My group's first saga is underway! The players have created characters, the covenant is outfitted and we're getting a good handle on the rules. As the Story Guide, I am, naturally, in charge of running the adventures. I have access to a couple of the published ones, but so far I haven't found anything that would fit into the saga, and besides that, most of my players have access to them as well.
So I am taking it upon myself to write my own adventures. I feel like the few I've put before my players have been well received, and I haven't heard any complaints yet. This early in our saga, repetition isn't much of a problem, but I want to make sure that everything doesn't just end up boiling down to 'go here and fight these guys,' 'go here and talk to this guy,' 'go here and get this thing.'
To that end, I'm interested in receiving some advice from more-experienced SGs about how the theory and the process that you follow when it comes time to put pen to paper.
How do you start? With a place, a character, a magic item, an event, etc.? How do you decide what appropriate difficulty levels are for your players? How do you introduce hooks to your players?
How much prep do you put into it? Just jot down an idea and wing it, or write up a whole supplement-length synopsis? What makes a good adventure? What makes a bad adventure?
Can you provide examples of something that you've written and run, and why it worked (or didnt') and how you'd change it in retrospect?
What do you do differently when you write an adventure for Ars Magica that you don't do when you write an adventure for another game that you play?
We are a little over a year and a half into our first sag and a few things I have noticed and would have liked to have experienced differently is all I can help with as I only play.
The first thing I would say is to try and make important mechanism / relevant knowledge the focal point of a adventure. As an example a magician knows very well most things about arcane connections. But the players might still be a little iffy on the concept. So making that the focus of a smaller one session adventure can be really good. Two other things are auras and fairies.
Lett the players use both characters, we only started very late to really use our companions. This goes for the grogs as well, the more you use grogs the more they will feel alive and important for the saga / covenant.
And this ties in into the other part, let the mages level up. If you go from adventure to adventure there is really no time for the mages to progress. It is perfectly fine for a mage to ignore a adventure and stay home (it can even set up some future conflicts / story arcs).
A god way to get new adventures can often come from the smallest and most mundane things. Maybe all the writing material, parchment and/or ink, have run out. Unfortunately someone else (maybe another magus?) just bought the last supplies, do you try to buy some from the person, steal some or go out and find "indigence" to make your own?
Maybe the local well have spoiled for some reason, a mischievous fairy, a rivaling covenant or just faith?
Depending on what stage your covenant is in, is it in the build up face then you probably need to find and recruit useful grogs to run the day to day things. Is it located in a town or in a rural area. If it is rural are how is the covenant protected? If in a town, what will happen if a unflattering rumor starts to spread? If a magus is caught doing magic in front of "normal" towns folk?
Maybe a neighboring covenant has a really nice book the players would love to add to their library and it just so happens they are willing to trade for it. You can have them compete vs other magus to win the favor and be able to trade. Or you can have them just do a bunch of funny stuff to see how desperate they are to get the book. =)
Maybe let one player find a small vis source and see if they share? and if not later you can let other players find out they have not been sharing this whole time. By waiting you can control when and make sure that the group can handle a small conflict / quarrel among magus.
So I would recommend crafting adventure around letting the players build up the covenant and/or themselves.
For a saga you can possibly set goals from what you feel the players would enjoy and then craft each goal into a subsection of smaller adventures that combined let the players achieve the goal. As an example, if it is a new covenant a good first goal can be to be self sufficient. A second goal can be to impress / make a impact / make a name for them self in the tribunal.
That is my list of things I would have liked that we had done differently. As I said I am not the GM of our game only a player so I do not have any actual adventures to share. Only ideas. I hope it helps.
The first place to start is with the covenant's hooks, because those are stories your players have asked you to tell. Similarly, look at the characters for stories in their background which the players put there; Story Flaws are the first and most obvious example of this. Try to find a way to tie one hook into another, so that the story concerns more than just one character's tormenting master, for example. Look at the Tribunal book for your region; the 5th edition ones are packed with places to start.
