The RPG review that almost never happened. You ever have an experience where you thought you had completed something, and no one called you out, so it took a really long time to discover the task was not, in fact, completed. This is one of those experiences for me. I swore I had posted this review some time ago and just figured out it hadn’t. Brad Murray, I promise, it’s nothing personal—the hamster that keeps my brain working just fell off the wheel. Without further ado, here’s the review I prepared several weeks ago—complete with some edits and updates made after giving the material time to sync in.
Full Disclosure: Brad Murray of VSCA did provide me with a complimentary digital and physical copy of The King Machine for review. There was no other potential exchange of goods, services, or favors.
For those who know me, this should not be an issue. I tell it like it is—or, at least, like I see it. I’ve never held back on my reviews and I’m not like some reviewers who will refuse to review things they are not fans of. Don’t consider that a precursor to this review, just a statement of fact.
The King Machine weighs in at a whopping 86 pages in—what is this, prestige edition? I’ve never been a fan of the smaller print for my gaming books, like FATE, but for this thinner roleplaying game book, it works. I also must commend the author / publisher right off the bat, because this is something that has come up recently with some delayed physical products, but released PDFs from Kickstarted RPGs; thank you for adding this bit right in the beginning:
If you’re a printer or a copy shop and wondering whether it’s okay for the person at your counter to print it, it is. They have permission to print the hell out of this.
First of All, What is this RPG?
While the bake explains The King Machine as roleplaying game where you take on the role of being a simple, hardworking ape with an untrustworthy leader, so you have to take it upon yourself to do the good things, I’d be remiss if I didn’t share Murray’s much shorter description shared with me in email—after I agreed to do the review: “The King Machine (part of a series and very hippie, customized PbtA sort of endeavor).”
Right there, folks. Had I had one or both of those descriptions in my hand ahead of time, I probably wouldn’t have given this book another look. I am probably the farthest thing from a hippie—or, hippie enjoying—gamer you can find. The Power by the Apocalypse concept might have drawn me in for a second look, but I dunno….and, frankly, it is not PbtA, but similar in concept.
This is not to say that I am disappointed I agreed to do this review blind. Quite the opposite, in fact. I enjoyed what I read overall, and I’ll explain why as I go through the review. What happened here was I learned an important lesson about myself: sometimes I like what I never would’ve guessed I liked—except corduroy, that material should be thrown off into the furthest reaches of the abyss never to return.
A Roleplaying Game that Steers Away from Violence
I grew up playing through hack-and-slash dungeon crawl adventures with a little bit of role playing on the side. As I grew older, we did more roleplaying, creating interesting characters and stories that surrounded the fighting, the violence, and the rampant death and destruction. The King Machine actually makes it a point to reward solving problems without violence. Don’t get me wrong, even early versions of Dungeons & Dragons granted XP by overcoming challenge without fighting, but I feel pretty safe in saying most of us didn’t play that way (although many did). You know the in-depth combat system you’re going to find in Pathfinder? The King Machine promises I won’t find it here. In fact, in the earliest pages, the creator notes there is no combat system here—every choice carries equal weight and you must decide how your story unfolds, violence should never be central.
What Do You Do?
This phrase has always been a part of roleplaying games, but more modern RPGs have made it more central. This really became clear to me when I first played Apocalypse World. The players held so much narrative control and it was so central, it was like a lightbulb went off. Why hadn’t we been doing this more often though literally decades of playing?
That’s a key focus here in The King Machine as well. “What do you do?” is meant to drive the entire story.
The system used in The King Machine makes use of new terms, but relatively traditional concepts. Methods are like Aspects from FAE or the basic stats from PbtA games, or skills from a wide variety of games. Methods are not the same as any one of these things, but similar. Methods in The King Machine include rescue, mischief, chase, violence, and more.
When there is a challenge that the outcome is unknown and there is substantial risk—the referee (Gamemaster in other games) will set a risk. In other roleplaying games, we might be familiar with wounds, trauma, or simply failure as the risk. The King Machine provides a wealth of different potential risks including debt, wounds, revelation, confusion, and more. To give you a quick idea here, Revelation means something you didn’t want to be true becomes true upon failure. That’s kind of cool, but something I think is often just a side effect of playing the game—it’s part of storytelling. Here, we’re codifying it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means, potentially, there are a number of things we’ll need to keep track of, especially when we’re still learning to play the game. No, Revelation doesn’t have a wound track like other games, but it means there are a number of options the referee will need to be familiar with instead of just combat stats and narratively ruling on the rest. Still, to me, it is an interesting idea.
