Covenant Charters

Back when my group first started playing Ars Magica (we started with 3rd ed as that was the version we found) The players wrote up their own charter that the members would pledge too. Now in the Covenants supplement there is a sample charter, much longer than what my group ever came up with.

So my question is what do you do for your games? Do your players actually make up and write their own? do you just use the one in the Covenants supplement and assume that's the one used? How do you do it in your games?

If you mean Charter, we've used both the standard from covenants as well as writing our own. It depends how much of a lawyer you're feeling like at the moment. Most player covenants are small enough that you don't need to nail down all the fine details, but if a covenant is big or old, you're going to get social layers and codes of conduct.

Probably the most important thing is to outline how magi get vis. Covenants own vis sources, and the magi will want the vis. Constant squabbling over every pawn is such a pain that most covenants will come up with a system for who gets what. Currently we've just re-started an old setting of mine, which operates under the Vis Salary Hook, which means magi have to do work to get vis. The either take over part of covenant management (oversight type stuff, not a full time job) to get a stipend (4 pawns per year) or perform seasons of service for payment. Just be sure it's actually worth the magus' time to blow a season; most magi (past the early years) should be able to crank out 3-4 pawns just doing Vis Extraction, so that's kind of the bottom end of things - though working for the covenant means you can get something other than Vim vis. For the record, we're using 6 pawns/season, but all seasons have to be approved by council (so there's a limit on the drain). The covenant also pays out 1/2 Magnitude of Ritual spells cast on the covenant's behalf, so that magi have an incentive to learn and master ritual magics.

From experience, avoid stuff like mandatory unpaid seasons of service like the plague. You end up with magi who are weaker in the long run, players who resent the interruption, and you can design a covenant so that such things DON'T need to happen (for example, your vis sources shouldn't need a season of work every year). It's especially punitive if you're House Tremere or have an Apprentice eating up seasons already. Never use the charter to mandate a player's time if you can avoid it. Carrot > Stick.

I can see your point, however (from a player point of view) I quite like mandating things like seasons of service in the charter.

The advantages are it:

  1. ensures that some stuff of common utility to the covenant (but would otherwise get endlessly delayed) gets done.
  2. encourages the PC magi to co-operate and plan so that unpaid seasons do achieve things that the individual magi want done. The season shouldn't (always/mostly) just be a write-off "extracting vis from the aura". It should be doing something for the covenant that also achieves the goals of the magus.
  3. creates lots of opportunities for in-character discussion. Such as "how come the Bjornaer sodded off into the forest for a year? What did he do for the covenant and how does he propose to compensate us?"

For these reasons I would always add mandatory stuff into the covenant charter. The trick (as players) is not to be too prescriptive in the charter about what counts as "seasons of service" for example --- so that there is in-play opportunity to define and argue about what does and does not count.

As everyone else said, it depends. I almost always let my players write it (or at the very least the first draft of it) because writing out a covenant charter of responsibilities and governance helps me with my job. As the core rulebook notes, figuring out what kinds of stories players want can be like drawing blood out of a stone, but if the players themselves are writing the charter (with me around to make sure it isn't just one person doing everything and smacking down attempts at disagreement, because I play with teenagers) then it lets them tell me in a less direct way what kinds of stories and situations they do or don't like. I actually tend to have this happen before the magi are even made, and then we glance over how that group came to those decisions on how the charter was written (or if they even did write the charter at all) because my players tend to have characters with different desires from their own and I want to encourage them to set up story hooks they want as opposed to writing what they think their characters would say. Is it immersion-breaking? Sure, maybe a little bit. But I'm more worried about everybody having fun in the long run than doing it "right" in the short run.

(And before you tell me that maybe having their characters would give them a better idea of what they want, I understand that that's how it is for most groups, but my group is very much of the "I'd really rather do this, but I think it's out of character so I'll do this" variety, which is good for roleplaying but sometimes has even the most involved roleplayer bored out of their mind, so I have to try and work with that.)

Just to address this: whether it is the players, the story guide, or the characters (in play) who write the charter just depends on the nature of the saga, in my experience. Usually, I have played it that it is the players with more or less interference from the story guide, depending on how much say the player characters have in the running of the particular covenant. When the player characters are founding the covenant it is done in play (perhaps with interference from established sponsoring covenants / the Tribunal).

[advertisement] Also note that the covenants in Through The Aegis include charters. [/advertisement]

My groups have always written up their own charters and sworn an oath to uphold it. As said, it helps build investment in the game.

That still happens under my system. Council has to approve what counts as a season of service, so the arguments and politics still happen, it's just nobody is forced to give up time. In a real crisis council should be able to force every member to become useful, but if council just wants stuff to get done, why not just start offering increasing amounts of vis until somebody bites? Aside from covenants steeped in vis poverty, that is. If you're setting up a covenant collaboratively, though, I think most wouldn't choose that route.

