I've been doing the pen and paper role-playing thing for over a decade now, and there's one problem I've seen over and over with new players: they're often uncomfortable committing to the absurdity. It's hard to take yourself seriously and pretend to be a half-elf assassin with a bounty on your head or the best damn wizard your wizarding school has ever produced. Behold Studios' Knights of Pen & Paper [Free] doesn't have this problem. It jumps into the absurdity with both feet, bringing players along whether they like it or not.

That's not to say it's a game I'd sit down to play every week, pulling out my dice bag and my character sheet and settling in for the long haul. It has a shallow story, an uninspired cast of characters and far, far too many collection quests for any pen-and-paper experience I'd enjoy. Good thing it's on my phone, where I don't mind a little grinding in my RPGs. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the constant stream of nerdy references: Knights of Pen & Paper is a game that knows its audience and it doesn't shy away from indulging us.

The game occupies an odd space in the gamers' pantheon. It inhabits the world of tabletop role-playing, with all the d20s and Doritos that entails. Structurally, though, it's an RPG, with the party, leveling and questing all in your control. Then there's the stuff that feels uncomfortably mobile-specific, like its unending focus on money—earning, spending and, yes, buying it.

You play an entire gaming group—a game master and up to five players—in a story that's set across both the "real" world and the game-within-a-game of their campaign. You control the players' choices, like where they quest and what abilities they use in combat, and you also control the GM's decisions, like how many of which monsters you'll throw against the players. Knights of Pen and Paper handles the story and the player reactions to it, leaving you largely out of the picture for that side of things.

There's quite a lot to do in this pen-and-paper world. You travel from village to village taking quests to help the locals, running into unusual characters and references from across the geek spectrum (Journey and Ghostbusters both feature, for example). You wander into dangerous areas and kill whatever you feel like killing. You farm grindstones and mushrooms to level the merchants who sell your party their gear and consumables.

Then there's the much more meta side of things. The money your characters earn in-game can be used to buy decor and goodies for the room they're playing in, and the quests they complete occasionally unlock new players and classes to join them in their campaign. You can also take a step further back past that virtual reality to the real world and use real cash to buy money to spend in the game room or the campaign world. It gets a bit overwhelmingly layered at times, but for the most part the game plays it tongue-in-cheek.

Though it has the look of something like a Kairosoft sim, there's some depth to the mechanics that make up the Knights of Pen & Paper campaigns. Combat is an honest-to-goodness RPG challenge. You level up your players, get them the best equipment you can, pick their abilities, and decide how best to use them in each situation. You do control the difficulty of many of those situations, but that doesn't make them any less fun to throw at your players.

Things get a little too absurd when the game hews most closely to its tabletop roots. Dice rolls seem like a necessary part of the game, but every time that D20 comes out you have to start worrying. In theory it controls whether you get attacked while resting or traveling, but thanks to an odd luck system that adds to your rolls, that rarely happens. Instead it tends to cheat you out of things in really annoying ways.

Take crafting, for example. Once you save up the blacksmith's usurious prices for gear, it's down to a dice roll whether you'll actually get anything for your payment. Unless you get a natural 20, you'll then need to wait quite a few real hours for your gear to be built—and even then, it's not a speedy process. Similarly, there's a chance to fail when collecting resources to level the smith or enchanter. This isn't too obnoxious until you realize the spawn points take hours to reset. With enough money, none of these things really matter. Without a ton of grinding, though, you'll never really have that much money—not unless you buy it. Awkward.

The game's other serious oddity is its script. There are some outstanding gaming references to be found, and many character encounters that will be pleasantly familiar for practiced role players. Unfortunately, these are so swamped with errors that they can't always be sensibly parsed. Hopefully we'll see this cleaned up in a future update—though the errors fade away to a charming quirk pretty quickly, the game would still be better with a clean script. It would also be better without the item and skill bugs scattered throughout, so let's hope for some fixes soon.

