The King Is Dead
We played this last night. It’s interesting! And pretty good. There are some things that keep it out of the “great” category for me, though.
The King Is Dead is a GM-less RPG about royal succession, sex, violence, sexy violence, and melodrama. Everyone plays a “warrior prince or warrior princess” of one of five Houses, each with a claim to a recently empty throne. Characters are made up of a handful of mechanically neutral traits, and you can refer back to a short bullet list about each House for more playing guidance. You pick one trait for yourself and then everyone else picks one for you. It felt to me like highlight stats in Apocalypse World, and I have to assume that making monkeys dance for your pleasure is a Vincent Baker slash Meguey Baker thing.
The game is comprised of several mini-games, with an overarching card game running through the whole thing. The cards are used to determine a “winner” (it’s a soft win but important, more on that in a minute) at the end of the game, as well as resolving battle vignettes if you should find yourself going to war. It’s got a Song of Ice and Fire vibe, so war and violence and all that is kind of inevitable.
We played just about all of the minigames, either out of curiosity or because the fiction led us there. I got the feeling that, in any given session of TKID, probably you won’t swing around to any game a second time around. They take a little while to play through, especially with new players, and once you’ve done it the novelty wears out. I think we repeated one game, A Conversation Over Food, because the fiction made sense and the A Reunion game led us there mechanically. Oh, and there’s a “stir the pot” game called Intrigue and Muster, where you pick from a list of stuff and introduce a new event into the ongoing fiction. The game starts with that, but if it’s your turn and you don’t have a firm idea of where to go, it’s kind of the default game to play. I think we went to it three times in our 3 hour session.
Most of the games end up fiddling with your cards, which I didn’t pay a ton of attention to because I was personally chasing fiction rather than a win. But when you have an RPG with win conditions, things can get…weird. (See also: Burning Empires, Rune, Agon, arguably 3:16, and so on.)
I think it’d be easy to dismiss the card game as unnecessary, but I get the sense that you can and maybe should let that game drive your play, at least a bit. It’s a measure of your current position in the race for the throne: the player with the most face cards and aces will be crowned, while the house with the most suits present in their endgame hand will be the “house ascendant,” with some inputs on how the post-game plays out. But getting into that “I must win this” head isn’t a great place when you’re also trying to play a GM-ful/less game where everyone needs to collaborate in good faith. It can be done! But it’s not a natural fit.
In our game, we had five players, one from each of the five houses. You can also play rivals from the same house, but for variety’s sake we spread it out. They’re all Europe-y: fake England and fake Spain and fake France and fake Scandinavia maybe and uhhh fake Other England kind of. Some of that’s just in the names, I think. Easy to hook into in any case.
Every game starts with a game of Intrigue and Muster, played by the player who starts with the highest card. (Everyone reveals their highest card, which is great because it makes everyone’s ears perk up knowing where the aces and kings are.) That first pick set the tone for our entire game, so it’s really important! In our case, the player chose an event where House Luneste (overseas weirdos) starts converting folks to a new, very modern religion. Everything else kind of spooled out from that.
The next game was An Animated Disagreement, in which my princess of Sandoreale went to confront her buddy, the prince of Antyre, about why he was allowing his folks to be converted. There was some hard framing there on my part, and it took a pretty long time to get Antyre’s player to understand that I, another player, needed to get him, as a player, to agree that there’d be a disagreement. His instinct was to compromise, find a middle road, and I was like no, NO, this is fighting, we need to fight. So I kept upping the disagreement until I hit his “oh hell no” wall. In this case, I went to him demanding that he put the converts to death immediately.
After that Dillestone threw a state dinner and we played A Conversation Over Food. The rules to set that up and execute are a little hard to follow, but we muddled through and went around a couple times. Mostly this was an opportunity to make soft moves to telegraph future intentions, which I tried to model by having my Sandoreale princess linger over the Luneste princess just a bit too long and wouldn’t Stealing Time Together sound nice in the near future?
So that’s where we went. Stealing Time Together is my favorite of the minigames, because it’s a nicely tense, sexy sequence. You start out by deciding if the meeting is illicit, which we decided, yeah, because of the same-sex thing: my church would punish me and expel the foreign princess to her own country. Then it’s on everyone else not in the scene to decide if you’ve been intruded on. Which is very interesting. The back-and-forth is great tension-building because, well, if you got into the scene you probably kind of do want to take it to its conclusion, but different conclusions produce different effects in the card game. Not unexpectedly, my most-trad least-experienced player in the group made crude jokes and generally acted out his discomfort, while also getting antsy about “why are you even having this scene, I thought you were trying to win the throne?!” Making allies, friendo. It worked: I later was able pull my lover into a wartime alliance.
