Eldritch Realms Alpha Playtest is Underway

Note 2018-06-05: Eldritch Realms has been renamed to Magonomia

The Alpha playtest for Eldritch Realms began in late February. We have five Alpha groups playing the game on a regular schedule, with members of the development team participating or observing.

What's an Alpha playtest? I've borrowed the terminology from software development, which is my day job. Alpha comes before Beta. In a Beta test of software, the product is almost finished and the developers give it to users to check for bugs. Our first Beta round of testing is coming this year. In Alpha testing, the product is less mature and may not even be complete. The point of Alpha testing is to make sure development is on the right track: that the product is basically working and users are happy with the approach.

The Alpha playtest is still in progress. It will run through the end of April. The major design decisions -- that we'll use the Fate Core System game engine and that magic will be based on authentic Renaissance beliefs -- are playing well. Alpha players are accepting them. That said, there will also be a few substantial course corrections: I've discovered that the format for writing spell descriptions like in my post about Sending the Library Angel is vague on some important points of playability, and I'm becoming convinced the initial version of the magical Sciences as posted last July is not quite right. These are exactly the sorts of findings the Alpha playtest is meant to uncover. The playtest is invaluable in helping to shape our rules as we begin the revision process.

Development is proceeding on schedule. I expected we would be making some course corrections as a result of the Alpha playtest and the development team is well prepared to take those in stride. Alpha playtesting will continue through the end of April, then we'll take three months for revisions and produce a complete, end-to-end first draft in time for Beta testing at Gen Con 2018 in August. I hope to see you there!

Sample Eldritch Realms spell: Sending the Library Angel

Note 2018-06-05: Eldritch Realms has been renamed to Magonomia This is a spell I recently wrote for Eldritch Realms. It's a prime example of what we mean when we say the magic system is based on period folklore. Let's jump into the spell and then I'll explain some of the design decisions behind it.

Sending the Library Angel

Summary: A spirit delivers a short passage from a book to a person you designate.

Science & Degree: Theurgy, third Degree

Prerequisites: The message must be a short passage of pre-existing writing, as from a book or pamphlet. At least seven copies of the text must exist in the world, and the wizard must have one of them.

Aspects: Spirit Magic

Fate Point cost: Always

Preparation: Obtain an Occult Token for the recipient of the message.

Casting: No roll is required to cast the spell, but Scholarship: Overcome may be required to find an appropriate passage from a book.

Effect: When the wizard discovers this spell, she binds an airy spirit called a library angel into a seal, bottle, or other container. She can then command the spirit to deliver a message by exactly reciting a short passage of written text, up to about 25 words, to a person or location within sight, or to whom she has an Occult Token. The range of the spell is unlimited.

Extras: There is a certain type of airy spirit that is intellectual and curious about books. They can often can be found in libraries, flipping through the pages of open books as they read the knowledge within.

All library angels have the power to read and speak any language, but they cannot translate from one language to another. From time to time, they assist mortals if they want to. When a library angel overhears researchers discussing what they are looking for, it can help by nudging the right book so it sticks out a bit on the shelf. It can even go so far as to push a book off the shelf and make it fall open at the exact passage that is most useful.

Each of them has Superb (+5) mastery of one branch very narrow and obscure branch of knowledge, such as “Anglo-Saxon Nobles of Lincolnshire” or “Habits of Yorkshire Werewolves.” You or your fellow players can use a Fate Point to create a story detail to have the angel just happen to have an expertise that overlaps with whatever you need to know.

Termination: After the message is delivered, the spirit returns to the wizard but does not bring a reply or report on success or failure.

Roleplaying Notes: You, the player, don't have to find an exact text you want your character to send! Just summarize what the message should say, and perhaps describe the source. The GM might call for a Scholarship: Overcome roll to have your character know of a passage that fits the occasion. If you succeed at a cost, the recipient may misinterpret what your wizard meant by that quotation!

