Kingdom Death: Monster: red in tooth and claw

, | Game diaries

Blood shoots from your femoral artery at an alarming rate, killing you in seconds.

The title “Blood Geyser” precedes the text in boldface type. It’s what happens when you take a severe injury to the legs and roll a 1 on the Severe Injuries table for legs. It’s how Ariadne died after being dragged away by a White Lion.

When I was a kid, I stumbled across a tabletop RPG, set in a post-apocalyptic setting, called Aftermath! (exclamation point theirs). It came out the same year as Road Warrior, so I was really into post-apocalypses. The grimmer the better. I had been playing Dungeons & Dragons, with its cleanly abstracted hit points, armor classes, longswords that did 1d8 damage, and owlbears that did 1d6, 1d6, and 2d6 damage. But Aftermath! would have none of that. When you got hit in Aftermath! you rolled a hit location and then a hit result. And not just d20s. The detail in Aftermath! demanded d100s. You checked that location for armor and looked up what happened in terms of bruising, bleeding, stunning, sprains, lacerations, bone fractures, dismemberments, and so forth. You could get shot in the elbow or punched in the right hip or bitten on the buttock or even take an arrow to the knee. For the first time since the release of Skyrim, that is not a joke. You could literally take an arrow to the knee.

We didn’t play a lot of Aftermath!, partly because it was unwieldy. In the time D&D took to ask the innkeep for rumors, venture into the elf forests, explore a bunch of gnome caves, vanquish the dragon du jour, and then argue about who gets the +1 longsword, your Aftermath! character was still resolving a one-on-one brawl with a bandit. But we also didn’t play a lot of Aftermath! because it didn’t lend itself to the kinds of power fantasies we expected from our Friday nights. After all those die rolls and charts and checking for how much armor is on your left hand, you might come away with an infected wound, or a broken leg, or a concussion. You might get decapitated. Aftermath! delivered a post-apocalypse that was a bit too grim. We were willing to go Gamma World grim, but not much further.

Since setting aside Aftermath!, I’ve played games with mostly abstract combat. I’ve chipped away at hit points, life bars, and health points. Death has been what happens when something reaches zero, and gameplay is about making sure the other guy’s something hits zero before yours. It’s like not losing all your lives in Super Mario Bros. It’s math. And not even hard math. Just subtraction, which is the most boring of all maths.

Kingdom Death: Monster will have none of that. Characters don’t have hit points. They have locations. The first point of damage on a location causes a light injury. You can walk that off. But the second point of damage causes a heavy injury and basically the loss of a turn while the character recovers. Any damage beyond that, whether it’s this hit or a separate hit a few rounds later, refers you to the Severe Injuries tables. People are frail things.

This will never change. You will not level up and get more points to put into your arms, legs, and torso. Your characters will not earn more hit points. Their trunk and limbs will always be two points from having to roll on an injury table that can outright kill them. They’ll eventually get armor to protect certain locations, but those locations will never be less frail. A body part will always go from light, to heavy, to severe injuries. With one exception. A head is an especially frail thing, so it goes straight to its Severe Injury table after a single point of damage. Always wear a helmet when riding a bike, touring construction sites, or adventuring in Kingdom Death.

So when Ariadne’s bare leg took three points of damage, the first point checked her leg’s light injury box, the second point checked her legs’ heavy injury box, and the third sent her to page 86 of Kingdom Death: Monster’s absurdly beautiful hardbound rules book. The ensuing roll of a d10 produced a 1. The Severe Injury table for Legs elucidated on the 1.

Blood Geyser. Blood shoots from your femoral artery at an alarming rate, killing you in seconds.

This is the opening battle in Kingdom Death: Monster. It’s the very first thing you do. Well, the second thing you do. The first thing you do is glue together little pieces of plastic until they look like four people and a lion. The second thing you do is this battle. It’s the combat intro, fought on an empty board. One White Lion. Four level zero characters. In loincloths. Wielding rocks. It’s a prologue to prepare a new player for spilled blood, maiming, and even the occasional instant death. “Alarming rate,” indeed.

It’s also a solid way to spin out the combat mechanics laid bare, with cards and flavor text establishing the action, with simple movement, with simple die rolls without many modifiers, with no fancy abilities or equipment. I figured it was going to be a quick tutorial to chuck some dice and dole out free experience points. But Ariadne’s femoral artery got ripped open and then there were three. The artwork warns you, but the gameplay will drive home the point soon enough. Kingdom Death: Monster intends to nestle in the horror genre.

The cards, the die rolls, the positioning, the hit locations, and the charts all work to create a quick burst of vivid violence rather than a steady exercise in subtracting hit points. When I’m using characters wearing something other than loin cloths and brandishing something other than rocks they picked up off the ground, I imagine this will slow down and get more elaborate, more intricate, presumably less risky. We’ll see.

This showdown — the combats are called showdowns — began with the four survivors surrounding the White Lion. Not for any tactical reasons. You can position your survivors on the empty board however you like, so long as they’re a specific distance from the lion. It’s just that I didn’t really know how else to start. Everyone clumped together? Flanking him from two sides? Might as well flank him from four sides.

