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.
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.
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!