Slapping Together a One-shot for an RPG About Young Wizards Learning Magic

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This week Ursula K. Le Guin died. A fantastic writer; a creator of unexpected and original worlds; a feisty and prickly champion of decency.

Hearing the news this week I kept thinking about her work. Specifically about A Wizard of Earthsea and the original Earthsea Trilogy.

At the same time we have a two-week slot available for a quick game in my Monday night group. (We are in the middle of an Edge of the Empire game, but the guy running it needs to head off to the Superbowl for two weeks for work.)

So I sent off an email to the gang asking if anyone would like to set up a quick game about kids in a school for magic. I’ve been itching to play something more character driven than many of the mission-based sessions we’ve been playing and this seemed a perfect fit.

I hopped around the Internet looking for a rules set that might serve me well for a couple of weeks of apprentice wizards.

Countless games can be hacked into creating Earthsea, of course. But I knew I didn’t want a system that was going to get into the weeds for the magic. I’d really rather have an abstracted system so we could focus on the notions of story and character — which is what I think about when I think of Le Guin and Earthsea. I wanted to be something to apply as needed for solid moments of story–not something we were going to spend six weeks trying to figure out how to model on a character sheet with die rolls. If the magic worked within the logic of the setting and story I’d be a happy man. Fortunately, I have players I trust to use such a system to those ends.

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The first game I found was Archipelago.

It is a true “story game” in which everyone at the table adds details to scenes for characters belonging to different players.

The rules begin like this:

Archipelago is a story/role-playing game where each player controls a major character. Player take turns directing and playing out a part of their character’s story, leading them towards their selected point of destiny, while other players interact with and influence that story.

Who is this game for?
If you like the story-telling part of games, and enjoy the creative challenge and inspiration that comes from working with others, this game is for you. If you like tactical mechanics, resource management, or player-vs-player competition, there are other games that might work better for you.

The vibe I’m aiming for
I wrote this game trying to capture the feeling of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea books. I wanted a game of grand destinies, that at the same time had time to dwell on the details of plants, words, everyday lives. I wanted a game that was about great conflicts, but at the same time treated its characters’ stories with respect. I wanted not a steel framework, but a spider web of thin threads creating subtler stories.

This game works best if you play it slow. Sometimes, the best thing to do is wait a little and see how things unfold. Ged stayed with Ogion for years, learning about the old language, the names of flower petals and bugs. There’s time to let the characters evolve.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Take your time.

Each player character has a destiny (or destinies, for longer play). Not a motivation, but a destiny. The characters make their way toward their destinies.

The characters don’t need to have a relationship to each other at the start and there is no “group.” And they might never meet. But each player character must have at least one “indirect relationship” to another player character. An indirect relationship means both characters are emotionally tied to a third character, event, place or other element in a strong and meaningful way.

The rules are only 17 pages of text in a 6″x9″ format. (And you already read the first page above.) The rest of the PDF’s page count is art and Fate Cards that can be drawn for inspiration if a player wishes.

If you are looking for a solid story game I really recommend Archipelago.

So I sent out an email with the PDF and talked a bit about the game. The notion of playing in a school of magic for kids seemed to strike a chord. But I realized the loosey-goosey nature of the game might not hit the sweet spot for everyone in the group.


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I thought, “You know, a Powered by the Apocalypse game might do the trick if someone has already done the hack. The effects of magic would be abstracted to someone either pulling off a spell in a moment crisis or conflict… or not. But the game really hangs on the qualities of the stats. What sort of person are you?

So I dug around and came across Simple World, which is a smartly stripped down version of PbtA.

The moment I saw the blank character sheet — shazam — everything fell into place. I whipped up my “Young Wizards” hack immediately. I whipped up an email for my players describing the basic setting (as seen below) as well as the blank character sheet and the basic rules



In the center of a great forest is a mighty oak tree, wider than most houses, taller than most castles.

Inside a wizard (perhaps two? three?) gathers students in the magical arts and teaches them. Some of the children he finds. Some find their way to him. Others are dumped on his doorstep. They are his apprentices, his wards, and his staff. Each child carries the responsibility of caring for the magical home where they live and study.

The children range in age from 8 to 14, each with their own temperaments and abilities. It is world similar to a dark ages Britain, with faerie courts and demonic dangers, but also joy and love and a strong friendship between the students.

