Kobolds Ate My Baby! Super Deluxx Edition
By Chris O’Neill and Dan Landis. Illustrated by John Kovalic. (Dork Storm Press, 2005; $14.99)
I’ve previously mentioned in a comment thread that when it comes to tabletop role-playing games, I lean toward the rules-lite side of the equation. I’d rather have a system that allows flexible play, with minimal die-rolls and looking up charts, and greater focus on the “role-playing” instead of the “game.” Given a good Game Master, rules-lite games can feel as close to realistic as any of the more simulationist systems. My favorite RPG of all time, Fudge, has managed to adapt and handle any other game system, setting, or style I’ve thrown at it. In fact, it’s almost the only system I use. Any RPG that comes out I translate into Fudge…
…with the exception of “Beer and Pretzels” RPGs, in which sheer simplicity and ludicrousness are the norm.
Most rules-lite systems are geared toward the Beer and Pretzels genre: RPGs that are played for comedy and speed and with minimum planning and plenty of bad bad bad beer. Risus is the Beer and Pretzels equivalent of Fudge, a complete generic system (six pages long!) usable for quick ‘n’ silly RPGs late at night. I might discuss Risus in another post—it’s interesting both as a rules-lite system and as a purposeful parody of all other early RPGs. Fudge also deserves a long review, because it’s so wonderful that it’s a shame it isn’t spread like a beautiful pandemic to every corner of the hobby.
But today I bring you the most popular setting-specific Beer and Pretzels game, a funny and witty spoof on the concept of “cannon fodder” in Dungeons & Dragons: Dork Storm Press’ Kobolds Ate My Baby! Super Deluxx Edition, written by Chris O’Neil and Dan Landis—and hereafter abbreviated KAMB! (The manual loves exclamation marks! With a passion! See!)
Writing books and games from the point-of-view of the cannon-fodder creatures of fantasy isn’t new. Currently, orcs have entered a renaissance as “noble savages” (read Scott Oden’s interesting post on this topic), and one of the earliest RPGs, 1976’s Monsters! Monsters! permitted players to take on the roles of the vicious beasties looting human settlements.
But kobolds? Kobolds are useless, sad no-accounts who only seem to exist so 1st-level D&D players can have something they have the capability to kill. If a 1st Level magic-user can slay you with a single dagger thrust, you’re a hopeless loser.
Ah, but as the cover of KAMB! Super Deluxx Edition exclaims: “Who’s fodder now?”
The game, which comes complete in a slender $14.99 hardback, takes the concept of clumsy, stupid, easily killed, but gutsy creatures like kobolds and runs with it… all the way into a hilariously long drop over a cliff, Wile E. Coyote-style. The result is a mix of early D&D, where you had to make up most of the rules, and Bob Clampett, a place where a cow randomly falling from the sky and crushing your character isn’t unusual… it’s just physics.
This is the game’s description of its kobolds, based loosely on early editions of D&D before the creatures took on reptilian qualities:
…Kobolds are a completely insignificant race of tiny, dog-like humanoids with few redeeming qualities. The lowest of the low, kobolds are weak, stupid, slovenly, cannibalistic little buggers that lead brutal, short, and silly little lives. Outside of enlisting as cannon-fodder for evil armies or acting as lackeys for power-mad (and very cheap) warlocks—kobolds have little to offer, except as cooks, err—I mean being cooked. As we have alluded to earlier, kobolds are damn tasty with a side salad.
(The entire manual is typeset in ALL CAPS, which is tonally a wise choice, but for the purposes of quoting here, I’ve adapted to non-caps so you won’t think I’M SCREAMING AT YOU.)
Kobolds live in caves under the leadership of King Torg and spend their time trying to kidnap tasty babies from nearby towns without dying in a multitude of humorous ways. A campaign usually takes place over a single night of play and involves the kobold PCs obeying the orders of King Torg to grab babies and chickens to fill up the busy kobold cafeteria larder. Cooking is a skill most kobolds possess. Sometimes the only one.
Character creation is a fast process—necessary, since kobolds die easily and often—handled mostly by putting check marks on a character sheet, which can be photocopied from the manual or downloaded as a PDF. Kobolds have four stats randomly rolled with 2d6: Brawn, Ego, Extraneous, Reflexes. (Now, make an acronym out of those. Yep, you got it.) From these four stats, the player derives four secondary stats: Meat, Cunning, Luck, and Agility, each with a number from 1–5 that will allow bonuses for some rolls. The player selects a set number of skills listed on the character sheet, each attached to one of the four traits, and then picks +Edges and –Bogies (similar to the “advantages/disadvantages” seen in many RPGs like GURPS), such as “–Tastes Like Chicken” and “+Bouncy.” All a PC’s equipment comes from rolling on random charts, so a kobold could end up armed with a small sword or a dead rat, depending on the breaks.
