Mystery Cults and Game Balnace

The concept of mystery cults has evolved over the last two editions. Mystery Cults started out as secretive organizations that allowed a magus to initiate a limited set of virtues relating to historical hermetic/gnostic spiritualism. Most magi in the order didn't even know this was possible. Now we have four houses that are openly acknowledged as mystery cults, several more houses implied to have one or several mystery traditions as an important part of its membership, and several Mercurian splinter groups fighting over anyone who is willing to lose most of their spontaneous magic by initiated the Mercurian Magic virtue. In addition, the list of virtues is no longer constrained.

The question is how to build a balanced cult with the appropriate number of mystical speed bump virtues while still being the invention of an organization of highly intelligent wizards.

There are a number of virtues that are very powerful. On top of my head: Mythic Blood, Flawless Magic, Flexible Formulaic Magic, Strong Faerie Sympathy (+3 to multiple skills, attunement to faerie auras, and the ability to scale up, with appropriate warping, into a mini-exalt), perhaps Major Magic Focus (though most characters already have a focus)and the Gentle Gift. Ability to initiate the last (which I would not allow) would make the cult into a very popular organization within the order). Magi are likely to want to stack powerful virtues together earlier in an initiation cycle to 1. gain maximum benefit from ordeals and 2. insure that the initiate survives to later initiations. I mean, to be utterly horrific from a game balance perspective (and capitalize on the ability to do an ordeal for one initiation and follow it almost immediately by another initiation) I can see both of these cults going around house Flambeau:

Cult of Adventure
Outer Virtue: Unaging (a virtue that benefits the cult more the earlier it is taught)
1st Initiation: Minor Flaw: Heroic Blood (Brave +5, also gives the benefits of self-confidence, character occasional does things without knowing the reason why), Major Virtue Charmed Life (luck + spend a confidence point to escape a botch).
2nd Initiation: Second Sight (Pulling off the bonus from the last initiation) or intuition
3rd & 4th Initiation: Major Flaw: Oath of Fealty to the Black (see BS&S or LotN), Major Virtues The Gentle Gift & Flexible Formulaic Magic (at the same time!) (or Major Magical Focus, The Black). (Both initiated at the same time).
5th & 6th Initiation: Improved Characteristic (Presence) or Great Characteristic (Presence) & Puissant Cult of Adventure Lore (Again both at the same time)
7th Initiation: Transformed Human (Possibly a horrible fate for a Christian magus)

That's probably horrifically abusive but now that I see it wow could it be fun to play.

The Way of the Perfected Spell.
Outer Virtue: Method Caster, or Cautious Sorcerer or Fast Caster or Life Boost (secret techniques to better shaping your magic)(Note multiple options because many initiates already have one or more of these virtues).
1st Initiation: Major Flaw: Necessary Condition (gestures taught by the cult), Major Virtue: Flawless Magic
2nd Initiation: Major Virtue: Flexible Magic
3rd Initiation: Method Caster, or Cautious Sorcerer or Fast Caster or Life Boost
4th Initiation: Method Caster, or Cautious Sorcerer or Fast Caster or Life Boost
5th & 6th Initiations: Minor Flow Vow to Teach Cult Lore, Minor Virtues Improved Characteristic (Presence) or Great Characteristic (Presence) & Puissant Way of the Perfected Spell Lore
7th Initiation Booster Magic (go give this one a hard look, including where it can boost damaging spells to group or above).

For added cheese figure out some way to work Affinity with Parma Magica into a martial art that turns on mastering arcane gestures.

And perhaps the most broken thing I can come up with using multiple initiations at once a mystagugue with +10:

The True Children of Bonisagus
Outer Virtue: Book Learner or Study Bonus
1st, 2nd & 3rd Initiations: Weak Characteristics (split among Str, Sta and Per at SGs discretion), Any three virtues chosen from Improved Characteristic (Communication), Great Characteristic (Communication) and Good Teacher.
4th, 5th and 6th Initiations: Flaw Meddler. Major Faerie Sympathy (Scholar), Secondary Insight and Improved or Great Characteristic (Communication).
7th Initiation: Puissant Intrigue
8th & 9th Initiations: Minor Flow Vow to Teach Cult Lore, Minor Virtues Improved Characteristic (Presence) or Great Characteristic (Presence) & Puissant Cult Lore
10th Initiation: Diedne Magic (Yes the entire thing has been a Diedne trap).
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The two important things to remember about home-brew Mystery Cults are:

(1) Every newly invented Initiation Script needs to pass the scrutiny of the SG in charge, whom also importunate 'rawyers' cannot silence:

(2) The resulting Mystery Cult is then specific to its saga, and need not exist in others.

So a troupe can customize their saga with the Mystery Cults they like, but later need not complain.