If you do want to use a quote from a period source, coming up with the perfect line from Shakespeare or Marlowe can add a lot of atmosphere to the scene, and is often well worth a Fate Point award. Please be sure not distract from the game by searching for one while you should be paying attention to the story. Also, don’t worry too much about the publication date: it’s more important to come up with a quotation that is dramatic or funny than to fret over whether it had been published yet.

Characters in Eldritch Britain are much inclined to use passages from holy books (the Bible, Talmud, or Quran) because, if the recipient is a co-religionist of the caster, they’ll know the quote’s context —probably. Other widely-read religious books include the English Book of Common Prayer and works by Saint Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. Scholarly characters might prefer Plato, Homer, or Ovid. The library angel isn't picky about what text the message comes from: a bawdy line from The Canterbury Tales or a headline from a pamphlet (the tabloid newspapers of the day) will serve just as well.

Commentary on the Spell

This is one of the more authentic-seeming spells we've written so far, which is why I've chosen to showcase it.


Summary: A spirit delivers a short passage from a book to a person you designate.

Spell descriptions can be long and detailed so they each have a one-line summary that will fit on spell list or maybe a card. When it appears separately from the full text, this would be accompanied by a page number where the full spell description begins.

An important point about this spell is that a spirit is actually sending the message on the caster's behalf. Magic that works against spirits, like a ward to keep it from entering a house, can prevent the spirit completing its task.

Science & Degree

Magic is divided into categories called Sciences. Think of the Sciences as independent schools of thought about magic. This spell is from the Science of Theurgy, which is concerned with conjuring spirits who are willing to serve.

We've rated this spell as third Degree. Degrees go from first (the weakest) to sixth (the strongest). Sending a message over a distance can be quite powerful under the right circumstances. The primary factor in a spell's Degree is how much influence it can have on the course of events in the game. Being able to call for help, report back to headquarters from hundreds of miles away, or perfectly coordinate when one character creates a diversion and another breaks into the enemy headquarters are quite powerful effects! If this spell were as flexible and effective as a walkie-talkie, it would be sixth Degree. Communication is really, really important! The fact that the communication is one-way, the messages must be short, and the content of the message is very tightly constrained bring the Degree back down into the middle of the range. It's still a very useful spell that enables characters to do things they couldn't otherwise consider, but it doesn't enable them to steer the fate of a nation.


The prerequisites of a spell are important conditions the wizard must meet in order to use the spell. Sometimes they're things the wizard must do before she can learn to cast the spell at all, and sometimes they're things that must be done before she can cast the spell at a particular time and place. This is the latter sort of prerequisite, a prerequisite for using the spell.

Most spells don't have prerequisites. For those that do, they're clearly stated as a line item early in the spell's description so players can easily see the special restrictions that apply to the spell.

In this case, the prerequisites are really just a colorful way of setting some tight constraints on a communication spell to lower its Degree. It makes sense (to us) that a library angel is best a delivering a message that is taken from a book. I considered a couple of alternatives. At first, I thought the angel could deliver any short message in written form, like a raven on Game of Thrones. We already have a spell that does that (not that we've shared it with anyone yet): The Faithful Messenger, which is fifth Degree.  The design goal for this spell is to make it less flexible and more accessible than The Faithful Messenger.  My next thought was to have the caster express the message's intent, and then the angel delivers the message by finding the line in the library that best matches the caster's message, and pointing out that line to the recipient. That's cool, but impractical: it would only work to deliver messages to librarians.  After a few minutes' thought, I settled on having the angel only able to deliver quotes from books and plays. I think you can do quite well, and have fun, passing messages around by trading Shakespeare quotes.


Aspects are a major feature of the Fate Core system, explained in the System Reference Document. This spell has the Spirit Magic Aspect, meaning it works by the wizard conjuring a spirit and having the spirit do something magical in the world. Spirit Magic spells can be blocked by magical wards, and the spirits themselves usually can be seen (most spirits in Renaissance folklore have material bodies).

