Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Magus is a crunchy journaling game

Last year, I learned seven different journaling RPGs to observe NaNoWriMo. This year, I learned two and one of them was really research for the other one. Part of that was because work was insane but also part of this change was I played The Magus by momatoes.

The Magus is a long form soliatire journaling  RPG where you discover and describe the rise and fall of a powerful wizard.  It has more crunch than any other journaling game I’ve played. And the emotional content is heavy. Words like Byronesque and Gothic come to mind in a non-ironic way.

And, when I say that Magus is crunchy, I mean in comparison to other journaling games. It’s a rule light system by RPG standards. You stat out your wizard but they are very narrative driven stats. 

The Magus is played out as a series of scenes which comes in two and a half flavors. The primary types of scenes are Bonds and Spells with Reflections working as pauses for you to assess where the story is at.

The balance of the game is between your relationships with other people and your quest for power. Around half of the game is spent developing bonds with other people and sometimes you need to burn those bonds in an ugly way to gain power.

Like other journaling games I’ve played, the Magus is driven by prompts. And you can write as much as you want with any given prompt. With that being said, I felt that each scene in the Magus was started off big and was easily able to be its own session. 

And having a crunchier, more mechanical structure meant that the consequences felt more reinforced and stronger. Failure, and the game is weighted towards failure, resonates for the rest of the game.

The game hits some heavy notes. Solitude. Betrayal. Sacrifice. Loss. And magic in the game reflects that. While you will define exactly how magic works, it isn’t magic missiles or rabbits out of hats. Spells are big, disturbing phenomena and can cause game-ending global catastrophes if you fail badly enough.

The game ends when you have completed seven scenes, decided that the cost is too great and retire or destroy the world.

For my play through, which ended up spanning most of November, I stuck to the procedural tables. The rules allow you to come up with your own ideas but I wanted to try the basic settings.

I decided to retire after four scenes and one reflection. I ended up focusing on the bonds and it became clear that preserving those was a bigger priority for my wizard than gaining more power. When I play it again, I will probably chase Byronic tragedy more. 

The Magus is a very solid work. It gives you a very strong theme ans structure while also giving you a lot of room for your own creativity. I was worried the crunchier mechanics would be restrictive. Instead, they increased the stakes without getting in the way.

I  impressed and happy with what the Magus does. It pushes beyond the idea of ‘just write something’ while preserving the writing.

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