Advice for a first-time DM?

Hey there folks,

I'm super pumped to start DMing Ars Magica. I'm an experienced RPG DM, and I've run about 10 different systems over 12 years. This one looks daunting though, and I wonder if you have any useful tips on preparation, logistics, etc. for running games of AM.

How do you balance combats? Do you bother? Is it best to minimize combat and focus on more abstract problem-solving?

How do you manage complexity? Do your players do lots of rules reading, or can they get by on a skim and learning as they go?

Are the published scenarios worth running? Is home-brewing the way to go? How do you prep and stat NPCs with such a complex ruleset?

Any input will be a huge help as I move towards running a game in the near future. Thanks folks!

Balancing combat is something of a fool's errand, IMO. Communicating that characters are outclassed in other means, before getting into combat is key. Demonstrating how easily a defender can botch (defense total of 0) and how they then take a lethal or incapacitating wound. Combat is deadly, and generally speaking it's only initiated by me, as a player, when I can bring overwhelming force to bear. Otherwise, it's bravely run away. I've also seen combats last forever, because of monster soak totals and no botching, so these are the extremes of Ars Magica.

This is very much a YSMV thing. How complex do your players like to get in their other games? I'm personally a fan of the seasonal advancement complexity, but I know players who aren't. The game is still fun for both.

This is an area that Atlas has largely ignored. While there are a few scenarios, most of them are older, and a lot of it has to be home-brewed. Some people do a lot based on history, since historical information is close at hand, so there is that going for the home-brew aspect.

I wouldn't get too excited or get your players excited about spontaneous magic, the idea that they can do anything with their magic. Sure, it's flexibility, but that flexibility comes at the cost of being able to do only very low level effects. Specialists are better than generalists, usually; finding a Form with the spells that you are most interested in can help form a magus concept. Being able to pull of 35th level spells like Ball of Abysmal Flame is doable for a focused character just out of gauntlet, even with some penetration.

Welcome :slight_smile: Everyone has their own style and ways, of course. Here are a few points I think might be useful.

Balancing is tricky. I find that I usually think what I want the fight to be like, and design the creatures accordingly, by comparing them to the PC stats. I try to keep things flexible in some ways - usually by having reinforcements that I can bring to bear according to how the combat is going, sometimes by giving the major creatures or (more often) NPCs magic items/abilities on-the-fly to keep things interesting and at the right "balance". I guess this means I design the creatures below the PC power level, and adjust on the fly - because I can never really figure out just how powerful the PCs will be, and how the combat will go, in advance.

Penetration is sensitive issue. I usually house-rule that creature Magic Resistance is what I say it is (usually 2 to 3 times its Might), and I set it according to how I want the PCs to penetrate it. But PC penetration can vary a lot (I've had cases where one PC penetrated easily and the others were useless), and keep in mind they can really boost it too (especially with raw vis; if they have some). (I also had PCs that attacked in ways that bypasses Magic Resistance.)

My adventures generally have lots of combat. Well, not really lots but it's generally the climax of things, with other magic basically just leading up to it (investigating and such). But I think ArM will work great for a game with little or even no combat. If you have such a game in mind - go for it.

Well, I had both kinds of players but I think ArM really requires the rules-heavy player. The others can drift by for a while, but it doesn't really work, especially when it comes to labwork. They can certainly learn as they go, but they will have to learn. Quite a bit.

I want to like the published scenarios. I think ArM really needs them. But I'm sorry to say most of them just don't speak to me. And I think there are too few of them, and that they are unlikely to fit you PCs or saga (because the variety is so high). So I recommend home-brewing.

I do recommend reading the tribunal books and so on for ideas on the setting and general plots. I think the tribunal books offer great background on that, so you don't need to homebrew that. But when it comes to creature stats and cooking up specific adventures - yes, I think you mostly do need to homebrew.

