New GM - Trying to figure out how the game actually feels to play

I've read the majority of the 5e core rulebook, and a few random areas of Grogs, Covenants, HoH:TL.

I think I get a general idea of the game: Troupe style game where wizards are incentivized to tinker in their towers while companions and Grog's take care of the world around them. When necessary the wizards may leave their towers for a time but eventually return, and the group as a whole builds and improves a covenant. Various story events will sort of popup and revolve around the covenant and the area that it is in.

Obviously, games could be played other ways, but that seems to be the "default" way the book suggests.

But is that actually fun? Where does the system shine the most?

Is it actually fun to tinker in the laboratory? Do the rules make it more fun or do you find yourself more often hand waving that stuff?

Do most players actually enjoy the troupe style play or in practice do most people prefer to just play as their wizards?

Do people feel limited by the saga being somewhat attached to the covenant? How common is travel, in general?

How does combat feel? As written it seems very basic, relatively quick, and that whomever lands the first blown often ends up winning due to the fatigue and wound system. But how does it actually play out, is combat fun? How does combat feel as a Grog vs. how it plays as a Magi?

How do you handle combat where no one dies? My understanding is you can only die during recovery? How about bad guys? Do you make them all run away and then die from injuries?

How much work does your group tend to do outside of the active sessions that you play?

Does the game play slow? Is there a lot of calculating and rules that get in the way of what's happening in the moment. Like during a dramatic moment, in the midst of combat, or after a spell fails spectacularly.

In general, what are the system's strengths? (I know people have their own tastes, just looking for a general consensus of what "most" people seem to enjoy.)
Where does the system tend to fall apart?

Thank you everyone! The book feels very formulaic and has a lot going on so it's hard to get a "feel" for the game and I'm just looking for people's opinions on how the game plays out in real time on something like Discord & Foundry.

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Being able to customize spells and magical items is the number 1 reason to play Ars Magicka for me and most people, and the lab experience is a great part of that for me.

My games have tended towards mostly playing the wizards, but we've tried some troupe work as well. Different players react differently. That being said, an all wizards party can become very disfunctional without companions sometimes, especially with storylines involving mundanes.

I'm from those players who enjoy having a covenant. Frankly, I've gotten partly tired of the old adventurer routine, never settling down.

That's incorrect. I agree that it's rare to be slain in a single blow (but double 1s followed by a 5+ happens!), but even in a grudge match, wound penalties stack as a penalty to your defense total, which means that as you get more wounded than your opponent, you gradually increase your chance of the next blow being the killing blow. Combat can actually be very deadly once there are a few wounds in.

That varies by players and from ground to group. I personally prefer to tinker some lab projects between sessions, but some players can't look up the rulebook between games, and so it happens arround the table. Depends.

I use a spreadsheet that auto-calculates my lab and spellcasting totals, so it gets pretty quick. But speed depends on how well you know what you can do. It improves with game knowledge, especially for things like spontaneous casting. Formulaic is easy.

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Very much agree with temprobe. A few additional points:

The opposite, it's nice to have somewhere to return to.
Travel is still pretty common in my games, but that depends on how you want to run things. If your saga is centered on the politics of a covenant inside a city there will be less travel.
My table has a couple of characters interested in exploring, or who need to constantly travel between a few places, so there's that.

A magi will only be wounded if there is no grog to take the blow for him. Sometimes that will happen. But usually you are protected, raining death from distance. Combat w/o magic always feels more high stakes for me.

Things change if the combat is between magi. Then it's also high stakes.

Mine usually flee or negotiate after a couple of wounds (earlier if they are badly wounded). They don't want to die! If they manage to flee with only light wounds they usually recover. The brave, the fools and the dutybound are the ones who (sometimes) fight to the death.

Usually I don't feel the calculations getting in the way of the narrative.

The best part for me is the way you slowly learn and grow over time. Tinkering with new spells and items is also a lot of fun.

To me, historic accuracy. I like to play on medieval Europe, but this means that I always spend a lot more time on prep than I would if I was planning for, say, a DnD game. Double-checking the name of ruler A, reading the Wikipedia entry of city B, surveying an area on Google Earth just to get a feel of the landscape, looking again how common religious rite C was...

I do handwave a lot of things... but sometimes I just go down the rabbit hole.

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Others have answered at length, and I won't try to answer everything, but I want to emphasise just one perspective, one approach, that draws me to Ars Magica.

A lot of players enjoy the lab work. To some it seems that actual roleplay is less important than designing magnificent effects which are developed over decades in the lab. And to be fair, this part of the system works very well, with little need to handwave anything at all. It is complicated, but not too complicated for downtime calculation.

