Kingdom of Nothing (2010)
Jeff Himmelman (Galileo Games)
I started out this review, hoping I could open up with a minor quip along the lines of I FELT I WAS UNIQUELY QUALIFIED TO REVIEW THIS PRODUCT. WHO BUT ME COULD (…) GUFFAW. SNORTJOY. CHORTLE. I HAVE HAD MY FUN. HO HO HO AND OTHER EXHALATIONS OF MIRTH. TITTER. AND NOT JUST THE MEN. BUT THE WOMEN. AND THE CHILDREN TOO!
It need not be said this was a terrible mistake. I am about as qualified to review Kingdom of Nothing by Jeff Himmelman as a gourmet chef suddenly taking up motorcycle repair. Kingdom of Nothing is what is called a STORYGAME, a vile weapon of the enemy of rpgdom, the nefarious storygamer, to corrupt our children and bring doom and woe upon our noble hobby. Peopled exclusively by envious child molesters, foreigners and furries, the storygaming community continuously plots to overthrow the noble, courageous, savvy and entirely white cismale bastion of fun and splendor that is the OSR/Rpg-community.
Some will say they are merely games that appeal to cross-dressing furry otakus and little girls but anyone telling you so IS TRYING TO TRICK YOU INTO PLAYING ONE DON’T OR BEFORE YOU KNOW IT YOU WILL BE HUNGERING FOR THE TIGHT AND PUCKERED ENTRANCE OF A LITTLE BOYS BUTTOCKS! They are the devil’s work, and it is at great cost to my sanity and soul that I undertake this review at all.
Kingdom of Nothing is an occult urban fantasy storygame about homeless people. Like many storygames the focus is on emotional experiences and meaningful storycrafting instead of actually fun stuff like killing things and fingerbanging the GMs girlfriend but I shall attempt to give everyone a good idea what it is about.
Kingdom of Nothing is, at its heart, about homeless people. Everyone forms a sort of group and everyone has lost their memory. As you navigate various obstacles via dicerolls and not that much else you discover more about the reason you became homeless I mean lost. Eventually you either succumb to the Nothing, a sort of Stephen king/silent-hill esque malignant supernatural force and alternate dimension where the homeless (the Lost) end up or you escape it and go on with your life.
On your way you are beset by Cobwebs, monsters that are supernatural manifestations of your inner trauma, that fuck with you and try to drive you nuts, and Echoes, manifestations of your hope. As long as people are Lost normal humans can’t really see them, unless they are asleep (thus you cannot sleep in the streets!). This supernatural invisibility is a metaphor for the apathy of the common human for the homeless man. It’s all kind of gay albeit it well written and unconventional supernatural horror gay.
Himmelman creates his own magical homeless world, complete with communities of homeless with a currency system based on favors, magical locations known as the FORGOTTEN PLACES that take the form of dilapidated buildings with special abilities, minor magical items called Rag-Pennies that will take the form of typical homeless person apparel and the greatest enemy of all, Lost that have been taken entirely by the Nothing (Dimmer-Stiffs) that can control their cobwebs (though they are tormented by them) and that can subsist on the psychic energy of the homeless (now Dragranks) and they can see through their eyes and control them like puppets. This is a very strange game, but it could be pretty cool, and at least there are no fucking vampires kissing and bemoaning their immortality or other faggy shit.
14 pages of Introduction and we are at character creation. This is a story-game and thus it avoids dice of any kind as dice affirm the natural hetrosexuality of the cismale white gamergod and therefore must be avoided at all cost if he is to be turned from the path of righteousness into depraved sodomy and wickedness! The traditionally randomized character creation process, meant to instill in the player both fear and veneration for the whims of the dice gods, is instead left entirely in the hands of the player so as to poison their heart with pride, thereby turning them from the light and causing them to be more open to fondling innocent children and/or converting to the inverted church of SocJus if given even the slightest provocation.
Awright. Here is how we get to make our characters. We make up a general concept for a character. The game gives you some helpful starting questions so even a complete moron would know where to begin, and it even provides a helpful list of homeless related concepts (street preacher, subway panhandler, veteran, ex-asylum patient etc.).
