Discoveries, Breakthroughs, & Mysteries

How many of these are applicable in a single typical saga?
What I am getting at is this. There are currently around 1500 magi n 1220. The Order has been around some 450 years, so I figure there have been around 3000 magi in the history of Mythic Europe thus far. Now, in that time and amongst all those magi, there have been many several or dozens of breakthroughs and developments. My question is this.
How many of them are out there?

Now, certainly there is stuff that has been integrated into standard accepted Hermetic theory. Parma Magica for one. Some spell guidelines, Mastery abilities, and whatnot. But this is not an exercise in reverse engineering. Further, I am not talking about my specific saga or any one in particular (thoug these are all good models for examination, so feel free to draw from past experiences for examples and insights). No, I am thinking instead of the typical standard setting as if being viewed from the outside, as if it was a series on television or the paradigm for a number of comic books all by the same publisher.
Not even that really. Just trying to grasp what seems plausible, reasonable, and manageable.

Let me break it down like this. Alchemy, for example, is currently out there. There are elements that are naturally incorporated into standard magic and most may not realize it; some elements are considered common but require a special Virtue; some elements can only be initiated by a mystery cult; and there are further elements that are outside the use of Hermetic Magic (as found in A&A), that could be incorporated via a breakthrough. Or let us take some Ancient Magic as an example. It may be that no magus has heard of or thought about any of this stuff. Or maybe some of it is out there. Take Rune Magic as an example. Some German magus may have developed a Glyph duration as a minor breakthrough, or maybe he has made a full on breakthrough and has the Rune Magic virtue. Or maybe more than one magis has it &/or is working on it. Maybe they form a cult, maybe they are rivals. Now back to Alchemy again. There is the mystery cult, Knights of the Green Stone. Then there could be other cults, &/or individuals developing systems of self initiation &/or trying to incorporate some elements into standard magic. It could be regional.

And now for the real point behind this mental exercise. Consider an Archmagus of advanced years. There are many various "magic accessories" that he may have collected and/or have been developed during his lifetime. There may be some mysteries and ancient secrets that were developed while he was young, some may have thrived and become common, others may have withered into obscurity. Some may have just been developed "yesterday" and he has never learned of it. There may be some magic tricks available to a younger magus (or all young magi) that he does not know. The time the youngers spend on new developments, he must spend just to keep up with what they are being taught.
So which way would it go? Will his magic slowly become eclipsed as younger magi grow stronger on greater and greater magical development? Or is there an endless number of mysteries/secrets/breakthroughs/etc already out there for him to collect and grow ever stronger upon? Are there other considerations I fail to take into account?

The only good answer is a variation on: "It depends."

Does the troupe want to have the verisimilitude of a living breathing growing Order of Hermes? Or do they want the PCs to be the primary movers and shakers inventing the stuff that has been suggested in the various source books?

The challenge you bring up is one of how is information in the Order disseminated. Does a breakthrough made, using the example of a new guideline, need to have a rigorous method for being transmitted, or is it enough to say that at Tribunal, a magus discusses his breakthrough and everyone goes, "Of course, I should have thought of that!" Or does the new guideline need to be a tractatus which is read and then the reader gains that knowledge? If it's the former, dissemination is relatively easy, and you can almost hand wave that every guideline published is know to every magus. If it's the latter, you need to have some method for modeling the dissemination of new information, and also possibly for determining whether any currently canonical guidelines are actually still in the process of being fully disseminated to the Order.

You could model how an Archmage keeps up based on the professional occupations: doctor, lawyer, accountant and others, that require so many hours of additional education on a yearly basis to keep current with new trends. This could happen at Tribunal, or maybe it happens more often. If it happens more regularly, it might be something that Durenmar hosts, because a lot of these classes professionals take do cost money. They can also be held in nice and exotic locations designed to be a getaway from the daily grind, too. Some magi don't learn anything and instead spend the week engaged in the inevitable bacchanal.

Wanted to add...
Stealing the Future is touching on some of these issues, because I'm inviting the troupe to define what breakthroughs, other than the ones I'm predicating the saga upon, have been made.

Just one point I wanted to add to the discussion, is that just because a magus has a breakthrough doesn't mean they necessarily share it; they could be the type to want to discover and keep it. This might mean that in the history of the Order, there have been multiple people who have had the same breakthrough, simply because nobody shared an earlier discovery. Also, if real-world science is anything to go by, some discoveries may be done contemporaneously, in parallel. That would cut down the number of unique discoveries in the order. The example for this is the development of Vim as a unified Art (see: Concietta(?) of Bonisagus from Legends of Hermes, and her attempts to unify the disparate theories of Vim.


