How to StoryGuide - setting up seasons vs adventures

I'm new to Ars Magica and I'd like thoughts on how to best Game Master the pacing and set-up of a game session for running through SEASONS and also Adventures over the seasons.

How do StoryGuides of Ars ... how do/would you set up a game session that covers the players getting to have the downtime of lab work for a "season" and have "adventures" with Grogs or whatnot?

I'm looking for actual outline ideas of how a session would run hour to hour over a game session and how you handle "season" transition and lab time notation DURING the game session.
I have a strong idea of how to best take the story PACING as a Game Master.
However, I would like YOUR takes and understanding and your experiences with other ARS MAGICA games (or other games) on how to best PACE:

  • the passage of time during the game session for "seasons"
  • the intro and actual play of "lab time"
  • how all that actually plays out at the table (examples?)
  • and also what your idea of "adventures" are for ARS play
  • and how all of that interacts as pacing at the table

Do you anticipate having time at the game-table to play in/out of game to make maps or do rule creation for the game and for your magi... in making stats/set-up maps, etc... of your LAB and the Covenant.
Or would that be done not at the table... and do more "discovery" and role-play in finding and describing those things.

Or a combo of both?

I'm looking for suggestions and examples on WHAT your expectations for HOW the game session will run overall.

I'd like to take those ideas and mix/mingle them with my ideas for more fun sessions and interesting chapters.


We've typcally been very freeform with this. A story (hook) is presented and the players decided what character they will be using.
Too often they will pick their magus, but after a while they will start to realise that never spending time in the lab/library slows advancement for a magus severly.

Occasionally you might want to declare something like "I have a grog story, everyone please be sure to have a grog ready for next time (or pick a template out of the book!)" - we've used this a few times as an apetizer, meaning that the grog story lead to a bigger story down the road.

Best of all ofcourse, is when the story starts out based on the desires of one (or more) of the PCs/players!
"I need ivory for my next enchanting project - let's go to africa!"
"We need to expand our library, let's visit the nearby covenants to see if they'd care to trade with us"
or any other such stories...

I'm not entirely sure what you're askng for here. We've never had much of a problem, since lab time and stories run on such different timescale.
Quite often it has been "Hmmm, we can't solve this problem/defeat this foe right now. I say we return to our labs and research a solution" and if no-one disagrees, the timescale changes.

Once people are familiar with the study and laboratory rules, this is usually fast enough. "everybody please spend 2 seasons" and 10 mins later they have, IME.
We have had occasional certamens over who got to use a specific resource in a given season (typically a specific book).

If you have a group new to Ars Magica (and you probably have), then you should expect to use time on character creation with every player.
Also, try to introduce study and especially lab-stuff with everyone present - you'll lkely have to do so a few times, but that's not a huge problem.

Sure. Especially once people are at least passingly familiar with the rules.
"Next time when we start, we'll be at 1223, spring. Everyone please update characters to match."

This is the most likely result, based on my experience.

I hope you can use atleast some of this.

EDIT: edited to remove overly agressive uppercasing :slight_smile:

Not sure if this helps, but...
A typical session in one of my sagas might go like this:

It's Spring, what do you want to do? Lucius will invent the Clouds of Summer Snow. Ilid will study the Herbam summa. Severus will study the Terram summa. The companions and grogs work on the their usual tasks related to planting. Nothing in particular happens, we calculate out Lucius's lab total and find that he will need another season to invent the spell. We adjust experience points for Ilid and Severus and appropriate exposure points for the companions and grogs. (probably takes about 30 minutes with in character roleplay of the Spring covenant council meeting and doing the math)

So, on to Summer. What do you do? Lucius will continue to work on his spell. Ilid has finished the Herbam summa and turns her attention to the Creo summa. Severus continues to read the Terram summa. In July, word reaches the covanent of an ogre pillaging villages and fields nearby. Being the adventurous sort, Severus elects to take a troop of grogs, lead by the turb captain (Lucius's players companion) and accompied by the resident minstral (Ilid's player's companion), to hunt down this beast. The resulting investigation, tracking and eventual defeat of the orge takes up the rest of the game session and enough in-game time to reduce Severus's study total, so his player elects instead to assign adventure experience for Severus. The companions and grogs recieve their experience as well. Everyone else resolves their seasons uninterupted.

