Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist

ROSE: The day we went through that door and claimed our reward, we passed a threshold between continua marked by differing degrees of relevance, truth, and essentiality.
ROSE: Those are the three pillars of canon.

The Homestuck Epilogues, Prologue 2

For a long time, I’ve been part of an indie tabletop roleplaying game group with a couple of friends, and for a long time I’ve been meaning to write a bit here about one of the greatest games I’ve played, Jenna Moran’s Wisher, Theurgist, Fatalist & Weaver of Their Fates (also known by its apt initialism, WTF). It’s been released only as the somewhat rough-cut PDF at that link. (I’d love to have a nice hardcover edition, if that were ever produced.) Despite that, I think it’s one of the best RPG source-books I’ve ever read, minimalist, expressive, and IMO really, really funny.

Jenna Moran is known for a variety of indie RPG’s including Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine (Ghibli-esque laid-back urban fantasy), Nobilis (about gods of little things conscripted into a war to defend reality), Glitch (about deserters from the opposite side that same war living one day at a time). Jenna Moran’s RPGs are a lot of fun, but tend to pile up a lot of interesting narrative concepts and systems, making the minimalist approach of WTF really stand out.

In WTF, each character has a set of relevant “gifts”. A bulleted list of traits like this is not at all unusual in tabletop RPGs. What’s unusual here is that meta-level properties are explicitly called out in the rules of the game:

  • Gifts can be helpful, a mixed bag, or a perpetual hinderence (valence).
  • They can fit into the rules that resolve bits of the narrative always, situationally, or not at all (mechanical support).
  • They can be a key part of the setting, consistent with the setting, or even inconsistent with it (truth).

The three classes in the game specialize in one of three stats which interact with these three properties:

  • Wishers specialize in Harmony, which can alter gifts’ valence.
  • Theurgists specialize in Insight, which can alter gifts’ mechanical support.
  • Fatalists specialize in Knowledge, which can alter gifts’ truth, or create new gifts.

Each of these also has an associated, analogous rule for resolving meta-level things about the game:

  • Harmony can decide what something in the game means, what should be (“Everyone should now play WTF in such a fashion as to make believing [the winner’s] explanation both appropriate and valuable.”)
  • Insight lets you change the rules of the game and define what must happen.
  • Knowledge lets you define things about the setting and decide what’s true.

In addition to those three classes, one of the players can be the Weaver (analogous to the usual “game master” role). Or you can do without. There are also rules for interacting with the shadow of each of those attributes, indulging in wickedness, arguing in bad faith, or subjecting the setting to rewrite and retcon.

The sourcebook for WTF describes the characters’ quest to seek the Jewel of All Desiring and wish for a perfected world. It defines rules and setting which make that impossible, and the rules described above which could make that otherwise. Abstract concepts about how this game works in particular and also how TTRPGs work in general are explained with absurdist flowcharts. This is a gamebook with flowcharts describing “how you come to be playing this game”. You probably know if this is the sort of absurd self-referential high-concept that would appeal to you. In any case, while I hope my description of the core concept intrigues, it cannot in any way substitute for the thing itslef.

I really love this game and it fits into my usual topic for this blog (“things that have influenced my way of thinking”) in that it has had a huge influence in how I think not just about tabletop roleplaying games but games in general. If you like narrative-driven tabletop RPGs, I recommend this one. If you’re less familiar with that sort of thing, maybe start with the example of play on p. 86, it’s short and a pretty great example of Moran’s writing.