My work on the game is coalescing into stronger supports for play in three areas—story, collaboration, and magic—and these manifest themselves at all levels of the game.
In actual play, in the weekly playtest game, our time together is character-focused, with the story of how those characters change each other and the world being told equally by the players and by me as GM, and with magic at the heart of many of those changes.
The storyline we’re following at the moment is set at the beginning of the world. The characters have traveled here from the old universe and are helping the Eminence Serendipity create the distinctive touches of their new worldly province. The landscape and some starting points have been set by me, but the players get to add their own ideas of what will be cool in this world. The first settlement they named Shimmering, for the auroras of world-creating magic they encountered as they approached the place flying across the Inland Sea.
These are powerful, very high-level characters—three of the five are at 20th level in D&D terms and the others are approaching that—and their magic is similarly powerful, with the ability to create and change features of the world permanently. For the moment we’re still transitioning from them drawing on the conveniently available world-creating magic still lingering about the place. But after they make use of that to shape this first settlement and their own appearances and belongings, they’ll need to start relying on their own magic even more. When they do, they’ll find that they increasingly need to combine their magics to achieve the desired results. That need to collaborate will benefit from the foundation of “Yes, and…” which we’re establishing in this starting point of profound abundance.
In the player-facing game mechanics, they are experiencing encouragement toward collaboration in the way spellcasting works: they combine spells and spell parameters into a single, shared casting. This means that one of them can contribute the highest rank parameters which can make the effects permanent, while the others can put in lower ranks that do enough to create what they’re envisioning. The players discuss the change in reality that they want to make and then bring it into being together.
Their character sheets strongly emphasize magic. The character sheets are designed so that the player will not generally need to consult the Player’s Guide and so include all the details of what they can do magically. This makes the character sheets a kind of character-specific mini-guide; long for a character sheet, but handy and not requiring devices at the table (should we ever be so lucky as to play in person). In their pre-graphic-design stage for playtesting, the character sheets are particularly long and laid out in shared Google Docs which makes them even harder to condense. One of these fully maxed out character sheets has 24 pages of which 20 are spell and parameter details. (A starting character is more like 7 pages of spell and parameter info in this unoptimized layout.) That’s 12 (or 4) sheets double-sided, which isn’t too bad.
Of the four pages at the front, about a third of that is devoted to magical matters. It lists their element magics and how they spellcast (which Aspect stat they use, style notes, spellcasting points), space to note magical items they’re carrying, and has descriptions of all the element magics at a high level with space for notes about the magic of others in their party for spell collaborating.
Storytelling is incorporated on the character sheet at the top with their Role in the group (what they bring to the team), their people (physical kin) and culture, their philosophy and the Eminence they honor, and on the entire second page with descriptive notes, space for dreams/wishes/quests/goals, life experiences, and social connections (gifts given / resource for). If my current playtesters are typical, the half-page space for items they carry will also be full of story as they often make objects for each other with their magic.
The remaining space carries the essential game mechanics of the character’s Aspects (the eight core stats of the game), any skills the characters have which draw on each of those, and any currently active bonuses or constraints.
As the GM, I can make use of some of these same tools for my own game mediating purposes. Character Roles are not a “job”, like classes are in many games, but rather a social function. I can use those as GM as a quick shorthand to find NPC archetypes by combining one of the 10 Roles with one of the 8 Aspects, perhaps drawing on the skills that use that Aspect.
For example, if I randomize or decide that the NPC they’re meeting is a Guide Role with a strong Banter Aspect, I can look through the skills and spot something appropriate for the story. Let’s say the party is in a village and getting advice about how to reach that mountain pass where the caravan had trouble with wild magic. Hostcraft is a Banter skill, so let’s make their potentially helpful NPC a chatty tavernkeep in this place on the edge of the settled region. The Guide Role’s touchstones are “alert, adaptable, attuned, oversensitive” and the description is “The Guide finds the way and keeps the beat.”
Now I have basically everything I need to play that NPC. Their story emerges immediately: they’re watchful and adaptable enough to put their business out here on the edge of the settled zone, and they’re inclined to give travel advice, but they’re a little bit easily offended. They can be won back around with some good dance music, though.
As GM I’ll work extensively with magic since up to 20% of the time some positive or negative extra magical effect will emerge through wild success or wild failure when spellcasting. (Collaborating helps to reduce this volatility, another way the game encourages mutual aid.) I can use this to inject story hooks or just to provide prompts for the characters to react to. For example, one of the low level wild failure effects is “Cut: Something gets unpleasantly cut, whether a small cut on a person or a cut through a fabric or leather object” and its wild success counterpart is “Cut: A useful cutting, e.g. a haircut, or the weakening of a constraining rope, or the trimming of grasses”. What exactly happens then becomes a collaborative story among everyone at the table.
In general, Our Magic is designed for the GM to suggest the framework for results of player rolls—e.g. “You thought it wasn’t going to work, but at the last moment you succeeded.”—while allowing the players to suggest their own interpretations of the specifics. Everyone at the table collaborates on what happens in the story, and as such the game helps to avoid the issue of active vs. inactive players (which can be a drag in complex combat simulation games).
