How to make adventure design easier ?

[WARNING: RANT; Houserule]

D&D has two things going for it, that greatly ease the load of the DM/SG when building adventures or campaigns/sagas.

First - D&D is bigger. Much, much bigger, now that it's gone all open-source. This means more ready-made adventures. On RPGNOW.COM, I count 1246 (!) D&D3.x adventures, and 19 for 4e; I'm there are more adventures out there. And I'm not even counting all the adventures from previous editions and highly similar games you can easily plunder. You similarly have a huge stock of monster books, and even individual encounters and set pieces. So if you're strapped for time, or inspiration, you will find many more resources to help you start the game. Even entire ready-made campaigns, if you want to.

Ars Magica will never have that. It's a niche market. Which means that each SG pretty much has to design his own adventures. We might share more in terms of monsters, though even there I think the official bad guys list is not broad enough to fill out a campaign, because Ars Magica is too broad. Which leads me to...

Second - D&D has an expected adventure-arc structure, that is strongly supported by its rules. Especially since 3rd Edition, the characters are built to withstand and be effective against monsters level-by-level, and the campaign is to progress from fighting low-level to fighting high-level monsters. There are even fairly clear guidelines about how many monsters you can send after your PCs to challenge but not kill them. Building an adventure becomes an exercise in looking through the monster manual, picking up level-appropriate monsters you want to use, and doing some math; by then the adventure pretty much writes itself. Building a campaign becomes a matter of leafing through the manual to look up higher-end monsters and think up the "ladder" of monsters your PCs will face. Easy as cake. [Exaggerating a little, but still.]

Ars Magica currently doesn't have that. But I'm wondering if it shouldn't.

D&D is capable of pulling it off because it's essentially a superheroes game that is based on one primary stat - the class level. As you increase your class level your attacks and damage per attack increases, but so do your defenses against attacks and your hit points so it balances out. The rest is details.

Ars Magica can fairly easily adopt a similar mechanic. I'd use Might. For magi, tie Might to their Art scores. Have Might serve as the basis for Magic Resistance and increase Soak and defenses.

High Arts already greatly increase your damage output, and do so pretty predictably - a +5 increase means +5 damage; roughly. If it would also mean +5 Soak or +5 MR, we'll be a long way towards achieving this goal. So, perhaps:
Might = highest (Te + Fo) combination.
Soak bonus = Might. If all damage is Might-soaked - no equipment damage (from fire etc.).
If no Soak applies to spell/attack, MR = Might instead.

There is fine balancing to do and specializations and Houses to consider. And you'll need to redesign monsters too, of course, with this baseline in mind. But when this work is done - you'll have your Ars Magica superhero game. You will be able to know what the Might of creatures to pit your PCs against, and work from there, just like in D&D.

Now a big problem with this idea, is that ArM is currently not a superhero game, and perhaps many would not want it to become one. Still, I think superheroes are better then paper tigers - magi that can topple cities with a flick of the finger, but fall to the slightest offense they didn't prepare a ward against. This idea can serve as a basic principle for 6e. :smiley:

Yair (ranting instead of designing his next saga)

Hell no.

Really? I usually describe Ars Magica as "medieval superheroes", to those who have never played it. Yeah, that's not completely accurate, but it does seem to convey the general power disparity of the setting.

It's not a bad thing in game design to have an accurate comparison of power. D&D and Warhammer 2nd edition (the two most common fantasy games I play and run) both have a good game mechanic gauge to help out. Ars does not do that, but perhaps the best gauge is the Might compared to the Penetration of each party. It's not completely accurate, but might be the closest thing. D&D sidesteps the whole resistance issue by stipulating for each spell whether or not it's resistable (no epic debates on magic resistance on their forums!).

That being said, Ars provides so many ways to skin a cat, a gauge is a little difficult to make and expect to be accurate. Powerful wizards of other traditions would be really difficult to gauge. On the one hand they'll not likely have much, if any resistance that compares to the parma, and many of their effects won't make it through. But at the same time, the nature of their magic might make them utterly immune to some Hermetic spells, or give them abilities that are un resistable.

Then finally of course is the idea that it's not so much about storming the castle and raiding the stuff inside, though no doubt it will happen sometime. Since that is not its focus in what could best be described as a 'standard Ars Magica' game, this kind of gauge loses some value.

I would like though, to have something of a gauge to help out design adventures. But at the end of the day, if I don't get one, I'll still manage. Adding a gauge or stacking mechanic might benefit in some ways, but diminish in others. I think it should be considered for 6th edition if there is going to be a 6th, but if it didn't get made, we'd be fine.

I think the comparison to D&D is fundamentally flawed, in that D&D is much more one-dimensional: most of its challenges are about combat, and in fact its challenge rating system does not work well outside of combat (e.g. for an investigation story). One of the beautiful things of Ars Magica is that it offers a far wider palette of "interesting stuff" (I.e. stuff for which there is interesting mechanical support in the game), so there's no single indicator of competency one can use. Your Flambeau magus may be very good at destroying stuff, but how good is he at investigation? At "social" stuff? At artistic pursuits? How "powerful" is he in a story where the goal is to have some philosophical doctrine accepted by the Church as compatible with its doctrine?

I think that to make adventure design in Ars Magica easier, one should take a fundamentally different route from that of D&D. Perhaps starting from personality and story Flaws of the characters to be involved (of course this means that making "generic" adventures for Ars Magica appears much harder than making "generic" adventures for highly specialized games like D&D or Dogs in the Vineyard).

I was going to post, "In before the thread devolves into 'D&D sucks, Ars is better, why make Ars like D&D?'." Except that I didn't post in time. I lose!

The intent behind the OP is a good one: if there was a way to reliably measure PC power level, this would make adventure design easier.

I don't really see the need to complicate or confuse the matter by using the phrase "superhero game". I've run years of D&D, and because encounter design is so easy, I can spend my extra time working on interesting stories, settings, and NPCs. I've also run years of superhero games, and the wide diversity in superhero abilities makes designing adventures far harder. D&D scenario design and superhero scenario design are very different, driven by different underlying structures, notably the "dungeon as flow chart" model vs. the "problem --> investigation --> confrontation with either a gang of super criminals or a single mastermind, add minions and giant robot to taste" model. The archetypal D&D session is a series of chambers first fought over and then explored, with puzzles. The archetypal superhero session starts with a fight, has a couple hours of PC/NPC interaction broken up by rolling dice for various skills, and then a second bigger beat-down before everyone drives home.

Unfortunately, as the "D&D is one dimensional" arguments indicate, I think we may have poisoned the well already.

Please note that being "one-dimensional" does not imply that a game is bad. It just means it's very specialized, with one major source of tension with the related resolution mechanics. In fact, one could argue that a lot of Indie games try to go exactly that route: make the game about one narrow thing, and design mechanics extremely specialized for that single thing. And indeed this focused approach makes design much easier.

Ah, but that's exactly the point. What is "power" in Ars Magica? The ability to slay your opponents without getting slain in turn? The ability to manipulate your social environment? Your artistic skill? Your knowledge? I think you gave a pretty good assessment of the "archetypal D&D session"; but is there an "archetypal Ars Magica session"?

I get what your saying, that PCs in Ars do a lot of things. But the OP expressed his desire for a measure of power in Ars specifically in regards to conflict using PC spells against NPC antagonists. In other words, we're not talking about "persuade the local bishop to leave you alone" stories which depend largely on RP and social interaction, but instead about stories in which the key determining factor for success is "can your spells affect the antagonist, and can the antagonist affect you."

This is largely about a) the spells the PCs command, b) their penetration with said spells, c) their Parma and d) the Might of the target. But there is no regularity to these things among a group of magi, so even a mature magus can find his specialization useless in a particular circumstance, vulnerable to an enemy who a younger magi with the right Arts can take on.