Good points
My first few sagas back in 4th ed the charters mostly stated thing like the magus' time was his own and the covenant council could not simply order anyone around. Plus what to do with resources found.
In 5th ed I've toyed with the idea of demanding some kind of service - lile 1 season per 2 years - in order for the magi to be eligble to recieve vis shares and use the library, keep a lab etc. Services should take entire seasons but the nature of them was deliberately vague. One reason was to allow each magus to do things he liked to, he was good at and which helped. The wilderness magus could search for vis or hunt down dangerous beasts. The combat magus could develop defences or go fight an enemy. The scholar could write books. The politician could go form relations and make trades. the mage smith could forge devices for the grogs and covenant etc.
Because otherwise the covenant could risk not growing or evolving, or some magi may do all the wok while the others were freeloaders.

Another reason for this was concerning apprentices. Since we saw apprentices trained during play become much more powerful than from-the-core-rules magi we looked at why. First, the parens most often bothered learning Teaching, so seasons of personal instruction had high study quality. Second, apprentices were allowed into the library, if nobody else needed that particular book. Third, they often came along on adventures. Fourth,they were really never used as lab slaves, so there was not a huge pay-off for the parens' time.
So with a charter demanding services in order to gain privilege, the parens' library privilege could be used by himself or his apprentice....guess who would read books then? And the parens' service could easily be boring scribing-copying stuff so this was a good task for an apprentice. So the aim was for the restrictive charter to 1) make having apprentices lucrative 2) limit how overpowered they became, by having them 'waste' time.

I also like charters which include some titles and set areas of responsibility for the magi, like Defence, Finance, Relations, Magical Resources etc. We've had some succes with this. But I'd alos like to try out where there is not a title and privilege for everyone, in order to make it somethign to strive for, to fight for. The latter would be good for a Hibernia saga, perhaps. But it need not be combat or Certamen, it could be by intrigue and plotting, or by vote on who did the most for the covenant. And then the winner would have the pvileged position for a time, with some benefits, as well as some responsibilities.
We actually did something like this once, where some characters had fun nominating a maga who did not want that responsibility and was in the end voted in for that position.

I think the most fun is if the characters write the charter. Sure, it's still us players who do it - but I find it more fun when bits of the character's personality and shortcomings affect it. And so you can have a lot of character-roleplay about this.

I'm in a newly started Rhine saga, and we'll come to this charter business soon. WIth the players we have in the group I'm sure some great ideas will pop up :wink:

Simple answer: the rules were not made while trying to keep them mathematically equivalent to the advancement rules. There is no way around this. One of the creation rules must be incorrect according to the advancement rules. Apprentices explains that so many of the apprentices' seasons are spent in the lab. Now, the apprentice could do some little work alone in the lab to allow the magus time to study or do something outside the lab, but that doesn't help. If the apprentice spends three seasons per year assisting in the lab, then the rules for older magi say the magus gets 0 instead of 8 (4 seasons x 2 points of exposure/season). If the apprentice spends three seasons in the lab of which two are assisting, then the rules for older magi say the magus gets 0 instead of 8-16+ (3 seasons x 2 points of exposure/season + at least 2 for the fourth season). Or it could be that the statement about the time apprentices spend assisting is incorrect, which means the apprentices will gain more than 2 points from exposure each of many seasons, so they will be more advanced than the creation rule say.

So while I agree that you're right about the numbers for apprentices, I find the fix of putting magi and them in the lab more just ensures a different part of the creation rules is off instead of really fixing anything.

I'm not sure I agree with this one. I've seen it used in many different ways.
Annual services, a single service per N years. Various degrees of membership, where young magi had to work to prove their value to the covenant, but the established magi where considered to have already "paid their dues" etc.
In 3rd edition, I ran a covenant that theoretically required a service each year, but the 'Council of Magi' (meaning, the magi) could vote to exempt each magus from this obligation in a given year. The elder magi had routinely done so, for decades, which was part of the reason the covenant was falling into Winter. The elder verditius was furious when he was actually required to perform a covenant service once again - due to clever politicking by the players.
And obviously, there was always the opportunity of trying to get the other magi to agree that you didn't need to do a service in a given year, or that something you'd already done would count for that year's service - or the next year's. And ofcourse, there was the younger verditius, who played a game of 'don't get caught', where he'd just decided not to do his covenant services, and see if he'd get called on it.
Plenty of story and RP material there I'd have thought?

Yes, obviously. But compared to what? Other magi in the same saga, which are really the only relevant units of comparison?

Wait, you impose a charter upon your players? Shouldn't those be either 1) Troupe decissions or 2) imposed by elder magi in a non-spring covenant, specifically to give characters/players something to resent and work against?

In fact, doing so is (IME) rather easier than motivating why covenant services are indeed required.

On the surface, yes. But how often does the house require a command performace in your sagas? And since House Tremere might well demand a service such as "Get better at your tines!" or "Get your Arts up so that you can take an apprentice for the greater glory of our [strike]pyramid scheme[/strike] House", things could be worse.