Still, it's hard to hold a grudge when Knights of Pen & Paper does such a great job of pandering to my favorite pastime. Even when its story temporarily devolves into a series of extremely dull fetch quests, it's kind of a blast. For a game about such a particular hobby, it does a good job of being a crowd pleaser with well-designed RPG elements and odd little sim touches. Let it get some experience under its belt, level up with a patch or two, and it will be a serious contender for my favorite RPG on the platform. For now, it's a game I like to sit down with, even if the sessions get a little messy. When it comes to role-playing, if things don't get messy they're rarely as much fun.

TouchArcade Rating

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  • Nycteris

    Like playing Munchkin vs yourself? ;)
    This sounds great, really.

  • Lostpop21

    Im really enjoying the game right now :)
    Its great for 5 minute bursts or a sit down session at home!

  • Loren Kaplan

    Good job on the sound track.

  • bacon-N-eggs

    Love this game!

    Can't wait to see a few updates to fix the bugs, but over all it's a perfect fit for a mobile game!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1202150 Kristen Stewart

    Cool! I've been hoping for a good D&D-related game ever since Pocket Heroes broke my heart. The IAP sounds a little worrisome though.

  • Gamer_Kev

    I was interested until I read about the time sinks. I no longer bother with games that use them, so I'll be giving his a pass.

    • http://twitter.com/nrathaus Noam Rathaus

      The time sinks are barely noticeable  especially if you do some marginal grinding to get money enough to skip the time sink - so as long as you play, you earn money and then you can skip those sinks.

  • Hoot3000

    Never played any real pen and paper type games but this is very fun been playing for hrs and never had to use any iap. Reminds me of other RPGs with out all the traveling. Don't get me wrong I love final fantasy but gets old when u have to fight every 3 steps. Took a minute to figure out all the buttons and stuff but not to bad. I give it 4 stars out of five due to the appearance of iap in a 2 dollar game. Iap is the devil.

  • http://twitter.com/warm_concrete Octopus Erectus

    IAP are ugly here. If you take them out and adjust balance—you’ll get a good game though. 

  • Respox

    This looks great, and I don't even have a retro pixel art and chiptunes fetish like the TA staff does.

    However, I'm not really sold on the Dungeon Master aspect. I would love to just play a standard RPG with this game and graphics engine. I'll probably give this a shot to support the developers and hope they do make a game like that later on.

  • kazcat42

    No idea why ANYONE is complaining about iAP here, it is the least forceful I have ever seen in a iOS game. You never get ads that say BUY ME! Drop rates on gold are quite good. Just buy the game already!

  • BobGarrish

    Like someone else said, you pretty much have to go looking to find the IAP. I just beat both campaigns without much trouble, there's certainly no need whatsoever to buy gold in the game and I'm not even sure how much it would help.

    I think the 'errors' in the script are intentional as they're very much in an 'ironic' sort of style and not consistent across all characters.

    The game itself is great fun and I couldn't stop playing it from the time I got it until I finished it. Can't wait for more campaigns.

    The DM aspect is just that you can choose how many monsters you fight in a particular fight, so it's sort of equivalent to difficulty levels. Bigger fights give you bigger bonuses. If yu're smart about it, you can also tune your party to be more effective vs large or small numbers of enemies to optimize the fights.

    No need to buy anything in game, but I'd pay out in a second for more campaigns like the first one (which is quite long)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Moo.Ninja James Fox

    I have it on Android, and the IAP seems very bothersome, it isn't necessary yet, but it seems to be something that will quickly become that way in the future. The travel is ridiculously expensive, same with  Resurrection , and  Crafting. The most frustrating part is the travel, it takes a long time, costs a mint, and if you have a causality in the party then you might be stuck doing random battles at the same spot until you earn enough to keep traveling.

    I'm only level 20 with my first party, but it does seem like the combat get pretty stale, pretty quickly. You have five abilities per character, and you spend your levels spending a point to marginally improve one of those five abilities. Supposedly there are unlockables, but I haven't come across them just yet.

    I loved this game when I first bought it, but it has quickly become an annoyance. The IAP  model for this game would be excellent if it was a free game, but with a $1.99 it is an annoying reminder of just how greedy mobile development has gotten. 

    I'd recommend  the game to RPG lovers, but with a word of caution. If the dev spends time to improve upon the game, it can easily be one of the best on any mobile platform.

