Magonomia Development is Coming Together

Magonomia development is coming along nicely! We are on track to launch the Kickstarter in 2019. Writing and revising is the most time-consuming part of the project and we want as much of that done as possible before we launch, so backers can get their rewards within a reasonable time.

Before the Kickstarter for the full game, we are planning a “preview” edition that contains everything you need to run an introductory adventure with pregenerated characters. This will be offered for pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG.com. $0 is a perfectly acceptable price for you to pay for this! We’ll start playtesting the “preview” edition in November and get it on the market as soon as possible. I don’t have an estimated release date because that depends on the outcome of the playtest. We’ve done very well so far by listening to our playtesters and incorporating their feedback, even if that is hard work and takes a long time!

Looking beyond the “preview” edition, the full game is in good shape and on track for a 2019 launch.

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.

 

 

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

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.

Prerequisites

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

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

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.

Casting

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.

Effect

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

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."

Termination

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.