Nail Your Setup

One of my game design theories is that if you nail the setup, the rest of the game flows even if there aren’t a lot of constraints telling you what to do.

Conversely, if your setup is wobbly, you can have all the structure in the world and it won’t save the game. You’ll be constantly trying to correct your course.

If we understand the premise, we know what to do. If the game helps us start with clear themes, settings, characters, relationships and situations that we all understand and embrace, the fun follows.

Nail your setup.

Ben Robbins | January 18th, 2021 | ,

First Rule of Gaming

My first rule of role-playing games is to care more about the people at the table than the story.

The players matter more than the fiction. The danger is getting caught up in the wonderful story and forgetting that.

Ben Robbins | December 28th, 2020 | ,

Late to the Kingdom

I’ve been hearing from a bunch of people who missed the Kickstarter for the new edition Kingdom. Which is not surprising, given all the chaos and distraction in the world.

But there is no way I’m letting 2020 keep people from getting in on the fun as soon as possible. So I added an option to pre-order Kingdom, which lets you download the advance version of the rules immediately.

Which means you can play K2, right now. Because gaming for everyone.

Ben Robbins | November 9th, 2020 | ,

Kingdomon (part 2), Launching Into Legacy

Last day of the Kickstarter, so of course it’s time to take a break from prepping the advance release for backers to talk more about our Pokemon-inspired Kingdom Legacy campaign. Catch up on part 1 first.

Our game ends and we sit basking in the afterglow. “Soooooo,” I drawl with false casualness, “if you guys are up for it, we could keep exploring our world with this new thing I’ve been working on…”

Legacy had never been tried before. This was raw alpha playtest. But brave gamers are brave souls, so when I described the new Kingdom Legacy rules, Al, Caroline, and Marc were all in. Because they know fortune favors the bold.

In a nutshell, Legacy lets you play the same Kingdom at different points in its history so you see how your community evolves over time. Plus it’s got that sweet Microscope-y goodness in that you don’t have to play in chronological order: you can jump back and explore the past just as easily as the future.

We already had our starting point, the K-TWO organization that managed Kingdomon tournaments, so the next step would be to make two more eras.

First we decide we want some cyberpunk future, where young rebels use Kingdomon to fight authority. Light cycles, neon skyscrapers, thought-police, the works. Our last game ended with the Kingdomon bowing before their new Empurress (yeah, she merged with a cat-Kingdomon — sorry, the puns aren’t over yet!), so for this new era we decided to double-down and go completely God-Emperor of Dune: it is hundreds of years later and the immortal Empurress has reshaped society. She has hidden the Kingdomon away from human eyes, so much so that the vast majority of people don’t even know Kingdomon exist. People just go about their lives in the sprawling metropolis that has risen where K-TWO once stood. But our rebel underground knows the truth and have a few liberated Kingdomon on our side. We’re going to take the Empurress down and bring Kingdomon back to the world! Go Team Defiant!

But that’s not the Kingdom era we decide to play (at least not until muuuuch later). Instead we go in the exact opposite direction and dive back to the very dawn of human/Kingdomon relations…

Our Second Era: Kin Je’do, In Harmony with Nature

One of the ideas that I always thought made Pokemon more interesting than the average pocket-monster brand is that, in the Pokemon world, there are no other animals: the Pokemon are the animals. To study them is to study nature. It’s a bold design choice with a lot of implications.

Our world used the same principle: there are only humans and Kingdomon. And since Kingdomon and our relationship to them was central to the concept of our game, every time we made a new era of our history we would ask ourselves, okay, what’s different (or the same) about the human/Kingdomon dynamic now? If K-TWO was the era when we trained Kingdomon to fight in tournaments, we decided this was the era when we tried to live in harmony with Kingdomon. They were friends, not servants.

