Brand new storyguide seeking advice on saga tone

Hello, all. I'm brand new to the fora and sorta-kinda to ArM itself. I played a 2nd edition campaign way back in university, and decided mostly on a whim to try and get into the game again recently. The shiny new 5th ed hardback arrived yesterday.

I'm planning on working through Chris Romer's excellent Advice for Ars Magica Storyguides post (does anyone know if he ever did part two?) but as I flip through the book I'm finding that the default assumptions of the setting seem a great deal more high magic than I remember. When I played last under 2nd edition, the Covenant felt much more like a small liberal arts college engaged in academic politics, except with wizards. (This may have been because the Storyguide was a grad student. I'm just saying.) There didn't seem to be as much splashy magic being tossed around either by the magi or in the setting as 5th ed implies. In particular, reading the flavour fiction that opens the 5th ed book made me think that perhaps I had something rather more fantastic and trad fantasy than I was expecting.

Is this a difference between the editions? if not, is there any advice collated anywhere on how to tone down the splashy magic and trad fantasy elements from the 5th ed default? I'm looking for a feel more like T.H. White's Sword in the Stone series or Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George novels.

1 Like

Well, A) you're not wrong but B) it doesn't have to be that way. While I spend much of my free time tinkering and making drastic rules changes to produce the same sort of tone you envision, the truth of the matter is that you and your group set the tone by how you play. If you all agree that the tone and feel of your saga won't be as "high magic" as the default setting, you can do that. In fact, IMO, supplements like Lords of Men, The Church and especially Arts and Academy really support that "small liberal arts college but with wizards" feel. In fact, Arts and Academy has background and rules for medieval universities, so you really could do a "college with wizards" game.

Really, like any role playing game, it is what you make it.

1 Like

From my perspective, the level of high-fantasy-ness in the game hasn't hugely changed. The flavour text for 5th edition certainly suggests at a very magical world - but a story/saga like Broken Covenant of Calebais still fits very well.

I love regios for this kind of thing. You can have a fairly mundane 'base' world, and put your fantasy elements inside regios. If regios are somewhat dynamic (for example, if an entire town gets sucked into one - albeit temporarily) you can use this to throw high-fantasy fun at the group without having it run rampage through your entire saga setting.

I don't know about 2nd edition power-levels. However, for 5th edition while a disciplined crew can get you through a saga with a low-level feel, I personally find that the mechanics pulls you towards a high-magic, lots-of-raw-power game. I would recommend considering some house rules and campaign choices to keep power levels down.

Making heavy use of all the books mentioned below would also greatly serve to give the low-level, and mundane-society, tone to your saga. But that is mostly good for companion characters and getting ideas about appropriate adventures. You need to do something about the power-level of actual magi.

One problem is that magi start out very strong. Another that they tend to progress very fast. A third is that creature's magic resistance is low in comparison with reasonable penetration totals, especially given how these can be boosted. So I'd actually recommend applying a quite-comprehensive set of house rules in order to bring Ars Magica Fifth Edition down to low-magic levels. But then again - I am attracted to fiddling with rules, and have had experience with players "playing the system".

Ars Magica is a great game regardless, and as said above you CAN play it low-key if your troupe is up to that. Have fun.


Some things that will tamp down on power levels:
Ritual spells are subject to botch, and the botch chance is equal to the pawns of vis used on the ritual. There was ample discussion on this being part of RAW or not. RAW is contradictory and there is evidence on both sides of the argument. If a 5th magnitude (25th level) ritual spell is always stressful, IMO, then players will take virtues and flaws which will mitigate those botch risks. Further, they will spend XP to master spells, to mitigate botch risks. If you don't let familiars get too powerful (Realms of Power: Magic) then that's also an option.

Tinkering with auras... I had proposed an alternate aura system. This makes a magic aura 3 highly desirable (also see The Fixer's alternate) without needing to automatically push it to +5 with some boons. Additionally, it makes magi significantly weaker in other auras, or even outside of their aura. I like this because it keeps magi very powerful within their own towers, but weaker almost everywhere else, especially cities.

