ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Temporary Kingdoms

I was reading about how during the American Revolutionary War, Henry Knox hauled an entire battery of cannons from captured Fort Ticonderoga 300 miles through the dead of winter to give George Washington’s army the artillery it vitally needed to threaten the fortified British. It sounded like an epic trek: cannons falling through the ice of frozen rivers, sledges mired in snow drifts, the works.

My first thought was, naturally, I want to play that Kingdom! Crossroads in the journey just leap out. Do we try to cross the cracking river ice? Do we take a short cut that brings us dangerously near the fighting armies? Do we abandon the heaviest guns to make better time?

It would make a pretty unusual Kingdom because it’s inherently temporary: everyone knows that when the expedition reaches its destination, its job is done. The troops would go on to other duties and the Kingdom would dissolve.

But is a temporary Kingdom really a problem? I don’t think so. There is nothing that would prevent an intentionally short-lived community from being a great Kingdom to play. It might even have certain advantages, particularly for a one-shot game, because it could establish a clear end point for the game: if the Kingdom isn’t destroyed by Crisis or totally side-tracked by the Crossroads it faces, when you are ready to stop playing you can narrate your Kingdom arriving at your goal (victorious or bedraggled, depending on how your game played out). You don’t have to wonder what the future holds for your Kingdom because its job is done.

Lots of ideas for temporary Kingdoms spring to mind:

  • people trying to get somewhere, like a caravan, a merchant ship or the cannon-toting Knox expedition
  • people united to accomplish a finite thing, like a political campaign, a rebellion, or a civil engineering project like building a castle, the Hoover Dam or the Panama Canal
  • a place that only brings people together for a while, like a Renaissance faire, a Woodstock-esque music festival, or a summer camp. When camp’s over, everyone goes home. Promise you’ll write!

The key bit is that everyone knows the Kingdom is temporary. Even if we’re all committed to it right now (and all the characters should be) we know it’s only going to last as long as it takes to get the job done.

A temporary Kingdom could have an extremely short lifespan. The whole Knox expedition took about two months, but that’s plenty of time to make lots happen. Some Crossroads might take just a few days — or even hours! — but my instinct is that it might make play even more dramatic. If you wind up with Time Passing, you would scale them to fit as well. Instead of two years going by, it’s a two-week montage of summer days lazily drifting by at camp…

“How Weirdly Powerless”

How weirdly powerless Power is. There’s a built-in irony, caused by these limitations, by not allowing a character both perspective and power. And of course, that makes perfect real-world sense, doesn’t it? When you take power, you become something set apart from your peers, and can’t claim to properly represent them. You have, in fact, set yourself as being someone exceptional, and therefore by definition not a member of the community. But you aren’t apart from the community the way Perspective is… so distanced as to be able to understand how it works. You are in a very real way trapped by your power. Neat!

– Ed Turner, reflecting on Kingdom after the fantastic Drift game we played

Actual Play Roundup: A Beetle Pushing the Sun

A few of the latest and greatest Kingdom games from around the world. Are they playing Kingdom in Korea? The answer is yes.

  • Plains Tribes — “Originally I was a little bit worried about how the tribal roleplaying would turn out, whether it would descend into a stereotype-fest a la every Hollywood movie with Indians or faux Indians ever.” I think they nailed it.
  • Android Megacorp — No, that link’s not broken: it’s a second game write-up in the same thread as the Plains Tribe. Corporate mergers and unethical uses of technology. “…Power ordered that, if the androids were developed, they would only be used for sex work and not factory labor or security.” Make that unethical and immoral.
  • Battleship Orion — AKA the Trouble with AIs. Can you still have a Crisis if you put the whole population into cryogenic storage? Or is that the very definition of a Crisis?

It’s pretty great having Kingdom finished, because I get to play it and have some fun too:

  • The Drift — Outcasts and ruffians, the very dregs of society, trying to survive in their make-shift space habitat. Crime, squalor and a little interplanetary blackmail. A great game with a bunch of Kingdom first-timers at Story Games Seattle.
  • Eye of Osiris — More Story Games Seattle fun. What’s a sure sign that dabbling in Egyptian mysticism has gotten out of hand? When you look up and see a beetle pushing the sun across the sky. Over New York. And then the hounds of Anubis come looking to weigh your living heart…

If you’ve got a Kingdom game report you want to share, post a link in the comments.

Kingdom on IPR & Amazon

Kingdom is now also available through Indie Press Revolution and Amazon. Amazon is actually out of stock (already) but there are more on the way to their warehouse. And of course you can always buy the book or PDF direct.

Indie Press Revolution distributes to various cool Friendly Local Game Stores, so if you want to see Kingdom on the shelves, let your Friendly Local Game Staff know they should order it. They’re not mind readers: they would love to know what you want them to stock.

“Unpredictability is Key”

In Microscope, the sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next is provided by the simple fact that humans are unpredictable, and your fellow players are human.

Spot on.

Brain Trust

I was very lucky making Kingdom. Not only did I have a horde of playtesters with appetites like feral cats (a good thing) but I had a rock solid brain trust: Caroline Hobbs, Marc Hobbs and Pat Kemp.

It’s not just that I played a lot of great Kingdom games with them — though I definitely did. It’s that as Kingdom slowly and carefully evolved through versions one, two, three, four and five (and all the tiny sub-variations within each of those main versions), they provided sage counsel and carefully considered reflection about the direction the game was taking.

As a game designer, it’s extremely valuable to have people who truly understand what you’re trying to do with the game — particularly when you aren’t there yet. They aren’t just giving advice that would make your game better in some universal sense, they’re trying to give advice that would make it be a better version of the game you’re trying to make.

See the difference? It’s critical. That’s what makes them the Brain Trust.

Introductions all around:

Caroline did the fantastic art that graces Kingdom, but did you know that over at Underwater Madness she paints funny and/or deeply bitter portraits of sea creatures in adult situations? It’s SFW. Mostly.

Marc and Caroline design story games together (and sometimes separately) under the Less Than Three Games label. If Marc has a heart he’ll finish a version of Eden that you can try. We taught bears to murder and earned the respect of snakes because we showed we could lie.

Pat makes games of the computer species. You can play a few of his creations at patkemp.com. Particularly check out Love Letter because it is super sweet. All three of them are also pillars of Story Games Seattle, but that goes without saying.

I can’t tell you how many polite conversations over the last few years were interrupted by me saying, apropos of nothing, “So, Kingdom question…” and then rattling off some esoteric tweak in the rules that no sane person would notice. Caroline, Marc and Pat were always on it.