The Wizards Grimoire
A Game Review and Narrative Retelling
A Game Review and Narrative Retelling
So it was that Aibesta of the Two Courts compiled her notes into a Signature, and arrayed herself for travel. To her signature she added a selection of useful magics to speed and comfort her on her way, and she set out for consultation with her mentor, the great scholar Wistride the Aur…
She died at Haidor, overcome by Murderous Ghosts set upon her by Justu the Necromant. Her grimoire was found later by a treasure-scavenger, and added to the collection of a scholar-nun of the Monast. At that order’s dissolution, it was sold to pay for rites of indemnification and funeration, then stolen by a reaver in transit over the Salt Road of Brash, then carried to various parts by a variety of persons, some virtuous, some bold, some sly.
By its particular and circuitous route it has reached, four centuries and more later, you.
This weekend Apreche invited me and cymen to play The Wizard’s Grimoire with him.
As a game, it’s got a couple of interesting things going for it right out of the gate:
It’s a single player game. Kind of. Each individual session requires the assistance of two “volunteers”. And each session is profoundly collaborative. But your volunteers may change each session. So you and you alone are the only part that persists and carries the story forward from session to session.
Highly modular. The Wizard’s Grimoire, the free demo version of the game, is but one of four different adventures included in the paid version. And the grimoire included in the demo is but one of three different grimoires. This suggests to me a mix-and-match capability that is basically a plugin system. I bet a Wizard’s Grimoire game jam on itch.io would result in a plethora of community content.
Brand name recognition. The creators are the same people who made Apocalypse World, which in turn launched dozens of Powered By The Apocalypse games.
Bonus points: tone and flavor. The gamebook is very fun to read. It’s full of weird, archaic words and phrasing and feels very mysterious and magical. Much like it itself is some kind of grimoire.
I knew that the primary (only?) narrative mechanic of the game is “Player asks questions, volunteers work together to answer them,” but I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how often the questions would come, how open ended they might be, what consensus with my other volunteer might require, etc.
In practice, there were a few awkward spots and a few stumbles as we figured it out together, but the overall experience was very fun, and super collaborative. It felt like three GMs setting up situations and resolving them together.
Apreche would basically throw writing prompts at us, sometimes super open ended, sometimes focused or leading. And cymen and I would brainstorm answers to them. A lot of the time we were on the same page about things. Sometimes he took the response in a way I hadn’t anticipated, which was really cool. And sometimes he contributed something that challenged what I wanted to do in my mind, which was also really cool. I really enjoyed this aspect of it.
As a volunteer, the dice roll mechanics were pretty much hidden from me while playing. The rolls were also few and far between, the emphasis being on the storytelling. They were very simple though, requiring a single d6 and beating a target number.
The final mechanic is that of the grimoire. Each section is “locked” (the player is instructed, on their honor, to not read ahead) and unlocking each section may require different things of the narrative, and/or different dice rolls. There are in-game consequences and boons for unlocking or failing to unlock a section.
So in our session, cymen and I were volunteers in Apreche’s game.
We were given some brief background on the nature of magic in the world, and what expectations of us are. The game provides this content in a short Volunteer Guide and a brief Bestiary.
The game design seems to strongly favor player safety and being respectful of the volunteers’ time: anybody can end the session at any time, for any reason.
Here’s the entirety of the setup and game prep that Apreche gave us:
I’m going to visit a former mentor of mine to solicit their help in translating the next section of the grimoire.
That’s it. Then we started playing.
He started with a couple questions about his mentor, what their name is, where they live and in what kind of dwelling. And then there were a few questions to set the stage such as, What time of year is it, what time period is it, etc. This part was very sandboxy and kind of intimidating with how open-ended all the questions were.
What we decided was that this takes place in an English countryside kind of place with Victorian era levels of technology. The fledgling wizard, Griksakthis, took a train to a small town, and then a carraige to the edge of town, and from there proceeded on foot out into the remote, meandering countryside.
It is late winter. Cool and crisp, but sunny and bright. The coat he had been wearing, while necessary in the morning, is far too warm now that midday approaches, and he walks with it slung over his shoulder.
He carries a duffel with a change of clothes and supplies. He intends to stay a couple days. Tucked inside his pack is also the Signature of Aibesta of the Two Courts, the mysteries of which he has only just begun to unwravel.
He is seeking out his old tutor, Esmerelda, the Grand High Mage of Transmutation, to help him with deciphering Section III of the grimoire.
Soon he sees the wall of piled cobblestone that runs along the road and marks the edge of Esmerelda’s estate. He follows it a ways until he gets to the heavy wrought iron gate, closed and sealed with Esmerelda’s own sigil of power.
Familiarity washing over him, he traces the sigil and steps back, expecting the gate to swing open as it has hundreds of times before. But it remains locked and shut, as though the magic in the gate has faded and gone.
Note: None of this had been prepped ahead of time. Everything that has happened so far has been me and cymen just bouncing ideas off each other in response to Apreche’s questions. We had started to gel as a team a little bit by now, and it is at this point that I really started to get the feeling that we were three Game Masters shaping a world together.
Apreche takes action for the first time now, and rolls a die as…
Griksakthis decides to perform a bit of hedge magic. He exerts himself magically in order to unveil his wizardous senses. Unfortunately the spell fails and he is exhausted and overwhelmed, and stands there lost in thought for some moments until he is snapped to when a large raven lands on the gate and peers quizically down at him.
Shaking of the fog of stupor, he regards the raven and assumes it must be one of the many ravens Esmerelda keeps as companions and spies, and that she must now–or will soon–know that he has arrived.
With a click and a creak, the gate swings open, granting him access to the estate.
