Help with tips for running Ars Magica stories/sagas


I've started playing Ars Magica with a group of friends some months ago and none of us had played it before. We started off by doing some simple test runs to try out different rules, then made some Magi and did a short story for finding a good spot for a covenant and establishing it. We're now in the middle of a short story where some robbers are disrupting the covenant's main income source and the players are solving that issue.

As the storyteller I'm finding it hard to plan or create stories without forcing events on the players, and the players are quite lost when it comes to what to do next. The Magi have fairly different goals among themselves (aside from the "getting better at magic" goal) and even though they aren't in conflict or anything, it's hard to see what they should do. Any tips on how to guide the Mages to come up with good goals?

How much should the Magi research/do lab work? What should they even do in the lab? What are good examples of a Mage's ambition in life? And would a covenant have a strong common goal and work together towards that goal, or would each mage be more independent and it's more rare that a story would involve more than 1 mage?
Also, how much are typical stories/sagas player driven vs storyteller driven? Is it more that a Mage says he wants to find the secret of immortality and the storyteller then creates the stories for that, or is it more the storyteller telling the covenant that a demon is attacking the nearby village, what do they do? (I know both are perfectly viable and it all depends on the group and storyteller, just wondering what works best in this system)

I think this stems the fact that we've never seen anyone play Ars Magica and all sounds very noobish, so any help or tips would be appreciated :slight_smile:


Note: We're not playing in Mythic Europe, but in a fantasy world of our making, but all Ars Magica concepts are mapped to something in this world.

Good questions, and I can only give you my experience with different groups.

I play and played in a total of 3 groups.
One I still play in, IRL. (+- 8 persons, with sessions of 4-7 mainly)
One I play no more, IRL (we were 3)
One I play no more, OL (+- 6).

"How much research/lab work" ... it depends on your magus.
I currently have one Guernicus, who almost never do labwork. For stories reasons, he is now in the "I don't want to cast any spell any more. Magic is bugged!" mind. He had 3 twilights on his last 3 spells, and I had no idea what to do of him.
Due to those events (twilights), he is now groing some reputation of "incapable to do magic" (by the other players who do say so when I'm the Beta SG). On that fact, I'm building an idea: he will look for magical traditions who would "cleanse" his magic. I see his goal being eventually to initiate by pilgrimage the holy magic virtue, then becoming a magus who will undertake a "divine" purification of house guernicus, then guiding the order towards God.
His personality major flaw is "driven : respect the code" and due to an experimentally modified spell, that trait raised from +3 to +5 (+6 being the higher score humans can have according ROPtI). He is like a fanatical of the code, and he wants to eradicate those magi who thinks going trough the limit of the code, walking on the grey area is a good idea. His "magic botches" conclusion is a colorful idea I thought of to give him a purpose.

But at the same time, I have one bonisagus magus (an magus I played in our last 2 sagas, and loved so much that I kept using it as an "older magus") who on his last 36 years has spent almost 25 years in the lab doing labworks by experimentation (almost everytime, I think the bonding of the familiar was THE exception). He has tormenting master, but is a bit proud (at +1 for the moment), and really cautious (+5 due to the same spell (which he invented ^^)). He has a driven "fixe magic theory" thing.

For him: actual goals: doing the best lab he could to have a nice health bonus (currently +18, which gives -9 to aging roll). That allows him to grow older (currently 58 yo) without LR. Cautious sorcerer (and +14 safety lab) allow him to almost never warp - he doesn't go out often I admit since it's a second older character the ASG let me use when he thinks magical artillery will be needed in addition to normal power of younger magi (of other players).
As an elementalist, first goal: go for an minor breakthrough (the one in A&A about the elemental thing IIRC). Then major breaktrough I thought about: elemental magic is intrinseque part of MT. Then, 2 hermetic breakthrough represents "the end of campaign goal for him": transform the current MT (medieval physic one) into a MT for current physic, with creo and perdo being parts of muto, and terram, ignem and vim being the only 3 real Arts (atom, movement and magic).
The ASG said clearly this last 2 breakthroughs would not be obtainable during game. I didn't expect so. But since I know where he wants to go, I know what he can say, what he wants to do and who he wants to convert to his views.

Finally, I must say most of my sessions were about "SG driven stories". Simple reasons: to have a "player driven stories" you need players who invest themselves in the game. Most of the current players are the "consumer" types: they come, they play, they leave and "see you next time".
I think me, the ASG and perhaps, in a reduced style, another players, are the only 3 who would like to care about "driving stories"... but, from experience I know that if you are one player trying to pull the others, you will have a hard time (magi won't accept to help : why bother? and you would even need to threaten the companions to move to help you... players are not always prone to play the game when they have not incentive.
I find this point problematic, and the ASG said the same to me.
We will try to fix it by giving, to the driving player, some tools, but which one is not clear for the moment.

