Category Archives: Spotlight

Kingdom Death

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5 of 7 core monsters with 4 prologue survivors

Though I heard about the first Kingdom Death Kickstarter when it launched in 2012 and adored the aesthetic, A) I do not really play board games and B) I had no experience assembling miniatures. So, I passed. However, after seeing some of the models in the wild, I took advantage of the Black Friday 2015 opportunity and bought a copy of the core game along with the Sunstalker and Flower Knight expansions. The game arrived early January 2016 and then it sat on my shelf unassembled for almost a year. The 1.5 reprint/update Kickstarter prompted me to actually attempt assembly. It took me a few weeks to assemble the four prologue survivors and all the core monsters.

Overview

It is surprisingly hard to find a concise description of the game. Here is my attempt. It is a cooperative campaign board game where four survivors wake up barely clothed in an unlit land. The ground is all stone faces. The survivors hunt monsters for resources and found a settlement near a pile of creepy lanterns. Players grow the settlement, building structures, developing innovations, and reproducing. They stave off inevitable entropy for as long as possible.

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

Male dung beetle dancer pinup concept art

You have to assemble complex components yourself without any official instructions (though the community stepped up enthusiastically to fill this void). The art is beautiful, but the aesthetic includes sexual objectification, gore, and puerile humor that mixes the two. You will need to have friends that are okay with this if you want to play the game with other people. Your survivors start weak and fragile, similar to zero level characters in trad D&D terms. Rule zero of the game is when in doubt, rule against the survivors. Pinups like the one to the right are promotional items, not part of the game. (I am not interested in discussing opinions on the representation of sexuality or objectification in this game.)

Gameplay

Gameplay alternates between tactical combat and settlement building. More specifically, after the first story prologue fight that introduces basic concepts, the cycle is settlement, hunt, and showdown. This cycle constitutes one lantern year (the time it takes one of the creepy settlement lanterns to burn out). A full campaign in the core game is 20 lantern years. I think a reasonable real-world session would be one or two lantern years generally, but I do not yet have extensive experience. During my first play (we were four players), we did the prologue and lantern year one. This took about four hours but included taking cards out of shrink and looking up lots of rules. I think it would be significantly faster the second time. Note that you also have to assemble some miniatures first, though you can get by with only the white lion and four survivors to begin with (see remarks on assembly below).

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Hitting from behind!

Showdown Phase. The showdown phase (where you fight monsters) is straightforward two-dimensional tactical combat. Move some spaces, take an action. The showdown board is small enough that it seems like few turns would be movement-only (I consider this a good thing). Players rotate controlling the monster though the monster controller needs to make few decisions as the monster actions are mostly dictated by an AI deck.

In addition to the AI deck, each monster has a hit location deck which controls various monster reactions. After survivors hit, they must confirm damage as well (accuracy adds to hit, strength adds to confirming hits). I was worried at first that this might result in many turns where engaging multiple resolution systems would lead to no overall effect, but in practice that did not seem to be a problem. A monster-specific resource deck controls the resources that the monster could potentially yield. Actual drops are determined mostly randomly, though some hit locations give access to specific resources. If the survivors defeat the monster, they scavenge resources which can be used to build things during the settlement phase. Some monster fights use terrain pieces to increase the arena complexity. Overall, the tactical combat is simpler than 4E D&D, one of my few points of comparison (I consider this a good thing).

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White Lion monster AI card

Monster AI. The AI deck also doubles as the monster health score which means that the monster actions become less variable and potentially more predicable as survivors wear it down. The AI deck system also means that the same monster can be reconfigured in many ways with differing difficulty. For example, we fought the white lion twice, during the prologue and the first hunt. The AI deck construction was different between those two and the construction incorporated randomness. The lion we hunted (level one) had 7 basic and 3 advanced AI cards, randomly selected (this also meant that it had 10 health, though note that you need one final hit to take a monster down after that total is depleted). For me, the AI deck is probably the most compelling game design I have seen so far in Kingdom Death. It is approachable from a player standpoint but seems to generate a lot of emergent complexity. There are many lessons here for D&D monster design, probably best realizable through sets of tables.