Change some of the mastery rules for spells, specifically multicasting. In Peregrine_Bjornaer's Canaries are Dying saga multicasting must be taken more than once to multicast for each spell, and is no longer treated as a function of the overall master ability. This is much like precise and quick casting are treated. Under RAW, a Ball of Abysmal Flame Mastery 3 with one selection of multicasting allows 4 balls of flame to be thrown. To do that under this house rule, you need to select multicasting each time you want to throw another BoAF.

Enforce requisites for ReCo or ReTe "teleportation" rules. It will make popping to other locations less common, a 15th level Wizard's Leap is within range for almost all magi, whereas the Leap of Homecoming is going to be cast by the Rego specialist more often than anyone else.

On re-reading, it appears you are looking for more practical and detailed advice. I don't really know of any place where low-magic high-Myth Ars Magica is discussed at length. Here are my thoughts, for what it's worth:

As I said, I see three major problems here.
(a) The power level of starting magi is too high. The starting Flambeau character can whip out a Ball of Abysmal Flame with approximately 11 penetration, and with just a little bit of experience (or just better design) can raise that to 2-3 per round (with Spell Mastery) and be all-but-immune to mundane attacks (with some protective magics). This a very splashy, nigh-unstoppable, killing machine in a low-magic (even if high-Myth) setting.

(b) Magi progress too fast. The canon (see the book Coveanants) implies source Qualities of about 10, with with just 2 seasons of study per year would yield 200 XP in a decade; put these in two Arts initially at 10, add two Affinities, and you reach Art scores of 19 (205 XP each). Five decades out of gauntlet, you have two Arts at 39 (805), nearly breaking the Later Life advancement assumptions on what is possible in the setting, and fully 12 decades post gauntlet you have two Arts at 60 (1855 XP), shattering said assumptions to smitherings. Now add in a Magic Focus, a few lab assistants, a specialized lab, and other perks and you easily get Lab Totals exceeding level 200 and spell and effect levels exceeding level 100, which is enough to do just about anything to entire kingdoms, continents, and oceans. This isn't such a big problem for NPCs, since you can just ignore it and keep them to lower power levels. But denying your PCs options to study is just not fun, and eventually they WILL start accumulating lots of XP and high Art scores - perhaps not as high, but high. I believe the only reason that this isn't a bigger problem for the Ars fan community is that most sagas aren't that long (in-game).

(c) The Magic Resistance of powerful creatures is a joke. This is partly because magi just have high Art scores and can be content with relatively low-level spells, and partly because magi can seriously boost their penetration with Arcane & Sympathetic Connections, raw vis, and Wizard's Communion. Another way to look at it is that MR scores are just too low. At the end, it's just not very Mythic to have the great Dragon serve as this-month's-hunt-quarry for your local Flambeau club lodge.

The best thing to do is to go over the rules and especially the spell guidelines, and "massage" them until you get what you want. But that's way too much work. So here are a couple of ideas.

General Thoughts

A related issue is the availability of raw vis and, for that matter, books. I'm not keen on not allowing players to get what they want. If their character wants to study, I'm generally in favor of him finding books or raw vis to study from. It may take some adventuring, but a single adventure should suffice for seasons if not years of rewards (study time). I often won't even require adventures at all, allowing instead book and vis trade; there are plenty of other reasons to go out adventuring, reasons more personal and meaningful than needing yet-another-tractatus on Creo. This is a gamestyle decision, and if you want to limit book trade and vis sources and trade that is up to you. Be aware that limiting vis sources makes the Order more competitive and generally means that magi will hardly ever boost spells, and will be skimpy on casting rituals and making magic items, which means they will want to spend even more time reading books and inventing spells. Suppressing book trade works best in an insular, suspicious Order (that I personally don't like), and I'd strongly recommend insisting that books on magic are really minor magic items and as such can only be produced (written or copied) by magi. This is more colorful, too, and can apply to Lab Texts to give your magi even more things to do with their time that except inventing spells or studying Arts. If both raw vis and books are hard to find, progress can grind down to the point where the fast advancement of magi is not really a concern; I just find that such severe limitations are not reasonable and make the setting one of deprivation and poverty. It certainly takes it away from the society of semi-academics that you imagine.

