First Time GMing a Tribunal - Help!

Just to clarify, I've been GMing in general for about 20 years.

It's just that this is the first time I've run an Ars Magica game and this is the first Tribunal I'm running. It's in the Stonehenge Tribunal, which I have always consider a little like the wild west of Tribunals (so many inquorate tribunals in the past means up until recently, most decisions were by Certamen or Wizard War).

So I'm eagerly asking for advice on how to entertain and challenge (but not overwhelm) my players magi. They are a few years out of Apprenticeship and founding their own covenant. They will already be scrambling for votes of approval from other magi.

But I'd like specific suggestions as to how to make it fun and interesting without me having to talk to myself as 20 or more different NPC magi. What specific ideas have worked for you or really gotten a good reaction from your players?

Does anyone have Stonehenge specific advice of plot threads or NPC actions that they recommend? I'm thinking Blackthorne is going to be against this new covenant and Voluntas is going to be for it. But other detail is welcomed.

Also, how do people envision the pre- and post- tribunal? Is it like a carnival for magi? Are there demonstrations of magical prowess or new spells? Are there wondrous items being examined or traded? Is there a busy Vis market or book exchange occurring? Or is it a more sedate and paranoid affair?

Your input welcomed. Thanks.

As for that last, "What is it like?", I'd say... all of the above.

Ever been to a Con? (aka Gaming Convention/ Sci-Fi convention/etc)? Some attendees talk gossip, others talk shop, some are full of BS, some listen, some are just overwhelmed. Some are there to meet new folk, others clique up, others are standoff-ish and pure bussiness (esp some merchants!) Some find "see you next time" friends, and catch up, others hold court with the gullible and easily impressed, still others are there for purely personal gain (however they define that.) So, yes, all that, and more. There would be contests, both on-site and judging of long-term ones (esp for Verditius), perhaps gauntlets for some (un)lucky apprentices, long running feuds settled by certamen, back-room deals, open pleas for aid or alliance, trade and theft, you name it, if it's in human nature, it's there.

As for plots, pull some detail, some forgotten thread or character from the very earliest adventures, and weave it back in. That dufus apprentice that couldn't get anything right? He's now in a much more influential position, and possibly holds a grudge. Spring Covenants will be looking for more toeholds, alliances, trading partners, etc. Autumn and Summer Covenants will be looking for toadies and stooges to vote their way - bullying and/or promising as needed.

And I'd think that future Spring Covenants would be discussed, not only proposed to the Tribunal but also resources horse-traded and future memberships negotiated for soon-to-gauntlet apprentices.

It's all there, and more, the sky's the limit (and that's only because of the Lunar Limit!)

As far as NPC's... that's a matter of style. Some GM's run ALL their NPC's, some farm them out. Hard to get a player excited about running an NPC when he has a stable of PC's he'd rather see get screentime, but Grogs should be shouldered to add color overall. Try to avoid too much realistic detail of conversation and bureaucracy and get to the heart of the matter, move things along, "...and the entire morning is filled with dull requests, until, just before lunch...".

Do you have Heirs of Merlin? It has a tons of info on the NPCs in Stonghenge.

You need to make sure of a few things:

  1. Give your magi something to gain. This sounds simple but it needs explaining. You could simply say, "Well, you go to Tribunal because... it's the Tribunal". Or you could make sure that the covenant or the individual magi have good reason to go. Perhaps they need to speak with another magus/covenant. Perhaps one of them has heard that they might be able to trade service for Vis? Perhaps your Verditius is looking for a commission.

Those kind of things ensure that the magi can be pro-active when they get there, which takes a lot of work off the SG's shoulders.

  1. Make sure that the player magi are needed. If your covenant includes a Bonisagus and a Bjornaer, perhaps engineer a feud between a Bonisagus and Bjornaer from two rival covenants. These two magi are irreconcilable... until your covenant comes in. Maybe your covenant is the only one able to mediate a peace and prevent Wizard War because of its makeup. Or, you could sit back and watch your players conspire to take sides...

  2. Make their votes count. That doesn't mean that what they say goes. But they should feel as though their activities and their votes are important. They are the heroes of the saga after all. Unless you're playing (like my Veronese saga) in a situation where the heroics are the fighting against the big machine, a Tribunal is a place to show political power and influence. Let them build it and reward those efforts.

One particular magus who has been a good friend to the covenant finds himself on the business end of an accusation by a powerful ally to the covenant.

Your covenant needs the votes of their powerful ally but doesn't want to see the magus fall to what appear to be trumped-up charges.

How do they find their way through? Are they canny enough to avoid the issue while retaining friendship with both? Can they secretly work behind the scenes to save their friend? Do they choose one over the other? How do the magi work through the conflict within their own ranks?

Hi Hargifax!

A late welcome to the Tribunals of the Stonehenge. I also play in Stonehenge, and as fate would have it I am about to do our second Tribunal quite soon.

On a generel note I think that Tribunals are both a crux and a pinacle of an Ars saga. They are so perfect stages for all that is ME and what it means to be a mighty wizard, but they are also a darn burdensome project to the SG! Even if I like the 1. person acting of roleplaying I really get intimidated by feeling I have to act out a multitude of characters - especially once as special as magi! I once played the live action Grand Tribunal Ars Fallen Fane -> the plot and setting is perfect for live action and I looked forward to it as the perfect way to experience a Tribunal. Frankly I was a bit disappointed - probably because of high expectations and because of it still being somewhat tough and unsuccesfully executed. In short the Tribunals in any case are enticing but tough to do.

I agree with the 'Hound' on his ideas on how to paint the canvas and set the scene aswell as I agree with Mark on the important thoughts to put into making the plot be functional and rewarding.