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Hunt board

Hunt Phase. Between settlement phases survivors can go on a hunt, though this is not the only way to encounter monsters (encounters can be caused by settlement events also). The hunt, which hopefully culminates in a showdown (briefly described above) plays out on a one-dimensional track where events occur on the way to the monster. In our first hunt, one of our survivors was terrified to death by the screeching and yowling of a lion in heat so we went into the lantern year one fight with only three combatants. This could mean that one player might be out for the showdown. The game is collaborative enough that it might still be fun, but I am not sure (we did the prologue fight with four players but were down to three anyways for the first hunt and showdown). Our first lion hunt ended in a TPK. Since there are still some other survivors left in our settlement, the TPK is not game over.

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Settlement board

Settlement phase. In some ways the payoff to playing Kingdom Death is the settlement phase. It is sort of like a fun, collaborative, non-homework version of building a character in games that require complicated character builds. However, unlike complex character building, success in the settlement phase depends not on voluminous knowledge of the rules text and combos, but rather on success during previous showdown phases and a few choices about what to prioritize. Also, as discussed below, I think that the settlement is the primary fictional element of play in Kingdom Death, not the survivor. As you can see in the image to the right, the settlement phase also has its own board, which similar to the hunt board is a one-dimensional track that walks players through the procedure.

Prepare to Die

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Defeated by ground fighting (TPK)

The survivor is not the primary element of play in Kingdom Death. The settlement is. When you lose a survivor, that is a setback but the settlement’s remaining population acts as a buffer (and the slain survivor’s gear is not lost but automatically returned to the settlement). As I understand it, settlement wipes are certainly possible (though I do not know how common). If you would be frustrated by such a loss after, say, 20+ hours of in-person play rather than experiencing it as the dark closing chapter of a story to remember, this might not be the game for you.

One strain of traditional D&D play is similar to this approach, where the setting and adventuring party are the first-order units of play and the adventurer is, while not disposable exactly, at least not central. I have run games like this before and participated in them and I think that this approach offers a unique potential for engaging play. In such a game, impartially resolved catastrophic failure is possible but not fatal to the campaign, increasing the potential stakes of decisions. Kingdom Death is a far more focused game than D&D but it provides examples that could be adapted to a D&D game centered around developing a party or settlement. In fact, I do not think it would be that hard to run an OD&D game using many Kingdom Death mechanics directly, perhaps replacing magic items and treasure with resource drops and settlement crafting and adapting monster decks to D&D monsters.

Metaphysically Ambiguous Dark Fantasy

Beyond gameplay though, the aspect of Kingdom Death that originally drew my attention, and sustains my interest, is the aesthetic and setting which reminds me of two of my other favorite fantasy franchises, Berserk and Dark Souls. This is not that surprising, as I understand that Berserk is an explicit influence on the designers of Kingdom Death. These three, Berserk, Dark Souls, and Kingdom Death, make up what is for me a dark fantasy trinity. All three have complex, well-designed, internally consistent worlds with ultimately ambiguous canons. There is enough detail to keep my interest but not so much that the audience ever really knows exactly what is going on.

The world of Kingdom Death is an endless plain of stone faces lit occasionally only by lanterns. Why? Where did the survivors come from? Who knows? Despite the detailed and baroque monster design, all three of these franchises also have an ultimately restrained sensibility that rests more on mythical resonance than raw newness. None of the three franchises are shy about recruiting cliches, but the cliches are never used thoughtlessly and often adjusted (though never entirely subverted, which I also appreciate).

For example, the background text for the Black Knight, previously a collectible model but being developed into a game expansion in the current Kickstarter:

They say if you take a lantern that never lit down the trail of corpses and past the whispering stars you will find an ancient figure atop a crest of determined faces. Treasured by a hidden cult of loyal squires, the figure will awaken for only the most honorable of challengers. For generations, the Black Knight has unknowingly defended a settlement of people hidden in the ruins of its home.

