How Fantasy Fails to Represent Magic

Magic is not meant to be realistic, it’s a force that is unquantifiable, unknowable, and above all: powerful and mysterious. But is it, really? Too often, magic is simply an excuse to apply modern science to a medieval setting, and often in such a way as to seem completely unreasonable.

In the last fifteen years, The Force has been shred apart by the same roleplaying games that made magic into an understandable science. It makes sense –– you have to understand a trait you’re putting on your character sheet. The problem is that, when coupled with the prequel movies and their exploration of what The Jedi Order is and was, The Force loses its appeal as a form of mysticism or magic and become something more akin to X-Men psionics. But none of that is why Star Wars did magic better than fantasy (to be sure, fantasy mages –– with their fireballs and Wish spells –– are more powerful than Jedi). Star Wars did it better because, within the setting, The Force means something.

In the Eberron setting for Dungeons and Dragons, magic is akin to science in that it is understood, quantifiable (to some degree), and everywhere. They have airships powered by trapped elementals, cities powered by magic…it’s little wonder why such a society hasn’t become modernized: they don’t need to!

But in a setting where any old Joe can learn magic, it loses its meaning as something mystical and on the edge of perception, unquantifiable and unknowable.

Now, Eberron, and settings like it, are incredible fun to roleplay in. Don’t get things mixed: I love fantasy roleplaying in most of its forms (and Eberron is definitely one of those that I’m fascinated by). But they miss the mark on magic for one important reason:

No One Cashes In!

When the internet hit, every Tom, Dick, and Harry threw themselves into the endeavor of figuring out how to make money with it. Storefronts that can blow away department stores went up, search engines were created to help consumers navigate to the most relevant storefronts, and companies like GoDaddy learned to capitalize on your very access to such commerce: by charging money for domain names and hosting.

A reality changing tool was created, and entrepreneurs found ways to make money off of, and limit access to, all of it.

Where are the fantasy entrepreneurs? Why isn’t someone buying up all of the material components of the most powerful spells and selling their wares or services to the highest bidder (especially compelling when the entrepreneur isn’t a magic-user)? This is more inexplicable when the setting has thousands of years of magic traditions –– someone would have capitalized on this by now. Someone would have limited access to it.

In recent years, D&D and others have tried to explain this away by suggesting that most people in the world know of magic but don’t touch it in any meaningful way. Then, in the very same section, they describe how adventurers use magic for everything! And this concept seems to completely ignore settings like Eberron, where streetlights are powered by magic.

How Star Wars Got it Right

While magic isn’t capitalized on in Star Wars (we don’t see any “Force Healer” shops set up to treat the super rich), the “magic” means something: you’re special. If you have access to The Force, then a group funded by the Galactic Republic will come and legally kidnap your children and force them into labor as keepers of the peace.

The Force (magic) is valuable, rare, and has consequences for the entire world: the galaxy-shattering Sith/Jedi wars that spring up every generation.

Not All Fantasy Got it Wrong

Dune has an economy built around a magical resource. Mistborn has guilds and an oppressive government that makes laws concerning the use of magic. My own Jadepunk limits magic by making the material components the most valuable commodities in the world.

Again, I’m not bashing on settings that have ubiquitous magic. Such settings are fun to play in. But there becomes a point where disbelief is no longer suspended because someone would have figured out a way to monetize nexus points and the ley lines that connect them (and why are cities so rarely built on such nexuses?).

Consider the economy and the reaction of enterprising entrepreneurs the next time you sit down to do some worldbuilding. Your readers and players will thank you for it.

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Letters From Kausao City

I just received a strange letter from The Governor’s Office in Kausao City. Did you get it yet? It’s sort of…well, I’ll let you read it for yourself.

I’ve attached the letter at the bottom of this post but transcribed it below for those of you who can’t read Túyangan:

 


From: Office of the Governor of Kausao City
To: The Peoples of the Great Nations

It has come to our attention that some employees of Kausao City’s mailing service have been colluding with terrorist cells that collectively call themselves The Jianghu. City Watch agents have found three letters that describe treasonous activities against The Council of Nine. Rest assured; those responsible will be brought to justice.

The Governor has launched a full investigation, but until all suspects are found, we ask that you show all letters delivered to you by the official mailing service to your local Kausao City ambassador’s office.

Failure to comply with the above mandate will result in your immediate arrest and extradition to Kausao City for crimes of collusion with known terrorist cells.

Thank you for your cooperation,
Catriona Naser
Assistant to The Governor of Kausao City


 

I’m going to try and get my hands on some of these “treasonous” letters and find out more (can they really extradite us for keeping them?). If I manage to find any, I’ll let you know – you might want to subscribe to the blog (at the bottom of this page) to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Here’s the letter, so you can see for yourself.