Centuries before the K-TWO’s Cloud Arena loomed over the countryside, these mountains and bamboo forests were practically untouched wilderness, teeming with wild Kingdomon. And in that peaceful splendor sat Kin Je’do, a community of scholars dedicated to understanding the Kingdomon and finding harmony between humanity and nature. Kin Je’do scholars meditate by the same springs that the elite trainers of K-TWO hold sacred far, far in the future (and yep, the Sacred Springs was a location in our first game and lots of other eras that followed).

And I say Kingdomon but I should say Je’do, because we decide that in ancient times that’s what they were called: Je’do. The Kin part of our name stands for “kinship”, so the future word “kingdomon” is really derived from this place. Kin Je’do => Kingdo => Kingdomon. It’s the ancient seat of Je’do lore that paves the way for all the Kingdomon science and training in the future, the great great great great (great) grandparent of K-TWO.

This is super olden days. No cars or telephones, just swords and robes and calligraphy scrolls. But there are no swords in Kin Je’do, because it’s truly a beautiful, peaceful academic commune…

But of course the second we make Threats, we unwittingly lay the seeds of our own destruction. We decide one of the things we’re worried about is a distant Warlord who is trying to harness Je’do as beasts of labor and war. Very distant! But who do you think winds up smack in the middle of Crossroads one, two, and three? Go on, take a wild guess.

Each Crossroad brings the Warlord one step closer. First we’re just deciding whether to (politely) turn away a visiting scholar secretly in his pay, who might be trying to learn our Je’do secrets. Then it’s whether we hand over the massive crystal we find that might be a key to controlling Je’do. Until finally — inevitably — the question becomes: do we use the Je’do to fight. Because now the Warlord’s army is on our doorstep, having marched towards us game after game, conquering all the lands in between.

Yep that’s right, do we do the very thing we were afraid the Warlord was going to do and exploit our lovely nature friends in order to fight him off? Talk about becoming what you hate. Not to mention that the idea of sending the Je’do into battle foreshadows our entire future culture of tournament combat. Is this when it all starts?

The bad news is, we do it. We send the Je’do into battle. But we still lose. The Warlord’s banners fly over conquered Kin Je’do.

But not before we see the biggest Je’do ever, a magnificent nature-kaiju like something straight out of Princess Mononoke. But as weary old Elspa, the teahouse matron (and Touchstone), sadly reflects as she is led away in chains, we failed the Je’do and proved ourselves unworthy, which is why their mightiest did not save us. We did not deserve them…

Next up: “Yeah that Kingdomon sure is swell, but who are you taking to the prom?!?”, or “At least we’ll all get high schools named after us.”

Ben Robbins | October 13th, 2020 | , ,

Kingdomon: You Must Acquire Them All!

Caroline has a theory that all games can be used to play Pokemon. Or more accurately, role-play in a Pokemon setting. So when Caroline, Marc, Al, and I sat down (virtually) to play some Kingdom earlier this year, I thought, yeah sure. I’m not as big of a Pokemon fan as soooome people at the table, but I thought it could work okay.

Little did I know that this would be the start of an epic saga, thanks to the new Kingdom Legacy rules. Over the last eight months we’ve played nearly 30 games, jumping across four different eras of our Kingdom (so far) and playing a huge cast of characters. And we’re not even close to calling it quits.

Our First Era: K-TWO, “I teach you and you’ll behave”

We didn’t start off planning to use the Legacy rules: I hadn’t even finished writing them yet. We just created a normal Kingdom with the intent to play a few sessions and then wrap up, as you do.

In our Pokemon-inspired but not-actually-Pokemon world, we decided our Kingdom would be the organization that runs the regional tournaments. And because some people at our (virtual) table really love a good pun, we decided to call the critters Kingdomon instead of Pokemon. And our organization is the Kingdomon Tournament World Organization, or K-TWO. Get it? K2? Again because certain players love a good pun. But never fear, dear reader: meta-puns and inside jokes aside, this is not a spoof or satire. Not even slightly. Our game, as it unfolds, is pretty darn serious.