By far the hardest part of adventure design. I've basically given up. Player Magi routinely defeat bad guys I expect to kill them all, but a botched defense roll can allow a mundane wolf to kill a PC. Instead, embrace the sandbox nature of Ars and make an antagonist which is of a power level appropriate to its background. Then let the PCs figure out how to deal with it, and if they decide to withdraw, don't punish them for doing so. Remember, the basic strategy for a wizard in Ars Magica is to retreat to the lab and spend a season inventing a spell or magic item to solve the problem.
Through NPCs. If your Covenant is established, you already have grogs, covenfolk, and various neighbors already figured out. Nearby covenants visit to introduce themselves. Grogs return with gossip from the village. Senior Magi write letters offering gifts in exchange for favors. Soon, your players will have things they want to do, and if you ask them for a list of such things, you can turn them into a list of adventures.
Prep time is considerable, if it involves an antagonist with a stat block (and it almost always does). On the other hand, I've now written up a not-insignificant proportion of the Magi in Hibernia, and as my cast increases they begin to reappear and I have to invent fewer new bad guys. I also really recommend Thrice-Told Tales, Hooks, and Tales of Mythic Europe, because even if you're not running those adventures (and I have used some of them to very good effect) you can steal the stat blocks.
I write an outline that usually comes out to 2-3 pages, not counting stat blocks.
A good adventure should be surprising and have an unexpected twist or two, so the players can't predict, at the beginning, how it will end. It needs to have points at which the decisions made by the PCs are interesting and consequential. It needs to engage more than one of your players (you'll engage the others next time, or the time after that). And if you're very lucky, it will say something a little poignant. Horror adventures should scare. Magical adventures should wonder and enchant. Figure out what you want the adventure to say, and if you (mostly) hit that mark, you're good. And finally, an adventure should entertain your players. If they're having fun, no matter what else happens, you're doing it right.
Bad adventures give the players few choices, and the choices they make don't really matter. They involve stakes the players don't really care about. They involve NPCs, including "GMPCs", who upstage the player characters. They are predictable and combat is monotonous. They go on too long.
You can find my campaign here: sites.google.com/site/hboarsmagica/ Look under "Saga" for the covenant's adventures. I'd be happy to talk Ars Magica more in private where it's easier; send me a PM and we can exchange email and social media.
Research and character creation. In most games, there's a bestiary of monstrous foes, for example, and I can use them in adventures. But every antagonist in Ars is unique, and it's much harder to reuse stat blocks. A wizard antagonist often needs a familiar, talisman, and years in the lab. Custom spells and enchanted items. It's just a lot of math. I enjoy it, or I wouldn't play this game.
Research has become so much easier and better than it used to be. My PCs were raiding Bective Abbey in Ireland. I found out there has been archeological work on Bective which gave me all kinds of details about life at the abbey, as well as plot seeds that led to my invention of a cult of heretics that live there. Bective Abbey got a new floor put in, around my time period. That floor is decorated with griffon heads, a unique characteristic found nowhere else in Ireland. So that led to my demon taking the shape of a griffon, hiding out in the abbeys barn, a barn I know burned down soon after the PCs visit.
Sometimes you'll find, after a little research, the adventure writes itself.
I think this can't be stressed enough. Ars Magica 5th edition has this powerful incentive mechanism for generating a covenant and a set of characters for which it is easy to tell meaningful stories, as agreed upon by the troupe in advance:
Covenant Hooks. These are things that generate stories for the entire covenant; some characters are better suited than others to dealing with these, but they are stories that are guaranteed to be relevant to virtually every magus, companion and grog associated with the covenant. And since the players basically stated "we want to play stories about this stuff" when they created the covenant, they are guaranteed to be of interest to the players.
Character Story Flaws. These are external things that prompt stories for individual, major characters (i.e. companions and magi). With "external" I mean that they are stuff that will happen to these characters without the character necessarily wanting to be part of it; but player, by taking the Flaw, has explicitly stated "I want this stuff to happen to my character, and stories to revolve around it". Unlike Hooks, each Story Flaw is about one character, though it's not usually that hard to tie together two or maybe even three Story Flaws, or one or two Story Flaws and a Hook, if you set your mind to it. Maybe one character's Tormenting Master (Story Flaw), who has taken another character's True Love (Story Flaw) as an unwilling apprentice, manages to have the covenant stripped of some resources (Flawed Resource Hook) through some political maneuvering. In some cases Hooks seem custom tailored to be paired with a specific Story Flaw, like the Heir Story Flaw and the Refugee Hook. I think this "how can I tie as many Story Flaws and Hooks together in one story" is one great exercise the SG should do as the very first step in designing an adventure: the more, the better.