OL, i tried to have driven players stories... problem is OL the players go each his way. Hard to follow for a SG.

In the other group IRL, it was more driven by players, but they were too many "house really friendly rules". I mean, for example: we had correspondances, but not +1 /2 years IIRC by covenant rule... no! +concentration + communication per season.

In 10 years of story, my character (a demon hunter) went from 10 in vim to 25, and I had 25 in perdo as well, 12 in penetration, 11 in second sight, a familiar with 9 in single weapon in human form... I felt the rules were not giving us any challenge and it was unsatisfactory .

I develop stories/adventures from the covenant's hooks (sometimes boons, too) and the players' story flaws. Sometimes personality flaws, if they are played well can generate some additional stories, but these are more likely to be a bit more spontaneous than other stories. Spontaneous, in that I didn't necessary create the events that created the story seed, the player did that by dint of playing his character in the overall world I'm running. I'll make a note of things as they develop and then plan something for later on. :imp:

As far as character ambitions, for the first few magi players make, I wouldn't worry about it and let it grow more or less organically. As to whether PCs work together for common cause or not, well, that's a tough one. The are a number of canonical covenants with magi who are antagonistic towards other members of their own covenant. However, such an situation in a real game can have some pretty negative consequences on the playing experience for others, unless the players all know each other really well and reward players for being in character.

Welcome to Ars! It's a challenging game with a rewarding setting. You'll get a lot of opinions on this forum; hopefully some of them will be useful.

  1. How much should the Magi research/do lab work?

Generally you will find that magi will want to spend the season in their lab as often as possible, because that is the best way to get XP. In the case of new, young magi, they will want to read books from the library. This is not necessarily to be discouraged. Consider how rapidly you want the magi to grow and then talk to your players about it. The covenant's own charter is a good way to standardize this. For example, if your covenant's charter says that every magus is expected to spend 1 season of the year on an activity assigned by the covenant (a strict rule, by the way, far more strict than most covenants), that will force your player character magi out of the lab once a year, and they will try to spend the rest of the time in the lab. As players get goals which require more and more of their time, they will be more willing to spend time out of the lab to accomplish those goals. But without goals, the lab is where it is at for them. Since characters can go on brief adventures without disturbing their lab work or book reading, they can go out and have short stories and still be back in time to get full XP from that awesome book they are reading. This, by the way, is exactly what Companions are for. One magus leaves the covenant accompanied by a bunch of companions and grogs. He may not get a full season in the lab. But, next time, a different magus goes out, and it rotates around in this way so that no one PC bears an unusually large amount of time away from his studies. Finally, some magi and houses are less likely to do lab work in general; Quaesitores spend a lot of time going to covenants and investigating Hermetic crimes, for example. A Verditius is more likely to be in the lab than others. Trianoma are out doing diplomacy, but Bonisagi lab monkeys are in the tower. There's a lot of flexibility, but in a new covenant, where there is a lot of work to be done, I don't think it would be unusual to spend one season every year out of the lab taking care of business. You have a lot to do.

  1. What should they even do in the lab?
    Lab work often falls into one of two categories. Either the magus is working on a long term goal of his own -- mastering Ball of Abyssal Flame, for example -- or he is trying to solve a specific short term problem, which he can do with magic. For example, maybe the group has captured some bandits, but the bandits are resisting interrogation and are held in the dungeon. Well, if we have Posing the Silent Question, we can get everything we want to know from them. So who is the best person to learn that spell? How much vis do we have to give you (if any) to spend a season of your lab time inventing that spell for us? Or the PCs learn of a vis source which happens to be at the bottom of the sea. So, what spells do we have to invent to get down there and safely harvest it? You might suggest the players look through the book and figure out one spell each which they don't have; now you have a short term goal. Get your Arts high enough to invent that spell, probably with a lab text if you can find it. (Inventing a spell when you already have a copy of it to work from is much easier than inventing it from scratch.) As a GM, don't be afraid to throw odd problems at your players. You don't even have to know how to solve them. The vis source at the bottom of the ocean is a good example. How will they get that vis? What a great question; you do not need to know the answer. Let them figure out an answer! Put a monster in the cliffs which turns people to stone or something. How do we solve that? What do we need to do? Ars is a game in which many problems do not get solved right away. It is very different than D&D in that regard. In many fantasy RPGs, you meet a monster and then you kill it and then you loot it. This is pretty much standard operating procedure. In Ars, you are much more likely to learn about the monster, try to figure out more about it, find out it is too tough for you to defeat without spell X, go back to the lab, invent a wand with spell X that lets you defeat the monster, go into the monster's lair, find out there's some weird wrinkle there which you did not know about, resolve the problem in some way ... and THEN loot it.