That is not why I think Ars Magica is a great game, though. The long-term play not only allows for mechanical improvement but also social improvements. Friendships and rivalry are also developed over years, and keeping the fixed base at the covenant means that neighbours matter a lot.

For previous editions, there are a lot of published campaigns that are based around travel. These are major quests, and they are plausible enough. Just imagine a crusader or a wizard wanting to harvest basilisk venom or whatever. You don't find that next door.

But there is a big difference between how I play Ars Magica and how I want to play Ars Magica. I think grogs have to be played to make a plausible story of adventures. Wizards do not have a complete skill sets. I have seen a few players play grogs entertainingly well, even on a regular basis, but many ignore them to focus on their magi. I also find it extremely hard to weave good stories around political intrigue, and develop the ambiguity of human relations. I do not want to play the church/the dragon/the next covenant as either an ally or an enemy. There are some of those, but most are just independent agents with their own interests that sometimes coincide with yours and sometimes clash. Trust may evolve over time, and exploring this would be interesting. To the extent that we have managed to do this in game, it has been naive and superficial.

But all of this depends on roleplaying ability and co-operative spirit within the troupe.

At the end of the day, Ars Magica is complex enough that each group can find different styles and features to enjoy.

Most of the system breaks down if you take it too literally, and want to play a mechanical game. Nothing breaks down if you are happy hand-waving a bit.

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Yes very, but the people on this forum are self selected based on our answer to this question.

mechanically: the magic system is for me the mechanic high point along with the XP-gain system
non-mechanically: I really like the setting

Yes, because that's how you not only get spells and magic items. Staying at home and reading a book is also, incidentally, often a good XP source

The game is rule heavy and we do sometimes house rule some stuff. Certamen for example: our group found it absolutely bloated and a heavy mechanical burden with plenty of dice rolls for not so much plot gain, while everyone else is just there waiting. So we simplified it to a single Art+Art+situational modifiers roll.

From my experience, people prefer playing their wizards, but it depends, it might not be 100%, and sometimes adventures call for specific non wizard skill sets and they'll play the grog instead.

I find that it adds, since the area ends up being fleshed out rather than generic forest ambush on the way to dungeon nr3. The game gains a lot by focussing on the interactions of the Covenant with other social units around (church, lords, towns, villages...)

Fairly common in my experience. Within a few years of starting the game, the party could have a flying longship (from personnal experience) and then have the ability to travel far and wide. Even without one, visiting other Covenants, Tribunals, house meetings, Gild meetings etc will get the mages out. But this is also something that will be individual to each saga. I prefer political, and that means going around and doing stuff with people.

Combat is the weakest part of the game, IMHO. It 's kind of clunky, can turn into a slog fest as people are slowly pushed down the death spiral. To accelerate it, in my groups we house-ruled that once someone reaches a total of -6 from Wound/fatigue, they go down and are out of the fight. This makes combat faster, and encourages people (skeletons or other not so sapient things less so) to run away even after a relatively minor amount of damage. It also means that people are less likely to die, unless they take a really unlucky blow, or if those left standing chose to attack the ones on the ground (which has a pretty visceral feel).

it depends on the foe. Something like a demon might have high magic resistence so putting a halberd in its face might be the fastest way to banish it. Some of the two handed weapons or the longbow do very nasty damage which is absolutely on par with mages at the start of the game. A mage might have an insta-kill spell (incantation of lightning, ball of abysmal flame each at +30) but due to being hard spells, they'll have poor PEN at the start so it will work great against mundanes but poorly against a supernatural being.
Grogs might not even be good in combat, so a brawl between drunks could just erupt after a critically failed carouse roll...

How do you handle combat where no one dies? My understanding is you can only die during recovery? How about bad guys? Do you make them all run away and then die from injuries?

Same as any other combat. As answered above, we house ruled that people go down at -6, so anyone who ran away can try to lick their wounds in their corner, people left on the floor are at the mercy of the victors. Since it's a very religious period, killing them outright on the floor is something that religious characters will have to repent for, and they would need to make penance through confession, which the local priest might use to get his church bling'd up.

Boring bad guys might just get their throat slit and tossed unceremoniously into the Rhine. A more important person might be ransomed. Someone with useful skills might be recruited...

Depends on groups. When I ran a saga, they didn't do so much. The more experienced players designed the spells and items in advance, knowing what they would want. One of them modelled the Covenant in Tabletop Simulator, which as cool. In another campaign I and sometimes another player would write an IC journal for our Covenant, summarising the adventures that we'd had in the past seasons. It's really a your saga may vary kind of thing. If the Story teller and the players have a lot of time, IC letters can be sent between sessions, for example.

