Fantasy role-playing games can be kind and exciting. They can be soul-fueling and stimulating. They can be restorative and involve character risks.
Fantasy role-playing games don’t need conquest to work. But, as I’ve written before, maybe Dungeons & Dragons unfortunately does.
That realization is what set me on the path of creating my indie ttrpg Kabalor. So, how to keep the fun while building game mechanics that escape the bad old tropes?
Knowing what I wanted to drop was pretty easy. #1 on the list was the idea that there are intelligent beings whom it is perfectly OK to murder and take their stuff. “These people are disposable” is toxic garbage and we do not need it in our games.
Finding the fun came out of listening to my players and thinking about my own play experiences. We love the storytelling, continually adding to our ideas and riffing off each other and what happens in the game. We love the ups and downs of crazy plans and surprise results of the dice. We love being characters who can do cool things, which become more and more amazing over time.
I identified Grow, Connect, Explore, Unlock, and Share as the main action areas of Kabalor (as opposed to D&D’s Maximize, Beat, Colonize, Conquer, Hoard). But how to make sure that action space is actively enjoyable? Through playing open-ended story games without a GM (like Wanderhome), I was able to see that things can loosen up from the traditionally more rigid structure of D&D, where the players often react to the GM’s descriptions instead of building the reality with them. But I also learned that a little more structure—particularly in the progression of what the character can do—helps keep the game engaging.
Wanderhome is great; I really love it and recommend it. But it’s a pretty intense creative experience. The sweet spot—at least for me and my players—would be a world we don’t need to constantly invent, but which is highly adaptable to the ideas of players and GM, and game mechanics which provide some goals and direction for the story to move in. In other words, something you can come to as a delightful break from the working week, which will be fun, exciting, and energizing, and which may not require any heavy lifting emotionally or creatively in a given session. If you’re wiped out at the end of an intense workday, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor. Likewise, if you’re creatively fired up and want to spin stories of people and places, or lean into complicated interactions or emotional growth of your character, you should be able to have a great session of Kabalor.
Because combat is not core—and I am designing the game such that it is entirely optional—something else needs to be at the heart of the game and delivering those highs and lows. There also needs to be something to scratch the itch to optimize and improve your character. For Kabalor that is magic, specifically spellcasting.
In keeping with the expansive story style, the spellcasting mechanics of Kabalor are designed to allow players to invent their own spells and to combine their magical talents in collaborative spellcasting. A modular spell system is a big goal and a very tricky thing to make easy to use, but I think I’ve cracked the nut. Lots of playtesting to come to sort out the details and make sure it’s both balanced and fun, but I’m confident Kabalor is on the right path.
Kabalor needs to have the thrill of the throw of the dice, with calculated risks but potential surprises. Since Kabalor is not starting from a grim place of us vs. them in practically every interaction, those surprises can be more fun and come more often. It’s here where the lighter touch can really shine. By making the magic more pervasive, wilder, and inherently vulnerable to occasional unexpected outcomes there’s still plenty of risk, but the results are fun rather than fatal (unless your particular set of players likes even higher stakes).
Kabalor is a fun game of spellcasting and storytelling, with lots of improvisation, and plenty of ups and down, but at its core a hopeful and supportive vision.
The current state of the game is pre-alpha testing, in which I’m working with familiar players and friends to shake down what I’ve created and make sure we’ve got the game mechanics sorted out and functioning enough for the alpha test in which I’ll GM the first stories.
If you’re excited to get involved in this “pardon our dust” stage of development, let me know!