While there have certainly been a large number of videogames based on Pen & Pencil properties, such as Dungeons & Dragons, none of them have ever quite perfectly replicated the relevant experience. Sure, despite the fact they all have gone of our their way to utilize the lore associated with some P&P system – and many of them have even painstakingly implemented all of gameplay mechanics involved – there has always been a missing core component. After all, how does one take what was originally a group activity – filled often with epically bad acting, random pop culture references, and out of character banter – into something that successfully functions as a single player experience?
Despite the logic that such a thing should not be possible, the people over at Behold Studios have – with Knights of Pen & Paper (out now, $2.99) – stared into the depths of insanity and boldly proclaimed, “Challenge Accepted!” The result is a game where you simultaneously play as both the GM – as well as all of his friends sitting at the table’s other end – as together they embark on an epic of journey of imagination, bad acting, and endless references. Oh, and the title is also a well crafted strategic RPG that – thanks to the level of control you have from the GM’s side of the table – is usually however hardcore or accessible you desire.
To kick things off with you will start by assembling a team of at least two players for your GM’s P&P session, of which you will select from a wide range of personalities available. The variety present is rather long list that includes: Rocker, Pizza Guy, Nerd, Jock, Little Brother, Woofie (looks a lot like a Wookiee), Paris (some girl), Granny, and a whole lot more. Each of these various potential players come with a unique inherent passive perk; these include things such as the Pizza Guy only costing half as much to recruit, or Paris getting to attempt all of her blacksmith upgrades for half price.
Next you must select which hero class each of the people sitting around the table will be playing, which includes a plethora of fantasy role playing staples: Warrior, Paladin, Mage, Cleric, Rogue, Barbarian, Bard, Shaman, Etc. The heroic role selected will determine both the player’s initial stats and equipment, as well as which abilities – both active and sometimes passive – they can power up through skill points. Speaking of the aforementioned skill points, respective players will acquire one of them every time their chosen hero successfully levels up via either defeating opponents or finishing quests.
Once you have your merry band all assembled, the GM will begin the adventure by telling the group they all awaken inside a dark tower prison – remembering nothing – except that they are now charged with being assassins. As the group attempts to break out they will immediately be spotted by a bunch of guards, and it is here where players will first be introduced to one of the most novel parts of Knights of Pen & Paper’s mechanics. Since you are controlling not only the players, but also the GM as well, you will usually have direct control over how dire the straits the heroes are put up against at any given moment.
It works like this: while the group might need to defeat a total of seven guards in order to escape from the dungeon successfully, that does not mean they need to defeat all of them in one straight go. While you could certainly force the group to face arduous odds in the form of two waves of five guards each – five enemies being the general limit for a fight, unless specific upgrades are acquired – you could just as easily pit them against seven individual guards encounters. This easily enables the person playing Knights of Pen & Paper to directly control the peril they are facing, but with a risk-versus-reward mechanic where large groups always pay off more than an equivalent amount of lesser encounters.
Pay offs are definitely important since your heroes will need money for a variety of things: expendable items that restore health/mana, stat boosting accessories, upgrade attempts at the blacksmith’s shop, food and supplies to cover journeys from one location to the next, as well equipment that enhances the role playing experience (such as loaded dice that always adds +1 to any roll). One of the more amusing – although not necessarily prudent – things you can do with the players’ earned gold is to buy snacks for the table, such as a pizza that gives everyone a +5% chance to score a critical hit for the next fifteen minutes. Of course – as is tradition with a great many apps available on iTunes – you can also buy varying amounts of extra gold using real world money, although this will usually not be necessary (more on that later on).
The game’s combat itself – especially when you’re fighting dire odds – does a very good job of capturing the heavy division of labor that is common to the P&P experience, rather than simply letting the party succeed by blindly wailing on everyone. Heroes like the warrior will need to use abilities to get their defense up so that they can tank the damage guaranteed to come their way thanks to their deliberately over-inflated threat level, Clerics will need to both keep everyone’s health up while also casting area of effect spells that diminish the opposition’s effectiveness, and mages do what they are best at: blowing everything up. Utilizing everyone’s skills like clockwork will enable them to successfully tackle nigh on insurmountable odds, whereas being reckless will quickly see a full party wipe occur (and – unlike normal P&P gameplay – you must pay for the resurrections, no rolling up new characters allowed here).
At this point I would like to take a detour to talk about two issues I have experienced while reviewing Knights of Pen & Paper, the first of which is definitely the far lesser of the two. As with most apps you will scroll through the lists of inventory available at stores by dragging your finger across the screen in the direction you want the menu to scroll, or at least you will until things get weird. Occasionally Knights of Pen & Paper will inexplicably decide that menus should actually scroll – very slowly to boot – in the exact opposite direction that you are moving your finger, a bug that is not so much annoying as just plain weird.
