Please note this review only addresses the original edition; the second printing is a revised version that I haven’t yet reviewed (but will soon).
Kingdoms is a rules light, horror themed, monster hunting, kingdom-building indie RPG. Yeah, that’s a lot of compound adjectives, but Kingdoms is far more than a string of descriptors. As a zine, it is evocative and compelling in its visual and verbal dimensions. As a game, it incorporates an array of components and foci into a unique, entertaining experience that embraces and encourages a mix of player preferences and styles.
This is a long, in-depth review. I’m not going to spend any more space on an introduction. Let’s get to the good stuff.
Tinney cites three major inspirations behind Kingdoms: Into the Odd (Chris McDowall), Kingdom Death: Monster (Adam Poots), and Mörk Borg (Pelle Nilsson & Johan Nohr). Since these are the designer’s starting points, it’s worth reviewing their influence on Kingdoms.
ItO: Character creation and core mechanics are almost pure ItO. Three attributes and gear play a major role in defining your characters. Additional mechanical components cleave to ItO’s elegant basis, making the game easy to learn and play while still offering diverse experiences in one package.
KD:M: Kingdoms’s overall structure strips KD:M’s civilization building, monster hunting, and item crafting dynamics down to their cores. If you’re looking for complexity and deep granularity, look to KD:M (if you can find/afford a copy), but if you want something that’s quickly and readily playable (in terms of learning curve, setup, and cost) while staying robust and keeping a similar overall flow and feel, Kingdoms is for you.
MÖRK BORG: Kingdoms distinctly recalls Mörk Borg’s tone, atmosphere, visual aesthetic, and layout and design principles. The text directs plenty of snide asides to the reader, lightening the grimdark mood while still emphasizing how this world really doesn’t care whether your character lives or dies. On the usability side, Kingdoms has a table of contents and page numbers to help navigate the larger regions (there are no explicit chapters), and the fairly short length and variegated page gestalts make it easy to spot what you’re looking for without much trouble.
Obviously, this isn’t a comprehensive list, but it should give you a good overview of where Kingdoms is coming from. Now let’s see where it goes.
Kingdoms builds onto its ItO foundation in a few different directions, all of which contribute to a more expansive scope than your standard lightweight OSR RPG.
Characters are defined by their three attribute scores (3d6 each), traits (inherited from divine parentage), and gear (which you craft to suit play style and strategy). Actions are performed using checks (d20, aim lower than the relevant attribute score), and they incorporate the popular advantage/disadvantage rule.
Weapons and armor allow characters to perform arts, which grant special combat abilities at the cost of Dexterity points. This prevents players from abusing their more powerful maneuvers when fighting monsters and each other. Crafting gear is simple but robust, and your characters’ possessions are crucial to their identity and performance.
Combat is quick and efficient. There are no to-hit rolls; generally, attacks are automatic successes, though some particularly brutal abilities offer saving throws. Damage first erodes a pool of hit points, and once these are gone, characters start taking Strength damage before eventually losing consciousness, suffering traumatic wounds, and dying. Initiative is determined by drawing lots each round, keeping combat lightning-fast and extremely engaging.
At the larger scale, Kingdoms also includes rules for waging war to depose rivals and claim valuable infrastructure without the trouble of building it oneself. These mechanics are broad, but this isn’t a wargame, and they fit well with the rest of the game’s moving parts.
Although combat plays an important role, Kingdoms isn’t primarily a combat game. Fighting is a means to the larger goals of expanding your civilization and maintaining your dynasty’s rule.
On the macro-level, play progresses by Life Steps, which let players build kingdoms and define rulership priorities as they age. When they die, they can create powerful heirlooms that pass down to descendants who enter the game through a breeding mechanic. Children inherit attribute scores and traits from both parents, and when they come of playable age, they can take up their sire’s mantle as ruler.
Players’ civilizations grow in size and technological level as their leaders ascend, decline, and are succeeded. Subsequent monarchs will gain access to advanced weapons ranging from prehistoric tools up through firearms.
