A "How to" of Magi CharGen for the Boggled

[i]Note- First off, I do not delude myself that this is "The Word". It simply works for me, and for some whom I've shared it with. I've always touted that there are 101 ways to Role Play, and every one is right- just not right for everyone.

Also, I expect - more, I welcome criticism and observations, for only by sharing ideas can we approach any "objective" truth (tho' even then, each individual subjectively).

I wrote this over a course of exchanges with new players in Play by Post, who were boggling at creating an AM mage for the first time. I then combined the questions/responses into the below. While it was originally written for the new Player, it is also offered for any StoryGuide or veteran Player who ever helps new players create a mage. May it be of some use to some of you as well.[/i]

And see also: Pearls of Wisdom: Simple Tips for Character Creation


In some Role Playing Games, creating a "wizard" character is fairly straightforward. She or he starts off very small and vulnerable, has a narrow selection of simple options listed in alphabetical order, and so forth. In Ars Magica, it becomes immediately and increasingly clear to the new player that this is not the case here, and the creation of a Mage character can become overwhelming for some. Below are some thoughts on different approaches, and what I've seen to work well (and not).

Some players find it helpful to build a non-wizard first, to get familiar with the game system's process of buying Skills based on Age, and balancing Virtues/Flaws, but not all Char-Gen sessions have that luxury, and not all new Players have that patience.

Spell Selection might be THE toughest thing about AM Wizard CharGen. All those spells, and those interacting with 15 limiting Arts- enough to drive a person to play a fighter! Altho' an experienced player will understand how Virtues and Arts and Spells interact, I've found that for beginning players (and veterans, to a lesser extent), the formulaic spells they choose largely reflect the final character, or the direction that character takes during CharGen.

When helping a new player* through this process, I've found 2 different approaches that work well.

(* And remember - this is all for beginning and especially first-time Ars players! More experience will allow the various elements to be more easily juggled all at once. But to help get someone started... read on...)

[u]1) Solid Character Concept:[/u]
(aka "top down")

You first get a concrete image in your head, and then march towards it, ignoring all else. You may or may not be able to get there- couldn't build full-power "Gandalf" or "Thulsa Doom", but you could make a junior version inspired in the same direction. A sword-mage with a flaming blade, a manipulator of minds and memories, a sneaky animal/nature type, a warped gnome fascinated with gold and gems, a bird-mage who's at one with the winds - one tight concept, and pursue that, ignoring ALL distractions and tangents. (Once you've completed that, then you can go back and tweak.)

A concept can come from outside inspiration, or from the AM sourcebook. Any "wizard" (including psionics, superhero, high-tech or others with "powers") from any media, from film, book, TV, comics, or even another game, could be used as a model. Or, it could be built around one Technique (Creo?), or one Form (Ignem?), or a subset of a Form ("fire"?), or even built around one spell that is the mage's "calling card" ("Ball of Abyssal Flame"). Or several of them that form a nice, tight package. A specific Virtue or three might be a core part of that concept, but rather than select all your virtues first, instead pick the arts & spells, then choose the rest of the Virtues that compliment those choices that came from the central concept.

This is my own preferred approach. I believe it generates more vibrant characters, and ones that shine better in the story. However, it's a matter of fact that some players feel that, while personality and flash and concept is all well and good, it's the tools in the belt that really matter. Which leads us to...

[u]2) Spells Make the Mage:[/u]
(aka "bottom up")

While that statement is not universally true, it can work to develop a character that grows from their powers, as opposed to the other way around - and some players have a better feel for this approach than the above.

Make a list of the spell effects you want (not the spells themselves!) Read the Tech/Form Guidelines, at the beginning of each section, for inspiration - there are a lot of effects that are not represented by a canon spell. With a little creativity, there are usually several ways any given effect can be achieved, by tweaking those 15 Arts, by choosing a different Form. After you have the effects, find a combination of Techniques/Forms that allow for those spells, and the personality begins to grow, and Virtues/Flaws/etc, and even House, can spring from that.

For example, how many ways can one think to "fly"?...