Double the magic resistance of creatures. No, triple it. That would take care of all that high-penetration these Hermetic wizards are packing. To maintain the setting's integrity, you may want to only triple it against Hermetic magic - with high power, comes his resistance... apparently...

One important resource to get a Mythic theme is Realms of Power: Magic. It has rules and ideas on how raw vis can be used in Mythic ways - from raw vis that also has magical abilities, to using Magic Lore to figure out elaborate rituals that turn particular sources of it into magic items of sort. It also has rules on aligned-auras (a place aligned not just to Magic in general, but to, say, Fire) and on changing aura strength which I feel are very appropriate for a low-Magic high-Mythic setting. I think that such a saga can really benefit from this book. Of course, the above mentioned books (City and Guild, Art & Academe and Lords of Men) are perhaps even more useful, but would largely be relevant to companion characters and background in my opinion. RoPM talks about raw vis and auras, things magi interact with, so is more directly relevant.

Another thing you might want to consider is scrapping Ars Magica's magic system and going instead all-hedgie - do a saga on hedge wizards, or have the Order made up of hedge wizards. This feels much more Mythic and certainly low-magic, but sucks because Ars Magica's magic system is great and there is no good hedge wizard magic system. (Some are presented in Hedge Magic, such as the Learned Magicians or Folk Witches, but I found them unsatisfying.) You can always do a saga about companions, perhaps with some magical abilities (the various Realms of Power: X books would greatly expand on your options here), but again - this is no Ars Magica. So the only way to move forward is to lower the power level of the Hermetic magic system, which leads me to...

Arts as Abilities
A simple solution I am infamous for advocating is to have Arts cost as much XP as Abilities. This is a major house rule, but I think such a change is needed to make the type of change you seem to be after.

This cuts down the insanity, but won't eliminate it completely. Under this house rule, starting magi will tend to have lower level spells (the Flambeau will rely on Pilum of Fire, not Ball of Abysmal Flame), and as a result will also have more of them (which I consider a boon). Accepting this lower power-level will require some adaptation from experienced Ars Magica players, but the resulting magi are still powerful enough. In particular, spontaneous magic is still useful, given some ingenuity, and longevity still effective. Even under this house rule, ancient magi would still be ridiculously powerful; 12 decades post-gauntlet, the above assumptions still lead to two Arts at 26, which is enough to do some seriously setting-upsetting magic.

Another effect of this house rule is that small bonuses become more prominent, so magi will tend more to pursue them - especially for initial characters, but this can set the tone of the character so it's important later on as well. Players will use their talismans and tend to milk more out of virtues such as Cyclic Magic or Special Circumstances, and of course aura. I would also recommend supplementing this house rule with further house rules that promote such small bonuses that you want - rewarding things that will give the right "feel" to how spells are supposed to be cast. This can include free access to Potent Magic (see The Mysteries Revised Edition; it's in Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults too, if I remember correctly), which would encourage the use of casting-items when casting spells - if you want your magi to use sympathetic-materials when casting spells, which has a nicer low-magic feel to it. You can also consider encouraging Ceremonial Magic, which feels more "mythic", especially if described as elaborate ceremonies; this can be done by adopting the Ceremonial Casting spell mastery ability (first described in Houses of Hermes: True Lineages, but also reprinted elsewhere), or the further rules on making ceremonial casting easier in Houses of Hermes: Societates. If you're into this sort of thing, you can institute an astrology-system to provide appropriate astrological bonuses at certain times; The Mysteries Revised Edition can help with that. Or, of course, you can just leave things as they are if you want magi to just will and speak their magic into being.

