Designer’s Corner: Thaumaturgy and the Value of Playtesters

Today on Designer’s Corner, Lenny talks about part of the magic system — and our playtesters.

While they’re doing me the favor of letting me post to this fine blog, I want to take the opportunity to shout out to our two big rounds of playtesters for the game. The bleeding alpha and the burning alpha both provided a large amount of thorough, mindful feedback and questions, to the point where I ended up not being as visible and conversant a presence to them as I’d have liked… because I was so damn busy fixing the game based on what they pointed out to me. My debt to them is immense.

To illustrate how vast their influence was, I want to tell you a story about thaumaturgy. (Storm Front spoilers ahead.)

If you’ve read the story we have posted here under the “Schedule” tab, you’ll know that for us, magic was a pretty tough nut to crack. For me, the real difficulty was in nailing down thaumaturgy – evocation is pretty much magical combat, and we know what combat has to look like in the Fate system, so that process was more one of refinement than creation. Thaumaturgy was a beast by comparison, mainly because of its sheer scope. It literally does everything else that evocation doesn’t do.

So my first approach was to cleave as literally to the novels as I possibly could – when in doubt, go back to the source, right? I spent hours and hours of time poring back over the stories, figuring out where boundaries were drawn, taking notes on what wizards did to make spells happen, etc etc ad nauseum. There’s a story about the first time I felt like I’d really figured it out on our That’s How We Roll podcast – if only I’d known then what I know now.

So I gave this thing to the playtesters, this detailed, technical piece of work about putting together rituals and assembling components and preparing your space right and so on and so forth…

…and they pretty much told me it sucked.

Maybe not in so many words, but the glut of confusion, hints of boredom, and other signs pointed to a pretty much universal opinion that what I had written was focused on entirely the wrong things. At that point, I was pretty much left with two choices – try and wedge what I had into something at least vaguely workable, or detonate the whole damn thing from orbit and do it over again.

I told you this was going to be a story about playtester influence. I did the latter.

What I discovered since then, and what has led to the system as it currently stands, is that at the end of the day, a spell is a story. The details aren’t there in order to illustrate pieces of a cosmic order, they’re there to show us what a wizard is willing to do in order to see his or her will manifested. The entire plot of Storm Front is partly based on Victor Sells preparing to do his killing magic again, and everything we see – the hollow husks he’s made out of the Beckitts and his own family, the spread of ThreeEye, the willingness to bargain with demons and take lives – these are all part of the story of one spell. (Granted, it’s a story he repeats a few times over since the ritual is cast more than once — but that all stitches together as a larger story of his descent into grief, madness, and death.)

That is what I realized I needed in the game.  Preparation for thaumaturgy is no longer a shopping list of crap you have to go through – it’s an opportunity for you to tell the story of the spell. It’s just as much you sitting in a library paging through arcane tomes as it is you going to the convenience store to get your knowledge spirit some skin mags so he’ll give you some choice incantations. Magic is the wizard’s life.

Without the playtesters, I’d never have seen that. They changed the entire direction of my work. It’s just one example of how they made this game better.