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There's Something About Three

Published: at 11:45 PM

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When we consume content, whether it involves imagery or more abstract concepts, we tend to look for patterns, and one of those patterns I recognize most easily is triads and/or triplets. This concept has been swirling in my mind for a while now. It was a prominent aspect of the design elements of OmniMyth, and I’ve been determined to carry it over into the development of my game, Fables. In this post, I’ll delve into my mindset while designing around the number three. More importantly, I’ll discuss how adhering too strictly to a rigid structure can sometimes lead to unexpected challenges.

Why Three?

Three just has an innate appeal. Triplicates are easily grasped at a glance and find a place in all forms of art. In games, think of the triforce or the three starting dungeons in Zelda, or the three hit rule in Volleyball; in literature, think of the Fates, the Three Little Pigs, or the Structure of the Holy Trinity; in design, consider the rule of thirds, or the rule of 3 in home design, or the Rule of Odds in visual composition. Three is compact, it offers an ideal balance between simplicity and complexity, providing just enough structure to inspire creativity.

My Implementations

I’ll largely disregard talking about OmniMyth, as it has been less present in my thoughts lately. However, I will talk at length about my new game, Fables of the Twin Moons (secretly, there are three—shhh). Within Fables of the Twin Moons, the number three recurs in various aspects. Each of the four traits features three distinct skills associated with them. The rule of 3 also ties closely into other sub-systems such as Crafting, Alchemy, or the Ability creation system. While seemingly minor, these details gain further significance when we dive deeper into them.

The Crafting System

The crafting system was one of the first implemented triads in the game, it utilizes the concept that you need materials, tools, and a template or blueprint of some sort to craft an object. This gives a Guide (our term for a referee or games master) three different levers they can tweak for making checks to create something more or less difficult, and changes the potential output. If you use more exotic materials the item may have magic properties but may be more difficult to craft or take more time. If you use specialized tools to craft the item it may make it easier or make the end product unique in some way. Obviously the blueprint or template itself is flexible, you could even use another equivalent object as a sample or craft your own blueprint or template.

The Alchemy System

The alchemy system naturally evolved from Crafting, focusing less on the tools involved with the task and instead centering around combining three unique components out of a list of 36, every potion requires three individual ingredients, if you put in two of the same ingredient it changes what that ingredient does. This allows each ingredient’s impact to vary based on its quantity in the mixture effectively giving each ingredient three different “modes” in which it can be used. The system feels elegant, it can make for some really garbage potions or some really interesting and cool ones, but it does a great job of giving the power to the player to design their own thing.

The Ability System

Originally, the ability system was built around a concept of Effects, Limits, and Tolls. These three distinct elements of an ability combining to create a single “spell” or ability with the goal of achieving balance. Effects and Tolls offer a wide range of possibilities, each having three different tiers of power, and Limits were supposed to be a lever which allowed the player to sacrifice frequency of casting for more power or easier recharging of the ability. The theory was solid, but this is where I hit my first major hitch, it was a challenge to communicate, some of the individual elements are very intuitive but combining them all together can be tricky and some of them are daunting to choose, feeling like a big commitment for your character. This is good and bad, committing to the bit as my wife and I like to say, can really help buy-in and make any activity more fun, but then if something doesn’t go as deep… It becomes noticably shallow.

Effects Tiers

Effects tiers allow for a character to modify the power level of their ability. Some tiers enhance the spell’s range or flexibility, and some just result in a simple increase in damage. Each Effect features three distinct tiers which modify one specific portion of that Effect at three levels. In addition each Effect comes with three possible upgrades that players can sink ability points into, allowing them to truly customize how their ability develops. Three seemed like the right number to get players thinking about how they might want to change their ability, and some landing room for a Guide to work with their players to come up with other unique modifications they could make down the road.

