I started writing a game about magicians as part of a wizard-themed game jam on Itch but never got around to finishing it. After the jam ended, the design sat in my Google Docs folder, floating further and further away from my focus. It was only when I was searching my folders for a different file that I chanced upon it, curious to remember what I had already written.
The core theme I had built my design around was the simple and terrifying fact that magic, the fundamental source of our power, was leaving us. It is up to the players to decide how and why it is happening, but the inescapable fact is that, despite our best efforts, we may lose our connection to magic at any time. As engaging as that sounds, I hadn’t translated it into a playable mechanic that felt satisfying. It was in this frustration that I originally left the design.
Now, after months of not thinking about the game in the slightest, I returned. I felt compelled to work on it again but, as I scanned the few pages of bulleted notes, I wasn’t sure where to start. Remembering the disconnect of theme and mechanic, I decided that, since I originally approached the design thematically, I would instead come at it from a technical direction.
In my original design, the dice rolling would be similar to Forged in the Dark games, where the single highest die result would determine your level of success when embarking on a challenge, or in my game, casting a spell. The more dice you have to roll when casting a spell, the more likely you are to cast it successfully. This used to include a shared supply of dice, a personal pool, and any single die, regardless of the success of the roll, might go back to the public supply. There was, in theory, supposed to be an ebb and flow of a person’s personal pool of magical energy. I wanted tension around the decision to use more dice to improve your chance of success while risking the lose of your dice.
This was, to say the least, complicated. It also wasn’t generating the feeling and tension I was going for. I originally started with a feeling and built a mechanic around it. This time, I approached it from the other side, thinking first about how the dice behave and then looking for ways to theme those behaviors. As the data nerd I am, I took to Excel to create charts and tables of hypothetical dice rolls to see if I could find any insights.
First thing I did was simplify the success condition of the rolls. For any given roll, you would fail if your highest die rolled is a 3 or less, you would get a complicated or costly success on a 4 or 5, and a full success on a 6. This scale wouldn’t change based on difficulty or position like it sometimes does in larger FitD systems. I also decided on how players would add dice to their roll. Players start with one die based on the type of magic they’re doing (more on that later), and can add more: one if the magic is your specialty, one if an ally aids you, and one if you accept a devil’s bargain. This gives us a range of one to four dice for a roll and, after over a hundred generated rolls, I arrived at the data set in the chart below.
When rolling four dice the average failure rate is only 6%. In shorter games this means that, if always rolling four dice, players could go an entire session without ever failing a roll. Since failure drives magic leaving, the core theme of the game, the mechanics were not delivering in a satisfying way. Looking at three dice, the average failure rate doubles to 12%. This was still relatively low (about one in ten rolls will fail on average) but it was a step in the right direction. I could also put limitations around when and how players could add dice to their roll, so they wouldn’t always be rolling with three dice, increasing their chances of failure.
So, what have we learned Charlie Brown? The data told me that, if I wanted to make sure supply dice (magic) was leaving the game at a noticeable and engaging rate, I had to limit the number of dice a player could roll to three. The decision now is how to do this. Right now my options are: keep all the options but limit the total dice to three, or remove one of the options for gaining a die. Both come with benefits and issues, and also require more knowledge of how I want the game to play. For example, I could remove player aid from the equation, which will “fix” the formula but create more of a shared solo game feel that I don’t think I want. I could remove the devil’s bargain, but I like allowing players to take dangerous and costly actions in pursuit of their goals.
In addition to nailing down the core mechanic I have also been updating the design in terms of character and story creation. As mentioned above there are different types of magic called disciplines. These are similar to classic fantasy RPG schools of magic but focus more on intent than effect. This is pretty much the only defined aspect of the story, allowing players to choose who the magicians are, what their society is like, and what is driving the loss of magic. In this way, every game or session can be a unique story with a different feel and goal.
I am actively working on this design and will likely have more to share as I continue to make progress. My current goal is to produce another zine-sized standalone game that I can add to my stable of games, but that is likely months away at this point, if not longer. I’m sure I’ll find an excuse to write a few more posts about the design during that time.
Header image by Марьяна Фикс.