Master Mines

We’re digging RPGs

jumping into the fray…

Hey guys, my names Jeff Himmelman. Like a lot of you here, I’ve been doing a podcast for a while now on gaming, Live action roleplaying specifically. I’m also a freelance illustrator and I do a lot of work for indie games.

A while back I got an idea for a series of paintings based on the labyrinth, but set in the sewers of NYC, using the homeless as characters. I did a great deal of research, watching documentaries, reading books and even breaking into a train tunnel where a community of homeless lived for about five years to take pictures for reference.

The paintings were done, but the world I’d put so much thought into creating stuck with me. Over the years my interest in abandoned urban structures persevered, as did my interest in the homeless. I dabbled with the idea of turning it into an RPG, and my wife called pushed me to pitch it during the dreamation game design roundtable. I got a lot of really fantastic feedback, which was enough to get me to put it down in writing.

It’s called Kingdom of Nothing, and it’s the culmination of a lot of different passions of mine; abandoned buildings and tunnels, homelessness, roleplaying and art (I’m planning on illustrating it myself).

I’ve run the character creation three times now, and I’m pretty happy with it. Right now I’m developing the setting, and it’s slow going because I may be overthinking (or underthinking) things. I need a little direction…

The document in it’s entirety (or at least as much of it as there is) can be found here:

I’m planning on getting rid of the planned headings this weekend


June 15, 2007 - Posted by | Kingdom of Nothing


  1. Welcome, Jeff.

    We’ve set you up with a category, page, all that jazz. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll be looking over your document this weekend and commenting.

    Comment by Ryan Macklin | June 15, 2007 | Reply

  2. Hey, Jeff. I would say that I’m going to print out a copy of your draft and read it this weekend, but this weekend is PaulCon V, so it may take me a little while to give you some in depth commentary. Still, I can be Socratic. You say, “My game is about people who’ve lost everything, and their struggle to crawl their way back out of the cracks through which they’ve slipped.” My questions are how is your game about that and what behaviors does your game reward? Can you sum the answers to both of those up in three sentences or less?

    Comment by ptevis | June 15, 2007 | Reply

  3. Jeff, awesome to see you here. I’d heard about KoN a while back and the name alone is very evocative; knowing what elements inspired you makes me dig it even more. I’m gonna print it out and read through so I can start offering thoughts. Let me second Paul in his questions, as it would offer a good, quick base where to start from.

    Also, congrats on the wedding. 🙂

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 15, 2007 | Reply

  4. Welcome Jeff! Glad to have you here. I am still busy like a motherfucker and will have to give your draft more consideration over the weekend.

    We are still all podcasters and right now that still strikes me as really funny. 20 years from now it might seem totally dumb that I was ever amused. Or 2 years from now.

    Comment by misuba | June 15, 2007 | Reply

  5. Jeff, I read through the current draft and I reiterate, I really like what you are going for here. I find it drips atmosphere and hey, as a huge fan of Neverwhere, you had me at “the labyrinth, but set in the sewers of NYC.” I’d love to see some of the artwork you got out of this. Next time I go to NYC (maybe later this year) we surely have to get together.

    I will later come to offer some specific comments, but I can throw out these two quick ones:

    1- I like your chargen system, but I despise the last step (letting the Judge tie all the secrets and choose the knack). Ugh. It’s like you have this wonderful shared story thing going and at the most crucial moment, you slam a big wall down on it. I have some suggestions I will post later on.

    2- I think you have two games in this draft: the basic stripped-down system w/ core thematic elements, and the full package with defined setting. If you gave me this draft with a few points polished up, and left the setting to me, I’d be just fine playing it. Don’t get me wrong, I WANT to see your setting, but maybe these is an opportunity here to have two versions of the games for varying tastes in setting definition: one where you continue down the shared character creation path and extend it to shared setting creation using the core thematic elements you provide, like cobwebs and echoes; and one where you get the more traditional expounded setting with the Byzantine power struggles I see you struggling with at various points in the text.

    More later.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 16, 2007 | Reply

  6. Hey Daniel,

    First off, thanks for taking the time to go through the current draft. about the chargen system, originally I had the players coming up with their own knack, but through playtesting we thought it was better for the knack to be created after the backstory was created. I definitely see what you’re saying with the big wall at the end. I’m looking forward to hearing your suggestions.

    I also love the shared setting creation idea. I’m going to put some work in on it today (and I need to read a few other games)

    Again, thanks for your very insightful feedback

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 17, 2007 | Reply

  7. How is my game about what it’s about:

    You start out not knowing your backstory. It’s created by the other people at the table.