Not really if you have a good spreadsheet. My friend made a really good one in googledocs and it calculates everything for you, with a bit of practice (adding the last few points to lab totals regarding similar spells and shape/material bonus) it goes very fast as everything is pre-calculated.

In my view:

  1. the magic system is great, super customisable.

  2. The Xp system encourages reading and taking downtime in general, not just being murder hobos a la DnD.

  3. I really like the setting of medieval Europe with a twist, the covenant base encourages more RP and interaction with the world than just constantly moving on, a well defined region rather than a big ger more superficial world.

We played one saga on Discord, and the different channels within the same group chat lend themselves very well to the game. One with the links to all the grogs, one with a lot of setting info, a list of the noble houses in the region, IC correspondence etc The game does call for a lot of note keeping and tracking a lot of moving pieces, but I also thing that this equilibria is what makes the game great. It has a very strong sandbox streak, meaning that there is a lot up front to prep regarding the world , and it is very front loaded for the players, but once it gets going I think that it's really great. Not so much for a one off (which is just good to get to grips with the system) but for longer sagas when the consequences of their actions bear fruit.

Edit: I was a new GM too once, and even though I'd played the game, I still felt a little unprepared to run. I found that there was a lack of ressources to help a new ST plan an adventure or what to do. So I cleaned up, wrote up and posted on this forum many of my prep notes (you can find the topics here, if it helps).

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IMO, this is a big plus of Ars Magica.

In other games, after a while, your characters accrue wealth, items or whatever. It makes no sense to have them carry it all. The covenant is here for that.

And what do you do with all this wealth (mundane or mystical)? The covenant is here for that.

It makes sense that your magi would have a huge library. The covenant is here for that.

It also helps to develop a sense of place and history. It's not "Go somewhere, kill something, rinse and repeat". You've got neighbours, they've got friends, how do you deal with it? You were friends with the old baron, but his son hates your guts. You don't really have these with other games.

It is also a home, which is important to character development.

In other games, I always tended to take some time to design the characters base of operation. The covenant makes this real, puts number and descriptions on it, lets you invest in it.

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I am going to limit my comment mostly to troupe style play and playing non-Magi.

All of the groups I have played with have been medium to large size (5 to 9 people), with multiple people in each group having experience running an RPG even if it was not AM. This means we h ave always had multiple people who knew how to setup and run a game, even if they were new to the AM rules. This gave us the ability to have other people run sessions easily, even though we do actually have a primary SG.

The biggest advantage we have found from troupe style play is that it helps the primary SG avoid burning out. People will write stories about something they are interested in which is often something totally different from what the primary SG is focused on. These stories are where we most often play non-Magi characters. We get to play non-important characters (who we generally will not feel bad if they die) in a known setting which can still contribute to increasing the power of the Covenant.

Generally we will all contribute ideas of things we would like to play outside the current focus of the game in to a pool. A trading sea cruse, exploring ruins for forgotten magic, Tribunal politics, and so forth. This gives a ready pool of ideas for others to build a game around and run.

One thing we have found is that as the Magi get older and more powerful, they tend to spend much longer periods of time in their labs. Creating epic spells, umber enchanted items, and original research all can take a long time. Plus older Magi are often reaching a power level where it gets really hard to challenge them in task which they can use magic to solve. To avoid having to constantly create world dooming enemies we tend to limit much of their "in play" activity to things which are not easily solvable with magic. They go out and deal with other Magi (visiting Covenants, Tribunal meetings, etc) or to locations hunting for bits and pieces they need for their research. They get involved in building some magic mega project.

That is not to say our Magi never cut loose. When the pirates of the Med were getting a little to big for their own good we had a series of games where we tracked them down and exterminated them with extreme prejudice. When elder Magi cut loose even non-combat focused ones can do a heck of a lot of destruction and death.

In short, troupe style play is a way to give the primary SG a break, letting them play rather than run, and experience more of what the world offers while still contributing to a long running saga.

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Depends on the player. The majority of people I play with love to tinker in the lab and create wonderful spells or items. Those who don't find themselves on adventure, get annoyed by a situation and then design spells to cope with more situations or make an item to do their favourite combat spell with maximum penetration, so they can do more on the adventures they love.

Do most players actually enjoy the troupe style play or in practice do most people prefer to just play as their wizards?
Depends on the group. We tend to alternate quite well and have a couple of wizards, a couple of companions and a grog most adventures. When people design their companions with love, the companions are played at least as much as the magi.

