My First Saga

I am now 12 sessions into running my first saga, set in the Provencal Tribunal. I think it is going pretty well overall, although it is taking longer to gather momentum than I would like, and there is a steep learning curve for all involved. I thought I would make a few observations about how things are going.

Just for background, I have previously played Ars Magica (3rd and 4th editions) in a couple of PBEM sagas and also in a very few face-to-face games, but this was 15 or more years ago. I have also drawn on the fourth edition rules for a homebrew game, but not the magic rules which I am only now properly engaging with. My players' previous experience of the game is at a similarly low-ish level.

Tightness of the troupe

In other games, I have found campaigns have worked best, and are easiest to run, when the PCs are part of a tightly-defined group and identify with each other strongly - e.g. they are all members of the same noble family, the same clan, or the same battalion. It's not the same in Ars Magica. Sure, the PCs all share a covenant and that is very important. But beyond that in my saga there is much divergence between them - in personality, background and aims, which is reflected in widely differing Story Flaws, and different Houses (for the magi) and occupations (for the Companions). This all makes inter-PC interaction (which I find the most rewarding part of role-playing - even as GM!) rather less common and a bit more distant. As time goes on, inter-PC relationships are becoming stronger, but it still feels as if the PCs are getting to know each other. With hindsight, I think it would have been good to encourage players to give other PCs a role within their Story Flaws (I think Fate does something similar to this). As it is, Story Flaws are pulling characters away from each other rather than towards each other, which isn't ideal.

Pushing forward through the seasons
It seems that most people play Ars Magica in the form of a series of short, discrete stories over a very extended timeframe, with rotating player characters. When a story finishes after a session or two, the game swiftly moves on by a couple of seasons or a year or more, and then you pick things up again with a different cast of characters. That's a nice idea, but I am finding it hard to achieve in practice. We started in Spring 1205AD and it is now, after 12 sessions, Spring 1206AD. Our sessions are quite short - about three hours - but even so this still seems rather slow progress and I would like to move faster. But even with just three players and six PCs (Magi and Companions - no one has played a grog yet), there is a lot going on, and a lot of things the players and their characters want to do, and it feels a bit contrived to say, 'OK, you can do that thing, but we are going to have to wait a couple of seasons for you to do it, because we have spent too long in this season already, and I have some other stuff lined up as well.' I am keen to learn how others negotiate this.

I want templates more than toolkits

With the fifth edition line there appears to be a move away from simply producing material you can play with out of the box and towards providing toolkits with which SGs can design things exactly how they want. So rather than Faerie being portrayed simply as the Celtic-influenced British/Irish/French faerie that most of us are familiar with, a clear logic is given for what Faerie is, and the roles Fae creatures might have in relation to the human world, and we are given the apparatus we need to create our own Fae creatures and environments. The same applies to magical creatures and indeed mundane animals. We are given worked out examples in the form of templates, but they are examples and are clearly not meant to be exhaustive.

These tools are very powerful, but I am finding using them to be very time-consuming. My suspicion is that many StoryGuides love spending a lot of time creating supernatural creatures, and also magi, spells, enchanted items and so forth. I would prefer spending my gaming prep time thinking about other things - such as NPC personality and motivations, interesting gaming environments, and broader cultural and historical matters. So right now, I am just using the templates. But I am thinking that the time will come when the templates and worked examples in the published books won't be enough for me.

I can understand a reason for the shift towards toolkits. With fifth edition we have a game which can be set anywhere across Mythic Europe with (from what I can see) equal effectiveness, while, say, a Faerie book with a lot of Fae creatures from the Irish tradition would not work well in the Theban Tribunal. But this shift up to a higher level of abstraction makes more work for the StoryGuide as they need to fill in a lot of details for the specific setting of their saga.

If Ars Magica moves into another edition, I think a great way to make the game more inviting to new players would be to create a series of interrelated supplements focused on a single tribunal (preferably Rome or Stonehenge, in my opinion) to map things out in great detail - mundane matters, the Hermetic landscape, the magical landscape, and so forth, with developed covenants and mythic locations, short adventures and possible campaign arcs. This would make it a lot easier for new people coming into the game. Think of Dragon Pass for RuneQuest / HeroQuest - while Glorantha is dazzlingly complex and varied, it is also a very easy world to play in because there is a lot of material available describing a small (but very important) corner of it. I appreciate that the flexibility and variety of the Mythic Europe setting is very important for many players, and most experienced players would want to continue to pick different tribunals to play games in. But if the new edition did not involve any great changes to the rules system (and I don't think it should) the old fifth edition books could still be used.