There is a general issue in what the books offer and what the demographics reasonably support. One poster noticed, back when, for example, that there simply aren't enough Bjornaer to support all the lineages, septs, etc that have been described. Similarly, House Tytalus is spread remarkably thin over all the cabals listed, unless members tend to belong to six or seven at a time (including their own mini-cabals.)

What to do?

The easiest is just to ignore mysteries that don't matter to your saga. The ones that do matter get the population they need, overall demographics be damned. This approach is often taken in sf&f, especially as series accumulate.



Of course. And there will always be stuff "out there" that never needs be defines. No player will reasonably meet and interact with each and every living magus of the Order. The things to focus on come in three categories: things players want to use, things the SG wants to encourage, and things suitable for antagonists/rivals/allies/background noise/etc.

It is that last category that intrigues me. And it isn't actually about verisimilitude. It is about the appearance of verisimilitude.

The last category, being what is possible for the saga's antagonists? This is where the SG has the most latitude, the important thing to not breaking verisimilitude is to have a rational basis for whatever power you've given to the bad guy. Ars Magica excels in this arena giving so many different ways to realize ever greater levels of power: Mystery Cults, Original Research, Integrating other magical traditions are but a few. If the SG holds all of these secrets, it's important that there is some rational basis for the powers, just so that players don't call shenanigans. It's very easy for an SG to just pull stuff out of thin air, my experience with games other than Ars is that it is often necessary. With Ars I find myself striving to maintain a strict interpretation of the rules, because even that gives me a lot of room to develop bad guys or even whole sagas.

So, you're looking for the appearance of appearing to be true or plausible? That's like a copy of a copy.

Sort of.
Perfect verisimilitude would require a mind numbing amount of micromanagment of details. By "appearance of verisimilitude", I mean more along the lines of what you are saying. What seems plausible and rational to both the players and SG. Anything could fall apart if examined too closely. That is what i mean by saying that there is stuff "out there" that I never need define nor consider. It is plausible to imagine their would be, it is maddening to try to detail it all exactly.
So granted, you are only going to use so much of this stuff ("stuff" meaning mysteries, circulation of breakthroughs, etcetera). And it is not so much a question of which stuff to use. This will naturally evolve based upon player choices and sg preferences. Though it is a good topic to discuss which ones work best and which are problematic in terms of verisimilitude. This item might break the game or that item would seem so reasonable and rational, etcetera.
A more important question to consider is "how much stuff?". A little? A lot? Leave it undefined? A lot of little things and a few big secret things? How prolific are mystery cults in games you have observed? How frequent do breakthroughs come along? Or projects to experiment with such?

And how well does all of this work with a crowd of magi of diverse backgrounds?

Well, semantics... Because verisimilitude is the appearance of being plausible, so the appearance of verisimilitude means, what? :smiley: There is no perfect state of verisimilitude because that would mean it is completely real, and if you try and go for complete realism in anything game related you're going to drive yourself crazy and probably everyone else around you, too. However, when you say the appearance of verisimilitude it seems even further removed, like a shoji door. It's a door, but it's made of paper, it's not going to stop anyone from breaking through it with force. Verisimilitude should be able to withstand a bit more rigor, meaning every choice should have some rational reason for being present in a saga or any game.

I'm assuming that by saying which ones, the "ones" are breakthroughs, Mystery Cults, RAW clarifications etc. All of those "ones" work best when they are agreed upon explicitly outside the stream of play. Initial and explicit agreement and discussion, along the lines of what Timothy Ferguson calls the Game Contract is really important in the beginning stages of the saga. As the saga progresses and the troupe notices where the rules are unclear or fall down completely sometimes rulings have to be made on the fly, but it works best if they can be discussed outside of the confines of the actual episode story currently underway. My choices in the moment, as it were, are going to always be ultra-conservative and as close to my interpretation of the RAW. My interpretation of the RAW is the foundation of me building my stories. Not to say that I can't be wrong about my interpretation, but it is the foundation, and when you rock the foundation of things it's never a good outcome.