There are three principal ways to boost spell rolls in the core rules - arcane and sympathetic connections, raw vis, and wizard's communion. All are colorful in their way, and can contribute to that high-Mythic feel. Under this house rule I would suggest eliminating the penetration multiplier bonus provided by an arcane connection, or at least keeping it at "+1" even for fixed arcane connections, so as to keep the bonuses lower (in-line with the lower Art totals). The other two methods are tied to the Art and spell levels and as such are self-correcting; indeed, I think they even work better under the Arts as Abilities variant.

A major criticism against this house rule is that it means that Magic Theory becomes even more valuable than it already is. Just about any magus will invest lots of XP in raising it, often keeping it above or near his highest Art. I'm not sure if this is really that unfortunate, but do keep in mind that this means magi will be able to enchant complicated magic items and that the power level would be somewhat higher than what you might naturally consider under this house rule (as high Magic Theory scores will increase spell levels and so on). Perhaps most importantly, specialization will be less rewarding under this rule.

If you do decide to adopt this house rule, you should also make a few other changes to fit the rest of the rules to it.

  • The score needed to train an apprentice is 2 (15 XP) in each Art, instead of the RAW 5 (15 XP) in each Art.
  • You can write down a number of tractatus on an Art equal to the Art/2, instead of the RAW Art/5.
  • Puissant Art grants a +2 bonus, instead of the RAW +3 bonus.
  • Maximum Art scores at character generation follow the guidelines for maximum Ability scores.
  • The highest Arts in the Order's history are assumed to be around 20, so maximum summa level is 10.
  • Summa quality is still increased by +1 per dropped level for Arts, just like in RAW. (Otherwise, the quality gets too high.) Summa maximum quality is hence 11+(10-Level) [this provides a natural maximum of 20, below the 22 absolute maximum].
  • The build point worth of summa on Arts are the same as those for Abilities (because of their lower Levels).
1 Like

There are certainly a lot of options for house rules to limit magi power. Although a less invasive solution can be to just keep the characters busy. If Magi are out on adventures all the time or doing covenant service they are studying or in the lab building power. Also a tight Vis and Book economy can crimp power levels.

One easy way to tone down starting levels without a serious rules hack is to require or encourage characters to be more well rounded. Add more skills to the required abilities list for magi (Magic Lore I'm looking at you) or raise the suggested levels from the book by a point or two. Another great way to do this and tighten up the Book economy is to do away with the assumption that all hermetic texts are written in latin. Make books written in greek, arabic, or other languages almost as common.

Of course you have to be careful and make sure the players are on board. If a player want's to be a fireball tossing DnD Wizard they will usually find a way. Trying too hard to limit character power just makes it a contest in my experience.

1 Like

That assumes between 60 and 160 Tractatus, a tall order. You can still get there with Affinity, vis study and heavy lab work, although you'd get 20ish Warping from vis botches.

The rest is interesting, but I feel Spontaneous Magic is already hard to do and would suggest a free Diedne Magic for all magi.

Another solution would be to add 20 to all spell level by using full magnitude for levels 1 2 3 4 {i.e. 2 -> 10 and 5 -> 25}. Has anyone thought this through?

1 Like

I agree with this. Make sure that you look at the Covenants chapter of the main rulebook, especially the build-point cost of books. If you stick to those guidelines, covenants will initially only have quite small quantities of books. Of course, the player characters can acquire more in play --- but that's adventures/motivation-for-interacting-with-other-covenants.

It is also, I think, quite important that you allow the player characters plenty of time to solve problems. Or at least usually, of course, you want a few emergencies too.

I think that if the player characters are mostly encountering problems that need to be solved the next combat round, or sometime that afternoon, then you are pushing the players toward characters with a few Art Scores high enough to spontaneously solve most problems. On the other hand, if most/many problems just need to be solved "before two Solstices have passed" or "before the next Tribunal meeting" then it makes sense for the player characters to take the time to invent/learn specific spells, or enchant items to solve the problem. Which is good for two reasons:

a) it means that (somewhat paradoxically) Art Scores are less important, because if a magus has time to invent/learn a formulaic spell, then he doesn't need to muddle through creating similar effects with spontaneous magic (which is harder).
b) seasons spent inventing things in the laboratory are not seasons spent studying books.

