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Magicians - an RPG that can teach Korean language

Posted by WJWalton on Fri 09 of Nov., 2012 19:56 PST
Kyle Simons is a Korean Language major who has developed a method of teaching language through a tabletop RPG called Magicians, which combines educational elements and a rich background steeped in Korean mythology. He is currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the publishing of the book, and was kind enough to answer a few questions on the game and what it's all about.

Tell us something about Magicians

Magicians is a tabletop roleplaying game where you play a teenager who is learning a new language, is redefining the world he lives in from that new, magic-is-real perspective as well as from the cultural one because they are in a school for magic in Korea. The setting is a mix of Harry Potter and The Dresden Files in that when you're at the school your views are being challenged as a player by learning and casting magic along with these supernatural, mythological Korean elements that aren't normally referenced in western rpgs - instead of vampires and werewolves there are nine-tailed foxes, dokkaebi and three-legged sun crows. At the same time, when you're exploring the urban aspect of being in Seoul there are those supernatural elements that are drawn from urban legends and Korean superstitions that are hidden just below the surface of the everyday world. Real Korean superstitions like whistling at night bring ghosts and snakes to your door, or if mice or crows eat your fingernails they can turn into you or steal your soul are great sources of fantasy and, behind it all, the mechanics are designed to teach you a language while playing and engaging in the fiction and when you tell these collaborative stories with your friends.

The whole idea behind Magicians was making a game where the whole educational element to it - learning another language - was tied up in the fiction and the fantasy of the world that the whole education-as-advancement idea in the game felt like a side-effect of playing the game. Too many educational games fail in this respect because they forget to make the game engaging and fun first, by sacrificing the most vital components of a game - that it has to be fun - in order to strong-arm the educational element in. I wanted a game where magic felt real and that it was this thing that was only being referenced in the book and since almost all magic in fiction using that language component, the educational aspect of learning a language ties in perfectly with the setting and creates more buy-in for both getting into your character and why you're using a language in the world. Not only that, player advancement and character advancement is tied together - as you get better at a language you can actually use in real life, your character is getting better at casting magic and "leveling-up" in the game. The game makes magic something more, something you can grasp and learn and that is a source of unlimited creativity - the only thing restricting the creativity component and your ability to do absolutely anything you want with magic is your own knowledge of the language.

When did you become interested in tabletop RPGs?

My dad tried to get my brother and I into tabletop RPGs via D&D back when we were in elementary school but it didn't stick. We enjoyed it but things fell apart quickly. I didn't start playing again, though I played computer rpgs avidly, until D&D 4th edition came out and I started listening to the Penny Arcade actual play podcasts. I had just moved to Korea and felt a bit disconnected so I looked for a group online, found one and started playing. I started GMing pretty quickly with Cthulhutech and quickly started moving through tons of rpgs that caught my interest, fascinated me and eventually started designing my own games - games like With Great Power, Burning Wheel, Spirit of the Century and many others were all both fascinating to read and amazing to play.

Do you play them regularly?

I still play games regularly, yes. The other guys I game with most regularly are into D&D so we have been playing a lot of Adventurer Conqueror King and Pathfinder in particular but I there has been talk of 13th Age, D&D Next playtests, Dungeon Crawl Classics and Numenera in the future.

What inspired you to use this particular method to teach Korean?

The main thing that I really wanted to do was emulate or abstract magic in a more fun and engaging way. I am a huge fan of books like A Wizard of Earthsea, The Dresden Files, Harry Potter and The Magicians and almost all books that have magic in them - especially ones that take us through the process of learning magic - deal with the vocal component of magic and how closely it ties into language and speech but no RPG games that I know of have a vocal component. Since I wanted that language component it seemed natural to me to tie it to an actual language (rather than making up an entirely new one). I wanted to know what was behind magic and understand it and I think, in particular, Korean is a good fit for this. Not only does learning the writing system, Hangeul, take about 15 minutes and is completely phonetic but it's also totally different from English and even any other language. It looks different, sounds different and so buy-in to it being a basis for magic is pretty high. The fact that the language is so easy to learn but so hard to master makes it a perfect system for magic in my opinion.

What elements of RPGs do you feel make them a functional tool for teaching language?

Roleplaying is already a tool used in the language classroom and has been for decades - it's just usually used to simulate real-world activities in order to associate and practice target vocabulary and grammar. One of the major points of these exercises is to create a disconnect with the language learner by having them take on the role of a character in a simulated scenario so that they might take more risks, use what they learned and not be as afraid to make mistakes. I think a strong case can be made that by putting the learner, the player, in a fictional fantasy setting you can create a stronger disconnect, more excitement and enjoyment and use that disconnect to influence language learning in a very positive way. If you're playing with friends in a casual environment you're already going to be more relaxed and having more fun than in a formal environment among people you don't know so I think that casual environment is ripe for language learning and the fact that it has that strong established base in fiction that we already know and love and has become mainstream makes it all that much more accessible.

Are the methods you're using universal? How well do you think they would work with other languages?

They are universal in that they're based more on how people have always been learning languages. However, each language is definitely different enough that some tweaking for the "Master System" or the highest difficulty level that requires full sentences but I've tried to make it as universal and applicable as possible, with optional rules for specific qualities unique to the target language. At the basic level you start out using 13 words and arranging them in different orders to create spells (one noun, one verb), after you've gotten used to how Korean sounds you move up to the second level where you learn the Korean alphabet entire and start building up your vocabulary by coming up with your own noun and verb to suit the context and intent of your spell.

After you're pronunciation has improved and you've built up a small arsenal of vocabulary you move up to the master system where you learn the grammar required to form full sentences and each type of magic is tied to specific grammar patterns you can plug you new found vocabulary into. Telekinetic magic requires learning prepositions, directions. time magic requires learning the Korean number system, negating/dispelling magic requires learning negatives etc, these are things that are universally applicable and the basics you need to learn in any language so it will work with any language.

You can find out more about Magicians at the Kickstarter page, but if you're interested in backing the project, act fast - there are only 9 days left to do so as of this writing!

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