Thursday, November 15, 2012

[Interview/preview] Magicians - The language learning RPG

Magicians: The language learning RPG

What if you could learn a foreign language via playing a role-playing game? Soon you can. Magicians is a modern role-playing game set in Seoul adding Korean folklore, superstitions and mythology to create an unique and dense fantasy setting.
In this game characters learn magic while they deal with high-school and university life and learn the mysteries and horrors of the world. There's lots of strange things going on under the surface.
The magic system is really interesting. Your character learns nouns and verbs used to cast spells. And spellcasting is only not in-game. You actually have to pronounce what your character is casting! The magic system allows players to cast more advanced spells as they learn Korean. That is sweet. Imagine Harry Potter where you use these magic words. In Magicians you spell Korean to cast spells.
There are also cards that help building a plot and adventures without preparation. These cards are drawn each round to get unique adventures every time cards are drawn.
Each player needs a set of cards and their characters to begin the game. Magicians is a diceless system. You only need cards and some Korean speak and you are ready to go!
Magicians: The language learning RPG sounds interesting enough so I decided to dig deeper. And what would be better source for information than the author himself!

Hello Kyle. Thank you for your interest in my blog and thank you pointing out your project. In the Kickstarter site you already have written some background for Magicians, but would you like to review it shortly here?

Sure! What I usually tell people is that it's Harry Potter, set in Korea - it's Harry Potter-like in that when the students are around the school and its surroundings there are a lot of fantasy elements that don't blend with a modern-day setting like haunted forests inside the mountain the school is on, catacombs and dungeons, and other such areas I drew inspiration from Asian influences like Journey to the West and The Three Kingdoms along with Korean mythology, folklore and fantasy; instead of seeing things like orks and trolls, dragons and goblins, you still get dragons, just the Korean kind that live in water and achieved their power from yeouiju (think dragon ball!), dokkaebi, which are similar to goblins but can turn invisible and summon any item in the world to them, three-legged crows that live in the sun, bonghwang and other cool creatures you don't normally see in fantasy games. However, when the students are in Seoul, I wanted there to be some cool urban fantasy elements so it's more like The Dresden Files where it's modern-day but it has all these layers hidden just beneath the surface for those that can practice magic and I draw on Korean urban fantasy, superstitions and folklore for cool ideas like an underground magic scene that uses chicken-blood tattoos or embed sesame seeds in their skin as a magical ritual or dogs that barter and collect souls and that wear the face of their victims, which all come from urban legends which I twist for the setting, or superstitions still in use in Korea like whistling at night draws snakes and ghosts to your door, insects shouldn't be killed at night because they could be carrying someone's soul in them or that crows and mice can turn into you or steal your soul by eating your finger or toe nails. It's a big, unique playground to play in I think.

Why did you choose Korean to be the language to be used and learned in this game?

I choose Korean because it's the only second language I speak at a level I'm comfortable with teaching and, since my major is Korean education - teaching Korean to non-native speakers, I'm going to be using the game as a basis for my thesis paper as well. Korean is a really cool, unique language that is really easy to learn and get into but is very deep, interesting and is very different from any other language I've seen. In particular, Korean Hangeul, the alphabet, only takes a few hours of dedicated study to master completely since it's phonetic and was made expressly for easy learning by a Korean king. 

Can a group of players start playing and actually enjoy the game with zero knowledge of Korean? What kind of tools does the game give for the group to start with?

I wanted the game to be something that people could jump into with very little knowledge of Korean, especially for people who hadn't played an rpg before, that's why I set it in modern day and added in all those cool elements but I also created the basic system which uses only 13 words to cast spells. In order to play the game at lowest level of difficulty (there are 3 tiers that build on each other as you learn and get better at Korean) you just need to learn those 13 words as you play the game and get better at pronouncing them. The game uses a smartphone dictation app to check you pronunciation so it's something you can practice and get the hang of even when you aren't playing the game. 

I understood that basically more advanced you get in Korean more advanced things characters can do in the game. It's like while you advance in Korean your character kind of advances also. Is this right?

