over the course of the game, you’ll encounter situations that define your character to such a degree that a new trait gets added to your list. Track down some men of the Night’s Watch who took bribes to earn “Bloodhound,” which increases the damage of your dog. Defeat a group of traitors to earn “Unimpeachable Morals,” which increases your damage resistance, and there are many more. However, while in the beginning I had to choose a balance between positive traits and negative traits (in other words, the core reason why this trait system is so interesting to begin with), these earned traits are only positive. You can’t earn a negative trait, and with that, the game throws off the balance that I worked so hard to create. It’s frustrating because RPGs are always playing with the idea of choice and consequence, and Game of Thrones had the potential to give my actions mechanical consequences as well as narrative consequences. It had the idea — but only half of the execution.
These traits are an interesting system ultimately undone by poor balance, putting them right in line with the rest of the game, but at least there’s enough of an execution there for us to see this idea in action and to see that it works. Game of Thrones has an actual character creator within it, not just customizable faces and skills.