All these aspects are also supported through the worldbuilding. Kabalor is a wildly magical place, full of abundant opportunity for adventure, and a shared culture of mutual aid in the settled places, where all kinds of stories can unfold together.
Though editing and refinement of ideas takes place throughout game design and development, this condensation is increasingly the emphasis of my work as I lean into playtesting. Now that my players are directly engaging with the rules on the regular, it’s easier to spot the gaps and confusing parts of the Player’s Guide.
As I mentioned in my last gamedev post, because I’d integrated the coming change in rules system into the storyline of our game as a migration by some of the Eminences to a new universe, I was constrained in how much of the changes I could reveal to the players before their characters experienced their version of those changes.
Those changes included (most dramatically) narrowing down the number of Eminences and peoples, as I mentioned. But they also included things like realizing that I had one more basic character stat than I actually needed; Cheer went away, with its function split between Banter and Empathy.
A character creation choice—do you want to start with more specialized magic where you are rank 4 in one thing and rank 2 in two others, or more generalized to be rank 2 in three things?—was eliminated after I realized that that choice didn’t make much of any difference once you got to higher levels.
There is a feeling of repeated cycles of throwing things into the pot, cooking them together, and reducing them to a more concentrated mixture. Rules as roux.
Today, in response to feedback from playtester Lila, I leaned in hard on the spellcasting parameters to reduce those to a more manageable number. These parameters are part of Our Magic’s modular spellcasting system which allows players to invent their own combinations of magical effects, bringing multiple spells and parameters into a single casting, often involving multiple spellcasters.
Four of the ten parameters have now been moved to more appropriate spots. The ability to delay a casting going off is no longer a factor of the rank of the casting, but is a Basic spell which can be added into a casting. The ability to cast more subtly has changed from being based on the rank of the casting to coming from Metal element magic spells you could add. The detectability and identifiability of spells is no longer a parameter you can change at casting time, but rather a note on the behavior of the Investigate Magic spells at different ranks in relation to the rank of the magic being investigated. Lastly, the discernability of illusions is now footnotes on Fire element magic’s illusion spells.
As with so much of the condensing and concentrating I’ve been doing, there’s a feeling of getting to something that feels right-sized for players and GMs to work with. I am finding the way to keep the flavor and the spice while boiling things down to something more comfortable to swallow.
There is one other boiling down to note: I’m now better able to concentrate on story and fun in our game sessions because my wonderful players/playtesters have agreed to let me record in Zoom for my personal use. Not having to wear the game developer hat at the same time is going to make me a much better and happier GM. I can just note times in my regular GM notes for things I want to go back to and think about from a game mechanics perspective, but in the moment focus on keeping the story moving and the players happy.
Amusingly and appropriately, I took a break from the keyboard while writing this post… and decided to make some soup stock. It’s all ‘boiling down to the essential goodness’ all the time around here these days!
Thanks once again to my wonderful players and Patreon supporters who help my creativity flourish! 💖
Whenever we view a scene our minds are filling in lots of details. As a GM you can use this human skill to your advantage. You don’t have to build the whole place; you just need the center of the action.
For this dramatic situation, in which a villain captured by the party and brought to a public festival to confess his wrongdoing broke loose and began casting dangerous magic, I only needed the center line of the table and a bit of one corner to imply an area ten times as large.
I needed the stage where the confession would take place and a crowd of merchants and festival-goers all around it. I needed the less crowded area south of it, where Sail Square meets the dockside (and where the miscreant was going to make a getaway on one of the boats if not stopped in time). And I needed the large balcony overlooking the square which was already known to the party and which they might make use of during the session.
I did not need the whole building to which the balcony, with its covered pedestrian walkway underneath, was attached. I did not even need the full width of the side street at which the building was the corner. One piece could show the sidewalk and half the road beside the building. One more could show the covered walkway’s connection to the main part of the scene. All the other cobblestones and sidewalks would be filled in by the imagination.
What’s more, that key location, already known to the party, didn’t even need to take any vital table space. It tucked into a corner at the edge of the table.
When the players arrived they saw the view before the chaos, no fire yet, no fleeing bystanders. Just a cheery festival with a couple of bards entertaining dancers from the stage while others shopped, some kind of vigorous sport being played further down towards the docks, and some NPCs they knew up on the balcony to see and be seen. They were instantly pulled into the setting and their decisions through the rest of the session were informed by the impact of what was happening in a place they were seeing transform into chaos and fear before their eyes.
When allies of their captured villain were suddenly nearby it wasn’t a trick of the GM; they were already there among the ball-players, the dancers, the shoppers. The crowd was there in everyone’s minds already. And when the villain surprised them all by casting a fireball, the players were horrified at the risk to innocent people, shifting their priorities to protect the many people in the square. Through clever thinking and their previous actions (to stir up feeling among the city’s student population) generating some rowdy allies for the party, the villain and his fellow criminals did not manage to kill anyone or even escape.