It's not so much that the more you advance, the more advanced things you do - at any tier of difficulty you can cast any spell you want. There are 7 nouns and 6 verbs at the basic level, you choose one of each to cast any spell you can think of. The nouns consist of the elements - fire, water, earth, wind and then there is also living things and the five senses. For verbs there is create, damage, transmute, remove, compel, and perceive so it works a lot like Ars Magica. The second tier of difficulty takes away that archetypal approach so you have to choose your own noun and verb to suit the situation and build your vocabulary. The third and final tier has you speaking in full, complete sentences and learning grammar patterns you can plug your new-found vocab in and out of as well as learning more target vocab which are tied to types of magic. For casting spells having to do with time magic, you first need to learn numbers, to cast telekinetic spells you learn relative position, directions, etc.

Korean mythology and folklore sounds really interesting. How much tools does the game give to work with? Does it provide superstitious folklore, monsters and other?

I've got a whole bunch of setting material that's going to be in the book - Korean superstitions, folklore, creatures and monsters, urban legends all given a twist so that they all fit into the world of Magicians and so that people can use them in their own games if they want to mine some cool Asian influences for their own games. 

You pledged for 3000 dollars but currently are in over 23000 dollars. How do you feel?

The response the game has been really amazing - I really didn't expect it, I thought it would be this tiny niche within a niche that liked the game but what it turned out being was that it was interesting for all kinds of groups. People who want to just learn another language like the idea of another tool to do so, rpg gamers in general are all educated to begin with and are always looking for something cool and the fact that you can learn more of something and a useful skill while doing something that you already love doing is an awesome proposition I think.

 Can you actually learn Korean with this game?

Of course! The main idea behind the game is the same process that is applied universally when learning any language, first you start out with pronunciation, learning the alphabet, then you start learning some words and building your vocabulary, then you start learning grammar patterns that you use that vocab in as well as target vocabulary associated with language you'll use and need when speaking in everyday life - directions, time, adverbs and adjectives, past and future tense, etc. Not only will you learn Korean with this game but the core of the game is so universal that it will be easily hackable for other languages as well - which is why I'm putting out the "hack pack", a stretch goal we at 15k, which will detail expressly how to hack any and all aspects of the game - the setting along with the themes and tone you want to set and, especially, for different languages as well as some fun ideas for use with other languages that work differently than Korean, like those that use gender, etc.

(Kyle also provided me with this fun little comic about learning Korean in 15 minutes (LINK).)

But what is your roleplaying history?

My dad first introduced my twin brother and I to D&D back when I was in elementary school but it didn't really take as I got into computer rpgs more like Bladur's Gate and stuff; I didn't actually start gaming again until I came to Korea when 4th Edition was released - the guys over at Penny Arcade did an actual play podcast series that made me want to get back into it and I wanted to meet some more people and make some friends so I looked for and found a group and got started. We played 4th edition for awhile but I really got into it and was soon buying and reading rpgs both to play and just to read, I started GMing for the group and have run lots of great games - Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, Burning Wheel, Burning Empire, Mouseguard, Pathfinder, With Great Power,  Fiasco, Cathulhutech and all kinds of other stuff. I started designing roleplaying games as well but more as thought exercises and for fun - my first rpg I designed was a solo one to see how it would play, I made another one to teach how to play go-stop, a Korean gambling game that uses hanafuda cards and then I came up with a language-ed game after teaching English, reading about dictation apps and trying to incorporate elements I love from books about learning magic like Magicians, by Lev Grossman (the game started out as a IP project for Magicians, hence the name with Lev Grossman on board but the rights ended up getting sold to Hollywood for a tv show), Harry Potter, the Earthsea books or The Dresden Files.

Final words from you. What would you want to say about the project and what would you like to say for the people who already pledged and for those who are interesting of it?

To all the people who have backed the game, helped got the word out or both I'd like to say thank you! For those who are interested I'd say come to the kickstarter page and check it out! I've got actual play videos of the first few rounds of a game so you can see how it works along with a video of how the smartphone app works as well. We've already hit the 20k stretch goal which was for a Japanese hack of the game by Andy Kitowski, of recent Tenra Bansho Zero game and kickstarter success and at 30k we unlock a Chinese supplemental system for traditional Chinese by Jonathan Walton, creator of the Geiger Counter RPG, among others, so if you're interested in the idea but not so interested in the Korean language element of it we might have you covered!


The Kickstarter campaign page can be found in the following link. The project will be funded on Monday Nov 19, 12:00am EST so now is the time if you want to hop in!

Campaign link:

All the pictures are from Magicians roleplaying game.

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