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An Interview with the creator of “Urban Mages”

An Interview with the creator of "Urban Mages"

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) creation?

I was a shy, socially awkward kid in school.  But when I enrolled at Dundee University I decided I’d give their role play society a shot. And immediately I knew I’d found my people.  I’ve been running games there ever since, slowly becoming one of the society’s veterans.  Which has been a great way to test new games with a wide variety of players.

What inspired you to create your own TTRPG? Were there any specific games or experiences that influenced your design?

A friend of mine ran a few campaigns in a rules-lite homebrew system. And my response was “YOU CAN DO THAT!?” I got a group together that was willing to let me experiment.  And I must’ve done a half-decent job, because those players kept coming back for more.  Eventually I got better with practice, and the rest is history.

How would you describe the unique gameplay mechanics or systems in your TTRPG?

In Urban Mages the big selling point is the magic system.  All your magic revolves around a single theme (aka your character’s Purview) and that theme can be anything you want.

Your character then learns spells, which work differently depending on what their Purview is. For example the Teleportation spell lets you teleport between things associated with your Purview. So a Mirror Mage could teleport from one mirror to another, or a Christmas Mage could teleport between chimneys and pine trees.

With 17 spells to choose from – including the ability to blast, transform, create magical items, and control people’s minds, any Purview imaginable can become a force to be reckoned with. Even Lint, Blandness and Sporks (and I should know, because all three of those were used by PCs in games I’ve run).

Can you give us a brief overview of the setting or world in which your game takes place?

The game takes place on modern day earth, except magic and monsters happen to exist. It’s just that most people are incapable of perceiving the supernatural. They’re compelled to either ignore it, rationalise it, or forget about the encounter entirely. As Mages, the PCs are some of the rare exceptions who see the world for what it really is, weirdness and all

What role do you believe storytelling plays in TTRPGs, and how does your game facilitate or enhance that aspect?

Collaborative storytelling is the number one thing I find most satisfying about GMing. I know there’s plenty of great GMs who find more joy in different aspects of the hobby. But personally, I find it most useful to think of TTRPGs as story-engines first and foremost.

Now is that an excuse to get lazy with game design?  Absolutely not.  The system provides a shared framework for conflict resolution.  It grounds the world in a genre-appropriate sense of reality.  It imbues different characters with specific strengths and weaknesses.  If the game isn’t challenging when it needs to be?  You lose out on powerful emotions such as fear, anticipation, and triumph.  If one build is so unbalanced that it’s clearly, objectively the best?  Players will flock to it, and PCs will become more homogenised.

I wanted the game to be robust enough that the protagonists could do a ton of cool stuff and have that be mechanically supported.  But not so complicated that people keep having to stop to look things up.  Because I feel that results in poor pacing, and disrupts the flow of the story.

Are there any interesting or unusual character classes or races in your game that you would like to highlight?

The game has a flexible system for creating non-human characters. I’ve seen people play orcs, demons, vampires, mothmen, a talking dog, a talking car, and a loveable ball of slime.

How do you balance the need for player agency and the overall structure of the game in your design?

In this game I tried to strike a balance where the PCs are powerful, but their actions have consequences.  You can cast your spells as many times as you want, but eventually this will give the GM Misfortune Points they can use to mess with the party.  You can summon all manner of creatures, but the stronger they are the harder they’ll be to control.  And even a starting PC can potentially warp reality, own their own pocket dimension, and inflict terrible curses on their enemies.  But combat is always dangerous, and may potentially leave you with permanent physical and mental scars.  Power gives them agency, but consequences keep things grounded.

What is your favourite aspect of the TTRPG creation process, and why?

It’s the feeling of unlocking a clever solution.  So much of the process boils down to “How do I make this cool thing work?”  Whether it’s an idea I don’t know how to implement.  A mechanic that needs to be tweaked.  Or a player requesting something, that I know in my heart of hearts ought to be in the game.  Finally figuring out how to make it work is a delightful moment of catharsis.

Are there any unexpected challenges or obstacles you encountered while developing your TTRPG, and how did you overcome them?

I was lucky enough to have my game picked up by a small indie publisher called Nanuk Ambitions. They were great folk, I had a wonderful time working with them.  But the company was forced to shut down just before Urban Mages could be published.

