GMotW: Kingdom and narrow roles.

I had the good fortune this past week to play Kingdom with a fellow named Ben Robbins, designer of a game called… let me check my notes here… ah, yes: Kingdom. That is always a bonus.

Kingdom puts players into a, well, a kingdom (though it need not be one with an actual monarch; ours was a drifting mass of welded-together prison ships run, to the extent that it had anything resembling a government, by the head of an organized crime syndicate). To an extent it reminds me of The Quiet Year but at a very different scale; while the latter is a bird’s eye view of a fairly long period, the former is zoomed much more closely in, covering a series of single, important decisions. And while The Quiet Year divorces the players from characters entirely, putting them in the role of the settlement as a whole, Kingdom lets you play characters who dwell within the kingdom while, at the same time, being representations of that kingdom, through the use of Roles, which I thought was mighty clever, and enough to get me to yammer on about.

Without going into too much detail, there are three roles, and the players each pick on, and can change it as need be. Power can decide what the kingdom does, Touchstone knows how the kingdom feels, and Perspective can see the consequences of its actions.

From the character sheet:

“Your ROLE determines what you can do. Circle one. You can change it later on.”

Ah, choices. EXCLUSIVE choices. You can’t have all the roles, you see. That’s great, because it introduces a measure of give and take and tactical decisions and hemming and hawing and fretting about what is best. Exclusive choices make decisions meaningful, because they have a lasting impact. Of course, this isn’t anything really new; gaming is full of exclusive choices. I mean, you can’t be a warrior AND a thief AND wizard at the same time, unless you’re playing Skyrim, I guess. But what makes these interesting is how they tie the character and the kingdom together.

It’s perhaps most obvious with the Power role; your special ability is to make decisions; the game is about a series of important “Crossroad” decisions, and the results of those Crossroads are for you to decide. Which is great. You control where the Kingdom goes. It seems like a no-brainer, who wouldn’t want to be Power? Ah, but there is the paradox: by being in charge of where this Kingdom goes, by being the one who decides whether or not we, for instance, fire our giant orbital laser at the planet below us in an unprovoked show of aggression, you are divorced from the kingdom itself. You don’t get to decide how the people feel about this action (by and large, they are against it). And you don’t get to predict what will happen if you do it (the folks on the planet will be displeased indeed). You just make the choice.

How weirdly powerless Power is. There’s a built-in irony, caused by these limitations, by not allowing a character both perspective and power. And of course, that makes perfect real-world sense, doesn’t it? When you take power, you become something set apart from your peers, and can’t claim to properly represent them. You have, in fact, set yourself as being someone exceptional, and therefore by definition not a member of the community. But you aren’t apart from the community the way Perspective is… so distanced as to be able to understand how it works. You are in a very real way trapped by your power. Neat!

(The irony of the Touchstone role, of course, is that they are ALSO an exceptional member of the community, but what makes them exceptional is how well they reflect it. The paradox of the Perspective, while I’m at it, is that understand the kingdom, but that makes them strangers to it, in a sort of narrative Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle allowing them to see where it’s going but be set apart from where it is.)

Transitioning between roles is a great moment, as well. Ben himself commented on it as a Touchstone turned into a Power: the funny thing is that if you want to do things for the people you represent, you no longer represent them… the people get what they want (in this case, a brash and idealistic teen who is willing to work with the aliens to make the ship a better place, now able to get help from the aliens), only to find out that the people don’t want it anymore (because now my character was the only Touchstone, and he was a violent, xenophobic, internally-conflicted madman who was totally down with blowing up the alien city in the first place. Also, one time I beat a priest almost to death because he was in my way. I’m not saying I was bad Touchstone, but I WAS a bad person, which I would argue makes me an excellent Touchstone. Anyway, the ship was now much less happy with alien intervention). Every transition works that way; when I become one of the people, I have to lose what makes me exceptional. When I start looking at the future, I can’t keep an eye on the present anymore. If I take power, it brings its own limits and prevents me from enjoying the sorts of freedoms the other roles have.

Big choices. Important choices. Hard choices. Which would you pick?