Ars Magica: Core Experiences

Curious to hear the community's wider thoughts on this. What the the core experiences of Ars Magica for you?

What I'm thinking about here are the broad, general types of activities that are the focus of the stories you tell. For example, core experiences I'd include for Ars Magica might be:

Research/Lab Work
Exploration
Covenant-Building

On the other hand, I don't think that Combat is a core experience: It's a thing that happens. We have mechanics for it. But unlike D&D, for example, swordfights aren't part of the core experience for me. (Maybe they are for you! Great! I'd love to hear about that.)

To further clarify, I'm not really looking for specific flavors or examples of the core experiences. (Although if you want to talk about those, great; and examples can be a good way of explaining what a category means to you.) For example, I'm not looking for a list of different places you can explore -- e.g., "Exploring Arcadia", "Exploring Forests", "Exploring the Ocean" -- unless you perceive those different types of exploration (or whatever) as categorically different from each other. (Which is totally possible: Maybe "Exploring the East" and "Exploring the Area Around Your Covenant" are fundamentally different things in what they are, how they're played, etc.)

Don't feel like the three I've listed above are sacred or assumed, either. If they aren't a core experience for you, that's also useful information to know. And if they are, I'd still love to hear more about what that means to you.

Why am I interested in this? Well, I've begun launching my personal development sagas as Atlas' RPG Developer. So the answers here will heavily influence what I include in those sagas and the ideas I'm exploring.

(Right now I have no idea where this development will take us; it might take us nowhere. But expect more of these discussions in the future as I continue exploring and testing the game space.)

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For me it is the puzzle solving. I like how the rules are detailed and just ambiguous enough to allow for insipired work-arounds that follow both the rule of cool and the rules of the game.

You get to have in character discussions about how to solve the problem rather than "just get a bigger plus on your sword".

Bob

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Hi,

For our group we tend to play in covenants that experience political stories with their tribunals and Houses, mixed with mundane politics. There are sprinkled in mysteries (dilemmas, not cults) of various sorts that need to be solved that may nor may not be related to the political stuff.

Rich

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I would say that the “core” adventure types for myself have been something along the lines of:

  • Exploration and travel around Mythic Europe, not including the supernatural realms (which are a very different kind of story).

  • Searching for mystical knowledge and mysteries. This is distinct from research because it involves a lot more “fieldwork” so to speak but can sometimes overlap with exploring. This covers mystery cult business, looking for lost knowledge and magic secrets, finding people to consult with or teach certain types of magic etc.

  • Hermetic politics and society. Magi have agendas they pursue so adventures to make friends and influence people happen regularly. Obligations such as being a mystagogue, duties specific to certain houses, avenging past slights (the order is small and insular and full of odd people, interpersonal drama is practically guaranteed). Sometimes magi commit crimes or are the victim of one, sometimes people get investigated or sued at tribunal.

  • Faerie stories (where as often as not the characters would rather have not gotten involved but you can’t always avoid the fae in Mythic Europe especially if you look like a good source of vitality).

  • Stories about magical things/beings (distinct from faerie stories as the characters are usually the ones who want to interact with the thing).

  • Stories about the divine and infernal (which usually are found together and are distinct from the above as the themes and tone are very different and more focused on the spiritual lives of characters).

  • The internal life of the covenant and the characters who live in it. Usually low-stakes but it’s important to flesh out and explore things to do with the covenant sometimes (it’s a character as well!). These are a change of pace from the grand and the mystical and, ims at least, tend to have an almost soap-opera tone sometimes.

  • Stories about maintaining the covenant and solving problems that threaten it. These range from economic problems to mundane politics and sometimes overlap with faerie/magical/divine/infernal stories. For example issues with vis stocks, how to feed the covenant, trouble with a local mundane lord, or threats from a hostile covenant.

I would agree that combat isn't a core experience. at least for me. It's incidental to some of the stories that come up, but it's rarely the focus even in stories about war or conflict (where the reasons for the conflict are usually more of a focus than the fight, if it does actually happen).