Flying: o Rego Corpus (the classic superman style)
o Rego Aurum (Soaring Winds)
o Rego Animal (Flying carpet (wool), or flying Horses, or flying leather vest or shoes, etc., etc.)
o Rego Herbem (Flying broomstick, flying cotton trousers or vest)
o Creo Animal (Create magical bird/mount)
o Muto Animal (Horse to Pegasus)
o Creo Corpus/Animal (sprout Wings)
o Muto Corpus/Animal (birdform)
o Muto Corpus/Aurum (gaseous form)
o Muto Aquam (ride on a cloud)
o Muto Aurum (air to stairs)
o Perdo Corpus (destroy a body's "weight" - tricky, but perhaps(?) not impossible)
o (etc)Some of these work better than others, some have advantages over others. The point is, if you put down on your list "flying", along with a half-score other effects, then you're far more likely to find a common thread, the Arts they could share, a common link, than if you put "ReAu Wings of Soaring Wind", which tends to lead your mage (and your mental image) towards Rego and Aurum and away from other possibilities and options.

Here's a basic "generic" list I've used in the past; more specifically focused magi can easily have different priorities:

  o Combat- one target, bigger punch
  o Combat- area effect, no aiming needed
  o Defense
  o Escape
  o Gather Info
  o Travel- long distance
  o Travel- comfort/warmth/survival
  o Gather VisHow many different "Area Attack" spells could you come up with?  I'd imagine several different Techniques for almost every Form!  How many different effects constitute "Defense"?  Maybe the "Defense" & "Escape" will get combined in a "Run Away!" spell, or those two and Gather Info into a large Invisibility.  Maybe the low-level Gather Vis can be Spontaneously cast, depending on the final Art scores...

Once I can see what I want to achieve with the spell selection, then I can start putting a final package together. (And flexible, multi-use spells are a favorite of mine.) Once the Art options (or requirements!) become evident, then a mage can begin to form around that, and Virtues/etc that compliment the spell package will become more obvious or attractive.

u Giant Supermarket of Spells![/u]
(aka "Ooh, shiny!")

Now, there is a 3rd way that is not recommended, a hold-over that works with some other, simpler games, which is to go thru the book like a shopping mall, grabbing anything that looks good. This ~can~ work (more often for experienced AM players), but usually you get a list a page long, are no nearer a final form than when you started... and often a mage that looks like s/he was designed by committee. Altho' the long lists of AM spell examples may invite this "familiar" wizard-building approach, it rarely works for new players and is definitely not recommended for players not familiar with AM!

However, skimming thru the spell lists until one or two spells jump out at you, and then building a concept around those (see Method #1, above), is a fine way to start. There is no wrong decision if you stick to a clear idea, one way or another.

And, unless they define the character, don't worry about all 10 points of Flaws right off the bat; in fact, not until towards the end (unless they're a key part of your strong central concept, like a crippled mage, or one afraid of water). Once you have your Spells selected, and the Arts to support that selection, and a few skills and such, you'll have a much better feeling for who your mage is, and what sort of Flaws they might have that work well with the final concept, which might change some as the process progresses. First, build it up, and get a feeling for the "finished" product, then decide where the weaknesses lie- see below.

Frequently, by the time you finish the mage, the original idea may easily have shifted to something either "better" for you, or something "more practical" given the rules- that's to be expected. Often, that last choice of spell or virtue is a coin toss- that's life. Sometimes, inspiration will come in the middle or at the end of the process, and a new aspect will jump out, shining above an older, duller concept. Whatever works for you. These are just suggested approaches to that end.

Good gaming.

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(Later Edit - related to the above, but a bit more dense - sorry.)

Some thoughts on Spell Selection, for the first-time AM Mage...

"Spells make the mage." Not entirely true, but there is some truth there. Pick the wrong spells, and the character will be a disaster, and possibly die before he even knows what went wrong; pick the right ones, and a freshly-gauntleted young mageling can be incredibly powerful, and a whole lotta fun for the player!

Primary Rule)
Don't be a complete muffin.

Regardless of the character concept, unless you are 100% sure that your GM is not going to put you into dangerous situations, have at least something that can save your Hermetic bacon from the fire. Not from anything/everything - we're not talking dragons/demons/etc. - but If you are surrounded by a half-dozen desperate bandits or hungry wolves, or if the Baron's guards cry "Seize that witch!" and point at you, and you just don't feel like being robbed/eaten/seized today - do you wake up in a ditch or puppy-chow or in a cell, or do you go about your important business of being a wizard?

