A Future ArM 6 -- what is ESSENTIAL?

Adding some language which limits a mage to things not in his focus might bring more in balance. If your focus is necromancy, you are very good at it but have a penalty of things not dealing with it.

Now that this thread has gotten well started with some very good suggestions and a few divergent points-of-view, I feel able to contribute my own opinion without constraining the discussion (or getting flamed too badly).

I think what is ESSENTIAL is:

  • basic mechanics (already in 5E)
  • character creation (already in 5E)
  • stock characters, usable as grogs or NPCs (already in 5E but the magi need work)
  • a bigger bestiary
  • rules and guidelines for making creatures and NPCs quickly and easily (meaning the PC-style detailed design in RoP:Magic is not the way to go, not in the core book IMHO)
  • a playable starting covenant
  • a short sample adventure
  • about one additional page of "what is the fun thing you do in this game"

And since I originally framed the question in terms of trade-offs, here is what I'd sacrifice to get the page count:

  • Rules for covenant creation. You only create one covenant per saga. I am not convinced spending a lot of time designing the covenant in numerical terms is time well spent, compared to just writing a few paragraphs of prose about why your covenant is cool and what challenges it faces.
  • Virtues and Flaws. When it comes to V&Fs, quantity does not equate with quality. There are probably 50 Flaws I have never used in all my years of playing ArM. I'd cut them. Similarly, Virtues can be streamlined a lot IMHO.
  • Lab experimentation. It's nice to have, but not essential. I've only seen it used 4 times in all my years of playing, and two of those times it ended up being a waste of the PC's time. The experimentation table is a whole page that could be used for something more fun and important.

I agree. For instance Method Caster and Cyclic Magic could be listed as examples in Special Circumstances.

To further reduce the word count, dump extras into some free online pieces like the book of mundane beast, sample traits, boons and hooks. If people who didn't buy the game find some use in it, they're likely to end up buying it anyway. You could even merge it all into an evolving wiki to save on the page layout.

Not sure I agree, BUT some parts of covenants could stand abstraction. Do we need to point out libraries when covenants are constantly trading books around? Nope! If the book you want isn't here THIS year, your librarian can trade around for it and maybe you'll have it next year. Put in place a mechanism to improve covenant characteristics (do X, get xp to improve covenant library/vis sources/craftmen/etc).

Could not agree more. Most of the Personality Flaws could be boiled down to "Personality Flaw (Minor/Major)"

This I don't agree with. I'd actually like Hermetic laboratory work to be a bit more random all the time rather than have a player go "I've got enough lab total now, NOTHING CAN GO WRONG!!!" It's part of the reason I like labs that have a Warping score, you always get a chance of a spell becoming flavored beyond the original intent. Experiments do waste seasons too often, however. There should be some bone thrown to a player who wastes a season experimenting, like Practice XP instead of Exposure XP.

Does everyone love the way Virtues and Flaws work at the moment in ArM5?

This is a fairly traditional Merits and Flaws /Ads & Disads system popular in the 90s. Is that still the way you like it? Or is it only useful in character creation, and thenceforth it's done its job and is part of the character sheet's math etc?

I'm really fascinated by the notion brought up that the panel that there are two games here:

  1. The creation of characters, covenants, magic items, libraries, etc
  2. Actually playing those things in a story

From what I've been able to tell, many people glom to the 1st one and never get around to the 2nd one. And others suffer through the 1st one to get to the 2nd one. Few people seem to think both are equally awesome in terms of their time commitments.

I think it's fine. There are plenty of systems that don't give 'Flaws' - D&D/Pathfinder is the biggest example, but the Virtue/Flaw model still has merit. I think moving all flaws towards the notion of giving the GM material to work with is good. Also, I don't really see the need for Virtues and Flaws to balance that much. If a player got 5 points of free virtues and could take 5 more with balancing flaws, it would cut down on the scramble to find superfluous flaws ("Incompatible Arts!" "Deficient Auram!") and pad their virtues up to 10. Companions are really bad for becoming caricatures if they try to get 10 points of Virtues/Flaws.

But I do think that the +1/+3 granularity could go away and make room for +1/+2/+3/+4/+5. I hate to suggest added complication, but Virtues and Flaws could be bought on the pyramid scale, so a -3 Flaw would give you 6 pyramid points and you could buy a +2 Virtue (3) and 3 +1 Virtues(1 each).

I guess I wouldn't call the first one a "game." I'd call it an exercise, or homework. Some players found it very fun and spent a lot of time making their character (primarily) and inventing things in the lab. Others found it laborious. Often we never finished stating up a covenant because we lost interest in all the parts, Once we got past the library and maybe the grimoire we said "good enough."

Lots of these creation activities happened when the group was apart, not together. I always found the game play part more fun than the "stating things up" part because we got together and participated in a social activity. I've been called an extrovert. Squatting in my study and creating characters and NPCs and storyguide characters was something I did because I had to, not because I loved to. I loved to roll dice at the table and thrill at the outcomes of the wild sh*t the players were always trying to pull off. That was my fun, so I'd fall more towards Cams' second point rather than his first.