However by then I had a complete and edited manuscript, a front cover I could use, and a game that I knew was good.  So I decided “What the hell?” And published the darn thing myself.  Launching my own Kickstarter campaign so I could pay for illustrations.

How do you approach the inclusion of diversity and representation in your game, both in terms of characters and players?

An important part of the game’s lore is that most Mages randomly acquire their power one day, and nobody’s been able to figure out why. As such, anyone can be a Mage. Regardless of age, race, gender, lifestyle or creed. I wanted to see that diversity reflected in the game’s art.  And honestly?  I think our team did a bang-up job.

Do you have any memorable anecdotes or stories from playtesting sessions or player feedback that you’d like to share?

One time I had a player joke about making a Narcissism Mage.

Then he joked about what a Narcissism Mage could do.

Then he realised that they could summon super-powered copies of themselves, and drain their enemies’ will to fight by convincing them of their awesomeness.  At which point he knew he simply had to play this character.  And I’d say it’s moments of epiphany like that which define the Urban Mages experience.

(By the way, the PC’s name was Dick. He had big “Papyrus from Undertale” energy. And he ended up being a total gosh-darn sweetheart).

What advice would you give to aspiring TTRPG creators who are just starting out?

When designing the mechanics for your game, every decision you could possibly make is going to have tradeoffs.

Take hit points for example.  We all know that’s not a realistic way to simulate damage, and for some that’s an immersion-breaker.  It’s why a number of games give you wound penalties as you take more damage.  However, not everyone enjoys that kind of death-spiral, where getting hurt makes you more likely to get hurt again.  This is why D&D sticks with plain old regular hit points.  But also, I’d argue, it’s why wound penalties can make a lot of sense in something more gritty and survival-focused.

So the trick isn’t to create a game that doesn’t have any flaws (an exercise in futility).  It’s creating a game where all your mechanics work together to deliver a certain experience.  If you already know what that experience is, I’d say you’re definitely on the right track.

How do you envision the future of TTRPGs? Are there any emerging trends or technological advancements that you believe will impact the industry?

I think there’ll be an attempt to make “AI” GMs a thing. And while I can certainly imagine there’ll be a place for them in a hobby, I don’t think it’s ever going to make human GMs obsolete. After all, when I’ve done my best work as a GM, the stuff I’m most proud of, it’s always been because I made an effort to understand the PCs.

Whereas AI technology, at least as it currently exists, can’t truly understand anything.  Nor reflect, nor think critically, or even make conscious decisions.  All it can do it recycle data into something that’s hopefully broadly acceptable.  Or at least broadly acceptable most of the time.  To my understanding it’s like that old analogy of infinite monkeys mashing infinite typewriters until they reproduce Hamlet.

I’m sure this technology will prove to be better than nothing, and that some groups will really benefit from this.  In which case, I’m happy for them.  But I don’t think it’s ever going to come close to reproducing that personal touch.

If you could play your TTRPG with any group of people, living or dead, fictional or real, who would you choose and why?

If I got to pick anyone living or dead it would have to be Terry Pratchett. He was my favourite author growing up, I would’ve loved to have met him. And something tells me he would’ve been a phenomenal role-player.

What are some of your favourite TTRPGs created by other designers, and how have they influenced your own work?

Unknown Armies was a big influence with its kooky and contemporary take on magic.  I just wanted to push it even further by letting people take whatever kind of magic they wanted.  Exalted gave me the courage to let PCs start out powerful, and only get more nutty from there.  Although I do find its complexity can be daunting, and wanted to create something more approachable.

I’ve also been playing Fate regularly for years now.  It absolutely inspired how Advantages work in my system.  But whenever I make a character in Fate, I find there’s a handful of skills where you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t take them (like Athletics or Physique). That’s why Urban Mages has Basic Skills, which every PC gets for free (like Constitution and Notice) and Advanced Skills that say more about a character’s lived experience (such as Computing, Performance, and Stealth).

Can you share any interesting Easter eggs or hidden references that players might discover in your game?