Only thing I'd like LuciusT's bit above, is that we rarely have stories during winter. The weather sucks too badly.

The only adventures we've done in winter always had something to do with the winter fae. Usually, adventures are summer... except ghost stories in fall.

Bad weather can add to the story at times...

entirely true, you will notice the word given was "rarely".

I'd back further and use a Tribunal 7 years cycle.

  • What do you plan to do over the next 7 years?
  • Does anyone have stories for the next 7 years?
    That should allow you to prepare a few stories for the next few sessions.

Then you go year by year:

  • It's 1222, does anyone have anything special for this year?
  • Alice, no plans for Bob or Eve yet?
  • What are your activities for spring 1222?
  • At the end of spring, you have a visitor ...
    (resolve story or prologue)
  • Do you have anything you want to prepare as a result of this story?
  • What are your activities for summer 1222?
  • What are your activities for fall 1222?
  • you want to go looking for vis, ok ...
    (resolve story or prologue)
  • What are your activities for winter 1222?
    (end of year covenant meeting)
  • Tribunal is next year, do you want to prepare something?

Of course, your sessions can stop in the middle of a story or at a season.

The more I play, the more I find stories can be anything. You can spend 12 sessions on a monster save-the-covenant story or 15 minutes to satisfy the local priest you are good Christians.

Magi will want familiars, talisman pieces, new books and tractatus. They will need vis, ceremonial casting tools, library collections on specific subjects.

Covenants will suffer interferences from magi, other mages, faeries, local lords or priests. They will have to import manpower to cover special needs. There will be shortage of eggs just when you need it for your research.

Sometimes you are only placing pawns to allow your players to be creative. "Lets burn the harbor ourselves, so we'll foil their plan of doing it." Sometimes the story is just a side dish to bring the grogs alive, to establish hooks with villagers.

If you do it well, the players will take half the job and you will be the narrator of their acts.

Good thread.

My sagas tend to be quite story-intensive and we probably don't give our magi the room to study and invent that others might. Part of the fun of the game is watching the magi progress, so I'd recommend building that into your schedule. It wouldn't hurt being a little regimented at first. Run a story, then give a year for study/advancement. Unless the next story is tied to the season (failing harvests, harsh winter, scorching summers, etc.) you can stretch that a bit if your players have things they particularly want to do.

We do tend to leave all lab work for between sessions. We use Metacreator for all the advancement as its just so easy to do and to share the results around and it means we can get on with in-character and story things when we're at the table.

It's about finding the balance that's right for your troupe. Just try things out.

I ran a saga like this some years ago. It was fun, but progress was slow to the point of barely happening at all.

Also done that.

Giving the group both time to study and things to do with that time is important. A library that is poor and no obvious way to improve it may daunt new players. The exact pace is up to you, but I'd try and get one season of study in per ~4hour game session - even early on. Try to avoid adventures that flow direct from one to the next and never give the group a chance to stop and breathe. Encourage the new group to recognise when they can afford to leave something alone for a season or two while they go poke in their labs.

I'd also recommend having a good collection of lab-texts for new magi, as well as making sure to introduce a clear way the magi can gain more. Easy trade via redcaps is a good way to help magi, and the idea that a magus can write to their parens or another covenant and enquire about trade should be something new players get exposed to early. Of course, not all covenants will be open to trade - but that's just more story opportunities.

Stories that have warning are a good way to break seasonal study in to new players. If some portent says 'in seven seasons the dragon will awaken and devour the village!' then the magi have a goal to work towards with their time, while at the same time getting to experience the advancement mechanic. This also presents some nice prelude-adventures to the main event, such as getting hands on an arcane connection to the dragon or securing allies to help deal with it. These won't require the full group of magi - leaving at least some of them with time to study and prepare for dragon-onslaught.