This was one of the finale moments of my non-combat campaign and as a GM it was a delicious twist to suddenly crank the danger dial way higher than it had been in any of the previous years of play. The outcome was by no means a given. Between that twist and the visceral contextualization of the place in front of the players on the table, this episode was able to be as vivid as it deserved.
Last Thanksgiving, my pal Lance and I celebrated the day by making a gigantic miniature terrain build on my dining table.
We riffed on various ideas and settled on a multi-biome artificial landscape which would be a kind of a zoo. During the build Lance suggested that we were Eminences (the extra-planar, powerful creator beings in Our Magic) who design creatures. We naturally fell into a lovely bit of improv roleplay about how we weren’t entirely satisfied with how some of them were turning out. No problem with the Snakecats, of course, those are great; but wouldn’t the Wavehorse really be better as just a spell rather than a beast?
In the multi-week gap between our making the build and my catching up on some other things I needed to post, I realized that this build actually would be great for something in my Thursday night game. Thus I haven’t been able to share the images until now, when the players have been there.
The characters were approaching 20th level using my heavily home-brewed D&D 5e mechanics. It takes an unreasonable amount of adjustment to make a non-combat game work inside D&D, which was a vital lesson, but we rapidly were nearing the point when I could “graduate” them from that world to a whole new universe and use my new Our Magic rules.
As part of the story, they needed to get advice on how to survive the journey to a new universe. I had set up a lead for them an attendant to the Eminence Creation, a person who had apparently survived the journey to this universe when it was created untold centuries before. What if this person turned out to specialize in the creation of apex predators, and the best place to meet them was at their workspace in another plane?
They’d found out about this person in an old diary they’d paid dearly to gain access to and between two glued-together pages discovered a hidden magical drawing of a teleportation circle. With that image clear enough for them to use, it was just a matter of taking a step into the unknown. They emerged in a round stone room, with no apparent exits at floor level. They could detect magic—LOTS of magic—but were wary of trying to dispel it. After going upstairs and speaking with a harried person in an office full of extremely odd drawings of various dangerous parts of animal anatomy, they were sent to the roof to wait for their meeting, and were faced with this extraordinary landscape.
Negotiations were made, a natural 20 was rolled, and things turned greatly to their advantage. Before leaving on their journey to the new universe, they wanted to turn the sorcerer’s familiar into a person so that she could carry on their work. It was going to be a tricky process, but between the convenience of being in the magic-rich home of Creation and some assistance thanks to good rolls and prior good deeds, things got much easier.
The only thing I added to the scene that wasn’t originally in the build Lance and I did was a ritual circle between the tower and the levee. The powerful being they consulted returned the overlarge housecat to its component magic potentiality, which charged the ritual circle for the party. They used that to make their bird familiar into a person ally and then, as the predators began to take notice of them, hastily made their getaway.
You never know where a build, even one you think you’re only doing for the sheer fun of building, will take you!
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 DnDBeyond.com. 😬 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. ❤️
Villagers from Millbake wind their way past the standing stone and through the tangled woods to pay their respects at the shrine of the Eminence Focus.
This ancient, sacred place is associated with earth element magic and the shrine is adorned with a large grouping of beautiful crystals. After the picnic, those who feel brave enough may touch the crystals to see if they receive a blessing (or a challenge). The crystals absorb wild magic from this area and may discharge it in interesting ways…
I’m enjoying the 12″ x 12″ December build challenge from the Dwarven Forge community on Discord. Definitely not going to get through twelve of them, but I like the constraint of painting a vivid scene in a small footprint.
On the game development front there is lots going on—both my long-standing hybrid game of homebrew and D&D 5e and my playtest game of Our Magic are converging on lots of key world-building decisions for Our Magic. But because some of them are spoilers for the players, I’ll hold off on writing about them for now. Suffice to say I contine to fine-tune and condense the game mechanics and the world details down their most playable form. An ideal mood for honoring Focus!
Though the world of Kabalor has been in use through multiple campaigns using homebrewed/hybrid D&D rules, the big news this week is that after recent character creation and first sessions tests went well, we’re continuing on with these new characters in an ongoing story. (I’ll be using ‘stories’ instead of ‘campaigns’ for Our Magic because neither war nor advertising are good analogies for a group of players collaborating to create something new and magical.)
This story began in Waterborn, a town at the edge of the Mirror Nymioni and First Davuri areas in the southwestern part of the world. All the characters are Davur or Nymion as this story is set early in the world, when the peoples are more isolated from each other after weathering the dangerous period following the Eminences moving to dwell far away in their own planes. We are in the Early Period of the Independent Era and as the sports folk say, there’s everything to play for! I expect that this little group of recent graduates from the magic school in Waterborn will set in motion changes that echo down through the later periods and future stories.
Poem, pronounced “pome” and played by Lance, is The Face of the group. Davur kin of the First Davuri culture, he is a young bard/singer/entertainer, who is a decent drummer but a very bad songwriter. Thanks to above average Empathy and Banter he has still been quite popular at The Rosy Pot public house in Waterborn. Poem is also good at Analysis, which helps support his very low-key leadership which is more marketing than management. His constant companion is his pack-dog and magical focus, Binni, and he attributes his magical talents in Smoke (his speciality) and Metal element magic to her. He wears a floppy musketeer-style hat with the flat side in front and has a bit of skill in Hostcraft, Animal Lore, and Foodcraft.
