Report from Gen Con demo of Magonomia™

We just got back from Gen Con 2018. I know a lot of friends are keenly interested in how the demo game of Magonomia™ went, so here is a detailed report.

TL;DR it went great. The players engaged with the Elizabethan setting and had fun using their characters' spells to solve problems. I also got extremely valuable feedback about the design of the adventure and the flavor of the magic system.

The scenario I created for Gen Con is called "Queen Elizabeth's Astrologer is Missing!" and the full description is on the Gen Con web site. I ended up running this adventure twice, both with groups of players I didn't know. This was the first time I've run Magonomia for people who weren't involved in its development. The first session was with a colleague in New Hampshire and his gaming group, who graciously turned over their Sunday afternoon D&D game to me so I could test this scenario for Gen Con. The second session was the Thursday game at Gen Con itself. There was supposed to be a third session at Gen Con on Sunday, but the players who had signed up for it had to change their travel arrangements and had to cancel.

Both groups had a very positive view of the game. They both had a smattering of experience with the Fate™ Core System engine so it wasn't completely new. They both enjoyed how the Fate™ mechanics put story first and keep the action flowing. I resolved most of the characters' tasks without resorting to the dice, following the Fate™ Core System's advice that dice are to be used when either outcome is potentially interesting. Both groups opted to use magic rather than violence to overcome the first few sets of hostile encounters.

I printed out the entire current draft of the Grimoire chapter (about 70 pages) and brought it with me in a binder to Gen Con. For the New Hampshire group, I ran short of time and didn't print a hard copy, relying on the MS Word version instead. Every pregenerated character also had the name and a one-sentence description of each of their spells on their character sheet. Every wizard in Magonomia™ gets ten spells of the player's choice plus General Divination. The one-sentence descriptions were enough for the players to know how and when to use each spell. In New Hampshire, I had neglected to write down the limitations or requirements of the spells so I found myself saying "no" a few times. For example, in Magonomia™ you generally need a character to be present, or to have their horoscope, to be able to cast divination spells to gain information about them. The first time around, nothing I had given the players said that, and it diminished what I call "immersion" -- the sense of being engaged with the story, not the boring real world -- to explain that. I also can't help thinking it must be a little disappointing to have a cool spell on your character sheet and then have the GM tell you "no, it doesn't work that way, you need the person's horoscope to do that." So the second time around, I put a second line on the character sheet for each spell explaining that kind of limitation. That made it easier for the players to use their characters' spells smoothly, but it had an unintended side effect: since we didn't have to look up the spell descriptions in the 70-page Grimoire printout I brought with me, we never opened that binder during play. That was also a mistake, because in one case I got a detail of the rules wrong (the Fern-Seed Potion, which is a potion of invisibility, is applied externally, so if you want to become visible again you can just wipe it off), and it also missed the opportunity to show how much depth and detail and thought has been put into each spell. The important thing, to me, is the players didn't feel the need to frequently stop and look up the details of how each spell worked: the short summary on the character sheet is enough to go by at the game table. This was gratifying to see. While the design team and I have certainly geeked out over spells and magic, we want the end product to remain easy to learn and easy to play. I would say we're going fine on that score.

I intentionally designed a mystery story because I wanted to see whether a mystery story could still work when the player characters have extensive access to divination spells. Divination is one of the primary applications of historical Renaissance magic. The divination rules are heavily influenced by Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system, which insightfully points out that mystery stories aren't about finding clues: they're about making sense out of the clues. For the New Hampshire game I went out on a limb and designed the scenario so players hit a gap in the trail of clues and were forced to use divination to advance the story. That was a mistake: I had designed a mystery story to make the players get stuck. I compounded the mistake by having the divination spells giving away too much, and too precise, information when they finally did use magic. The most important piece of constructive feedback I received from that group was that divination magic felt like "cheating" when I ran it that way. Based on that feedback, I revised the scenario to plant clues to fill that gap and let divination magic simply steer the characters to the relevant clues.

I will have a lot more to say about divination later on because it's one of the primary features of the game. For now, I'll just mention two points. Divination always reveals relevant information but the GM gets to decide how clear and specific that information is. Every player character in Magonomia™ has access to some divination spells; astrologers excel at them. One thing both groups did with divination was to check on some of the more tentative leads they uncovered. This was great because I could just tell the astrologer's player (it was always the astrologer's player) "the stars say that location isn't important." This kept the story moving. It went great. It turns out, players are pretty receptive to being told what not to bother with!

The one thing I wish I had done differently was to ask the Gen Con players what attracted them to the game at the beginning of the session when I could do something about it. Instead, I waited to the end, and there I got a wake-up call. One of the players had convinced their four friends to sign up for this game because that player had a big interest in Hermetic magic. If I had asked at the right time, I could have done a lot more to show authentic flavor in the spells, spending a bit more time on describing the rituals of how they're cast and so forth. As I said earlier, we never actually opened the binder containing the Grimoire chapter, and that's where all the Hermetic flavor was. I'll freely admit we don't have full sixteenth-century look and feel built into all of the spell descriptions yet. I think a bigger factor was that I had over-planned a bit too much story for a four-hour convention game so I kept the pace brisk throughout. We should have stopped to smell the flowers a bit more with respect to the fascinating and often surprising details of what historical Hermetic magic looks and feels like.

One important thing the players told me I've got right is the level of emphasis on the historical setting. In both groups, there was one player who probably knows more about Renaissance Britain than I do; and in both groups, there was one player who was a little hesitant about not knowing much about the period. I'm pleased to say, I received praise from both the experts and the novices. The less historically-knowledgeable players seemed pleasantly surprised at how much they enjoyed the game and how comfortable they felt in the setting. It's very important to me that the historical setting not seem off-putting. I've been following my own advice: this is a game about wizards exploring mysteries, so run it like that. Use the history as a garnish, not the main course. Secondly: show, don't tell. I'll make sure to explain in the Magonomia™ rule book how to use historical flavor to enhance the game without having it take over. Based on these past two demo games, I know I have a winning formula for that. All I have to do is explain it in text.

All the players in both groups have been very experienced role-players, but not very experienced with Fate™. I've confirmed that Magonomia™ is quick to learn and the story got moving right away. Players were comfortable using their characters' spells right away. Both sessions were a lot of fun for me as the GM, and both groups expressed an eagerness to play again. I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to play with both groups, and I would likewise be eager to play with them again.