They live apart from the world, but also live in it. The troubles of those who do not dabble in magic seem very far away–but those troubles sometime rush right up to the heavy steel door built into the base of The Oak

The characteristics for the Player Characters are Innocence, Magic, Ferocity, Clever, and Unnatural. The stats are elastic and open-ended, so one can confront the Horned-King or whatever with Innocence, Ferocity, Magic, Cleverness, or Unnatural. One can use them for action or perceiving or research. What interests me about the PbtA system is how the stats are about how a character approaches a problem in a given moment. I’m happy to lose the Basic Moves and really focus on the players stating action and going directly from what is described to the appropriate stat.

Magic is the point between Mankind and the Unnatural. Magic will handle any magical disciplines the players come up with. If it is something standard, like a wizard wanting to sail using weather control with no impediments, he just does it. But if he’s trying something complicated or under stress, he makes a roll. Why I like this for Earthsea is that people are overreacting in Earthsea all the time — and there is always fallout from it.

Tapping Unnatural means tapping the stuff wiser people never go near, almost no one understands, and often leads to grave danger. It is also where the greatest power lies and the mysteries of magic revealed.)

Friendship is the relationship stat. It goes up and down based on how the characters treat each other. Friendship is used to help other characters do something. If you successfully make your Friendship roll then you offer a +2 bonus to the person you are helping. Since PbtA games use a coarse 2d6 bell curve a +2 bonus is a big deal! Characters are better served working together and helping each other on focused moves rather than making a bunch of scattershot actions on their own.

You assign the values to your characteristics and create three Character Moves for your character based on a list of templates. I didn’t have any Character Moves involving XP because I don’t feel like taking the time to sort that out for a one shot. Also, there are no playbooks. (My players can whip up interesting characters on their own.)

You’ll notice on the character sheet that if a character runs out life in the game the character doesn’t die (which would be in appropriate I think, genre-wise) but can come back from the injuries weakened or fucked up.

That’s my take on a quick PbtA hack. Which is based on what I’ve taken from the Earthsea books. I’m sure other people will see something else in them and would build it a different way.

Interest in this peaked because of the Friendship stat.

So now I have two low prep to zero-prep games to bring on Monday night. I’ll expect we’ll be playing one of them. We’ll see how it goes!


HALLOS SUBSECTOR: Notes for a Setting for Classic Traveller


The subsector I’m working up is part of an empire in decay. The empire’s power is slipping away, both politically and economically, as civil wars across different sections of the empire have drained its focus. The influence of the empire on the subsector as a political or social entity is non-existent.

Instead, three noble families which have rules potions of the subsector are now scrambling to exert influence and exploit resources of worlds not yet explored. The families see themselves as both standard-bearers for the rich tradition of the imperial past, but also cut off from its support and making their own way forward as best they can.

Trade has been limited and focused on about on third to one half of the worlds in the subesctor. There are many “fly over” worlds, with ships focused on wealthy and high population worlds. Mortgages are backed by the noble families, with fealty and history with the families being a primary consideration for getting a charter on a ship, trade route, or resource exploration rights. A-class spaceports are owned by the noble families. Industrial espionage and sabotage is on the rise between the noble houses, affecting both starships and spaceports.

Common Noble House Tech Level is 9. Average Noble House Tech Level is A-B. Exceptional Noble  Tech Level is C. This, of course, limits the practical size of starships to less than 5,000 dTons. Higher tech levels may well be scattered around the subsector for the PCs to discover, interact with, and puzzle out.

There are many worlds with indigenous, native aliens, as well as settlements of humans. Some of the humans are settlers from the empire either invited by the noble families or seeking better opportunities. Others are from times before a previous rise and fall of interstellar society cycle and thus cut off socially and culturally from each other. (Again, trade has been limited to and focused on a few key worlds. Space lanes, jump cassettes, and other limiting factors from early CT rules are in effect.)

There is an indigenous and ancient faith revolving around psionic powers that has been isolated and quiet. It existed from the time before the last rise and fall cycle of civilization in the subsector (centuries ago). As a power vacuum opens up in the subsector the cult begins to make itself known. It begins recruiting from both the common populace and tries to insinuate itself in the noble houses as well. The teachings promise peace (of course) and a chance to avoid the coming possible crisis of an all out war by uniting the worlds of the subsector under one banner. Obviously none of the noble houses want this. But how to use the faith to their own ends, or stamp it out completely, all the while not being influenced by it is part of the stress the rules class is under.