Yeah, I can see where this is comming from. But then, like Christian, I see apprentices as a way of getting covenant services done without having to do it yourself.
I also recall seeing a charter where teaching your apprentice was considered a valid covenant service. Remember, it doesn't have to be a story, if you're a little smart about how you write that charter.

..again, not sure I agree :wink:

I think you should always agree in the Troupe how and what you want. Player who don't know and can't or won't answer risk having something foisted upon them. But I enjoy involvement of fellow players, because each and every one brings something new into the equation. New ideas, new interpretations, new loopholes, something unexpected.

If the Troupe feels a Stick is more fun, then they should have elder magi enforce a heavy Charter, and have fun resenting it, trying to get out of it, changing it.

Do you end up weaker if you need to perform covenant services? Not necessarily, because what do you compare to? An NPC magus who spends all his time with good books and pursuing his own goals? But where did those books come from, where does he get vis, how is his covenant still up and running? I have a hard time seeing this happen so much that your magus is distanced in the power-run of the saga. IMHO these questions are interesting and may make for good stories. And if some player magi do lots of services and the others loaf off of it, you have other problems which the hard-working magi should work on.

Making covenant services boring, tedious chores enforces resentment towards it. And if you don't want stories about changing or avoiding things, you'll be a depressed magus. So don't do this.

If the services enjoy a certain degree of freedom, where magi can combine them with own projects or interests, and actually gain something from them, they'll become a constructive use of time. If some of these are played out as stories they are a source for Story Exp, Confidence and Reputation exp...and that's not something to sneeze at if you ask me. Can be as valuable as a season in the library, and may be more fun.

This is why I have players, instead of being an author.


Since you started with the 3rd edition, I'll assume you're familiar with the idea of Covenant Seasons.

IMAO, this idea has been far underplayed in this edition, but that's probably just me being old-fashioned.
Be that as it may, here are some thoughts and experiences on Covenant Services based on the season of the Covenant.

Spring - Everyone will likely be working hard for the covenant. Sacrificing a single season per year? You should be so lucky! Covenant Services rarely need to be written into the charter, because everybody's doing them if they want to eat. So why not - might as well put them in. You can always remove them later. One popular version is to require a set number of services, ie 20 seasons of service or 1 season of service for each of the first 10 years of membership, just to make it 'fair' with newcommers.
Summer - The covenant is stable and powerful. Covenant Services are rarely necessary. Some covenants still have them, but resources are plentiful, everyone could theoretically just do their own things, and the covenant as a whole would still survive and likely prosper. The near-ideal situation.
Autumn - By now, politics matter. Even if resources are plentiful, there are likely to be artificial shortages, as senior magi hoard resources. Covenant Services are probable, either unpaid -but-mandatory (for junior magi) or as the main way to aquire resources for younger magi. Plenty of opportunities for internal politics here.
Winter - You didn't do your Covenant Services, did you? And since no-one spent their own resources for the common good, everything collapsed for everyone. Elder magi er unlikely to require or reinforce formal requirements for Covenant Services, as they are likely to be old and unwilling to act at all, rather they just want to dream of the good o' days, or spend their time plotting revenge for slights commited decades ago.

... just a few more thoughts on the subject :wink:

What I mean is it may be more valuable to the covenant that the magi be more powerful through study, than whatever you might have them do. This depends entirely upon what the magus in question can do (arts/foci). It's also important to note that seasons of work are not the only useful thing that magi can do for a covenant - quite a few things magi can do take a few hours here and there (ritual spells) or a week (adventures). Magi not doing whole seasons of work are not necessarily freeloading.

It really depends on what you consider seasons of service. "Learn/invent ritual spell X" could be considered a season of service, but it also makes the magus more powerful/useful in general.

While troupe decisions might be the Ars Magica baseline, it's not how the game is universally played. Thus I mention that imposing seasons of service is a bad decision if you're following the more regular style of "One gamemaster who provides the setting" play.

That's a clever idea.

Then let the covenant accept that as a covenant service. While SG-ing as the Tremere Exach, I have told a tremere character to "Study your Arts - the House needs you to be more powerful." So why not the covenant?

I don't believe I've ever claimed otherwise. I do believe I've always argued that it is up to each covenant - meaning the magi of that covenant - to decide what is a service.

And could absolutely be accepted as a covenant service, if the charter is flexible enough (and it should be!).
I recall voting in favour of accepting it as a covenant favour that one magus learned Pilum of Fire from a labtext. It was useful for the rest of us that he pick up that spell, good enough for me. Well, for my character, technically

Which part of it? The "Oh yes, I spent 3 seasons copying our best books for trade. Well, my apprentice did. That's 3 seasons of Covenant Service." That Christian suggested, and that I back/approve of?
Or the "I taught my apprentice for a season this year, that's my service to the covenant."?
Either could easily be valid, in the right Covenant.

I just had to go check that. Interesting the things you forget.

Still waiting for the actual book to turn up at the moment.