Welcome to Mostly Tryin’, a blog series where I, Rick, a UK-based board game and RPG designer, face my fear of failure by failing repeatedly and learn how to make good games by making bad ones. In every post, I’ll be reflecting on a different game, and sharing what went well, what didn’t, and how I’ve taken each experience forward with me in order to get better at creating and running games.
…I’m still in that car, post-con. I’m sick, I’m tired, and I am utterly hooked. I have a new Thing! I will become a creator and runner of games, for all my friends, new and old.
It’s funny how one moment can change an entire outlook. I have always enjoyed playing games, but it had always felt like a childish side of me I was indulging (even as board gaming entered such a boom period), but that one frenzied weekend, in the US at a convention organized by friends in the company of another 30 or so fully-grown adults, showed me that it’s okay to indulge in the things that make you feel good. Looking back, it was definitely a turning point in my life, a moment where I learned to come out of my shell a little and accept myself for who I am. I think it’s a journey I’m still on, supported by some very good friends and a partner who has helped me feel confident in myself.
My brain is immediately whirring, thinking up, considering and then immediately rejecting ideas left and right. In my half-asleep state in the back of someone’s car, I say to my friend “What if… there were two games being played at once, but the people at each table didn’t know it?” A seed has been planted.
The other idea I have, the much more straightforward idea, comes to me before we’ve ever gotten in said car. It’s been formally announced that we are going to hold an invite-only con in Scotland, and some of the North American contingent have expressed an interest right out of the gate! It’s time to make something so unspeakably, cringingly ‘British’ for them.
We’re going to have a tea party.
Kobolds Drank My Tea
The plan was a simple one - find a game that could encourage a genteel atmosphere on the surface, whilst enabling the madcap, off-script nonsense I had enjoyed so much over the previous weekend. Also, the rules must be extremely simple, so people can drink their tea and maintain polite societal norms, whilst engaging in the game. After some deliberation, it was clear there was only one real choice.
Kobolds Ate My Baby is a great, simple game (currently undergoing a re-release) all about a bunch of mischievous wee critters trying to steal a baby for their off-screen monarch. There were three key factors that made this the clear winner for my ‘tea party’:
the dice-rolling mechanic is simple and also adaptable; you can adapt the core system to any game
Kobolds are inherently funny to me, being small and largely useless creatures that can have Wile E. Coyote style violence happen to them without real-world consequence
It has a single, meta-game rule that could be expanded to further fit this silly retheme around it.
Point 3 above was of particular interest to me - whenever the name of the Kobolds’ leader ‘King Torg’ is uttered aloud during play, all players must shout out ‘All hail King Torg!’ - anyone failing to do so receives an in-game punishment (in this case, a check mark that inches that player’s kobold closer to their inevitable demise). This was something I could play with, expand out to suit the veneer of gentility I wanted to portray. I had a handful of reasonable, polite rules:
No elbows on the table
No talking with your mouth full
No removing of one’s hat (hats were, of course, provided and mandatory)
ALL HAIL KING TORG
To further sow some chaos, I also offered rewards to the players for calling out when one of their number had broken the rules by removing a punishment they’d previously earned. In addition, having two rules that could be run counter to one another (i.e. waiting until someone is eating, then forcing them all to praise King Torg) meant that I could sow chaos as required as the game progressed.
The dice rolling mechanic was also extremely straightforward. A kobold has a score in each of their stats (typically somewhere between two and 12), and whenever the player wants to achieve something, the GM tells them to roll a certain number of d6 - the more dice, the harder, or more treacherous, the task. If the player rolls equal to or below the stat’s score, they succeed! If they roll above their score, they fail, and Bad Stuff will happen. I was confident of enough Bad Stuff happening that I came prepared with 30 pre-generated characters for just five players. I used Excel to randomly generate stat scores and traits from the available options, and then used a Mail Merge to put those stats onto the character sheets (which is still in use to this day!).
The object of the game was straightforward enough (get ahold of some milk, tea and water, and heat it all up somehow - baby-consumption was left as an optional objective), and I drew a very simple top-down map of a little modern-day village to use as reference points for the players. That was all there was, in terms of the prep I had to do as the GM. I was as ready as I could hope to be, and the game ultimately was going to live or die on the players’ collective willingness to lean into the madcap setting, eat a whole load of cake, and have fun. My role as GM in this one was simple; respond to the players’ suggestions enthusiastically, and punish failed dice rolls with cruel, unreasonable, but ultimately funny outcomes.
A personal favorite moment of this game was one player’s kobold burning themselves to death while trying to start a fire - that same player’s next (randomly chosen) Kobold happened to have a trait of ‘flammable’, and so immediately went up in the same inferno, killing them before they even had a chance to act. In this game, kobold life is nasty, brutish, and very, very short.
All that was left, then, was to provide the tea and cakes for the players to enjoy during the game. I left that job up to the local supermarket (I did say it was low-prep…)
This game was an instant hit with the players. The main reason for this was that I'd spent a couple of weeks pitching the game to players and making sure everyone understood exactly what kind of game and playing experience they could expect.
By laying out exactly what the game was (a silly, rules-light game with slapstick humor and a meta game-in-a-game layer), it meant the players all came in with the same expectations. I’m sure the promise of free cake helped a little, too.
The game was very lethal, which also helped the players embrace the almost cartoon-y violence of the whole thing. Before long everyone succumbed to the inevitability that they would each be responsible for the untimely deaths of up to half a dozen of their little kobolds, and threw caution to the wind to attempt all kinds of near impossible feats.
Lesson Learned: Setting the right expectations is vital
Kobolds Drank My Tea was undoubtedly the first time I had felt like I had truly delivered a complete experience for players, from designing a game all the way to running a session. It had everything that I now consider “must-haves” for games I look to run; a clear, strong concept, a defined goal for players, and a tone that communicated the expectations players can have coming in to the game (and, even before then, choosing to want to play).
This was the first time I had ever played a game where the actual rules of the game leaned into the theme of that game The fact that, as per the game’s actual rules, players were encouraged to lean into actually behaving like sneaky, conniving little kobolds, and were punished for not following a set of in-universe rules in real life. Having the game-within-a-game rules in place and allowing the players to point out one anothers’ failings for a small benefit, all led so keenly to the feeling of the players actually taking on the characteristics of these mean-spirited little monsters trying to get a leg up on one another, and be the one to bring the prize to King Torg (ALL HAIL KING TORG!). It’s something I have since tried to be aware of when making games, as I really feel it helps your game stand out.
This was my first game I’d truly call a success, so much so that I have run it every year since!
In my next blog post I’ll be revisiting a game that made another GM swear at me (for nice reasons, I promise!).
Rick is a UK-based board game and RPG designer, and forever GM. He enjoys football (aka soccer), kobolds (the thinking person's goblin) and trying to convince his cats to come lay on his lap.
Cloud Curio is not associated with any companies mentioned in the blog series Mostly Tryin'. We don't earn any money if you purchase any of the games, programs, or products mentioned. We'll always disclose if we're being sponsored in any way for what we write.