I think this might ultimately come down to the "Ars as sandbox" issue which David Chart raised In a recent Sub Rosa. Ars prides itself on its complexity of character design, the many options players have in it, and the fact that no two magi look the same. We could impose some kind of rule linking Might to age, so magi gained Magic Resistance and Penetration as they got older, ensuring that conflict with Demons/Faeries/Monsters/other magi was easier to measure. But, to a great many people, including I suspect the line editor, this would be contrary to the spirit of the game.

Even if it would make adventure design easier.

I must disagree with the proposition that ArM borrow elements from D&D. If you like an endless cycle of combat and looting than stick with D&D. I'd been playing D&D for about three years when by 1987 when I got sick of the same repetitive scenarios with the same set-piece boss fight at the end or descending upon some poor harmless community like a rapacious SS Einsatzgruppen...

I know that some people will attribute this flavour to the DM but really have a look one of Gary Gygax's interviews not long before he died. Its telling. I never saw much evidence in that interview of anything other than the above in his approach. He had very narrow view of role-playing that in my view did not develop much beyond the war-gaming roots of D&D.

Unfortunately in my experience, most D&D players seem drawn to the Gygax model like flies to horse shit rather than any other model. I last played a 4e game three years ago and other than the tedious drawn out combats the only remarkable thing was the surprise the players felt that I would actually "role play" a character rather than sit and shove corn chips in my mouth with one hand, d20 in the other, staring at one of the countless tables mumbling some inane comment.

I don't intend to denigrate and I don't think an ArM v D&D debate is even feasibly logical since these two different games have no objective pros and cons...they all boil down to what you like as entertainment...if you like rich storytelling experiences with a compelling narrative than ArM is obviously your choice. If "Vat are doing here and give me all your cash" is you thing than roll that d20...

One thing that troubled me about D&D years later when I started to introduce my children to role-playing, was that violence was basically at its core and the whole system design down to the challenge levels supported this. I wouldn't have the same objections to ArM since its a multidimensional game where violence can be incidents of play rather than the purpose.

I think it's wrong to suggest that Ars Magica has nothing to learn from other systems. There is always room for improvement and I'm conscious, having contributed to both Tales of Mythic Europe and Tales of Power (available in all good bookshops, as the saying goes), that finding the right level, for want of a different word, is not easy. I would love a set of guidelines to help do that. One of the things that I found utterly confusing and equally impressive was the method in Pathfinder (probably the same in D&D) for determining a set of build points out of which you can define your encounter ostensibly by buying monsters for the characters to fight. The Ars Magica player in me found it perplexing that you would define an encounter based on a number of points derived from the player character levels. What about the needs of the story? How are they served by this encounter build system? I mean, traps have their own way of calculating how many points they contribute to the encounter. What's that about!?

But then I realised that I was looking at it in the wrong way. You retain all the roleplaying elements that you need/want and your story can be as simple or as complex as you like, but the points give you a calibrated way of setting a threat level that should prove challenging without either being a chore or unattainable. Ars Magica really doesn't have that. How do I judge whether the faerie dragon I'm looking to throw against my player characters is within a challenging range without needing to spend the next session rolling up new characters? How do I judge whether the crafty merchant has the guile to sneak the odd lie past the companion characters without looking like a bumbling teenager in comparison to their own Guile scores. Right now, I can't.

But there should be something we can use as a rule of thumb. I'm sure there are ways and means of using a magus Arts/Penetration/etc. to provide a good encounter/adventure level, but it would have to work with wildly mismatched character power levels and a potentially fluid character lineup, things that Pathfinder doesn't have as much of a problem with.

Without promising too much, I believe there is some content coming along in Sub Rosa 14 and 15 that touches on this space, but I haven't seen those articles yet so I can't comment directly.

It cannot be doubted that borrowing from other games can improve ArM. 7's idea was a bit more specifically stated than just a statement of general principal though. I think where 7 goes awry is the suggestion that ArM become a superhero game like D&D. Now I think that it shouldn't become anything like D&D and I think the characterisation of D&D as a superheroes game is a little off target since its fundamentally about violence, robbery and ascending an artificial ladder of achievement. An ArM character can become a superhero as well but not for the sole purpose of a becoming better at defeating the monster of the week in the ever increasing cycle of killing meaner beasts in longer and more tedious combats week after week. The invincibility that 7 aspires to only seems necessary to me if you want to play a game whose central premise is to kill and loot. ArM characters don't need that quality where the story is the focus of play. I will accept that a challenge level system is a good idea but its not an idea unique to D&D in fact Rune attempted to do something similar and an ArM version would be useful.