Yarrow, played by Adriane, is The Guide of the group. Like Poem, Davur/First Davuri in kin and culture and often found at The Rosy Pot regaling someone (in trade for a refilled tankard) with a hair-raising tale of how they lost the two fingers on their dominant hand. The tales are all different and are any of them true? Yarrow’s from a family known for herbalism and foraging, though Yarrow’s abilities there are more due to the illustrated herb guide created for them by their sister than to their foggy grip on the details of number of petals, etc. They’re much more of an Attention than Information person, also above average in Cheer and Resilience. Through practice they have good skill in Plant Lore and some in Foraging, and a bit of experience with Doulacraft after assisting with the birth of their sister’s child. Yarrow is blessed with Rain and Wood element magic.
Taüschen, played by Joe P., is The Fool of the group, known for teaching people by jerking them out of their expectations. He is Nymion, of the Mirror Nymion culture, and a bit of a rebel in his family. Taüschen looks younger than he is and with his foolery and talent for Banter and Cheer, folk can easily forget his ability with Information. Scholarship and Arcana are his skills, along with a bit of Acrobatics to get him in and out of trouble. He has a ferret named Chinchilla which peeks out from beneath his soft, Nymion tentacles—like the arms of a sea anemone—or scurries unnervingly under his beautifully embroidered woolen cloak. He has Water and Air element magics.
Taiko, played by Hamish, is The Fixer of the group and has an adoring pack dog maddeningly named Kaito. Taiko is also Nymion/Mirror Nymion in kin and culture. Taiko, like many a Nymion, makes good use of those 8 feet of height and has great Heft and Resilience, but this imposing presence is offset by Cheer and being a decent hand drum player. Athletics are a natural skill for Taiko, but are joined by traditional skills of the region, Stonecraft and Clothcraft, and recently acquired skill in Doulacraft from accompanying Yarrow to help with their sister’s childbirth. Taiko attributes his element magics of Metal and Earth to playing in dirt as a kid (hooray for hippy-dippy parents), and also—as the generalist of the group with three element magics—has Air element magic.
Zuri, played by Lila, is The Heart of the group and has a rescued, somewhat problematic raccoon-cat named Rascal, who rides in a snuggle pocket in her plain but serviceable clothes, much of them made with alpaca wool from her family’s farm. Zuri is Davur/First Davur in kin and culture and has a twin sister. It was a great shock to them both when Zuri came into stronger magic last year and had to go away to magic school rather than them always doing everything together forever. Zuri’s cozy nature comes through in her great Empathy, but she is also above average in Heft and Resilience. A steady friend, and much appreciated in a group for her skills in Foodcraft and Massage, along with the Animal Lore she learned on the farm. Her element magics are Fire and Earth.
This wonderful group has just begun their first big adventure, setting out to the nearby village of Wellfield. (All but Taüschen who will catch up shortly.) It began when a young runner interrupted their post-brunch musings at the new Blossomtea Pie Patio on the east side of Waterborn. A terrible disaster had apparently just taken place and this youth was sent to fetch mages from Waterborn to help with a dark cloud that grew over the forest after the felling of a huge tree. They reported that one of the timberers said, “It’s all gone to charcoal in there!”
The proprietor, a young Nymion named Yooma Parfooma who graduated from magic school the year before them, hurried the group on their way to help, trusting that a proper trade for the multiple pies consumed would happen later. With this encouragement and the prospect of exciting and dangerous magic ahead, the group made the journey to Wellfield in a bit under the usual quarter-day’s walk.
When they arrived they could see the black cloud over the forest. At the first cottage—home to the young runner—they met three witnesses to the disaster, members of the logging team and a healer who they’d had on hand in case of problems. The Davur forester Rembrel sitting on a log bench outside was covered in cuts and small bruises, their body and clothes showing their headlong flight through the woods. In a harsh and raspy voice, they told of how the felling of the great, tall tree—future main beam of the new Musician’s Guild guildhall to be built in Waterborn—didn’t go as expected.
“The noise of the tree hitting the ground just kept going and getting louder and then the cloud of dust and leaves and birds changed to a dark cloud. I saw a bird drop out of the sky when that black cloud touched it and I shouted for everyone to run. We were racing away, deer and foxes and even a bear running beside us.” The group could see the shadow of that fear and horror on Rembrel’s face. “We don’t know what happened to Oakleaf. I hope they ran into the clear somewhere, but I’m afraid they’re hurt and need our help.”
Entering the cabin they met the healer, Melody, a young Nymion, his voice also scratchy. “I was foraging between the logging site and the village, staying close enough to be called if there was an emergency but out of range of any falling trees. I heard the crash. It was much louder than normal and I saw dark smoke billowing upward from the source of the sound. Then I heard someone shouting to run. I ran towards that voice and saw animals running away, then the logging team came into view racing as fast as they could and I turned and ran with them. We probably ran farther than we needed to because when we couldn’t push ourselves any farther and looked back, the cloud had stopped expanding.”