To answer the Virtues/Flaws question, no, I don't think they work. I think a few Virtues, or Merits, or keywords to describe and advantage a character are good, but the notion that they have to be balanced leads to a lot of useless and often forgotten Virtues and Flaws. After a while I didn't care if Virtues and Flaws balanced at all. If it was a concept that a player wanted to play and didn't break the bank from the get go (because in the end ALL magi break the bank) then I let a player play the character.


I think Ars requires more prep than any other game I have ever run over 30+ years. But that prep is part of the game and, if you don't enjoy it, you're GMing the wrong game (players can usually muscle through part 1 to get to part 2 but for GMs it is a constant process). I do see character creation, tracking the covenant in play, and all the "homework" as part of a single game that has a "solo" component and a "social" component.

In other words, making NPCs, libraries, magic items and covenants occupies pretty much the same mental space for me that "Dungeon of the Bear", the legendary solo dungeon, did with Tunnels & Trolls thirty years ago.

No offense, but perhaps this is why new people aren't playing the game. It's got a difficult entry point and its a lot of maintenance. Yes, some few people like it, but as we see, those few people aren't enough to keep the game alive.

I really think the magic is in the setting, no pun intended, and that the overburdening rules squash that magic.


I think there's a way to leverage virtues and flaws and make character creation potentially easier. I've shared (elsewhere) my view on a directed character creation that takes you through stages of the character's background (childhood, what it is that gives them their magic, their apprenticeship, their House/tradition, etc.) and at each point the decisions you make open up a couple of V/F choices.

Quick example... If I decide my magus' magic comes from some kind of frost giant lineage from back in the day, that background might open up a focus in "cold effects", or you have some kind of affinity with the creatures of the arctic north.

Rather than leave the player to scan through pages of virtues and flaws deciding whether the character's magic comes from the blood of a frost giant, a curse laid upon their family, a bargain made with a faerie, a prophecy foretold, or some other kind of background, directs the player towards certain specific options.

These "backgrounds" for want of a better word (and I appreciate that this is probably now overloaded what with D&D5 having backgrounds too) could be setting and tradition specific. Once you start layering them up (you're from a poor background / you were abandoned at a monastery, your magic is a curse / a spirit gave you its power, you were saved by your master / you were stolen away by your master, etc.) then your character starts to take on a life of its own and the choices of V/F (or equivalent) start to arise as a natural consequence.

Those descriptive elements also start to act as story flaws in that they give the storyguide something to hang a story off.

I could also see each supplement (based on area, time period, magical tradition, whatever) publishing new "backgrounds" that support the supplement and the target play style. So if we put out a fifteenth-century supplement, the action might move to the Italian peninsular and we might have backgrounds modelling artistic patrons, alchemists, mercantile families, etc. These would be different from the Celtic/Pictish/British/Druidic backgrounds that the sixth-century British Isles setting provided.

I don't know, it's an idea, right? I like how Virtues and Flaws allow me to make my Verditius a little different to your Verditius, but I don't like being swamped with a lot of Virtues and Flaws that I don't really want and being left to choose between them. I want to build my character and for those special touches to derive naturally from the background choices I make when building the character.

You're almost certainly right, Matt. I'm not trying to insist that Ars maintain a high barrier to entry, or even that it maintain a high requirement of GM prep. I love me some story games too.

I was just trying to say that I do find the prep to be fun, and part of the game, albeit one enjoyed solo rather than at the table.

Personally, I think it's a great idea. It reminds me a little of other (more recent) games where you add one distinguishing trait to your character as you go through each of three-five distinctive phases. So maybe in childhood you get Immunity: Cold, as a young apprentice you acquire Magical Focus: Cold, and then in your Gauntlet you get Reputation: Giant-Killer. This makes character creation into a group exercise, and allows players to build connections between each other before play. It is character creation as play -- which we already have, but it exchanges a solo mini game for a group mini game, more like the way we currently come up with the covenant.

I think that part of the problem is that the enjoyment from (often solo) character/covenant/spell/item tinkering is the sort of thing that many people now derive in a more accessible way from fooling about with online/phone games (not necessarily a better way, but certainly more accessible).

Perhaps, an approach to ArM6 is to hand all the calculations and number checking and other tinkering stuff off to apps. You wouldn't even need the rules for a lot of it in the core book --- the rules could be hidden in the app.

Of course, the luddite in me is screaming and bashing his head against the wall at the very thought of having ArM apps being required for the game.

"Alternative histories" is not the same as "generic fantasy"
If the Romans had won the battle of Frigidus over the Byzantines, and subsequently the war, then mythic Europe would be much different than what we have in the 'close' timeline. Allowing mages to travel between worlds where history had a different outcome could open up a lot more stories and still keep the core setting, possibly with a new art or two.

Personally I think the appeal problem at this point is a combination of prep time and constraint- the world is over-defined to the point that the players have little room for their own creativity. That is why games tend to occur in chaotic situations- wars the characters are involved with, frontiers, an apocalypse... playing in a world where everything just rolls along and there is a feeling that the future is predetermined (because it is tied to real world history) tends to kill enthusiasm.