1 Like

Well, yes.

A magus would be wise to increase his score using primarily summae till he reaches the maximum Art score of 20 (210 XP) allowed in the setting. From there to Art 60 (1855 XP) you will need 1645 XP, which is about 165 quality-10 tractatus without Affinity or 110 with Affinity.

I reckon that the number of good-quality tractatus is heavily dependent on how many good authors are assumed to have been in the Order's history. For prominent Arts, like Ignem, I'd ballpark it at two experts (level 40 in Art; 8 tractatus) and eight dilettantes (15 in Art; 3 tractatus), for 40 tractatus. Less popular Arts (Aquam) will have significantly less. Regardless, getting 110 should be unreasonable. However, even a modest Mystery Cult with, say, three generations of six members can plausibly produce - in some Art it finds pivotal- some 72 tractatus (score of 20 for each cultist, on average), with an average quality of 6 (Com 0) and likely including a few with higher qualities (but probably not exceeding 9). This means that massive lower-quality troves of tractatus are plausible, and can serve to reward players.

Because of the exponential costs of Arts, the difference between high and low quality isn't actually that great. Continuing with the above example, 120 seasons with quality 6 on-average will yield 1080 XP with Affinity, for a final score of 47 (1135 XP). If we let the character mix 40 high-quality tractatus (40 years, 600 XP) and 80 average-quality tractatus (80 years, 720 XP), we reach Art 51 (1375 XP). Both 47 and 51 are significantly lower than 60, but they're both still very high and disastrous for a low-magic setting.

So your point certainly stands, but ultimately I think it doesn't change the conclusion.

Furthermore, as you say, some of that will be gained by studying raw vis. Some by studying significantio, some by Teaching from senior magi or magical spirits or angels, and so on. For PCs, I think ultimately it isn't unreasonable that, somehow, they'd be able to cobble together sources in this scale. Again - if the player wants it, I'd generally supply what he needs, or a suitable replacement, after some adventures. I find that the rules lead the game in the direction where player character magi gain lots of power very fast. NPCs can be capped arbitrarily, but players less so.

In regards to vis causing Warping - that's (a) an acceptable price, and (b) if safety measures from Covenants are allowed, and a strong familiar gold cord is added, the average warping cost can probably be significantly reduced. A wise magus would probably want to start with studying raw vis as soon as he runs out of summa, to minimize it even further, but I reckon such wisdom would be scarce.

In my meager experience with this house rule, inventive use of spontaneous magic is still very useful to impress the mundanes or perform minor tricks - but its power is certainly reduced. Allowing Diedne Magic would certainly go a long way to alleviate this problem, but I'm concerned that it will reduce the difference in power level between formulaic and spontaneous magic. Still, it sounds like a good idea.

I never really considered it, but while that will take care of the problem of beginning power levels it would not solve the problem of fast advancement. Perhaps if coupled to a destitute Order, with no vis and book trade, it can work.

Yet another option is to double all spell levels. Not sure how that will work.


Yeah, halving the botch dices would quarter the Warping as you'd avoid the 1d10 from Twilight. {WAGging those}
And yes, Tractatus are best used after vis study, if you have the patience and wisdom to wait.

Doubling it all would be better than adding 20 for sure, now that I think of it.

This is all marvelous advice, thank you all. Work has exploded under my feet this week, so I've not had much of a chance to dive deeper into 5th ed.

YR7, that's great insight into the parts of ArM that would need changing, but I fear that by the point I'd done hacking all the rules I'd be better served by another system. I'm not expecting to ever buy much more than the base book, nor do I think it's likely I can get my players to invest in more than a copy per two or three players.

Jonathan.Link, I'm going to look at your recommendations in detail. Ideally I'm looking for one or two small changes I can make that have a ripple effect of lowering the splashiness of magic.

I've seen a number of "I'm hacking ArM to a lower-power tone" posts in the forum; it seems like there's a unfilled niche here. I don't know if a whole sourcebook would be necessary, but perhaps something like a Chaosium monograph or a magazine article?

