Kingdom Duet

Given all the chaos in the world, I’m keeping the K2 playtest open for the foreseeable future. Don’t worry about any deadlines right now, just play and have fun. If you have feedback or posted about your game somewhere, send it my way. But again: just play and have fun.

Lots of people have jumped in with all sorts of backgrounds, including many who have played the original Kingdom and many who have not. That broad range of experience makes for a much better playtest, so if you’re new to Kingdom (or story games in general) and want to join in, don’t be shy!

Several eagle-eyed players have noticed that while the text says that there are special rules in the back for playing Kingdom with only two-players, there are in fact no special rules in the back for playing Kingdom with only two-players. Yep, my bad.

The good news is that adjusting Kingdom for only two players is pretty easy. Same rules as normal, except:

And you might be thinking, wait a minute, there are three Roles. If there are only two main characters, will one Role always be empty?!? And yes, you’d be exactly right. That can happen in any game of Kingdom but it will always happen in a two-player game. What you chose to control and what you leave up to fate is up to you. The good news is the mechanics are weighted so that the fewer players there are, the less likely you are to have something unpredictable and bad happen because no one is covering that aspect of the Kingdom. With two-players you incur bad-random things only half the time.

When I made Kingdom way back when, I really didn’t think it would work as a two-player game, but when I actually played it was surprisingly fun. So give it a shot!

Ben Robbins | April 30th, 2020 | , | 3 comments

Grand Experiments: Bloody Morder

I’ve seen strangely proud GM’s say “oooh that game was so intense a character jumped off a cliff to escape THE HORROR!” But here’s my question: the player is deciding what the character does, so is that player responding to the fiction or the GM? Is this the dramatic moment of despair the GM proudly claims or the player rebelling against the GM’s scenario and saying “I’m out, bee-yatch!”?

Everything we do in games is a mix of those two forces, our reactions to the other players and our reactions to the fiction. Sometimes more of one, sometimes more of the other.*

Which brings us to story time. Get your hot cocoa and snuggle up by the fire, because we’re going to set the way back machine for 30 years and talk about an old D&D game, as we do.

This was a one-shot game, though it wound up taking two sessions for reasons you’ll see. It was set in a big campaign world I had been running for a decade, so it was a well-established setting the players were very familiar with, but these were separate characters and story not connected to other games in the world.

The set up was the classic “haunted castle on the hill”. Castle Morder has sat empty and abandoned for lo these many years, after tragedy befell the last lord a generation ago. Rumors of dark curses and strange doings plagued the family name. The villagers call the place “Bloody Morder” in hushed tones, because apparently fearful villagers enjoy a good pun.

I didn’t say it outright, but I telegraphed pretty hard that I was taking the original Castle Ravenloft module and just filing the serial numbers off. “Here thar be vampires”. The villagers certainly expected something traditional like that. Which is scary, because in old D&D vampires (and all level draining undead) are no joke. The players are understandably cautious, loading up on all their best undead slaying equipment: holy water, wooden spikes, the works. They’re only around 5th level, so it’s dicey, but they’re smart and resourceful and the riches of the Morder nobles await them!

Except… it’s a total red herring, because I’m a monster. All the rumors about dark family secrets are true, except the curse is a lot less Count Dracula and a lot more Shadow Over Innsmouth. Castle Morder sits on a cliff looking over the sea and oh yeah, ancestral lords heard the siren call of strange things from beneath the waves and you bet their bloodline is tainted with fishy monster mating. Morder nobles dabbled in the occult, exploiting the gifts of their bloodline to summon strange things not meant to exist in this realm, making Castle Morder a dangerous nexus for all sorts of unspeakable non-Euclidean argle bargle. When the last lord of Morder came of age and learned the truth, he tried to turn his back on his birthright and flee far away, but in end could not resist the call and returned to his doom. Poor guy!

So that’s the scenario the characters are walking into, and they have no idea I’ve switched genres on them. It’s proper Lovecraft in D&D, back when Cthulhu was exotic and scary, not an adorable plushy or a bedtime story. Which I figure will lead to some genuinely creepy horror reveals. And it does! Yay! The players are genuinely freaked out and feeling very doomed and out of their depths.

But first something else happens.

Pretty early on they get in the castle and find a crazed hermit / sage who’s come here to delve into the secrets of the place. He has already figured out way too much for his own good, hence the crazed part, so he raves at our heroes about the terrible, unspeakable things lurking in the bowels of the castle and the terrible, unspeakable things the Morder line did to get them there. He’s mister exposition.

