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

Dialect at Chicago Gameday 49

On Saturday I played Dialect with Joe Beason, Willow Palecek, Tim Jensen, and Dave Michalak at Chicago Gameday 49.

tl;dr — I had overlooked this game when it was Kickstarting, but now I am totally sold.

The game is focused on discovering the language/jargon created by an isolated community and seeing what happens to that community and its language as it marches toward its demise. We played out a commune — “Home,” we called it — of anarcho-hippies who headed to Montana after Reagan took office in the ‘80s.

Willow and Dave played two of the founders: Bobby, a procurer-of-anything, and Virgil, a Timothy Leary type who was the creator of the community’s custom drugs. Tim and I were younger members, people who had been kids when he commune was founded but were now adults: Thoreau, an idealistic hopeful, and Joad (a.k.a. Jesus) a hard-line, self-proclaimed protector of the commune. Joe was a young woman, this first child born in the commune (and Virgil’s granddaughter), named Song; she began as a zealot, but eventually morphed into one of the most practical of all of us.

The arc of the community was the eventual creeping in of outsiders who would ultimately turn our commune into a Burning Man knockoff.

Play involves a deck of cards with various prompts that ask for both a word and the scene in which we feature it. As the game progresses through the “ages” of the community, the cards ask you to redefine or re-contextualize the existing words and reflect that in the story of the community.

Some of the words we created included: “turnpal,” meaning that despite the nonexistence of private property in the commune, this particular thing was “mine” for right now; “downtime,” a period of two weeks, which was roughly the span between Virgil’s batches of new drugs; “coming home,” i.e., a child being born; “brainsick,” meaning people who were questioning the ethos of the community; and “fortifying the perimeter,” i.e., when Joad would kill or injure outsiders to keep them away from the community.

All of the characters managed to live past the end of the community, ending up in old folk’s homes or just living normal lives back int he world, except for Joad, who was literally shot dead at the Downtime Festival (the only legacy of Home) after threatening all of the attendees and calling them fucking poseurs.

I really loved this game, and everyone at the table was totally “on”for the session. Dave’s portrayal of Virgil was particularly moving for me. The whole concept of telling a community’s story via it’s specialized language really resonated with me. It reminded me of games like Kingdom, but the added lens of the language-building prompts added a whole other level that I didn’t know I was missing.

I cannot recommend this game enough. I’m gonna go buy a copy right now!

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