The Sword of Thanormyr

I’ve been playtesting Marc’s game Epitaph for years. It’s finally available on Kickstarter, which means soon you can play it too!

If you look at the Kickstarter page, you can see the story of “Cyrna of Thanormyr” is one of the graphics. That’s one of the games I was in, but trimmed down and simplified to make a good example. One of the big draws of Epitaph is that you can explore “ordinary” lives, or stories of normal human drama in ways that are really engaging. This was not that game. We were all about the swords and magic, honor and bad choices.

At the start of our game, a noble warrior dies fighting to win back her ancestral home and title. Boom, dead. But because this is Epitaph, her death is just the beginning of her story. We’re going to spend the whole game going back and exploring her life, figuring out what made her tick and what drove her to this end.

Fighting to win back your ancestral home… very heroic stuff, right? But almost immediately we decide, no, she did not succeed. Cyrna of Thanormyr, died without winning Thanormyr back. And she died by the sword, fighting her rival in the very ancestral hall she wanted to take back.

Oooo, not a happy ending for our hero. That rival sounds like a jerk. But at least Cyrna died fighting for what she believed in, right? Right?!?!?!

And here we have one of the things I really enjoy about Epitaph. At this point in the game, I’m thinking to myself “that makes sense, I can see how she got from A to B.” BUT OF COURSE I’M TOTALLY WRONG. Because that’s the point of play. As each player takes their turns and adds more pieces to the puzzle, the story goes in unexpected directions and develops all sorts of interesting wrinkles. None of us quite know how the truth is going to unfold.

For example, it gets established very quickly that by the time Thanormyr was lost, it wasn’t hers to lose. Cyrna had already chosen to leave her family behind and live life as a mercenary soldier of fortune.

And no, Sule (the rival who ultimately kills her) was basically a pretty great friend who Cyrna could never quite open up to, so over the years they went their separate ways. Sule’s life went up, while Cyrna’s life went down down down.

How far down? Cyrna’s rockbottom moment of clarity comes many wars later, after she’s reduced to being little more than a brigand and outlaw leader, cutting down her own followers in cold blood to maintain her uneasy authority.

And how far up does Sule go? Well by the time Cyrna fights her in her old ancestral home, Sule has risen to be the champion, the sword of Thanormyr. That’s right: Sule is the chosen warrior-knight of the realm — Cyrna’s realm, and the position Cyrna would have had — while Cyrna is a paid assassin, a killer bought with a purse of gold to challenge Sule to a public duel and slay her to undermine the realm. Turns out that’s Cyrna’s version of winning back her rightful place. It is all kinds of bitter, messed up, frenemy vengeance.

None of us started the game thinking that’s how her story would unfold, but that’s exactly what’s cool about Epitaph: we know how the story ends, but we are still surprised and fascinated by what we create together.

I didn’t even mention the part where Cyrna had different animal companions reflecting different phases of her life (much respect, murderous mountain panther). Guess what animal was by her side at the end, when she takes the gold and challenges Sule?


Ben Robbins | September 17th, 2020 | ,

Kingdom Kickstarter Coming In September

Wait, it’s September now? I better get busy.

My plan is to launch the Kickstarter for the new edition of Kingdom on September 22. Of course it is 2020, which means anything that can go wrong will, but that’s my plan so set your alarms.

I’m also gathering testimonials and quotes from people who have played Kingdom. That could be you! Doesn’t have to be long, just your honest feelings about your experiences playing that you’re willing to have me broadcast to the whole wide world. You can leave comments here or email kingdom-playtest at

And then while the Kickstarter runs its course I’ll be putting the finishing touches on the book. Polishing and revising and polishing and revising and polishing and revising…

Ben Robbins | September 6th, 2020 | ,

K2 Playtest Ends September 15

After six months of great games, it’s time to wrap up the Kingdom playtest!

I’ve gotten a lot of excellent feedback already, but if you’ve got more, now’s the time to let me know! Playtesters, try to send me what you’ve got by September 15. And don’t forget to include the names of everyone you played with so I can include them in the credits.

Next up: Kickstarter…

Ben Robbins | August 27th, 2020 | ,

All We Have To Decide

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring. But you already knew that.

Ben Robbins | August 6th, 2020 | , | 2 comments

Your Kingdom’s Legacy

I sent out the June update of the Kingdom playtest a few weeks ago. The vast majority is the same as the previous version, except for the Touchstone changes I already talked about and some clarified language. But tucked in the back is a brand new thing that I’ve been keeping under wraps: Kingdom Legacy.

Legacy is an optional mode that expands your Kingdom into an entire history of your community. Instead of just exploring your Kingdom as it is now, these rules let you build the past and future of your institution and then jump back and forth and play in all those different eras. Sure your fabled school is wizardry is lovely and prestigious now, but how was it founded? And what happens when magic is outlawed and sorcerers are hounded from civilized lands? You can make those eras and play to find out. It brings some Microscope’y goodness into your game, but instead of just “now play some Microscope” it takes the core principles but applies them in ways that are a better fit for Kingdom.