Along the way, councilors provide bonuses when present in your court. But beware—there are also Judases who will subvert your rule and power for their own gain. Six betrayer archetypes (with tables for variant characteristics) are included in the book, and a DM (Dark Master) could easily craft new ones to suit need and taste.
The first player to kill a monster becomes God-King and gains access to Light powers. (It’s good to be the God-King.) Other players can claim the throne for themselves by killing the reigning ruler or by waiting for a monster do the dirty work. (It’s hard to be a God-King.)
Other mechanical components include diseases, endgames conditions, mental traumas, and even a deity-crafting system that allows players to establish customized religions with tenets and taboos that affect play. The bounty of DM resources provide tables for players’ starting situation, effects of isolation in the Dark, random conflicts, weather, a few relics to discover, and variant rules that really escalate the game’s challenge.
Overall, Kingdoms allows (and encourages) players to move among modes of play—combat, exploration, and roleplaying—and back and forth between the micro- and macro-levels of playing individual characters and ministering to their empires across generations. It does so with very manageable, elegant rules that can accommodate a variety of player styles, strategies, dynamics, and desires.
Modern RPGs are deeply rooted in an archetypal cycle of going on quests, killing monsters, and claiming their treasure. Kingdoms stays true to these origins but offers up a nice alternative to standard dungeon crawling for fun and profit.
Aside from the primal satisfaction of killing something bigger and stronger than you, defeating monsters provides raw resources. Players use these to craft better, customized weapons and armor that grant material-specific effects and arts.
But before you can slay a monster and turn it into loot, you have to find a monster. Exploration is a hex-crawl among six distinct biomes, each with generous random encounter tables filled with lesser beasts and hazards. Lurking among them, though, are the vicious, vengeful spawn of the Dark.
Monsters in Kingdoms are bizarre and twisted, even by OSR standards. Each beast has a stat block as well as some flavor text and a longer description for the DM’s benefit. Several of the profiles also include their mating habits, recalling human characters’ breeding mechanic and establishing a connection between the irreconcilable but inextricable opposites. (This is echoed in the juxtaposed images of heart and dagger, which can be seen in both versions of the cover art and reappear elsewhere in the book.)
In combat, monsters follow prescribed action loops (an excellent adaptation of KD:M’s AI decks) that simplify combat on the DM’s side. Many of the monsters also incorporate contingencies and variables into these loops, keeping encounters unpredictable. Profiles also include monster variants that affect actions and abilities, ensuring hunts stay fresh and challenging.
But remember—attacks are typically auto-hits in Kingdoms, and monsters are truly monstrous, making these encounters potential bloodbaths. (Don’t worry—your character was going to die anyway, remember?) Conquering strange beasts offers great bounties, but players will have to work for that reward. This is especially true of the Behemoth, a final boss-monster of truly biblical proportions, which the players may face in an all-or-nothing battle deciding the fate of their civilizations and world.
To play Kingdoms, you’ll need some character sheets, pencils, an assortment of dice, some tokens or counters, and a map. The book includes a map, but it’s far too small to use (and isn’t hexed, which will be a necessity during play), so you’re going to need to make your own. I recommend Gaming Paper’s rolls of hex grid paper, and if you’re the spontaneous type, feel free to use this terrain generator, made by me and given a thumbs up by Sophia.
Now let’s talk about Kingdoms the book.
As noted, it takes many design cues for Mörk Borg in terms of aesthetics and layout. The text and graphics are primarily black, white, and vivid red—which Tinney deploys to excellent effect in every composition—with splashes of other hues where appropriate, adding emphasis and markers for quick navigation.
The layouts don’t quite press the avant-garde extremes of some of Nohr’s Mörk Borg pages, but they definitely follow in his footsteps, unpretentiously and with obvious enthusiasm and good faith. Nowhere will you find boring blocks and columns of homogeneous, normalized text isolated from graphic components—the visual and verbal aspects interpenetrate, and the latter often plays a visual role in conveying viscerality and dynamism that fit well with game’s concept.