    How does it reward what it’s about:

    You get xp for finding out secrets about your past. Also, you can sacrifice your physical endurance (survival) and mental endurance (lucidity) in order to deal with short term problems your character faces, but in the long term it will permanently pull you into the fantasy world you’re trying to pull yourself out of.

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 17, 2007 | Reply

  8. Jeff, a few disjointed thoughts as I page through your current draft (3/10/07):

    1- I like your conceptualization of the monsters of glass and granite and how they bring about the Nothing. Don’t limit it to modern times, though; based on your pattern of life there, the Nothing would have been born in different guises since the beginning of civilization, when cities came into being, each time with a different form, each time a little stronger as cities became larger and more unforgiving in their ability to birth the Lost.

    2- I like the dual forces of Echoes and Cobwebs. I think the ideas need to be tightened becasue they’re a little bit all over the place, but they are very neat. Perhaps while Echoes and Cobwebs are mostly transitory in nature, appearing at particular times for whatever reason, the characters can begin play with one defined Echo and one defined Cobweb, ones that are permanent and thus provide essential clues as to the fate of the Lost. A pet-Echo would be some sort of “feat” (to use the term), but the kicker is that if you define your Echo to be such a companion, then your defined Cobweb also gets to be a lot more defined. This would play on memories always being attached to another one, and the themes of duality running through the text already.

    3- Survival/Lucidity break the duality theme: I would suggest coming up with a term for the physical equivalent of Lucidity to cover endurance, health, etc. then shifting Survival as a combostat (physical and mental stats together then divided by 2) and use this one as the measure of luck and the modifier that affects other rolls as well as the currency you’d spend to affect the story and the one you’d use to push through the fog to recover a memory or gain a temporary skill, etc.

    I like the idea of “base” stats, and how you can increase them during play, and how once both fill up they go back down to base, increasing something else permanently (it’s very video game, like in fighting games you have “Power” bars to fuel special moves). You might want to make clear that each stat must have a minimum score of 1 (thus the total option for point spreads would be 1/6, 2/5, or 3/4).

    4- Is there a defined list of Abilities (is there a specific reason not to call them Skills?) or are these created based on the concept and could conceivably be anything? I don’t know I have a favorite option. Spirit of the Century, for example, has a short and defined list of skills that I think are very inclusive in terms of options, while games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Sorcerer handle skills very differently (in Dogs you create them based on your story, and in Sorcerer they are almost a non-issue in that if you are doing something that your concept could conceivably do, then you roll). Either way, it needs to be defined and made clear.

    4- I love the shared Secret creation, but as I said, I don’t like that you then empower/burden the Judge to come up with the last secret AND tie it all together AND come up with the knack. My suggestion would be to have the Judge provide a Secret for the PC that is directly related to the Nothing, regardless of whether it is tied to the other Secrets or not. This way the Judge has a special role in the chargen exchange, providing a perspective which is the one he’ll be playing (the Nothing is, in essence, his own PC that he’s bringing to the chargen party, partly defined for each group by the Secrets all the other players are throwing out), but he doesn’t get taxed with all this information nor does it remove the players from the fun of shared creation. Also, the players are free help in drawing the connections between them, helping out both the story and the Judge along the way. Phase 3 can still happen, but a lot of the work will have been done by the players at the table, and they will be more invested in the story.

    Also, I think it’s fine if the Judge doesn’t immediately know why/how the Nothing ate the character’s name. This could be something that emerges during play and quite possibly something suggested/brought into play by the very player or the other players at the table.

    Also, let players create their own Echoes and Cobwebs from the things that are most important to them: let these be Flags to the Judge about what is important to both character and player. Combine this with my point in 2 above.

    5- I want to address Knacks, but first I need to address your dice mechanic:

    It is way too clunky IMO. I honestly see no particular reason why all the shapes of dice need to be used in the game; d6’s (actually, any dice could be used, as long as all the dice used are the same) should work just fine (question: is there a mechanical/thematic reason for using craps as part of the resolution mechanic?). I like the different colors (lately I have really been diggin’ systems that use pools with different colors to represent different forces in the same effort) and I would simply modify that each point is a die you roll: you add up the results and see if you win or lose, as described in your text already.