Assembly

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What wraiths look like from now on

These were the first miniatures of any kind that I have ever assembled. As noted above, the mini parts come attached to sprues as cast in the factory and must be clipped out. There are no official instructions, but I found the guidance on Vibrant Lantern satisfactory except for the phoenix and the watcher. I used this one for the phoenix and this one for the watcher (both linked to from Vibrant Lantern). For general advice, I found this conversation useful. Several issues tripped me up that might be obvious to experienced model builders. Below I address some of these issues. Hopefully that will be useful to other gamers with similar levels of experience.

Tools. You need to buy at least two things to assemble the minis: sprue clippers (I got Citadel Fine Detail Cutters, $35) and plastic glue (I used Plasti-Zap, $4). A model file would be helpful to clean up join points but I did without. Another useful tool that I did get was a clamp (Irwin One-Handed 6″ Bar Clamp, $12).

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That’s right, those are all individual hands

Glueing. The plastic glue begins to set quickly as long as you do not jostle the pieces, so the technique I found most useful is to find a way for gravity to hold the parts together so that you can go do something else (the clamp can help with this). To be safe, I generally attach a few parts and then let them fully dry overnight before adding anything else. You can have multiple models in progress, but do not clip parts before you are ready to attach them because it would be easy to mixup or lose parts. Assembly was time consuming in a hurry up and wait manner but not exactly difficult. I found the absurd complexity of the process somehow motivating. I used up a full ⅓ oz bottle of Plasti-Zap to assemble four survivors and all seven of the core monsters, so I would recommend buying more than one bottle of glue.

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The four prologue survivors

Basing. Each mini base is two parts: bottom and inset. The core game comes with a small number of special face inserts. This is just a cosmetic detail, but you will not have enough for all the minis. I used four of them on the prologue survivors. Hopefully, the 1.5 Kickstarter will include an add-on to get more face inserts. See discussion of stone face bases here and here. There is no special correct placement of minis on bases. Just glue them on however looks reasonable.

Gaps. While most of the parts fit together well, if you are anything like me you will still end up with some fit gaps in the assembled models. The phoenix was the biggest offender here (use more clamp, I guess). I have heard good things about Tamiya Basic Type Putty (which is itself gray) and so will likely look better than Green Stuff before painting. I have not used either of those myself yet.

Expansions

I have not yet used any of the expansions in play, but as I understand it several of the expansions offer alternate campaigns (Dragon King, Sunstalker, and Flower Knight) while others offer monsters that can sub in for core game monsters. The Gorm can be hunted early on (otherwise the White Lion is the only monster that can be hunted during the first few lantern years). The Lantern Festival, which was intended to extend a campaign past 20 lantern years, was cancelled because the designer was not satisfied with how it worked. The Lantern King model is amazing though, so I hope it becomes available in some form. The upcoming Nightmare Ram (available through the new Kickstarter) is intended to offer some sort of dungeon crawl experience. See here for more. It looks to me like the game should play just fine with no expansions. The core game alone, if you dig the style, should provide lots of replay value.

Conclusion

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

My handsome pal Josh modeling the showdown board

Play was smooth and none of the phases were that complicated. The hardest part of playing the first time is finding the various kinds of cards (there are a lot of different kinds of cards). A few of the mechanics seemed like they could be streamlined in minor ways. For example, weapon and monster accuracy is a target number (used to hit) while strength functions as a bonus that is compared to a toughness target number. Both kinds of stats can have bonuses and penalties. It is also easy to get a few of the stats mixed up (strength versus accuracy, movement versus speed, and so forth).

I never felt like there was choice paralysis, even when we were making decisions about items to craft during the settlement phase. I can see how that might change as you build more settlement locations and have more kinds of resources to draw on but hopefully the complexity increases gradually. I am not yet sure which elements of the game are best served by cards and tokens as opposed to just writing things on record sheets, but so far I am enjoying the physicality of everything. At this point, I am kind of a super-fan of both the world and game mechanics, but I am not blind to the fact that there are a number of drawbacks which make Kingdom Death a big commitment and probably not for everyone.

Additional Resources

Chris Handley’s videos with Beasts of War are the only decent actual play videos I have found. They have so far released lantern year one, lantern year twolantern year threelantern year four, and lantern year five (I have not watched all of them yet). Chris’s Instagram has many nice examples of painted models too and is worth checking out for inspiration (and check out his amazing hair!).