But that's an idle wish for the future. For now, what would be an amazing resource, would be some kind of online library of fan-created characters, spells and enchanted items. The Iron Bound Tome blog is a great site for spells, and I and my players are beginning to use that, and while I can see that these forums have been used for sharing these things ideally we would have something a bit more organised and searchable. Could Project Redcap ever play this role?



This is just something you'll have to learn to balance over time. I definitely agree with the idea of using the Story Flaws to bring characters together, but also it's just a matter of appreciating the situation you've found yourselves in. Great diversity is really, in my opinion, what Ars Magica does best, and developing these friendships over time is a good influence on a long-term game. In this case, it makes it really good that you're going at such a slow pace at first; this means that interparty relationships will grow at a more reasonable in-game time scale. You can automate which characters have what relationships as you become more experienced, but starting this way has the benefit of helping you transition your "emotional growth timer" into Ars Magica speeds. It is definitely a transitional period - after all, if you don't take a reasonable amount of time to get accustomed to accelerating character bonding, you'll end up with characters only advancing their relationships as much in three in-game years as most parties do in a week, and that's no good.

The essential thing to ask in Ars Magica is "does the game benefit from portraying this in story form, or can I automate it"? Now, it's also totally normal for games to start out slow while magi get involved in lots of stories to set things up, then speed up later. But you need to consider which things you ought to run a story for, versus which things you can just ask for a couple of skill checks about and move on from. This also depends on which types of stories your players find fun - if you've all decided as a troupe that combat is boring, but your character wants to go beat something to death, don't run that as a story, just ask him how he plans to do it, roll the dice a little bit, and decide how it went.

If you've invested in the Realms of Power books, that may be a long time coming.

But you are correct about the reasons, generally speaking. Ars Magica, even where it has templates, almost never has generic templates, because the general philosophy of Ars Magica is that the creature/NPC and story should be tailored to one another, and all stats should serve a purpose. If your storytelling goal is to throw a handful of bland nasties at your adventuring party just to give them a little resource drain between locations, Ars Magica probably isn't the system you want to be playing anyway. But it's also not a difficult issue to deal with - if you're going for generic "slap it in" monsters and such, you don't even need full statblocks for them. Decide their combat and relevant skill scores based entirely on how they compare to your players, and for supernatural foes throw in some powers to your liking and ballpark their effective level for if players try to counter them, then decide on Might cost (and resultant Penetration) again based on how much you want to challenge your players. It doesn't have to be a complex process.

Unfortunately I don't really have much answer for this one aside from the Stickied threads on this very forum. But good luck in your ongoing games!

Great to see you having fun!


It's an interesting Ars problem; your characters are often searching out their own paths away from the others. It breeds a different game from what other RPG's do, but it's not a bad thing. Give it time and let the magi deal with each other's choices.

In my current game we have a character who is determined to go off and adventure by himself a lot of the time. Due to being a solo agent he often makes choices that impact the covenant, which means the other player magi are gradually getting more and more annoyed with him as he chooses various options they don't agree with. This means there's lots of in character chat about what's going on - and even roleplaying between the other players as to how to 'deal' with this annoying magus.

In a previous game we had magi of very different generations come through, simply due to when players began the game. It was interesting to watch the players of the senior magi have their wizards sit and drink on the porch that they always sat and drank at while the younger wizards hung out together near the library and the older group whinge about how the younger ones were causing so much strife and getting in the way of their experiments and how the younger group would whinge at never having any power in the covenant...

Fun times. It's all about how choices come back to reflect on people.

Speed of Saga:

I try to get through a year a game session and play for about 5 hours. I generally don't make more than one small 'adventure' they must immediately deal with per session - but there's a million little things they could do if they wanted to. Explore the labyrinth, go looking for vis, go check out the roman ruins, investigate this mercurian temple they found a map to - all fun things. If you want to speed up your saga, reduce the amount of adventures they must do (i.e. someone shows up saying help help) per year.