Visually, Kingdoms is a compelling zine to behold.
Materially, Kingdoms is problematic to be held.
The heavy paper lends a wonderful, appropriate sense of weight and density to a fairly small softcover book. It’s perfect bound, meaning gatherings (groups of printed pages) are trimmed and glued directly to the cover. Unfortunately, this is a conflicting combination. The book resists fully opening—it definitely doesn’t lie flat—and some pages’ text creeps into the inner margin, making it very difficult to read. I found myself worrying I was going to crease the outer pages by opening them too far or else crack the spine when reading the book’s middle portion. And though I handled my copy very carefully, the cover began to separate from the final gathering before I finished my first read-through.
Obviously, the PDFs possess none of these problems. By the same token, they can’t offer that one-of-a-kind material satisfaction of holding a book. Note: the PDFs are not fully searchable. On the other hand, they’re more searchable than a printed book.
Regardless of format, Tinney’s writing establishes the setting, creates an appropriate tone and atmosphere, conveys the rules in a clear and actionable way, and overall motivates you to want to play this game. Kingdoms is not without its occasional ambiguity, misplaced punctuation, misspellings, and a malaprop or two. But neither are the vast majority of other indie RPG zines. In a product with many other sterling features, they’re a bit disappointing, but none hinder gameplay.
What could hinder play, however, is some missing text. This is a noticeable obstacle in the genetics subsection of the Life Stages description—characters and entire words are cut off by the adjacent image. Given some scrutiny and consideration, readers can infer what’s missing, and the PDF can again come to your rescue; the text is fully readable there, as it is in supporting documentation.
The digital download bundle includes a Z-fold pamphlet that introduces the game and its fundamental workings. It is an excellent reference document that orients players and moves the game along while holding enough back to keep the DM integrally involved. It also includes a cover mechanic that isn’t presented in the core book, so make sure you review it in the supplement.
One major omission from all three documents is HP—a crucial survival tool that is frequently referenced but nowhere explained. Luckily, we know Kingdoms is built on ItO, and the ItO SRD tells us that starting HP is a d6. You’re good to go.
Unfortunately, the character sheet doesn’t include a designated spot for characters’ HP, speed, Power, Favor, or Light. There is some blank space you can record them in, but a designated block alongside the other basic information is conspicuously absent. Designated gear slots would also improve usability, but there is space in the Notes section on the back of the sheet.
Some other game mechanics are implied but never directly explained. Like the missing genetics text, a savvy DM can probably figure out (or decide) these nuances themselves, but the gaps may initially leave you scratching your head and flipping pages for a minute or two.
Despite moments of inefficiency or confusion, Kingdoms is functional as a rulebook. It sacrifices some usability on the altar of aesthetics (to borrow a phrase from Nohr), but it does so in the interest of pushing the bounds of what we expect from tabletop gaming documents and creating a richer experience for its readers and players.
Kingdoms isn’t perfect, but the issues I encountered are incidental, solvable, or even overlookable. None should prevent anyone from playing the game, and none prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending it to anyone who thinks it sounds fun. It is.
Ultimately, I’d say the PDF is more usable than the book, but that also won’t stop me from recommending you buy the print copy (which includes the digital version and supporting materials). This title pursues the ideal of an RPG art/rulebook, and it deserves a spot on your shelf. But I’d recommend leaving it there rather than using it as a resource at your table—first, to preserve a striking piece of material print culture, and second because some of its physical characteristics conflict with in-the-moment use as a game document.
None of this is the final word on Kingdoms. As of February 2021, Tinney has already released free digital content and is working on a follow-up supplement that will introduce a new continent, terrain, monsters, and electronic technology alongside other novel additions. In the meantime, the initial offering demonstrates promising creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration. The future of Kingdoms looks grim in the best possible way.
Just make sure you print a lot of character sheets.
Reflections on a DIY game of cutting, pasting, endings, beginnings … and adorable druids
But you’ll wish you had one in Chris Bissette’s Freelance RPG
And other cogent, coherent observations