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 | , , | show 2 comments