The RPG of Renaissance Wizardry
If you know me or have listened to Episode One of my podcast, Titterpigs: The TTRPG Podcast, you know I have a deep-rooted interest in the occult and occult-themed games. I naturally own several like Nephilim, Sigil & Shadow, and The Dee Sanction. When I acquire new ones I have some expectations and biases I must work through. Magonomia, an occult-themed historical-fiction roleplaying game, caught my attention while organizing an online convention last year. How does Magonomia stack up against other occult-themed games?
Note: Shewstone Press provided Rolling Boxcars with a review copy for this article. If you have an item you’d like Rolling Boxcars to review, please visit our Product Review Request page.
Magonomia is a historical-fictional game in which players take on the role of the 16th-century wizards in an alternate Elizabethian England. Roleplaying in fantasy versions of historical settings is common. One needs only to look at the myriad of games out there—Harn, Pendragon, and Chronica Feudalis are just a few. It’s not a far-fetched idea to play wizards in Elizabethian England; a time and place where magic has a rich historical reality. The wizards of Enchanted England are not like the magic users of traditional fantasy games, casting spells with silly names. These wizards are modeled after historical personalities like Dr. John Dee, advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and other period astronomers, scientists, and occultists. While they can and will perform unusual magics, their spells are rooted in contemporaneous beliefs and traditions.
The book is a whopping 379 pages, comprised of eighteen chapters and appendices containing everything needed to play the game. Fate powers Magonomia; Fate Core and Condensed elements blend to form the game’s engine. As a neophyte to Fate-powered games, I hope the rules overview is adequate and my analysis fair. With that said, let’s dig into the rules.
At the core of Fate games and thereby Magonomia is the die roll to resolve actions and situations that will result in exciting narrative outcomes. The dice rolls happen only when the fiction demands it; mundane activities and those seemingly resolved within the narrative do not require dice roles—they just happen. Fate uses special six-sided dice (sold separately), each having two plus (+) signs, two minus (-) signs, and two blank faces. However, regular six-sided dice can be used, and their use is explained in the book.
Fate games use short descriptive phrases called Aspects that define traits about a character, location, or physical item. Aspects are not exclusive to Fate-based games; in fact, several games use them or something similar. Games like Cortex Prime or Powered by the Apocalypse games, use Tags that function similarly. Aspects are a key element of gameplay for invoking benefits or introducing hindrances in Fate-based games. Favorable Aspects are “invoked” to give a wizard a bonus when attempting to do something. Conversely, unfavorable Aspects can be “compelled” to create complications or challenges that negatively impact the wizard’s attempt. The following examples tell us something about the thing they are attached to. In-game terms, any one of these Aspects might be invoked or compelled depending on its use.
- An alleyway could be Suspicious Dark.
- A tavern might be Crowded.
- A wizard might have Faerie Ancestry.
- A wizard might Owe Lots of Favors.
While they are a key mechanical element of the game, their use is not a free-for-all. To invoke or compel requires the expenditure of a Fate Point. Fate Points are an in-game currency earned in various ways, some better than others. There are several ways to Invoke Aspects. These include: granting a bonus to the die roll total, taking a reroll, granting a bonus to another wizard’s action, increasing the difficulty of another wizard’s activity through a hostile invocation, or activating an Aspects special power. Two other available uses include changing a story detail, such as justifying having an unusual object on hand and free invocations. These do not cost a Fate Point but have specific criteria that must be met. For example, when casting a spell that creates an Aspect, a free Invocation of the Aspect is given.
Characters use four types of Actions:
- Overcome—overcoming obstacles and non-violent competitions
- Create an Advantage—gains a benefit from an Aspect or creates a new, temporary Aspect
- Attack—harming enemies
- Defend—blocking an opponent’s action
Action resolution is an eight-step process that comes across as clunky, but the authors assure readers that it is quick. Magonomia, like other narrative-focused games, promotes that the outcome of an Action does not necessarily dictate success or failure. Instead, results decide between intended and unintended outcomes.
