Level One Wonk: Spellbound Kingdoms

Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we look at a unique fantasy game. Originally overshadowed by D&D 4e, now there are signs of life in the form of a new supplement Kickstarter: Frank Brunner’s Spellbound Kingdoms!

“Class-and-level” is the assumed mechanical standard in RPGs. Thanks to video games like Diablo and Final Fantasy, both classes and levels are elements that many outside observers think are essential to RPGs. For the most part, though, class-and-level progression in tabletop is now quite limited; modern games often use either freeform point-buy (GURPS, World of Darkness) or groups of advances, either in lists or organized into trees (PbtA, FFG Star Wars). While there are games that use just classes (Cyberpunk 2020, Cypher System) and games that use just levels (Savage Worlds), the combined paradigm is a design feature of D&D (or d20) more than a design feature of RPGs as a whole. There are newer class-and-level games out there that aren’t D&D, though. Some of them add unique flavor and really neat rules on top of the fantasy RPG standard. I’m talking specifically about a game called Spellbound Kingdoms.

Spellbound Kingdoms is a fantasy RPG by Frank Brunner, a game designer who worked on d20 material for both Wizards and Paizo among other projects. Despite using the same basic class-and-level character design and progression system, Spellbound Kingdoms does not look like D&D. Instead of being d20-based, Spellbound Kingdoms uses an incremental dice system similar to Savage Worlds. Instead of having a whole range of races, Spellbound Kingdoms offers two, with variants. Looking for three or four combat classes and an equal number of casters? Instead, Spellbound Kingdoms complements the standard fighter, rogue, wizard and cleric types with the ability to play engineers and courtesans. Looking for a skill list? Skills in the game are free-form. The flavor is completely different and fantastic.

Another giant difference from D&D (and also every other RPG I’ve played) is the combat system. Depending on your class, you can learn a certain number of combat and magic styles. These styles are represented by charts, where each maneuver has a circle. When you enter combat, you choose the style you’re using, and can start by using either default moves, or one of the “rebalancing” moves in the style, which are underlined on the chart. After using that move, you can choose any move that is in the same row or column as that first move, provided there isn’t a blank space between the move you just used and the one you want. The result is that every type of character can have a unique combat flavor, and gain access not only to unique moves but also combos that require pulling off two or three moves in sequence to ever increasing effect. There are also monster styles that make GMing combat just as interesting as it is to be a player. This use of style charts gives access to much more in-depth combat options without getting bogged down in vast amounts of crunch or choice paralysis like you would using GURPS’ Martial Arts supplement or Exalted, to name a couple of examples.

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An example of a combat style.

Character abilities are expanded yet further with an expansive set of rules for organizations, wealth, and war. This makes Spellbound Kingdoms one of only a few modern games that come out of the box ready for domain-level play; Greg Stolze’s Reign is the other notable example. Broad rules make it possible to play any sort of organization, like Reign, and the book even gives guidance on how to adjudicate the organization rules for different types of organizations like trading companies, mercenary groups, and noble families. What Spellbound Kingdoms does in more detail than Reign is provide options for high-level characters to spend their money on, like buildings, vehicles, and troop detachments. While both games provide neat mechanical systems to run your organization with, Spellbound Kingdoms has the additional fluff necessary to differentiate between running your own mercenary detachment and running a zeppelin cruise line. What’s more important than the level of detail is what Spellbound Kingdoms does to keep high-level play interesting.

Spellbound Kingdoms is not designed around a treadmill of opponents. In fact, the game expressly discourages ramping opponents along with players for verisimilitude reasons. What both keeps the game interesting as well as gives some nice oomph to its social combat system are the rules for Inspirations. Player characters have Inspirations, which are a narrative motivation mechanic that sits somewhere in between Burning Wheel’s Beliefs and Runequest’s Passions. Inspirations give dice bonuses on a per-scene basis, and sufficiently strong ones can even keep characters alive if they lose a fight (it’s not exactly immortality, more like a conditional version of Fate’s “Taken Out” mechanic). NPCs also have inspirations, though, and knowing what drives these characters is key to attacking them socially. While you can verbally spar and trade insults to attack each other’s Mood, attacking Inspirations is where things get really rough, especially since Inspirations provide serious benefits. While you can try to insult or humiliate a character, you can also attack their Inspirations directly. In other words, if you find that an NPC has a secret lover, it may be easier to up and kidnap said lover than making social rolls to insult the NPC. This is exactly the sort of mechanic that leads to Game of Thrones level chicanery, where you try to get to people through the things they love. It also makes spying a much bigger part of the game; there are a lot of potential opponents you can’t necessarily attack with violence, and finding out their secrets can help you really get under their skin.

In addition to the rules, the game includes a fair amount of setting material in the form of a world gazetteer and a bestiary. The flavor is strongly Renaissance/Late-Medieval which makes the game easy to reskin. The bestiary, similarly, is general fantasy with few monsters that you haven’t seen before. This isn’t a big deal for me personally; the odds I’d reskin the game if I were to run it are about 100%. The combat and magic styles would be the most work to retool, but I found the extant ones in the book are broad enough to be reused in a custom setting fairly easily. The inclusion of monster combat styles, also, gives the otherwise plain bestiary a lot more oomph in terms of GM options, and also makes new monster creation a cinch (if you create something that would ostensibly use an existing combat style). As far as the setting goes, the late Renaissance vibe includes some liberties taken in the form of zeppelins, gadgetry, and other items you’d be expecting to find first in a game of Victoriana or Space:1889. If you like Eberron or otherwise enjoy a little Steampunk in your fantasy, you’ll probably like this a lot. If you’re looking for more plain swords and sorcery on one hand or something much more wild on the other, you’ll probably be disappointed. Unlike a game like Exalted, though, the mechanics of Spellbound Kingdoms are not heavily woven into the setting, making hacking, adaptation, and rules borrowing much easier.

Spellbound Kingdoms is a hidden gem among fantasy RPGs, mixing traditional gaming with narrative mechanics, tactical and crunchy combat systems with mass combat and domain-level rules, and old school class-and-level progression with strong non-combat specializations like engineers and nobles. I had not heard of the game until recently, and when I read it I was immediately glad it was in my collection. There’s another reason I knew I needed to tell the world about this game: Frank Brunner is currently running a Kickstarter for Spellbound Kingdoms: Arcana, the first major supplement to the game. This includes a lot of the things you’d expect from a major supplement, including new combat styles, new classes, and new talents for your characters to pick from. There’s also more GM advice, new items and monsters, and a general expansion of options in the game. In addition there’s some interesting mechanical options, including a lifepath system for character creation and a set of rules designed for zero-prep play. Both of these things increased my interest further.

With the Kickstarter going on, now is a great time to get into a neat Fantasy RPG that, despite its conventional bones, is a dramatic departure from D&D and its ilk. If I run a fantasy campaign in the future, there’s a strong chance I’ll use Spellbound Kingdoms.

The Spellbound Kingdoms Arcana Kickstarter campaign ends on August 25th. Spellbound Kingdoms is also available on DriveThruRPG.

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