You build each era much like a separate game of Kingdom, with its own cast of characters and Crossroads that unfold. But each time you finish a Crossroad or Crisis, you take a step back and decide whether there is a new era you should add to your Kingdom’s history to flesh out the story more, then you pick any of the eras to jump back in and continue play. Rinse, repeat.

You might never play in some of the eras you create. And that’s fine. But even if you spent your whole game playing in one era, just like a normal Kingdom game, merely creating other eras and declaring what the Kingdom was/will be like changes how you see the story. If you know that in the future your rebellion does overthrow the government but gets bogged down in its own temptations, that’s going to change the way you see everything that happens as you valiantly fight for freedom. Knowing the past or future adds delicious layers to your thinking. It puts everything that happens in a richer context.

GMless story games are notorious for being one-shot or just a few sessions long. You don’t see a lot of long-form campaign play. Before now, I think the longest GMless game I ever played was seven sessions. Compare that to our current Kingdom Legacy game, where we just played our 18th game with no sign of stopping. We had no plans to play this long but this story has got its hooks in us. Is that because of this new Legacy structure? Yes, absolutely. The first era of our Kingdom was great and had a lovely stopping point and normally that would have been the whole game, but because of the Legacy rules we kept building and now we just leaped into our third era of play.

Am I calling it Kingdom Legacy as a riff on Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy, or all the other “single session board games turned into campaign games”? Yep, exactly. Much like Microscope, you really could just keep exploring all the different phases of one Kingdom and never end your game. When the story in one era comes to a nice dramatic conclusion, that’s awesome, you just explore another part of the Kingdom’s history.

It’s also fascinating to see how the dynamics between the players change every time we start a new era and make a whole new batch of characters. Last time you and I were political rivals plotting each others’ downfall, but in this era our new characters are sweethearts just trying to make their love last! Sure having different character relationships with the same player happens when you play multiple games, but it feels special here because all these characters are part of the same larger story. We’re having fun taking turns wearing different hats.

Ben Robbins | July 19th, 2020 | ,

The Trouble With Touchstones

I am very happy with how the Kingdom second edition playtest is going. Kingdom has always been a fantastic game and the new version does a much better job of capturing that magic.

But dear reader, let me tell you a secret: the Touchstone rules have been my cross to bear. A game design thorn in my metaphorical side for lo these many years.

The principle of Kingdom is simple: Power tells the community what to do, Perspective foresees the consequences, and Touchstone tells us how the people feel. The rules for Power and Perspective have always been solid, but in the first edition Touchstone always felt just a little bit weak. A little too easy to ignore. And I think that’s because of two mistakes I made, which are kind of interesting in hindsight.

The first mistake is that I included mechanics that overshadowed fiction. One of the things Touchstone can do is check Crisis more often than other players. But checking a Crisis box is abstract until there’s an actual Crisis. What does it mean? What does that check tell us about what’s happening in the fiction? Touchstone can also describe how people feel (as I’ll get into next) but because checking a box is a clear concrete thing, it becomes the focus of attention, overshadowing the cool stuff the player describes.

At the start of this new edition, I tried to solve a separate problem of Touchstone’s abilities being linked to that particular player’s turn by allowing Touchstone to check Crisis on any turn, not just their own. Which does solve the timing problem, but if anything it puts even more focus on Crisis checks, which makes things more abstract, less rooted in the fiction. No good.

The second mistake is that even though when Touchstone describes how they personally feel it immediately means that’s how the people of the Kingdom feel too, we don’t actually see other people feeling that way. This is actually a pitfall in lots of games: stating that something is true without actually showing it or making it part of the fiction only has a very tenuous impact on play. We can say we’re a society with lots of injustices, but until we see some actual examples it may not really stick in our minds.

So how am I fixing all this?

To address the second point first, when Touchstone describes how they feel, they can now immediately describe seeing other people in the community acting on those same feelings. The hypothetical popular reaction is now shown and made part of the undeniable fiction. We see people marching in the street or cheering the new laws.

Another small but surprisingly important change is that Touchstone now also marks which side of the Crossroad they prefer. It seems trivial, but with so much going on, having a simple marker to remind everyone what the people want is a very useful. Perspective has always had the advantage of having their predictions down on paper, in sight and in mind, and now Touchstone benefits from a little bit of that too.

The other fix is that, starting with the upcoming June K2 draft, I’m removing Touchstone’s special ability to check Crisis during scenes & reactions entirely. Whaaat? I know, right? Touchstone still gets to drop Crisis bombs when the Crossroad is resolved, but during scenes they check Crisis like everyone else.

On paper it may seem like that weakens Touchstone, but by removing the mechanical checks, but I think it puts the focus back on the fiction. Touchstone can instantly define the heart and souls of the people of our Kingdom. That’s their real function, and it’s a powerful narrative ability. This also lines Touchstone up much more perfectly with the way the other roles work, if you stop and compare them.

So heads up playtesters! When your get the new draft, try it out and tell me how it goes.

Ben Robbins | June 21st, 2020 | , , | 2 comments