UPDATE: Another letter has arrived.

Kausao City is a fictional location in the world of Jadepunk.

 

A Smarter Way to Publish RPG Settings

Most of the game design articles this week have centered around making games more accessible for new audiences. In this article, I’d like to touch on a method for 3rd party publishers to attract some of the extant RPG audience that’s out there.

Go All-In with Setting

Let’s face it; most 3rd party published supplements are new settings to be played with a particular system. This was the way I went with Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City and Shadowcraft: The Glamour War. And I’m here to tell you, I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that designing for Fate Core wasn’t incredible fun, nor lucrative (the Fate audience is great to its creators, in my experience). The problem lies in narrow distribution.

Just like how no one outside of the Mutants and Masterminds community is going to know what Emerald City is, and most people who don’t play Savage Worlds will have anything but a passing awareness of Deadlands, few people outside of the Fate community know what Jadepunk is. And that’s sad because Jadepunk is awesome (seriously, everybody says so).

“What?! Jadepunk is AWESOME!”

So unless you have the clout, and extreme patience, to build a single system from the ground up, I suggest you…

Distribute Widely

There are more systems than players in today’s market, and most players already have their favorite 2-3 systems that see 99% of the play at their tables. That’s a huge barrier to entry right there.

So what’s a fledgling game designer who wants to sell their shiny new game to do?

I suggest you write up your core setting document, sans system and put that out as a sort of “RPG travelogue.” Most RPG players are pretty smart, able to figure out how to make their favorite system play for film or comic book franchises that are out there, so there’s no reason they couldn’t do the same for your setting.

See where I’m going here?

The unique thing that you have to offer in this instance is your setting, so this approach makes sense. By only releasing the setting (at first, see the next section), you are giving your setting mass market access – anyone can try it out, without having to learn new mechanics. (And what if someone’s table loves your setting, but hates the mechanics you attached it to; they won’t give it the time of day.)

Once your setting is released…

Add SOME Systems

“But I want to play with mechanics,” I hear you saying. Well, this is where you get your chance. Once you release your setting, you can poll your buyers (or Kickstarter backers) and ask what systems they like. Then you can get to work on conversion documents targeted at your audience like a smart missile zeroing in on exactly who is most likely to buy it.

Personally, I wouldn’t make these conversion documents very long; 10-40 pages are probably enough for most systems, but it’s really up to you at this point. And the most beautiful part: by making conversion documents for your setting, you’ve opened the door for others to make them for their tables, increasing the value of your setting to the wider market.

After a few years of applying this method, you would hit the most popular systems out there, and your setting (if it’s good) and it’s conversion documents will sell better than if it were attached to a single system.

What Do You Think?

Does this sound like it would work? I’ll tell you, Jadepunk has been out since 2014, and I know many people who would love to give it a try, because of the setting, but who have a distaste for Fate rules. (Even some of the people who have worked on Jadepunk have said they want to convert it to their preferred systems).

To me, if setting is your thing, this is a no-brainer.

Back to Basics: RPG Mechanics in 20 Words

There are a lot of cool gaming mechanics out there. I mean, a lot! But many games (like Jadepunk, admittedly) were built on the complicated rubrics of other games. This overcomplication, I believe, has resulted in the kind of mechanical bloat that we see in some big name games that require 500 pages, or multiple books, to cover it all. I think it’s time to get back to basics.

In my anecdotal experience, I’ve seen games spring from two places: tabletop wargaming and group storytelling. I’m not going to go into the “story vs. simulation” argument because I think nothing could be more pointless than to argue over how we define fun.

My Perfect Game

Subjective as hell, I know.

As I grow older, and find that I enjoy differentiating between spinning a good yarn and playing some HeroClix, my RPG tendencies lean toward any game that doesn’t require a grid or other tabletop implement – give me character sheets and dice, and I’m good to go. Going “back to basics” means (to me) to head back to a bunch of people getting together to tell a story; but when I (Captain America) decides that a fellow player (Iron Man) needs to have his armor knocked off his face, the other player may not like that, and we need to figure out who gets what. Enter mechanics.

The absolute basic mechanic (and I would argue that this is true even in wargaming) is this 20 word game design:

Player tells the table what they want. GM tells the table what they want. Highest roller gets what they want.

Imagine we’re telling a story and I, as Cap’s player, say that I punch Iron Man’s, your character, lights out. You’d be like No! My armor…is crap compared to my vibranium shield, I retort. Who’s right? Roll your armor against my shield and let’s settle this once and for all.

