I forget exactly how I found The Wizards & The Wastes by John Batts. (Available on the Nerves website). I do know, the hook that sold me was the spellcasting mechanic. I’m always on the look for unique mechanics that lead to interesting stories, and TWTW has a great one.
The Wizards and the Wastes is a game of arcane bargaining. Nominated "Most Innovative" for its unique spellcasting system, wherein you create spells from your personal spell source; a painting, a book, a collection of poems, a graphic novel, or an album. You circle passages, lyrics, words, images, panels, and turn them into spells. Then you bargain for those spells using the various currencies the game chokeholds you with. Trading years of your life, insight, toxicity, and corruption to cast spells as you see fit.
The idea of grabbing a painting, comic book, or album and using it as my spell book really jumped out at me, so I ordered a physical copy and am set to review that. Right off the bat, there is a feel to this one that sets it apart. It’s a real book. We can split hairs over what a real book is, but TWTW meets it by any definition. Which goes really far with the themes of the game, wherein long-lost words retain spellcasting power. TWTW is a hardback book and would look right at home alongside any of your other classy books. It even has a slipcover.
A big aspect of play, bargaining, which I love. Our family Catan games are legendary and cutthroat, to the point that people leave if we start hinting of breaking them out. Wood for sheep? Whose got clay, etc. Lets not even get into something where that’s actually supposed to be the point, like Sherriff of Nottingham. In TWTW, none of the spells are well defined, and frankly neither are the mechanics. But that’s the point. You’re going to barter through rules disputes and give and take on how it plays out. It might even change time to time, because someone revisits an old debate. For spells, you draw inspiration from your chosen media, determine a cost, and then bargain with the table on how much the cost should really be to see if its cast.
Game mastering of TWTW was a surprise for me. There isn’t one. Instead, the players bargain and decide on some threats, that they would then solve by bargaining your spells into resolutions. If you’re low on ideas though, there are plenty of charts with random quests you can roll on to come up with something. Since there’s no tactical positioning or anything, there’s no real need for a DM to act as final arbiter. Its a neat twist, to a game, and I think it would make for a really fun diversion for a group that’s played traditional TTRPGs for a stretch and is looking to mix things up. After playing a few sessions, I imagine I’d be looking for ways to replicate it in other game as well.
The Wizard & The Wastes has a cool, kind of vague setting that reminds me of Wizards, but I don’t think folks are buying this for the world. The worldbuilding is purposefully vague and relies on the group to build it. People should buy The Wizards and The Wastes, because it’s a fun time at the table. It leans into the vagueness and asks your players to define it as they go, which, ironically, in practice leads to some really immersive worldbuilding. A player wonders about the world beyond, and another player can fill in, and then more add to it, and you’ve got a great story. There is no real ability for that one guy to break out some old graphic novel and point out that it was actually covered and derail your cool, inventive story with a debate on if you should stick to published lore. The Wizards & The Wastes is a game about detailing a world, and its rules do a great job of getting out of the way and letting you do that.