You're touching on the reason I kicked of a thread of proposed HRs in Stealing the Future, and one of the questions I asked there, was what breakthroughs the players wanted to have in existence at the start of the saga. I had a related question that I haven't yet asked, and that was going to be about Mystery Cults, which ones exist, and why? Part of that was going to be a function of any PCs wanting to be a member of a Mystery Cult in that particular saga. Obviously those cults would need to exist, but certain others wouldn't necessarily. The rest though is undefined until it becomes necessary to the story. Maybe a PC does want some Cult to join, then I create it, but that act of creation affects everyone, and it affects the story I'm telling. Until it was requested it was undefined, because I don't bother to define all 1200ish magi in the Order of Hermes, just the magi who regularly interact with the PCs. If the PCs are older, and have history, the players have defined a few as well.

But this is exactly the way many successful TV series work. Consider Buffy:

In S1E1, Sunnydale is a one-Starbucks town, with the good section and bad section of town on two adjacent blocks. By season 2, Sunnydale is a seaport that can service oceangoing freight, has a college, an army base and "miles of sewers." By season 3, there's a 4-storey city hall, a major university, an airport... By season 4 there's a massive military industrial complex. In the last episode of the last season, we see the destruction of a major city.

So yeah, things can just be added in as needed.

Babylon-5 is the great exception to the rule.

Babylon 5 was conceived as having a beginning and end. B5 was unlike anything done before in the US, at least, and regardless of what Damon Lindelof and JJ Abrahms say, anything since (How I Met Your Mother may have had a definite ending planned from the beginning).

If you create a saga with a finite end it becomes much easier to limit the world.

Agreed re b5, and even about limiting the world. But it becomes much harder to extend the series and go off in new directions. This is even more important in a game, wherein player roster changes can also change priority, and limiting the world is likely to limit opportunity.

I love b5, but there are good reasons why there's nothing else like it. For a game, I think Supernatural, Buffy and especially Dr Who are better models.

Wibbly Wobbly for the Win.



I'm not sure that a finite planned ending inhibits new players from joining, unless they are familiar with the rules and setting and fundamentally disagree with the premise. If they are a newbie then they can be fed information and guided more easily since certain choices are off the table.

I have run into this problem in practice though at heart, I share your preference. I have just found that it creates great difficulty. Having a framework is great, but being able to alter it is even better.

But that's just me.

(For example, if there are no Bjornaer at the beginning of a saga, there's no need to think about those mysteries or about shapeshifting traditions within the order and without, but as soon as a new player wants to play one, you can either say "No, because I want to concentrate on Learned Magicians, Sahirs and other traditions that develop magics around academic abilities," or you can find ways to make it work. For all that I love B5 for what it is, by the end of the series I found that single, strong authorial voice shallowed the depths and reduced the show's themes to a Melkorian repetitive simplicity.)

Been thinking about this one all day. Ars Magica magi are thematically based upon scholars and scientists, and we liberally borrow from modern notions of how such people behave. That's besides the point, other than this is sorta what brought the idea to mind to begin with. Rescently I read an old book, Wiff of Death, by Issac Asimov. Wasn't sci-fi per se. It was a murder mystery taking place at a university where students are working on a phd in chemistry. It is copyright 1959, and so I suppose that is when it takes place. Reads like it. Anyway, no spoilers, but there is one old scientist writing a book, and it is more about the history of chemistry than actual chemistry, because his knowledge is sadly out of date. Back in his day, science was harder and people were making serious breakthroughs, but half their theories are now obsolete and the stuff being worked on now is beyond his grasp.

Which got me thinking about the archmagus. How much of his magic is obsolete? Does he have a bag of clunky spells that he has mastered but are now superceeded by newer more efficiently designed ones? Dis he waste years achieving and/or obtaining a minor breakthrough that is now free and part of the package? Or maybe there was a mystery cult back in his day that is now defunct and their virtues are available to all now. Now in the reverse. What does he know that he never taught his filius? And the same for many other magi his age? There could be a core of developments shared only among older magi. Or maybe the archmagi themselves constitute a mystery cult that teaches common Hermetic virtues (always liked that last idea myself).