Character Personality Flaws. These are often overlooked, or treated just as "colour", but in fact they are the third major source of stories. Like Story Flaws, they are specific to each character (though it's often easier to provide the same Personality Flaw to every character in a group, like Ambitious or Vow). Unlike Story Flaws, they are internal to the character: they generate stories because they make the character want to act in certain ways. While Ars Magica 5th edition, unlike other games (e.g. the excellent Blade of the Iron Throne) has no strong incentive mechanism to encourage the pursuit of one's Personality Flaws (with the exception of the players' desire to roleplay a character well) our troupe is extremely generous with awards of Confidence points when a character does so. Again, it's usually easy to tie Personality Flaws to Personality or Story Flaws of other characters and covenant Hooks; the more the better.
From my personal experience, it's best to start asking yourself and your troupe which two major characters (companions or magi) should see in the limelight over the next story. This should be a communal choice for the entire playing group. You can almost always find a connection between them that will trigger a Story Flaw in one, and either a Story Flaw or a Personality Flaw in the other. Then, try to see if you can tie this pair to a Covenant Hook; perhaps you can, perhaps you can't. The latter is ok, and better than having a "strained" connection. After this, try to see how many other major characters, if any, you can tie in via Story or Personality Flaws; again, the more the better, as long as the connection is relatively "natural". Finally, see how many grogs can be tied in via Personality Flaws. This is, I think, an often overlooked part of Ars Magica: grogs usually come along "because they have to", and that's ok; but a grog that is invested in a Story because of some Vow, Compulsion, Delusion etc. can really add a lot of oomph to the story. There are lots of grogs, so it's much easier to find at least one or two who are in this position for a given story; it's probably their only "star appearance", guaranteeing variety, and also allowing you to have "life-changing" stuff happen to these "minor" characters which you should be wary to inflict to major characters - grogs will be maimed in combat, die heroically fulfilling an old Vow, betray their covenant, be swayed by a faerie princess to abandon the mortal world, leave behind a life of martial prowess to tend a farm and a family etc.
I would add that, unlike many other games, Ars Magica is a game of vast scope. Each player controls many characters, and gameplay often spans decades, sometimes centuries. This leads to two pieces of advice I've found work well.
The first is that you should not rush the pace. It's perfectly ok for several years to pass with nothing happening; a decade or more can pass with nothing major happening. This allows you to really experience an aspect of gameplay that is unique to Ars Magica, the flavour of long, long sagas and the mechanical fun of seasonal activities (mainly, but not only, for the magi!).
The second is that you should not try to squeeze every character in every story; rather, you should try to squeeze every character in some story. If you have six players, it's ok to have a story involving only 1-2 magi, 1-2 companions, and 6-10 grogs. This works much better than having a story with 6 magi, and possibly their shield grogs, which is what I've seen many novice troupes try to do. Remind your players that for most magi characters, and not a few companions, participation in a "story" weakens the character mechanically compared to staying at home and looking after their own stuff!
EDIT: Last but not least, remember that one of the great, great innovations of Ars Magica back in the day is the idea to have a fantasy world that mirrored our own: Mythic Europe. This is a huge advantage in generating stories: just look up in wikipedia the history and geography of the place where your stories are to be set and you are guaranteed to find a ton of inspiring ideas, most of them at the same time a) more original than most "standard" rpg stuff and b) tied together in a coherent world that makes sense.
I'll tell you how i designed my own, based on how i do it for other games and implemented it in Ars Magica. Personnaly i don't think you should be so concerned that your players have accessed to published sagas or scenarii, that's true there's nothing as irritable than having a Player scream "i read that story" and telling the whole scenario to the table. This should be answered with rocks, in the face, and repeated, a lot of time.
