King for a Day (system neutral)
This mega-adventure clocks in at 304 pages if you take away editorial, credits, etc. – these are laid out in 6’’ by 9’’ (A5) – though that page-count is for this version. The adventure comes with a second version intended for e-readers, which not only is much smaller regarding file-size, but which also sports pages per screen; kudos there. I own the softcover PoD-version of this adventure, and my review is primarily based on this version. The pdf version also features something pretty crucial – a bonus pdf that comes with no less than 31 pages (!!) of handouts, including faction glyphs, regional maps in color and b/w (the latter with regions and rivers etc. noted), NPC roster cheat sheets, etc. – I strongly suggest getting the print + pdf version for this, since the PoD book LACKS these. King for a Day is a complex beast to run, and as such, this booklet is very much highly recommended/all but required.
Before I dive into the nit and grit of this book, let me thank profusely the reader who recommended this adventure to me; it would have flown under my radar otherwise.
Okay, so this is a system neutral mega-adventure sandbox, which comes with one selection of rules that deserve mention: There is a social combat-y/trust-mechanic that, while not bad in any way, is not required.
Genre-wise and regarding nomenclature, this mega-adventure sports an Anglo-Saxon theme that is reflected in societal structure, norms and nomenclature and takes place in remote Brycshire. The fantasy aspects of this adventure are rather subdued: While the adventure does feature gnolls and orcs, the humanoid nature of these beings are in no way required for the module’s internal logic or the like; as a result, you could play this as run in e.g. Greyhawk, or even our own world, in the latter case, replacing the humanoids with, for example, Picts, roving bandits or the like. The assumption is that of a low/rare magic environment, so expect no huge assortments of magical items, effects or the like – instead, this has a very gritty, old-world vibe and magic is intentionally rare and potent. Similarly, magic, when it does show up, is all the more striking.
That being said, while I’d usually recommend in such scenarios to write the humanoids out of it, here, I’d actually keep them in the module. There is a reason for this lies within the specific structure that is such an intrinsic part of what makes this mega-adventure stand out from others of its kind, but more on that later.
Now, if you have no idea regarding realities of the quasi Anglo-Saxon society this guns for, rest assured that the book explains societal structure, faith, pronunciation and more in detail; this includes notes on coinage, reputation, etc.; Oh, and this mega-adventure features over 200 NPCs.
No, I am not kidding you. And yes, they actually deserve that name, with basically everyone having things going on in one way or another. This is as close to a viable simulationalist attention to detail as you’re bound to come in published adventures, and in that, it does mirror the level of detail I tend to provide in my own games. This may seem daunting or overwhelming, particularly once you realize that, beyond the personal plot-lines, there is a time factor in the adventure, and there is more than one overarching plot-line. Furthermore, these plotlines, from the personal to the global level, tend to interact, diverge and converge. The book does something rather cool here, namely, provide glyphs to denote, at a glance, customization points, diverging and converging storylines, etc. Farms have names. People have lives. This is a super-impressive achievement as far as storylines and sheer plausibility are concerned. It also means that, in order to keep this review halfway informative, I can’t hope to talk about the highly modular structure of the myriad plotlines herein. I wouldn’t want to, anyways, as the module’s countless quests ultimately serve a truly astonishing purpose.
In another adventure, these details would be nice; in King for a Day, they are frickin’ VITAL and I’m exceedingly glad that they’re here. If this daunting scale on its own is not ample indicator for you, this is not an easy adventure/campaign to run – not by a long shot. There are few campaigns that demand as much skill and smarts from the GM/referee as this one, and fewer still that do so not by incompetence, but by daunting ambition. To make that abundantly clear: King for a Day is hard to run because of its ambition, complexity and attention to detail. It requires preparation and a good memory. Perhaps the only other campaign with such high demands on both GM and players would be EN Publishing’s Zeitgeist AP. Much like that saga, King for a Day does reward you for investing the time and effort. In spades.
There is one piece of advice I’d tell every GM/referee running this module: Don’t tell your players anything about it.
If you’re a player and want to play this adventure at one point, please do NOT continue to read. While I will not spoil the crucial point of this adventure, knowing anything about it will take away from its impact.
This is the BIG SPOILER WARNING. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Okay, only GMs/referees around? Great! King for a Day works because you do not know what it is. The setting presented is a lavishly-detailed, plausible region that would fit seamlessly in borderland- or borderland-adjacent regions in most regions; there are humanoids, there is faith, there are jaded, poor villagers and everything is a bit backwater, a bit jaded. PCs will chalk that up to the harsh nature of the region, its struggles, or sheer xenophobia. In short: We have an expertly-depicted place that most players will consider to be akin to something you’d see in Greyhawk, Raging Swan Press or Frog God Games supplements or in some other classic-style OSR-modules.
They’re oh so horribly wrong.
Now, the xenophobia and jaded nature of the folks, the gritty details of daily life and the various local struggles will make this feel, slowly, like a dark fantasy game without the grimdark elements or gore, but with plenty of anxiety and paranoia galore.
Once more, this is wrong. Intentionally so.
As the PCs investigate, for this *IS* an investigation, they will unearth wheels within wheels – nothing is as it seems, and this is also when the module begins its constant and detailed payoff, as the PCs start unearthing evidences of politicking and conspiracies, of cults and orders and ancient curses and crimes…and the hostility and gruff demeanor of the local populace takes on a sinister sheen. You see, King for a Day, in one of its central aspects, is the single best example of psychological and truly disturbing horror I have seen pulled off in a campaign. Without gore, without resorting to any of the classic tropes, it is a perfect example on how to make a slow-burn build-up work within a campaign. The more you play it, the more will its leitmotifs organically click into place…and the more isolated the PCs will feel.