There is a reason I am mixing these ideas. As I said, I do not want to reverse engineer the development of magic. In fact, I prefer the mythic approach, older things are more magical and older magic is more powerful. The Founders simply were more powerful and advanced than modern magi. Don't ask me how. It's magic. Maybe not everything got handed down or something has been lost in transmission. Now, having said that, I figure the easiest way to deal with an old magus, or say a ghost magus or isolated hermit magus, is to use core RAW (main rulebook) as the base standard. They don't know the guidelines from other books, they have no access to the erratta, mysteries might not be available to them, etcetera. Now the archmagus, well, he is an archmagus because he has maintained his edge. And as an archmagus, many resources are available to him. His magic is up to date, he has picked up a few breakthroughs and maybe made a minor one (perhaps he is not a Bonisagus, so he trades instead of shares :smiley: ), and maybe he has a few mysteries &/or figured out some self initiations or learned how to initiate different things. Blah-blah-blah.

I gotta side with the dragon man. I also prefer a loose framework, one that solid stories can be built upon but one that can also shift and change as needed. Players come, players go. And I have seen rigid sagas collapse from the stress of forcing the stories to fit an unflexing framework. I feel that you gotta let players play the characters they want to play. Within reason, for the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one. Am I perfect at it? No. It is an art form, and I have successes and failures and made compromises and learned from my mistakes that it is better to go with the flow. Within reasonable feasibility.

And that brings me back to where we started, because this is something I have had difficulties with in the past. I banned Goat Magic in my game as a result :laughing: . Another issue was some weird Verditius spirit magic I just went along with, though it was kind of at odds with the Verditius mystery line I wanted to encourage. It worked out in the end, and I wound up retconning the history of that lineage to include a split in two line. They have a few things in common, one line has some spirit stuff and the other line has the traditional stuff, and I reasoned (and added to the myth) that the founder of that line was just so mega awesome, he knew all that stuff and more stuff that is lost (or is it?).
So that's one way to approach it.
I also used to have this thing where I keep offering non-cult Alchemy and Astrology, but it didn't work out and so I left that out. Maybe I will revive it.

When it comes to magic, I usually use two competing ideas (usually in relationship to magical texts):

  1. The older something is, the more powerful it is (because magic gets more powerful as it gets older), and
  2. Newer stuff is usually better designed and more efficient, due to increases in the quality of MT (ie, virtues are incorporated, the mystic math has been worked out better, etc.)

So there's an implied quality difference between older books and newer ones: older books, by their very nature, are more mystically powerful, but newer ones are more accurate. This is possible because ultimately mystic texts are written in metaphor, rather than specific data - so the older a metaphor is, the more it can be used to gain insight into the arcane - but newer metaphors are, well, better.

The convenient default is that these two tendencies completely cancel each other out: that an old and out-of-date book can still be read for mystic insight, simply because it's old. But a newer book has all the latest ideas incorporated within it, so it's just as good.

If you want to play with the idea a bit, the "old" source quality can either be positive or negative - representing the idea that an old book grants more insight, or else it's been supplanted by newer ideas. (But because it's all metaphor anyway, it's not completely useless.)

To go off on a tangent: I never had a problem with this, as my home town of Bremerton, Washington, is of a similar size to Sunnydale: 35k people or so, at the time Buffy filmed. And it had the following:

  1. Massive military industrial complex (Keyport and Bangor and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard)
  2. A large city hall,
  3. An airport (Bremerton International Airport - once a year they'd land a Boeing 747 just to keep the qualifications up. mainly acted as an alternate landing site for Sea-Tac.)
  4. A university (Olympic College - now a branch campus of Western Washington university, and considered one of the top two community colleges in the nation)
  5. A major shipyard (Puget Sound Naval Shipyard - also a part of #1)
  6. And was also a 1-Starbucks town. (literally).

The reason for all of this is that the city of Bremerton is relatively small, and not all of those features were in the city proper. Keyport and Bangor, for example, were about a 20 minute drive out in the county. However, The "Greater Bremerton Area" of Kitsap county, on the other hand, has a population in the hundreds of thousands. There were multiple Starbucks of course - but not in the city proper.

It certainly is an art form. But a loose framework can exist within a finite universe. Not everything has to be defined, just the things that are needed to progress the story. If a new player comes in and uses elements not previously used, this is fine. But it is when it goes over previously tread territory and assumptions made before don't fit now that things start to get all wibbly-wobbly. I'm not afraid of the retcon. I am afraid of what a retcon does to existing characters built with certain assumptions that end up no longer being true or understood moving forward.

One has to be ready to jettison anything that doesn't work as intended. How one determines what isn't working, though, is the toughest part.

Hmm. I see it as the easiest: Reach out with your feelings.

What to do about it seems harder, because what doesn't work for me might be essential for someone else.