Other things that are part of the core experience imo but are harder to pin down would be:

  • Research and labwork or downtime in general (as sometimes non-magus characters can have interesting things happening in this vein too)

  • Troupe style. This is something not everyone will agree with but for me Ars is inextricably linked with troupe-style play. At the very least with guest storytellers running adventures but ideally for me with storytelling duties shared across a group in a much more equal way. Ars plays very well as a collaborative game, with the right group.

  • Interacting with and using the magic system. This is a biggie. As @rgd20 points out Ars has a great strength in that you can have actual full in-character conversations about how to go about solving a problem with a very wide range of options usually (this can on occasion make storytelling challenging...). Coming up with clever magical solutions (and interesting problems from the opposite perspective) and novel ways to use the already great magic system can be very satisfying.

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  • Personal quest design drives everything. From that follow lab work/research (spell design in particular) and standing in the order (rivalries, political intrigue).
  • Covenant design can be extensive and fun in and of itself especially when it tells its own story.
  • From Spring covenant to Winter covenant is an important emergent feature. It's fun to see a rise to prominence and then a decay to inconsequence.
  • Random exploration is antithetical IMO.

This is a challenging question for sure. Here’s my stab at it.

The 3 goals of a magus: talisman, familiar, and apprentice. Not every magus does this, but they are the exception that proves the rule. For most players, these three things are clear, attainable, goals.

Code Conflict: Sometimes it seems to me the Code of Hermes is designed to prohibit all the things players like to do. Conflict with it, and figuring out what you can do without breaking it, seems almost inevitable.

Hermetic Politics: The focus here is on voting. Tribunal and Grand Tribunal stories, but voting happens at the covenant scale as well. The order is in tension between democratic ideals and the tyranny of the personally powerful.

Rivals: The covenant that’s a little older than yours and quickly develops a grudge plot goes all the way back to Mistridge. Magi develop rivalries and express those rivalries through Certamen and Wizards War.

Discovery of New Magic: At first, this is inventing new spells and enchanted items. For some players, it transitions to breaking the laws of magic or integrating hedge traditions. Seekers, who are always out looking for new magic secrets, are part of this theme. The rules of magic should never be too known. Magic should remain magical.

The Vis Hunt: This may be our archetypal adventure.

The Threat to the Covenant: Players might explore a place just to explore it, but it seems to me they’re usually motivated by something specific. The vis hunt is one of these things, but the other is “There’s something in that valley that is a potential threat.” And then a lot of time and energy is spent figuring out that threat’s capabilities and how best to handle it.

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This is great stuff. Very insightful. Very thoughtful. Very illuminating.

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I agree with what @Argentius and @Doctorcomics has said but I also have a few things to add of my own.

Solving problems by waiting: Ars magica for me is a game where problems can often be solved either by literally waiting them out, i.e. you can either deal with a troublesome nobleman via a story but it is also viable to ignore him and wait for him to die of old age. On a more concise level it is an important feature for me, that not all problems NEED to be dealt with, sometimes they are more of a convenience issue.

Solving problems by leveling up: This is in line with my previous point. That you can encounter problems that you want to solve but dont have the capacity to, and solve them by going back to the lab and coming up with a solution.

Both of the above points require that adventures frequently, (not always) are designed so that even if they are not dealt with they dont cause the end of the saga, but instead become a nuisance.

Growth over time: Saga's feature stories that develop over a long period of in-game time. Progress in Ars Magica is slow in the sense that a lot of calendar time needs to pass in the game for characters to develop significantly. This is for me a large part of Ars magica.

Non-violent solutions: One key draw for me is the ability to run plots that don't center around killing things. Even enemies can be dealt with by circumventing them or dealing with them via a legal system. Even if combat is there it should always be avoidable.

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To me, this is the defining feature of Ars Magica adventure. In traditional fantasy RPGs, if the PCs meet a dragon, they charge in and kill the dragon but the dragon eats the barbarian. In Ars, when the PCs meet a dragon, they retreat and the magus spends the next year inventing the perfect anti-dragon spell. This is so archetypal, it’s used as the example for enchanting an item in the core rulebook!