  2. What are good examples of a Mage's ambition in life?
    What a great question. Mature magi have three almost universal goals. In no particular order: Talisman: every magus wants a talisman, which gives him a bonus on his chosen forms of magic and which can store more enchantments than other items. You can make a talisman at almost any time, if you have the vis. Your PCs could make one of these tomorrow, if they wanted to, and if they have the materials. Apprentice: Most magi will want to train an apprentice. They make great characters, they're useful in the lab, and players often have great fun shaping their apprentice int a powerful magus. To train an apprentice properly, you need at least a 5 in every Art. So getting all your Arts up to 5 is a good goal. That means you can take an apprentice. Familiar: Almost every magus will want a familiar. The main challenge here is finding the animal. Once you find one, you need vis, more for magically powerful or large animals. But if you have a small animal, you can do this easily right now. Familiars give you a variety of bonuses and have some customizability. A fourth goal for most magi is a longevity Ritual: Every magus is going to want one of these by the time he turns 35; he does not need to make his own however. You might want to, through an NPC in the group, suggest that the magi start making plans for this. Who is best at Creo Corpus magic? How much would you want to be paid to make longevity rituals for everyone? There are many other goals a magus might have, but these are goals that almost EVERY magus has, so they will give your PCs something to do while the players figure out their own goals.

  3. And would a covenant have a strong common goal and work together towards that goal, or would each mage be more independent and it's more rare that a story would involve more than 1 mage?
    In the sagas I GM and play, it is common for 2-3 magi to go on adventures and the rest of the PCs to be made up of companions. Stories in which all the PCs are magi are special; Tribunals are a good example, or some magical mystery that only the PCs can solve. Note that magi can work towards a goal without actually leaving the lab. If your covenant's current goal is to stop a rampaging dragon, the magi might stay at home inventing spells and items while the companions and grogs go out to do the actual fighting, perhaps accompanied by one or two of the most militant magi. Sessions in which everyone is playing a magus have special challenges; magi tend to have social penalties and they tend to stink at most fields other than magic. They will try to solve everything with magic, which is not always possible or the easiest tactic. They are also vulnerable in a fight and can be easily killed by a simple weapon. This is why they traditionally bring grogs with them, to handle the fighting, and companions, to handle all the other skilled tasks. In the setting, it is sort of assumed that magi are usually independent and don't cooperate very often, out of pride and ego. But, in actual games, I think most magi are more willing to cooperate and work together than NPC magi are presumed to do. That's just my perception.

  4. Also, how much are typical stories/sagas player driven vs storyteller driven? Is it more that a Mage says he wants to find the secret of immortality and the storyteller then creates the stories for that, or is it more the storyteller telling the covenant that a demon is attacking the nearby village, what do they do? (I know both are perfectly viable and it all depends on the group and storyteller, just wondering what works best in this system)
    Ars rewards players with goals. It is, in that way, more of a cooperative storytelling game than a traditional RPG in which the GM comes up with an adventure and "runs everyone through it." If PCs are having a hard time coming up with goals, by all means give them something to do. A new covenant is a great place for the GM to just lay out a bunch of problems -- the angry bishop, the feudal lord who likes magic a little bit too much, the suspicious hedge magician who might be an infernalist, the faeries in the wood -- and then just let the players decide what they want to do and how they want to do it. And some of the PCs will want to ignore all those things and go off on their own plot. In my view, the Ars GM comes up with stories when he needs to fill a gap; player-created goals and stories are more engaging, and in those cases the GM is there to put speedbumps and obstacles in the way, for the players to overcome, and to throw twists and turns in the story to keep things interesting.

I hope this helps some. Again, welcome to the game!

Ask away. Someone is bound to answer, and hopefully you find something useful.
But ArM is a game where you need to decide as a group what you want and how you want to do it. I realize this is hard for new players. But you need to flip some ideas around, and try and see what fits best.

As I see it, playing a rpg can be done in several ways and be about different things, some of which are: Recreating actual historical or cultural things -e.g. you make sure all details of the monastery visited are in accordance with how it really was. I don't like to go too much overboard about this, because it may ruin other parts pf rpg. Social interaction - e.g play out all facets of a conversation or social event. The occasional full game session may very well be a single council meeting or Tribunal, but I don't want this to be all there is. Resolution of situations/challenges is what I care most about. It can be anything between action, mystery solving, puzzles, researching things. Using magic and abilities to get things done. And finally the more Gamist approach where you develop characters to achieve things, feel they grow (especially in power). And ArM is great for this, since magi can achieve great things.
I like to mix those things up. Playing in Mythic Europe I like a certain degree of actual historical detail. I like stories where things happen and we do things. I also like intermissions where we need to research things, find theoretical solutions, more clues. And then follow these clues. Or perform the lab projects to be better suited to face the challenge you've learned details about. And use energy on important social interactions while glossing over lesser ones.