More seriously, It is rather easy to read published story material and rewrite it, especially in Ars Magica where lots of published stories/saga take place in a particular tribunal or aren't fixed so you can adapt it anywhere. Of course there are specific elements which you won't be able to rename (let's say specifics of Calebais for example, like the bell or the veil). So unless you play with old players that already played a lot of Ars Magica published stories, you can always ask your players not to read those, if sadly you happen to have a case where some player know of the story, try to extrapolate or modify it as you can. (yeah i know, not helpful, but the rock thing always works!)
Also there's a lot of amateur material on the web that your player won't find easily if it really is a concern.
Personnally i like to spend time with my players to see how they grasp the background of the game, and what interests them in it, then i plan a few introductory sessions based on the difficulty of the rules. To do this i like to ask my players what interests them and how they see their character evolve.
For example, in my groupe there were two magi with Diedne Magic, i had planned to mix a saga i found on the web (it is in french but i could link it to you) with Calebais so that we would have some introductory scenarii with a rather hard saga that will make them learn the core mechanics.
Rapidly, the other players learned about the Diedne, their magi didn't but the other players were interested in that aspect also so i went on to find anything on the Diedne, i added up bits and pieces from "the Tempest", mixed it with Calebais (one of them had Diedne Magic and his parens took part of the shcism war, and the players happend to learn about it), i had put a enemy against, i made him from another covenant and ended up mixing all of it with some story seeds i found here and there to create an intricate web of secrets that they will have to discover to get to the truth about what happened to diedne and her followers....
I admit i'm not giving any guidelines or such on how to write such a saga, but my advice would be to find the thing that will motivate your players, if they are motivated about what they are doing in game they won't mind as much that it's not well written or pretty repetitive. But the main thing is that you should be full on caffeine when starting, having thought about the session and what could happen (i often read my scenario before playing, and putting a few story seeds or ideas they could have or anything that comes to mind) so that when they get interested by something you always have threads to give them.
The stories that my players preferred where the one which were personal.
Whether it was a alchemist-mage looking for the Emerald table, a family feud another was drawn in, leading to his wedding, etc.
So tip 1: Make it personal. No need to repeat what the other already said about Story flaws and hook.
Don't bother about the power level, but emphasize the dilemna. Mages, given time, will be able to solve any issue with magic. So, when you write a story, assume that they will solve the riddle/beat the beast/get the treasure. But make sure that: either there is a consequence (negative or positive, doesn't matter) and/or a price to pay:
yes, I can free this creature from her jail, but doing so will also release another threat. Or, yes, I get this treasure, but the heir (real or fake) claims it belongs to him. And occasionally, when the PCs come with a perfect plan, let them get the whole reward without string attached - they deserve it.
Tip 2: It is not about succeeding but how and at what price.
But more important, know your players. I would recommend you to Google "Eight types of fun" or "Eight types of player" - I cannot find the exact link, my browser is slow like molasse in Winter. I found that a couple of years ago and it really help me understand why some games were amazing and some only so-so. It will really help you design game for your players, but also understand what kind of gamer you are. And if your games don't fly, it could be that what your players are expecting is not the kind of story you like to tell.
One trick I wish I had learned earlier:
Have a (rough) timeline of events. What happens when the characters DO NOT act when something happens? Maybe for one reason or another the decide not to intervene. What are the consequences? And for whom (not always the PCs)? This is very useful when you need to start improvising.
It's always good if one character can have his moment to shine in a session. A troupe I know plans this ahead of the session and the players take turns to have their characters the at center of the action. This is a useful technique when exploring some of the characters background.
Let yourself be inspired by the Interaction between PCs. Sometimes they do the weirdest things. And sometimes "Hold my beer" can lead to amusing disasters and follow-up adventures.
This is basics, but: Have the important stats ready. Nothing ruins an adventure the way searching some information in the rules for half an hour does.
I typically come up with a theme first. From that theme I create a central conflict. Lastly, I populate the world with NPCs that speak to the theme and have a say in the conflict, whether they are the major players or not.
I also try not to over-prepare. Ars is a homework heavy, especially for Storyguides; however, it does not hurt that I have the entire 5e library within arm's length of my desk and I am not above rebranding a canon character to suit my purposes.