Do people feel limited by the saga being somewhat attached to the covenant? How common is travel, in general?
Not in the slightest. Being in one location encourages you to find out about the real-world history of that place and think about who the neighbours are, and we have had a lot of gameplay out of dealing with local lords and clergy and local folklore. As for travel, as magi get more powerful travel becomes more common - the longest saga I ever played in we commissioned a flying boat so we could take groups across the world, the Bjornaer saga set in the Aegean we took fishing boats around the islands, my latest saga all the magi have learned enough Rego and Corpus to learn Leap of Homecoming 25 years in so we now routinely teleport every time we get an invitation somewhere and the Corpus specialist (focus: Men) offers to teleport any male companions or grogs who are willing to risk the warping.

How does combat feel? As written it seems very basic, relatively quick, and that whomever lands the first blown often ends up winning due to the fatigue and wound system. But how does it actually play out, is combat fun? How does combat feel as a Grog vs. how it plays as a Magi?
Combat is not undertaken lightly except by the Flambeau combat specialist, everyone else tries to avoid fights or get defensive spells up first. We routinely have grogs or companions brutally injured, and I would have died early on if I hadn't cast Wizard's sidestep.

How do you handle combat where no one dies? My understanding is you can only die during recovery? How about bad guys? Do you make them all run away and then die from injuries?
You can die from overwhelming rolls, or from slowly accumulating so many penalties that other's attacks do more and more damage. We sometimes have vicious fights where we lose grogs because one of our storyguides has deliberately put a killer fight in. Another of our storytellers specialises in social embarrassment, so the combination of a quaesitor visiting at the same time the local monks have come to squabble over something causes just as much difficulty.

How much work does your group tend to do outside of the active sessions that you play?
Depends a lot on the player - some like to plan what they're doing years in advance, some do very little.

Does the game play slow? Is there a lot of calculating and rules that get in the way of what's happening in the moment. Like during a dramatic moment, in the midst of combat, or after a spell fails spectacularly.
The more you play, the quicker it gets. Also it helps if you know people specialise in certain rules and go "Oh wait - it's a divine effect - darkwing, can you remember the rules on this?"

In general, what are the system's strengths? (I know people have their own tastes, just looking for a general consensus of what "most" people seem to enjoy.)
The system's strengths are in allowing flexible magic and in allowing a huge variety of character types to exist. The setting allows for a huge range of mystical and historical things to interact.

Where does the system tend to fall apart?
When people have been really creative and their spell idea causes you to wonder how it interacts with other spells, or with the world around it. Alternatively, if someone has designed a character with a very narrow focus and misunderstood how it will play out it game - then you get frustrated players, and need to take time sorting things out.

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You're gonna get a lot of good answers, and I see a lot here. And I'm on an internet forum so obviously I have to add in my two pence. (I'll try to focus on interesting/new statements)

I think the system shines the most in how many different ways people can succeed. Though the system is heavily biased towards depth in the magic system, it is a complex and deep magic system... But really I like how when given a (noncombat) problem, people can solve it in SO many different ways.
And, of course, it shines brightly if you want to have a game where your wizards sit in a tower gathering magical power.

MOSTLY people want ot play the wizard. Maybe their companion (one player in my group mostly forgets his 'social' wizard to play his redcap companion.) Grogs get horribly ignored - everyone likes having the grogs around as characters to pick up and play but mostly people seem to like OTHER people playing them. Sometimes players would rather listen and enjoy than actually play a grog in an adventure.. which saddens me. It can be hard to get players invested in grogs.

The system feels weird IMO when you have both magi and grogs involved at once. Oftentimes I find 'default' combat to become Monster vs Grogs while magi cast spells to change things - The grogs focus on keeping the magi safe.

Most of my group does almost nothing outside of active sessions - though in forum-based and online-based I've seen people do more.

You know what I love doing with Ars Magica? I love letting the players just... succeed. They're gonna make up random things, have brilliant ideas, slightly misunderstand or misremember rules, and just Magic Wizard Cheat an answer to problems. And then I let them win, and the story becomes 'what is the fallout for these decisions?'.
And that's why we had a Faerie clone of Lucien the Scholar who got used as a patsy for infernal corruption; Why Athens got freed from Latin invaders and put under control of a the Goddess Athena herself; Why all the children on our island are taught Latin by the ancient talking goat....

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You are me last year when I started running Ars for my longstanding gaming group on foundry + discord. Questions have been answered solidly so I'll do some waffling about how my game so far has been structured and how sessions actually play.