Statting up NPCs is hugely difficult. I'm sorry to say I generally don't find the bestiaries in the Realms of Power: X books too useful, nor the monster-building rules there. (They are still occasionally useful, especially for stealing little bits of monster-powers or ideas from here and there.) I generally build creatures by ignoring all the official rules on how to do it, and just writing down what feels right. For NPC magi, I usually do try to keep things sensible by keeping a tally of XP based on age; using something like "1 spell takes 1 Season to learn; 1 Mystery takes 1 Season to learn; 10 XP per Season in some Art/Ability" and "30 or 40 XP per year" for character generation. But still, making an old NPC magus takes up a LOT of time, even with this simple rule of character generation, so I usually reserve this treatment to just the really major or fun NPCs, and do something much more rough for the rest. And even if I do have detailed stats for an NPC, I might change them on-the-fly in-game. Often, I'm afraid to say, in ways that don't quite make sense in that I tend to make them more capable than is reasonable, for some reason.

I usually start with an adventure just for the magi. (And I usually say in advance what the premise of it will be, so the PCs will be planned and motivated to join it.) Perhaps a few grogs around, but that's it - no companions, and no "troupe style play". Because this is a game about wizards, so let's start by playing ours. You can move on to have the more "usual" ArM party (one or two wizards, a few companions, and an entourage of grogs) in later adventures, but start with everyone playing their main character, their wizard.

Start with young magi, age 25, straight out of gauntlet. With Parma 1. Doesn't make too much sense for them all to be like that; but it does keep the playing-field equal, and makes for a good starting point.

Give vis finds in-adventure, but few vis sources. Vis from vis sources adds up alarmingly fast. Keep in mind that every creature killed gives the PCs its loot, errg, I mean its vis. That too can add up fast. I find facing demons is easiest in this regard - my PCs NEVER take Infernal vis. Cowards that they are.

Have the first adventure revolve around Magic or Faerie, so the PCs interact with beings that don't care about their Gift. (Officially, I think Faerie/Magic creatures are supposed to care about the Gift; but I play like they don't.) If you do interact with mundanes, decide whether you want to adhere to the core book's guidelines on the Gift's social impact - it's very harsh, but it makes having companions make so much more sense, which is very important if you want to have that "usual" ArM party. I usually basically ignore the Gift, letting it impose a -3 penalty on social rolls but ignoring it otherwise; and I let the players play mostly their wizards, only rarely companions (but then again, I have a small group of players; often just two).

Hmm. That's my 2c. Have fun, and do ignore anything that doesn't vibe with you. :slight_smile:

These answers are great. Thanks so much for the input.

I think I have a pretty clear idea of how to proceed and just need to make it happen. I'll probably avoid a lot of pre-scripted combat and let the focus be on open-ended situations where the players can exercise their magic muscles for a bit, then branch out from there.

I've got the 3 Houses books and the Faerie one. I'll probably pick up a tribunal that piques my interest and just dive deep in it for inspiration. Possibly Ireland/Hibernia, since the plotlines there mesh with Faerie and Infernal lore, which I like. The Houses books have a lot of good hooks too, so I'll have some inspiration to draw on.

The difficulty of statting NPCs worries me a bit, but I'll probably just try to create a small roster up-front so I can draw on them as needed for the first few sessions. Maybe I'll have the group build a covenant in a vacated region full of other new covenants, so I can get around statting senior magi until I get a good grip on the numbers game. 25 year-olds everywhere!

I'll post when I get through a session or two to let you guys know how it goes. Thanks again.

-Make sure you are on the same page. If the SG expects one thing and the players another, there is trouble
-Start slow. Mythic Europe, Order of Hermes and Ars Magica is huge. Vaguely define a covenant in order to have play start immediately, covenant building can be hard for newcomers. Focus on a single theme or plotnode - faeries in the forest, a dragon etc.
-Create characters for the players or with them depending on what they want.
-Ars Magica's published adventures always require some tailoring because of the differences between the Tribunals and the diverse ways sagas can be set up. Running an adventure set in the Rhine about investigation is hard to play in a Hibernia saga with combat magi.
Mythic Locations have material for adventures or even whole saga arcs based on a location, with a variety of ways to lead in to this plays and a variety of things than can happen.
Hooks have short adventures introducing some of the other books
Thrice-Told Tales have multi-part stories where the arc is on and off over many years
Tales of Power is for older and powerful magi
Tales of Mythic Europe may be the best bet, good spread of stories and perhaps the adventure supplement requiring the least amount of tailoring.

