Hands-On: Knights of Pen And Paper +1

Knights of Pen and Paper +1 is the Paradox-published PC version of a handheld meta-RPG. At a recent preview event, I created a party led by a hipster paladin and headed into the lands of clichés and catacombs. This is what I discovered.

There was a slightly awkward moment in the presentation that preceded the hands-on session. After introducing the basic concept of the game and showing a few screenshots to illustrate how combat, shopping and travel work (IN THE GAME), the Paradox producer at the front of the room asked people to raise their hands if they had ever indulged in tabletop roleplaying.

Silence. No movement.

He asked again, urging people not to be shy, and almost every hand in the room was raised. Well, half of them. I don’t think anyone threw both hands in the air and yelled out, ‘RIFT Rifts was my youth, I tell you, the very essence of my adolescence’. My hands remained on the keyboard, as I surreptitiously scrolled through the other games installed on the Paradox Steam account (CK II: Old Gods alpha, if you’re wondering, more of which soon). I have never Masqueraded as a Vampire or biffed a dragon on the bonce while consulting a rulebook, and suddenly that made me an outsider.

I was in some twilight zone that had become the precise social opposite of high school.

It isn’t essential to have a full understanding of D&D and its brethren to appreciate the delightful concept at the heart of Knights of Pen and Paper. It’s an RPG in which the characters are playing an RPG. The player controls a disparate group of jocks, nerds, hipsters and the like, who begin the adventure in a dungeon/basement, sitting around a table in a group. Their personalities and surroundings impact on their abilities in the game, so it made sense to have the little brother play as a rogue because his constant attention seeking gives him higher initiative – handy to get in those critical strikes early.

While the pixel visuals won’t be everyone’s cup of brewed leaves, I find them a charming example of the style, and they allow for a great deal of reference and invention without huge expenditure of resources. There are non-specific allusions to RPG mainstays, such as plagues of rats and bats for puny level 1 heroes to grind against, but also specific nods and winks to games and the wider culture that is pop. I spotted an IT Crowd pinball machine in a screenshot, which pleased me an inordinate amount.

And that partly sums up the appeal of this meta-RPG, which began its life as a mobile and tablet game. Although it contains a great deal of content, some of which will no doubt be challenging at the higher level end of the adventure, the pleasure is not in learning systems but in sampling the strange and intentionally artificial storytelling.

The first settlement, following a dungeon escape, is called Default Town and it’s as bland as the name suggests, but the games master (also player controlled to an extent) starts plucking stories from memory, with little care for cohesive world-building. There are arcade machines spewing out enemies in the shape of enemies from all of gaming’s yesterdecades and roughly sketched equivalents to creatures from other RPGs. The cumulative effect is like flicking through a particularly nerdy friend’s DVD collection and bookcase. If it’s on the shelves, it’s going to end up in the game when he/she runs out of other ideas. This is an RPG made by the dweeb Keyser Söze, cribbing details from his surroundings.

New characters and classes are unlocked as the player progresses across the world map, completing story quests. In each location, it’s also possible to have the dungeon master create sidequests, either to collect specific objects that are linked to monster types, or to grind for experience. A simple menu provides a choice of objectives and difficulty is a case of selecting the number and type of creatures that stand between the heroes and completion. Along with experience and items, there is also cash to collect, and it can be spent to purchase items for the roleplayers and for their characters.

That creates a disconnect from the theme that irks me more than is perhaps reasonable. How is the money that my hipster paladin plucks from a rat corpse in the make believe world available to buy snacks, drinks, pets, decorations or furniture in the real world? I’d prefer to have two types of currency, with the real world variety earned by characters doing their day job. Maybe they’d have to take time out from the game, meaning parties had to make up the numbers by recruiting less experienced roleplayers with crappy characters while their star mage sodded off to do his paper round. Makes sense to me.

As it is, new players can be recruited, using the money earned in the game. At present, it’s also possible to purchase extra in-game currency via micro transactions, although it’s not clear whether that feature is a remnant of the port not yet excised from the preview version. There were also instances of leftover text requesting that the player tapped the screen rather than clicking the mouse but the code isn’t final.

Players of the handheld version will know exactly what to expect. As the +1 suggests, this new edition adds content rather than changing anything fundamental. Along with more of the same, there are also dungeons that dwell at the upper end of the difficulty ramp and a new game + mode for a second playthrough.

With its simple menu-based combat and the player’s ability to set the pace of progress using the dungeon master, Knights of Pen and Paper is a snack game. Something to play while listening to a favourite podcast or watching a televisual broadcast of a sporting event. In fact, I wish I could have it on my computer right now to while away the early parts of each frame in the World Snooker Championship. I know myself too well though – I claim I’ve discovered a mild diversion or distraction, and as long as I enjoy the theme and the wit, I’ll keep pushing buttons and watching numbers rise until I’ve seen every screen of content it has to offer.