Fate Point Cost

Spells that have a big impact on the story are meant to be used infrequently. They cost a Fate Point to cast. This is one of them. It would violate the Renaissance feel of the setting for characters to be able to send messages whenever they want, as often as they want. Making the spell cost a Fate Point influences players to use the spell very sparingly and only when it really matters.


Preparation is what your character has to do in the game world to cast the spell. Preparation is usually routine and occasionally challenging, depending on the circumstances of the story. It's different from prerequisites in that it's not a special and unusual constraint that might affect whether you as a player would want to choose the spell at all.

In this case, the wizard needs an Occult Token, a mystical stand-in for another person so they can tell the library angel whom to deliver the message to. The canonical occult token is a hair from a person's head. Think of it as like a police dog-handler giving a bloodhound a piece of clothing to smell so the hound can distinguish the owner's scent. Spirits don't have senses and reason that are similar to mortals. They need careful and magically-oriented instructions to be able to carry out a task properly. That's what casting a spell is.


Most spells require some kind of skill roll to cast. This one doesn't because it costs a Fate Point instead. We don't think it would be fair to ask a player to spend a Fate Point and then risk failing a roll to cast the spell.


The "Effect" section describes what the spell does in direct terms, referring to rules and numbers when necessary. This one has a short "Effect" section.


Extras are a rather complicated concept in Fate Core that's briefly explained in the SRD. In this case, the spirit that the spell conjures, a library angel, has some meaningful capabilities besides its ability to perform the spell itself. Whatever rules and statistics are needed for special cases like that are listed under "extras."


All good things must come to an end, and so must spells in Eldritch Realms. The "Termination" section of a spell description states how long the spell lasts and whether anything can end it prematurely. In this case, the spell doesn't last longer than the round-trip time for the angel to deliver its message and return. Spirits can move very fast: quite a bit faster than the speed of sound, but it still takes them a couple of minutes to travel the length of England.

Roleplaying Notes

The "Roleplaying Notes" section of a spell helps clarify whatever you need to know to make the spell as fun and easy for your character to use as possible. In this case, the key point is that your character is delivering a message in the form of a quotation from a book, play, or pamphlet. It would be burdensome and anti-fun if you, the player, were required to find the exact quote you want your character to deliver. I call that sort of thing "mandatory creativity" and I don't think anyone enjoys it.

With this spell, I realize I'm going out on a bit of a limb: someone reading it could easily jump to the wrong conclusion about what the player's experience should be when their character casts it. The roleplaying notes explain how to avoid the potential pitfalls while preserving the opportunity and the invitation to personalize your character's magic with a bit of a literary flourish, if you like that sort of thing.

What I like about this spell is that it takes the relatively straightforward task of sending the equivalent of a modern text message -- very useful in solving challenges that arise in the story -- and wraps it in authentic occult lore (library angels aren't something we made up, though I can't guarantee they are strictly in-period) until it feels completely esoteric. That is what the best Eldritch Realms spells will do.





Eldritch Realms featured on Arcane Connection Podcast

Note 2018-06-05: Eldritch Realms has been renamed to Magonomia

Eldritch Realms is featured on this week's Arcane Connection podcast, which is a podcast primarily about the great fantasy RPG Ars Magica. Hosts (and  Eldritch Realms co-authors) CJ Romer and Tom Nowell interview me for about half an hour about the game: what it's like, how we got here, and where it's headed. Give a listen!

Feedback is welcome; if you have any questions or comments you can post them on this blog or use the Contact form.

2017 Year-End Update on Eldritch Realms

Note 2018-06-05: Eldritch Realms has been renamed to Magonomia

Here we are at the end of another year. It's time for me to start communicating more often and in more detail about Eldritch Realms. We have a long way yet to go before we schedule the Kickstarter campaign -- I can't yet predict when that will be -- but make no mistake, we have made a lot of progress this year. Read on for details.

