Remembering King Of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass was first released on PC in 1999, but its mixture of strategy, management and RPG, and its focus on offering the player meaningful choices at every turn, was sadly overlooked at the time. We asked Sin Vega to explain why you should still play the game today.

We’ve all dreamt about ruling over a tribe, right? And let’s be honest with ourselves, it’s not really about the feasting, the comely milkmaids, or even the apocryphal helmets. No. It’s about the decisions.

There you are, lounging regally and probably inebriated on your throne, and in come some people with a complaint. “Urgrim stole my axe!”, shouts one. “That’s a bastard lie,” screams Presumably Ugrim, kicking over a nearby cow, “you’re just jealous of my fabulous beard!”. Wearily, you motion to your advisors, who tell you all about these two, what’s really going on, what the laws say you can do, and that you could at least limit yourself to only drinking from one flagon at a time when the people are watching.

“Ugrim’s beard is indeed magnificent,” you decide, with very little slurring, “but that is not your axe, is it Ugrim?”

“Oh, was I still holding that? Bugger.”

(THEY KISS)

Treat that whole exchange with slightly more dignity, and that’s King of Dragon Pass, that is.

Set in the mercifully non-D&D world of Glorantha, King Of Dragon Pass puts the player in charge of a settlement in a dangerous land home to strange monsters, spirits, and assorted weirdoes. The goal is to unite the villages and become King or Queen, but you won’t be conquering anyone, nor will you culture-hug or power-economy your way through, smothering your opponents in money or destroying their will to resist with daytime tv. Instead, you’ll win people over with your just and wise decisions.

Oh, you’ll do plenty of fighting. Your people, the Orlanthi, are culturally bound to regular punch ups, with even peace tribes getting antsy if they go for too long without a rousing game of Bludgeon. And you’ll get nowhere without prosperous farms, shiny baubles, and fat stacks of cow. And don’t expect to get a sniff of the throne without magic, be it smiting your foes, blessing your crops, or plain old sucking up to the gods. But whatever path you choose, however strategically-minded you are, what really matters is how you respond to the many questions people will bring to you. It’s bloody hard. And it’s bloody good fun.

While the decisions are yours, you’re not alone. You choose a ‘ring’ of seven nobles, each with a degree of knowledge in a handful of areas. Their faces will sit at the bottom of the screen, always ready with advice based on their skills, their favoured god, and their personality. They will seldom agree, and this is where the fun starts.

You’ll initiate actions in most seasons, and also face random events such as a flood, an argument between nobles, or a visit from some priests. You’ll eventually see events repeated, although some are extremely rare, and many are dependent on specific circumstances or prior decisions.

Advisors and named invididuals will age and die. Godly strife might spill over into the mortal realm. Creatures you meet might remember a promise your people made decades ago, and expect you to uphold it. You can often tell people to shove off, even if it’s a really stupid idea. And everyone has an opinion. In one game I dismissed a petty farming dispute that spiralled into a family feud spanning two villages and three generations, and continued long after the originators died.

People and consequences. It ought to be a genre of its own.

As an introduction, you’re given a potted history of your tribe. Though the world has a rich and colourful background, this isn’t the usual “please immediately skip me” RPG snoozefest. It’s both character creation and a hint of what to expect. Before it even starts, it demands decisions. Will your people celebrate a godly marriage by getting your men drunk, or sending your women to learn magical secrets? Will your people be bitter enemies of the trolls, or the ice demons?

It doesn’t matter what you pick. It matters what you pick.

Regardless of your choices, most player clans start out about equal – there are no innate racial bonuses or penalties. Instead, the decisions you made beforehand define how your ancestors acted, and ancestral spirits are close to gods. Displease them and they’ll punish you, your people will be unhappy, and your magic will go all floppy and useless. And it’s here where KODP really comes out as an RPG. If your ancestors remained neutral when the dragonfolk approached, you shouldn’t get involved with dragonfolk. That manifests in odd ways – if you find a dragon’s corpse, rather than sell it, or make armour out of it, your ancestors would prefer that you ignored it.