Using a Tribunal book can be great because the bulk of the environment is defined for you in advance, to read up on at leisure. Plus there are many story hooks. The downside is if some or all of the players find it daunting to have to read and memorize a whole book.
I see you mention the Hibernian Tribunal (Ireland) and I think this is a great starting point. As you say rich culture and folklore meshed with the Faerie and Infernal realms. It is a straight forward place to play I think, lots of good-natured struggle. Be prepared to fight for what you want, defend what you have - but always be a good neighbour, otherwise you'll have too many enemies.



Don't bother. If your players are not experienced with AM, the opponents you create should fall into two categories:

a) The ones who are obviously too powerful for PCs to tangle with. In creating these, err wildly on the side of making them overpowered.
b) Other opponents. Err on the side of making these too weak.

The end result is that any combat the PCs choose will be overwhelming victories. This will prepare them for life as a magus.

As you and they get accustomed to things, you can tweak things to be more proportionate. Be aware, however, that magi who plan for combat usually do extremely well.

It is best to do both, but only as secondary: Instead, it is best imnsho to focus on insoluble problems, such as moral dilemmas. If the peasantry are on the verge of rebellion against their oppressive bishop overlord, you can crush either side.... but should you? One day each year, a dragon swoops down from his mountain lair, incinerates the first virgin it finds, and returns to sleep for another year. The ashes are a fine source of vis, and you suspect that the dragon's lair is one of the things underpinning your covenant's Aura. You can kill the dragon and prevent deaths, at the cost of significant magical power. But will you? The AM books are filled with uncomfortable situations.

AM at its best is less about whether PCs can do something, but about what they choose to do and how.

I'll leave the other questions to other folks. I love the setting, but find the rules overly cumbersome for what they do.




It may look daunting, but the reward is worth it I think. Ars Magica is my favorite RPG, and has been for something like 20 years now.

GEnerally, I don't bother. If nothing else, then because trying to balance encounters assumes there's some sort of balance between character to evaluate the encounter against, and there isn't.
I tend to use combats as distractions from the main story, or sometimes as the climactic scene to get the blood pumping. Not as the 'meat and potatoes' of a story.

Complexity? Where? Ars Magica is simple!* :wink:

I wish. No, some of them do, and they tend to be more succesful, because they have a better idea of what is possible.

Most of the players in my current Troupe A (I have 2, currently) do this. They seem to be having fun, but I can fully let go of the feeling they might have more fun if they read the book.

My advice would be to think of them more as a core to build your own stories around. Not that they are bad, but simply because troupes vary so very much in Ars Magica that you're almost forced to costumize, IMAO.

Always my preference. Though I should point out that most books in the line have a number of story seeds, meaning you can takea seed and spin your own version of that story, you don't have to start with a completely blank piece of paper.

prep? Mostly I wing it.
Seriously, most NPCs don't get stats until after the first encounter.

have fun!

  • Warning, this statement may not be entirely true.

As for balanced encounters try to be fairly clear about the power of a given encounter in advance.
If you start a plot line about an army advancing on ghe covenant or a well known older combat magus you indicate going head on is ill adviced.
If you send in a ragged band of robbers or the players decide rough up a lone merchant or a few peasants it should be a walkover.
Unless you really want to send false signals to the players!

Also given the risks of extreme rolls with consequetive 1s or multiple Botches you never know whether an easy combat becomes lethal or the ubervillian falls prey to a single thrown beer mug.

As for preparing NPCs it is most important to have their personality, history and motivations in order. For stats use the Templates. Or wing it, but that may be experience speaking.

I really need to write a full-length article about this, but there are special concerns that come from the quasi-historical setting.

Historical Europe was a bigoted place. If you have players who want to play characters who are LGBT, or non-Christian (including Muslim, Jewish, pagan, atheist) it is a good idea to have a conversation about how the world of NPCs are going to react to that character. And how the PCs are going to react to that character, and how that character is going to react to the other PCs and the world. Also, the game mechanics make the Dominion aura hostile to magi, so the magi's attitude toward the Church bears some consideration.

Generally it is easy to portray the Order of Hermes as an island of diversity and tolerance. It is also easy to downplay the ugliness of historical Europe, as long as the players are happy to play along. It still bears discussing, say, if the player wants to play a Jewish companion, how much that player wants ethnic and religious tensions to feature in the character's story line, and how comfortable the other folks at the table are with such a theme.