The eight-step resolution process begins with a player narratively describing their character’s action and what might stand in the way. This narrative should paint a picture for everyone at the table; it also serves to help pinpoint what skills a wizard is using and the type of Action. The GM then sets the Difficulty. The player rolls four dice with results ranging from -4 to +4. The results are further modified by the skill rating, Invoking Aspects, using Boosts (a fleeting advantage), and Stunts (benefits gained from certain skills). The final total is called your Effort, and the GM compares your Effort to the Difficulty and narrates the outcome. While this is merely a simple summary of the process, the book includes an in-depth look at each step and associated mechanical elements like Boosts and Stunts.
The entirety of Magonomia’s rules are covered in six chapters spans nearly 100 pages. In detail, each chapter explains one or more of the game’s mechanical elements. These chapters include Game Basics, Fate Points and Aspects, Skills and Stunts, Action Scenes, Playing in a Campaign, and Magic Rules. While I will not detail each mechanical element, suffice to say, most chapters further explain something presented or at least eluded to in the Game Basics chapter.
Character creating is a systematic process. Much like Action resolution, it also has eight steps. There are two methods of creating a wizard: long and short. The long method is fully creating your wizard before the game starts. The short method involves creating a bare-bones wizard beforehand and completing it during play as opportunities arise.
First, players must choose a Science (a type of magical science), a High Concept (an Aspect statement that sums up your wizard), and an Archetype (a nearly complete wizard concept centered around an occupation). As the order is unimportant, there are various reasons why starting with one over another may be beneficial. With the big building blocks established, players define the wizard’s Trouble. This is a weakness or complication in the wizard’s life and is expressed as an Aspect. Next, three additional permanent Aspects are added to define the wizard further. All wizards start with 10 skills spread across the first four skill ranks. Skill rankings are either Great, Good, Fair, Average, or Mediocre—denoting the bonus it grants. All other skills are Mediocre. Wizard spells are chosen. Spells are ranked by “degree” in each science, and there are limits when selecting spells. The Refresh score (3) is filled in—the minimum number of Fate Points available at the start of each session. Two Stunts are chosen. However, stunts may be chosen at any time. Finally, secondary information is filled in, like determining the stress track value, known languages, equipment, and the like.
Accompanying character creation are two very in-depth examples. Two characters are created concurrently, one using the long method; the other using the short. Character creation is not overly complicated, but there are variables in both methods which make it a slow process. Adding to this already slow process is having to create Aspects. Even with copious amounts of examples available, players will likely want to create their own and, as a result, may suffer from analysis paralysis.
I did not enjoy the character creation process. Nearly 50 pages are dedicated to the eight-step process, the bulk of which is the concurrently running examples. Other sections like Stunts must also be read. There is simply too much information presented to digest and process easily. Much of what is needed is buried in over-developed and over-explained sections. I’ll discuss this further in the “Presentation” section below.
Every spell previously listed in each of the Sciences in a shortened form is fully detailed in the Grimoire. The Grimoire is massive but provides all the necessary in-game details to cast or invoke the spells in addition to contextual information. When I say massive, I mean it. The chapter spans nearly 100 pages presenting each spell alphabetically and expanding on what has already been provided in the Sciences and Archetypes chapter. About one-third of the entries also have accompanying artwork: some simple black line work, others full color.
Magonomia includes a moderately comprehensive suite of resources for the Gamemaster that fill the book’s remaining 100 or so pages. This series of chapters include: setting information broken down into three chapters—Magical Lore, Enchanted England, and The Mortal Realm—a Bestiary and Rogues Gallery, Being the Game Master, and the Game Master’s Sourcebook.
The chapter on Enchanted England, while small, gives insight into the beliefs held in the English countryside. Topics covered include various fae folk, dragons, sea monsters, and enchanted places. Unlike Enchanted England, the chapter on the Mortal Realm provides historical information on a wide array of English-centric topics. Readers will find the topics ranging from everyday life, places to visit, crime and punishment, a year-by-year timeline from 1558 to 1603, and more.
On the other hand, the Magic Lore chapter is somewhat deeper in its treatment of the subject matter. It explores the underlying concepts of the five magical sciences. It provides readers with a seemingly contemporary worldview of the occult that expands what is already presented at the book’s beginning. Furthermore, it gives Gamemasters insight and information on topics such as angels, demons, ghosts, fairies, principles of magic, magic and society, and so much more.
The Bestiary and Rogues Gallery is small but ample. It provides Gamemasters a smattering of mundane beasts, people, and various mythical and fantastical beings and creatures to pit against the wizards. Entries provide all the information necessary to bring each of these to life.