You then choose a nickname, since you lost your real name (neat). You then select your Hope, which is explained later on in the book, and the player may now distribute 7 points among the only stat points of the game; Survival and Lucidity, which are essentially resources that may be spent to get out of a situation. They do differ in how you may spend them so the difference is more then cosmetic.
This gets kind of confusing since they add more jargon and wacky resolution mechanics and mumble something about Exhaust Stacks but in essence, 4 points in Survival means you put 4 coins in your survival. It gets clunkier. If both your Survival and your Lucidity reach 0 you black out (or your character does) and you gain a point of Despair. Every point of Despair past 5 reduces your maximum Hope score by 1. If you reach Hope 0, you have fallen to the Nothing. Ugh, its one of those games where you don’t die. Fuck. Note that Hope has not yet been explained, other then the fact that if it goes up past 5 your max despair is reduced. I guess the object of the game is to get that hope up.
Then you pick a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ which is like a personal goal you want to achieve, and working towards this goal earns the player Plot Coins. We don’t know what those are yet, all we know is that I want to die.
We are almost there. We pick an Echo, which will be the GM’s way of delivering plot information in your face. Choices range from tiny birds to old mix tapes playing cryptic messages to a moldy coat with buttons that tell you what to do. Now we pick physical skills and mental skills based on our Lucidity and Survival, these are not chosen from a list, we may make them up and we will get a bonus to our dicerolls if we find a way to use that skill. The game is courteous enough to provide you with an ample list of example skills to get you started, a good design choice.
Equipment selection is actually really neat. The players make a list of all the stuff their characters own, taking into account mobility, plausibility and so on, and the GM is then encouraged to be a huge asshole and remove as much as he wants. The player may circle one item he wants to keep. Nice way to hammer home the sense of loss.
We are not done yet. We also have to pick 2 Burdens, which give us a penalty when we are faced with certain situations. They vary from various physical deformities, diseases, addictions and mental disorders. Losing conflicts in this game gives you more Burdens, and if you accumulate 5, you start losing max Hope.
Here is where it gets wonky. Character background is not actually created by the player himself but instead by the Narrator (gay GM) and the other players (goths). Secrets about the characters tragic past are devised by the other players so the discovery of your identity is an actual discovery. Kind of brilliant. I should point out the game makes a point of devoting 2 pages to explaining what constitutes a good secret and what constitutes a terrible secret. I can already predict that if you have a group that prefers to take the piss this game will never work for you. Kingdom of Nothing is made to appeal to a very specific (genderfluid) sort of gamer, and if you are not that gamer, I suspect you will not gain much enjoyment from it. They also make a point that MURDER should be used sparingly as a secret background, again a dramatically sound suggestion.
More nauseating collaboration. The player that is not busy coming up with secrets for characters is put in charge of coming up with some interesting locations for the game to take place in. Uh…can’t the GM do that? What does the GM do? Anyway, the advice for creating these locations is, again, straightforward if not sound.
The last step is establishing a set of connections between players, both secrets to be discovered and things as mundane as simple friendships and so on.
Now that we have statted up our homelessmen and everyone gets handed their change (I shit you not, the game recommends using actual pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters).
Conflict resolution proceeds by putting the appropriate number of coins into a cup and successes are the number of heads. Certain factors like your Echo count as more successes. This is a narrative system so it is very broad and the player essentially sets the goal of what he wants to achieve, but Kingdom of Nothing does have the decency of letting the GM determine both the difficulty of the proposed action and the drawback (or Burden) if he fails…beforehand? The player may then decide to not have the conflict? Faggotry!
The conflict resolution mechanism gets some additional nooks and crannies to add to the overall cookie-ness. Some challenges mandate the player to invest a certain number of coins (do not forget coins are lost!), players may add additional coins from their coin stack equal to their max hope…this is risky since failure means the coins are lost but success means additional coins are won back…I think. Players may also ask other players if they can “spare some change.” which means other players put their coins in his coin throw, but this is again risky, since winning does not mean additional coins whilst losing means coins are lost. Even more wonky coin risk mechanics mean you can invoke an ACT OF DESPERATION, which can dramatically increase your successes but adds an extra Burden if you lose. And Hope points may be used to reroll missed coin-flips or refresh exhausted Lucidity or Survival Stacks, thus functioning as a sort of fate-points.
