Malaysia’s own Ben Chong has created a very small roleplaying game called Magic Swords. It’s a cutting-edge hack of Grant Howitt’s brilliant microgame, Honey Heist. But instead of playing criminal bears, you take on the roles of enchanted weaponry attempting to escape prison.
From Concept to Page
Compact microgame RPGs exploded in popularity following the release of John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings. This cunning little sci-fi game has spawned nearly a hundred hacks by itself. Partly this is because of the elegance of defining a roleplaying game concept through two wildly dissimilar descriptors (“Lasers” & “Feelings” or “Parley” & “Plunder” or “Tactical” & “Waifu”). And part of it, I think, comes from just the excitement of seeing how quickly you can turn high concept into microgame by plugging your own ideas into Harper’s template, which is available to anyone via an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike Creative Commons license.
Magical Jailbreak in Progress
Magic Swords is currently billed as a work in progress, although this quirky and cartoony game already seems complete enough for a full session of flying-swordsy goodness. The player sheet lets an unspecified number of players generate a random panoply of sentient armaments, from sneaky knives to deadly katanas. Oddly, you get to roll for a past career, but also a secret backstory from another random table that might completely contradict the career.
No bother. The game doesn’t try to make a lot of sense anyway. To recap, you’re magical weapons and you’ve been locked up somewhere. You’re going to break out. The classic dungeon crawl, in reverse. Another reversal: you’re the loot and the adventurers.
Magic Swords defines characters with two stats: Magic and Sword, both of which start at 3. To do something magical, roll a six-sided die and compare against Magic. To do something physical/violent, roll and compare against Sword. If you rolled equal to the stat or less, you succeed; otherwise, you fail. Like in Honey Heist, certain events will cause one stat to tick upwards. I think the idea is that the other stat will lose a point when its counterpart gains one, but the writing leaves it a bit unclear.
When Sword or Magic reaches 6, the character leaves play, one way or another. So players are incentivised to take actions (like swordsy violence or magical displays to non-swords) to adjust their stats during their jailbreak.
I found that like in many microgames, a lot is left up to the GM to improvise. How big is this prison, and how tough is the opposition? What kind of limits are there on sword magic, like flight altitude limits, carrying capacity (especially if you have to retrieve an item from the Warden) and so on? This will differ from GM to GM, and from session to session.
On the player side, Elisha found that as a near-total newbie, the player sheet didn’t provide quite enough explanation on how to play. But that’s a common issue with all microgame RPGs.
There’s nothing in Magic Swords that says you need 3, or 4, or 5 players. In our playtest, Elisha played solo as a knife named Nick. I created two fellow escapees named Dirk and Kris to act as friendly foils for Nick. Based on my rolls, the swords were being held by the God of Swords (whom I named Mournblade) aboard an enchanted pirate ship with rooms full of lava and trip-wires. We managed to use most of the random elements rolled up for our session, but thanks to a strong sense of caution on Elisha’s part, the magic swords never entered a room with any trip-wires.
The most important DNA that this game inherits from Honey Heist, the fluctuation of stats, was never really much of an issue. The adventure was short and there was never any moment when one stat grew higher than 4, so Elisha was never forced to take action to adjust stats. In a longer game with more threats to address, I can imagine magic swords having to struggle a great deal to control their natures.
A Time to Design, A Time to Play
Frankly, I’m not sure if I’m overstating things, but it feels like a lively time for RPG design in the Malaysian scene. Ben Chong isn’t the only one working on a game or game hack. Samwise Mui has plans to emulate Crazy Rich Asians using a hack of Monsterhearts 2. Zedeck Siew and Mun Kao are coming off the success of A Thousand Thousand Islands 1-4 with plans for more zines exploring a Southeast Asian fantasy milieu. Alif Hilman just completed Stargazer RPG 2e. And Robertson Sondoh continues to work on the Metatoy System. I’m also working on a detective microgame called Zoopolitan Future Blues.
And that’s just off the top of my head – there are other Malaysian creators out there right now, some associated with Tabletop Game Designers of Malaysia, but many more who are not.
With the growing number of game design projects, meaningful playtesting is vital. The experience of play can differ drastically from table to table so it’s important to get feedback from as many test groups as possible, each of which has to interpret what the game is for them based on their reading of the rules.
Designers, reach out to the community. Test those games!
UPDATE: You can find the current version of the game at Ben’s store on itch.io. We suggest printing these sheets on A4 paper.
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