Probably the most emotionally fraught bit was when a player did an Intrigue and Muster and had the angry crypto-Vikings come to Dillestone (the former king’s house) and bend the knee, which forced him to give up his best card to Dillestone. He was next, and immediately called for the Sword to Sword game, which is the personal combat thing. It was great! But we had some problems with Sword to Sword. In talking with others who have played this game, we’re not alone.
The premise is great: everyone decides who has the upper hand in the fight, and then the weaker party begins by selecting one of several opening plays. It’s all narrative: I give you an opening to make a dirty move, do you take it? Stuff like that. After it’s gone back and forth three times (and therefore it’s the stronger fighter’s go), a second list of moves opens up.
The main issue we had with Sword to Sword is that it’s super-fraught with mortality-type anxiety in the players, combined with the I Must Win aspect of the card game. It’s very high stakes, so it’s hard to hold the game at arms’ length and play it in good faith. There’s also, procedurally, some vagueness as to what exactly ends combat and who calls it over. Sometimes the moves are super literal: I’ve got my sword to your throat, do you submit or flee? Submit and flee are both explicitly combat-ending events. But then there’s the “I give you an opening to make a dirty hit, do you take it?” and that’s…less explicit. This matters because the way the combat ends tells you what happens to your highest card. Like, if it’s cool for me to say “oh jeez, yeah, that dirty blow wounds me, I’m calling it over,” then I just discard my best card. That’s a tactically better option than “welp, you forced me to submit or flee,” which gives your opponent your best card. You also have to judge for yourself what ended the combat, which is hard to evaluate. In our combat, Antyre got in a dirty hit early but when he had the chance to force the “submit or flee” closing option, he totally took that because he knew he’d get Dillestone’s highest card.
There are some solutions we batted around after arguing for a half-hour, along the lines of banishing “accomplished at arms” as a trait (literally everyone is a “warrior prince/princess” in the game, that sure sounds like everyone should be accomplished at arms by default), explicitly allowing either side to announce when they’ve lost and how (so there’s some flexibility in how the endgame plays out), or explicitly requiring keywords be invoked by the moves you make (way less flexible, and it also reduces the combat minigame to a non-tense fight if the better fighter’s player shows up intent on winning that fucking card game).
There was also a matter of the forced ending – flee or submit – directly violating the losing player’s sense of his character. He just didn’t see either option as acceptable for principled character reasons. I suggested he could X card the attacker’s combat-ending move and ask him to choose something else, even something where his stalwart character just dies, but X-carding in that moment feels ultra-fraught to everyone involved because it’s just so hard to tell how much good faith went into that decision. Was it editorial or tactical? Ugh. This is why adding competitive elements to RPGs is weird.
The resulting fiction of the combat was marvelous, though, with Dillestone and Antyre now sworn enemies. Oake tried to make nice with his pal Prince Dillestone, but that didn’t go well because of the ongoing bad feelings. And then we hit the end of our time slot, so I invoked the War minigame, explaining that I wanted to take advantage of the rift between Dillestone and everyone else.
The War game is also fraught and weird. You build a bigger hand of cards by cashing in your single highest card, which is great because just starting a war is a costly gamble. Terrific. Then you and your opponent bid cards from your enlarged hands to defend “things at risk,” chosen from a list keyed to each side’s House. It’s colorful but also kind of meaningless, since unless you engage with War you never look at what’s at risk prior to the war, and there’s no fictional investment in anything on that list. Like, my warrior princess allied with her lover at the outset and then defended her elite cavalry, which was at risk in the first vignette. I did that purely for showy fictional reasons, and it felt good to do so, but after that, literally nothing that was called out as “at risk” felt like anything either of us cared about. Mostly I just burned through low cards while my opponent opted to not bid (which is a choice if you have the fewest cards).
In War, you can also sue for peace at any time when it’s your turn. So instead of having one of your fictional bullet points called out as “at risk,” you say the “terms of peace” is what’s at risk. Then you bid like normal, and the winner gets to dole out cards to everyone who participated. Tactically we couldn’t figure out why we wouldn’t sue for peace as our first action, other than I guess to wait until we’d burnt down their cards, but I’m 100% certain we were both tossing our lowest cards on the earlier vignettes because we just didn’t care about the bullet points. And on the fiction side, there was just kind of a lot of shrugging that thus-and-such castle was about to fall or so-and-so’s veteran cavalry was facing death. It was my least favorite of the minigames but I’m still thinking about whether I overlooked something important.
Ah: since this was the end of the game, I think that altered my perception of the importance of the push-your-luck element of War. If we’d had another hour or whatever to play, I may have been left with a really weak, small hand. I’ll have to see if that’s an important consideration. I think it’s probably okay if each player has to decide how low to go in terms of hand size before someone either cries uncle or demands an endgame bid.