There are LOTS of ways out of simple physical danger - some are single spells, some are combinations of spells. A Flambeau might be able to fight them all, attacking and defending with a large selection of combat spells, but a simple illusion or personal movement spell might also do the trick (and be more multi-purpose!). Or something else - fight, flee, confuse*, distract* - lots of general solutions that would fit. But make sure you have at least something - your Parens would have wanted that.

(* Be aware that "mind tricks" - spells that affect "the mind" - are different for humans and animals - Mentem affects human minds, Animal affects animal minds, so it would take 2 spells with 2 Forms (or a dual-Form spell) to cover both possibilities.)

Also, decide if your (starting) mage can save anyone else, or just themselves - and/or cares to. Tough decisions have to be made, sometimes, for the greater good - and what that "greater good" is is entirely up you!

Rule 1)
During CharGen, beware of taking "the biggest spell possible".

During CharGen, the biggest spell possible is {Tech + Form + Magic Theory + Intell + 3} (plus, possibly, something else, if the right Virtue*). But that does not make it the "best" spell for the job. Casting that spell, reliably and effectively, is another matter.

(Note that a virtue like "Inventive Genius" does not necessarily add here - these apprentice spells are not clearly being "invented" - some may be taught - so ask your SG. CharGen is abstracted - virtues that help a specific aspect (in the lab, in the library, under certain circumstances, etc) may not help yet - ysmv - Your Saga May Vary.)

There are several considerations:

i) The first is successfully casting the spell at all. Casting is Te+Fo+Stamina+Aura+modifiers. Most magi end up with higher Intelligence than Stamina - they can design a spell, but casting it is tougher. Beyond that, the "aura+modifiers" are the most important. Most towns have a "Dominion" Aura, a small penalty to casting. Unless the mage wants to attract attention, they may want to cast quietly, or subtly, which means more penalties. Once a mage is fatigued (or wounded), possibly from travel, more penalties pile up. So, that great spell that you could barely learn, in a town (maybe -3), after travel (-1), and trying to be sneaky (-8 or so?) suddenly becomes a very bad bet, if not completely uncastable.

ii) Now, even if the casting succeeds, we get to the 2nd consideration - that Fatigue. If the Casting Roll fails by 10 or less, the spell succeeds, but the mage gets 1 Fatigue. That first Level of Fatigue is no problem - no penalty and one recovers with only 2 minutes of rest. But if you're not resting, it just gets worse and worse: the second level is -1 and 10 minutes, the third is -3 and 30 minutes, the fourth is a -5 penalty for 60 minutes. (And that's time for recovery back to the next level of fatigue!) So each time this happens, a mage can dig themselves further into a hole, with larger penalties for the next time, and more likely to get fatigued again. And the 5th level of fatigue is "unconscious"... that's a painful one. And it's scary how fast it can add up to that level.

iii) The 3rd consideration is a combination of "How often will my mage cast this spell?" and "How critical will it be to cast successfully on the first try?" If rare and in controlled environment, they can afford to miss, rest, and try again. Many "information", healing or utility spells are like this - you cast it, and if it fails, you wait their 2 minutes and try again, refreshed. Otoh, if it's the only combat spell they have, then they are likely to need to cast it every round, repeatedly, and "do or die" or suffer for their failure.

A combat spell should be reliable - or, at least, a mage should have one smaller combat spell they can rely on, even if they have another big flashy one that is less reliable. An information or utility spell might be less reliable, and the mage can always cast it, rest up, and cast it again later, without discovering that they're bleeding after they fail.

iv) The last consideration is Penetration. ~IF~ the target has Magic Resistance, Penetration equals the amount the Casting Roll exceeds the spell Level. So huge spells penetrate far less, while tiny spells are more likely Penetrate - it's MR vs. (your TeFo+Stam+roll - Level}. While a big hammer spell is nice against Mundane targets, a small, reliable dart is more guaranteed to affect magical ones.

Examples:
[i]1:
CrCo 20 Chirurgeon's Healing Touch heals a light wound and removes the penalty for Sun duration - very nice in combat, but not critical - "later" might work (if people survive). The same level CrCo 20 Purification of Festering Wounds gives +9 to Recovery rolls - something that can be done while everyone is catching their breath, or camped for the night - plenty of time to try, fail, rest, and try again, over and over until you get lucky. CrCo 10 Bind Wound stops injuries from getting worse with exertion - during combat, or while running - that's something that is needed "now", and reliably, and hopefully without fatiguing the caster. - not something you want to "hope" for. A CrCo casting total of 15 would be nice for that last, but insufficient to risk the first, while the second is no worry.