Those weird guys your explorers have encountered – they seem friendly, right? Well they might be on the level. They might even make good allies. But they’re technically beastmen, and beastmen are your ancestral enemy, so don’t even try thinking about being nice. Stab those suckers in the head. Grandma will be proud, you big xenopobic dick. Your ancestors took slaves? Well then, slavery is expected.

KODP doesn’t care about modern morality. It doesn’t reward you for being nice, or efficient, or mercenary. Instead, the many parties that make up the world react to you depending on their own weird ideas of morality, their own politics, their own needs. You have to do the same. If you apply modern values to it, you’ll never get anywhere.

And yet, it’s not rigid. Orlanthi laws and customs aren’t laid out in black and white – a great design strength, as it doesn’t get bogged down in rules, or demand that you memorise an encyclopedia. Your only guide is what people tell you, and they’ll openly admit they’re not sure sometimes. As in real life, there are situations where the right answer isn’t clear to anyone, and not even appealing to tradition can help. Few choices are hard coded, and you can get away with defying your ancestors, subjects, or even the gods themselves, within reason. Your ancestry isn’t your only concern, and nobody’s perfect. The game understands this. The people understand this, and there’s nuance in their opinions. Before long you’ll make a decision that the people dislike, but respect because they see reason in it. Sometimes you can appeal to authority and say “I’m the chief, it’s your place to obey”, and they’ll be fine with this. Hell, you can resolve some crises by composing a poem. Drama bombs can be defused.

Sometimes. With so many background variables, even the exact same decisions can have different results. Telling someone to calm down might work on one occasion, but a second time could only piss her off even more (side note: its attitude to women is pretty great. Men do most of the fighting, but women are capable as fighters and leaders, and ring membership is as meritocratic as you are).

There’s nothing quite like King of Dragon Pass. In its days it’d be best described as a cross between Lords of the Realm, Darklands, and Hidden Agenda, and even now it’s basically peerless. Many games claim to offer choice, but railroad you into making the same ones always, or offer a simplistic binary option, tethered to game-oriented notions of ‘pick a reward’, monochrome extremes of kitten-petting-versus-baby-eating morality, or both (did I mention there’s a cult of cat lovers? I offered them some kittens and they cried because they were “too beautiful”. It has just the right hint of silliness). It’s a rare game that captures the complexities of leadership without getting bogged down. I’d imagine that coding and writing and balancing all the permutations of every possible acton was a nightmare, but someone clearly put the work in.

Crusader Kings 2 is perhaps a distant cousin, but The Banner Saga is the only game that can really claim descendance, with both its Viking-esque theme and event chains sparked off by your decisions. It deserves a better legacy. It’s an RPG without the potions and sidequests and goddamn rats. It’s a management game without the build orders or arms races. It’s about people. People and consequences. That’s life, that is.

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69 Comments

  1. Petethegoat says:

    Crikey. This sounds exactly like the sort of game I want to play.

    • Hex says:

      Yeah seriously. And yet here I find myself about a year after purchasing it on GoG, and it has not yet been installed.

      Will someone please tell whoever it is that needs to know to stop making games for a year or two?!

      • manio22 says:

        I feel you bro, so many good old games, so many good new games, but nobody thought inventing that time stop machine…

  2. Unrein says:

    This game is absolutely brilliant. Thank Orlanth it found new life with smartphones and GOG.

    • Hex says:

      Wait what. Can I get my GoG version of it on my Android phone somehow…?!

      • Premium User Badge

        cpt_freakout says:

        There’s an Android version: link to play.google.com

        I also didn’t know that until I read the comments here, and it’s amazing! I already got the GOG one but I’ll be glad to play this on long trips to wherever.

  3. Tom Davidson says:

    I have purchased this game on four different platforms, now, and never once regretted it.

  4. RedViv says:

    The only thing that feels a tiny little bit closer is Anamnesis, but that is all there really is. I want more. MORE. More fantasy management! More indirectly controllable fates and storylines and all the juicy stuff.

    (For a while, I might be sated if they were to bring the additional stuff from the portable versions to the PC.)