It would be fair to ask if the PC is a natural habitat for such a game, which would so perfectly fill the time spent on public transport or the toilet. I welcome more games that require minimal effort to sit alongside the maddeningly complex simulations that dominate my desktop. Right now I’m playing yet another time-consuming, mind-pounding historical strategy game and, as the night turns to morning and I’m still slouching before the screen, I’d be happy to alt-tab into a colourful little world where the only pressing concern is buying the next slice of pizza.


  1. Teovald says:

    I played this on android tablet, it is not a very good deal there either. There are far better mobile games, kopp is far too repetitive imo.

  2. Lacero says:

    “CK II: Old Gods alpha”

    You’re such a tease Adam.

  3. lhzr says:

    from the pcgamer article: link to pcgamer.com

    it seems the microtransactions are not just a remnant of the ios version:
    “But what’s this? Apparently I’m “Out of Gold”, and must click to buy more with real money. Knights of Pen and Paper started life as microtransaction-heavy iOS game, you see, and those systems will still be in place for the PC release.”

    also: “in the early stages I play there are already traces of grind.”

    • RedViv says:

      Uch. Let’s just hope they learn from other people’s mistakes and make it about skipping time only. Because this really seems like a nice little game.

      • dontnormally says:

        I played this on my phone and not once felt the need to purchase gold. A seasoned RPG’r will notice the systems in an instant and just make sure to have a few +%-to-gold items on hand to stay ahead of the curve; simple.

    • RaytraceRat says:

      I played this game on my phone as a “toilet time killer”. Finished it without having to grind or pay anything. It just won’t let you to buy everything you want just like that.
      Just after the release cost of moving around and upgrading equipment was really high, but they changed that in patches.
      It’s not really game for a PC, not enough to do there to justify sitting if front of a computer and sinking time, but for a mobile game is not bad at all.

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      The grind is definitely there – having the dungeon master player controlled means the pace can be set by the user to an extent though. If you’re feeling brave/canny you can take on more monsters during a story quest to increase your levelling speed.

      As for the transactions, I didn’t run out of money so didn’t have them offered to me. I just found the button that links to them. The price point hasn’t been decided yet, as far as the people there on the day knew, so I couldn’t get any info on ‘the business model’, as I believe it is called. Anything that can be bought with real money is to skip forward quickly rather than exclusive content.

      • Zeewolf says:

        The game can’t be very good if they want players to pay for the priviledge of skipping parts of it.

    • Starayo says:

      Read the article to see if they’d gotten rid of the microtransactions.

      If they had tweaked the grind and removed the microtransactions, it would’ve been a better game. As it is, if it’s still like the the mobile versions then it’s a grindy, boring, occasionally amusing but more often just grammatically incorrect mess. Lovely pixel art and concept but terrible execution as a game. I don’t think it’s worth anybody’s time.

  4. Strabo says:

    Played it on my iPad, and while it is charming it indeed becomes very grindy very fast, making a rep-grinding-session in WoW look like something fun to do in comparison. And the grind part isn’t even something you can really reduce with in-game-purchases, so I don’t really see their business model – even buying stuff doesn’t make the game more fun later on.
    It was moderately fun for 5h or so, then it was simply too grindy.

  5. Lobotomist says:

    I have it on my phone. On which I play a lot during transfer to work.

    Let me just start with how awesome the idea and presentation is…unfortunately that is the only good thing.

    The game is just grind with nothing much aside. Even as phone game it starts to be obnoxious fast.

    I hoped they will add some “meat” to the game in PC version. But I guess this didnt happen.

  6. Koozer says:

    “Maybe they’d have to take time out from the game, meaning parties had to make up the numbers by recruiting less experienced roleplayers with crappy characters while their star mage sodded off to do his paper round.”

    This is the very essence of any long-term pen and paper campaign. It’s absence also sums up this game’s treatment of the subject; it’s completely superficial. I was quite nerdily disappointed when rolling a 1 or 20 did absolutely nothing special.

  7. Mr Coot says:

    Mm. You meant ‘Rifts was my youth’ as opposed to RIFT o.O didn’t you? (Palladium table top RPG) It wasn’t my yoof, cof. Which was spent with AD&D and Earthdawn. I’m going to give KoPaP+1 a look, have only recently discovered Paradox pub’d games in Impire and loved it enough to overlook its initial issues and seek out more Paradox titles. They seem to have some quirky games in their stable, I’m adding this one to my list. :D

    • Premium User Badge

      Adam Smith says:

      This is what happens when I try to reference things that WEREN’T MY YOUTH!

    • Premium User Badge

      Bluerps says:

      Hah! I played ED as well, in my youth. In fact, I think that I would still play it today, if my gaming group had not desintegrated after school…
      (I have a different gaming group now, but a rules-heavy game like ED isn’t really their thing)

  8. Smion says:

    Jeez, First Craig doesn’t play Dark Souls and now this shit!

    • Niko says:

      Down with this sort of thing!

      • The Random One says:

        It’s time the rest of RPS have a serious meeting to determine whether any of them remember hiring Craig or if one day they just walked into the office and found him writing a preview, claiming to have been hired by “some ugly looking chap, John or Jim or whoever”.