The other issue that I feel a need to discuss is that – particularly in the later portions of the game – there is a very real chance to make a complete mess of things, although I am undecided if these were designed as deliberate IAP traps or just moments of oversight. There is a point in the game where will you will be transported halfway across the map to a place called Yoga Village, and at this point in the game the only quest available – of which you will be a high enough level to accept – is to take a trip to the other end of the map (and it costs money to travel). This will be a multi-stage quest that – unlike many other events before it – must be restarted entirely from scratch if you drop it at any point, such as if you set it down in an attempt do other things to earn more travelling fee money along the way.
Admittedly, I could have intentionally held onto the quest and went somewhere and camped over and over until I failed a roll and got attacked by a random party of monsters carrying gold. However – as sometimes can happen to the best of us – I had a lapse of judgment and did not think to do this at the time, and thus the money I earned to complete the journey was instead used to travel all the way back to Yoga Village to start the chain over from scratch. Afterwards – while attempting to return back from Yoga Village a second time – a failed dice roll caused me to be ambushed by the very high level area next to Yoga Village, and this is where things started to go especially sour very fast.
The entire party got wiped in the fight due to my not realizing the spider in the center was going to spawn endless helpers unless she was taken out first, which meant I was required to revive the members of my party at great cost. At this point they were now standing in the middle of the same field they just got killed in with virtually no health, and I did the perfectly sane – yet absolutely wrong – choice of deciding to return back to Yoga village where I could rest up safely. That – unfortunately – left me with absolutely no money left over when I got back to Yoga village, at which point the only way to continue forward was to either restart the entire game or buy the gold needed to travel anywhere.
Obviously I could have just stood around in the forest until the spiders killed everyone again on purpose, because dying when you don’t have enough money warps everyone back to the game’s first town (where a grinding place was in reach for the amount of gold I still had on hand), but this is not exactly the first logical thing for people to think of. I am not entirely sure if Behold Studios was hoping this would happen to someone – such that they’d have to buy gold versus starting over utterly – or if I merely found an oversight they never realized someone would blunder into, but the fact still remains that it actually happened. So just be warned that Knights of Pen & Paper makes it possible for a player to completely screw themself over in a most brilliantly perfect way, such that their entire progress forward will be utterly lost if they don’t buy their way out with IAPs.
Anyways – getting back on topic – the title does an amazing job of capturing the experience of P&P gaming not only in terms of mechanics, but also goes beyond that by skillfully recreating player banter as well. The players sitting around the table will not just assume the roles of their characters, but will also frequently talk to each other – as well as the GM – completely out of character. Because of this it is not uncommon for someone to shout out things such as “This is my precious!” when buying new accessories, or proclaiming “Let’s try something more challenging.” if they feel the GM is coddling them too much.
I also appreciate that the GM reflects the – usually – not perfectly serious nature most actual P&P game runners handle their material with, and is more than willing to slip in references all over the place. This includes doing things such as having a group of monsters you beat up for info – when you apparently could have simply asked them nicely – proclaiming, “What is this I don’t even?” He will also often subject the players frequently to bad puns – such as Maya Me Beach (try saying it out loud) – or send his team to places that are direct homages, such as a desert village named ‘Journey’ where everyone is dressed in a garb that make you realize how the town got its name to begin with. One of my favorite moments – though – has to be when he conceded to making a random village girl’s charisma stat be 19, all because one of the players protested that the game wasn’t filled with enough cute girls yet.
Speaking of visual elements – such as random NPCs – everything contained with the game of Knights of Pen & Paper is exactingly rendered in an adorable pixel art style, with the real world players on the bottom of the screen and the imagined fantasy world up on top. The only minor complaint I have with all of this is that the only time you will ever get to see your players’ faces is when you are first recruiting them, as you will forever be seeing them exclusively from their backside after that. One other rather neat visual feature this title has – of which I don’t normally see – is that the game can be operated in either a portrait or landscape display, allowing those on larger iDevices – such that the text doesn’t end up too small in the process – to get a better view of the various locations the heroes travel to.
iFanzine Verdict: Knights of Pen & Paper understands what truly makes up a P&P experience, and manages to successfully incorporate this – player banter and all – for the first time ever in a single player package. The end result is a very unique – and vastly amusing – RPG that gives the player an extreme amount of control over the difficulty that they face at any given time, for they are controlling both the GM as well as the other players. The only thing I have to caution people about is that Behold Studios has made the game such that you can easily get yourself into a perfect corner if you aren’t careful, after which you will have to completely restart the title from scratch unless you IAP acquire more gold.