But that means the armor and the shield need stats; I hear you saying. I answer with am emphatic YES. Give them stats.

And my fighting ability? Sure. Throw that in there. Oh, but now we have two stats, how do they stack? See how this complication thing works? From dice to item stats to skills…next we’ll be talking Cap’s enhanced attributes vs. Iron Man’s toughness and strength. It can be never-ending with this crap. And that’s so damn cool and so damn annoying.

Where Should the Complication End?

That’s as subjective as the kind of games you like to play. And I know that sounds sort of anti-climactic for someone who usually approaches this sort of thing with a voice of authority (which is totally fake, by the way), but that’s how it is.

Think of this as a manifesto of how I intend to approach my future designs: getting back to basics, which I define as the above 20 word game mechanic.

Tabletop RPGs as Solo Adventures

I’ve always found trying to play a roleplaying game solo to be of great interest (maybe because my best friend is my dog), but not a great exercise. Games just don’t support the format. But maybe they could? Maybe the old “choose your own adventure” stories hold a key here?

If you’ve read them, you’ve likely had a similar rush to the one you get when you the GM tells you how terrible your decision turned out for you. If that isn’t what we’re looking for in solo RPGs, I don’t know what is.

Even video games are reinvigorating the “choose your own adventure” format; just look at the success of TellTale Games’ lineup of (great) “choose your own” games.

Customization is the Key

I haven’t played a TellTale game since the first Walking Dead series they released (not for lack of want, let me tell you), but one thing I noticed in that first game, and especially the aforementioned “choose your own” books from the 80’s, is the lack of character customization. And for a tabletop roleplaying game, customization is everything!

My Pitch…

A solo game where you create a character and”play” through a series of adventures, “leveling up” certain skills along the way, as well as gaining new items to use (TellTale uses some of these concepts, but I’m going back to tabletop/fiction stuff now). And those items can have big repercussions for future decisions – “progress through <option A> only if you possess <device option B from the last chapter>.”

That could be a fun exercise for a small DTRPG release next year (Siri, put it on the To Do list), but this is a digital age, we need…multiplayer solo gaming (that’s how you all play your MMOs anyway, amiright?). So we include a posting template on a web page that lets you plug in your choices. Then out comes your personalized story, to share with all of your friends on social media.

So, who’s ready to invest?

What’s the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying Games?

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My thoughts on the Future of Tabletop Roleplaying Games

I believe the future lies not in the multiple 300+ page tomes that must be consumed and memorized before play – because, historically, that has not attracted mainstream appeal – but rather in short documents that can be read and mastered in 20 minutes, and taught in 5 minutes. After that, a (short) tome of advanced rules can be released to give the full (traditional) experience of tabletop gaming.

The topic is subjective as hell, but what do you think the future of RPGs looks like?

Classcraft: Gamify Your Classroom

It’s no secret that kids learn better through stories and games (Jesus used the parable, my teachers used BINGO), but it seems that classroom gaming has come a long way from The Quiet Game. Classcraft is a free (for most features) way to turn a modern classroom into an engaging game.

What is Classcraft?

From their website:

Classcraft’s mission is to transform the learning experience by using game mechanics to engage students and provide teachers with well-designed tools to do so.

A friend of mine who teaches at a local magnet school introduced me to Classcraft. After browsing the website, it has me wishing that I was back in school again.

Classcraft uses a fantasy genre roleplaying game to provide teachers with a fun way to manage their classroom. They play the role of GM, assigning quests (tests), giving away XP (scores), and a load of other things.

classcraft_main
Classroom Management Level: EPIC!

What About the Students?

Students have the coolest role of all: they’re the players.

Each student creates an avatar, complete with a character class (Mage, Warrior, Healer) and special abilities, called powers. They also have hit points, experience, even special items that can help them on their tasks. If my classroom had this stuff, I would have been on the honor roll every year.

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Can adults take the Invisibility power?
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Hunting, because every school needs a version of the Hunger Games.

I find this to be such an amazing concept, especially for the current generation, which is getting into gaming at younger ages than ever (my five-year-old can work my iPad better than I can). And it’s great for the tabletop gaming industry. The little girl who showed me her dashboard said she wanted to play D&D for real! (Is our beloved in hobby in for a revival?)

My PTA meeting is coming up, and I’m planning on printing out the materials from the Classcraft website and showing them around. I’d have fun just checking up on my daughter’s quests.

hero-pact
Honestly, why does this not appear in every tabletop game?

What do you think of this classroom management tool?

Classcraft from Classcraft on Vimeo.