  5. johnkillzyou says:

    You can press charges against a ghost because of a haunting. And it can work.

  6. killias2 says:

    I have this on GOG and tried it before, but I didn’t make the push necessary to really break through. I just redownloaded it and will give it another shot. Maybe I can figure this out before Civ:BE comes out…

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Same here I didn’t quite make it through the tutorial and manual before something else caught my eye. I will have to dig in at some point because it did look awesome.

  7. Anthile says:

    King of Dragon Pass has always reminded me of the Fabled Land books – essentially an open world CYOA gamebook. There is a simple, free app that emulates the books here that was developed by fans after the series was cancelled many years ago but in recent times interest picked up again and they developed some proper commercial apps but I never played those. It’s an absolutely massive world even with only the six books that were produced. There is a ton of stuff to do in each book and they are all connected. It’s also proper difficult, permadeath and all (with the benefit of a costly actual life insurance).

  8. Drake Sigar says:

    You know now that I think about it, I wonder if giving away all those free cats drastically increased the rodents munching my grain supply.

  9. daver4470 says:

    There’s a iOS version of this that’s on the pricey side, but is well worth it.

    I also got it from GOG, but can’t get it to run. Alas…

    • ulix says:

      The iOS Version is actually an extended edition, with many new scenes. I wish they would release it on PC.

      • sharpmath says:

        This totally. I got the game on GOG when it showed up, had no idea what it was. Then I played it for several months a ton. Such a great game. Then found it on iOS and ive been digging it there as well but would really like the updated version on PC. I really love this game a lot, and no games really do what it does, until I saw someone else say Banner Saga and yeah, Banner Saga is KIND of like it. And both games are great.

  10. boldin says:

    Didn’t know abour this one, thanks for digging it up. Went and bought the Android version after reading, will check it out.

    I guess ‘Celtic Tales: Balor of the Evil Eye’ isn’t too close to this storytelling fidelity, but to me it was this sudden cross of genres which made me play it again and again.
    link to mobygames.com

    • sinister agent says:

      I played Balor back in my abandonware days, and it’s a good call to name it here. Personally I never felt it quite came together, as it was too cumbersome, and hadn’t aged very well, but it was a valiant effort, and if nothing else, the theme and setting was pretty unique. I don’t think I can name a single other game about Irish folklore at all, for one thing.

  11. Blackseraph says:

    It is one of the best-test of games.

    I always try to include that duckling clan into my tribe, alas I have never succeeded.

    • RedViv says:

      I managed a few times. But I… my playthroughs of KoDP are in the triple digits, so…

      I think this needs better PR. THIS GAME HAS DUCK PALADINS. HELLO. HERE. PLAY THIS.

      • Courteous D says:

        I vividly remember reading an LP containing the wonderful observation that “a Humakti Deathlord on a heroquest is not to be taken lightly, duck or no.” I would have bought it on the strength of that alone.

      • Martel says:

        Oh my. Sold!

    • sharpmath says:

      LOL. Yeah. The Ducklings are very inscrutable. Ive had them sort of on my side sometimes, but not totally in my thrall.

      • Vitty says:

        Best just to kill them… kill them all and leave nothing but their beaks…

  12. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Who is this strange person? Did Alec leave the door to Castle Shotgun unbarred again? We’re still up to our armpits in Smiths since the last time.

    Perceptive writing. I’m heading to the GOGmobile to re-download King of Dragon Pass.

  13. newc0253 says:

    It is a great game in its own right but it is a even greater game because it brings to life the palpable weirdness of one of the greatest fantasy settings ever.

    You only have to take a glance at the recently released Glorantha atlas to see how a game like KoDP barely scratches the surface of a world that’s been built over decades.

    And ironic too that most gamers only know of Glorantha through KoDP when the designers of games like Doom and Skyrim cut their teeth on writing for Chaosium.

  14. Zallgrin says:

    This article may have persuaded me to buy this game. Making choices, developing your clan and watching some good old human drama unfold sounds like a fine idea to me! Will have to wait when I have more money again, though.