Hope itself is refreshed during the Revelation scene, a sort of meta-gamey part of the game when players regain some memories or learn secrets about themselves. Coins that are won over the maximum stack limit may be used to sort of “level-up” to buy new skills or increase max stats.
Now, credit where it is due, there is a pvp mode for when you get so sick of this game you just want to hit Mad Jenkin’s face in with a lead pipe. Of course you can’t kill him in this game, but you could probably give him Aids (a burden according to the rulebook so accusations of sickfuckery will need to be tabled for now).
All in all, the strangest and most byzantine fucking resolution mechanism I have ever read.
Ah! But I have neglected to explain Plot coins! Plot coins are a bizarre mechanism that takes the place of the GM by allowing players to purchase “scenes” devoted to themselves. Plot coins are earned by helping other players do their own shit. Scenes that allow you to learn shit about yourself and gain max hope (the aforementioned Revelation Scenes) are expensive and cost a lot of plot coins. If you are saving up you need to take simple survival scenes, which cost you nothing but are detrimental if you fuck them up and don’t really yield anything.
So, to summarize, the role of GM in Kingdom of Nothing is a thankless and impotent one, barely trusted and responsible solely with filling in whatever scenes the players decide to purchase from the plot coins the distribution of which has some small measure of control over. It is assumed players are egocentrical monsters that are fundamentally incapable of grasping even the basics of teamwork or the social contract (true!), let alone show interest in another character, therefore their every prosocial action is to be rewarded and their screen time parsed out according to coin based mechanics. I think work psychology refers to it as the type X approach to workplace motivation.
Yet the game also suffers from a bad case of schizophrenia since it simultaneously assumes all players are creative and potential GM’s and if the tyranny of the GM can be contained the most beautiful epic involving homeless men with aids can finally blossom forth from beneath his jack-booted iron-nosed heels. Players can be clever, players can be cunning, devious and wonderful, but there is no way in hell your group consists entirely of people that can also GM worth a damn. GMing and playing are two separate, if correlated, skill sets, and what makes a good GM does not always make a good player (I know a good GM that is, in fact, a bad player).
We all know what will happen. We will (I won’t, I am too cunning, but you will) get blackmailed into playing Kingdom of Nothing, someone brings his girlfriend, you want to tell him to fuck off but it is his place and he buys a disproportionate amount of snacks, you sigh bitterly and gaze longingly at a dust-covered Warhamer Fantasy Roleplaying Corebook, make up a homeless man and before you know it that dumb broad makes up the most asinine secret about how you used to hit your wife and she left you and everyone just sort of goes along with it since they are FUCKING NERDS and then you come home and decide to off yourself since life is not worth living. No bullshit pills, just a bottle of jack and dad’s ole’ sawed-off shotgun.Do it.
Anyway, Conflicts are rarely immediately lethal but will add additional burdens until you play a crack-addicted broken-legged schizophrenic with cancer and aids, after that you start to lose hope until you become Lost if you keep losing like a chump. Everyone uses a shitton of coins.
The game takes some time to establish the setting of being a magic aids-infected homeless man haunted by the physical manifestation of your deepest dark secrets. Sleep is a problem (albeit not expressed in any sort of mechanical way, I guess a failed conflict could result in Burdens that may be retroactively chalked up to sleep deprivation), but much ado is made about homeless shelters and how horrible they really are. The author unsuccesfully tries to convey the horror of having to listen to a church sermon (I am guessing your magic invisibility powers don’t work during the Sermon ey?) in exchange for free sleep and food, which makes homeless people and the author seem like entitled pieces of shit. The largest problem in shelters are of course, druggies and other homeless.
I don’t really have to get into the mundane threats. They are as comprehensive as they are intensely depressing. AIDS, drug-addiction, alcohol and so on. Drug addiction and its effects are described in great detail, covering many different drugs. Depressing and bleak, without the grandeur or the sheer scope that makes grimdark fiction compelling. Can we get to the psychic ghost-monsters now?
The first and I guess major antagonists are the cob-webs, embodiments of the Nothing. Formed from either the collective misery of the Lost or someone’s personal demons, they embody the event that destroyed their lives and seeks to torment them until they give up and become Dwimmer-Stiffs. A point is made that some of the more personal demons need to be defeated before the Lost may move on with his life, a very great point that is never really thought out or addressed in the game, as is the way to finish the game. If you achieve your light at the tunnel? If you get an X-amount of hope? If you regain your memory? Whatever.