Based on methods, loot, and potential assistance from other players, you will roll a pool of dice. This pool will include d6s, d8s, d10s, and d12s. Once the stakes have been set, methods and assistance chose, roll the pool of dice. The player then chooses which one of those rolled dice to act as their result and the possible results mirror PbtA games.
- 1-3 fail: risk is realized
- 4-6 succeed but risk is realized
- 7-9 succeed
- 10-12 legendary: succeed and something awesome results
There are rules for a character to die or otherwise be removed from an adventure due to accumulating too many risks (like wounds). While there is a lot of discussion these days about GMs and players agreeing on the narrative and choosing when a character dies for dramatic effect, this isn’t always appropriate. Here, in The King Machine, however, RAW is that the player and player alone chooses if and when they want their character to die and/or be removed from the game. I’m not necessarily a big fan of this. I agree in player agency and empowering players to help create the narrative, but not at the expense of limiting the power of the GM (or, the referee as the case may be).
They also use Fronts from PbtA and deadlines, a variation of such.
This is kind of neat. Characters do not level in The King Machine. We have certainly seen this in other games before. Here, characters improve by rolling well. Roll max results on a die and you can improve a Method, choose a new specialization, or even a new specialization of a specialization. I don’t know how much of a fan I am of a specialization of a specialization. I can explain why. I ran into this problem with Cypher System. The lack of definition of skills and their broadness could cause issues. One character might take athletics with jumping as a specialization. Another character might take jumping as the core skill, so be automatically limited when compared to that first character.
I am, however, a fan of dice rolls impacting advancement. However, I don’t know if I like the automatic immediate benefit. Other games have kind of a track that aligns with this and also consider poor rolls (learning through failure) being a chance for improvement. Yes, the tracks might be unnecessary tracking, but that’s just my immediate thought. I did run some quick tests with my kids and they loved the hell out of the immediate improvement, perhaps a sign of a younger generation’s need for instant gratification? If that’s offensive, consider that some people have that need for instant gratification rather than stereotyping by age/generation.
Character Creation in The King Machine
Character creation in this game is based on choice rather than random dice rolls. I may have failed to mention earlier that every character in the game is some sort of primate (besides human). That idea is kind of neat to me. Each species has a method they are strongest in. I don’t know how much research went into this and even if the designer randomly chose which method went to which species, I’m not going to knock it. One thing I found interesting, from a psychology perspective, was that the first species is chimpanzee and their focus method is violence. Remember the whole discussion about violence not being central? Here, in a new chapter, it’s the first thing. It made me do a double take, honestly.
Methods are given dice by choice—either d6 or d8. You do choose one Method you will not purchase for your character. It’s kind of like a built-in weakness, which is good for trying to put a team together. No method is really like a dump stat, though, so it is hopeful the whole group won’t choose the same Deny Method.
In some games, characters being a part of an organization is considered more of an advanced option. Here, it is almost central to the character creation process. It’s kind of like a focus to help define your character.
I won’t get into stealing the author’s thunder here. I will say this. I have been reading a lot games recently and I have two kinds of setting write ups. The first kind is one that has an idea but little more. The writing up of the setting almost seems like an afterthought or the author thinks that everyone is on the same page as them, so it doesn’t require as much effort. Unfortunately, they’re a bit wrong. The second kind of setting write up I have seen is one that is done well. It seems like a handful of talented writers and editors have worked on the setting over years and years and put a lot of effort into its creation. On the downside here is that their settings seem so much like other similar settings, it’s almost hard to distinguish one from another.
The King Machine isn’t like either of those two kinds of settings I have been reading a lot of recently. It is creative. It is not long-winded but is done skillfully. There are enough familiar ideas to keep people on the same pages, but there are also neat little nuances that make the mind wander with imagery and imagination.
So, is The King Machine Worth It?
Remember earlier on I said it’s not the kind of game I would’ve picked up of my own accord, but I was happy I did get a chance to review it? That holds true. I need to get a chance to play a few games to know how I really feel about it, but the concepts are both familiar enough that I won’t get lost and different enough that I don’t feel like I am just playing a reskinned clone. The ideas are pretty neat and make it seem like something that will allow for a lot of creative narrative from both sides of the table. Finally, it has enough rules that it seems like an actual game (not like Fiasco) but not so much that play is going to get hung up on those rules. I’d say, if you’re looking for something different to give a try, you really should check out VSCA’s The King Machine.
Thanks for this extremely thoughtful review! I am very pleased that you didn’t know enough to dismiss it before reviewing — in fact I think I tried to warn you but thankfully failed. 😀
Quite the contrary–the more I read it, the more drawn in I became. Great work, man. I did forget to mention how it’s to be part of a series and look forward to seeing more.