Game on! When the down-and-dirty epic fantasy Game of Thrones returns to HBO on April 1st, it'll be riding high on the tide of record-setting DVD and Blu-Ray sales, oodles of critical acclaim and award-show props (most notably Peter Dinklage's well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his turn as Tyrion Lannister, everyone's favorite wiseass mastermind dwarf), and an impact on the zeitgeist that the it's-not-TV network hasn't seen since The Sopranos. It's also packing more plotlines and colliding more characters than the NFL offseason. Don't know your Dothraki from your direwolves? Don't worry – this cheat sheet will catch you up on all the Game's major players. Warning: many Season One spoilers ahead.
Welcome to Westeros, a sprawling continent divided into Seven Kingdoms, now ruled by a single king. Aside from seasons that can last for years at a time, and rumors of strange creatures lurking in the frozen wastes far to the north, magic's a non-factor in this medieval world – it died out with the last dragons, decades ago. Today the most clear and present danger is strife between the land's great families or Houses. In the North there's the Starks, a stand-up bunch led by Eddard "Ned" Stark, who years ago helped his best friend Robert Baratheon overthrow a madman and claim the Iron Throne for himself. To the south there's the Lannisters, including Queen Cersei; Jaime, Robert's bodyguard and Cersei's twin brother – and secret lover; Tyrion, the family's brilliant dwarf black-sheep; and Tywin, the cold-hearted moneyman who bankrolls the realm.
When Robert taps Ned to become his top advisor, the so-called Hand of the King, a secret plot to cover up Jaime and Cersei's incest – and the fact that Robert's kids and heirs are actually Jaime's – leads to murder, betrayal, Ned's death, and an all-out war between Stark and Lannister.
But the real threats lurk elsewhere. North of the Wall that marks the edge of the Seven Kingdoms, a supernatural menace that can raise the dead is waiting for the onset of winter to make its move. And East of the Narrow Sea, the exiled heir to the throne, Daenerys Targaryen, is plotting to reconquer Westeros with the help of a horde of warriors…and a trio of dragons.
Ned's dead, baby* (*every Game of Thrones writer is contractually permitted to make that joke exactly one time), betrayed by his wife Catelyn's smarmy childhood friend Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish and beheaded at the orders of the boy king Joffrey Baratheon, who's like if someone gave a blond asshole villain from an Eighties teen movie the power to execute people. Not only does this devastate Ned's daughter Sansa, Joffrey's unfortunate fiancée, it also wrecks the plans of his mother and advisors to exile Ned rather than kill him, thus preserving peace with the Starks and their followers. At least Ned's younger daughter Arya was spared the sight of her dad getting the world's most severe haircut, thanks to the intervention of Yoren, a member of the Night's Watch (the dudes who guard the Wall) who was in the right place at the right time. He's disguised Arya as a boy and is now shipping her (and one of King Robert's secret bastard sons, a tough-looking kid called Gendry) up north with his usual haul of criminal recruits. There they hope to meet up with her brother Bran, crippled – and granted psychic powers – when Jaime Lannister tossed him out the window for catching him and his sister the queen in the act. Bran's now the young Lord of Winterfell, the Starks' home base, while his brother Robb and mother Catelyn are leading the North's rebellion against the Lannisters.
Over in Lannister-land, Cersei is sitting pretty as the power behind the Iron Throne, now occupied by her sociopathic son Joffrey. Her twincestuous brother Jaime finds himself at the opposite end of the spectrum: Outsmarted and outfought by Ned Stark's inexperienced young heir Robb, he's been taken prisoner, confessing his crimes to Catelyn Stark while her son's followers honor the victory by proclaiming Robb the King in the North. Tyrion is somewhere in between: After escaping Catelyn's captivity and surviving his first big battle, he's been ordered by his father Tywin to head to the capital and take over Ned's old gig as the Hand of the King, where he'll have to fend off both his power-mad relatives and their enemies. No wonder he defies dear old dad and brings Shae, the whore he keeps on retainer, to court with him.
At the Wall, the massive continent-spanning ice sculpture that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the lawless wildnerness to its north, Ned's bastard son Jon Snow narrowly resisted the temptation to go AWOL from the Night's Watch (a death-penalty offense) and join his half-brother's war on Lannisters. Now he and his fellow Watchmen are headed north of the Wall to take the fight to the enemy – both the regular-human wildlings who are rumored to be forming an army to assault the Wall, and the shadowy White Walkers who sent zombie assassins to take down the Night's Watch Lord Commander before Jon's quick thinking (and pet direwolf) put a stop to it.
Finally, far to the East, there's Daenerys, the last in the line of the Targaryen kings overthrown by Robert, Ned, and Jaime back in happier times. (For them, not for the Targaryens.) At first terrified by her arranged-marriage husband, the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo, she & him became a formidable match – killing Dany's insufferable older brother Viserys, makin' a baby, and vowing to take back the Iron Throne together. All of that, baby included, went out the window when Drogo succumbed to an infected wound and the witchcraft of Mirri Maz Duur, a vengeful "healer" Dany "rescued" from Drogo's men. Dany takes the three priceless petrified dragon eggs she received as a wedding gift and jumps into Drogo's funeral pyre, and when the smoke clears, she emerges unharmed – with a posse of three live dragons. These legendary fire-breathing creatures once helped her ancestor Aegon the Conqueror take over the Seven Kingdoms, but they've been extinct for decades. Once these three are fully grown, they're basically nuclear bombs with wings, but that's a long way away.
And the Rest
Those big four factions aren't the only ones on the move. Though we've never actually seen him, Robert's brother Stannis knows that he, not Joffrey – a bastard in every sense of the word – is the true heir to the Iron Throne, and his reputation as one of the Seven Kingdoms' most unstoppable warriors has everyone on edge. Except, that is, his baby brother Renly, who fled King's Landing when it became clear Ned was going down. With the help of the rich and powerful family of Loras Tyrell, his deadliest knight, best friend, and secret lover, Renly's emerging as a contender for the throne, too. Then there's Theon Greyjoy, Ned Stark's ward – a polite way to say "hostage," since the Starks adopted him years ago after putting down a rebellion by his father Balon, the wannabe King of the Iron Islands. He swore allegiance to Robb, but that doesn't mean his long-lost family will follow suit.