    Going back to Knacks, you may not need to define these at game start, nor force the Judge to come up with them. What you can do is assign each starting character a Knack at 2 points. Each player (working with the Judge) creates their own Knack based on their entire character and using the Secrets as guideposts in defining how the Nothing has changed them and endowed them with power. Thing is, whatever they come up with, they only have a 2 point power at first, which means whatever they can do, it can only have so much of an effect. If it’s flight, it’s for no more than a few minutes (2 points worth of distance, whatever the player and Judge define as the base measurement); if pyrokinetics, it’s a small fire that deals only 2 points worth of damage; if it’s telepathy, you have 2 dice to oppose the target’s Lucidity roll to read their thoughts; if it’s illusionism, your phantasms have whatever you roll on 2 dice as the opposing number for people to disbelieve them, or something like that. Basically the Knack is very freeform and can be almost anything (within reason), but it has a very small effect at first, only 2 points. As the character develops, and gains points in their Knack, the player and Judge must create a power ladder that shows how the power evolves as more points are added to it. Again, it goes back to the idea of shared creation.

    6- As I mentioned before, I think you have 2 games here, or a game and a campaign setting. Maybe you create KoN as the game without a default setting except the one that is created in collaboration (or by the Judge) based on the core thematic elements of KoN, things like the Nothing, Echoes, Cobwebs, the Nowhere. Then you can go ahead and write “KoN: Forgotten New York” as a pre-made campaign setting for KoN where you set down the whole tribes, Byzantine politics, and specific places of NYC. This would allow both for groups to adapt the game to their own cities or even fantasy/sci-fi settings, and allow you to dive in and create the setting for New York (maybe even allowing others to work with you to create other city settings for KoN).

    I think you have a great game here, Jeff, and I would play this with my group for sure; they’d all be able to tap into the Neverwhere vibe you got going. I very much look forward to helping out in whatever way I can to get this game done.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 18, 2007 | Reply

  9. 1- I’ve actually thought a lot about how the setting could be applied to different periods of time, but it definitely needs to have come into full strength when we started building cities. The inspiration from that first paragraph came from the second part of the poem ‘howl’ by alan ginsburg. I’d love to include the poem itself, but I’m not sure what the copyright laws surrounding that sort of thing are

    2-I agree that they need to be defined a lot more. I like your defining idea.

    3-Interesting idea with changing survival. I did get the feedback during one of my playtests that your physical stat also being your ‘luck’ points was a little confusing, this may fix that.

    4-There’s no reason I didn’t call them skills. I’m taking a lot from Mortal Coil in how I worked them. I liked the balance that came from the idea that you could take any skill, but if someone had a more specialized version of that skill it canceled out yours.

    5-I’m not quite sure what you mean by the judge making a secret related to the nothing…could you give me an example of what you’re talking about?

    I do think the players could make their own echoes, which would factor in to the reward system pretty well. They would have to keep looking into their past to uncover new echoes to help them along the way. I’m not sure they should come up with their own cobwebs however, that should be the judge’s job.

    6-Craps is iconic to me as a game that’s played in back-alleys. I also wanted a gambling game to be the basis of the system because gambling is on of the paths that could lead someone to homelessness. The main idea behind the system however is the struggle between hope and despair.

    I see what you’re saying about the dice mechanic. I guess I just like the feel of different die steps, but 1)2d6 is closer to the feel of craps 2)the math is simpler. The only problem I see with it is the conflicts will rely a little too heavily on modifiers. Get enough of a modifier on your hope die and you’ll succeed even if you roll a 6 on despair…

    Regardless it’s something to think about.

    The only problem I see with your idea for knacks is that the players don’t know their own characters secrets, so they don’t have any basis of what their knack would be.

    Thanks so much for thinking about the game in this level of detail, especially given how scattershot it is right now. I’ve realized after reading the drafts of the other games here that googledocs is counterproductive for me right now. I need to organize things into a better formatted draft.

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 18, 2007 | Reply

  10. I just want to mention a couple of things right now that made my head spin around when I saw them:

    1) weapon modifiers? Huh? This may just be my biases, but this part just sort of looks like it was pasted in from a different game.

    2) Ditto for XP. You seem to be doing “achievements get you XP which you spend on goodies,” when you could just be doing “achievements get you goodies.” Maybe I’m wrong, but given your comment that you need more things to spend XP on… maybe the current lack of granularity is a hint that you can skip a step.

    There’s more, but that’s about all I can articulate for sure right now; I’ll stew on the rest until your next draft.

    Comment by misuba | June 18, 2007 | Reply

  11. Re: #5 – The Secret the Judge brings to the character is a Secret related to the Nothing and how it interacted with the character. Not necessarily how it are his/her Name, but something that shows that the Nothing is a constant source of issues for the Lost. The idea is that the Judge is another player during chargen, but his PC is the Nothing, so he’s the one who gets to add that Secret to each player character’s sheet.