Congratulations on your saga. Many games don't last 12 sessions. You're already ahead of the curve.

One of the best resources I can recommend are the websites of other Sagas, many of which have NPCs, libraries, vis sources, and enchanted items you can steal. Mine is and the "What Saga are you playing right now?" thread has several more.

If you do not yet have the book THROUGH THE AEGIS, I cannot recommend it highly enough. It has five complete covenants in it, each with 6 magi (more than a quarter of all Magi writeups across the AM5 line are in this book), a library, vis sources, and so on. It's so useful. These are templates, just as you describe. You will also find more specific writeups for monsters and magi in the various adventure books; I'm a personal fan of THRICE TOLD TALES and HOOKS.

On the question of pacing: have a frank conversation with your players about this. The only real drawback to a slow game is that magi never get to use their lab. Advancement can be very slow, because seasonal activities are rare. If you have a house rule that allows a character to get XP from multiple adventures in a single season, your players have less incentive to move rapidly. But about talking to the players: point out to them that the advancement and lab rules are intended for games which move a bit faster than your current pace, such as about 1 season per session, and have an open conversation about that. Is there any interest in taking a lot of the subplots and putting them into the form of journals or scenes written by a player and then inserted into the storyline? Are the players comfortable with, for example, writing you after an adventure to say, "I want to look for a Corpus vis source" and you adjudicating that between sessions, writing him back with a description of whatever he did or did not find? Or does all that need to be played out "on camera"?

If your players are not eager to move some of this stuff off camera, between seasons, then consider what you can do to bring advancement and lab work back into the game. Some groups make lab activity a monthly activity instead of a seasonal one; at your current pace, of about a session every month of in game time, this might work out for you. Magi would grow in power quickly, relative to NPC magi, but as long as you never sped back up, and advance your NPCs on a monthly rate to match the players, it will work out. Your players may wonder why the 80 year old magus isn't that much more powerful than they are, but he was built with a rate of advancement 1/4 theirs. If your group is comfortable with a lack of numerical advancement in their Abilities and Arts, and a lack of lab time, and are happy with other forms of "advancement," such as story development and complex relationships, then by all means keep doing what you're doing.

Oh, I forgot to mention SUB ROSA, the Ars fanzine. It's a wonderful help. They did a whole issue of monsters which you may find useful, for example.

Thanks for the comments! I expect my saga will speed up a bit in due course. There are some things I want to take time on now because they are new to all of us, but later on they might become quite routine and we can skim through them - e.g. we have spent quite a bit of time exploring the covenant's lands and properties, meeting neighbours (friendly and not so friendly), dealing with the covenfolk, etc, and have gone through two council meetings in some depth.

But I can't imagine we will ever want the saga to move at a very fast pace. Arguably I have rather overloaded the game with things going on. I liked the idea of a winter covenant which is (hopefully) now coming into a new spring, with a deep backstory and lots of secrets. I loved the boons and hooks from the 'Covenants' book and we probably took too many of them for our own good. So the covenant is 'vast and labyrinthine' in a 'vast' magical landscape. There is a regio (only beginning to be discovered) and a ruined covenant a few miles away. I have pasted a complete list below - the PCs have tackled the contested resource (with considerable success) and the monastery (to an impasse) so far. And for anyone who is curious, you can read the write ups of the first four seasons of the saga below (the winter season was conducted over email - we didn't have a story that season):
Spring 1205
Summer 1205
Autumn 1205
Winter 1205

I have bought about half of the books over the years, but have probably only read about half of what I own. 'Faith and Flame' is invaluable, but I find myself wanting more information on pretty much everything covered in that book. Fortunately, I do enjoy doing my own research... I am concentrating on the magical realm in the game for now (rather than faerie, divine or infernal) and so I use RoP:M a lot as well.