  9. InternetBatman says:

    I’m tired of the whole jocks as bullies and nerds as innocent victims stereotype. I think it was invented in large part by the insecurities of non-nerds who saw the increasing wealth and social position of nerds with alarm, and then adopted by a subsection of nerds as a convenient cover for their physical insecurities and inadequacy. It also masks how absolutely bitchy and cruel nerds can be as a group among themselves.

    • Berzee says:

      If you are homeschooled, you have to be the jock and the nerd both, and bully yourself.

    • Jeremy says:

      It’s a game with endless cliches. The whole point was to use various stereotypes from that area within the game and culture.

      Also, your entire paragraph pretty much perpetuates the very thing you are saying doesn’t exist.

  10. running fungus says:

    For those commenting on what a grind this is, can anyone compare it to RPG Story? Cause that I found worthwhile (on the phone) despite repetitive elements.

  11. Skabooga says:

    This is an RPG made by the dweeb Keyser Söze, cribbing details from his surroundings.

    That’s all the prompting I need to tell you about a D&D campaign I was in (No, don’t leave! I promise I’ll keep it short!). So, one of the party members had just seen “The Usual Suspects” before this particular campaign started, and so was making references to it left and right during the first couple of games, even going so far as to write in Keyser Söze as a nemesis in his backstory. His tagline was, “Some say he is a demon. Some say he is a devil. But all anyone knows is that he is pure evil.”

    Much to our dismay, the DM decided to stick Keyser Söze into our campaign proper, where he did turn out to be some flavor of evil outsider, and that’s how the group’s paladin died.

  12. Rhygadon says:

    I found this game quite charming in its iOS incarnation. It’s got a nice, offhand sort of humor — they don’t oversell the jokes — and it’s clearly suffused with the designers’ quirky personalities. The balance is pretty wobbly; there are some relatively worthless powers, and the high-end gear breaks the balance of some characters. (Most notably, +ATK gear on anyone with life-leeching powers.) But I was less bothered by that than I would be in a more serious RPG, since it seemed the fun was more about trying out different party compositions, biting off more than I could chew and then desperately trying to avoid a classic TPW.

    It is indeed very grindy, and the tactics aren’t particularly deep. It was perfect as a phone game to fill small chunks of time, but it seems like a strange fit for the PC, unless the changes are much deeper than the screenshots suggest. The devs do seem to have potential, but I would rather have seen them try for a more “PC-native” design for their big-box debut.

    (Oh, and on iOS at least, the microtransactions are totally ignorable. The game is well-balanced for playing with the gold you find; buying more would probably make it less fun.)

  13. wodin says:

    Adam what prey tell is the historical strategy game?

  14. RevEng says:

    The description won me over almost immediately. I paid my $2 to buy it for my Android tablet and within 5 minutes, I was already asking for a refund.

    Within the first 30 seconds, I was already being told to pay more money. First they wanted $2 (in-game) to add a third player. Then I died almost instantly in the first encounter (which it said would be medium difficulty), at which point I was told to pay $10 (in-game) to resurrect my character. And I only started with $5. Now admittedly, the exchange rate is considerable (I think it was $300 in-game for $2 in-real-life), but why was I being pushed to make microtransactions within the first 5 minutes of the game? I just bought it!

    After the third time I was asked to pay real money for something in the first 5 minutes of the game, I uninstalled and asked for a refund. Sorry, but this is not acceptable. If I have to constantly pay to play, why did I pay for the game in the first place? And how do they think they’ll convince me to part with my money when I haven’t even had a taste for the game yet? I feel like I met a woman in a club and after greeting each other she went straight into asking me to buy her jewelry. No, game developers, I don’t know you and I don’t owe you anything. I’ll give you money for your game, but I won’t give you more until you convince me I’ve already gotten my money’s worth. And if it were free to begin with, I might have cut it some slack and accepted that nothing is truly free, but I had paid for the experience of being begged for money. No, no, and no.

    It’s a pity. It’s a neat idea and a charming presentation. But they ruined it all by coming on too strong. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so desperate for money if they treated me as a player and not just as a source of income.

    • ronaldomike says:

      Do you realize how stupid that post was?

      You set your own challenges in the game. If you died, that’s because you suck. And every battle gives you money. You say 300 ingame for 2 dollars is too much? 300 ingame can be won by finishing the first 5 quests, which will take about 10 minutes, assuming you have ever played any other game before in your life.

  15. Matfink says:

    Hmm. Played the iPad version: not much of a ‘game’ in there really. Seems more of a lazily-designed RPG sandbox than a proper game.

  16. Sparkasaurusmex says:

    It’s a Vegas RPG. You can cash out your winnings.

  17. mygaffer says:

    So I paid money for this on Steam only to find out in game that it is a “Free to play” game. At least it asks for me to buy coins like a free to play game. Except of course that I shelled out actual money for it.
    I believe Steam only lets you ever get a refund once and it is a huge hassle, otherwise I would ask for my money back. No where on their store page on Steam does it say anything about microtransactions.
    Really lame. They should be 100% up front about this model and let me decide if I want to buy a game that uses it. Shame on your Paradox.