Finding the balance between manageable game info and an expansive universe

It’s been quiet here on the site, but that doesn’t mean a huge amount of intense work hasn’t been going on for the game behind the metaphorical spoiler curtain. The development of Our Magic has been very meta in its storyline. Deep underlying themes in the game world are completely intertwined with transitioning this group of characters from D&D 5e to Our Magic.

But though I as gamemaster have known since before we started this campaign/story that the most powerful beings in the universe of the characters, the Eminences, were planning to move to a new universe soon, the characters didn’t until after about two years of playing. As their knowledge and involvement with their extra-planar, creator beings grows, my ability to make changes has been slightly constrained.

The campaign—to give it the D&D 5e terminology appropriate to the rules we were mostly using and the way we were managing character sheets—began as the ‘Nevarny Churso campaign’ for the village where it started, but then the characters left that place and it became increasingly inaccurately named until they became followers and associates of the newest Eminence, Opportunity. So what was the ‘Nevarny Churso story’—to give it the Our Magic terminology appropriate to my Kabalor setting, homebrew content, and non-combat approach we were taking—became the ‘Opportunity story’.

I’d previously GM’d a campaign which used D&D 5e rules and my Kabalor setting, less homebrew (other than the peoples, or ‘races’ in D&D terminology), rapid milestone leveling (so I could test high-level worldbuilding elements relating to the Eminences), and with combat. That campaign concluded at 20th level about 10 months or so after the non-combat one began. It was mostly based in the great city of Kudali and was thus called the ‘Kudali campaign’. Good thing they didn’t overlap because the characters of the ‘Opportunity story’ reached Kudali about half a year later, in both in-game and real-world time, and settled right in.

This merging gave me the benefit and challenge as a GM of leveraging locations, NPCs (non-player characters), plotlines, and backstories from a combat framework into my newer non-combat framework. That work, and the contrasts between the two campaigns/stories, was immensely helpful in understanding how Our Magic needed to differ from D&D and other conflict- and conquest-centric games in order to tell the kinds of stories I want to enable.

That’s the context for me as a GM for the past few months: juggling two game systems, two play styles, and nearly five years of gameplay events. Plus evaluating all of it for the purpose of refining my game in development, paring away what isn’t needed, finding and filling the gaps, and streamlining for clarity.

When Our Magic game development began half a decade ago (as the setting of Kabalor) there were 72 Eminences and 21 peoples. Big numbers because being a solo designer means you rely on your playtesting more for culling out bad ideas and identifying things that can be combined. That quickly narrowed down to 51 Eminences and 15 peoples for the Kudali campaign. Then during the Opportunity story I narrowed down to 9 peoples, which we handled in the game with retcons and hand-waving.

Last November, I realized I could streamline even further and reach a variety which still conveyed a diverse and nuanced world, but which was much easier for players to understand and remember. With original peoples and extra-planar powerful beings, free from all the old tropes and biases, comes an extra lift for players and GMs to get their heads around it all.

The problem was the characters in the Opportunity story were already very involved with the Eminences and plans for 27 of them to create a new universe, and even to go there with them. All the reasoning I’d labored over made sense for why each of these Eminences would move (handing over their roles in the old universe for one of their loyal assistants to ascend to). It would be more than a handwave to change in the story. The most logical choice, therefore, would be for the making of the new universe and the journey there, which I’d already established as dangerous, to be so dangerous that some of those Eminences would sacrifice themselves to enable the success of the venture. But I couldn’t tell the players what was going to happen on this monumental leap to which we were building up!

So last November I split off a copy of the Player’s Guide to Our Magic, which my players can see as a shared document, and have been working in that version ever since.

Last Sunday the Opportunity story’s characters made the journey through the void of unbeing. They made crucial rolls to help themselves survive, still taking some damage every time, and for each roll they chose something to surrender, a weight to drop to lighten their load along the way. They let go of spells, of feats, of magic items, and class features. It was a journey of deciding how to remake yourself based on what you let go of. At the end of the session, greatly weakened, with two of the four needing to give up an extra couple things just to survive, they stood on a sandbar in a new world, waves gently lapping on the sand, looking up at the stars of a new universe. And they saw that the group they’d traveled with was much smaller. Perhaps a quarter of the followers of the Eminences survived. One Eminence, The Dreamlands, ascended to some greater level still, and 11 had given themselves completely to the making of this new place. The 15 Eminences who remain quickly divided themselves among the philosophies of Chaos, Balance, and Order, and announced that there would be 5 not 9 peoples.

The stories have reconnected to the development!

And, now that I have gone through the four D&D character sheets making notes on ideas of how to represent appropriate parts of them in Our Magic, I am no longer having to keep a foot in two wildly different game systems. Such a relief! And timely too, since the session which brought us to the start of the journey featured a complete outage of 😬 I have to say I felt very, very good about my prudence as a GM having printed out each of the character sheets in full less than a week before.

Yesterday I completed that work of mapping D&D characters roughly on Our Magic equivalents or substitutions. This identified a few holes in the spells list, which I remedied and at the same time used to fill in gaps where one element magic didn’t feel as cool as another. Thinking about spells allowed me to spend the rest of the day knocking down open tasks in my enormous list of things to do or confirm or consider for Our Magic. One fun one, for example, was to look at medieval magic in our world and see if there was any category I’d missed. I don’t expect players to spend as much time on missing cattle as folks in the Middle Ages did, but sure, yes, magic for finding things; good note!

My plan for today is to continue that work on my big, big list and, as a treat for myself when my brain begins to tire, to actually begin creating the new character sheets for each of these four characters. We’ll need those in just under two weeks when for the first time ever all five of my core playtesters—the amazing Adriane, Hamish, Joe P., Lance, and Lila—will be together in person at my table.

That will be session zero of a new story, one set at the dawn of this world of Kabalor, a world born of creativity, collaboration, consent, and mutual aid, with a lot of wild magic shenanigans to keep it spicy.

Of course, I’m not making it too easy on myself; I’ll still also be GMing the other story set in that world, taking place 750 years later. That’s the one where we’ve playtested character creation and running fully under Our Magic rules. Just one small task of a little retcon on Eminences and peoples to do before the next session of that… which reminds me once again to say:

All blessings on playtesters everywhere! I am so grateful for your patience with change, your smart questions, your gentle but firm concerns and frustrations, your wit, your ingenuity, and all the moments when you get the vision even better than I do and the game takes another great leap forward. ❤️

Author: Dinah from Kabalor

Author. Discardian. GM. Current project: creating an inclusive indie fantasy ttrpg

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