I would like to point out that, as a roleplaying game, D&D is infinitely flexible and back in the day we did all the role-playing character-development things that we all do with all these other games, such as Ars Magica. I would further like to point out that the adventure progression model does indeed work with Ars Magica. It is far more abstract and not as mathematically direct. But still, once you get a gauge on the powers & capabilities of the character/player, you can slowly turn up the challenge. A slightly higher might, an older rival wizard, a more powerful noble or a witty-er clergyman. Give each character a chance to shine, Let the combat monsters mow down some mooks once in a while, let the social players tackle a challenge beyond the ken of the warrior wizard. Mix it up.
This is all good advice. I should follow it...

I agree with all of you that ArM is a broader game. But I think the main point is how such a change will affect ArM - will it make it a better or worse game ?

It doesn't matter that the change is combat-focused. Suppose I was suggesting a better combat system - would that mean that ArM shouldn't adopt it, because it's a game about much more than just combat ? Of course not. Improving the combat will improve the game.

Now - what impact does the change have ? I think not really the one I intended. There is another aspect to D&D I missed above - everyone plays at the same character level. Mostly. In ArM, this isn't so. Different characters will have vastly different power levels. And I'm not talking about grogs here. I'm talking about the main characters, the PC magi. Even if they're of the same age, they will have vastly different powers and likely a different Te+Fo top total. And pushing everyone to increase just one Te+Fo combination (as this one stat determines their MR and Soak as well as their damage/power) will be a detriment to the game. So I think my suggested "6e rule" just won't work - it won't create the kind of consistency that allows Pathfinder, or D&D, to offer their encounter-building systems.

Now we could keep Might = Soak/MR, and base Might on a different trait, like Hermetic age or total XP in Arcane Abilities & Arts. Here you guys raised another point - that you just don't want to play with such resilient characters. Rather than the paper tigers with specific wards that we currently play. I must say I don't really see why one would prefer to play, say, a mighty Flambeau magus with a ward/defense against Animal and Terram and Herbam that would then be killed by enemy grogs firing arrows made of human bones. Perhaps such characters are more "human", having invested in gaining specific protections rather than enjoying a blanket protection for simply being magical ?

One thing I did like about my original rule, though - it gave Soak protection against attacks, mundane or magical, that converts to MR if there is no damage. I think this a pretty good thing actually, as it solves the loop-hole of indirect (aimed) spells. You levitate a huge rock above a person and drop it - basically instant-kill by RAW, with easy-to make aiming roll, no Magic Resistance, and very high damage. With this rule, suddenly your damage is reduced by, say, (Parma x 5 + Terram). Not so insta-kill anymore, MR still matters.

I think part of the issue is that, in most Ars Magica games I've played in, the preferred method for overcoming challenges isn't brute force, but rather with obtaining specialized spells/enchanted devices or finding the correct way to approach a challenge. As such, there's no really good metric for measuring a troupe's ability to deal with any specific challenge beyond knowing your players and their characters well.

As such, I'm tempted to suggest Call of Cthulhu as representing a more accurate model of how adventure design for Ars Magica ought to be accomplished even though PCs in that games are very much on opposite sides of the RPG power-scale than a Hermetic Magus.

What is the adventure design model for CoC ? I am not aware of a mechanical one. In terms of adventure structure, I would think the power disparity will make a huge difference. In CoC the investigators manage to, barely, prevent the Old One from entering by picking up enough "keys" and solving the "puzzle". In ArM the PCs face the Old One, and enslave/kill/force (or just convince) it. Not a whole-lot of difference plot-wise, but a huge difference mechanically, as you actually need ArM spells to penetrate that demon's MR once his True Name is known; to pierce through the Faerie Lord's illusions and break his curse once his Sovereign Ward is utilized; to kill the dragon once the sympathetic connections are obtained; to defeat their fellow magus in wizard's war; and so on. (And this without even getting into the problem that this whole model of adventure design fails in a vanilla 5e game IMHO, as magi quickly get so powerful they don't really need to jump through hoops, and can just use brute force again.)

