Bad Luck Streak at Wizard School

Category: Cussin' In Tongues
Created on Thursday, 27 April 2017 Written by Steve

I should be spending the limited time I have to work on Cinemechanix to update all the Elevator Pitches (sample games) to the new rules, finish up the Sample of Play Theater entries, and doing some editing and probably reorganization. But that’s Grunt Work, and I’ve spent the last six months doing Grunt Work. Besides, I have no choice but to get three of the Elevator Pitches up to at least beta test standards by June (when I’ll be running them at DieCon), so I’ll have a looming deadline to motivate to do that sometime soon. Right now I want to work on something new and exciting (or, if you’ve been following this blog, I want to create more potential Idea Debt, because that’s what I do). 

Since I don’t want this to be pure Idea Debt that will turn into unfinished products, I decided I should at least work on a new Elevator Pitch, and luckily I’ve got several I want to do besides the ones that will be in the book. One thing I especially want to do is make sure we’ve got Elevator Pitches with completely different magic systems to help illustrate that Cinemechanix is meant ot be adapted to the game you want to play, not the other way around. We’ve got a reasonably complex ritual magic system for Hobomancer that shies away from flash-bang magic (that’s what Hobo Powers are for) and a super-simple, super-flash-bangy system for Guardians of Aetheria (the He-Man meets Heavy Metal game), so something in the middle that combines elements of both without acting quite like either would fit the bill. Luckily, “Kid Wizards” has been on the list of potential Elevator Pitches from the beginning. 

The original plan was to just file the serial numbers off of Harry Potter, but every time I start thinking about it I drift a little farther away from going with a pure Hogwart’s clone. I think I subconsciously committed to doing something different when I decided to call the thing “Bad Luck Streak at Wizard School,”  a title that Andy at Crafty Games and maybe as many as 20 other people will find mildly amusing. Anyway, the thing with Harry Potter is that it’s just so goddamn British and, as some of you may know, Hex Games has this theme of doing products about American magic (see Hobomancer and American Artifacts), so I’m kind of obligated to figure out what the American Hogwart’s would look like. I feel like the staring point for using the Hogwart’s model without just ripping off Rowling is to figure out the school’s Houses (or equivalents), since they’re kind of a starting point for understanding how a lot of things work in the wizarding world. 

My first thought (again, probably inspired in part by the title reference) was to tap into another common theme at Hex of treating music as a magical force. I could replace wands with musical instruments and have houses like the House of Cash, House of the Rising Sun, House of Hair, Run’s House, or whatever. The first dealbreaker here was that the available House puns leave out way too much American music for my taste. The second is that they’re too jokey and dumb to hold up unless you go for pure comedy. The third and biggest is that deciding that all wizards are also musician leads to a lot more world-building than I want to do and takes the premise too far away from the initial inspiration. This could lead to an interesting ficton in the same thematic neighborhood as things like Six String Samurai, the second Blues Brothers movie, and that crazy-ass Jim Shooter Dazzler script that never got made into a movie. It also provides an obvious “Battle of the Bands” season finale. But it requires building a whole new world that would probably be a hell of a lot more interesting than the magic school, so it’s not gonna work. 

So maybe circle back to the source material and have the houses founded by individual magicians. If you’ve read the previously mentioned books in the American Magic series, you’ve probably already guessed that my first stop was American history and folklore. In the “history,” department, we’ve basically go Marie Laveau, a bunch of hoaxers and Jesus freaks, and some scapegoats that the Pilgrims burned. Folklore doesn’t give us many more, and most of the “name” characters who you can squint and kind of pretend are wizards (like Stagger Lee) are, if not outright bad guys, at least too messy and ambiguous to fill the house founder role. If you’re really willing to stretch the definition of “wizard,” you can throw in people like Emperor Norton and maybe one of those Founding Fathers with their Freemason Illuminati rituals and what-not, but those don’t work all that well either. 

So maybe go even closer to the source material and just make up some founders and let Laveau and Stag and Norton and Jefferson play a more Nicholas Flamel role. So what kind of founders do we need? Maybe base them on American archetypes, like cowboys or inventors or industrialists, but there are too many of those, so it needs to go broader. Right now I’m tentatively settled on the four archetypes: 

  • The Blue Bloods: These are obviously your Slytheryn, people who were born on third base and are convinced they hit a homerun and therefore believe anyone can do it if they just pull a little harder on those bootstraps. They’re the conservative Mayflower families with old money and a preference for Old World hermetic magic. 
  • The Common Folk: These are your Prairie Home Companion style rural Americans. Hard working, simple, direct, and boring. They’re basically Hobbits. Mountain witches, hoodoo men, root workers, and future southern Grannies gravitate toward this house. 
  • The Cosmopolitans: Wizards in this house embody the Melting Pot. They’re tolerant, creative, and open to new experiences and ideas. Voodoo priests, technomancers, chaos magicians, and other bleeding hearts who borrow from many magical traditions end up in this house. 
  • The Wanderers: The Wanderers are the resourceful square-jawed men of action who built this country and paved the way for all the others. They’re America’s independent streak personified. Explorers, cowboys, soldiers, mountain men, and (eventually) hobomancers and gonzo magicians fall into this house.  

I even came up with Rowling-style alliterative names for three of the founders: Abraham Alger (Blue Bloods), Levi Ledbetter (Common Folk), and Colt Callahan (Wanderers). I was still going to use Marie Laveau as the Cosmopolitan founder until I talked myself out of it a few paragraphs ago, so I don’t have a name for that one yet. The biggest problem is that I’m not sure that they work as House names. The names work great for the characters, but House Ledbetter still feels a little bland even though it’s an uncommon surname with exactly the right baggage. Maybe they’ll sound better with repetition, maybe I’ll have to go with completely made-up names like Rowling did. My main reservation about the latter option is that I’m not sure I can do it without sucking out some of the “Americanness.” 

At least I know without a doubt who He Who Can Not Be Named will be. It’s The Devil. In American magical folklore, it’s always The Devil. 

 

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