    Also, I agree that the Judge should have the ability to come up with more Cobwebs, but I like the idea of the player having to define one of his personal monsters, and that this is somewhat tied to his personal companion (the Echo). It plays on the “we are our own worst enemy” idea.

    Re: #6 – I also don’t want this to devolve into a modifier-fest, so maybe that’s one area to seek help with (I suck at the math behind these things).

    Also, why don’t the players know the initial batch of Secrets? The Sons of Kryos had an episode recently (ep. 43) where they talked about player knowledge vs. character knowledge, and made some great arguments for letting players have knowledge their character don’t necessarily have so that the players can help in creating dramatic situations. Short version: trust your players to play the game to create a dramatic story. Maybe there are other Secrets that come as surprises to the player AND the character, but let the player share in the whole process of creation and be an active part of the beginning of the story.

    I had another thought on the chargen sequence, but I need to organize it better and I also need to go pick up my wife. More later.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 18, 2007 | Reply

  12. >>Also, why don’t the players know the initial batch of Secrets?

    It would be like reading the script to a movie before you saw it. Most of the focus of the game is on discovering who you are. roleplaying your character being surprised is fun, but actually being surprised is more fun I think. This is rewarding for the other people at the table too because they helped make the backstory.

    The result of the secret backstory is a game heavily focused on character development, because both the character and the player are interested to see what happened.

    I like where you were headed with the Judges secret…

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 18, 2007 | Reply

  13. I understand what you mean, but for some reason the idea of leaving this bit of character creation to the Judge alone rubs me the wrong way. Maybe the Knacks (and frankly, perhaps even the Secret of how the Nothing ate a character’s name) could be created by the entire group minus the player of each particular PC.

    The thing is, I’m not clear on something: does a starting PC know he has a Knack already, or have they never manifested it before game starts? If the former, it wouldn’t make any sense for the player not to know what Knack his character has, and if the latter, then a player needs to be given something of an idea of what the nature of his Knack is for it to be effective during play. So if you don’t want to give the player info the character doesn’t have, then you’ll have to add a sentence or so to the sheet giving an idea of what the Knack is.

    I kinda like the idea of the ultimate Secret being a consensus of the whole party minus the player: it shares the burden with the Judge, and it makes the other player accomplices to the Nothing, as well as creating a sense of drama in the players; they can use the info they know that you don’t to heighten dramatic scenes from time to time, in effect sharing to some extent the Judge’s storytelling duties in regards to a pre-determined, pre-agreed plot element.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  14. So I got this idea about how to work the knacks. There are three categories: Poison, Destruction and Fate. Maybe the group passes around the secrets sheet one last time, writing down what category they think the character would have (the Judge is the tie breaker). Once a concensus has been reached, they tell it to the player, and they get the two points to make up their own power as long as it fits in the category

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  15. >>Also, why don’t the players know the initial batch of Secrets?

    >It would be like reading the script to a movie before you saw it.

    That’s correct. Unfortunately, something else is also correct: it would also be like reading the script to a movie before you star in it – doing which, I think you’ll agree, not only deepens and enriches the performances but prevents people from making acting choices that end up totally not working.

    Unless you’re completely confident that players knowing their characters’ Knacks will be enough to set them on the right path, I think there might be a concern here.

    Comment by misuba | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  16. I kinda like your solution there, Jeff. I think playtest will then bring out any kinks there might be, but that seems like a good compromise.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  17. I think we’re talking about different things here. Where you guys are thinking along the lines of performing, I’m thinking along the lines of experiencing. Both are completely valid ways of going at this however, and you’ve both convinced be that I need to mention a variant playstyle where the players know their backstories.

    It’s also worth mentioning that the concept paragraph went pretty far in defining the character during playtesting. All the backstory provides is the ‘why’ for how the characters are already acting

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  18. Isn’t interesting that of the 5 people here, 3 are working on games that feature a “search for self identity” theme?

    Looking forward to your next draft, Jeff.

    Comment by Daniel M. Perez | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  19. dmp: It is indeed interesting that Jeff’s game, which was not a result of this year’s Game Chef, is similar in as many ways as it is to the two games that were. It makes me think that there’s probably a little more art to the choice of those GC ingredient menus than I imagined.

    jh: You have a third choice, besides players knowing their backstories and not… you could let them come up during play instead of pre-writing them. But that’d really do some violence to your draft as it stands.

    Comment by misuba | June 19, 2007 | Reply

  20. When I saw the ingredients for the competition I was like “Oh no! somebody’s going to use my idea!” I was relieved when the games were as different as they were from mine…

    Comment by jhimmelman | June 19, 2007 | Reply

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