I found this comment from LuckyMage very interesting: 'the general philosophy of Ars Magica is that the creature/NPC and story should be tailored to one another, and all stats should serve a purpose.' This makes me think that my approach to RPGs is rather different to the Ars Magica norm. My games are very sandboxy. I present situations rather than anticipating stories. And so I don't necessarily know what purpose a creature or person might have in the game in advance. Indeed, my players are likely to hunt out characters, animals or magical beings so that they become significant even if I hadn't given them much, if any, consideration prior to the session. I can't design characters for every possible encounter (which can be very wide-ranging as I have one character with Second Sight, another with Animal Ken, another with Faerie associations, and another with Magic Sensitivity and Sense Holiness/Unholiness) so it is good to have templates to fall back on if they are ever needed. I want to know how something might communicate, what it might know, an overall sense of its psyche, its aims and capabilities, how it might appear or disappear from view, as well as its combat statistics (if it turns out they do need to be drawn upon). But I don't want to work up stats for everything that might possibly appear in a story because most of this won't ever be needed.

But there is indeed a lot I can use from the books, and I should mine the fanzines and saga web sites. I do have 'Through the Aegis' - and I am expecting our next story to center around a visit to Jardin. And while I don't tend to play published scenarios as written, I have drawn on some ideas from a story in 'Thrice-Told Tales'.


Covenant Boons and Hooks

Major Boons
Autocephalous (External Relations) - the covenant's autonomy has not been challenged in living memory

Minor Boons
Aura (Site) x 3 - the covenant's aura is at level 6
Vast Aura (Site) - The covenant's magical aura covers a vast area of many square miles. The aura's intensity varies, with the strongest places (at level 6) being the current covenant site, the ruined covenant site and at least one or two others. Most of the rest of the covenant's land has a magical aura of between 2 and 4. Magical auras can also be found in a number of sites immediately beyond the borders of the covenant's lands.
Vivid Environment (Site) - The covenant’s site is extremely pleasant. In locations with an aura of 6, it is bewitchingly so, inspiring calm and serenity. The beauty of the covenant’s surroundings makes it easier for the covenant to recruit new inhabitants. But some become so fascinated by its sublime nature, that they find it difficult to leave.
Vast and Labyrinthine (Fortification): The covenant is extremely large and has been constructed in a rambling, disorganized way. There are both extensive structures above ground and a labyrinth of rooms below. No living person has seen every room. Large sections of the covenant are used infrequently, perhaps once every few years. Furthermore, much has fallen into ruin. Finally, the highly magical nature of the place means that over an extended period the structures of the covenant can change of their own accord. The shape of rooms can alter, doorways can disappear, new passageways can be revealed and rooms discovered that have been lost for a century or more.
Missile Weapons (Residents): The covenant’s guards are largely local people skilled with the (heavy) javelin. The javelin is known as the 'dard', and the javelin-throwers as 'dardiers'. They lack armor but may use their javelins as short spears, or draw knives or small axes if they have thrown both javelins (which they otherwise use to defend themselves against enemies if drawn into melee). Some of the dardiers hire themselves out for military service for periods which gives them valuable combat experience.
Hidden Resources (Resources) - with the passing away or disappearance of magi and as sections of the covenant have fallen into disuse, sources of vis and magical books have been lost, or have disappeared, or have otherwise become inaccessible. They might be recovered again, during the saga.

Major Hooks
Ruined Covenant (Surroundings) - the old covenant of Pedra Garita lies abandoned a few miles from the Collegium Philosophi Elementari and within the covenant's lands. It is widely thought to be haunted, and to be an uncanny and dangerous place. Even the magi don't seem to visit the area. It must hold secrets of some sort or another, but some things are best left alone.
Regio outside the main covenant site (Site) - there is some kind of concealed magical presence in some of the caves beneath the covenant and amongst some of the menhirs and dolmens. It is not immediately accessible and as the saga begins the PC magi don't know much about it. However, you can expect magical creatures and spirits to emanate from this regio (or regios).