Disclaimers

First, I am far from a Kingdom Death expert. That said, I have assembled all the core game monsters and played it, so I can speak to some aspects of setup and play. Hopefully the fact that I am neither a diehard board gamer nor a miniature person might help me speak to other similarly casual gamers that nonetheless find the Kingdom Death vision compelling. Second, I am backing 1.5 for the upgrade pack and some expansions.

 

Well-written RPG book survey

I mentioned this on G+ already, but I figure it makes sense to post here too.

Prompted by this post over at Monsters & Manuals, I became curious about what other people thought were examples of well-written tabletop RPG writing. So I put together a short survey.

Click here to take the survey if you have not already and feel free to share. I will probably leave it up for a few more days or a week and may summarize the results on my blog afterwards.

Kane ebooks

Image from Amazon listing

Image from Amazon listing

This is just a friendly note that all or most of the Karl Edward Wagner Kane books are available cheaply now on Kindle. You can get the whole lot of then for less than $30, if you are willing to accept the Amazon DRM. (That link is an ugly embedded search, so if it stops working just do a general Amazon search for Karl Edward Wagner.)

I just discovered Kane over the past few years along with some of the other swords & sorcery classics. For those not familiar, he is basically an antihero sorcerous version of Conan that is even more of a wish fulfillment fantasy, does not have the interesting flaws of the other anti-Conan Elric, but somehow still manages to be a fun and interesting character. My only real criticism is that the dialogue is a bit anachronistic to the point of being distracting, but I enjoyed the stories I have read anyways.

There are six Kindle books, and one is labeled book 7, so I guess the collection is not complete yet. But it still seems to be a good value for books that tend to be stupidly expensive on the physical secondary market.

Wonder & Wickedness released

Get it here.

Sorcery rules, spells, magical catastrophes, enchanted treasures.

More from Paolo here, including another image sample.

It will only be available in this form until the end of december due to EU regulations. We can’t guarantee anything, but we are working on a solution to keep it available after that point. There may at the least be some period of interruption come 2015.

cover-black 640 square

 

Wonder & Wickedness draws near

wonder wickedness titleSoon, if all goes well, Lost Pages will release my sorcery supplement, Wonder & Wickedness.

The book will contain:

  • 56 spells divided into seven specialties
  • 50 enchanted treasures
  • 84 sorcerous catastrophes (12 each for 7 kinds of magic)
  • New illustrations by Russ Nicholson
  • Sorcery rules: spells without levels, spell duels, and more

The text is done and layout progresses, about 90 A5 pages. We are working on a small number of hand-bound hardcovers as well.

The spells and several of the enchanted items have appeared before on this blog, though I have modified a few of them. All of the catastrophes and the bulk of enchanted items are new.

We do not have an official release date yet, but hope to have this available before the end of december.

Biological imagination

Orc Stain is a book by James Stokoe put out by Image Comics during the period from 2010 to 2012. There were only seven issues, and the story was left unfinished. Thank Pearce for drawing my attention to this during some G+ conversation about comics. Though this post is image-heavy, I have barely scratched the surface. Similar quality can be found on average at least every second or third page.

There is so much raw creativity here it is hard to know where to start. The protagonist orc One-Eye has a knack with a hammer. He can see faults in just about anything, and knows exactly where to hit and with how much force in order to make something fall apart.

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The detail work is amazing (pencil example from the author’s blog). The entire series is cast in a distinctive green, purple, magenta, red palette which is like seeing the world through a bruise-tinted lens.

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The best part though? It is the amoebic, organic quality to everything. This extends from the depiction of tools and technology to the texture of everyday objects. Birds are axes. Safes live. An orcish telephone is a person strung up like a puppet who transmits information over cables by twitching (or something).

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The raw and sometimes gory action goes down smoothly because of the humor. This is no grimdark mire. Similarly with sexuality. The orcs have love nymphs in bondage and their currency uses petrified genitalia. That’s right, there is plenty of orc dick to be seen here and the funny thing is that it’s so skillfully woven into the setting, story, and humor that it doesn’t seem excessive or out of place. When you read it, it’s just like: yup, orcs.

