Kingdom of Nothing at Chicago Gameday 49

On Saturday I played Kingdom of Nothing with Aaron Griffin, Tim Jensen, and John at Chicago Gameday 49.

tl;dr — I had fun, but IMO the game needs work.

In Kingdom of Nothing you play a homeless person who has forgotten the tragic event that put them on the streets, and who battles against the Nothing, a mysterious force that plagues street people. “Normal” people don’t seem to notice you, except when you’re asleep (“Ugh, another bum on a park bench”). A big focus of the game is trying to discover the character’s forgotten past and why they ended up where they did.

The resolution system involves putting coins of various denominations into a cup and then throwing them; every head is a success, and you need enough successes to meet or beat a target number. You get help from other players by literally jingling the cup and asking for change. Nice.

We did character generation together and then played a slightly accelerated session. One thing to note is that your PC’s secret past is created by the other players; you’re the only one who doesn’t know what it is.

Aaron was the GM. I played “Jacknife,” a seemingly homeless vet with a opioid addiction who’s “Light” (i.e., their goal) was to just find a job. Tim played “Cave Dave,” who did street murals and lived in a drainage tunnel. John was “the Collector”, a bag-man who grabbed everything and spent every dime he could get playing the lottery.

Through various scenes (there is an economy for who frames scenes and what kind), we discovered that Jacknife’s wife left him when he was diagnosed with cancer, the Collector was a college professor who gambled away all of his child’s college fund, and Cave Dave was an artist who’d had someone take credit for his art and leave him penniless.

First off, let me say that, for me, the game completely avoided misery tourism. The chargen process evoked in me a lot of sympathy for the poor souls we were creating; at no point did I take their plight lightly, or find them amusing, or feel any contempt. I give the game — and Aaron — a lot of credit for this.

Also, Aaron’s props were great. Our character sheets were cardboard signs the like of which homeless people tend to carry. It was a nice physical reminder of the very real problem that was the inspiration for the game.

But…

…and let me say that Aaron did a great job with the game, all of the players did their damndest; we had a great group.

But I think the game itself needs work.

The main issue for me is that the “secret past” and “the Nothing” parts of the game seem orthogonal. The Nothing — which may be a real supernatural entity or just your PC’s hallucinations — thwart you, but you only get “XP” for pursuing your secret. The Nothing scenes we had seemed more like fight-y encounters that simply delayed learning more about the secrets. (You also have to “earn” the ability to do scenes that get closer to your secrets, and the means to do so felt a little opaque to me. E.g., we had no trouble winning most of the conflicts we faced, but the scene currency points were very hard to come by.)

Plus, your secret is unknown to you, yet you are the one framing scenes that ostensibly help you work towards discovering your secret. I honestly couldn’t really reconcile how this was supposed to work. Not to mention, I’m not a big fan of secrets in games.

Added to all of this is that chargen is relatively involved — PCs have stats, skills, burdens, a Light (goal), an Echo (evocative signature color), Plot points, Hope points, and Stuff — and the expectation is that you’ll play for multiple sessions. Personally, I don’t really see the appeal of this concept — cool though it is — as a campaign game. I feel like the themes of the game would be much more powerful in a less weighty game that aimed to provide a complete arc in a single session.

Now, keep in mind that I have not read the rules, and this was just a one-shot, so who knows what bits of the game I am missing. That said, it nonetheless felt over-complicated and under-focused to me.

I’d love to see a simplified version of this game — ideally GM-less — where the focus was either street people battling the Nothing that is trying to eradicate them in the midst of a society that doesn’t care or homeless people trying to remember and regain their lost lives. Mixing the two feel self-defeating to me, as each detracts for the other.

That said, it was great to play a game with Aaron again, as we just met at Forge Midwest earlier this year despite interacting here on the Plus for some time. Let’s play some more, man!

#ChicagoGameday #ChicagoGameday49

6 thoughts on “Kingdom of Nothing at Chicago Gameday 49

  1. I’m with you on a lot of this.

    One of the things I said in passing is that the GM side is a little light on what to do. I went with my gut, but I do think there may be a “right way” to GM this game that could alleviate your concerns.

    One thought I had driving home, what if all the Revelation scenes, where you get hints of your past, we’re required to be about The Nothing in some way. What if those Revelations came from there. For example:

    You had a bit about a PI hired by your brother. What if the Revelation was I stead finding his body being eaten by thousands of cockroaches or something and discover he was looking for you, hired by Billy Jameson or something. That could have been a better scene.

    To that end, the book is actually unclear about who frames scenes and if it was entirely on me, who knows all the secrets, it could have played differently than how we sort of talked out what the next scene was.

  2. I played it at Forge years ago and it took us over an hour to click in with the system. It feels like it wasn’t playtested enough, or playtested with a diverse enough crowd?

    I agree about avoiding misery tourism- no small feat here.