  15. Zanchito says:

    For anyone unaware, there are Andorid and iOS versions of the game, with a few more events and all. I still prefer the PC version because of the ease of use a bigger screen gives, but they are decent ports.

  16. Arglebargle says:

    I was fortunate enough to play in some pnp campaigns run by the author of KoDP, during his brief sojourn in Texas. He was quite a fine GM, and I never again had as much fun roleplaying a 9 year old boy (whose only combat skill was Thrown Rock). I beaned a troll in the head, knocking him out, and captured a trollkin slave, who I later made do many of my chores around the homestead. Another character successfully stole Dragonewt magic, but that didn’t work out quite as well as he’d hoped.

    The Gloranthan setting is great, not the often haphazard mishmash of much of the D&D ilk, and the game is quite replayable. Definitely worth the investment in time and money.

  17. acoff001 says:

    KODP is a game where your ancestors come back from the grave to yell at you for saying too many platitudes. KODP is awesome.

  18. Phendron says:

    The one time I got a successful tribal moot going to unify local clans into a tribe that would make Orlanth proud, a beastman army rolled over everything 2 seasons later. The game is pretty brutal at times, be nice to the duck men.

  19. twaitsfan says:

    I was hoping that The Banner Saga was going to be a whole lot more KoDP than it was. Alas.

    • Hex says:

      Yeah. Kinda holding out hope that a lot of meat and depth ends up getting attached to TBS at some point.

  20. Polifemo says:

    I just skipped reading the article just to say KODP IS AWESOME GO BUY IT FOR THE GLORY OF ORLANTH AND HUMAKT!
    DONT TRUST ELVES, They be vegetable demons out for our SOULS !

    Oh yeah and everyone should go read the Something Awful LP of it. Its bananas fun. Bananas!

    • Hex says:

      There’s two on the LP Archive. Which one?

      • acoff001 says:

        I don’t know whether it was the first one, but the one by Mystic Mongol is very detailed and very funny.

        • Hex says:

          Thanks. I’m pretty much always reading an LP on my phone whenever I have a couple of minutes to spare. It’s nice to know I won’t have to hunt for the next (or two).

          Currently reading Barkley’s Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. Priceless.

          :)

      • Haystack says:

        You should start with Mystic Mongol’s, since it was done first and influenced the other playthrough. But I really recommend reading both! They’re both spectacular, and seeing two playthroughs highlights the depth of the game. At the very least check out the kickass fan-art and loreposting archived with Haifisch’s LP.

        For reference:
        Mystic Mongol’s LP
        Haifisch’s LP

  21. Winged Nazgul says:

    Roleplayers interested in playing in the awesome world of Dragon Pass can check out link to glorantha.com

  22. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I’ve bounced off of this game so many times. Don’t get me wrong, the setting is great and the choose your own adventure side of things is fun. But the strategy game elements are hopelessly opaque, which is compounded by the wildly random outcomes of any given decision. When I play KoDP, I always feel like I’m along for the ride, watching my tula from outside, rather than being the primary agent of its success or failure.

    • Berzee says:

      This happened to me too for a good while. I had a great time with the multiple-choice stuff, but all of my grander plans came to nothing.

      What eventually helped me was reading this particular Let’s Play on the lparchive (I see some other people mentioned it above too), where he goes through the game explaining all of his decisions and letting you know about some common pitfalls. There are things in there I never would’ve learned by myself, and it’s a little more engaging than reading a straight-up guide.

      I’d recommend stopping before he gets to the end-game because you might want to discover that stuff yourself…but on the other hand I’ve never reached the end-game and thinking back to what I read, I doubt I’d ever figure it out on my own. =)

  23. Red Earth says:

    …and it’s on GOG.com so I bought it.

  24. RegisteredUser says:

    There’s was an unfixed bug in GoG’s version they had no idea what it was from that makes it start as a process, use CPU but not ACTUALLY start, apparently.
    Was that ever solved?

    • BobsLawnService says:

      This is the only thing keeping me from buying it. I’ve been bitten one too many times by GoG selling games that just don’t work on modern systems and while they’re happy to take your money they are as useless as tits on a bull when it comes to getting the games to work.

