Game Idea: Magic School Diaries

I finished NaNoWriMo this morning. What I wrote is definitely a first draft of Magical Girl Radiant Yuna, with a lot of flaws I’ll need to fix in the revision process, but also a lot of elements I really like. Right now I want to get into the stuff I was setting aside through November, including some blog posts like this one and some podcast stuff. There’s some pretty exciting stuff brewing, and generally lots of finger-crossing on my part.

Here’s yet another game idea that I want to blather about while I don’t really have time to properly work on it. A few years back I did a 24-hour RPG called “Hikikomori.” At the time I was reading a Japanese novel called Welcome to the N.H.K., which was a rather twisted take on the hikikomori phenomenon, where young men are basically refusing to engage with the world. Although the book had a cover by Yoshitoshi ABe and got adapted into a manga and anime, at its core it was more in a modern Japanese literature style. (Though the same author did a novel called “Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge,” which had kind of a magical realism thing going.) Anyway, since I was making a game about intense isolation, it only made sense to me to have it be a game you play by yourself. That was how I hit on the idea of an RPG that’s a sort of fictional diary-writing exercise with some RPG elements involved.

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In January of 2011 there was the RPG Solitaire Challenge, a solo RPG design contest. I don’t get much into design contests because they almost always manage to pop up when I’m buried in more important stuff, and this one was no exception. I came up with an idea I really liked though, and the other day when someone tweeted to me that they were having enormous fun with Hikikomori I got reminded of my other solo RPG idea.

For a long time I’ve found the idea of a school where people learn magic to be fascinating.[1] Harry Potter is the blindingly obvious example, and despite some issues[2] I’ve been a fan of the series for a while. There’s also a Japanese light novel series (with manga and anime adaptations, plus a tabletop RPG) called Magician’s Academy, which has lots of embarrassing anime fanservice crap, but also some interesting setting ideas here and there.

I’ve had the idea for the “Mage Academy” for quite a while.[3] It’s a present-day magic school in the U.S., and fairly new. Where most magic schools date back many centuries, the Mage Academy is barely 10 years old. Moreover, its founders specifically wanted to explore areas of magic those older schools were neglecting. Thus they’re doing stuff with techno-magic, as well as comparing the different magical traditions. Before the Mage Academy came along, basically anyone who wanted to learn about another form of magic was out of luck. A Western Merlinist wizard trying to learn Chinese qi magic would be in for the journey of a lifetime, and the great European schools would probably just turn away a Chinese sorcerer. In America there’s a bit of an American Gods thing where all these immigrants brought their magic with them, but the only magic school is on the east coast and tied up with the Freemasons, so most of the people who practice non-Western magic learn it through their families. Taking a cue from Magician’s Academy, the Mage Academy sits in a pocket dimension, though its physical entrance is anchored to an inconspicuous spot in the New Mexico[4] desert.

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I haven’t quite nailed down the neologistic tag line for Magic School Diaries, but it would be a diary-writing role-playing exercise, where you follow RPG type rules to guide you through writing a Mage Academy student’s diary of his or her experiences at the school. I envision it letting you make your own character, but having a small number of clear archetypes that heavily influence certain aspects of play. (I hate how much Hogwarts-style houses make sense for that.) It would also have several pre-made NPCs that players interact with in different ways, giving it a little bit of a “visual novel on paper” aspect I guess. I’m eyeing using playing cards for randomness, both for the different ways you can use them, and because having a dedicated pack of cards that you keep in the box in a particular order is kind of an intriguing idea.[5]


[1]Really, I think there’s a lot of interesting and fertile territory in exploring the non-adventuring parts of fantasy type settings. I also want a game about working in a magic item shop, and a game that’s basically “Fantasy Oregon Trail: The RPG.”

[2]Some day when I have nothing better to do I’m going to write a fanfic about an American wizard who visits Hogwarts and is horrified to learn about all the bigotry and other deeply problematic things in Wizarding Britain. (“Wait, you don’t arrest people for using love potions? Seriously?”) He would also be completely and utterly uninterested in quidditch.

[3]I also have this whole idea for a story set there that involves a student mage who came from the distant future as part of a rather dubious time travel experiment. If I do the game I’ll have to make her an NPC though.

[4]“Land of Enchantment” indeed.

[5]The other day I started a thread titled “What can RPGs learn from board games?” There is a ton of stuff to think about there, though I think Magic School Diaries actually lends itself to being a book, at least insofar as it lends itself to being analog instead of digital.

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7 thoughts on “Game Idea: Magic School Diaries

  1. Have you read Lev Grossman’s “The Magicians”? It’s an excellent deconstruction of schools for magic (as well as of Narnia-style magic kingdoms).

    There is a video game about working in an RPG item shop — you sell equipment and magic items to adventurers, and if they survive you get a cut of the phat loot. Can’t remember the name, though.

    I like the idea of a diary-form RPG. It would be ideal for online play.

    1. I hadn’t heard of The Magicians, but it’s definitely on my reading list too. And I have Recettear (and even met one of the guys from the team that put it out in English), though I’ve only played a tiny bit of it. :3

      OTOH my ideal fantasy retail RPG would be less like Recettear and more like Are You Being Served? meets Slayers. :P

  2. I really like this idea, too – writing is my creative past-time, and I rarely am able to play tabletop RPGs with friends due to them being busy. I’m certainly looking forward to this one!

  3. I have always loved the Hikikomori RPG; it was actually what led me to following your blog originally. I have a game of it going that I only sparingly update (when I have the time), but I feel obligated to wrap it up one day just to give the character an ending; for good or ill.

    Personally, I’d love to see a spiritual sequel. A Recettear style RPG would be pretty grand too.

  4. Great job on your novel! I’m really happy to have finished mine, and if I can ever convince anyone to GM a game of Magical Burst (or any superhero game) I’m probably going to be basing my character off of one of the mains.

    Do you plan on posting the final draft of Radiant Yuma online? I’d love to read it.

    1. Thanks! The plan is once I’ve sufficiently revised Radiant Yuna I’ll be releasing it as a companion volume to go with Magical Burst (including various electronic versions), which will include an appendix with game stats for all of the characters and such.

  5. If you haven’t already read the fanfic “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” you should definitely check it out.

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