“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
At the end of their meeting in chapter 45, Cersei tells Ned that, unlike the blurry lines between right and wrong, there are very well-defined consequences to winning and losing the game of thrones. The implication is that winning means a great deal of power while losing inevitably means death, and that anyone playing the game of thrones must do whatever is necessary to win. The book contains several of these players, including Robert, Cersei, Littlefinger, Varys, Stannis, and Renly. Each seems more concerned with winning power than governing the realm or doing what is right. Ned, however, often tries to do what he considers right and honorable rather than what will allow him to win. He declines Renly's offer of troops because, according to the law, Stannis is the heir to the throne. He also tries to spare Cersei's life by telling her that he intends to tell Robert about Joff's true father. He does not play to win, and the result is that he loses. The consequence for Ned is death.