I scared you with all those references, didn't I? Don't fret it - the Arts As Abilities rule is one simple change that has ramifications all over the place that brings the power-level closer to what you imagine. I don't think a single rule change can do that better. You can add the few more house rules I wrote above explicitly - the starred list, and perhaps the rule on arcane connections - to make the modified ruleset work together better, but it's not strictly necessary. All the other changes and options I mention are just extra icing, that's nice to have but is really not necessary.

However, Jonathan.Link's (and other's) suggestions are great too, and you should definitely do what works for you , which may not be the above.

You are right that this topic keeps coming up. We need to write a FAQ entry on it. Or a Sub Rosa article. Or, the best of all, have Atlas publish a book on a low-power Ars Magica campaign. Or all of the above :slight_smile:

May you always stay true to the cardinal rule of roleplaying - Have Fun!


Curiously, despite favouring low-impact Order games with low level magi I have never found it too big a problem. Yes, your players can munchkin a character who can do outrageous things if they want, but if you play by Ars 5 core book only (which as I recall recommends about 10 as highest Art for new magi, and a Parma Magica score of 1 is obligatory these days) and use only one or two magi per adventure, with everyone else using their companions, and everyone having a grog, I find it works ok. The way The gift influences mundanes is WAY nastier than in earlier editions, and magic is both loud and visible, unless characters take subtle magic and quiet magic as virtues. Once in a Dominion Aura where the penalty to casting is 3 times the aura, well that a big penalty - most parts of town will give a -3 to -6.

The trick is to use a slow saga, with an adventure every season, and low vis availability - charge twice the standard Build Points given in the covennats chapter. That should give you the kind of game you are aiming for I hope! :slight_smile: Oh and thanks for being so nice about my blog piece. I really should post part 2, as i wrote it years ago, and never have!

cj x

1 Like

To keep the balance in the low end of the scale, many buttons can be pushed.

-Low vis. Although I've seen this done to excess and it got stale eventually. Especially the Verditius felt screwed.
-Limit book quality. Also seen to excess, where the books were really too few and too poor. This is a subject of much debate, because the default, average Quality of a book ought to be 6. Although some people argus that only the best books are circulated.
-Limit time for magi to study! This is done by having many stories, although to really get the most of ArM, and to enjoy where it differs I believe you need to spend time inbetween stories for projects.
-Focus on abilities, not just Arts. it is significantly les powerful magic the wizards can throw around if they also have a bunch of abilities they want to study or train. Social abilities, Cult lores, etc. And make sure they are used. Don't gloss over travel, since speed, comfort at succes even relies on the poor or nonexistent Survival or Athletics ability of the magi. Also, don't micromanage it...
-Don't isolate the covenant. Have peasants, nobles, and the Church around to deal with as well. make sure you emphasize 'Europe' as much as 'Mythic' in the Mythic Europe setting. Interacting almost solely with demons, faeries, and spirits tends to have the magi look to magic to solve things. Those creatures can be interacted with as well using social skills.
-Interact with the Order. There are many other covenants and magi. Have political issues arise, movements, projects which span covenants and many years. This is great for not only characterizing the setting but also for spending the magi's time!
-Play Grogs. We have a convention in our group that an expedition going out needs 2+ players playing Grogs. Is sucks to be a lone grog when the rest play magi who solve everything using magic. A group of Grogs band together and do the practical stuff as directed by that strange guy in the robe, and they agree that he is odd. Great character roleplaying.
-Rememer Fatigue, also from other sources. Often magi will improvise this and that spell, and just claim "well, I rest for 2 minutes inbetween". Introduce a stress factor. have them blow long term fatigue on travel etc. which are recovered only once they rest ample time and get out of the field, so the single level used for magic every time is actually taking them from Weary to Tired.
-Require the magi to perform duties for the covenant. In order to have access to labs, books, and funding for projects they need to write or copy books etc. Every time the SG can "waste" a season for a magus, the magus can't inflate his power

1 Like