Minor Hooks
Mutable (Site) - Even outside the Regio, the physical environment can fluctuate - both the covenant buildings themselves, and the woods, caves and rocks.
Warping to a Pattern (Site) - The Warping suffered by people is not random. Rather, a discernible theme runs through the distortions, as people succumb to the bewitching beauty of the place. People tend to become quieter. They can seem more tranquil, but also more fluid in their actions. They will tend to gather in silence in certain especially magical, and beautiful, places - e.g. gazing across the mountains next to a dolmen on the mountain slope above the covenant. They can absent-mindedly cast off old attachments and begin new relationships such as a wife finding a new husband, or a daughter attaching to a new mother figure.
Contested Resource (Resource) - for centuries, the covenant's peasant residents have grazed their sheep on the nearby plateaux of Larzac, and a vis source is also located there. Now the plateau is being taken over by the Knights Templar and they dislike others using their land.
Heretics (Surroundings) - Waldensians and Albigensians are found in the area of the covenant and very likely followers of one or both groups are to be found amongst the covenants' peasants and other covenfolk. It looks like the new pope will get serious in eliminating these heresies.
Monastery (Surroundings) - the abbey of St Guilhem-le-Desert lies just to the south of the covenant. It is wealthy, and grows in size and splendour every year, supported by the many pilgrims who travel to it. Hermitages have begun to appear on the fringes of what was once covenant lands. Its growing strength and that of the Dominion aura that surrounds it is a concern, but friends may be found amongst the monks as well as enemies.

Overview of covenant
Nou Garita is located in a secluded location in an extensive magical aura in woodland on the southern edge of the Cevennes mountains. It lies close to the Herault river, about 30 miles from the city of Montpellier and the Mediterranean Sea. The original covenant on the site was called 'Pedra Garita' - the stone gatehouse. Dominated by Diedne magi, it was destroyed in the Schism War. The covenant was refounded in 1018AD by two surviving (non-Diedne) members under the new name of Collegium Philosophi Elementari (the college of elemental philosophers), but the covenant is better known by the name given to the new building complex: 'Nou Garita' (new gatehouse).

Today, the covenant is very depleted of magi. The group of magi who have been running the covenant for the past half a century are dying off or otherwise coming to the end of their careers. One (Jacme) passed into Final Twilight in 1204. Another (Esterelle) disappeared in October 1204, and it is not known whether she lives or dies. Excepting the PCs, only two old magi remain at the covenant, both very eccentric and unreliable.

The covenant was not completely unprepared for this day. Apprentices were taken on, and some have now passed their gauntlet and have become magi and full members of the covenant. These are the new PC magi. It is up to them and any new members they bring in to turn the covenant around.

As of today, the college is in some disarray. The building is neglected and many rooms have been abandoned. Most of the underground area is no longer used. Some rooms and doors underground are marked with magical seals which promise doom to whoever breaks them - the magi that remain are no help explaining why they are there.

The Collegium Philosophi Elementari had a chapter house in the nearby city of Montpellier, in the centre of the city near the schools. It used to contain a good library, accommodation and studies for a dozen or more magi and friends, servants quarters, kitchens and even a small stable. Neglected for many years, this has now been turned into an inn.

Traditionally the college has permitted some non-magi to become associate members - commonly alchemists or natural magicians. These would often get no further than the chapter house in Montpellier, but some would get as far as the main covenant site and might stay there for a long period of time. Occasionally senior employees of the covenant, such as the Vilicus (or steward) would become associate members.

A stonemasons guild, based in Beziers, has had a long association with the covenant, and provides the covenant with a source of income. The guildhouse at Beziers consists of a large workshop and living quarters for the master mason plus journeymen and apprentices. The partnership between guild and covenant has lasted now for three centuries, since the days of Pedra Garita.

Do any of your PCs have goals that either could benefit from the other PCs' intervention, or cross the other PCs' interests?

In an upcoming saga, I'm just a player, but I've got a plan from Day 1 to have my maga (politely) stick her hands in everyone's interests and help them solve their problems, because she has a Story Flaw that she expects to require the assistance of multiple magi and a lot of potentially Code-breaking interference, and so she wants to collect as many markers as she can get. I expect that that will help weave a few bonds with the group.

Well, there is the Net Wizard's Grimoire
It has spells, and a few magic items too here:
It doesn't really contain many characters.
I think Project Redcap would actually be a good place for such fan-created material, but people don't seem to put their stuff there.

Thanks so much for pointing this out to me - I had no idea it existed. And while I have read your posts on this forum before I am afraid I ignored your footer (sorry!). This is a very useful resource for me, and my players are already thinking about employing some spells listed.


Tangential to the point however - the reason PRC and NG are not ideal for me is that (a) I would prefer to keep control of my content in some form, (b) control of feedback and comments , and (c) time required to post to two or three places. I'm more than happy for the stuff I blog to be used and abused by people, but I am wary after many repeated negative experiences within rpg communities.
That said I love NG and PRC, great sites.