We all know the trope: Heroes arrive, are treated badly, solve issues, become welcomed, celebrated even. Not so here. Instead, the PCs and players will find apathy, and since they will be unearthing hidden threads and plots, they will start questioning the motives of everyone – instead of making a new home, making new friends, the module does a superb job of depicting the experience of Brechtian estrangement on a cultural level; not only between PCs and NPCs, but also between NPCs. The PCs get to see the dissolution of the social contracts that bind us together as social animals; not due to violence or gore and blood-spatter, but because of apathy undermining everything. There is no easy enemy to fight, no cackling, mustache-twirling villain, nothing to slay.
This makes King for a Day one of the very few genuinely frightening adventures; to the point where the expected “truth” behind the proceedings, behind the strange behaviors, where the masterminds of the possible coup d’état (one of the complex, interwoven plotlines), where the ancient curses…all of that feels like a RELIEF. When the basically Cthulhu-mythos-inspired enemies show up, players will probably rejoice that they have something to slay; here, horror gives way to dark fantasy, to the familiar, to something that is quasi-Cthulhu-mythos/illithid-y, to Dagon being mentioned.
It’s a catharsis.
It’s a masterstroke of storytelling and the penultimate in a series of truly impressive subversions and thematic changes that is guided by the adventure, that is explicitly stated out for the GM/referee.
It’s the penultimate one, and for the final one, the author actually provides an excuse, explicitly states how it’s not how things need to go, but how things, for him, should go. This final twist even blows the previous one out of the water, transcending the line from comfy and familiar Mythos-Lovecraftiana to genuine, Lovecraftian horror. It’s in these few pages that all the psychological horror unearthed, all the catharsis achieved, once more coils up into a singular scene, one that amplifies the profound, intellectual anxiety and desperation, the genuine HORROR in one catch-phrase.
One that is horrific on its own, but which is vastly outclassed by the truth behind it, by the vast and truly unfathomable. Dagon is a Lie. Even this simple sentence is nothing but a prelude, a final undermining of truths unearthed. The finale beyond that phrase is much more horrifying and genuinely transcends anything I have seen in a horror module to this date, presenting the most efficient, powerful and stunning conclusion to an adventure I have read, providing a singularity of purpose and theme where all the aspects of this vast adventure congeal together into something that genuinely and profoundly left me rattled. Then, I actually clapped. A smile stole onto my face. This is the single best ending this probably could have had.
Editing and formatting aren’t perfect; I noticed quite a few glitches and typos herein; I’d consider the book to be “still good” in that category, though barely. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard in the pdfs, while in the PoD-version, the only color images are those of advertisements in the back; the borders of the page have bluish borders; here, color-coding could have helped structure the book further. As noted, the pdfs have no bookmarks, which is SUPER-jarring for a tome of this size. The handout-booklet and cartography in both full color and b/w are amazing, particularly the b/w-map of the final location, presented as a player-friendly version, is great. Unfortunately and much to my chagrin, this pdf is NOT included in the print book, not can you purchase a poster map version of a physical version of the handout booklet, which, once more, is just jarring. I expected these to be included in the print version, which imho needn’t be full-color inside, considering that the great, if sparse artworks, are b/w. In short: Get both PoD and pdf, and get ready to print the handouts.
Jim Pinto’s “King for a Day” was recommended by one of my readers; in the highest praises. I did shrug, bought it and there it sat; I kept reading it, made notes, and only slowly did it dawn on me how exceedingly effective this module is; how SMART it is. On a formal level, King for a Day is deeply flawed. The print version’s lack of maps, the pdfs with their lack of bookmarks – there are some serious comfort detriments here that render using this harder, rougher than it ought to be.
In fact, this is pretty much a bit like “Demon Souls” back in the day in its rough and somewhat clunky handling; no one had an idea what was going on, how it worked, and it required work; it took hardcore, skilled folks to use, and then, slowly revealed its brilliance, its genius. King for a Day is a clunky, slightly abrasive, tough nut to crack that requires an expert GM/referee to pull off. Cthulhu dark age, LotFP, weird old-school (à la Midderlands, Wormskin, etc.), Greyhawk – it doesn’t matter: Do you want to challenge your players as well as their PCs? Do you consider immaculately structured, smart and plausible scenarios a joy? Do your players demand your A-Game as a GM/referee? Do you enjoy sandboxes that deserve the name? Do you want a sandbox that sports diverse, modular and complex plotlines, you know, not just “kill xyz”-stuff, but storylines that are worth the moniker? That truly are MODULAR, where the PCs and their actions matter? Well, this massive monstrosity delivers all of that, and more, in spades.
If I were to rate this solely on its accessibility, on its formal criteria, etc., I’d consider this, at best, a 3.5 stars-book; if the like is really important for you, then please take note of that. However, the content, ambition, prose, execution and clever concept underlying everything here make this a true and distinguished masterpiece, one of the hidden gems out there; this can provide potentially years of gaming, will keep even the most efficient groups occupied for at least a couple of months, and ranks as one of the smartest mega-adventures/campaigns I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
If you even remotely like smart, dark material and want to flex your GM/referee-muscles, then consider this to be a must-have recommendation. I was, even after having read literally thousands of adventures, floored by this. Even with its pronounced flaws and imperfections, this is 5 stars + seal of approval, the type of out-of-left-field recommendation that makes reviewing amazing.
You can get this massive mega-adventure masterpiece here on OBS!
You can get the map-pack (most of it’s included in the regular version; only has one massive color map in higher res) here on OBS!