We played through other stuff too: the Reunion, which rolls immediately into other social games, Trials by Contest, which are super weird in terms of fictionally framing these trials (like, your opponent can demand you throw her a feast at your expense, which is hilarious but also…did a few weeks just pass by?), and An Animated Disagreement, which has the best audience participation element. The only games we didn’t play were A Chase and A Dance. Next time!
Based on feedback from folks who had played before, and my own reading and spotting areas I could tell might need some help, I did a few extra things:
Put out big paper for a shared map. My understanding is that the final game will come with a deck of cards full of locations and other map features, but it felt like it would be good to have everyone grounded in the geography of the place. So I threw out a super rough coastline (the dead king is the “Sovereign of the Seaward Coast,” and one of the Houses is explicitly from overseas) and went around to everyone to have them add details and brief descriptions of their home turf. Unfortunately, when I got to the War minigame, I saw there are already lots of locations already defined. I wish I’d known that first, and playing again I might consider dotting the map with them. Dunno. Setup is pretty snappy and that’d slow things down.
Emphasized the X card as an editorial tool. My home group doesn’t really know much about the X card and it’s not part of their play culture. I explained that, given the GMlessness of the game, if we need to object to something, the X is a good way to go. I pushed it hard during the setup, where we’re giving each other traits. It’s super easy to get a trait that doesn’t fit the (very rough and early) mental map of your character. It was useful to veto traits if they were too off-key.
Emphasized that everyone needs to be asking questions all the time. This is mostly a GM tool, but for my players who don’t GM much, it’s not a habit of their play. I was kind of facilitating, so I was asking lots of questions, but I also tried to ask questions about questions, like “so what do you want to know about this dinner, Prince Oake?” or whatever. Still, it was kind of too easy for folks to blaze past the fictional positioning and try to get into the minigames’ resolution.
Telegraph future hard moves with early soft moves. I did this a couple times, like making goo-goo eyes at another character over dinner to set up for a sexy liaison later. I think that’s super-important, whether you do it diegetically or authorially between the players, like “I really need to corner you privately so we can talk alliance, howzabout A Reunion since you’re next up to choose a game?”
Constantly dragged everyone back to the fiction. This is largely due to the looming spectre of winning and losing that hangs over an RPG where you can win and lose. I have Burning Empires damage, what can I say? But it feels so, so important in this game to de-emphasize that aspect in order to keep minds focused on what’s actually happening in the fiction. That said, it might be a mistake to do so. The game does a good job of nudging folks toward escalation, because in the escalated high-stakes games you have a chance to grab other players’ highest cards. That feels like a facilitating touch I’ll need to evolve and adjust based on who I’m playing with.
Things I will do different next time I facilitate:
More informed consent about what’s at stake in any given minigame. The card game is pretty opaque but also important-ish to some players. I think it’d be important, before committing to any game, to talk about what you stand to win or lose.
Make House tent cards. I want to take the bullet list for each House and put it on the back of a pre-printed tent card, so you can always look at it to help guide your play. Our handmade tent cards were just trait lists and names, and folks were constantly thumbing to the back of their booklets.
Ditch “accomplished at arms” and assume everyone is. This will force more of a conversation at the table about who actually has the upper hand in Sword to Sword, which feels fruitful. The table was split on this solution, though, mostly along competitive lines. Those of us who were just chasing the fiction kind of didn’t care, and thought it’d be totally fine and even good if there was some asymmetry there: if I’m pulled into mortal combat and I won’t have the upper hand, I may very well choose to bail early with a wound instead of making them choose the one boring closing move over and over. But I want to experiment so that’s what I’d do at least next time.
Maybe write a minigame cheat sheet to make the card game less opaque. Everyone wished they knew stuff like “which game should I go for if I want to take their better card?” or “How do I get more cards into my hand right now?” I’m not sure if the card game’s opacity is a bug or a feature. I do feel like with two or three plays you could play The King is Dead super-tactically, which might be fun. I have no sense of how tightly designed the card aspect of the game is, but I hope it’s tight!
Bottom line: we had fun, with some caveats. Despite hammering away at good-faith play and following the fiction, there’s still the pressure of trying to win the card game with opaque tools. The Intrigue and Muster “add more stuff” game has to be used with a very delicate touch, otherwise I think it’d be super easy to have too much stuff. I think a physical map is absolutely vital, but nowhere in the game is there any discussion of that. If folks try to improvise around the narrative they’re given for any particular game, I think it’s easy to get lost and not know how to respond. We don’t love how the most consequential games, Sword to Sword and War, play out. And everyone needs to bring an instinct for melodrama and conflict, not peace-making and compromise. But when the game works, I think it works really well and in a way I haven’t experienced yet in GMless/ful play.