Toll Tiers

Toll tiers determine the price you pay to recharge your ability. Initially, each toll had three distinct versions, A lesser toll might ask you to find or collect rare tomes, while the “greater” version instead demanded you to consume said tome. This was cool in theory but in practice created a great divide between which Tolls would actually realistically be chosen in gameplay, some of them simply asked too much and it was a huge hurdle to have 3 distinct versions built within each Toll, as such Tolls were the first major change that I had to make with the ability system (this is foreshadowing for future complications, in the same way that a shovel can be used as a blunt object to hit a person in the face).

Limit Tiers

Limit tiers define how many times you can use an ability and under what conditions they can be used. Some limits initially restricted ability usage to specific situations, such as inside or outside of combat, day or night, or even initiative. Opting for a more restrictive limit would be rewarded with more casts, and in one version of the rules, even unlimited casts if certain circumstances were met. That said, limits felt stifling rather than innovative, they had a very tight design space and the three tiers felt inconsequential. Limits were simultaneously limiting and very limited.

The First Domino to Fall

Now, let’s discuss Tolls as the first domino to fall (this is the payoff of my earlier foreshadowing). There were too many of them. Twenty-four, to be exact, or seventy-two when considering their distinct versions. They felt disconnected from each other, lacking a cohesive identity. They needed to be streamlined. I spent days contemplating how to achieve this, and the answer turned out to be surprisingly straightforward. Eliminate the two least interesting versions of each Toll, then distribute the remaining twenty-four Tolls among three tiers. This effectively created Lesser, Regular, and Greater Tolls, eight of each. This approach proved much more effective; all the Tolls became interesting and added character to the game. Were they perfectly balanced? Not quite. Were they all enjoyable and engaging? Still not quite, but we’re getting there.

Over the Limit(s)

Now we come to the second challenge. The Limits. By the time we finished our third round of playtesting I was determined to eliminate Limits entirely. However, the triptych concept remained a stubborn fixture. Selecting a tier 1, 2, or 3 Effect, followed by a Toll from the remaining unused tiers, and finally fitting the Limit into the last spot often relegated it to an afterthought. Even when it wasn’t an afterthought, it still felt cumbersome and unsatisfying. However, I was unwilling to abandon the concept of the triptych entirely. Eventually, I realized a compromise was necessary. What if I integrated the Limits into the Effects? That would give me some more wiggle room regarding the power level of an individual Effect as I could assign it a specific number of uses. This would also vastly simplify ability creation as players would only need to select an Effect and a Toll, although I had concerns that might be TOO simple, I didn’t want it to feel like picking a single spell out of a spellbook of premade options. But then, another challenge arose. How am I supposed to fit a system balanced around three distinct components into one that just has two choices?

The Solution? Keep the Number Three

Credit for the solution goes to my very good friend David. During a Saturday call, he suggested keeping all three Effect tiers, after all I had put in all the work to come up with and attempt to balance them, it’s ridiculous to throw them out. But to align them to the three tiers of Tolls we could instead introduce a rule: “If you choose a greater Effect, you must select a Toll of equal or greater value.” This simplified the system significantly but brought up the same concern as getting rid of limits, you lose an entire factor of wiggle-room for ability customization, the number of casts before a recharge. Fortunately, for once, the solution presented itself pretty readily. Instead of a mandatory one-to-one matching, it instead became “when you choose an Effect, you must choose a Toll of equal or greater value, and if you choose a Toll of greater value, you gain one additional use of your ability per tier greater than the Effect.” This approach while wordier, was still significantly simpler than the initial concept, and far more importantly it offered flexibility. Allowing players to define the frequency and intensity of their spells and associated Tolls.


In conclusion, the significance of the number three in my personal design philosophy is undeniable, is it always good? No, sometimes it’s kind of a shackle, but does it create some interesting solutions? I would say absolutely. And I don’t think it’s just me, whether in a three-act play, a three-part argument, or the classic hero’s journey, it’s clear that there’s a natural affinity to patterns revolving around the number three. Maybe after reading this, you’ll start to notice the number three more often in your own work or those you’re consuming. We can’t help it after all, humans evolved to take part in pattern-seeking behavior, it’s a survival mechanism.

🍃 - Brian Anders