Then there are the real world conflicts barely mentioned such as the prevalence of the celtic monastic forms of Christianity which the Catholic church was competing with for dominance in the 13th century at the same time it was splitting from the Eastern Orthodox...
the game system has very powerfull magic that has been overwhelmed by mundanity..

... asking another member of my group they indicated that basically what they disliked the most was the troupe style of play... and the time frames of spending seasons and facing the eventual death of their magus from old age.

I feel, that the first place to take complexity out of a renewed Ars is the covenants.

  • Covenants ground sagas in Mythic Europe.

  • Setting them up did always benefit from a cooperative, narrativist approach, driven by research of their place and its history - and did suffer from gamesy catalogues of covenant properties to pick from.

  • Laboratories are rather extensions of mage characters than parts of the covenant. Shouldn't they also be treated like this in the rules?

  • The covenant's library and vis income are the main joint resources for the development of characters in the saga. It is these sagas, not the covenants themselves, that IMO warrant classifications by seasons - and thereby should be discussed with the troupe when determining the power curve of magi (as Andrew Gronosky suggests in https://forum.atlas-games.com/t/card-board-games-archive-links/116/1 ).

What do you think?


I really like the idea of background-based character creation, provided it is kept simple.

The reason I like it is because the background generates a story. Stories are far easier for people (especially new people) to understand, and they create a narrative that is incomplete.

This is ideal. A great approach would be to develop and distribute (for free) a starter-version of this character creation system, because the resulting characters aren't going to be just numbers but stories waiting to happen. Stories, ideally, that the creators want to have told.

Which does rather sum up a lot of modern RPG business: games design, user acquisition and marketing all need to be intertwined.

I think it's a good idea, but it's diametrically opposite to Andrew's idea that the number of Virtues and Flaws could be reduced. You would also need, probably in a supplement, a way to cut the V&Fs free from the backgrounds, for people who had character concepts that didn't fit the list that the authors had managed to come up with.

Because RPGs are supposed to inspire imagination, they quickly hit the point where a substantial part of the fan base finds the guidelines constraining. Look at Pathfinder for an example. You choose one of eight classes. Easy. Oh, or the other dozen classes. And then there are about a dozen archetypes per class. And feat choices. I think this is the nature of ArM-style RPGs. Story games get around the idea by basically dropping the ideas of character creation and ongoing campaigns; you get together to tell a particular story. You probably do it once. This is a good style of game, but it's different.

...I don't get it.

Prep time in the game is high, so a defined world cuts down on prep time, but that defined world is a bad thing? Real history is the game's greatest resource AND an easy source of inspiration - because truth is stranger than fiction.

Don't we sort of have that, though? You've got your 'childhood' skill packages, your choice of House and your apprenticeship XP and spells. Going beyond that with "Ice mage with giant blood in his veins" and you're sort of into splatbooks full of starter packages.

What could be done is have a free virtue based on your pre-apprenticeship background. A blacksmith's son is likely to have Puissant Craft:Blacksmith, even if he's strong in the magic of bees and never picks up a hammer in his life.

....and now I'm picturing a Jerbiton magus who was born a peasant and is highly resentful of the nobility for keeping his relatives in what amounts to slavery.

Yes and no.

Yes in that for those of us who have played Ars Magica a lot, the system itself sparks story concepts. But there's actually a fair amount of creative heavy lifting to move from a collection of virtues and flaws to a memorable character concept. And vice versa is similarly hard.

What I've learned (the hard way) is that when dealing with people who are new to something, you need to do quite a bit of the creative heavy lifting for them. If you don't, they'll move on to something else. You need to hook people in with some nice, easy stories that they can get excited about.

The limited classes in DnD or Pathfinder or whatever are an example of this; they do a huge amount of the thinking for the player. It's a pre-packaged 'this is cool!' that the player can be excited about. It comes with level progression that unlocks new and funky abilities that give the player something to look forward to. It hooks into a lot of sales/marketing techniques; ultimately giving the player something they can not just create now, but plan for in the future.

This is something I personally love about Ars Magica's 'character' game - working out the different options for characters. I will spend literally hours designing countless spells, magic items, etc. - most of which never go past a giant word document full of crazy off-the-wall spell ideas, etc. But this is a relatively recent habit of mine (within the last four years), while I've been playing Ars Magica since 3rd edition. And, sadly, it's actually hitting the same 'need' that skimming through the character class and feat writeups in Pathfinder or DnD does, only with the latter it is something I can be on-board and doing within literally minutes of picking up the rulebook for the first time.

So where am I going with this?

A huge part of the success of any game comes down to making the player want to play the game a second time. Or open the rulebook and keep playing with it after their initial browse through. And this basically comes down to stories - not stories as in 'The Story of the Demon Tower', but stories as in memories the player has of enjoying the game; both memories of what has happened and more importantly the prospective 'what if...' stories of what the player will experience if they keep at it, give it a go, recommend it to their friends, whatever.

Ultimately, it is this 'potential for future awesome' that sells games. It's why level-up tables are so successful, despite their many flaws and accompanying ironies.

This is why anything that helps on-board a player with prospective 'I want to play my character and see their story continue' mechanics is not just a good thing, but something that needs to be at the forefront of any design work.