[Edit - removed an obsolete paragraph about the old name of the game]

State of the Manuscript

We're still working on the manuscript. We have four authors, including myself, typing away like an army of woodpeckers right now.  Our immediate goal is to get the minimal elements of a playable game assembled by the end of January so we can begin the first round of external playtesting.

The basic rules are based on the Fate Core System, as I've previously announced. The more I play the Fate-based Eldritch Realms rules, the more I like the basic Fate game engine. A lot of games take some steps to encouraging roleplaying (instead of just killing monsters and grabbing their stuff): the Fate Core System goes farther than any game I've seen lately. Like chess, it's relatively simple to learn and has a lot of depth (OK, maybe not as much depth as chess, but more than checkers!). I did find, after a few months of playing the Eldritch Realms draft, that the Fate Core System book can be hard to learn from. I think that's because the Fate Core System book is really a framework for making your own roleplaying game, and assumes a corresponding level of experience on the part of the reader. I've gone to some effort to re-organize the rules and explain them in as straightforward a manner as possible.

Character creation is a part of the rules that we're rewriting for our purposes. Eldritch Realms is a game where everyone plays a wizard. How your character got her powers is going to be a big deal.

Magic is going to be unlike other Fate-based games I've seen. Eldritch Realms has a fully-developed magic system. If you're familiar with Fate, the magic system makes full use of the "Fate fractal." Spells become a thing in the game (called "Extras" in Fate lingo) and they can have Aspects, Skills, and other mechanical attributes. Wizards will specialize in one of the "sciences" of magic, such as astrology, alchemy, or what we're now calling "sorcery" (formerly, "conjuration"). Each science has a list of spells you can pick from. There is some overlap between the sciences but each one has individual strengths and weaknesses. Magic is designed so that a whole party of three, four, or five wizards can work together and complement one another's abilities.

Some of the sciences have changed since I posted about them in July. I'll have more to say about the changes once we've met the writing deadlines that are currently bearing down on us like the Spanish Armada.

Spells are well along in development. We've got about 120 different spells written so far. That's a decent complement of spells for three of the five sciences but it still needs some broadening. The kinds of things wizards can do include turning invisible (that's a common spell in Renaissance grimoires), flying through the air, forecasting future events, protecting themselves from weapons, and scrying on distant places through a crystal ball. A beginning wizard will know about 10 different spells, rated from weak first-Degree spells up to the fourth Degree, which has powers like flight or shapechanging. There are more-powerful spells of fifth and sixth Degrees, which wizards can attain by gaining experience.

Enchanted spirits, from ghosts to fairies to invisible "daemons," are central to the folklore of the period. Our chapter on spirits hews closely to Renaissance-era writings. That folklore can be surprising at times. For example, ghosts have physical bodies: you can touch them. We found that the more closely we tried to stick to historical sources, the more interesting spirits became. In hindsight, that shouldn't be surprising: people have been telling ghost stories and fairy tales for a very long time. The Spirits chapter was written by veteran game designer and former professional ghost hunter Christian Jensen Romer, one of the three other team members whom I'll introduce properly in a future post. Suffice to say, we've put as much energy and creativity into interpreting those historical sources for use in a game as we have into making spells. I think the Spirits chapter is going to be really engaging and unlike other games that I know of!

Historical information is in development but not as far along as the magic and the mechanics. We're aiming to give players enough material to spark their imaginations and to develop a sense of place, but we're not trying to condense a shelf full of history books into a chapter or two of Eldritch Realms. I've been saying since 2016 that "all the history you need to know, you learned (or will learn) in high school." We assume everyone knows who Queen Elizabeth I is, or knows how to use Wikipedia. The value we can bring by using history lies in helping players make stories about wizards and magic where you can use historical window dressing. For example, theater was wildly popular, but also vaguely disreputable. Lots of people went to the theater to have clandestine meetings, and didn't always pay much attention to the performances. We're continuing to do historical research and assemble relevant notes -- among the four of us, we've read a couple of dozen books already -- and will be expanding the historical aspects of the setting as development continues through 2018.