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Indeed! Ars Magica is the only game where I'd seen this. Players finding a problem and then walking away because to deal with it they would like to improve certain arts, gather and fix a few arcane connections, invent some spells or enchant an item, and then back to the problem. Which means that several problems you throw in the game must be designed to be able to sustain themselves through time.

Besides that, there are always the historical themes. No worthy Saga can exclude the echo of the Schism War, Dav'nalleous can always return, and the Sundering could be needed to be reenacted: House Tremere is just so organised, so well supplied and carries such a list of interests and goals that it is just impossible to play a long game not finding yourself conflicting with them.

On a general perspective magi are so powerful that the regular adventure inspired on other games just doesn't fit, so I always try to include something that is just almost impossible to beat: God, the whole mundane, or even the Order of Hermes (being a part of it doesn't mean it can't be your enemy).

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IME a functioning Ars Magica saga has all these three aspects integrated: doing research and labwork to explore Mythic Europe and integrate the covenant with it and its developments over a decade or more.

In this way characters start as a kind of tourists with outlandish abilities, booked into a hotel at some spot looking interesting - and from there they explore the locals, the land, the world and themselves change in the process.
Yes, some adventures are rather day trips to book and forget. But Mythic Europe is huge and rich and definitely should leave its deep impressions on the group of characters: think A Room with a View after 15 years of apprenticeship.

I'd agree with this to a point. Experienced and well prepared magi can take on 90% of the things they will encounter in Mythic Europe and be almost certain to come out on top. A lot of stories are then less "can we do this?" as in more conventional games and more "are we willing to do this?".

The more conventional dangers and repercussions of characters getting killed are replaced with dangers of another kind, some examples of ones I've seen used off the top of my head:

  • Doing the thing gets you noticed by someone/something that you actually can't beat (a powerful dragon, a faerie god, an archmagus with a fondness for wizard war).

  • Doing the thing costs the character in a moral/personal ethics sense, which will eat away at them.

  • Doing the thing gives an opening for the infernal to tempt the character.

  • Doing the thing is a crime and if the order finds out it will cause no end of legal trouble.

  • Doing the thing messes with the world in a way that will cause a bigger problem down the line.

  • Doing the thing annoys your sodales, losing you influence and reputation.

  • Doing the thing harms a relationship with a group or individual.

In some ways writing stories for Ars sometimes reminds of me of some narrative focused games where defeat and/or death only happen for story reasons (one I've been playing recently is the PbtA game Masks). Magi very rarely have no way to solve a problem, but in a well written Ars adventure most ways of solving the problem will lead to other problems which themselves can be stories. Ars stories are often at their best when they are character driven and follow on logically from past events and choices.

For example ims we had a Verditius with the "Vendetta" flaw. At one point a Flambeau apprentice was injured in a way that would impede his fighting ability, so his master threw him out. The Verditius took him on and finished most of his training, but they had a strained relationship because the Verditius had the personality traits "Harsh" and "Wrathful". The Verditius took part, by choice, in an adventure that took him away from the covenant for some years and left the apprentice behind which technically is illegal as he was failing to teach the apprentice. The magus he had a Vendetta with heard about this and convinced the apprentice to leave and become his apprentice, and this was considered legally justified due to the neglect. Now the Vendetta has become more heated than ever.

This all grew up out of story flaws and personality traits, plus the repercussions of two unrelated adventures. Ars is well suited with the virtue/flaw system and the structure of covenants, plus the Magus/Companion/Grog system, to these kind of complex inter-personal stories imo.

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Except that Talismans are rarely worth the effort in this edition - perhaps because my troupe has only limited combat focus. Most of the talismans I've seen in play, have been props, created by politically minded magi to show off their power. Familiars out pace them so much it's almost silly.

And this illustrates another important design lesson: Make sure the rules support the assertions you make in the descriptions. And for heaven's sake, play test! Once you have something that you think works, give it to someone else to see how they'll break it. Atlas Games have been very good at this so far.