In Melody’s care was the third witness, the Nymion lumberjack Titi. She lay in a bed, her face and arms covered in cuts and small bruises; her skin pallid and with dark, greenish circles under her eyes. In a rough, rasping voice she gave her account.
“I was final cutter on this one, so I was right there. Got the cut done, saw the fall direction and began backing up watching my work. There was a big cave-in under where its biggest branch hit and then a moment later the dark smoke started coming straight out of the ground. I turned and ran for my life. I swear the trees around me were trembling. I don’t know what gave me the idea, but I ran toward the old grove instead of the village, and when the smoke reached those blessed trees it weakened. I scrambled up the leafiest one and held on for my life, with my face pressed into an old knot hole. I almost passed out, but then the smoke blew away and my mind cleared. I climbed down and the ground was black where I’d come, plants all dead and black and some animals too. I’d dropped my axe—still carried it while I was running somehow; isn’t it funny what we do in a panic?—right at the foot of the tree and it was black as well. I was coughing from the smoke and scared to my bones so I headed toward the green ground I could see not far away. As I came out of the black area, my mind cleared a bit. That’s when I realized I could hear people calling for me from my left, toward the village. My voice was too harsh from the smoke, so I just staggered that direction until we met up. The healer saved me—I mean it; I wasn’t sure I’d survive and I certainly would have lost my good health without his skill and magic. I’ve been resting here in bed since.”
At this Melody the healer said, “And I think I’ll have you back on your feet tomorrow.” To which Titi replied,“Incredible. Thanks be to The Chasm, bodymother of healing. And to The Loom for weaving my path to drop at your feet.”
During this exchange, Taiko took the opportunity to stealthily get a bit of the soot from one of the garments in the room in order to examine this threat. Unfortunately, Taiko also decided to taste it as part of this assessment. Yup. Definitely smoke element magic related and, uh, definitely not good for you. Knowledge gained, but also hoarseness.
With sober concern, the group entered the forest, their excitement about fascinating wild magic muted by all the evidence of the harm it could cause. They first approached the grove where Titi took shelter from the expanding cloud. They could see the line of smoke damage at its edge, beyond which all was crusted black charcoal. In that area it appeared nothing living remained.
As they approached the grove they could see that some trees at the edge were soot-stained and dead. However, two trees at the center of the grove with bright rings of mushrooms at their roots seemed to exert a force of life energy against the smoke-infused ground beyond. Within the mushroom circle under the healthiest tree a wild boar sow had collapsed. She wheezed hoarsely and had unhealthy looking foam dripping from her jowls, but within the mushroom ring she appeared to have been spared worse from the cloud’s effects.
Zuri came forward with cautious, soothing sounds and though the sow leapt awkwardly to her feet, she did not charge. (Lila made a good Animal Lore roll.) At Zuri’s direction the party combined their magics to clean the soot off. Fire magic warmed a soft shower of raindrops as air blew the soot from the poor beast’s face and body, while the Resist Confusion knack brought calm into the spell. It was, in fact, about as great a spa experience as a traumatized wild boar could ever hope for and led to our title for the session: “I wanna be the pig now”.
The party’s combined magic greatly restored the ill creature, and it leapt out of the ring of mushrooms and ran away from the blackened ground. With a glance over their shoulders, perhaps of envy, the group moved forward to carefully investigate the scene of destruction. Zuri tucked Rascal more securely into her snuggle pocket and, concerned about them breathing the soot on the ground, Poem and Taiko suggested to the dogs Binni and Kaito that they wait on a rock outside of the charcoal zone to watch.
Proceeding with great care, they moved into the dark ground. To their relief, the small homestead they came to, its surrounding hedge completely dead and black and all within covered with soot, was empty. Apparently it was close enough to the felling site that the residents had gone into the village until after the tree cutting. Beyond it though, things turned very grim. They found cows, fallen dead and blackened, and sadly the body of the lost logger, Oakleaf, also felled by the toxic cloud. The rest of the group did their best to distract kind-hearted Zuri from the worst of these sights.
As they’d learned from the nearby folk, the cloud had expanded rapidly, given up its deadly soot and then begun to retreat slightly. Now they could see the remaining cloud had a diameter of about 20 feet, where it churned and roiled obscuring the place where the tree struck the ground.
Poem studied the cloud, considering all they’d learned, and reached out with his Rank 4 Smoke element magic as he did a spell incorporating the knack Investigate Magic. His high Analysis (and a good roll of the dice) helped him understand the current situation.
Poem’s assessment, as of the point where we ended our session, is that, though once much beyond their powers and still dangerous, the cloud has reduced to a level that the group can begin to influence it with their own spells. It’s here that the story will resume this week and continue with another two sessions after that within the next month.
It feels fantastic to be playing an ongoing story at last. I still have a ridiculous amount to do to finalize the rules of Our Magic so that anyone but I could GM it, but at least the player side of things is starting to come together.
It’s a moment to celebrate, and—even more cause to celebrate—there’s a lot of good story ahead!