Better not tell the Criamon that. They do it just by walking backwards a bit. :laughing:

That aside, "game balance" with homebrew material or Breakthroughs is missing the point, to an extent. Whether a particular mystery or breakthrough is saga-breaking depends on what kind of stories you want to tell. For example, integrating Hyperborean Hymns allows ritual casting without vis (including permanent Creo), which defenestrates the existing magical economy of the setting - but Hyperborean Hymns can only be discovered in the first place if the troupe wants to go there.

So yeah, mysteries can be exactly as powerful as your SG allows, but even more than usual, they're subject to troupe approval.

Also while some Houses are known to horde specific magical knowledge, it is not necessarily known as a Cult, or that the initiations serve anything other than a social function. Most intelligent & experienced magi probberly suspect even if they haven't been exposed to the evidence but an open secret is still a secret.

Take House Guernicus; it holds the secrets of Quaesitorial Magic and the Fenicil Rituals from the Order at large, sharing this magic only with those who have proven trustworthy...That sounds like a Mystery Cult, but it is not. From an in-universe perspective, it is harder to tell the two apart unless you are directly involved.

As has been stated, creating a Mystery cult with its own sequence of Initiations from scratch can be a lot of work, with a lot of uncertainty. Sure, in the end the mystagogue may have some powerful Virtues, but:

  1. he'll probably have a bunch of new Flaws too, some of them completely outside the character's control and
  2. will have spent an horrific amount of time (and quite a bit of experience) that could have been spent on projects achievable through Hermetic Magic alone.
    Now, once the path has been forged, it can be much more "worthwhile" for those who come later to follow. But whether a given Cult with a given sequence of Initiations exists in a saga is a troupe decision (analogous to choosing whether a saga is vis rich or vis poor); and note that if does exist, and following it yields a "value" X (typically in terms of Virtues, but also of authority etc.) which greatly outstrips the cost Y (in terms of Flaws, risks, time, vis etc.) then it's quite likely that the Cult leaders will attempt to extract as much of the difference X-Y as possible from new Initiates.

Inventing a mystery cult is seldom worth the effort for the creator, as the development of Mystery Cult Lore is a very slow process and the creation of initiation scripts for virtues you do not have is prohibitively difficult and risky. Magi go through great effort to discover old scripts because of this.

From a pure power perspective (thus game balance), a magi will almost always be better off developing vanilla hermetic magic, unless they have no useful virtues of their own - and from a 'game balance' perspective that would be the player's fault - and problem, as they will not gain that power quickly or easily.

Even pursuing the path of an existing mystery cult can be a sub-optimal approach in terms of raw power. Cults make demands of the magi's time and resources that could be spent on study or creation of personal resources. And this investment will likely be proportional to the usefulness of the virtue; how many years of service are you willing to sacrifice for Gentle Gift or Flawless Magic? The cult will make that price as high as the market will allow unless you having that virtue fits with their own goals (in which case, you pay later).

One exception to this- though rare. If a maga has discovered fertility magic it may be worth creating a mystery cult to enhance their child's opportunities... it is a far more efficient way of passing down advantages than teaching.

By this I gather you mean create children with virtues so they can easily create Mystery Cult initiations for the virtues they have. It's a clever work-around but requires quite the lead time.

Conversely, creating a mystery cult may be beneficial if you want to have secrets for sale, or better yet, a way to keep your apprentices and minions on a leash for a few decades and provide you with more power. For example, if you want to use the Ascendancy to the Hall of Heroes Virtue, you need to have a cult that can transform you and then Invoke you, and preferably someone or someones with Theurgic Spirit Familiar to marry your Aspect(s). So even if all of your theurgy came from the Magic Realm, you'd better have a program for teaching the kiddies and keeping you supplied with sweet, sweet Daimon Points (which cost vis).

On the other hand, if you're a Daimon, a Grant Power ability might be more useful than a cult initiation. Do daimonic magi have any reason to create a Cult as opposed to giving their Aspects Grant Power?

Actually my thought is you create children with virtues you don't have, then create a mystery cult to pass on the virtues you do.
Then the next generation can add a new set of virtues, and on and on...

I would think daimons would want a cult that would initiate in the abilities to summon (and thus empower) daimons...
also keep in mind that granting powers costs might, though how exactly this works with daimonic aspects is... unclear.

It looks to me that it's perfectly okay for an aspect to permagrant power and then be allowed to die - though one might consider that unbalanced. (Game balance? In my Ars Magica?)

I think mystery cults are also a bit self-limiting, in that you can only accept so many flaws as ordeals before they become so unwieldy and troublesome that the benefits cannot be properly employed (as with twilight ridden magi). A lot of the major flaws (especially the hermetic ones) are pretty serious business. This depends on how good your mystagogue is, of course.


Since mystery scripts require approval more than most things, mustering totals to create optimized cults and scripts is as limited as you want it to be.