These prelude-adventures can be single encounter or two-encounter 'adventurelets' as per more traditional RPGs. Stealing the dragon's scales might involve an entertaining encounter with convincing a local guide to take you to the dragon's cave followed by a tense sneaky-moment for getting into the cave, dealing with some minor guardian and hot-footing it with the stolen scale. The whole adventure might only take 1-2 hours of gameplay, after which you can shift the 'camera' to what another magus is doing - and possibly even advance a season.

Good thought provoking thread.

Welcome! To the game and these forums!...

First, you (and your Players!) have to abandon expectations for character advancement based on most other RPG's, especially Level-based games, or any that are "kills = experience" in concept. In some games, "the party" can spend 3 weeks over 8 gaming sessions to the dragon mountain and back and become heroes - that will never happen in Ars. And power-growth in general is slower - the curve is just not as steep. So the stories, and the story progressions, will be markedly different, and so are not for everyone. Accept that, prepare yourself for it - not every D&D'er will like Ars, that's just the way it is.

However, what can happen is that the GM can wave his hand, and years pass, and everyone is much tougher - that's a distinct possibility, and often the obvious move from a story perspective.

Ars encourages/invites the Troupe style of play, where everyone has more than one character, and so this starts before game-play starts, during CharGen. The key is to try to make sure everyone has 1 character that is appropriate for every occasion - or as much variety between them as possible.

For me, I ask players to first create their Magi*, and then (right then or later, after the Covenant has been better defined**) their Companions, advising them to create Companions that cover different areas and have different interests than their wizard-characters. So, if a Player has a Flambeau combat-mage, their Companion should have non-combat hooks - perhaps a sneak/thief, perhaps a cultured courtier (aren't those the same?), perhaps a librarian, whatever. If both are combat, then both will want to rush out to meet combat threats and really have no place poking around the abbey or in the library. This is not a hard rule, but the advantages should be obvious.

(that can co-habitate with some expectation of survivability - I don't like too much built-in conflict, the StoryGuide should provide the antagonists and enemies, thx.)
* I prefer have Companions show up organically to the Saga, or at least any but the most generic concepts - they arrive as needed, not according to "what I want to play". So if the Covenant needs a grog-captain, a knight can show up to cover that role, but just because someone wants to build a knight or priest or vampire hunter or faeirie-child or branded bandit chieftan doesn't mean the Covenant (or the Saga) needs (another) one. If it works, great - but if not, it shouldn't be shoe-horned in, and you should make this clear at the beginning, but combine your preference with that of the Troupe - but not bend to the will of one player's personal vision.

Remember - every Character wants their own part of the story, even NPC's - the more that can share in the same story, the easier for you, as SG. If a Player really, really wants to run a Companion Vampire-Hunter (or whatever), then you have to decide whether to write vampires (or whatever) in as a (significant!) part of your Saga, or to disappoint that Player - or (best?) to advise them that the VH concept probably won't be a wise fit. If every Saga is co-written by Players and SG, then it should also be co-planned as well, at least to this small extent. The less you have to work at weaving new plot elements in, the more the primary plotline can advance - and in Ars, that can be critical!)

(Similarly with magi Houses - if Faeries just don't speak to you, then shrug and apologize and take House Merenita off the list - it's really not fair to either of you.)

Anyway, so each player has a Mage and Companion that do not have the same interests* - this means that for any one scene, one or the other may be attracted or appropriate, and the other can be "off camera" - studying, researching, pursuing some personal interest - waiting for the scene that does speak to them, their turn to shine. Thus, hopefully, each Player will have one main character "in the action" while their other main character is doing something "productive" but more time-consuming. (If the Troupe decides that each Player should have some grogs of their own to run, better. A personal "shield grog", maybe with 4 virtues (plus free "Custos") would give each yet another door to action. Each Player could "advertise" what sort of shield grog they are looking for, and, when appropriate, one of the other Players would introduce that uber-grog character.)

