I've never bothered to 'formally' review anything I've read in RPGs in the 30+ years that I've been gaming. "King For A Day" seeks to change that apparently - because this setting deserves to be talked about more than it is.
I am, personally, a devotee of the OSR and a number of indie press games - this transcends my little niche and has the potential to work for any referee/gamemaster who doesn't mind getting the dirt of worldbuilding under their nails.
All the reviews address the expansiveness of this setting - a regional sandbox, full of early medieval social malaise, hidden agendas, fractured hopes and dreams washing away in contaminated streams - and an evil that defies it's own definition, despite the illusion creating its own deceptive shadows over a slowly crumbling society.
"King For A Day" (KfaD) is the proverbial onion, layers peeling away until you're at the rotten core. Everything seems so consistent within the implied setting, an Anglo-Saxon backwater mining, farming, and logging community. I can't help but feel, despite the late heathen era trappings of the 9th-10th centuries, that this is later than that. Maybe it's the organizational aspects of society, but they seem a bit more modern - especially in the backwash soil of the surroundings. It lends to the air of timelessness which gives this connection, for me, to that dreamlike, yet nefarious, folkloric menace (Folk Horror?).
As other reviewers have said, this could easily be adapted across time periods - I'm considering a fantasy Renaissance/Baroque/Early Modern retelling myself. The nature of most of the social issues, from ineffectual undermined leadership to brain washing, have a certain ability to speak through many different ages. It would have been easy to make the populace monotheistic and pious - but, the more I dwell on it, it just drives the universal point home by not relying on that trope of ‘heathen roots’ vs. ‘zealots of "One True God’ dichotomy (the friction is still there though, but it seems to gain some level of unfamiliar shaky foundation which benefits the storylines).
It amazes me that more authors haven't tried their hands at writing a system neutral sandbox - some of the OSR releases have done this for retroclones, but KfaD shirks any attempt at being that narrow. The fact that it is not only devoid of rules preference, but bucks RPG genre expectations, is unique. A historically rooted horror fantasy setting with political-social-religious overtones? Very damned ambitious, and remarkable in its ability to not fall flat on its face doing it.
The most lamentable part of KfaD is in its editing and layout - there are numerous typos, all minor, and a nagging feeling that the book could be better organized for the table - more so in print form (the bookmarks in the PDF are extensive and useful). The art is very light for such an ambitious project and I'd love to see a hex map of the region for crawling (personally, I have a .PNG hexgrid I'm dropping on it). Most of the art is good, when it is present - I would love to see this expanded (Kickstarter? Indiegogo?) through thematically inspired renderings of personalities and landscapes. There are a number of 'cut and paste' text portions, especially concerning NPCs, repeated throughout the book that could be trimmed.
I think that for those who intend to use this it is wise to devote a large binder or multiple binders to the material (or use a computer based campaign organizer). I recently found a handful of mini binders that will be perfect for NPC sheets or area map/descriptions. Random tables of encounters for the towns wouldn't hurt, but I can certainly understand the difficulty as individuals will run this module very differently from each other, as it is meant.
Some of the comparisons I came to when reading this were early LotFP publications - and, more specifically, "People of Pembrooktonshire" and "Three Brides...". I had considered those particular publications by Raggi to be a possible basis for a campaign, but KfaD doesn't push the weird as hard into the open - allowing that 'slow burn' to consume everything, quietly and thoroughly. I could see easily uniting NPCs from both, effectively adding more layers of distraction to either side - whilst downplaying the marginally sub-dermal Pembrooktonshire ‘everything is not right’ insanity. After reading KfaD, my current campaign preparations started to wane as I became totally engrossed with this little out of the way hellmouth.
This isn’t for everyone. There is a lot of upfront campaign creation work to be done - which I think is the best way to digest this much material. You have to follow all the strings and tie together the parts to suit player and system. This is a dark fantasy horror setting with a twist of Lovecraft - suspense and friendly nihilism. I think ambitious OSR game referees will find this especially useful - especially with games like “Lamentations of the Flame Princess" or “Astonishing Sorcerers and Sword Men of Hyperboria". Bordered with the Dolmenwood setting from “Wormskin”, this would be a tasteful ‘Wyrd Folk Horror’ “Labyrinth Lord” as well. 2e edition fans of the “HR” series could tear this up with Vikings and Charlemagne era rules. Cthulhu Dark Ages is a natural fit, but something of a giveaway to the mystery behind the suspense.
Despite its flaws and workload, I think “King For A Day” presents a noble offering towards universal fantasy settings - a product description too often unexplored.
This setting doesn’t jump scare, it undermines your minuscule reality with unfathomable creeping doom.
[5 of 5 Stars!]