And then… one of the heroes kills him. Just jumps up, out of the blue, cuts the old man down mid-conversation (the hermit did not have a lot of hit points), and then declares “okay well that solves that, he was the problem so we’re all done”. And the party rides away. Game (apparently) over.

Which is interesting, because even in the moment, it clearly makes no sense. The player whose character did the slaying is, I know, a smart person. There is no way *he* thinks it makes sense that killing the hermit will fix anything. The second it happens, I have no doubt that the player is saying “nope, don’t want any of what you’re selling” and is trying to short-circuit the scenario. It’s a reaction to me, the GM inflicting the plot, not the fiction itself.

It would have been great if the player had had the *character* decide to kill the guy, with the character knowing it wasn’t solving anything, but doing it to just get out of the situation. The panicked, irrational action of a scared human. But it wasn’t. This was a player rebelling against the GM (me) and my clever plot.

When something like that happens, it’s a pretty good sign that your group is not on stable ground. Buy a magazine rack, because you’ve got issues. Personal conflicts or tension are jumping up and down on the shared fiction. Your players are in revolt, and maybe they have good reason to be. In this case though… no one else felt that way. It was really just one player. Everyone else went along with riding away, because plot-hook/information guy was already dead and they didn’t know what else to do. But they were a bit deflated. The game had been very effectively sabotaged.

Why didn’t I prevent the murder? Wave my GM hand to make the guy survive or escape somehow? Because that actually would be terrible. The players get to decide what they do. That’s the whole point of it being a game, for better or worse. In this case you could argue I would have been protecting the fun of everyone else from one rogue player, but well, I didn’t, so that’s another discussion.

Which would be a fine place to end this anecdote, because it demonstrates this lesson about interpersonal dynamics. But the game did not end there. They’re just riding away, bored and little bummed, heading back to a city and camping each night, and we’re still playing. At first they’re just going along with it but at some point maybe they’re wondering why we’re still playing, since the adventure is clearly over.

And then the visions start.

Because what they didn’t know is that as soon as they started poking around the castle their precious precious brains came in contact with the same unspeakable horrors the hermit saw/felt/was consumed by. And now it’s happening to them too. Burning congeries and astral vistas sing to their dreams.

And then it sidles into their waking world. They no longer feel quite right in their bodies. At one point a character reaches for a stick and is startled to see he has five fingers. It feels… wrong.

They go to priests and sages, seek assistance, but the answers are the same: they’re linked to whatever lurks beneath Castle Morder, more and more day by day, and distance makes no difference because this is astral entities and dreams and whatnot. But now instead of “oh we’re in the castle let’s solve this problem”, our heroes have spent days and days riding away, feeling their sanity erode, only to realize they have to ride all the way back to save themselves, before they become something that doesn’t want to be saved. Whoopsy!

Did I not care that they rebelled against the plot and tried to ride off into the sunset because I knew it wouldn’t work? Maybe. Would I have reacted differently if it had been a normal game and they could have just walked away? I hope not. But this is ten years before I made West Marches, so who knows.

Either way, by the time our heroes made it back to Castle Morder to confront their fates, the players had 100% bought into the fiction. And this time it was awesome.


*You could include a third element, our reaction to the rules, because a lot of systems reward some choices more than others.

Ben Robbins | April 2nd, 2020 | , ,

Story Games Online: What I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve spent most of my life playing roleplaying games at the table, in person. I’ve only started playing online much in the last few years, so I’m no expert, but here are some things I’ve learned so far.

I follow the “simpler is better” approach with technology. I want no bells and whistles, unless those bells and whistles are doing something useful. The simpler your technology, the less likely you are to waste a bunch of time sorting out connection or UI problems when you could be playing. I measure an app by how much you don’t notice it and it doesn’t get in your way. Technical hurdles kill the fun.

When we play online, we use just two tech components:

  1. Video chat (Skype, FaceTime, Google chat, whatever)
  2. A shared text document that everyone can see in their web browser and edit (usually Google docs but many alternatives could work)

The games we’re playing don’t have complex graphics like battlemaps that need to be shared so that’s all it takes. And there’s no need to use the same platform for both: just because we’re using Google for our shared text doesn’t mean we need to use Google for video.