It takes a certain amount of maturity to talk openly about that stuff. But if your players don't know one another well, there's a chance for one player to make a character concept who is all about trying to smooth relations between the Order of Hermes and the Church, and another player who is, let's say, an outspoken critic of religion in real life, and having him go on a tirade during the game session. That happened, right at the end of one of my Sagas.

I personally like Legend of Hermes as source of scenario.

Regarding character creation, a few tips:

  • Allow them to take only spell from the core book - it will speed up the process and also give them target to develop their own customised spells. By the way, I only allow trading labtext from spell in the rulebook, other spells, they have to invent from scratch.
  • Do not bother yet with Mysteries and Cults, it will probably overwhelm players new to Ars Magica.
  • Plan one of the early session to be dedicated only on lab and seasonal activity. Probably once they have collected 4-6 paws of vis each - enough for some labwork of their choice. Plan it as a educational session, not a RP session, where your bring them through the step of designing a spell or an enchanted item. I made the mistake to send them simply an extract of the rule to read, and most of them did not, but did not want to admit it, so sessions were frequently interrupted by spell design as they were trying to spont something even quite late in the saga.
  • Yes, do start with young mage. As it was mentionned, 22-27 yrs old, not yet any year out of Gauntlet, leveled field of complexity.
  • Limit yourself to one Tribunal. Even if a mage is coming from another tribunal, keep it vague and do not introduce the many variants and specific rules of other tribunal.
  • Ignore initially added material from RoP and other material, however allow to trade virtues and flaws later on as the players become more comfortable with the rules and can tweek their character when you introduce new material - don't feel obliged to do it, there is already plenty in the Core rulebook.
  • Take time to initially set rules regarding Aegis (Penetration to resist or not) and whatever clarification/house rules you want to use.

I'm 20 sessions deep in the Great Pendragon Campaign right now, so I think my group has gotten past the worst of this. We have a female knight grappling with gender identity themes and it's going ok so far. I personally like to downplay the role of the church since I've had a nasty tumble with religion in my own life. This is all good to keep in mind, though.

Haha, well since you're twenty sessions in, I think it's time for a review and report!

Were you able to make use of the book templates? Or did you just create NPC templates of your own that you swap in as needed with one or two stat and virtue/flaw switches?

Did your players start well-versed in the rules and possibilities presented in the book? Fly by the seat of the pants and looking things up as needed? or a combination of the two, and has it hurt (let's go OOC while we look this up and research) or helped (the Ease Factor is 7 because I like what you planned - roll and don't botch!)?

How was the first combat system? Have the players fallen into a system yet?

The first saga I played in was in 4th ed maaany years ago. At that time I had known about the game since 2nd ed was fairly new, read the rules and background and felt I understood the concept. I had created several characters both magi, companions and grogs in both 2nd and 3rd ed. I had SG'ed a short 4th ed demo game when it was new for a group with only one player who was experienced with ArM and the rest noobs. Several years later we started a saga.

Initiative was taken by the only guy with some experience, he had played 3rd ed and switched to 4th. I had limited experience - almost none with play but some more with characters and rules etc. The 3-4 others were novices. We started out picking Stonehenge plus a place and concept for the covenant and created fresh out of gauntlet magi. The novices quickly picked up on the setting and rules. We defined a few things about our locale, mainly the name and character traits of the local nobleman, plus a list of all the other covenants in the Tribunal. The list was quite short and had no names of magi, but eventually names were added as me wet other magi. New covenants were added, most of them retroactively. After a few sessions we had defined the local faerie forest with a faerie lord. Over years of real-time play through stories names of magi were added as we met them, and some covenants form neighboring Tribunals were added to the list.
When Heirs to Merlin was published we thought about getting it, but seeing as we had already defined our saga we did not. It was many years later and well into 5th ed that I first bought and read a Tribunal book. Now I think they are cool and really like basing sagas on them, because there is a full definition of most things needed. But I get that this great mass of information can be daunting to novices, too much to read and remember (unless you really want to, and are able to digest it all). And it creates a division getween those who know about the other covenants and magi and those who don't.

