Kingdom of Loathing

Kingdom of Loathing(external link) is a largely text-based browser RPG, started in 2003 by Zack Johnson (“Jick”). It started out as something of a satire of RPGs, and has largely kept its irreverent, reference-based humour to this day, but it’s also a mechanically interesting turn-based RPG in its own right where basically you try to optimise your use of various limited resources. I guess it appeals to a particular type of person?

I first came across Kingdom of Loathing in late 2006, and played through 12 ascensions between then and mid-2007. Sadly my original account got deleted for inactivity, but its ascension history(external link) is still available on KoLDB. In early 2010 I made a new account, using the standard “Jayeless” handle that I was using for nearly all my online accounts by then. By then they were no longer deleting accounts for inactivity, so I’ve been able to play off and on since then.

Some of the strengths of Kingdom of Loathing, in my opinion, are:

  • Character progression over time: Within a single run, of course, your character levels up and gets to learn new skills from your guild. Each ascension, you get to “perm” a skill,1 making it permanently available in all future runs without having to rebuy it, including as a different character class. Finally, you can also choose to buy (for US$10) powerful Items of the Month which mostly also give your character more resources and power to do better and better at the game. Overall, this means that you get more efficient at the game over time, but also open up new, higher-level strategy considerations so the challenge keeps evolving, rather than just “getting easier”. It’s great.
  • Variety between runs: There are six main character classes, as well as (at time of writing) approximately 40 different challenge paths that change the game, sometimes more radically and sometimes less. What this means is that there’s always something new to try, if you’re feeling like you’re stuck in a rut.
  • The writing: I mean look, at this point there must be hundreds of thousands of words in this game and I won’t defend every single one of them (there is some unkind “frat boy”-style humour, although the worst of it has been removed/replaced over time).2 However, there is a lot of genuinely funny stuff in there too. One of my personal highlights that has, sadly, been lost in a subsequent quest revamp was the one where you had to find 15 pages of a worm-riding manual, so in one encounter you’d get one. Then in another encounter you’d get a second, with the comment, “Man. This is gonna take a while.” Then in the third you got pages 3–15. Just perfect use of the rule of threes, man. Anyway, the good news is that if you’re mainly into the (good) writing then the standalone game by the same creators, West of Loathing, really excels at that.

KoL is mainly a single-player game with some MMORPG features, like the mall (where players can buy and sell their stuff) and clan dungeons (where members of a clan must work together to clear the dungeon). There are also leaderboards, for a bit of inter-player competition. While I do make use of the mall, I’ve mostly always treated KoL as a single-player game.

Probably the most challenging part of KoL for me does stem from this multi-player outlook, and that is: your 40 starting turns and all your daily resources replenish every day, even if you don’t really have time to play every day. In the early days of the game, when sources of turn generation were more limited and there weren’t nearly so many complicated game mechanics to grapple with, I think it was probably easier to find time to play every day. It’s also still probably easier if you don’t have many IOTMs. But if you keep playing over years, chipping in $10 here and there to support the running of the game and getting these cool items in return… it gets to be a lot to keep track of. It’s also not very satisfying to try to just not worry about all the complexity or playing every day because then you’d be putting out runs that aren’t your best effort. Maybe that’s simply not a concern for most people, I don’t know. For me it can be frustrating.

One tool that I find indispensable for playing KoL is the Java application KoLmafia(external link). On the surface level (and what I do most of the time), you can play the game normally through its relay browser and just benefit from its interface enhancements like “spoilering” the results of multiple-choices. But it has a shit-ton of other features and even allows you to automate your adventuring, so you can play on days you don’t have time to play. Plus there are “scripts” (like extensions) that you can install to do even more stuff. Super duper useful; I don’t think I could play the game without it. Another indispensable tool is the KoL Wiki(external link), which is not only full of information about mechanics, items, quest requirements, etc. but a fantastic repository of all the game’s history and writing, including in past (limited-time or retired) content. Finally, if you play your runs in KoLmafia and want to look back at logs of them (perhaps to identify room for improvement?), KoLmafioso(external link) is the parser and visualiser you want to be using.

Relevant blog posts of mine

  • Turn-based RPGs: I talked a fair bit about what features my dream RPG would have, and honestly most of them were just “I like how KoL does it”.
  • Three very different browser games: At the time, I’d been playing three different browser games, and wrote a bit about each. One of them, of course, was KoL.

Posts about KoL elsewhere on the web

  1. At least, “back in the day” you got to perm a skill. Since 2011 it’s been more flexible, in that you get approx. “one perm’s worth” of karma points per ascension, but you can choose to bank them or whatever, so it’s not like “one run = one perm” any more. Also there are various point bonuses you can get so that, after many runs, you’ll actually be able to perm more than one skill. ↩︎

  2. Honestly, the “unkind humour” seems to stem from the game’s creators themselves not being the greatest people (much more pointed examples being the past abuse allegations linked to further down the page). ↩︎

  3. I certainly don’t want to make excuses for them, even though clearly I enjoy their game. It does seem like the creators have matured over time and become a lot less shit (West of Loathing’s writing is certainly much better in this sense), but obviously that doesn’t fix the damage done by their past behaviour. There was a time when I was like, “yeah, I’m never gonna play this game again/never going to give them any more of my money” but I relented on both over time. The presently existing player community is similarly disapproving but ultimately still there cos they enjoy the game. If you know of a similar turn-based RPG made/run by better people, feel free to refer me onto it. ↩︎