Fall of Magic

fallofmagicThe immediate draw of Ross Cowman’s successfully-Kickstarted storygame Fall of Magic is that it’s a really cool artifact: the game comes as a physical scroll of silk-screened cloth, which you unroll to reveal a map as the story progresses. The act of unrolling one side of the scroll as you roll up the other is pretty compelling, especially when you haven’t seen the whole map before; and it’s just an impressive object to slap down on a gaming table. The character tokens are attractive custom-made coins. It makes a particularly big contrast in storygames, where we spend a lot of time wrangling ratty PDF printouts and index cards.

The story is a stock heroic-Eurofantasy voyage, aiming for the more sombre notes of Tolkien and Lewis: magic is going out of the world, and as companions of the Magus you follow him on his final journey. The story doesn’t put the PCs up against a big bad or through epic battles; sword-swinging heroics feature a little bit, but are less dominant than travel, reflection, hospitality. At first you pass through familiar regions, which are likely to include the homelands of some of the PCs, but the world grows stranger, bleaker, more shadowy as you progress. You could probably manage the tone of this to some extent, but it’s got a pretty strong slant towards the melancholy of things passing and towards character development.

The form relates to the content here, beyond the scroll’s status as vaguely-medieval fantasy accessory. Scrolls and their unfurling figure heavily in Western culture’s central apocalyptic work, the Book of Revelation, an association strengthened because shortly afterwards they began to be replaced by codices. In there, the unfurling of scrolls is what causes the destruction of the world; books do not just prophesy or record the end, they create it. In the end was the Word. So the scroll, and the act of unfurling it, confer a weight to the story – and your involvement with it – that would not be present if it was rendered as a bunch of loose-leaf printouts.

The mechanics are very simple. It was pitched at Go Play (not by the author) as a game that essentially teaches itself, and while there are a few details where the rulebook matters, it is very mechanics-light; it’d be a suitable game for a first-time storygamer with no RPG background. It seems designed to get you playing as quickly as possible. Character-creation is minimal: you pick a name from one list, then a role and homeland from another. Everything else about them you learn through play.

At each location on the map players can start a scene from a story prompt, or move the party to the next location and describe it. Each story prompt consists of a name that feels a little like a chapter title – often the name of a place within that area – plus a short piece of text that invites elaboration: “your face in the water,” “what is lost,” “why you follow the Magus.” Some of the story prompts add traits to a character, some of them have different outcomes based on a dice roll, but they’re all evocative and brief, evidence of some tight craft. The journey divides a few times in the middle, so you won’t visit every location; this branching is not super-broad, and bottlenecks quickly, so you’ll visit the majority of the map on a single playthrough.

As a game system, there’s not a lot to Fall of Magic: it’s one of those games which chiefly consists of a bunch of story prompts. As such, it’s a game that’s as good as its players, and the style of play is highly reliant on how you’d like your characters to operate. I’ve spoken to people who have played it multiple times and always ran out of time. Our group mostly relied on dictated scenes rather than big in-character interaction scenes, developed their personal stories more than relationships between PCs, and finished in about three hours. (We were playing in the very last time-slot of the con, and big in-character scenes may have been a bit more than we had energy for.) Still, we came up with some good stuff – I was quite pleased with my character, a talking raven who feared that the passing of magic might leave her a mute animal; things built up concerning the nature of the raven people’s ancestral bargain with the Magi, and their ability to steal visual memories by eating the eyes of (usually) corpses. By the end she had lost her language, but still concluded the bargain with the Magus, taking his eye and flying off with his secrets, now forever unspeakable. (The game system doesn’t enforce this level of squick at all, but I kind of wanted magic, and the Magi, to feel a little more sinister.)

Some players expressed dissatisfaction with the ending, which effectively turns the ambiguity up to 11 and lets the players sort it out. In general I think endings are really hard in games, and that more storygames could use distinct mechanics for the endgame rather than iterating the central mechanic one last time and then cutting out, but I’m not sure what else Fall could really have done here. I get that, well, you’ve been building towards this destination for long enough that it’s really important that you get something other than an anticlimax. I personally got a satisfying ending out of the final prompts  – but I had to effectively construct it myself out of character themes I’d been building over the course of the whole game. That’s an OK thing to expect of experienced storygamers, but newer or less confident players might feel a bit let down here.

I wouldn’t expect Fall of Magic to be replayable a great many times; as a story-prompt-based game, much of its creative spark lies in how you interpret prompts which you haven’t considered before. To have staying power, that kind of game needs a very big pool of prompts, or ways to provide a radically different context for them. Fall lets you select different characters, and you could choose somewhat different routes and stipulate different stuff about the world; but unless you played with some folks who had really different ideas about it, I suspect that it’d start feeling repetitive after a few games. Even if its particular genre is something that you intensely love and would like to inhabit regularly, I think you’d eventually want a more generalised system – a way of generating journey-maps and prompts, rather than a fixed list. That’s fine; some storygames are Swiss army knives, but sometimes it’s good to play something that’s focused on a more specific experience.

(At present, Fall of Magic is available only to the backers of a now-closed Kickstarter; I played one of the prototype scrolls. The final version will evidently have a bunch of extra content that expands the replay value of the game – an extension of the map on the reverse side, random islands to populate the ocean. I wouldn’t rely on a second printing of the scrolls, but it seems likely that the digital version will see a general release at some point.)

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2 Responses to Fall of Magic

  1. cvaneseltine says:

    After two play sessions (totaling about five hours), we finished our Fall of Magic game last night.

    It was the fastest epic I’ve ever participated in, and “epic” is the right word, because I felt as if we were finishing a year-long campaign at the end. We built a story about fate versus free will, focusing on the difference between being created for something and choosing to be part of it. The characters were two war golems created by the Magus (one old and dying, one young and doubting) and two humans with the seeds of magic potential (one deeply entangled by history and reputation, the other roving free from all entanglements).

    From the perspective of the map, we didn’t make it all the way to the end. Instead, at the top of our second play session, we decided that we were going to finish the game this session – and so we ended our game in the Sea of Salt, atop a plateau where the machines of magic had been broken and rebuilt a thousand times, with each character (and two NPCs) choosing whether or not to participate in their rebuilding.

    On some level, I want to play again. But on another, I don’t, because I doubt my ability to comb the story we made out of the stories that could have been – and if I do successfully, then the edges of this one will blur, and I would regret that.

  2. Pingback: Human Intelligence | These Heterogenous Tasks

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