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Bowie the poison thrower (clearly played by Helena Bonham Carter)

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Though the series is premised on inverting fantasy cliches, it does not accomplish this by presenting traditionally monstrous creatures as misunderstood and unfairly vilified, as is often done. Orcish culture as shown is rather terrible, but amusingly and endearingly so, even when (sometimes especially when) it veers off into absurd cruelty and ultra-violence.

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On Twitter, on November 15th of this year, the author wrote that he had finally finished inking issue 8, so it looks like there is hope that Orc Stain has not been completely abandoned, though it probably makes sense to calibrate expectations due to the rate of release so far.

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You can buy issues digitally from Comixology, which is what I did. Because of the Image policy on DRM, this also means that you get unencumbered PDF versions in addition to the “guided view” feature available in their native reader (which is quite nice).

Highly recommended if you like anything you have seen here even a little bit.

OSRCon 2014 Toronto

The fourth annual OSRCon is going to be held in Toronto again this year. Unfortunately, I will not be in town when it will be going on, but I attended the past two, and enjoyed both. In the first, I played a magic-user that explored Dwimmermount. In the second, I played a Pathfinder adaptation of White Plume Mountain and ran an OD&D game set in the Fight On! community mega-dungeon, The Darkness Beneath.

My understanding is that this years event will be far more casual, more like a game day, without panels or guest speakers. The details are being coordinated on a Google Plus community, and the specific event can be found here. It is happening on saturday, august 23rd. So far, I see LotFP, AD&D, Basic D&D, and DCC games already scheduled. I wish I could make it.

OSRCon 4 2014 IMG_4762

Detect Magic

Detect Magic is a blog by Daniel Davis, just started this year. If I had to select an appropriate pigeonhole or tagline, I might say: “older D&D through the lens of Apocalypse World with lots of useful tools and also rules hacks,” though like all such summaries that sells it somewhat short. If those things are your bag (and they are certainly mine), I would recommend heading over there to check it out and maybe adding it to your regular reading list and/or blogroll. Old standby blogs are regularly slowing down or ceasing posts entirely, so it is always good to see new folks jumping in.

Here are some posts you might want to start with:

  • Faction wars procedure
  • Conquest: making control of territory a gameable thing
  • Fisticuffs: dueling or brawling for trad D&D using stakes setting
  • Pathcrawl: an interesting wilderness exploration procedure

Also many of the table sets are automated using Logan’s excellent generator of generators.

Lusus Naturae

Monstruct color draft

Lusus Naturae’s monstruct

My favorite new RPG book that came out in 2013 was perhaps Rafael Chandler’s Teratic Tome. I do not know why I have not written more about it before, but I should. It is fantastically creative and professionally done. In addition to being probably my favorite new RPG book of 2013, it is also one of my favorite bestiaries in general, up there with the Fiend Folio and the Bard Games Atlantis Bestiary. For me, it has only one real flaw, which is that the physical production (being a print on demand “casebound” hardcover) is only middle tier. Would it not be fantastic if Rafael were able to produce a monster book to a higher physical production standard? Well, Lusus Naturae will be that.

The name means “freaks of nature,” and it is intended to be a collection of 100 horror-themed monsters for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (and thus compatible with most traditional fantasy RPGs). This thing has already funded, so there is very little doubt that it will exist later this year (and Rafael has been one of the most reliable producers of small press RPG material recently, so risks on that front, even of mere delays, seem minimal). Needless to say, I have backed it. There are several more days to go, and if it hits $16660 before then, all the images will be done in color (this is the only stretch goal, though Rafael was recently wondering if he should maybe do something else special if the project reaches 666 backers).

I should also probably mention that the Teratic Tome is now pay what you want in PDF. So if you are not familiar yet with Rafael’s work and want to see what you might be in for with Lusus Naturae, you can check that out. Not directly related, but if you are interested in the above mentioned Bard Games Atlantis Bestiary, the Sorcerer’s Skull has a post about that.