I haven’t decided yet if the Player Characters will be centered on worlds from one of the ruling houses or have arrived from beyond the subsector. If they have already have served in the noble house’ military or services and have easy access to patronage and get us going. (Whether they remain loyal to the noble house over time is their business.) On the other hand I am tempted to have all PCs arrive in the subsector fresh. This makes the entire environment open to exploration and allows them to find their own way in terms of loyalty. I think this will be something to bring up with the players and ask them what they want.

Adventures will be a mix of political conflict fought out over resources, cold-war espionage and sabotage, as well as expiation and adventure on backwater worlds where all sorts of aliens, alien civilizations, and cultures can be found. (I should note that each of the three noble houses also has their own specific cultures as well.)

Most worlds are politically isolated, with no law enforcement between the stars apart from the efforts of the three noble houses protecting they limited influence on several star systems each. PCs will have varying degrees of safety from the law in illegal activity, depending on where their activities take place and who is backing them and providing cover. (Noble patronage can be very helpful in some circumstances.)

The tone and feel is a softer SF than I think many people expect from Traveller, with the SF elements serving as a backdrop and as McGuffins for adventure rather than and end in and of itself. Think Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure and The Demon Princes books, E.C. Tubb’s Dumarest Books, Herbert’s Dune (just the first book), and a bit of Game of Thrones.

That’s the basic sketch I’m working from.

Games to Pitch: Lamentation of the Flame Princess / Valkhon Rising


“Lamentation of the Flame Princess” is part of the OSR school. It’s a cleaned up version of the Original Dungeons & Dragons. You can find a free (no-art) version of the rules here.

The setting I’m thinking of is something Nordic, non-Earth. Only humans. Magic is rare and strange. Clerics are the driven spokesman of rough gods. Lots of snow, islands and ships. A rough people, a simple culture, survivors.

There are the petty squabbles of clansman and dukes and princess. Enough of an “real” environment to give a mundane balance to the strangeness to come.

And here is the strangeness…

An earthquake occurs one night. Tidal waves wash up along the shoreline tearing away bits of  coastline. A time of growing war and strife is made more ominous by the arrival of something amazing…

An island the size of Australia has magically, mysteriously appeared out in the ocean. Did it rise? Or was it dropped? Or was it summoned by terrible, old powers? Strange portents lead adventurers to discover its secrets and bring back treasures. But what happens there begins to have an impact on what happens at home…

Games to Pitch: Traveller / Noble Houses at War


A not-GDW-Third-Imperium setting for Traveller. (The Classic Traveller rules are available for free in the Starter Traveller edition from RPGNow until Dec. 31st, 2013.)

There will be noble houses, psionic-enhancing battle armor, armies marching across worlds and sailing across space, political intrigue, economic warfare with piracy, black ops, and more…

One thing I want to do is steal a couple of pages from King Arthur Pendragon along with the miniatures campaign roots that Traveller grew from and see if the following works:

Every Player Character will be part of a single noble house. Some might be family in the House, others will be soldiers, spies, and sailors within the House Militia. This gives focus for specific goals. “This week this needs to be done…” And how the Players choose to get it done is all on them.

Each Player will have a stable of Characters to draw from. Different characters can/will be parts of different units as we play out different kinds of missions during the larger conflict. When a character dies the Player moves a new Character into play. But this new Character is still part of the larger agenda (the Noble House) and continues and is already invested in the larger struggle.

The idea is to start the characters (much like a OD&D game) as somewhat blank slates — created in a quick and easy character generation process and let their personalities and history develop as the game develops. There is a large world in motion and in play, and how they conduct themselves and how they grow will lead to more options for their personal goals, growing into more politics, romance, empire building, whatever, as they go. But Traveller is rough on human flesh, and like OD&D death is always on the table as an option. The Players will have to be careful with their Characters if they want the to survive.

I’ve just purchased Power Projection: Fleets, which is space battle miniatures game tweaked from Full Thrust to handle Traveller ships (both escort class vessels (like scout ships and merchant vessels) as well as battle class ships). And I’ve downloaded the rules for Stargrunt II and Dirtside II to handle skirmishes and battalion sized battles, respectively. The idea is to switch to the miniatures battles when we get into fights.