In chapter 2 I give a list of pitches for possible campaigns. And every single one of those is a campaign that I, or one of my friends, have run using this system.  The list is:

“You’re a close-knit group of friends that have known each other since high school. 

You’re trying to prevent a cult from summoning a world-ending horror. 

You’re Mages for Hire, doing mercenary work for whoever can afford you. 

You’re all students and/or faculty at a boarding school for Mages. 

You’re stranded together in another Realm and must find a way to escape. 

You’re a gang of misfits trying to thwart the Seven Lords of Hell. 

You’re a travelling circus that does real magic, but passes it off as stage tricks.”

I know only a few people on the planet are ever going to get it, but it still makes me smile.

What do you think is the most underrated aspect of TTRPGs, and why do you believe it deserves more attention?

I’d say it’s giving room for a human being to reimagine the mechanics on the fly.  In a video game, if you want your fireball to look different I hope there’s a mod for that, or that you know how to program.  Because otherwise you are straight out of luck.  But in a TTRPG if you want your fireball to be pink and heart-shaped, or to whistle and explode like a firework, or to smell like funeral incense and leave ashes shaped like your holy symbol – all you have to do is declare it to be so.

It’s that kind of innate flexibility that allows Urban Mages to be what it is.  And that’s why I don’t think it would benefit from a video game adaptation.  If for no other reason that you’d have to limit what Purviews the player could take, and how their spells would even function.  And at that point, you’re already missing out on a huge chunk of the fun.

That’s why I consider this interpretive aspect, the ability for people to sit around a table and go “Sure why not?” To be one of the unique strengths of this medium.

If your TTRPG were to be adapted into another medium, such as a video game, TV series, or movie, what would be your dream adaptation and why?

An animated series for sure.  Campaigns are closer to TV shows than movies in my experience.  And animation lets you go wild with special effects in a way that live-action TV can struggle with.  I’d say Critical Role made the right call going that route with their own adaptation.

If you had to design a TTRPG based on an unusual theme, like a game about sentient vegetables or underwater cowboys, what would you choose and how would it work?

Here’s my vision.  Think Yu-Gi-Oh, but instead of card games it would be dodgeball that’s somehow the most important thing on earth.  Dodgeball would be a matter of life and death, with the losing team being banished to The Shadow Zone.  There’d be magic, there’d be sci-fi technology, all used to make dodgeball more exciting.  There’d be ancient civilisations that mastered the forbidden art of dodgeball, in order to seal away dark and terrible dodgeball Gods.  That one dodgeball game from Hunter x Hunter?  Think that, but as an entire campaign.

And I would call it…  Ball Masters!

If you could have any superpower, what would it be and how would you incorporate it into a TTRPG session?

Teleportation, and I’d totally use it to get snacks.  “Y’all need anything?”  BAMF BAMF!  Forgotten your character sheet?  BAMF BAMF!  Running late to the game?  BAMF BAMF!  Friend had to move and now they’re forced to drop out of the campaign?  I don’t know bud that sounds like a highly BAMFable problem to me.

Where can people find and purchase your TTRPG? Are there any online platforms or stores where they can access it?

You can find Urban Mages now at DriveThruRPG: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/415646/Urban-Mages

Have you published any supplemental materials or expansions for your TTRPG? If so, where can players find them?

I’m currently working on the first expansion, Urban Mages: Addendum Arcanum.  It’ll feature more powers, more variant rules, a pre-written adventure, and a way to customise your spells even further.

Are there any upcoming projects or future plans that you’d like to share with your fans and the TTRPG community?

I’m also working on a brand new game called Reach The Heavens. It’s a mythic fantasy RPG where the PCs are slowly turning into Gods. But that powers-that-be will want them dead before they can fully ascend.

Playtesting has been going great, so be sure to keep an eye out for that.

How can people connect with you and stay updated on your work? Do you have a website, social media accounts, or a mailing list that they can follow?

I thought about getting a Twitter account but uhhh… Let’s just say that now doesn’t seem like the best time to sign up. I do however have a website at https://maxjowettgames.weebly.com/ and you can also find me on Facebook.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to add or share with our readers about your TTRPG or your journey as a game creator?

If you’re a publisher please hire me.  I’m willing to sell out 😉

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