The concept of 'between-time', study, lab projects is IMHO an important part of what makes ArM great. But it can be daunting to new players, who are likely to be used to only adventuring. I try to touch on the points of what to do already at character generation. Try to have people get an idea of goals, some for the short term (study this art, invent that spell), medium range (prepare to take an apprentice, invest a talisman, bind a familiar), long term (become archmage), and perhaps even life-long impossible goals (break Hermetic limits) knowing as a player that it will never fly, but have the character work towards this.
Have them break these goals up into smaller pieces, so they know what to do season by season. Train an Apprentice? You need 5 in all Arts, go hit the books from one end. You want to teleport? Looks like you need to raise Corpus to 15, good luck! or go find a lab text, or...

Playing in Rhine Tribunal there is a strict hierarcy. Gauntleted magi are Journeymen, and once they apply themselves to an endeavour and prove their worth they can apply to be accepted as Master by other Masters. And later on perhaps towards Archmage. I've played a Flambeau who wanted to be a known and respected Hoplite. Other goals could be to simply be known for writing great books, having invented a huge ritual, invested good devices, making Longevity Rituals etc. so have other magi want to buy these goods or services for you. Become head of the covenant, local leader of house or other group within your Tribunal? For other magi it is less grand, it could be finding and bonding with a good familiar, initiating an interesting Mystery etc.

Whichever you want. In all my sagas until recently we've designed player character magi with little thought to cohesiveness. We just design what we want, except that if there is already a player who wanted to be a fire throwing Flambeau people would avoid this concept. It can work well, but can also be difficult if all 6 player magi go in different directions. Then again, when one magus goes off on his own project, if the other players can find interest with their Companions and Grogs. Mind you if just 2 magi find common ground it easily drives stories.

Recently we've tried to have the saga based on a few themes, limiting the number of houses (and gilds, when playing in Rhine Tribunal) to see if we could get some intra-house play. Because houses have secrets, and the single Bjornaer can only play stories about his Mysteries and Cult if other players play NPCs because other magi are not allowed inside. Tried to have the saga be about a few large themes.

I think we do both. Somethimes the Aplpha SG says: "What do you want" and then we'd better answer. Then the storuy can be about this thing, or something that happens on the way to a fairly insignificant matter. E.g. a magus wants to go meet an old Mystagogue of his Cult. The story can be about this magus, or the Quest needed for the Initiation sought. Or it can be a great way to introduce a new villain the SG feels the saga needs, who waylays the magus. Or perhaps even attacks the covenant while everyone is out.

The answer to all of this is "it depends". On lab-work, common goals, and the average number of magi participating per story, the players will find their own balance given time (and it might change). Some magi might find themselves commonly working together as a team, allowing you to design adventures for the pair. Others will be solo all the way. And sometimes you'll dangle a tasty plot hook and either everyone will dogpile it, or no-one will (in which case there should be Consequences).

For ambitions: it doesn't matter what they actually are, but every Magus needs one. Become a Master, create the biggest CrIg spell ever, do some original research to expand the bounds of Hermetic Magic, seek for and incorporate some ancient magic, gather an army of the dead and conquer Poland. They need powerful motivations to give focus to their research and drive them. In retrospect, the problem with the first saga I played in was that the characters were too unambitious, too reasonable, too sane.

Again, it depends on the players. But early on, you're going to need to throw outside events at them, until they work out what they want and how to get it (look at Covenant and PC story hooks for inspiration for these). If those outside events have consequences, or spur them to be proactive to prevent such problems from happening again in the future, even better.

Always think at the end of a session "what could happen next?" What are the consequences of the PC's actions? How could they lead to future stories? Even if they don't lead to stuff immediately, are there minor things the PCs could learn of which will either foreshadow future trouble or act as a spur for action later?

If you've done enough sessions, with enough thought for consequences, then eventually it can build up into a largely self-sustaining web. You'll need to keep throwing new stuff into the pile as old stuff is resolved, but if the pile is big enough you can just alternate between strands.

I've found recently that the idea of "fronts" (as in "fighting on two") from Dungeon World to be a useful story design tool. Dungeon World is a very loose game - one of the axioms is that the GM doesn't go into a session with a Story in mind, but rather "play[s] to find out what happens" by piling up bad consequences in response to PC actions. But its framing of story-arcs in terms of the goals of antagonists, what they can do to achieve them (what consequences you can introduce for PCs if they fail a roll) and what will happen if they are not thwarted can be a useful way to think, and a powerful way of pushing story control into the player's hands.

Thank you all for the great tips! This should help a lot :slight_smile: