“48 Laws of Power” in Game of Thrones — Cultivate an Air of Unpredictability
Since the dawn of time, humans have survived not because they were the strongest; but because they were the most unpredictable. This is how humans were able to not only hunt but also breed other animals effectively. Animals typically followed patterns and humans were able to identify those patterns and use them to our advantage. Similarly, in games like poker, your opponent analyzes your patterns and uses them to anticipate your next moves. Poker is not a card game; it is a game of probability and human psychology.
This is one example in Robert Greene’s classic book “The 48 Laws of Power”, a multi-million New York Times bestseller. It was written in 1998 and although it based many of its stories on ancient warfare, much of its lessons are still valid today.
If you don’t have time to read the 462-page book; you can understand the 48 Laws simply by observing popular cinema. In this series, we will use Game of Thrones to understand the 48 Laws of Power so that next time you need to use it, or next time it is used against you, you will be prepared.
Law 17 — Keep Others in Suspended Terror: Cultivate An Air of Unpredictability
Players that Mastered This Law — Ramsey Bolton
“Taken to the extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize,” says Robert Greene which encapsulates Ramsey Bolton perfectly. Ramsey was renowned for being difficult to predict. His unpredictability was even overlooked by his own father who could not anticipate that Ramsey would kill him. As an audience, we were shocked in the moment but then realized that it made perfect sense for Ramsey’s character.
In the Battle of the Bastards, Ramsey was able to correctly predict Jon Snow’s honorable pattern, which led to Ramsey luring Jon into the center of the battlefield prompting Jon’s army to charge forward to protect him. Ramsey played the long game, letting thousands of his Bolton men die to corner the Stark army and it would have worked had he not been outsmarted by Sansa Stark.
Players that Failed This Law — Jon Snow
“A small army may thus destroy a larger one,” says Robert Greene about the importance of unpredictability when you are the underdog in a situation. This was played expertly by Sansa Stark but not by Jon Snow. The commander of the Stark forces, Jon was not an asset to retaking Winterfell, he was their greatest liability — their largest weak point.
Jon Snow is incredibly honorable and predictable but not particularly cunning. Honor with cunning will make you a great hero. Honor without cunning will make you easy prey to be taken advantage of. Ramsey could count on Jon to never let his brother run into danger even though Sansa had already warned Jon that Rickon could not be saved
After the Battle of the Bastards was won, Sansa apologized to Jon for not telling him about the Knights of the Vale but in reality, this was the best thing she could have done. In an alternate world, had Sansa told Jon about the Knights of the Vale as a backup plan, Jon & Ser Davos would have likely deployed the Knights of the Vale too early. Remember, Ser Davos had a sound plan that the Stark army needed to have patience and absolutely could not charge at the Bolton army. That was their firm and principle plan. However, due to Jon charging ahead to save Rickon, Ser Davos had to forgo their principle plan and force their army to charge early to save Jon. If the Stark army were willing to abandon their principle plan, they surely would have abandoned their backup plan as quickly.
Players that Seemingly Failed this Law but Actually Mastered It — Sansa Stark
In the 48 Laws of Power, most laws have a “reversal” which is a situation where the law may not apply or may be changed to fit a unique case. The reversal to this law is to play the predictable part only to lull the opponent into false security, where they can then “strike without warning”.
Sansa culled Littlefinger into a false sense of security by seemingly listening to his advice to remove Brienne from Winterfell. She knew that cornering Littlefinger would be challenging unless Littlefinger thought he was not the target. Otherwise, Littlefinger would just fill the courtroom with his own supporters. Furthermore, the Northerners seeing Sansa’s display of cunning and power will further support her position in the future. This also applies to another Law 21: Play a sucker to catch a sucker — seem dumber than your mark.
Sansa was certainly a slow learner (it took her 6.5 seasons to start winning on her terms), but she eventually mastered how to utilize multiple laws to her advantage.
Players that Seemingly Mastered This Law but Actually Failed — Peter “Littlefinger” Baelish
Another warning in this law’s reversal is that “sometimes it is better to let people feel settled around you than disturb them”. You cannot always be unpredictable and that was Littlefinger’s downfall.
Peter was the epitome of unpredictable: seemingly supporting the Starks, but in actuality supporting the Lannisters, then supporting the Tyrells, aligning with the Boltons, and finally turn-coating to the Starks again. Peter consistently told others that he was not to be trusted but this created a conflict — his unpredictability in itself made him predictable. It resulted in Peter not having any real allies.
Furthermore, Peter was not able to control the unpredictability he created. Due to his inability to control the turn of events that resulted from his actions in betraying Ned Stark, Peter lost his long-time love Catelyn Stark who was murdered by the Lannisters to end the war that Peter artificially started. Ultimately, Peter lost the two major goals he had in his life — the Iron Throne and the love of Catelyn & Sansa Stark.
Next week — we will examine another 48 Laws of Power and how it changed the Game of Thrones. Subscribe to follow along!