      • Kaeoschassis says:

        However, in my experience they’re perfectly happy to give that money right BACK if they can’t get the game working, so what have you got to lose?

        (Note that i’ve only had to get my money back once, they’re actually pretty great about getting stuff working)

    • MartinWisse says:

      Just started it up for the first time and had no problems getting it started.

  25. Haystack says:

    An overhauled and extended version of the game is available on IOS and Android.

    The GOG version is still excellent, it just lacks a score of scenes, event chains, and tweaks present in the new version.

    Also, if you’re interested in the setting, check out Glorantha’s official web-comic Prince of Sartar. It starts out with a Heroquest!

  26. Berzee says:

    This *is* a pretty great game, and a very nice writeup of the things that make it interested. If I play it for a bit, the setting and mood of the thing gets stuck in my head and I start getting a little bit Orlanthi-i in real life.

    No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do.
    But no one can live alone.

  27. Hypnotron says:

    kudos to RPS for searching for and writing about hidden gems like this.

  28. Winged Nazgul says:

    Just bought the Android version (on Amazon Appstore as I had like a million unused Amazonbucks) and, wow, the mobile versions are way better than the PC version. The iOS is even better still with more added content. They really need to port the mobile versions to PC ASAP.

    • Martel says:

      Now that’s a great idea. Sadly for me it says not compatible with my phone and won’t let me buy it.

      Mind if I ask what device you have that works with the Android version? I have an HTC M8,so I assume the developer hasn’t added support for new devices, but it could be Amazon side as well.

      • Winged Nazgul says:

        Weird, it says it’s not compatible on my Asus TF300T tablet either on their website. But that’s what I bought it on and it runs perfectly. Good thing I used the app and not the website to do it.

  29. Digital Osmosis says:

    This game is solely the reason I switched to an iPhone, and I regret nothing. I played it for ages as a kid on the PC and had no idea what I was doing. Able to actually beat the damn thing as an adult, I appreciate it even more. It’s mean, a game where one of the skills you need to master as a player is putting yourself into the epic oral poetry head-space – what’s not to love? The rail-roady endgame is basically it’s only flaw.

    Okay, I’m going to go make a custom kingdom called Dragon Pass in CK2 now.

  30. pertusaria says:

    Always great to see this game getting some love – thanks for the entertaining write-up and the reminder to go poke at it some more. I have a printer at home now, which means I could finally print out the manual – I’ve always wished for a list of what each of the gods were good for at my fingertips, and in my very limited experience the game doesn’t like Alt-Tabbing much.

    I don’t fancy trying to play it on my current phone’s little screen, but someday I’ll have a tablet or a larger phone and I’ll give the mobile version a go then.

  31. Kolbex says:

    Glorantha is the best fantasy setting of all time, and King of Dragon Pass is the best RPG of all time. The iOS/Android version is now the canonical and under active development; the PC one is no longer being worked on. The only thing I miss from the PC version is the nice little image of your tula every sacred time, as shown in the article above.

  32. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    This game should be required playing for any game designer so they can understand how to design a truly immersive and open role-playing experience. Just a beautifully designed piece of work, a joy to play on an ipad.

    Although I do suck majorly on it – I fail miserably often at heroquests.

    Don’t see the comparison with CK2 – in CK2, you’re a serial individual, with traits and ambitions, and the consequences are far more random. It’s too sandbox to be as cohesive as KoDP, with its tightly defined world. In KoDP, you are the embodiment of the clan – its guiding spirit so to speak. Love them both.

    • sinister agent says:

      The CK2 comparison is fairly tenuous, but I can definitely see it. Not so much in the game as a whole, but in aspects of it, with some of the roleplaying events that come up (and are often dependent on your skills/resources/position).

      Also in CK2, while you absolutely can roleplay as the King/Duchess/etc who’s in charge at the moment (and kind of should, because it makes the game more interesting), you really represent the guiding spirit of your dynasty.

      They are very different games, I don’t deny that, but I can see some parallels. There are just so few games that even attempt to do what KODP did that it’s hard to come up with anything more solid.

