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.