On December 1st, there will be a nice bundle of small, indie itch RPGs from around the world called the Ind of the Year Bundle 2020
that includes The Colors of Magic
, a little game I created.
The Colors of Magic was a way to express my ideas about character-drive GMing in RPG form. What does it do?
Strict Limits for the GM
When you create a character in The Colors of Magic, you create two beliefs and three NPCs you have a relationship with. One is a villain on the scale of a typical campaign antagonist. When creating this villain, you also describe their lair and the sorts of beings they use as their minions. Another is an influential ruler (can be anything from a thieves' guild leader to a queen). The third is character you love, but where that relationship is imperfect.
The GM then notes down all these things. Why? It's not just good practice: The GM is not allowed to use any antagonists, NPCs, or settings that aren't connected to or implied by the stuff the players invented in character creation. If the players invented a mysterious dragon, evil necromancer queen, and vampire prince, the GM is not allowed to make up a chained elder god antagonist without making it part of one of the player-created antagomists.
The GM can still use their elder god idea, but it has to be tied to a player's antagonist, and the player's antagonist has to take precedence. Is the chained elder god the source of the necromancer queen's power? Is the mysterious dragon the elder god, now escaped?
Beliefs are Character Growth
Characters in The Colors of Magic have two beliefs. These support the character-driven GM approach, but I'm going to have to tell you more about the game's genre before continuing. The Colors of Magic attempts to evoke an animated YA "cartoon wizards" fantasy, similar to Avatar, Dragon Prince, many 90s and 00s adventure cartoons, and tons of anime. YA fantasy novels are also central to the game's genre definition. These stories tend to include a moral dimension - questions about maturity, bravery, responsibility, friendship, and trust.
Protagonist Characters (PCs) in The Colors of Magic have righteous beliefs that define the game's themes. Each belief is essentially true in the "moral physics" game world. (The Colors of Magic uses script change safety tools, so there are plenty of backstops against GMs and players using these beliefs in harmful ways.) The righteous belief expresses the game's "cartoon wizards" theme.
If a character's righteous belief is "true friends are always there for each other" then anyone who is defined as a true friend will always be there for you, and anyone who ever lets you down is not a true friend. The GM's job is to give the PCs ample opportunities to decide who their true friends are and take risks for them.
The characters' wrongheaded beliefs define their character growth. Each character has a belief that is foolish, arrogant, cowardly, or immature. The GM's role is to push them to make mistakes and cause harm in pursuit of their wrongheaded belief, and then either admit their flaws, learn, and grow as a character or double down on their mistaken belief and fall. Like the genre The Colors of Magic is inspired by, characters never really give up their wrongheaded belief. They are constantly tempted by it.
If a player really believes their character has overcome their wrongheaded belief, the character arc is essentially over, though they can always take on a new one. (I admit, I've never run a long enough campaign of The Colors of Magic that a character ever overcame their wrongheaded belief. It seems ideal for 6-30 hour mini-campaigns, but it also works well as a one-shot.)
The Colors of Magic gets mechanics entirely out of the way. Because the players of the game can always choose the outcome of any risk they take - never spending points or rolling dice - the GM's only ability to "challenge" the players is to challenge their characters and only their characters. The player can decide their character succeeds without complication, succeeds with some extra benefit, succeeds with a minor complication, barely succeeds and suffers a significant complication, or suffers a serious calamity.
Gamism is an old "Big Model" Forge-era term for the creative impulse of game challenge -- outthinking an opponent in a game. It's often found in tactical combat games with initiative rolls, where you have to beat some monsters in combat without using too many resources or taking too much damage from them. But it's also found in "storytelling" games about out-maneuvering dark conspirators in the court intrigues of secret vampire societies, conserving your bennies and fate points properly in pulp action RPGs, and choosing the best crew upgrade to make your scores in the dark more effective.
Game challenge is fun, but as I was laser-focusing a game to show off character-driven GMing, I had to take it out.
Put it All Together
When you put the three aspects of The Colors of Magic together, you get to play a system that:
- Forces the GM to use settings, characters, and antagonists that the players care about, because they invented them and made them special to their character, and
- Urges GMs to stimulate the other players' creativity by challenging their characters' beliefs and relationships -- not their tactical game play skills.
You'd think it would be hard to GM The Colors of Magic and plan out adventures for it, tying in all the PCs' beliefs and relationships and stuff. It's not! I've included two tools to help make it a cinch.
The first tool is a printable GM Tracking Sheet - a table to write down all the PCs' magic, beliefs, and relationships in. It's a single page, so you have everything you need to improvise right in front of you, ready at a glance.
The second is a set of three "mad lib" style fast adventure planners. Once you've filled out the GM tracking sheet, if you're at a loss as to where to start, pick one of the fast adventure "mad libs" and fill it out. Check out a preview of the first one!
Get the Game
Normally, The Colors of Magic is a little $3 game on itch, and you could click the link on this blog and go buy it now! But there's a good chance you already did! It was included in the enormous Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality in 2020. The folks who played it since getting it in that bundle gave it 4 stars, so it looks like they liked it.
If you missed out on that, you can also wait and get it as part of the Ind of the Year Bundle 2020
(opens in a new window), which will be released on itch on December 1st. (Since it's international, the launch is technically
November 30th at 6pm my time, US Eastern Standard Time).
The Ind of the Year Bundle 2020 includes dozens of indie games by creators from around the world, and the price is around 75% off the "cover price" cost of buying all the games individually. So even if you already have The Colors of Magic, you can snag the bundle and still get a lot of cool games for a good discount.