My advice is to gauge very carefully whether the gaming group can digest a full tribunal book. If they can, a lot of the work is already done for you.
If not, better to start slow and fairly isolated. Define a covenant plus an immediate locale with one or two mundane and/or supernatural places/entities/organisations to interact with to have a jump-off point. Let the players know their magi know about the Order of Hermes, other magi, other covenants - but don't bog them down with details. And in time expand their knowledge base.

I think you misunderstand. The Great Pendragon Campaign isn't Ars Magica, it's another medieval RPG that grapples with similar setting constraints and themes. I'll definitely post here once I get to play AM though :stuck_out_tongue:

I heartily agree with and support that motion.

Hi there,

I'm going to offer a position that's a little different to those here. Like yourself, I've GM'd quite a lot of RPGs over the years, but I only started Ars Magcia two years ago. Our PCs are currently desperately scrambling for the oncoming Mongol Horde, and have settled into all the systems quite well.

Now, unlike most of the people here, I will flesh out most characters from birth onwards. Sure, merchants and the such only have their salient points listed, but anyone who's going to be interacting with the PCs for any extended period (antagonists included) got their complete character profile written up. Admittedly, this is immensely time consuming, but I use training packages from Grogs where I can (and have developed some of my own), and guesstimate XP rewards when it's unclear. At the end of the day, I arrive at a character that is balanced as either a Grog, Companion, or Maga, depending on Virtue/Flaw balance, and Supernatural Ability, if present. For immortal creatures, I use the Seasons Guideline (RoP:M pg 33-34) for overall knowledge.
I understand that this approach isn't for everybody. I'll even admit it's a psychotic level of detail even for me, but I adore character creation in Ars Magica, so I don't mind doing it. I'm also the type of person who has an entire spreadsheet for covenant records and counts money in the pennies and shillings, so it may be wise to take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

So, my background in mind, my advice would be thus. If your players want to create characters, make them assign Flaws before Virtues (it's more interesting), only allow them spells from the example spells to give them something to aim for with their own spell creation (Pilum of Flame is a classic, but there are other ways to hurt people), and make them immediately post gauntlet. If they can't decide on a house, give them the TL;DR of the House descriptions from the three HoH books. Make sure you've prepared this ahead of time though, thinking on the spot is hard.

As for an introduction, I would suggest the following format, in lieu of the small amount of published adventures:
Feel free to change anything here, or ignore it. It is simply what worked for us. What works for your party may be wildly different.
When play begins, give them a mundane story to begin with, either an investigation, or a bandit clearing, depending on their abilities. A two-part story with both might be appropriate. It should help them get used to the Stress Die system and character interaction. Do not forget to roleplay the effects of The Gift. (5e pg 75-77) Others will be initially suspicious and untrusting of any Magi without the Gentle Gift. They will not be hostile unless someone with the Blatant Gift is present, but a monastery will suggest you should move on in a few days, and innkeepers will uncomfortably ask when you'll be moving along. Nobles or other petitioners of the Magi will still come to them for help, but will consider them creepy and may try to underpay them. Additionally, those who deal with many Gifted individuals will recognise the effects The Gift has on them, and will be able ignore most of its effects, despite the niggling suspicion in their mind.
After the players settle into their powers a bit, offer them a magical challenge. A playful faerie that's causing trouble is always a good Hook. Pay off their efforts with some vis and more magical stories, and let them accumulate about half a rook each (5 pawns). At this point, take them aside and have them set up labs (you can ignore Covenants rules for now) and do either spell creation or enchantment, or even learning from the vis. This should get them used to Lab Totals. As has been noted, this shouldn't be a roleplaying exercise, but a instructional one. Take time to slow down and explain any questions and do each player one at a time, so that all players can see how it is done.
I would avoid the troupe playing style at first and introduce it by having players play merchants and other minor NPCs. I have player draw adjectives out of a hat for disposition and emotional state usually. From there you can have the magi diverge and begin doing troupe style stuff slowly.

From there it's up to you, but the biggest hurdles of AM are the huge variety of effects you can generate and the overall complexity of Hermetic Magic, the understanding of progression and Labs, and the variable speed of Ars Magica (Seasons and the such).