As a kid, I spent an enormous amount of time in the basement with 20-sided dice and pen-and-paper role playing games. This was before video games took hold in suburbia, so I poured my energies into tabletop RPGs like “Top Secret” (spies!), “Gamma World” (mutants!), “Traveller” (aliens!) and the granddaddy of them all, “Dungeons & Dragons” (dungeons! dragons!).
My mom, always thinking ahead, saw the wisdom in this. It was better to have us kids in the basement using our imaginations than on the streets getting into trouble.
The new mobile game app “Knights of Pen & Paper” (iOS, Android; $1.99; rated 9+) is a loving ode to those geeky days of yore. It’s not a fantasy RPG per se, it’s a game about kids playing a fantasy RPG – in a suburban basement, with retro 8-bit graphics and plenty of knowing in-jokes.
Choose character and player
The fun begins with character creation, still a key component in modern video game RPGs like “Dragon Age” and the “Elder Scrolls” series. The twist with “Knights” is that not only do you choose a player character (Warrior, Mage, Druid), you also choose a player (Nerd, Hipster, Little Brother). There’s even an option for Jock. It was a dirty secret in our high school that many of the popular football players played D&D with us geeks on weekends. They just didn’t tell their friends.
From there, the game plays out on several levels. You have the adventure, which involves the usual fantasy tropes like escaping dungeons and rescuing princesses. Your choice of player gives your in-game character certain bonuses. For instance, the Jock player has a “Bully” attribute that grants +1 on all attack rolls. You begin play with two to five gamers, and can add more as the story progresses.
Narrated by Dungeon Master
Developments in the game are narrated by the Dungeon Master, just like in the old days, only this time around it’s via on-screen text. In fact, you act as both player and Dungeon Master in the game, adjusting encounters on the fly to make things easier or more difficult. “Knights” has a lot of fun in this regard, with humorous exchanges that suggest the designers have plenty of real-world experience with basement D&D games.
By way of an in-game currency system of gold coins, you can buy upgraded armor and weapons for your characters – another staple of the RPG genre. But “Knights” goes a little meta here, as well. You can also use your gold to add decorations and features to the basement game room itself. There’s even a pizza guy.
The turn-based battle system is simple and efficient. The touchscreen controls let you choose your attacker, your target, and assorted modifiers. D&D veterans will recognize all manner of familiar but forgotten foes. For instance, you might encounter the dread Beholder – a giant floating eyeball who has been striking fear into the heart of the D&D spaz since 1977.
The game does occasionally try your patience, however. Several bugs of the game-freezing variety have been reported, and the text-based dialog is prone to grammar and spelling errors. For gamers who grew up to be English majors, this is particularly galling.
The odd crafting system forces you to wait for hours, in real time, for the blacksmith to finish forging your new sword. And the inevitable in-game purchasing system is a drag. You can either spend days amassing gold through game play or instantly become filthy rich by putting another $1.99 charge on your credit card.
But these are relatively minor complaints. “Knights of Pen & Paper” is a fun and inventive take on the RPG that should appeal to veteran gamers in the mood for a bit of nostalgia.
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