I don't think having a script total is sufficient, any more than the ability to reach a Breakthrough implies that the Breakthrough really happen or can happen.

As for Aspects and granting permanent powers... yes, that can happen. But it is possible to do the same thing with a few pawns of vis and/or Confidence, without an Aspect. RoP:M allows many, many powers to be expressed that do not belong in most sagas. A daimon with Grant Power and a cult is better off than a daimon with just one.

Creating a Cult of your own does not directly grant you power... but works great if your script has requirements like "Sacrifice 50 pawns of vis to the Founder," or "Slay someone of the Founder's choosing," or "Find an apprentice and raise him to be a magus who is a fanatical follower of the cult..."

(Hermetic Breakthroughs also tend to do more for everyone else than for the inventor.)

None of the AM freeform rules are balanced. Not spell design, not virtues/flaws, not powers, not initiation script design, not labs, not hooks/boons, nothing. Oh GM, keep your thumb firmly on the scale...



Grant power, mystery cult, and presence. Then when the aspect dies there is a residual aura...
... which dovetails nicely with a lot of the sacrificed god mysteries, such as Dionysus...

Rinse and repeat for residual Aura everywhere. :slight_smile:

Or just summon an Aspect to live somewhere, creating a tether. (Or to just use Presence power.) Summon another Aspect tomorrow for another tether somewhere else. Keep going.....

Well in the case of one character I am thinking of 1096–1099 (the first Crusade). It strikes me as the best fit for a cult is one that asks for a price something the character might do anyway. Convincing a Flambeau to go on a Crusade, not that hard. Keep in mind a cult is, if limited to hermetic magi, probably at best ten or twenty members (1-2% of all hermetic magi). That somewhat cuts down on how high a price you can ask.

Best read HoH:TL p.51 Mundane Interference and HoH:S p.18f Crusaders with your troupe for this. A magus might be allowed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at any time. But if, without serious provocation, he actively takes sides in a major conflict between mundanes, this reeks of Mundane Interference. Depending on decisions of his Tribunal, he might be marched for it. Have your magus hash this out with his sodales in time.

Your troupe will decide about the existence of such a convenient cult.

Provided, that there is a - likely very secretive - cult asking magi to go on a crusade, what it may offer depends on the risks an applicant magus runs with his sodales at home as much as with enemy soldiers and sahirs (TC&tC p.19ff).

The ArM3(!) Iberian Tribunal sourcebook had the 'crusading' Shadow Flambeau participate at the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa 1212, and the tribunal take action against them in 1214. Such Shadow Flambeau are not part of ArM5, but your troupe might well decide to have some as a Mystery Cult before 1100.


EDIT: The logical Mystery Cult for Flambeau Hoplites and HoH:S p.15f Milites is the TMRE p.118ff Legion of Mithras. In some form it may have existed already before 1100.


Since we're off on that tangent....

If a Flambeau goes to Jerusalem to Crusade, and stays there, what Tribunal is going to bring him up on charges? Probably not his own, way back in Europe. Probably not the Levant Tribunal, if there is one in your saga, because they live and die right alongside the Crusaders. (I would expect the Peripheral Code of that Tribunal to rule that there is nothing mundane about a Crusade, that magi have a right to be religious, and so on.) Grand Tribunal? People have better things to do.



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That's again a troupe decision. After all, the last Tribunal book for the Area is ArM4(!). This book has a box (p.13) on magi participating on both sides in the very first Crusade, followed by general lawlessness and chaos in the Tribunal. It also has the Treaty of Baghdad since 1193 (box p.15), which forbids members of the Levant Tribunal to take part in the Crusades on either side.

For ArM5 we have TC&tC p.12ff Building Sagas, which provides options. But "they live and die right alongside the Crusaders" is not one listed for the Levant Tribunal.


Well I did say the First Crusade. That's over a hundred years before the start date of the game and Magi are said to have taken part in at as per ArM 4th Blood & Sand. Now personally, I think the order might have gotten a lot more serious about interference when they saw what happens when you put Magi with the gift in with a bunch of heavily armed mundanes. Given some of the pressures put on leaders to go on the early Crusades, I have to wonder if the Order didn't find itself in a situation where not having some magi join the cause would bring it into immediate conflict with Mundanes. By 1220 when the Crusader movement has become a many headed hydra with Crusades in Southern France, Iberia and parts of Eastern Europe into war zones, plus the sack of Constantinople. I can see the order deciding that crusaders are an affront to civilization itself and cracking down hard on magi who participate.

That said, a Crusading order with mystical secrets isn't exactly foreign to the source material. I think the issue with cults that seem too convenient is to ask how many magi would find them so. If a substantial part of one or more houses or tribunals would be interested then it might exist. Some form of martial art derived from the Flambaue fighting styles, sure. An Arthurian cult, sure. A cult for some magus's odd specialty, probably not.

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