2:
A mage has a Major Magical Focus in Fire, and takes 10 in each of Creo + Ignem. With an Int of +2, they could learn any CrIg spell of Level 35 or less (10+10+10 again + 2 + 3). Ball of Abysmal Flame is CrIg 35. With a Stam of +2, they would cast that at 32+Aura+stress die - plus +1 for Strong Gestures +1 for loud voice (why not?) would be 34+Aura+Stress die. If there is a negative Aura, they might actually get fatigued, and Penetration is near 0, if anything. Pilum of Fire is CrIg 20 - they'd need around -15 in penalties to have a chance to fail, and Penetration starts around +10. Having both would be really nice.

A dedicated Terram-specialist mage takes both CrTe 35 Conjuring the Mystic Tower and MuTe 35 Teeth of the Earth Mother. It would be rare that the Tower spell would be cast in a critical "do or die" situation, while Teeth is, basically, a combat spell. The mage wisely puts a few more points in Muto, and doesn't worry if they miss casting the Tower a few times.

One mage takes Demon's Eternal Oblivion at Level 25, looking forward to crushing Might 25 demons in one mighty spell. But with a low penetration, they find that the spell rarely affects any but the smallest demons. Another mage takes it at Level 10, trusting that they'll be able to let almost any demon know how they feel about them. Later, with some Mastery and multi-cast, they can send 3 at a time, and out-perform that big spell every time![/i]So...

For combat/critical/repeat situations, a mage should have a spell that is well within their casting ability, not at the extreme edge of it, so they can cast repeatedly and reliably without fatigue and despite penalties.

For non-critical situations (especially when back in a covenant), a spell that a mage can "maybe" cast is fine, because they have all the time in the world. Information and Utility spells fall into this category.

Spells that one will cast in towns (with Dominion Aura penalties) or in subtle social situations should expect penalties to the casting roll.

No one is saying not to take the spells you need - but understand that having a certain Formulaic Spell, and being able to cast it when you need it, as often as you need it, are entirely different things. Plan your Arts and Spells accordingly, and don't get too greedy. Have spells you can rely on when you need that.

Rule B:
Versatility, whenever possible.

Some spells are more versatile than others. They are like having several spells at once - tho' that can be up to the imagination of the player as much as the spell design.

A Pilum of Fire is 4th magnitude and great for damage, burning and killing, but bad for taking prisoners, bad in towns, dry forests(!), libraries(!!!), and other situations. Crystal Dart does less damage, but there is less risk when using it, and it doesn't grab everyone's attention. A 4th magnitude Wall of Thorns can stop a fugitive or delay an attacker, and so is offensive or defensive. It could also be used as part of a structure (to fill a gap in a wall) or a support for a makeshift bridge - creativity opens doors to more solutions.

Also don't underestimate the value of several smaller spells over one larger one. When choosing spells, think about "what else they could do" for the mage. And when designing them, think about possibly breaking one larger, fancier effect into smaller steps that are easier to cast, have better penetration, and less chance to fatigue.

(This may mean taking one larger central effect now, and setting the mage up to invent the others asap in-game. Growth, esp with smaller effects ("smaller" = Lab Total/2), is fast enough.)

Rule Last:
Grab it now, use it later.

Okay, let's admit it, from a purely gamist min-max point of view, grabbing a max-sized spell is desirable, if the character has a more realistically-sized spell they can rely on, and if they are going to improve their Arts so they can use that monster spell. Otherwise, it sits on a shelf, and is points wasted.

No mage dies faster than one with four Level 30 spells and a casting total of 20 for each of them. But a mage with one Level 30, and six level 15's and that same casting total... that'll work!

(The Math of big now vs. inventing big later
All things even, the CharGen limit for a spell (Tech+Form+Magic Theory+Int+3+Virtues*) will usually be very close to your starting Lab Total (Te+Fo+MTh+Int+Aura+Virtues+misc*).

(* 5th ed forumulae - 4th ed are sim enough that this still holds true.)

If that total is, say, 30, then you can take a Level 30 spell in that TeFo right now, during CharGen (even if they can't cast it reliably). Your character is probably at least "close" to being able to learn that spell in game in 1 season ~if~ you find it as a Lab Text in a library. But to invent it, by themself, it would probably take six seasons or more, if even possible without improving Arts. During that same time, they would be able to invent six Level 15 spells. Think about it, and think about where you want them to be in 5 years.)

