If you think about Knights of Pen and Paper too hard, it makes no sense. At first glance it’s a cartoon dungeon crawling RPG. You enter caves and underground lairs and towns and villages and defeat monsters along the way. It has a cute pixel art-style, angry bats, and battles that ask you to fight, turn-by-turn.
But it’s as meta as meta-games get: you also playing as the party of players who are playing the game. You’re not controlling Warriors or Wizards or Paladins: you’re controlling goofy teenagers, grandmas and bankers who are gathered around a pen and paper RPG table, rolling dice and making sarcastic remarks about critical hits.
And you’re also playing as the dungeon master: setting quests and objectives for players along the way.
And it works. Beautifully.
It’s a brisk and imaginative RPG combat game that asks you to judge risk and reward carefully. The quests are simple: kill eight of these, rescue him, take this to there, are frameworks in which you judge your power against your predicted enemy power. Need to kill eight bats? How many do you want to fight at once? Two? Four? All of them? Stretching your team and you’ll earn bonus XP and gold; but if characters die you’ll have to pay to resurrect them.
As you progress, though, you’ll want to save your cash – to open up more character slots around the table, and slowly build your team.
It’s got a neat sense of humour, too. You can buy equipment and potions for your characters, but you can also pay to upgrade the table you play on with skulls and lore appropriate tablecloths for permanent buffs. Or, you can buy a pizza for your team, and see their stats boosted temporarily. Even better: the players in your RPG world will give a running meta-commentary on what’s going on: jocks wondering out loud why they’re here, geeks getting in the mood.
Knights of Pen and Paper started life, and remains popular, on iOS, and it shows. It is a simple game; it’s relatively disposable and it’s not exactly pushing the technical limits. The PC version has some improvements: there’s more places to explore, more characters, and more pop culture nods (including, say the devs, a few nods to the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon). But it also retains the same microtransaction led structure: if you find your party is struggling, you can buy your way to success by plonking down real cash on in-game gold, and spending that on new items and character slots.
While I don’t think that the game will necessarily be balanced around making you pay to win – I do think there are broad differences between free-to-play on iOS, and free-to-play on PC; differences that some players may find frustrating.
But I hope they can see why Knights of Pen and Paper is worth their time. I think it’s a magical little thing, and I want to play a lot more of it.