Anything that can be handled offline, is. I might be reading the rules from a physical book or a PDF I have up on my screen, but we don’t need the rules to be shared onscreen. If I want to send players handouts or summaries, those can go out in email/messages/chat/etc (however you normally communicate with these people when you’re not playing). If there are sections I want people to see or read aloud to explain the game, I just copy and paste them into the shared doc, have someone read it, and then delete it or move it to the bottom to get it out of the way.

Take Kingdom for example. All the notes about the Kingdom we’re creating, all the characters, and all the Crossroads are in one document. No fancy formatting, just barebones text so everyone can see it. Some simple indenting to group information, some bold or all caps to highlight sections or character names — that’s it. It’s basically a lot like what we’d be scribbling on paper if we were all sitting at the table. Keep the important stuff together. Move secondary information to the bottom of the doc as you play so everyone has to scroll back and forth less.

Put player names in a clear turn order, top to bottom. Since you aren’t seated around a table and everyone is seeing video tiles in potentially a different arrangement, there is no “player to your left or right”. The person below you in the list is the next player and to your left at the table.

Everyone should wear headphones, even if you don’t have a headset with a microphone. Otherwise what you say is more likely to cut out and get clipped, because your microphone turns off when someone else talks to prevent feedback. Yes that’s right, you wearing headphones makes it easier for other people to hear you.

One nice video chat feature is being able to put banners with character names along the bottom of each person’s window (and player name, if you’re gaming with strangers) to take the place of tent cards at the table, but we don’t always have that.

Technology aside, the big issue is that gaming online has a very, very different social dynamic than gaming face-to-face. A ton of the normal cues that we gather from seeing and hearing someone are imperceptible. It takes some getting used to.

However many people you think would be good to have in a scene, reduce that number when you’re playing online. Even two people having a reasonable dialog can be challenging. Keep an eye on your own speech patterns and try to introduce reasonable pauses so other people can interject or get a word in edgewise. Casual banter where characters interrupt each other naturally is much harder online. Pause and invite others to participate, particularly people who have been quiet for a while. Maybe they’re having a fine time, or maybe they’re feeling totally shut out. The games we play give all players designated turns to lead the story or set scenes, so that ensures some participation.

It can be rocky getting online gaming started, but the good news is that once you get your system figured out the second time with the same group is generally much easier. I’ve had some pretty great online games so I know it is possible, you just need to be aware of the pitfalls and watch out for each other.

Got tricks or tips? Share them in the comments.

Ben Robbins | March 28th, 2020 | , , | 9 comments

Kingdom Playtest Wants You

I played another sweet, sweet game of Kingdom last night, convincing me beyond a shadow of a doubt that the new edition is ready for external playtesting. That means you!

Want in? Email me at kingdom-playtest at or leave a comment here. There’s a hidden comment field for your email address that I can see but which won’t be displayed to the public. Clever!

Time to play!

Ben Robbins | March 1st, 2020 | , | 102 comments

Kingdom, Second Edition

I’ve had a second edition of Kingdom simmering for a while now and it’s finally in a place I’m really happy with. It’s looking very good.

I love playing Kingdom. Love it. My hit rate for engaging and dramatic sessions with Kingdom has always been very, very high. The game itself is great. But the rules text? Not so much. I don’t think the rules as written present the game in a simple and clear way, and there are just too many wooooords.

Over the years I’ve made small updates and patches, but there is no substitute for going in with a machete and revising the whole text. So that’s what I did. My goals were laser-focused:

In other words, a leaner, meaner, easier Kingdom. A text that reflects the game it has always been. Are there rule changes as part of this cleanup? Yes, definitely. The heart and soul of the game is fundamentally the same but the devil is in the details. I’ll dig more into specific rule changes later.

The net result is that the rules are half as long as they used to be. HALF. It takes a lot more work to write shorter and smarter, but the players reap the rewards at the table because you have less to read to learn the game and less to flip through to find what you’re looking for. Exactly enough to tell players what they need to know: no more and no less. And it looks damn good too.

I’ve already been playtesting iterations of the new Kingdom for the last year, so now that the text is cleaned up the next step is external playtesting, sending the new version to outside groups to try out. Stay tuned…

Ben Robbins | February 18th, 2020 | , | 8 comments


“That feeling when you revise your rules and cut your page count IN HALF.”

Spoiler alert: Kingdom, 2nd Edition, is in the works.

Kingdom Second Edition

Ben Robbins | February 14th, 2020 | , | 5 comments