Internal (Development) Playtest

We've been playing Eldritch Realms with members of the development team and a couple of close friends, on and off since we started the project in 2016 and very steadily since September 2017. The playtest games are a lot of fun. I'm certain the final product is going to appeal to a lot of people. The playtest games have also revealed a few design decisions that seemed like a good idea, but didn't play well. We've been going through the same process a new group of Eldritch Realms players would experience, learning (in our case, inventing) the rules as we go. We've discovered quite a few sticking points: things in the Fate system or in our magic system that were confusing the first time. Having experienced the learning curve of our own game, we're revising as we go to make learning as painless as possible, without "dumbing down" the rules.

We realize that gamers are smart people who, like us, are willing to learn -- and we also realize there are a lot more fun things to do that struggle with a roleplaying game that's poorly explained or insufficiently tested.

I'm actually a player, not the GM, in our internal playtest game. I'm playing an alchemist named Jonas who is a law student and a bit of a rake. I'll have more to say about Jonas's adventures as well, as I start putting this blog to more frequent use.

Internal playtesting will continue throughout development, until I have to pry the manuscript out of the authors' clenched fingers and send it to the printer.

This is going to be a good game, if I do say so myself.

Private (Alpha) Playtest

Our next big project milestone is coming up sooner than we're totally comfortable with: initial, invitation-only playtesting with some hand-picked groups of friends. This will be what software engineers call an Alpha test. These Alpha playtests will be starting in February and continuing for a few months. We will also be soliciting review feedback from some knowledgeable friends who may not be able to commit to regular play, but can help us strengthen and clarify the manuscript.

I can't really predict what will happen after the Alpha test starts. We are willing to make major changes to the manuscript based on Alpha feedback, but I'm not certain we will have to. I'm not going to be very transparent about Alpha playtesting because if we find out certain rules, spells, characters, etc. aren't working, we'll change them before the public ever sees them. I'm not planning to reveal too much about how the sausage gets made.

I do plan to proudly tell you about the proverbial "sausage" once it's fit for the table.

Gen Con 2018

Registration for Gen Con 2018 begins January 14, 2018. The actual convention is August 2-5.

Shewstone Publishing missed Gen Con in 2017 because I was in the middle of a transition into a new day job. We will be back with a roar in 2018: I'm planning to present a seminar on using elements of history in your games or fantasy fiction, and we will be playtesting Eldritch Realms with complete strangers. Or, as I prefer to say, with friends we haven't met yet.

I'll be working feverishly to get ready for that. August 2 might seem a long way away to you, but to me, there's a lot of work to do between now and then.

Beyond August

I think you can see, we're now working steadily and productively. If Eldritch Realms were a house under construction, we'd be at the stage where the frame is finished, the roof and exterior walls are on, and we are laying in the plumbing and the wiring before putting up the drywall. Much like building a house, a good deal of the early work was time-consuming but not visible.

We're aware there are a few dozen friends and followers who are eager to see this game completed and get it in their hands. Believe me, no one is more eager to see this project completed than I am!  That said, the authors and I are all working on this part-time. I've written parts game books before but this is my first time planning and managing the whole project -- there is a lot more to making a game than just writing it!  The only thing more important than getting this done soon is getting it done right.

What I'm saying is, I want to create realistic expectations. From where we stand now, there is likely to be one, maybe two rounds of Beta testing following the Alpha round. Each round of testing takes about three months. If things go extremely well, we may launch the Kickstarter toward the end of 2018. More likely, it will happen in 2019, and I can't even promise it will be in the first half.

For those of you who have been following us from the early days, Beta rounds of playtesting will be open to the public. You'll have an opportunity to see the manuscript and to help it take shape, if you have some time to donate.

Whether your schedule permits you to playtest, or you have to wait to see Eldritch Realms after the Kickstarter is finished and the books have all been shipped, if you enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed the playtest game, our efforts will have been well spent.

Thank you for reading and for following Eldritch Realms. And happy New Year!