K2: The Price of Overthrow

Game design journal time!

In Kingdom, overthrowing another character and taking their role away falls into that most pernicious category of game rules, “things that rarely happen but are very important”.

Which are, my friends, one of the trickiest species of rules. The rule is important, so it has to be robust and fulfill its purpose, but since it comes up infrequently (or never) you may wonder why you’re putting so much effort into it at all. And it’s harder to playtest, because it comes up less often.

As anyone playing Kingdom already knows, a core premise is that all the players have equal ability to influence the story, even if your role means you have totally different tools to work with. If you’re playing Touchstone you move the story very differently than if you’re playing Power, etc., but you’re both moving the story in ways that matter. And therefore, in theory, every time you change roles you’re just changing *how* you influence the story, not *how much* you can influence the story.

When someone overthrows you and takes away your role, you aren’t being robbed of your seat at the table, because you immediately take another role. You aren’t losing your voice you’re just being forced to pivot to a different kind of contribution. But it’s still a dramatic moment in the game and a big shift in dynamic between the players. I probably *wanted* the role I had, and now I have to adjust to playing something else.

So sometimes there’s going to be hell to pay.

The Price(s)

So what are the checks & balances on overthrows? There are several actually. The first and simplest is that the person overthrowing has to take that role for themself. If you want to stop Perspective you have to become Perspective. But of course if you already have that role this is no price at all.

The second is the overthrow may cause Crisis. The rules ask the players at the table how much they think what happened hurt the Kingdom and increases Crisis that much. This establishes how the Kingdom is reacting to events in the fiction and tells the overthrowing player what the rest of us think. We see the impact on the Kingdom and get the table on the same page.

The third is retaliation. The person you overthrew gets a new role and can immediately use it however they want. Yeah you dethroned the king and took their Power, but now they take Touchstone and the populace misses the sweet sweet monarchy.

All of which is well and good. But there’s a fourth element that I’ve gone back and forth on, and that’s a personal price the overthrower pays. You become department head so now your former coworkers can’t hang out with you anymore. Or you get caught up worrying about the future of the Kingdom so much you don’t pay attention to your husband. Or you storm the castle but take an arrow to the knee, etc. A personal price is cool and interesting fiction.

The price also serves to re-establish emotional balance between the players. Even though the overthrower is taking something from you, they’re also losing something in the process. Which is why the price comes very early in the process, before most of the other checks and balances I described above: by showing the personal price the overthrower pays early on, it reduces everyone’s urge to burn down the Kingdom in retribution, because we’ve already seen the overthrower taking a hit. The whole thing feels more fair.

The question is: who sets the price?

A very logical answer is that it should be the player you overthrow. You’re taking something from them, so they get to establish some price you pay. But it turns out that player is really not in the right state of mind. They’re thinking about their own character being pushed out of their role, so the prices tend to be punitive rather than interesting. You wind up with drastic, apocalyptic outcomes.

So I pivoted and said, well, why not just let the overthrower set their own price? They know what’s interesting about their character and where it would be good for their story to go. After all, the price isn’t really a deterrent, just a prompt to escalate fictional pressure.

That’s where the current version of the rules landed, which is what people are playing right now. And it’s… fine? But not really interesting. The overthrower usually makes something okay but predictable. It doesn’t add that much spice to the story.

Which, to be honest, means it isn’t working.

The Fix

Which leads to the variation I’m playtesting right now. Like all the best fixes, it is a simple and obvious change:

Instead of the overthrower (or the person being overthrown) setting the price, one of the other players who is not involved in the overthrow sets the price.

A neutral third party! I’ve been trying it out and so far it is working great and doing exactly what I wanted, adding interesting wrinkles without being weirdly retaliatory.

If you’re playing K2 right now, try it out!

And yeah, this kind of microscopic analysis goes into just about every part of my games. Even in cases like this where players can play a whole session and never overthrow anyone. Because when it does come up, I want it to work!

    Ben Robbins | February 7th, 2021 | , , | show 3 comments