A narrow footpath recedes from here down to the edge of a swampy wood. The air is cool and crisp, tainted with the faint sour, rotting odor of the swamp. The footpath slowly fades and soon is lost entirely to the wildness of the wood, but Griksakthis proceeds confidently, having walked these woods countless times in the past. Roughly an hour later, the trees start to thin again as he approaches the far side. As he steps out once more into the grass, Esmerelda’s mansion is visible before him.
A sprawling country estate, hugging the ground with only two and a half stories, with two wings reaching forward to flank a large courtyard garden where the witch grows the rare herbs and plants needed for her research. Nothing is growing currently in the winter cold, but the beds have been turned over and prepped in anticipation of the coming spring.
He approaches the door, thick iron bound wood with runes carved deeply into it, and reaches for the heavy iron ring of the door knocker. When the knocker strikes the metal plate, arcane energy crackles out in fine webs. The runes glow briefly where the strands of energy touch them, and the door swings open.
He steps in the foyer. Wooden steps leading up to bedrooms, a hall of doors, all closed save one leading into the library where Esmerelda conducts her work. He crosses the threshold of the open door and sees her at her writing desk. Without looking up, she raises a hand to hold off interruption as she continues to write in a large book, completing a thought.
Griksakthis sits himself in a chair before the desk and patiently waits. Soon she sets down her pen and looks up and greets him. There is familial love between them, but she conducts the conversation as someone who has much to do, and little time in which to do it. She suffers no smalltalk, and presses him directly on what business brings him here now after years of absence.
He explains that he has come to seek her help in translating the Signature of Aibesta of the Two Courts. She immediately agrees to help, hoping that something in the translation may help her understand and remedy the waning and fading of her own magic, as seen in the depowered sigil of protection on her own front gate.
Griksakthis feels that she agreed to help too quickly and tries to empathetically inquire into her motives. Esmerelda sees through his charade though and sees that he is being calculating, not empathetic. They each awkwardly try to asuage the other’s aroused suspicions, and then Griksakthis excuses himself to rest and clean up before dinner.
Note: Griksakthis’s “insight check” was the second role (and fail) of the game, as Apreche decided to have him Exert himself Empathetically to determine whether Esmerelda was hiding anything from him. Since he failed, he did not learn that Esmerelda’s magic is fading, and did not gain insight into her motives.
Griksakthis, refreshed and feeling sharp, joins Esmerelda in the dining room. There are no servants or staff in the house; Esmerelda has always prized her privacy. She has magicked the meal into existence herself, and has set two places at the long table: one for herself at the head and one for Griksakthis at her side. She is seated and waiting when he arrives.
She has prepared a warm and hearty winter soup, knowing it was a favorite of his while he lived here under her tutelage. Griksakthis is lulled into feelings of comfort and home.
As they eat, Esmerelda quizzes him on the contents of the grimoire and his progress in deciphering it, until in impatience to get started she abruptly ends dinner and leads him back to the library where they start pouring over the tome together.
They are immediately alerted to the presence of a magical safeguard that must be subdued before they may gain access to the contents of the chapter. Through study, they determine that the safeguard requires a personal sacrifice from the reader in order to convey intent and worthiness. Esmerelda opts for a blood sacrifice and offers one of her prized ravens. Griksakthis thinks the sacrifice should be of a more personal nature, and offers his memories of having lived in this house.
The safeguard relents, and Griksakthis’s ambition gets the better of him as he decides to attempt to permenatnly disable the safeguard by Strenously Disputing A Wizardous Will, and forcing the safeguard to regard him as its master and submit to him. The spell misfires. It works sufficiently enough that they are able to study the tome long enough to gain some significant insights, but not long enough to make any major breakthrough.
Then the safeguard snaps shut, once more obscuring the contents of the section. It knows it has been manipulated, and in retaliation it returns to Griksakthis his sacrifice, but in a corrupted fashion: his memories of having lived in this house are now tainted with false memories of a bitter, hatred fueled rivalry between himself and his mentor Esmerelda.
He snaps the grimoire closed and announces that they have made all the progress they will tonight. Esmerelda stands and watches as he retreats to his room and packs his things. He was a fool for coming here! Esmerelda will surely try to steal the Signature of Aibesta of the Two Courts for herself! She has always been envious of his talent and aptitude. He opens the bedroom window and sneaks out into the night.
A handfull of ravens watch in quiet resignation as he disappears into the woods, never to return.
This game was super fun! I think Apreche rolled dice maybe three times in the ~2 hours we played. It is far and away much more of a collaborative storytelling game than it is a dice rolling game.
The story itself ended up being very satisfying. I love the sadness in Griksakthis forgetting the familial bond he had with Esmerelda and burning the bridge between them. One thing repeated in the rulebook is that the goal of the game is to “follow your ambitions into danger, and maybe back out again.” This is precisely what happened. Griksakthis emerged from the dangers of investigating the book, but not without consequence. Not unscathed.
cymen and I admitted to being disappointed that he didn’t get to decipher the section, but Apreche assured us that it was in fact a very productive session! He had made two out of the three insights required to make a breakthrough, and those insights will carry over to the next session. Griksakthis is very close to translating the section. He’ll just have to try again somehow, with the help of two other volunteers.
The one part of this game that was really challenging for me were interactions with Esmerelda. I don’t think cymen or I either ever felt all the way comfortable fully inhabiting the character and actually role playing her. I’m still not sure how two people might collaboratively, with full consenus, role play a single character. Consequently, almost all of her actions were kind of jointly narrated. She never developed a real voice of her own.
This game was super fun to play as a volunteer, and I bet it would be really fun and rewarding to play as a player. The paid version, again, includes four different adventures. Each of which, presumably, could be played with any / all of the four different included grimoires, making it highly adaptable and modular and replayable.
I’m a fan and would play again.