The “Beer Engine” game system uses only six-sided dice for action resolution. When one of the players attempts an action, the Mayor (the equivalent of a Game Master) decides a difficulty level which determines how many dice the player has to roll. The lower the number of dice, the easier the action. The player rolls against the trait or skill that applies, and if he or she rolls under that number, the action succeeds. If the action fails, there is an additional danger: a Kobold Horrible Death Cheque on the Kobold Horrible Death Record.
The Death Cheque is the key fun element of the game. These check marks go on the character sheet every time the player fails a roll, or whenever the Mayor simply feels the PC kobold has acted in an un-kobold fashion—such as showing cowardice or sassing the Mayor. Each time a PC gains a Kobold Horrible Death Cheque, the player has to make a 2d6 roll and add the number of accumulated check marks to the total. If the result is over thirteen, the player must make a roll on the Kobold Horrible Death Chart to see how weirdly the poor idiot gets offed. A lot of the game’s humor comes from these Tex Avery-influenced demises. For example:
6. Hail of Arrows!
No one can explain it but every kobold knows that, from time to time, arrows simply rain from the sky. It could be archers, traps, evil monkeys, or punk centaur teenagers, but you’ll never know. In the blink of an eye, you and everything in the square with you are turned in pincushions taking 2d6 DAM. All bystanders, those in adjacent squares, take 1 DAM from stray shots.
The other rules in the manual cover a simple combat system (“How to Kill Things!”), kobolds’ limited access to spells (try “Wall of Beer” and “Spell of Mostly Unspeakable Horrors” to bring on the wizardry!), potential magic items (“Bag of Holding: Chickens”), various adversaries (chickens, actual D&D adventurers, chickens, giant rats, and chickens), ways kobolds who survive long enough can achieve something akin to a “class,” and finally the requisite sample adventure.
The example adventure in the town of Rutland-on-the-Selinker is instructive in showing how a game of KAMB! should probably play out. The Mayor creates a town with various obstacles to confound kobolds. Just getting over fence can present serious difficulties. King Torg sends the PCs out on a quest into the town, usually to grab some babies, and the players see if their kobolds can survive without the strange laws of physics or the wrath of the perpetually ticked-off kobold deity Vor (“Wouldn’t you be angry if you were the god of the kobolds?”) spelling their doom.
Game-play, as is common for the Beer and Pretzel genre, involves a number of meta-elements where players physically act out sections. Every mention of King Torg requires the players to shout in unison “All Hail King Torg!” or get a Kobold Horrible Death Cheque. (The manual follows through with this, interjecting “All Hail King Torg!” at his every mention. I’ve chosen not to do this in my review because, well, I’m not a kobold.) A player whose kobold dies can stand up and recite a litany of the great kobold’s achievements—usually a short list, considering the Hobbesian nature of their lives. Casting spells requires a “somatic” element that the player must act out, such as brooding like a vampire or doing a bad chicken impersonation.
The Super Deluxx Edition manual makes for amusing reading on its own, taking shots at D&D and occasionally the White Wolf “World of Darkness” series. It has the added spice of great illustrations from John Kovalic, author and artist of the Dork Tower web-comic. In fact, the game itself might have a hard time living up to the comedy of its manual, depending on whom you get to play it with you.
Any RPG depends on the skill of both the Game Master and the players, but Beer and Pretzel RPGs especially require a certain attitude. Even though KAMB! is lightweight on rules compared to a d20 game, it isn’t the best choice for newcomers to tabletop RPGs: you need to get out of your normal comfort zone and embrace the silliness to get the most out of it, and if you don’t know much about other RPGs, a good portion of the humor won’t mean much to you. Mayors must understand the rules well but also know how to make off-the-cuff decisions. As “rules-lite” games go, KAMB! still has plenty of rules and tables to absorb; compared to Risus, KAMB! practically looks likes an Avalon Hill Game or the recent recension of GURPS. I personally think that the number of Charts of Randomness is an amusing ribbing of original D&D, but it may slow down the game for some.
Even if you never actually sit down and play Kobolds Ate My Baby! during some late night with plenty of Pabst on hand and bags of cheap generic pretzels laying about (this game would be a sumptuous blast in Bavaria!), I still think most fantasy gamers will get a thrill from reading the Super Deluxx Edition and getting out of the Forbidden Realms for a while to enjoy having cows drop from the sky and crush their characters into tartar sauce.
And, although it would seem to go without saying based on the title, if the idea of eating infants offends you, please don’t purchase this game.