      Oh er, incidentally, since I’m not sure how clear it is, I am Sin Vega.

  33. Phasma Felis says:

    The great thing about Glorantha is that the guy who wrote it is both a seriously dedicated student of ancient cultures and religions, and also a snickering nerd. So you have these fantastically deep and captivating and alien cultures, and then you also have proud death-worshipping berserker ducks and the fearsome Walktopus.

    Also, IIRC, priests of the trickster god get granted spells like “turn a cow into a different-colored cow” and “make your own penis fall off.” Good times.

  34. Olaf_Merchant says:

    KoDP is still amongst one of my all-time favourite kingdom managing sims, mostly due to the excellent line of stories and lore the game offered. Sadly, the limited time to finish the game prohibits one from exploring all of them. And the soundtrack is excellent. Hardly an ill word to say of the game.

  35. statistx says:

    Anyone any experience with the Android Version of this?
    I played the game from Gog.com on PC, but I’m interested to get it on my phone for killing time

  36. Ganabul says:

    As a long time RPS lurker, I’m actually making my first post to raid a sacred cow; I recently downloaded the Android version (which works fine, btw, barring a few minor UI niggles and the occasional crash), and, having never played it before, I’m a bit bewildered by some aspects of the enthusiastic praise for it. It’s certainly unique, but there are several areas where I think the game play fails, and in ways that seriously detract from the game’s strengths. Maybe I’d’ve thought differently in 1999, but to me, it’s like… Well, the first few seasons are great, with a beautiful, different world to understand with tension and surprises at every turn, but then, gradually, the endlessly repeated variations on diplomacy and warfare and constant interruptions by minor subplots slow the pace to a crawl while you pray desperately for the main narrative to move on before you accidentally trigger the horror in the North. Oh, and major characters die, frequently and arbitrarily.

    For the setting, I already knew Glorantha (2nd ed RuneQuest), so the stories and underlying principles weren’t quite as fresh as they might be to others, great place though Glorantha certainly is. In any case, looking up honour cultures, listening to your advisers, and reading the in-game walk-through lore pages will actually give you more than enough guidance to mostly (RNG permitting) avoid truly dreadful results – while also making the RPG elements rather linear and, um, efficient.

    In terms of gameplay, the mid-late game became – to me – a very repetitive raid & trade sim (which, OP notwithstanding, is very susceptible to 4x trained efficiency) with not much depth beyond the vagaries of a brutal RNG*. The RNG, which can & will kill key characters in your strategy, without giving easy ways to replace them, along with the fact that a large number of systems are concealed – especially for the HeroQuests, which are key to completion, narratively and strategically- mean you’re probably going to have to replay at least a couple of times to understand how the game hangs together, even if you don’t stumble across one of the instant game end events.

    There’s no doubt that for an Indie labour of love, the game’s an extraordinary achievement, in a rich setting… but it’s also limited and defined by that, as well as by its age. I did make 4 attempts (2 on short, 2 on long, 1 abandoned on each)- so there’s definitely something there, but I doubt some of the mechanics would be greatly admired if released fresh today. That, along with the opacity and randomness of the systems, makes for too much repetition for the amount of narrative, and by midway through my final game, just to get through the story, I was skipping turns as quickly as I could, was completing those sophisticated, mythic Heroquests on auto-tap auto-pilot**, and had altogether stopped caring about whose bloody cow. That final story pay-off is, in retrospect, culturally believable, narratively appropriate, and ultimately satisfying – but it does take a bit of a slog to get there.

    *I was reloading fairly enthusiastically by my final play-through, simply to avoid having to spend another 20-30 turns to get back to where I was.
    **Except for the Uralda one. Yeesh.

  37. Niente says:

    I bought it about 18 months ago on GOG having never heard of it before. I can’t remember where I heard / read about it but I immediately realised it was a game I’d wanted to play all my life.

    • sharpmath says:

      Yeah this basically how I found it. Didn’t know It was a thing and totally realized it what was I would always have loved to play. I wish something could approach it now. To be honest the only thing I can think of this is 7 grand steps but to a much lesser scale.