Now as I told you I already did a Stonehenge Tribunal once before. It was in fact the very first for the characters even if having played for a few years realtime. But it was a first in many ways - they had started as apprentices playing through their entire apprenticeship and this was not only their first Tribunal. I was the one for their initiation as proper magi. The time was for them to swear publicly the Oath.

The fact that they were junior magi/apprentices of course shifted the focus. Foremostly, as Mark is also advicing, I gave them a clear goal (beside just getting accuintances and embroiling themselves in the society of magi), namely to help their fifth apprentice friend achieve membership aswell as he was otherwise destined to leave the Tribunal as much an apprentice as when he arrived.

The background story is that he had been the first apprentice of them all - apprenticed to a volatile and sanguine flambeau master. As time progressed his master had realised that his apprentice was not only seemingly inept - he was a disgusting accuintance! The first because he had 4th ed. flaw making your understanding of magic alien at best, which is why his master found him to be impossible to teach (beside his mythic intelligence!!). The second because his magic was warped in ways that made odious gasses, vommit and spontaneous bowl movement 'erupt' from the apprentice when using magic... The master handed the apprentice off and took another. Later this apprentice, under new tutelage, rose to great appraisal (in his apprenticeship achieving a remarkable understanding of Magic Theory - even if no one could really decipher his ideas), and thusly earning the eternal spite of his former master who by now felt decieved. Alas, the new master dies and the old spiteful one uses Certamen to aggressively regain the former apprentice promising him to 'forever keeping him mobbing floors and never again to whisper off a single spell'...

The Tribunal story was thus aimed at having the newly, in fact not even yet, gauntleted magi characters maneuver through a foreign world of hermetic policies and old grudges to ensure their friend's right to being fully apprenticed - or rather as it turned out - to have him take his gauntlet at the Tribunal. Their main chip not being ressources but mostly their votes 'only' or future goodwill...

This was perfect because they had a clear goal, they had certain aspect of hermetic law on which to build their case, they new next to nothing of procedures, etiquette or social realities and they could thus be introduced as they went along or occasionally stumbled (as dividing up to acheive talking to more magi on one night and accidentlally promising their support to two sides opposed on a certain voting - sometimes no plot tops the coincidence of player action! lol). At the same time I had decided that the case of a single poor decidely uncharismatic apprentice was not more important to the majority of magi than allowing a measure of 'negotiation' even if illegal in terms of the Code.

My primary techinque was to let as much of the action take place 'off-tribunal' mostly only describing the tribunal functions as canvas, having the action take place at night and at intersessions. Secondly I relied on an extensive 'dramatis personae'. At times I prosper on keeping secrets from my players, but many times I do not mind at all that they know more than their characters. I've often taken to making a list of NPC prior to our sessions - often with pictures to each (I prefer to use authentic picture or woodcarvings - they are only for a sense of mood than to picture them exactly). These lists are often like the once you'd find in the intro to a Shakespearean play, but with a bit more meat on them. This gives the names in print to the players, let them remember their co-relation and it sets the mode for the story at hand. In terms of the Tribunal I made an extended one inspired by the material in Heirs to Merlin. Not all where there naturally but the 'Dramatis Personae' included a tally on who might carry someone elses. Besides all of the above reasons this had another advantage. Even if I still had to play each one of them, they somehow came more to life than they would otherwise had; the stood more out from eachother. As they met each one my act mostly confirmed the pictures (instead of just grasping at establishing them) they already had on their retinas - which made it easy to not only establish the NPCs, but also move beyond the descriptions they had to have them react to the player characters scheemings and act(ion)s. It takes a lot of work - but it is all worth the effort.. IMO at least :wink:

Now that being said I am still at loss on how to conduct my next tribunal happening in a precious few weeks. The characters have developed, I still miss a crucial central plot and I think I need to include much more 'in-Tribunal' action this time. Because some of my plots revolve around it and because I need to find a way to make it work! In that light I'm glad for your opportuniate posting of this thread.

As an exit remark (inspired by the live action remark) I think Tribunals are the perfect setting for bringing in 'guest stars'! I have used guest players from time to time - and I would do this for our upcoming Tribunal session if we werent going to a secluded summer house for a weekend some hours from our home turf (and far from civilization and its roleplayers). You might gain from finding someone in your own circles to join you for the Tribunal session(s). Might not have to be an Ars player or even someone the troupe knows. It might be a friend who is vet player who usually doesnt have the time, it migth be a rookie completely new to gaming and/or Ars or it might be the entire drama class your girl friend teaches on tuesday nights! Anything goes - and beside the gutt gripping fear of a burning crash, bringing in complete strangers to roleplaying can at times work wonders! And having just one extra voice to share the cacophony of voices or just the Praeco's or some such is a charm -what ever suits your plans- even going boldly where you might never have dreamt of going you might stop more than short of making it a full blown semi live session with full plenum af magi jabbering in mock latin :laughing:

In any instance - enjoy! And don't refrain from sharing your final experiences! Especially if you do this prior to the 16th of February :wink:

If you can't get some guest gamers at your game ,
you could involve the PCs to run some of the NPCs.
Do it like a Convention Game , even ask the players to design some NPCs for you.
(these are one-off visitors , whom you may never see again until next Tribunal , if at all)
Players should be used to running Magi , Companions and Grogs after all.
Any NPCs the players run , especially if playing more experienced Magi , should not be idealized versions of their favourite characters.
Make them play against stereotype.

I find it useful to recycle characters from other games.
You have played them before and as ST are familiar with their mindset.
Non Ars Magica characters obviously need some modification.