One of the best tabletop RPGs I ever played, all made by a single person. The setting is unusual and disturbing, the game mechanics build the theme up and the illustrations are gorgeous.
From Jeff Himmelman, Kingdom of Nothing is a game about hope and despair. You play as someone in a worse situation than homeless people, you have forgotten your name and your past, everybody ignores you to the point they can’t see you.
You are one of the Lost.
Your goal is to remember your past, once you do it, you escape from the Nothing and becomes someone again. But that’s not easy, the things you did (and can’t remember) are haunting you, always tempting you and trying to make you succumb. The worst part? These things are now real, real monsters that can hurt and trick you.
At your side, you have a physical manifestation of your hope, it’s your Echo, and it helps you to discover your past. The Echo can take many forms, that stray dog that always accompany you, your deck of old cards or that one rusty portable radio that happens to play the right music at the right moments.
The sheet is given back to you, but you can’t see what the others wrote. Everybody knows your past, you don’t.
There are also mystic places and tools. Forgotten places like the Flickerport, an abandoned subway station that can transport the Lost anywhere. Odd contraptions like the Clatterpans, pans hanging on a wire that you can hear no matter where you are if someone trespass it.
If the setting is good, the mechanics are outstanding. Every piece of it exists to create the story.
First things first: character creation.
You start with few stats and a concept (that's the hard part), then you go to the background.
You write your nick (you forgot your name, I told you) on the back of your character sheet and pass it to the player to the left. He writes a secret about you and pass it to the next player, who writes another secret, and so on until everybody has a few secrets. The sheet is given back to you, but you can’t see what the others wrote. Everybody knows your past, you don’t.
Remember your Echo? Others can play it to give you hints about these secrets, but no Echo can talk.
This is one of the most ingenious mechanics I ever saw about sharing narrative. It gives the other players the right amount of freedom to steer the story, without asking the player to replace the Game Master for a scene.
Now, the second great game mechanic idea: to buy scenes.
Players can use coins to buy scenes, survival scenes cost no points nor advance the story, revelation scenes are expensive but in their end you have one of your secrets revealed (hence the name). There are two other types of scenes between them.
And how do you gain coins to buy scenes for you? Again, creating the story. You receive “plot coins” whenever you introduce a new character or place to the story, or when you play as the Echo of someone else, or when you give an insight about another character past.
In other words, help the others in their scenes so you can buy one for yourself. I saw mechanics like that before, and it really fits in the game here.
All the mechanics really shine as they allow the players to have great control over the story and the Game Master is more like a mediator than the one who rules over the plot. It’s a true shared narrative, but without all the burden to the players that usually comes with that.
Last part, dice rolling.
In short, instead of dice you throw coins. If you win, you get them back, if you fail, you lose them. In every throw you have to gamble the few coins you have, and losing them makes your next challenge even more likely to fail.
That creates great tension. It’s a snowball, once you start losing the only way is downhill.
The good part? Before throwing your precious coins, you can beg the other players if they got any “spare change”. Literally they can add their own coins to your throwing, if you win everybody gets their coins back, if you lose everybody loses their contribution.
This beautiful and thematic mechanic puts everybody in a fine line. Should I help her and risk to lose? Would anyone help me later if I don’t help her now?
As a last advice, if you are going to be the Game Master pay close attention to the rules. This is NOT played as your usual D&D.
For example, you should throw coins very sparingly, just once per scene is enough (preferably at its end). Remember, each throwing is a great risk, don’t banalize it. Other example: don’t play a session as one long scene without interludes. Create the scene, run it, finish it, and then ask the players who is going to buy the next scene. Think “Law and Order” or “Snatch” (a succession of quick scenes) instead of “Open Water” :P
The book is short and very well illustrated, the text has one or two places where the rules are not really clear. I also missed gameplay examples, it’s a bit tricky to get how some parts should be narrated, for example how the monsters (cobwebs) act towards a character.
On the other side, the settings are great and the game mechanics are fantastic. The only other game I saw where the rules fitted so well to the theme was “Don’t Rest Your Head” and, even so, this one wins by a large margin.
Extra benefit, the character creation is as fun as the gameplay and requires very little preparation. In my experience, the game is fast paced as most of the scene advances the story someway.
This fast pace leads to short campaigns, I guess something around 5 sessions of game (I never played a full campaign yet), but it’s not fast enough to fit in a one shot. That does not mean one shots are not possible, even without modifications, the player control over the story and the fast advancing plot are delicious for just a game night.
I strongly advise you to have your copy if you like what I described, it’s really cheap for the game quality. Its PDF is US$ 7,50.