Wow, great start there, very nicely put.

I would add that many new players might be unhappy with the "big punch spell" as it is often ineffective against things with a defense against magic. Instead or in addition look for a nice simple effect that your penetration will be able to punch through an enemy's defenses while casting.

(Exactly, and thanks - I have the equiv written up for 4th ed, discussing (among other things) how "the biggest" spell you can get during CharGen might not be the best in combat situations (due to fatigue), but will have to do more than just tweak it for 5th ed considerations.

I should also have added to save choosing Flaws until the end, once the rest is nearly complete- imo, it's easier to pick such once you have a clearer idea of exactly who the mage is. And it's clearly a distraction that isn't needed in the central Arts/Spell selection process.

I'll edit that in, above.)

Interesting take. Ironically I typically begin with my Flaws. As my games are typically story and character driven, flaws often become the foundation for the game. Hence I often pick those even before making stats.

(But you've built a character or three, I'm guessing. You know the system, and how a given choice effects the final outcome. Would you advise a new player, fresh to the system, to do that, one who has no idea how the Spells/Arts/Virtues/Flaws all interact?)

You know, in ArM5 that might be a good idea. You could start by going over the Story flaws, talking with the player about what kind of stories he would like to participate in based on those. That should allow him to get to know the kind of magus he wants to build.

My friend sears by the "spells make the magus" method, encoureaging newbies to go ovre the spell lists and pick a few spells they like, which he then builds a magus around with them.

Myself, I sometimes do that and sometimes go over the virtues and talk to them about the more character-defining ones, trying to get a feel as to the character they'll enjoy and want to play.

Given the heavy story telling element our games, yeah I'd still stick to my methods. Nothing is wrong with what you proposed but my troupe often things about characters first.

In fact i try to make my character last. Why?

Having heard what the other players have made, I try to make a character that compliments the group or is involved in their lives in some way.

You have a dependant? Can I BE that dependant? Something like that.

It's simply matter of taste and style.

Set down ANY game in front of me and the first thing I'll ask is what are my "flaws" or equivelent idea. I build my characters around my weaknesses, I think it makes them more interest.

Just my way.

I'm also a strong adherent to the top down approach and as Tuura I really prefer myself and I advice my players to start with the flaws. But this is also a matter of playing style - in what kind of stories the character will be involved. I prefer stories that build heavily on the characters themselves which in turn requires the "Solid Character Concept" to succeed.

A possible challenge is that flaws might be a very big chunk to swallow, but I do feel that most make their point without neccesarily knowing the rules too well. But having played the game - like all rpg mechanics - will always give you an advantage. Both in terms of mechanic minimaxing and in terms of story/roleplaying potential. Basically I just think that the flaws are what defines a character the most and that if you havent yet any concept in place the choosing of flaws (and virtues) forces you to start making decisions as well as inspiring them.

These choices are the most important for the magi characters - bc the rules have a big impact on their hopefully long life and their success in the lab. And because they will be a center of affection for most players. Since magi tend to live long and be among the first characters made this poses a problem when people new to Ars starts up. My choice in handling this has been by starting my current saga - where ars really was all new to most of us (some had tried a little peek of 3rd ed Ars several years before and some had played a little bit with the 4th ed Ars but in a viking setting with no magi... yet) - by letting all the players make apprentices. They played apprentices for a year and half (14 years ingame) and some of the final flaw-choices where postponed till later in their apprenticeship. New players have joined us and some of them have started their magi character out as apprentices too. Besides the character generation issues this has also give other benefits: it has been a easy easing into the setting as well and we have had a lot of fun with stories, scenes and concepts only really doable with apprentices.

Finally I dont completely write off the spell/bottom up approach - but rather actually as a part of the "Solid Character Concept". I am dabbling a bit with making a magus myself - in hopes of getting more active beta-SG - and this character concept is completely dependent on being able to do certain effects. In a sense this makes the char gen come full circle. And I think that no matter what approach you use there is an important point in your last paragraph: that one's ideas will have shifted by the time a char gen is at its end. And as a testiment to that I can recall few char gen I have made in any system where I hadnt at some time gone back and changed or adjusted previous choices when getting to later choices in the char gen, no matter the order of approach.