Wednesday, August 20, 2014

[RPG Review] Kingdom by Ben Robbins

Kingdom is a GM-less roleplaying/story game written by Ben Robbins, known for his previous award-winning game Microscope. Kingdom is the term used in the game to refer to a community or organisation that the players characters all belong to. At the start of play, the group gets together and builds the Kingdom together and then, through their characters, they explore what the Kingdom is about and what its future holds.

Game Mechanics
Like other GM-less games such as Fiasco and Our Last Best Hope, Kingdom starts with a bit of collaborative setting creation. Players start by deciding what kind of Kingdom they want to create - suggestions from the game's text include an Old West frontier town, a colony ship, or the teachers and students of an elementary school - and then move on to creating their characters, each of whom will have some role (Power, Perspective or Touchstone) within the community which gives the players different ways to influence the Kingdom and the path it takes. This process of setting and character creation is quick and straightforward, allowing players to get to the actual play portion of the game with a minimum of faffing around. While very little that is established during this phase has any mechanical part in play, it does help to build up a variety of character details which the players can use to inform play during the game, as well as provide locations for them to set scenes in.

The gameplay itself revolves around resolving Crossroads - important 'yes or no' decisions that the Kingdom faces which will shape its future - which are represented by index cards with tick boxes on them. There are two other index cards with boxes as well: Crisis and Time Passes. Each player takes turns framing scenes in which their characters discuss or act upon the Crossroad, using their roles to add predictions (in the case of Perspective) as to how one decision or the other will play out, make promises (Power) about what the Kingdom will do to a certain character if a certain outcome occurs, or push the Kingdom towards Crisis (Touchstone) to represent the peoples' dissatisfaction with the decisions being made.

The ultimate decision about what path the Kingdom chooses for the Crossroad is in Power's hands, but they don't get to decide how that decision will ultimately affect the Kingdom, or how the people will respond to it. This creates a very interesting dynamic between the players and Crossroads become like negotiations, with the non-Power characters trying to influence the final decision based on their hopes or fears, and the Power character trying to address (or stubbornly ignoring) the Perspective player's predictions or the people's views as represented by the Touchstone in order to reach a favourable outcome. (Or perhaps not, sometimes letting the bad stuff happen is more fun than trying to prevent it.) Overall, the game works well as a simplified emulation of how actual societies and organisations work, and it does it in a way that should be a lot of fun for all involved.

There's no dice rolling in Kingdom, instead conflicts are resolved by consensus. If a character doesn't like how another character is using their role, they can challenge the action, but the targeted player gets to decide if the challenge succeeds, fails, or if a little something extra is needed before it can succeed. To make sure that this doesn't devolve into a series of challenges and rejections, a challenger has the option of escalating their challenge to an Overthrow if their initial challenge is rejected. This means that they can take over the other player's role (forcing them to choose a different one), but they must accept a price to do so. This method of conflict resolution does rely on the players to know when to push to keep the story interesting, and when it's more interesting to back down. In short, you want a good group of players who have a decent sense of drama and respect each other's play style. (Really, you want that for most games, but here especially.)

As mentioned, setting is largely created collaboratively by the players, but the book does have twenty-two Kingdom 'seeds' for groups to use if they're feeling short on inspiration or just like the sound of them. These cover four different genres: Real World, Historical Period, Science Fiction and Fantasy. There's a nice selection of suggested Kingdoms here, including one or two that are none-too-subtle nods to popular films or TV shows (*cough*Battlestar Galactica*cough*). The seeds provide suggestions for building settings based on them, but groups can pretty much do what they like with them.

In the impromptu game we did a month or so back, we did the Lost In Luxury Space seed. It's sort of a dramedy about a interstellar cruise ship that's adrift in space, with a bunch of spoilt rich passengers who may or may not lift a finger to help the situation. Other ones I fancy trying out include Mech-Police (because MECHS!), Starfall (galactic arms dealers), and Winterhook's School For Wayward Wizards (Harry Potter with a slightly darker twist).

The game has a very minimalist design style, with no real artwork to speak of - even the cover is a simple drawing of a pair of chess pieces - which may feel dry for some, but ultimately I like the straightforward, no-frills approach taken with this book. Every step of gameplay is laid out plainly, clearly and in order of relevance. One readthrough of the book should be enough to get you started playing, and the way it's written makes it easy enough to flick through to the page you need if any rules questions arise in play. There are also short portions of the book meant to be read out loud in turn by players to help them understand the game's themes and the roles they will play.

Additional Materials
After the rules section - which covers about half of the book - and before the Kingdom seeds at the back, there's a brief section offering discussion and advice about the game. This includes useful pointers on how to play the game and a more in depth look at each of the roles, instructions on how to facilitate the game for new players (which is always an extremely useful feature for games like this, in my opinion), and suggestions on different ways to play, including ways to combine it with Robbins' other game, Microscope.

Online Support
On his website for the game, the designer has posted a number of play aids such as rules corrections, character sheets, and role cards. He even posted a downloadable PDF of the quick reference sheet from the book only hours after I posted on the game's Google+ community asking for one, which was extremely awesome of him. Beyond these basic aids, there are also a couple of new Kingdom seeds available for download, and links to a variety of actual play posts and recordings. If you're still not sure you want to buy, I highly recommend checking some of those out, they'll give you a good idea what you'll be getting for your money.

I've only had one opportunity to play Kingdom so far - which was a bit rocky, since I'd barely had time to read the book first - but I enjoyed the one game I played, and now that I've read the book and know how everything's supposed to work, I think I'll enjoy it even more next time. If you love world building, and enjoy stories about communities facing dangers from outside and within, then I'd definitely recommend this game. That said, it's not going to be everybody's cup of tea, since not everybody excels at the kind of improvised play the game entails. Still, you should give it a try anyway, you might find you like it more than you'd expect.

Undecim Rating: +4 (Really good, representative of excellence in the medium.)

1 comment:

  1. Nice, thorough review! This was very helpful, thank you. I think you've just convinced me to pull the trigger and grab it!