There’s a line in the Pokemon theme song “You teach me and I’ll teach you”. But in our version the line was “I teach you and you’ll behave” (yes, we made our own reskinned theme song, with complete lyrics, once things got rolling). This idea turned out to be surprisingly prophetic, foreshadowing a central theme of our game, both in our relationships with the Kingdomon and with each other. It was a theme that echoed across our story.

In K-TWO, powerful new species of Kingdomon emerge and threaten the status quo of the entire tournament system, forcing us to grapple with some fundamental questions. What defines a “good” trainer? Is it winning at any cost, or is it how you treat your Kingdomon? Do we stick to the rules, even if that means we lose in the face of these powerful new Excelsiors and Phenomenon, or do we throw tradition aside and embrace *profit*? And would Intern Jake (Caroline) actually get more work done if he got that sweet Statrat he keeps asking for?

Kingdomon Spotsprint

You know what you get when you play with artists like Al Lukehart? Amazing drawings of their favorite Kingdomon, like the elusive Spotsprint.

By our third Crossroad it looked like we were headed towards a pretty catastrophic ending. Dangerous monsters on the outside, personal strife and scheming on the inside. Disaster seemed unavoidable, for both the Kingdom and our characters.

But then, at the very last moment, some scenes surprised us. As we role-played, characters unexpectedly opened up and remembered what they really cared about, like family and friends, or why they wanted to be trainers in the first place. It was a wonderfully bittersweet and personal turnaround.

All except one character, who kept her eye on the apocalyptic prize: while everyone else was getting in touch with their feelings and mending fences, dethroned PR Exec Kimi (Marc) turned her back on middle-management and embraced her inner cultist, mystically merging with a Phenomenon to transform herself into the new godlike ruler of *all* Kingdomon. She tamed the wild Excelsiors and Phenomenon that threatened the world but also supplanted trainers’ bonds to their Kingdomon, simultaneously saving but also effectively destroying our Kingdom.

It felt like a great and satisfying end point to the story of these characters. But we didn’t want to stop. If anything we were even more excited about the world we’d made and wanted to do more with it.

Hmmm, if only there was some way we could do that…

Next up: We leap into Legacy mode and decide whether to explore the past or the future of our Kingdom

Ben Robbins | October 11th, 2020 | , ,

Making Characters: The Fine Art of (Not) Fitting In

Taking a break from my kickstarter (and the worrrrrrlllldd) to talk about a character creation trick that’s extremely applicable to Kingdom, but also applies to a whole host of other games.

Say you’re playing a game (like Kingdom) where the characters are supposed to all be part of the same organization or group. Naturally you should make someone who fits that organization. If you’re part of a school of wizards, you should make a wizard, right? If we’re rebels, make someone who has feelings about the rebellion.

Making someone who fits in is easy. But you can make more interesting characters — and shine light on the core themes of your game — by making someone who *does not* fit in perfectly. Try this trick:

You might do this all by yourself, or you could talk about it as a group and agree what the core tenets of your organization would be, because they’re probably going to be important themes of your game.

Here’s an example from a Kingdom game we played back at Story Games Seattle: the Royal Empirical Society, a prestigious fraternity of scientists and scholars in late 19th century Britain. The three traits were 1) science! 2) very British, the pride of the nation, and 3) very aristocratic, all about class and position.

So the ideal rank and file member is an upper class British scientist. But instead, you could make characters like:

If you do it as a group, you can each pick a different theme for your character, and then have a fourth character that *does* check every box and fits in perfectly, because that’s good contrast. And if you look at that more closely, it doesn’t create three misfits and one who’s perfect. Instead every time your story focuses on one of those key issues, everybody fits except one character. I may not be a scientist, but all three other characters are. You may not be aristocratic, but all three other characters are.

No matter which of the three issues we’re touching upon at the moment, the burning spotlight singles out *someone*. It either questions their membership in the group, or it questions whether that issue is something the group is serious about. And that’s good character-centric story.

Ben Robbins | October 5th, 2020 | , ,