Ariadne was in front and naturally the lion charged her. Monsters get to go first. That’s how horror works. His attack was a pair of glancing blows with his claws, resulting in Ariadne’s lightly wounded hands and her loincloth destroyed (its armor value 1 is reduced to 0 after absorbing a point of damage). She then had the chance to circle around behind the lion to attack its blind spot. And miss.

But Delia, opposite Ariadne and now farthest away, threw her stone. She connected with a critical hit. The first scenario goes a little easy on you by giving each character a stone that can be thrown for an instant critical hit. But then your character doesn’t have a stone anymore. Then his or her later attacks are scratching and biting. Delia’s stone rips off the lion’s “strange hand” — since this is horror, the freaky lion has human hands — and gives Delia a permanent strength boost that will help her wound monsters. Let’s hope she stays alive. Edgar and Bartholomew close the distance as best they can, hanging on to their stones. In retrospect, they probably should have thrown them.

(Wondering about the names? I was grouping male and female characters into separated pairs and starting their names at the beginning of the alphabet. Those were the first to come to mind that weren’t too dumb.)

On the Lion’s next turn, he draws an AI card called Power Swat. This means he whirls on Ariadne, now behind him, and flings her across the room. Right into Delia. Now the two women are down, which means they have to skip their next turn. But it also means the lion doesn’t consider them a threat, so it will most likely target one of the two men next. They continue closing the distance. Bartholomew gets two hits. He draws a pair of hit location cards to determine the potential damage he can inflict. One of the cards is a “trap” card that invalidates all hits that turn. I didn’t plan for the men to be so hopeless. It just turned out that way.

The lion’s next AI card is called Grasp. It’s an attack that specifically singles out characters who have been knocked down. The attack then moves that character as far away as the monster can travel. So Delia — knocked down when Ariadne sailed past her — is dragged off to the side of the board, sustaining a light wound. As Ariadne struggles to stand up, the men continue closing the distance helplessly. It’s hard to catch up with a lion when it’s running around, playing with its food.

The lion’s next card is called Sizing Up. It targets the nearest threat, which means anyone except Delia lying vulnerably at the Lion’s feet. That target is Ariadne. The attack is called Intimidate. It inflicts damage to a character’s brain. Brains can’t absorb a lot of damage. It’s like a sanity check in a horror game. I did mention this is a horror game, right? So now Ariadne is wounded and a little crazy, and knocked down again because a White Lion’s fearsome roar is the kind of fearsome that knocks you on your ass. But now Delia gets up, conveniently in the lion’s blind spot where he left her when he turned to roar at Ariadne. She gets in a solid hit, drawing the tail as a hit location. Appropriate. The Lion is dinged with a little damage, which depletes it’s deck of actions by one card. A monster doesn’t have hit points. It has a deck of AI cards representing their actions. You kill it by depleting the deck.

But Delia’s hit to the lion’s tail results in the lion taking an action, even though it was Delia’s turn. That’s how the Hit Location cards work. They might specify some sort of reaction based on whether the hit causes damage or not. In this case, the lion charges forward and is now looming over Ariadne, who struggles to stand up, her brain reeling, wounds on her hand and waist. She takes a swing with the rock, connects and draws a hit location for the lion’s paw. If she can make the strength roll, it will damage the lion, knocking another AI card out of its deck. But she fails. And as the hit location card tells you, when you fail against a lion’s paw, it gets to attack you at +2 damage, which will guarantee a roll on the Severe Injuries table if it connects. Which it does. With her leg. And she rolls her 1 on the table for severe injuries to the leg. Blood Geyser.

Because subtraction is the least interesting type of math, I don’t generally enjoy dungeon crawls where you huck a couple of dice to punch away the hit points of various bags of hit points. Some of the bags are called orcs. Other bags are called skeletons or bandits. A particularly big bag of hit points might be called a dragon. I’ve punched these bags of hit points so many times, in computer games and at tabletops, going all the way back to my days swinging longswords at owlbears. I’m not terribly interested in that sort of thing. I can think of few games I’d be less inclined to play than Descent. I tried Imperial Assault. Gloomhaven’s ill conceived dynamics of dwindling character power leave me as exhausted as my characters. I tried Swords and Sorcery. I wasn’t exactly enchanted.

But after the lurid violence of this prologue battle, which is basically a demonstration of the bloodletting to come, I’m intrigued by Kingdom Death: Monster. And given the investment (monetary and temporal), I damn well better be.

Eventually the three survivors — that’s what characters are called in Kingdom Death: Monster even before anyone has died — finished off the lion. Delia got a critical hit on the lion’s throat, toppling it long enough for Edmund to get a critical hit on the lion’s fleshy belly. Two critical hits. The dice taketh away, the dice giveth. Before it died, the lion vomited all over Edmund and bestowed him with three points of insanity. Then they cut apart its bloody vomity carcass for lion pieces that I guess we’ll trade for valuable prizes? That comes next when we get to the settlement. Which doesn’t even exist yet, because we’re still in the prologue.

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The artwork at the top of the article is from here.