Designer Interview: Kyle Simons of the Magicians Role Playing Game (Kickstarter)

The Magicians RPG Kickstarter from Kyle Simons has garnered quite a bit of attention around the RPG blogosphere of late. This merger of role-playing game mechanics and language learning techniques shows some of the unexplored or unpublicized applications of RPGs in education. Plus, it’s just cool. The idea that your character can cast spells but can only do so by saying the phrase in Korean is brilliant.

Kyle taught in Korea, left for a while, and now is back pursuing his degree in Korean Education as well as working on the Magicians RPG. So when he pinged me and we chatted via e-mail, it seemed that if he had time, an interview was a good idea. I definitely was curious about the game and its applications! Thankfully Kyle was generous enough to answer all my questions!

Q: I love the idea of educational RPGs and think more teachers and parents should be using them to provide structure and rewards for learning complex material as you’ve done with languages. Though Magicians focuses on the Korean language do you think it could be translated to other languages as well?

It can definitely be retooled, we’ve already hit the stretch goal for the “Hack Pack” which is going to be a collection of designer notes on how I made the game, my thought process, how to hack it for other settings, themes and for other languages as well. At 20k Andy Kitowski, of recent Tenra Bansho Zero fame is going to put out a hack for Japanese so people can see how one might go about hacking the game for other languages as well.

Q: What were some of your students favorite parts of the game?

The earliest version of the game was very different from what it is now – it was a classroom, teacher-lead game for teaching English and it’s changed a lot since then but the main reason I made it was because there was a group of students that kept staying behind at school. My principal asked me to come up with something to keep them occupied and told me that the reason they were staying behind all the time was because they were being bullied. Koreans, and just most teenagers in general, are pretty reluctant to talk about their problems so I came up with this idea to both introduce them to tabletop roleplaying games and to get them to talk about what had been going on that their
school so I created Magicians; they created characters at a high school for magic and whenever they told me stories where their characters were bullied or affected negatively in some way I gave them points and they used those points to do cool stuff in the game – cast spells, fight monsters, etc. The students responded really well to it and had a lot of fun with it. I really enjoyed them being able to finally open up and get some stuff of their chest – whether the stories were real or not I could tell it was, at least in some way, cathartic.

Q: What’s been the most memorable experience while creating and playtesting the game so far?

The most memorable experience so far was definitely adding in the smartphone angle to the game after finding out that dictation apps can actually do Korean and do it well. The most memorable game so far has been a playtest with friends that ended up being way more slap-stick funny and off-the-cuff than the more serious and dramatic games that I had been used to playing before – it helped open my eyes to how differently each group plays a game and I was really happy that Magicians can support multiple types of play.

Q: How long have you been teaching and what took you to Korea?

I only taught in English in Korea for about one year before deciding to go to Kyunghee University here in Korea to major in Korean education and to take my thesis in the direction that lead to me spending most of my time developing, rewriting and playtesting Magicians. I originally traveled all around Asia after graduating from university but I had made several Korean friends and was interested in languages so I ended up in Korea the longest amount of time to travel because I found the language intriguing, the people and culture interesting and it was an easy country to live in. After I went back to Canada and continued by degree in International Business I quickly found out that I didn’t want to pursue my job in that field and that I enjoyed teaching a lot more I decided to come back to Korea to teach and pursue other interests.

Q: It sounds like The Magicians from Lev Grossman was quite an influence on you and your teaching. Have you heard from Grossman regarding the Kickstarter and your game?

Magicians originally started out as an IP project for The Magicians with Lev Grossman’s blessing – he has played and loves roleplaying games like D&D and Traveler and loved the idea of putting the Magiciansverse into an rpg format. Unfortunately the IP rights ended being sold to Hollywood to do a TV show so Magicians wasn’t able to continue on in that same vein; that’s when I decided to give it a more Korean feel to be more in-line with the language, add in Korean superstitions, etc. The response from Mr. Grossman has been great, when I launched the Kickstarter he posted it up on Facebook, endorsed the game and tweeted it. He’s a great guy in general and has been really supportive of the project.

Q: What are some of your favorite Korean superstitions you have integrated into the game?

Some of my favorite superstitions are the ones that caused me to do a double-take when first hearing them. My favorite has definitely got to be the one where you have to clean up your finger and toe nail clippings well – especially at night – because, if you don’t, a crow or mouse, vermin of some kind may eat it and gain power over you, steal your soul and can even turn into you. Others are fun like whistling at night brings snakes and ghosts to your door or you should only move houses on days without “guests” (re: evil), those kinds of superstitions are just asking to be put into a fantasy setting.

Q: How did you get hooked up with Daniel Solis & Ryan Macklin to help with the book?

I was the one who searched out both Daniel and Ryan to help out with the book. I knew from the very beginning I wanted to work with both of them after following and seeing their work over the years. Daniel’s Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple and Ryan’s work on The Dresden Files RPG and the Leverage RPG was so great that I really wanted them on the project – the fact that they’d both seen several successful Kickstarters between them made them even more compelling so I contacted them and asked if they’d be willing to work on it and, lucky for me, they were interested in the idea and wanted in on it.

Q: Did you give artists Haoran Zhang, Theresa Simons, and Jamie Lafond much guidance as to the direction for the artwork? What were your main visual influences?

Theresa Simons and Jamie Lafond are my parents actually – they visited earlier this year in the summer and I took them to all kinds of really old, Buddhist temples and all over the country so they had a really good idea of what kinds of stuff I wanted in the book in terms of architecture and feel. I’m pretty lucky to have two parents who are both art teachers but there’s only so much one can ask of your parents so that’s when I brought in Haoran Zhang – he was really interested in working on the project and contacted us after we sent some feelers out. He is really amazing and most of the black and white art on the Kickstarter is from him. He’s a really busy guy – he’s working on League of Legends stuff right now in addition to finishing up the rest of the art I commissioned from him for the book but he’s totally worth the wait. His background is mostly online games but he’s very creative and has a very different style I wanted to incorporate into the book – we work really closely together on developing the vision and what I want in the book.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal for the Magicians game and what’s next for you? Will there be additional material down the line?

The ultimate goal for me is being able to see people through the stages of learning a language – all the way from knowing nothing all the way up to being semi-conversant with Magicians as the sole resource. I want to provide as much help and make it as good a resource as possible for people and the more feedback I get on it the book and process the better as I’m using it as the basis for my thesis paper. My original vision included 4 languages and, to be honest, sign language as well as a supplemental system for the game so I definitely will be producing more stuff for it. I’d like to do as many languages, work with as many cool people as possible and I’ve already had offers from all kinds of people for all kinds of languages. The Magicians game line has a bright future ahead of it I think.

Q: If there’s a question nobody has asked you yet that you’d like to answer, what would the question and answer be?

Most people never ask me about the game behind the language learning aspect of Magicians. I think a big reason why many educational games fail is because they are unable, or forget to, make the game itself fun and interesting to play. The fact that there could be a totally different system for magic in the game and it would still be fun and be rewarding game experience is something I’m very proud of an the reason for all the interest and success of the Kickstarter. After all, games are supposed to fun and interesting first and an educational tool first – if you manage to weave those two together seamlessly you have something new and worthwhile and I like to this I’ve managed to do that.

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A huge thank you goes out to Kyle Simons for answering our questions and we wish him the best of luck with the Kickstarter, which has achieved 6x its original funding goal with two weeks left to go! I think the Magicians RPG holds a ton of promise and am looking forward to seeing where it leads.

Be sure to hop on the Kickstarter or head over to the Magicians RPG website for more details!

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