You are supposed to make your own cobwebs (the GM gets to do something!) and the game does provide adequate hints to realize this. The last couple of pages are really well written however. They concern the Named Ones and a few Dwimmer-Stiffs, essentially the Chaos Gods and Demon Princes to the cobwebs Daemons. All very good. All undiluted nightmare fuel.
A shape-changing embodiment of greed that tricks people into giving up what they love in exchange for short term gratification (drugs, porn, booze etc.) that turns into a legless albino giant with a pig’s head during combat. A formless storm of trash that is attracted to despair and takes all but the person that attracts it, taking them to a fate unknown and depositing them back weeks later, catatonic, dead, stricken with nightmares but with no memories of what happened etc. A creature that takes the form of your true love, but sickens and slowly kills your real loved ones and can only be killed if one is truly in love with it.
The Stiffs are also good stuff, a shoggoth-like entity that is fed with the lives of those that break the homeless law by the homeless communities and a hideous insect-themed thing called the Vermin God. Both of them once human.
The last section concerns several homeless societies. In keeping with the overall theme of the game, they are all incredibly fucked up. A weird homeless cult that preaches that you should give in to your every desire and vice, presented as every bit as fucked up as it would actually be. A religious gathering that follows a thoroughly medieval and old-testament interpretation of christianity and believe everyone who is Lost is there as a punishment from God and believe the End Times are nigh. An order of wandering storytellers that keep and spread the knowledge of the Nothing via oral tradition and punish terribly those that would pose as them. Good stuff. We end with a tiny section of sample magic items that look like old garbage and have some sort of, mostly story based effect.
I want to make something clear. I hate this game. I cannot imagine playing it. I cannot imagine anyone ever playing it. The mechanics are fucking terrible, and it is barely, in my humble opinion, an RPG at all. As an rpg it is a miserable pile of hipster failure and wonky game design.
But! Jeff Himmelman is not a bad writer and he can absolutely convey atmosphere and he has good ideas (Silent Hill meets Hobo with a Shotgun?!?). A
million ten times more talented and creative then any of the degenerate social justice losers currently manning the ship and churning out the same tired old emo-garbage at Onyx path (pot calling Kettle, OSR drew first blood).
Write a proper horror game with good mechanics around this idea, focus less on wonky ideas and collaborative storytelling, and make more sample cobwebs and dwimmer-stiffs and gatherings and I think you could have yourself a hit (or maybe this shit is more popular now, I don’t know how the furry community has been doing lately).
It goes without saying that most of this game is probably intended as misery-porn for the weird, emotionally crippled lungfish-men that slither through the tunnels beneath the earth and occasionally emerge within academia or behind computers to post diatribes about representation and gender fluidity on the internet but some tweaking and the general idea could be interesting and consumable for the general public ( i.e nerds). As it is, playing out deep-seated mature homeless drama about lives being broken does not sound like something I would enjoy, and if I did I would at least appreciate some fucking hit points and an AC while I do so.
I am not grading this since it is not an rpg. This is for me what Ian M Banks terms an ‘Outside Context Problem.’ I hate it but my opinion won’t be of much use if you like storygames. I can’t even tell you if it is a particularly good storygame. I’d be interested in talking to someone who enjoys it, if only to figure out why and how. It’s very creative with its coins and its concept, but actually playing it seems rather godawful to me. An Rpg it ain’t.
Suggestion to Himmelman; Get an investor/kickstarer, some video game designers and make a low-budget Kingdom of Nothing survival horror mashup between Condemned; Criminal Origins and Silent Hill 2.
Pros: Unique setting. Interesting antagonists. Creative flourishes.
Cons: Depressing misery porn. Horribly byzantine mechanics. Lack of gameplay. Collaborative storygame mechanics means no one gets to have any fun. Prolonged exposure might cause one to gain a sick compulsion to despoil the innocence of a little boy.
Final Verdict: Outside Context Problem. Aleph cancer-ridden aids-infected broken-legged schizophrenic meth-addicted bums with magic sneakers and a talking bird out of Pree corporeal manifestations of molesting your daughter.