So unlike CoC, in ArM the boss monsters generally need to be so powerful or strange they can't be affected by PC magic, yet obtaining some knowledge (True Name...) or resources (spells to affect ghosts...) would enable the PCs to affect them. This is a rather delicate balance, really.

My poin

My point, I guess, is that in both games my design philosophy tends to avoid putting the players against antagonists face-to-face and instead to make them about investigation, research, and strategy.

I guess so. I think this makes adventure design harder. It's much easier to string a few combat encounters together with some thin plotline then to figure out how to make the PCs investigate, research, and strategize in a satisfying way against the antagonist's actions.

I suggest the following for the "archetypal Ars Magica adventure structure":

  • Foreigner visits the covenant, revealing a problem or opportunity for it Faraway (covenant's village suffers from wolf attacks; baron seeks help rescuing his daughter; Redcap reveals site of dragon's lair...).
  • A party of PCs goes to explore Faraway, encounters Minions / unexpected further Problems, investigates, and learns source of problem is even Further Away. (Village is plagued by wolves from the forest; the baron's daughter disappeared into a faerie regio; site is a layered regio, magi must seek way to inner layer)
  • Final showdown with Antagonist in Further Away, usually both diplomatic and combat. (Witch controlling wolves is defeated in combat and new pact signed with wolves; faerie lord convinced to let daughter go after contests (instead of combat); dragon at inner regio level defeated (no diplomacy))
  • Common Complication: Antagonist cannot be defeated without McGuffin. This is revealed either in Invetigation in the Final Showdown. Party retreats / side-quests to obtain McGuffin, then continues to Final Showdown.

Does this seem right ? Clearly adventures often deviate from the "archetype", but this seems to me to describe many ArM adventures in broad strokes. At least the published ones. SG-concotted ones do tend to be more... Story Flaw/ Hook/ Protagonist -driven.

So, I was out of town this weekend, and my first response in this thread was all I could muster on my iPhone screen that seemed appropriate. :smiley: Now that I'm back to my laptop, I can respond with a bit more depth.

There is a huge presumption that the goal of players is to vanquish monsters. Are all of your players really that interested in combat?

This is the exact sentence I was meaning to respond to with my post of "Hell no."

I'm not sure I get where this makes the characters superheroes. To me it suggests that the characters are a cookie cutter imprint of everything within the class. Differentiation between characters is more of a matter of the kinds of frosting placed on the cookie than of the underlying character. Details do matter, and Ars has them in spades, where the last time I touched D&D, which admittedly is a long time ago, it does not.

This approach pushes all characters toward being more combat capable, when the player may not have any such goal. I don't think it's bad that magi can be brought low by a horde of unmagical people/beasts. That's the reason there are grogs. And magi who ignore the well-being of their grogs do so at their own risk.

My question, is what is the problem you're trying to solve, because from the solution it looks like making adventures easily. Adventure should flow from covenant hooks, character story and personality flaws, and an semi open discussion about who's going to be doing what at next session. Of course, all of these are either create an implicit game contract, or were based on an explicit one.

I completely agree that balancing Ars Magica characters against content is very tricky. Stuff that will outright slaughter magus A will be breezed over by magus B, and to make things more interesting there's no guarantee that B is the older, more experience magus.

And herein lies one of the bigger issues here: Ars Magica doesn't have a linear progression of power. That magi get more powerful as they age is undisputable, but how that power manifests and the situations where that power can be expressed vary hugely. I'm sure we're all familiar with the magus/maga who is 30+ years out of Gauntlet and who would lose a fight with a particularly aggressive daisy. That doesn't make the character lacking in power, their power is concentrated somewhere else.

I think this is a flaw in the system, in that it contributes to its niche-ness because it doesn't have easy handles for a new SG to hold on to. I don't have a good solution, though.