The chapter entitled Being the Game Master is geared toward new or inexperienced Magonomia Gamemasters. It offers advice on a small array of topics that new Gamemasters will find helpful. Some of the advice is basic but frequently overlooked or forgotten while in the moment. Take, for example, “inviting player contributions.”
Finally, the last chapter, Game Master Sourcebook, contains non-player characters (NPCs) and plot hooks for Gamemasters to weave into their games. The NPCs are grouped into categories like members of secret societies or members of English society. The chapter ends with a sample campaign frame called “The Royal Pact.” This bare-bones scenario framework explores the nightmares Queen Elizabeth suffers from. The wizards will be integral to saving England if they have the skills and fortitude to do what needs doing.
The book’s final chapters that constitute the setting are quite interesting. While rooted in history, this is still a fantasy game. There is lots of good information here to help the Gamemaster form and shape the world for their players. However, like me, some readers may find some areas lacking enough information while others are overly covered. I found the other Gamemaster resources, while generic in a sense, still good and useful.
The physical book comes from DriveThruRPG as a Print on Demand. It is a full-color U.S. letter-sized hardcover or softcover—the copy provided to me was hardcover. Each page looks as if it was torn from an old grimoire, having an aged appearance. The artwork throughout is a mix of public domain and custom commissions. The result here is an inconsistent art style that, while not unappealing, is a little jarring. I love the aged paper look of the book with its clean two-column layout, but the transition from chapter to chapter needs attention; they are not that noticeable and don’t catch your eye.
The title, Magonomia, has no historical significance and is entirely fictional. However, its origins come from the Greek words magia (“magic”) and nomia (“laws”). The authors assert that magicians did not have a singular name for their pursuit of mystical truths and that most sixteenth-century magicians would have used the term “occult philosophy.” Readers should remember that these two words’ historical meanings are different from modern ones.
Regarding the overall content presentation, two things Magonomia suffers from are being overwritten and overdeveloped. Let me explain where I’m coming from. Some chapters and sub-sections of the book feel bloated. This can be seen throughout, but chapter 3, Collaborative Gameplay, is just one example. Although this chapter is only five pages long, it’s four pages too many. I am an ardent supporter of safety tools, but this chapter could have easily been condensed to one page and merged with another chapter. Readers could then be referred to an appendix for a deeper dive into the various tools available. Or better yet, readers could have been referred to the excellent TTRPG Safety Toolkit website.
Similarly, the character creation chapter is overwritten and detrimentally overexplained. As previously mentioned, about fifty pages are dedicated to character creation, many of which are used to outline the two concurrently running creation methods. It’s likely these examples could have been written in a more streamlined way, reducing word counts, and increasing the ease of learning.
The book has a logical layout and flow of information. Being overwritten and overexplained left me feeling it was just overdeveloped. As an editor myself, I can see opportunities to reduce the book’s overall wordiness, tighten up the language, improve the readability, and reduce the page count and possibly the retail price.
I absolutely wanted to love Magonomia given my love of history and of the occult, but I found reading this massive tome a chore. In part due to it being overwritten and in part that I find I simply do not like the Fate game engine, or at least the way it is used or explained to me here. I wish the game had been married to a different game engine. Having said that, Magonomia has the potential to shine. For gamers and groups that already have a love for Fate-based games, they may feel right at home with Magonomia. Where I appreciate conciseness, others may welcome the verbose explanations. I highlight both sides of the equation because there are always two sides to everything.
While I obviously don’t like some things about the game, what did I like? Glad you asked! Despite my initial disappointment with the historicity of the game, I did enjoy the extent to which the writers went to wrap the game in a historical framework, albeit with some liberal license applied. The occult details are plentiful and accurate to my knowledge. I know C.J. Romer’s knowledge of the occult; I have faith in the general accuracy of the information. Again, assuming some liberal license has been applied. The game as a whole also exhibits the creativity of the writing team. My particular dislikes are not meant to discredit the work put into the game—it’s solid, just overwritten.
I sincerely hope those with a similar love of history and the occult find the type of game they are looking for in Magonomia. For me, I’ll keep looking but remain hopeful that maybe someday a more refined and concise version will be released that lets me fall in love with the game.
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