This allows me to improvise. I cannot anticipate the myriad of spells at my PCs' disposal. I tried once; one exploding die later I realized how futile that was. If a player goes off-the-path, I'll follow them. For instance, a few months back I ran an adventure where I wanted to sidetrack the magi with a baited plot hook consisting of several locals spontaneously dancing, a la the Dancing Plague. But the PCs weren't biting that day. In fact, they used spontaneous magic to create a wooden bridge and ascend to the rooftops to avoid that particular mosh pit.
As a consequence, my games tend to be a little more free-wheeling.
Lastly, I surround myself with wonderful players. They make the adventures good, not me.
In my current saga I rejoined a group I left 8 months earlier due to motivation losses for the game itself. The players had restarted a saga because of new players joining at the moment I left.
I rejoined, and soon after 2 sessions, was asked to be beta story guide again, as I was almost from the moment I started the game (first AM campaign game in august 2008, first time beta SG in october 2008). I did a simple themed adventure and invented NPCs on the fly.
For my second scenario, the alpha story guide gave ma a piece of a (available online) saga about 12 ivory coins. The part was about a piece in Arcadia. I had nothing against this scenario but I dislike the way the author went into his scenario, so I personally modified almost everything. I decided to include a disney theme - Frozen - and Season Court of Winter in Arcadia. (From that moment, Arcadia CourtS of Season become the place for me to drop Disney names : I felt that so inspiring, and players react well, because a name immediatly give a feeling of personality for any NPC. If I say the summer king is Jafar, they immediatly understand ; if instead I say it's Mowgli, dang, immediate differenciation spotted!).
Then 1 month later, I knew I would have to take another adventure, and I decided "okay, end to those one shots experiences", and I tied all of this together.
I used a covenant we used in a previous saga 5 years sooner. I used the NPCs, created relations between them, and a purpose. The purpose backfired. I linked it to my first adventure and some of its NPCs,n and to the second.
It ended with a 4 pages "history fact sheet".
Now, that history fact sheet is 25 pages long, covers almost 3 millenia, includes almost a hundred of NPCs and I had to use a relationship chart website to include them inside, because after having 200+ NPCs, I started to lose track of their internal relation to themselves and PCs.
If i start writing about a NPC, i check the history fact sheet, I check the relationship chart to know who he is, what he does.
It allows me to be very spontaneous and never lose my way, even when the players decide they are not into the (prepared) adventure, but in some of their personal projects.
I know my NPCs, I know what they want and why they want it. I know which NPC is spying on who, etc.
For example: the PCs have in their covenant a NPC from almost 20 years now (+-1,5 years IRL) and they know that person is very important. They protect the person, but only bit by bit do I give information to the PC friend, because the NPC didn't say all of the story in one go. The NPC had to build trust, and even trusting, she kept things for herself because of shame, because she thought it was unimportant, because she didn't remember it clearly before.
Sometimes, the NPC will contradict itself, because events happened 50 years ago to he and he forget or make up a fiction tale to encompass what he remembers.
I have felt the players do appreciate NPC who are not just pieces of scenario, but characters seeming authentic.
As for the story, they have an idea of what is coming (thanks twilight and arcadia, premonition and angels), they know there are factions in the world, and they navigate between them.
A scenario is either a part of the grand scheme, either a moment to give away some information under cover. Most of the times, the players will learn something for the immediate situation, but underneath it, another information which, added to another previous informaiton, give them a better comprehension of the grand scheme.
Myself for the sagas of the 2 other SGs, I write the summaries in a google drive file, to not forget. Other players do this for my setting.
If players do nothing (and they have for most of 7 last years now) the "antagonists" (if I may call them that way since they have objectives of their own, which are more or less profitable to the PCs) still advance. I have milestones in my history sheet fact. If players remain passive, the NPC will win without any chance for the players to change it, even if they "succeed" in the next scenarios, because a war is not only won by reacting. Since this is a roleplaying game, and not a "react to story game", I expect players to take actions based on the (obvious or not) clues I give, together or by themselves.
The story is a complex thing, and they are in. If they let themselves carried by its flow, they will eventually fail, and as my HR-manager said once "it's okay too", because that makes a good story too.