Thank you again to my fantastic players, my patrons, and to you for reading!
I’ve been running a homebrew-modified Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition (D&D 5e) game since April of 2019. We play just about weekly, but have only met in person twice since March 2020. But I love doing tabletop terrain—and I still can!
For my other multi-year game, which concluded near the end of 2020, I used my phone in an affordable floor tripod (affiliate link; thanks!) dialed in as a separate, muted participant in our Zoom calls with its camera pointed down at the table. I sat at my desk with the terrain table right behind me so I could turn around and adjust minis, etc. It worked surprisingly well if we pinned its view as the main “presenter”.
The game that’s still running, though, is non-combat and thus real-time positioning isn’t essential. With that freedom, I was able to make a complex build, photograph it, and then use the photos during my sessions when the players were in that building.
The characters were about to investigate a business called the Owlwing Apothecary which they believed was perhaps involved in secretive transactions involving crystals charged with wild magic from the city’s institute of spellcraft and arcane studies. Which of course it was.
The building needed to house about as mundane a front business as something dealing in magical ingredients can be, with a warehouse in back in which the actual work took place and where preposterous quantities of magic-infused materials were stored. And the build photographs needed to include the building in various states which might occur during the game.
My pal Lance helped me with the initial layout and some great ideas to add to the situation. We started with the core layout: a once elegant old mansion a few hundred years ago, since converted to this business, surrounded by city streets.
Such old mansions had small front portions where the family would interact with outsiders, and a large inner living area with a courtyard in the center for the family and close friends to relax in away from the outside world. In this case, the courtyard had been roofed over and all the old internal divisions removed, but I used my Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom pieces with their elegant pillars to suggest the former life of this now industrial building.
Though the official work of the Owlwing Apothecary is that of selling base components to other makers of magical products—they do the most boring part and create magically-charged liquids, metals, and mixtures which serve as templates for finished goods—the secret part involves participating in the exploitation of students at the institute of spellcraft and arcane studies.
The Institute has a spell ground which is surrounded by panels fitted with absorbing anti-magic crystals; very practical in the middle of a city. After a while these panels become fully charged with wild magic and are taken away—in the middle of the night for safety. But no one really talked about that “safe disposal” aspect of what the Institute was up to—until the party began digging into the suspicious side of the Institute. Nor was it realized that students were milked for years more spell ground practice than was necessary, purely to charge up those magic crystals.
It turns out, those panels absorb a LOT of magic, enough to drive a magical economy that is a key part of the city’s success, and they also provide good opportunity to skim off a little profit or a little magical power whenever the shadowy group involved in both the Institute and the Owlwing Apothecary needed resources.
With that story context, it was easy to figure out what secrets the build of the back room needed to hold: arcane tools for cracking apart the panels and reducing them to their component magic, with protective items holding all this dangerous activity in place, and some physical signs that those protections can’t prevent all the problems that might occur. Plus a storeroom full of dazzling magical loot.
In the dead of night, the sales table in the front room is moved aside, and the magical panels are brought in to be processed in the back room, where chill mist arises from a hole in the floor and a blasted forge glows amidst damaged stone. But to any ordinary person peeking through those inner doors, it appears as a boring warehouse, thanks to illusions built into the defenses.
As GM, when they accessed the site, I only needed to show the players the front room—the picture at the top of this post—and describe their first impressions once they picked the lock and got into the back. After they discovered and thus nullified the illusion, I gave them a new ‘first look’:
The players loved this reveal! Character-view pictures are so worth doing when your build allows for it. And taking them in advance of a game lets you stage the scene, try different angles, and crop the pictures for maximum effect.
After they’d enjoyed this character-eye view and when describing the action required a sense of the whole room, I returned to an aerial view, but at a slightly askew angle which hid the treasure room and instead emphasized the supply room with its open archway.
If the group had entered in darkness, I had a photo for that too, but I used a photo editing program to black out the side room with the closed door:
Though they broke in at night, one of them had True Seeing and Rory’s Telepathic Bond going, which made short work of the illusion and then they also used magic to light the room. Fortunately for them that spellcasting only caused minor magical side effects from all the wild magic in the inner chamber here. As a result, I showed them the mood-setting image above so they’d know the existing light in the room was coming from the cold, misty hole in the floor and the magical forge, and then we worked from the better lit photo at an askew angle as they described their actions in the room.
They searched the room, ran into some awkward but not disastrous wild magic effects, learned more of the secret business going on here, and at last decided to see what was behind that very fancy closed door.
When they cracked the puzzle of how to open that door, I treated them to a tantalizing aerial view of the wild magic goods containment room.
Lance had the great idea that when someone entered this room, the bull head on the forge would begin bellowing “Alarm! Alarm! Intruders! Intruders!” at enormous volume and that would in short order bring guards and the apothecary herself with her bodyguard, but a player managed through quick thinking and some great rolls to silence it in a single round without casting a spell in this blue-lit room. Good thing for the party; doing so would have released all the wild magic, with many extremely unpredictable consequences. Well, with multiple consequences rolled on a chart of a variety of effects I’d figured out in advance, but the worst was avoided.
The party didn’t steal all the loot—to my surprise since they had the means to do so—but instead arranged an amazing manipulative message to the apothecary to convince her to side with the students and cut the Institute out of its middleman role. Future sessions will determine if this radical dispersal of economic power will come to pass, but the groundwork was laid. I love playing with a group that wants to wreak havoc… against exploitative magical capitalism. 😄
To my great surprise during their time at the Owlwing Apothecary the party didn’t tinker around with or intentionally damage the protective obelisks in the room and thus cause them to fail, releasing the two captured elementals which power all this magical work, nor did they fumble enough spell rolls to really unleash the vast wild magic stored here. But if they had, I was ready.
I’m frankly amazed they came out of this situation as well as they did. You may think a combat game has more mayhem, and maybe it does, but probably not as much radical political change.
Even if you’re playing remotely, even if most of the time you play theatre of the mind, treat yourself to a great build and some fun possible outcome photos. It gives you quadruple pleasure as a GM planning it, building it, running the game, and then showing the players afterward what might have happened if things went sideways.
I’ve used photos of builds many ways now and will keep doing so even for in-person stories. Build photos can help you:
set a scene;
create a mood;
serve as GM virtual backdrops;
allow remote play to take place “on the table” without having the overhead of learning and setting up a VTT (virtual tabletop) software service;
allow the GM to send remote players a clearer view of where their character is when the rest of the group is in person;
allow the GM to send one player a view of a location the others can’t see yet (such as when they are scrying or invisibly scouting ahead or sending their familiar to scout), even if the whole group is in person;
serve as accurate “bookmarks”of where everyone is when play ends at a cliffhanger;
allow the GM to visually explore options of what events might happen in the build, identify needed pieces of terrain and minis to dress the build for those changes, and then document it for their preparations or use in game;
allow the GM to create special effects for the build with lighting or photo editing to help tell the story;
allow the GM to document how they built a location to which the group might return in the future;
create a souvenir of the story for players and GM to keep or share.
Thanks as ever to my players and my Patreon supporters for encouraging me to make up worlds and travel to imaginary places! 💖
The northernmost town of the Nymion culture is Tunnelton. It is located on the northwest flank of the sacred Twin Mountains and is built around both ends of an amazing natural tunnel below a high, ridged section of the hardest stone. A cave of softer material underneath slowly eroded over centuries and was then respectfully shaped by the Nymioni into a passageway large enough for the tallest wagons. A good cobbled road now runs through it with sidewalks on both sides.
The town is built into each end of the tunnel with the majority of the residential area on the north end where there is more farmland, but the south featuring several strong attractions. The first is the excellent three-story Huzzon-style building at the northward turning, The Silver Reed Inn. The ground floor offers both a cookshop for hot foods and a general store for fresh produce and crafted things. Rooms to stay in can be rented on the middle and top floors. The upstairs deck, with its bright ceramic statue of a happy, striped beast drinking from a large bowl, has a great view of the southern part of the town and the tunnel entrance. It also overlooks the expansive patio which hosts bardic performances and dancing.
The Silver Reed Inn gets its name from a local legend of an underground lake hidden within the mountain, secreted away from prying eyes. Wild magic is said to imbue the herbs and other plants there with unusual abilities. The clear, cold pool lit by the phosphorescent cave mosses is ringed with tall, shining stalks, the silver reeds of the inn’s name. Bards and musicians who visit always check the pond nearby for reeds which have flowed out of the mountain. Those reeds allegedly make the best woodwind music, which can sway the reticence of even the most stubborn mule.
Travelers with horses, oxen, or other livestock should note the convenient alley beside the inn which adjoins that watering pond of fresh outflow from the mountains. Just look for the domed stone roof of the water tower which has the outflow at its base. Your beasts may not become musically or magically inspired, but it’s good healthy water for them regardless.
The second attraction in this side of town is the greater access to southern goods and travelers. The region north, beyond Tunnelton, is that of the Four-Horns Huzzoni. Excellent for farm-goods and source of some of the best oxen, but not for the cloth and thread of the First Davuri, the pottery and plaster of the Gatekeep Nymioni, or the artwork of the First Nymioni. Traders bound not through the tunnel, but northeast through the edge of the Four-Horns Huzzoni area and on to the coastal settlements of the Festival Shafori at the Inland Sea will often lighten their load by trading statuary here in southern Tunnelton, their last chance at the lucrative Nymion market for such goods.
After passing the Silver Reed Inn and paying your respects at the shrines to The Memory Palace, The Masked Ball, and The Loom, you will see examples of the fine statue collection of the residents here. Most are not for trade, but it doesn’t hurt to inquire if you are interested in a piece.
This southern side of Tunnelton is a popular regional meeting place for scholars interested in the arcane. Local arcanists have a meeting room and private library in the building between the stables and the water tower, and use the flat roof for outdoor experiments. Spellcasters passing through are encouraged to visit and exchange knowledge.
The third attraction is the Bull Smithy which has a staff representing all types of metalworking and also does smelting. They serve a wide area and produce quality goods which are traded even farther. The stables opposite the smithy, in addition to shoeing horses, have leathercrafters on site making and repairing bridles, reins, stirrups, and other stable gear. (Note that since a retirement, the wheelwrights are somewhat inconveniently all located on the north end of the tunnel.)
Whether your travels are taking you to the main part of Tunnelton or you’re passing the crossroads by the Silver Reed Inn, the southern part of Tunnelton is well worth a visit.
The mountain homeland of the Mirror Nymioni meets the farmlands of the First Davuri here in the very small town of Waterborn. A waterfall pours forth from a cave at this eastern edge of the mighty twin mountains, and forms one of the many small rivers which eventually join and flow to the Inland Sea far away.
In spring, as the snows melt, the land is prone to flooding, so those of the Nymion culture here build on rock above the flood lines. Their neighbors of the Davur culture build on high ground when convenient, but generally prefer the convenience of good farming soil to the risk of a damp ground floor. Some even choose to simply rebuild a simpler home every year or two, as needed.
The large public house, The Rosy Pot, and some other buildings in the town have their main entrance on the second floor, reducing the inconvenience of the brief high water season.
Like public houses anywhere in Kabalor, The Rosy Pot provides food, shelter, and community support to any who want them, and always has a mix of long-term and short-term residents who cook, clean, repair, and bring good cheer. Its huge second-floor room with its graceful windows is one of the hubs of community activity. The top floor has sleeping accommodation, with storage in the attic above, while the ground floor has the kitchen, bathing area, and other essentials.
The Rosy Pot was once a musical hotspot a generation ago when the great Nymion drummer Everywhere-Fun was in his prime. Now his memory and enthusiasm lives on, if not his skills.
Davur buildings in Waterborn are round in their traditional style, but the Nymion influence is felt in their decorative plasterwork and arched windows. Likewise, the Nymion buildings here are more likely to show the Davur preference for displaying the natural colors of the stone rather than plastering them over in pale pastels as Nymion culture tends to elsewhere.
Waterborn is rich in resources: stone and wood for building, good soil for grazing, mushrooms from the forest, fish and greens from the river, and herbs from the marshland along the riverbank.
This west end of town is known for The Rosy Pot, the smithy opposite it across the central green, and the sturdy home beside it with its two public shrines—to The Masked Ball and The Crossroads—raised just above the high water mark as the land begins to slope up to the northeast toward the rest of the town.
What draws visitors to this spot from both the local area and the villages beyond is the Magic School. This finely restored, Nymion building is situated on a plateau at the base of the waterfall, constantly serenaded by the rushing waters tumbling down the cliff and churning in the pool below before passing under a rock bridge to calm themselves in the little river. (Daring locals know of a bathing pool partway down the cascade where the chilly waters can be enjoyed at only a moderate risk of a painful and possibly dangerous ride down the rapids.)
It is the quality of the teaching, though, rather than the scenic architecture, which gives this school its allure. Littletree, the Nymion instructor, is exceptionally skilled in Earth and Water Element Magics, also having well above average knowledge of the Element Magics of Air, Smoke, and Fire. They may be short in stature for a Nymion, but their reputation as an instructor stands tall in the region. Not only do many of the magical merchants of the area owe their ability to manage their magic to Littletree, so too do a few other teachers at smaller Magic Schools in neighboring areas.
As soon as the weather permits travel in the spring, Waterborn starts to welcome students whose magic has begun to come in—most of them at that cusp between adolescence and adulthood, but some who have gained magic later. Many are accompanied by a relative or close friend who will remain at least for their first few months of study and perhaps through their entire stay. The majority of students learn to control and direct their magical talents by the time the autumn winds begin to chill, but some—whether through lack of diligence or due to possessing more complex magical talents—remain through the cold and blustery winter to complete their studies. Many life-long friendships are formed amongst those who overwinter at a Magic School, as the classic tropes of song and story attest.
The eastern portion of the town is more typically First Davur culture, though still bearing elegant Nymion windows in places. It has a market square and a petite guildhall of the Farmers’ Guild, along with a variety of craftsfolk and other services. A quieter public house, The Wren’s Nest, is down a lane from the square, a little ways past the cheesemaker and the pie shop. The accommodations there are in a circle of small one to three story little towers surrounding a community garden.
Thanks to the natural dye ingredients found in the moor and marsh south of the town, there are many colorful fabric decorations in Waterborn, along with a thriving trade in the bright embroidery threads so important to that traditional art form of the Mirror Nymioni.
Waterborn’s population is about 1200 residents. It is supported by the farming village of Wellfield a quarter day’s walk to the northeast and the herding village of Rattle about the same to the southeast. Along with those two settlements, there are many small farmhouses and foragers’ huts in the area.
Waterborn in winter is buffeted by cold winds off the mountain and in springtime is soggy, but its great natural bounty from late spring through to the first snow makes up for the inconveniences.
Whether you’re choosing a location for a magically talented relation to understand their new gifts, traveling east or west between the mountains and the plains, seeking materials or tools for your craft, or just looking for a lovely spot to simply be, Waterborn awaits!