Review: God-King

Roleplaying Games are a pretty broad hobby with a lot of different procedural expressions. Most common RPGs are longer dice rolling campaigns where the premise is essentially what you make of it within a broader genre: games like D&D, Shadowrun and Warhammer. But the past few years have seen a huge boom in light, focused narrative games in RPGs. These systems, often referred to as “storygames,” have a thematic nucleus, a central premise that is tightly woven into the rules and character types of the game. Storygames pick a narrative and focus strongly on telling it, and no more.

Storygames are known for light character generation and a modicum of rules; they’re often perfect convention games or one-shot games to introduce people to the hobby. God-King is pure-strain storygame, with a laser-sharp narrative focus on Asian (particularly Japanese) mysticism and adventure. This forty-page book by Daniel Cruz Chan is probably a good addition to any storygamer’s collection, or for anyone looking for a good convention game.

God-King revolves around a land once ruled by the eponymous God-King. After a natural disaster splits the land in two, and the easterners and westerners begin to quarrel for the God-King’s favor, he vanishes, and with him his divine blessings. The player characters are a group of foreign people, with their own conflicts and culture, who set out to find the mystical land of Otugari, against the orders of their war-torn Empire. The game supports three to five players and each has one role, from five provided roles. Rather than dice, the game uses a deck of standard playing cards.

Character generation in Storygames tends to fly by quickly, and God-King is no exception. Character generation involves picking a role and a truth, and then creating your character’s backstory. Truths are the character’s ulterior motives to set out on the adventure, and they are kept hidden at first. Characters have predetermined Knowledge and Items from their Role, though they can choose others if the Narrator (GM) allows. However, the game stresses that each character’s story should be unique, and overlapping Truths or abilities should not be chosen. Players then form secret alliances with one another, which can shift as they play out the story, and may play a role in the game’s conclusion.

I hesitate to speak too deeply into the mechanics of God-King because I might end up giving everything away in a single paragraph in order to explain how it works. Essentially you play with a deck of cards, including the jokers, and certain cards drawn will mean certain things in the outcomes of Conflicts within the story. The narrator and the player draw and compare hands; card color, the nature of the Conflict and some of the suits factor into the outcome. Players can also trade cards that they “Hold” with other players to alter their hands and change an outcome, supporting one another – but only if the characters have exchanged Trust. Trust can change, but shouldn’t change flippantly for this reason.

While the players have narrative control, in that they can determine the narrative outcomes of their own failures or successes, the Narrator determines what benefits a character’s Knowledge gives as the game and its Conflicts unfold. The Narrator makes a lot of the final decisions in God-King; he or she is “free to decide” on penalties or rewards appropriate to the situation after a Conflict is resolved. This may not be to everyone’s taste, especially because the Narrator is also the sole judge of the character’s abilities. So while as a player you can craft your character and play him or her as you want, it is up to the Narrator to exercise mechanical control and decide the mechanical benefits of your character’s abilities.

Otugari is a very colorful world, and the book has a section with enough locations, inhabitants, and inspiration to get a good game going. As you may be able to tell from the name, it is a place very steeped in Asian mythology, with talking animals, many kinds of supernatural spirits, and warring clans once united under the God-King, but broken after his disappearance. There’s a dramatic twist at the end of every game of God-King that will strain the allegiances and motives of the players’ characters, and force a dramatic decision. The book closes with a section on helpful advice and guidelines for running the game, and with the character sheets for each of the five roles present in the game.

God-King is an absolutely gorgeous book, with a lot of lovely art in ancient Japanese style. The book is quite vibrant, and very readable, though infrequently it presents block quotes in white text that I find difficult to read against the pale parchment background. God-King is worth $5 USD, and it seems a pretty interesting game to pull out at a convention, or for occasional one-shots. I’m not sure the game is intended for typical campaign play, though it certainly could be at least two or three sessions worth of play depending on the nature of the conflicts and the narrative skill of the players. If you dislike Storygames you probably knew all the characteristics of this game the moment I introduced it, and it does nothing that will change your mind. If you like Storygames, this one has a fairly nice premise and should make for a neat story.