(* Remember - a Companion is not a companion to that Player's mage, or necessarily to any one mage, but a companion to the Covenant as a whole. The more different those characters are in focus and motivation, the fewer reasons one Player's pair have to be played together, the better overall for game-play, and in fact the more opportunities for that one Player to be involved in the current action, be it combat, diplomacy, stealth, information gathering, or whatever.)

Others have painted a good picture of their sessions, but I'll toss in my impressions.

Typically, we are in the middle of something, but if not I start a season with a "declaration of intent for the season" - and I write this down on a sort of informal calendar/spreadsheet. Each mage, each companion, each significant character (PC or NPC) is going to have a "project" for that season - study, labwork, travel, research, dedicated exposure experience in Carousing, whatever. Then "the story" makes itself felt, as either carrot or stick, and either tempts characters to diverge from their plans, or not, as appropriate.*

(* And sometimes there is a wink and nudge between Players as they compromise, and one mage goes and that Player's companion stays, and another Player goes the other way, just because it feels better that way on a metagame level. Imo, that works better overall than having one Player send both Mage and Companion, even if that would make sense - and there are SG tricks to encourage that arrangement, altho' that should never be artificially "prohibited".)

If it's not fast combat, then often there are a few Players are being interactive with the SG while the rest are "onlookers" - and here is when they should be designing spells or items, or reading the rules (usually the Laboratory chapter!). And this is where, on a practical level, Ars requires more than one core rulebook to play the game, more than most other RPG's! Every player designing a spell really needs a copy of the Guidelines for that T/F combo in front of them, and often reference to the Shape/Material or other Laboratory Chapter sections. "Sharing", even 3 books between 4 players, just doesn't fly when all 4 are designing lab projects or checking on rules.

And there will be inevitable but necessary pauses between action for bookkeeping and plot updates - spontaneous spell effects are approved or critiqued, off-camera efforts are resolved, long-term rolls are made, information from research is revealed and news from afar is pondered - and more so when the season is finalized. Then the spreadsheet/calendar for that season is reconciled between expectations and final effort and xp handed out, and Characters and the Covenant are updated. Whether you like to do this at the end, middle or start of a session is up to your style and the pace of the plot. And then (usually right then!) the process is begun for the next season with new declarations of intent, and repeat. (Or, if near the end of a game session, you can let your Players think about things between sessions and then go thru the declarations at the start of the next - but that's always slower than diving in. Depends how many of your players typically show up early late, I guess, or whether you have contact with them over the interim.)

I like to keep my Players honest - they don't know if there is an Adventure on the horizon or not before they declare for the season (they often can guess, but they don't know). Sometimes the plot is covered "in narrative" - we spend 15 minutes with the SG describing over-arching events, and with a few social/perception rolls the results are resolved, and more than one season follow in rapid succession.

Winter is, indeed, often "lab time". Cold, weather, mud - all combine to say "the lab is where you want to be, save that other thing for Spring or Summer". Maybe not for all, but as a rule, sure. If the Players have not planned ahead, 1 book/player is needed - so encourage some to buy their own (or chip in and buy you a 2nd one?), and/or have them plan ahead whenever their characters are not in the spotlight.

Depending whether the characters are public or "secret", ideas for new effects can be kicked around the table (how Sleep with Duration is better than Instant), with commentary on how one approach might differ from another (various ways to fly), or why using X Form to achieve Y effect is flawed (by Hermetic Theory - dispelling a magical fire with PeIg, for example - it might cool it, but not "dispel" it).

(One thing I've done with new players or "freshly gauntletted" magi is, either as part of their last year & gauntlet or their 1st year as a mage, to have each Mage (that is, each Player) invent 1 one-season spell, create 1 one-season enchanted item, spend 1 season studying a text from the local library, and spend their last season either copying a text or distilling some vis. This gives each player experience doing the 4 basic lab projects, and makes each (and the Covenant as a whole) just a little bit tougher by filling in some holes in the character - nothing game breaking, but it often helps just enough, and starting magi need all the help they can get.) It also starts each Character's seasonal activity/experience sheet, and gets them thinking in that mode.)