    • http://www.facebook.com/StevenRBaptiste Steve Baptiste

      I'm not sure you can call the IAP bothersome. It's not in your face and there hasn't been any marketing that I've seen. 
      If you spend your gold wisely you can upgrade your "room" items to net you more gold per fight. I think I get and extra 10% all-in-all which doesn't sound like much but we when you 2 fights that net you an extra 5 gold each, that pays for the 9 gold travel. The IAP seems to be there for people that want to rush through the game but isn't necessary for it.

      • robertlagrant

        It's fine that you don't need to use the IAP, but it does feel like a slap in the face when you've bought a game and you see that there's a mechanism there usually reserved for free games, and that I can't access all the game's content (some items seem to need to be bought to be accessible in-game). It's an inexpensive game so it's not too bad, but it leaves a bit of a bad taste.

    • DCver3

      I've beaten both campaigns and unlocked all players and classes without IAP. In fact, I didn't even realize there was IAP until I accidentally hit the button next to my gold.
      I normally gripe about IAP so I'm not sure why it's a problem for some people. It wasn't even a factor for me playing through the game.

  • Raiel

    I've been playing this all week, and I love it. Great aesthetic, wonderful flow. I love the little design choices like tapping on an enemy to auto attack them with your default.

    I only just realized last night that there's IAP at all, so it's definitely not in your face. I didn't need it at all, money seems to come naturally from the questing.

    The storytelling is messy, if only because its clearly written by non native English speakers, but it is charming.

    All in all, probably the best distillation of an Old school RPG battle system that I've played in a long time. It's fantastically playable. If you like them at all; run, don't walk, to this gem.

  • REkzkaRZ

    This is a great game, very glad I grabbed it. Rec to any 'old school' gamers, plus would rec to gamers who like f2f gaming.

    All that plus some (actually funny) humor! Nice!

    Just realized the pun in 'grindstone' in the game. Not sure if giving your enchanter mushrooms to upgr is a joke or not, but I find it amusing.

    Don't wanna say anything about IAP except this -- it's a no-pressure background option in this game, you can earn lots of $$$ w/o buying any IAP. IAP doesn't affect gameplay at all. However, Developers would be dumb to NOT include an option to make more $ from happy players -- so get over it!
    I am no fan of IAP, but to say 'IAP is evil'?!? Nah. IAP is a way dev's can get more than $1 per copy of their product from users, and there's no reason not to.
    HOW IAP is implemented is more of a valid point of contention -- but not with this game.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5FLRQI2X2LU3IHMCG7HEAEFD5I Cat Astrophy

    The game gets a bit too grindy when it's time to take down the chromatic dragons.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ronaldo-Sampaio-Nonato/100001565695204 Ronaldo Sampaio Nonato

    Hello. I'm one of the devs of Knights of Pen & Paper (you can even use me as a character after unlocking, I'm the rogue!).
    Just wanted to say that we are releasing frequent patches fixing bugs and balancing gold earned/spent. We do believe the blacksmith system is a little broke so we are tweaking it a little.

    Also, new campaigns are coming real soon. Mid-ish december.

    • http://www.facebook.com/Martymart76 Marty Smith

      Sir, please, please fix the Trap Gate bugs...The "Iron maiden" is what you probably meant to ask us to kill so we can advance the storyline...It's a serious issue and has been around a while.

  • Hex Schwarzenbach

    The review is fair, and the game is pretty excellent. But I have to be honest and say the IAP complaints are overstated. The money grinding is easy and enjoyable. Beyond that, if you're so inclined, a $5 IAP buys enough money to totally and utterly break the game. It's more than you could even try to spend. It's clear the money purchasing was added as a result of the market demand, not as a money scheme.

  • General Bison

    I can't find this on the app store, did it get pulled?

  • http://www.facebook.com/bruce.wain.370 Bruce Wain

    The review said that you have to go grinding to get money, this is a lie. All you have to do is not die and not spend bazillions of dollars on blacksmithing and items. Also, how to you do the second campaign, I can't seem to find it.

Knights of Pen & Paper Reviewed by Nissa Campbell on . Rating: 4