Serialised horror podcast The Magnus Archives is the latest in an increasing list of multimedia properties being converted into tabletop RPGs. After raking in $1.3 million in Backerkit crowdfunding at time of writing, the creators of the award winning fictional drama and publisher Monte Cook games released a quickstart primer that does an unfortunately poor job of portraying either the world or the rules as worth players’ time.
The Magnus Archives first aired in 2016, introducing listeners to a tiny institute that dedicates its time to documenting and researching eerie and unnatural phenomena. Its host, head archivist Jonathan Sims, records these accounts as audio logs that constitute a growing body of knowledge housed in the London-based Magnus Institute. Along the way, Sims and a cast of assistants encounter and overcome supernatural horrors often manifesting from the influence of the poorly understood Entities - embodiments of humanity’s primordial fears.
Production company Rusty Quill teamed with Monte Cook Games to adapt The Magnus Archives’ rich and intertwined cosmology into a tabletop setting where players can tell their own stories. The Magnus Archives Roleplaying Game, housed in a single core volume, will contain all of the rules that a group needs to either construct their own institute and team of intrepid (and probably doomed) archivists or explore the already heady universe portrayed through 200 podcast episodes.
Monte Cook’s Cypher System is the same mechanical bones that prop up Numenera, The Strange and horror podcast-to-RPG peer Old Gods of Appalachia. It primarily uses a 20-sided die and experience points that can be used as resources during sessions to tell stories that strike a balance between dramatic narratives and challenging obstacles.
We have to assume that not much of the Cypher System has changed for The Magnus Archives, as the only play document currently available is the free quickstart primer available as a digital download on the Backerkit campaign page. Its 13 pages do a serviceable job explaining the basics of the system and a brief introduction of The Magnus Archives’ premise. When it comes to marrying those two pieces together and synthesising a compelling reason why players should bring this particular book to their roleplay table, the quickstart falls flat.
A small text box on “Horror Mode”, which allows Game Masters to steadily increase the dice roll threshold wherein they are allowed to toss the story equivalent to a live grenade into the room over the course of a tense, nail-biting scene, is one of the few interesting bits of design that sets The Magnus Archives apart from, say, the Alien RPG, Trophy Dark, Delta Green or Call of Cthulhu.
Another box entitled “Core of Gameplay” instructs prospective players that a longer campaign will most likely take the shape of investigations into the unknown and the horrific, leaving them scarred, dead or at least cursed with the mark of an Entity. These marks will grant power in the short term but almost always return like a karmic hangover at the worst possible moment.
Describing the game in this way - followup interviews and searches that eventually reveal a world of hidden terrors lurking at the edges of our perceptions, gradually sharpening skills that will help players survive their brief brushes with the Entities - sells The Magnus Archives better than the rest of the words in the document or on the Backerkit campaign page. It seems as though Rusty Quill and Monte Cook are investing their energy in teaching established fans of the podcast how to play this one singular RPG, rather than presenting a unique and interesting roleplay scenario to the established tabletop scene.
It remains to be seen how The Magnus Archives RPG shakes out once its Backerkit campaign finishes on September 23rd. Monte Cook currently expects early access to drop in March 2024, followed by the official release of the physical rulebook in “late 2024”.