Unless you're seeking Troupe input, not a chance, and even then do all you can ahead of time. Even when all your Players are talking about the plot you've handed them, that's when a SG wants to listen to the Players, to get new ideas from their thoughts/fears/hopes/etc.

The StoryGuide should be describing the world verbally and elaborating on their own mental image, not deciding what the world is. (Some SG's can do this spontaneously and seamlessly - but taking time out to actually "create" a map (as opposed to share one you already have in your mind) only slows the game down, and that's where Players lose interest.)

(phew! response getting long - apologies)

Any RPG should run as lively as possible, maximizing the pace, spending time on questions rather than delays. With Ars, that's often hard due to the math needed behind the spells, so NPC spells are one thing you want to have done ahead of time!

One solution to this is to have every Mage (and NPC magic-type!) have a list of every spell effect they know with an updated "Basic Spell Casting Total" listed -

TeFo Level / Tech + Form + Stam Spell Name (any Mastery) quick spell description

It might look something like this...

ReCo 25/+14 Companion's Long Leap* (5/1 Multi) (As Mage's Leap, Touch, 500 paces)
InIm 15/+13 Call of Prying Eyes and Ears* (see & hear inside room)
InMe 25/+13 Pose Silent Questions* (D:Conc, p 149)
ReMe 20/+14 Dead Faint* (5/1 Multi) (R: Sight, T: Individual, Sleep 2 minutes)
ReMe 20/+14 Aura of Authority (5/1 Still) (target inclined to obey, p 151)
InVi 20/+15 The Scent of a Wizard* (5/1 Still) (ID the Gift)

+3 during violent storms, -3 if out of sight of any water, cannot cast magic on "reptiles"

Then they (or you) only add the Aura modifier, any Injury modifier, and Voice/Gestures, and they have their roll. (Of course, a full description with details of Duration/Range/Target will be listed elsewhere - this is the quick cribsheet.)

They can also list the several Gentle Voice/Subtle Gesture modifiers, and any modifiers from Virtues/Flaws.

(Listing their favorite Spont effects is another time saver, but is a list that quickly can grow unwieldy.)

Okay, now we get down to meta-theory - Ars "stories" need to be short and quick. Long dungeon crawls, long crusade-chases, whether "long" by the number of scenes/encounters, or "long" in game-seasons, are just not popular - the one because no matter how many beasties you kill, you only get "one season's worth" of Experience, and the the other for the opposite reason - study time is being lost!

So, for any story - create the hook, create some interesting encounters and twists, and move to the conclusion - for that "season", at least. Maybe Our Heroes will only be able to slag a minor villain, or not uncover (seasons?) until later that there is a Larger Villain yet to be dealt with! The adventures themselves have to be quick and punchy - Knock-knock, bam! chase, bam! & resolution... or something like that.

(Again, this is all "imo" - if your players are happy with multiple game sessions per each season, great! Mine rarely are...)

Can't do it every time, and I've had some of my best gaming during sessions-long "treks" that do, in fact, only cover a few weeks - but as a rule, if you want the Saga to progress and Covenant to grow and the magi and your deep plots to mature, you need to move thru time more quickly than with many other games.

So, in summary -

o Encourage diff characters to overlap interests, but a single Player's Mage/Companion to diverge in skill sets/area of focus ("interest" can be the same, but not what they bring to the table).
o Be prepared, encourage players to be prepared, esp w/ spells and the known math of those spells.
o Encourage players to have a plan for the next few seasons. What to study, spell effect design, etc.
o Expect pauses for spell design (esp Spont spells during action sequences) and rules questions - the more prepared, the less this will happen, but still
o Get extra books to solve part of this
o talk w/ players between sessions - about plans, about hopes/fears (good for planning the story arc), about spell & items.
o Be prepared for sessions, and keep them moving. While Players are learning the rules this will be an uphill battle, so get their help (again, more core rulebooks will help!), have patience, and good luck!

And take only what you need from this advice, adopt or adapt or ignore as you deem best. Remember, in the end - there are 101 ways to role play, and every one is right - just not right for everyone.