As for the rest of @Doctorcomics' post, I find little to disagree with.

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Except that Talismans are rarely worth the effort in this edition - perhaps because my troupe has only limited combat focus. Most of the talismans I've seen in play, have been props, created by politically minded magi to show off their power. Familiars out pace them so much it's almost silly.

While generally a familiar with strong cords probably has more of an impact than a talisman there is one thing talismans do that familiars don't - attunements. A talisman attuned with several bonuses relevant to magic the magus does a lot can have a huge impact. An extra +2 to +10 to casting rolls is nothing to be sniffed at and you get one attunement essentially for free every time you add an effect to your talisman. In my experience this is as useful outside of combat (for having more flexibility with spontaneous magic) as it is in combat and well worth the effort of making a talisman.

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The cords are usually secondary to how effects enchanted into the familiar bond do not cause Warping. Don't get me wrong, the cords are nice (well, Gold and Bronze anyway, Silver sees less use these days, since there's no 'natural resistance' to spells, still useful for social contexts mind), but the ability to carry effectively permanent effects and not have to worry about Warping? That is a wonderful trick.

Absolutely! But when are those relevant?

  1. To help you cast a spell that you couldn't normally (or at least couldn't normally without fatigue).
  2. To increase penetration (mostly relevant in combat)
  3. Improve spontaneous magic (but only in those areas where you've predicted a need and opened an attunement) - and remember that the bonus from attunement should (probably) be divided the same as your arts.

... and the reason why I discount #3, is that you still need to have predicted the need.
They become more relevant as you grow older (as the bonus/season become harder to match), but it's still not something I'd recommend early in your career.

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The attunement bonus 100% adds to the undivided score as I read it, but it's still useful. As to the planning ahead - surely you have to do this for things like wards enchanted into a familiar bond anyway? Some of the S&M bonuses can be pretty broad - "Mind" "Control Movement" "Scrying" "Protection" and "Year duration effects" are just a smattering of the available wide-reaching attunements. Not to mention the ones that are just an art, which are essentially equivalent to Puissant (Art) for spellcasting.

Even a +1 bonus (after division) on non fatiguing spontaneous magic can open a lot of options. For example a +3 "Corpus" attunement can allow you to use a lot of personal range corpus spells with safe non-fatiguing spontaneous magic. Of course you could also enchant those effects into the familiar bond but that costs vis and time (and makes you weirder, depending on how far you take the "familiar bond enchantments give you aspects of your familiar" thing) while with the talisman you just do it while also enchanting other effects.

Familiars are still better RAW, no arguments here - I just wouldn't say Talismans are "rarely worth the effort". A year or so spent on a talisman can seriously improve a magus' capabilities.

The above 4 posts illustrate another core experience - endless arguing over rules mechanics and the approach to progressing your character that make points-balancing GURPS or choosing merits for your World of Darkness character seem like amateur hour.

For me, core experiences are:
experiencing a world much like our medieval one while also engaging with folklore (I'm British, so a lot of our games involve local history and local legends)
; getting to choose which character to take on adventure (not automatically your most powerful one)
; the covenant being a living place with a feel of its own, as a communal story space - very few games offer the group's base so much detail.
;dealing with the social effects of The Gift

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lol! Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. My apologies.

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Perhaps not core, but it has been key. I have run high adventure gams, and as a player I have had the tables turned on me with my back against the wall. Combats may not be frequent. But their scarcity can make them that much more dramatic.

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Many other excellent suggestions here. To expand on one idea I have not seen explicitly laid out:

Family: Almost every game I've played, at least one character has gotten married and had children. No other RPG that I have played in 25 years of experience is this a feature.

Other things I've seeen regularily in my games:

-Incorporating new kinds of magic

-Wrecking the established "Order" both Hermetic and in the Mundane World

-Investigating Mysteries of other Magic

-Spending a few seasons in the Lab to solve some problem the players are currently facing.

-Fast Travel, either by a flying object of some sort, or teleportation magic.

-Focus on the Magi. My players over the years have had little interest in Companions or Grogs.