Ars' seasonal nature and the troupe system mesh extremely well. Wizards need to do x thing, and in order to do that they need to spend a certain amount of time studying or making spells in the lab. But wizards also need to leave the lab to pursue their own goals or duties. In non troupe systems, personal quests usually involve the whole party, but in Ars there's a solid reason to take out a companion or grog instead. Most adventures will have a stage of 'ok who is going?' where the players will consider the adventure, the motivations and skills of their companions, then if any particular grogs would be useful.

It's much more flexible in allowing wizard/companion level characters to go pursue their personal goals whilst still having in character stuff to do with the rest of the group, and not monopolising the entire group's in character time because they want to do a thing. In my campaign at the moment set in the Rhine, one wizard is in Norway learning stuff from a crusty hedge mage, and the other has taken 2 companions and 2 grogs off to the wilderness of Russia for 9 months because she caught a sniff of a potential dragon familiar and exercised "i am the mage, we go east. no time to waste!" authority. Everything is neat and tidy because time is so well tracked in Ars because it matters, and people have characters to play at home and away.

Most of my players probably do enjoy playing their wizards or companions more, but all of them will happily play grogs. If there is no suitable grog (can always make one), the nature of grogs being shared characters also makes it much easier to plonk an NPC for someone to play in an adventure; a guide, contact, friend of a character etc who then has plot tie ins to the adventure at hand. In the same campaign, some companions and grogs were sent to France in order to prove the lineage of someone there, and a priest was sent to witness. The priest largely shared the agenda of the party, but there was some comedy when the calendar showed it was a full moon when they were on the boat, and one of the companions is a lycanthrope. Cue comedy attempts to conceal the massive bear on the boat from the priest by keeping guard, distracting the priest from the loud bear noises, and feeding it fish into the hold to keep it passive. All players had fun, and it felt less of a stretch to have someone playing an NPC when they'd be playing a grog anyway, rather than 'one of the PCs' in a traditional game. That priest is now a local character (big benefit of static covenant) with whom they've had direct experience and who may make another appearance in the years to come.

Ok enough waffling. From what I've experienced so far, actual sessions divide into 2.5 loose types:

Bog standard rpg session: The characters are in a place doing a thing. Depending on the stage of the adventure, this can last for the whole session. Standard in a town/woods/wherever talking to people, investigating things, breaking into places, and doing general PC shenanigans. Like every other RPG.

Spaced standard rpg session: Due to the long term nature of Ars, some sessions will be spaced over a longer period of time and the roleplay content will cover multiple different subjects. You'll roleplay out a council meeting in Winter, where arrangements will be made for magi to perform duties, ask for vis for Stuff (charter dependent), who is travelling to harvest the creo tree for vis this year (spicier if x vis is more than 10 days away and will impact laboratory activity), and which unlucky mage is considered the least offensive and will be sent to meet the Bishop this Spring. After the council meeting we might skip forward a season and roleplay out a scene where we meet the local bishop in Spring who got wind of the covenant and wants to see what we're about, in Summer someone needs to go meet the order member we're sharing an unclaimed vis site with in exchange for loans from his library, for a chat and a book exchange, and at the end of Summer one of the wizards sets off with assorted grogs and companions on a personal quest which we spend the next 2 sessions on in 'normal rpg mode'.

Prior to this session I'd have told the players 'hey we're probably going pretty quick until the end of Summer, so make sure you know all your characters' seasonal activities up until then so your XP/spells are squared away when we get into the adventure.'

Progress for the progress god: Very similar to #2 but with minimal events in between. You'd maybe have the equivalent of talking to the book exchange guy, but then blaze through a good chunk of time until the next event/'normal adventure'. Could be an idea to do small 'slice of life' vignettes each season or two with stuff in the covenant, just to highlight the passage of time within the covenant and seed future adventures 'little timmy has gotten lost, so the merinita mage needs to intensly grumble whilst casting his bloodline find descendants spell. june and bob, I didn't even know you had kids, how long as it been?'

Because time = xp gains, I find my players are pretty happy if I go 'ok, everyone good for about a year's worth of timeskip till the next big thing?' since they get a big chunk of time for their mages to work on projects.

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Everyone, I just want to say thank you for all your replies. I won't respond to each one individually but this has been immensely helpful in addressing some of my concerns that I had and also in fleshing out a lot of areas that I wasn't quite sure how they would run "in play".

So thank you again, I've started building my Foundry server as we speak and hopefully begin player recruitment soon. Thank you again everyone for your helpful and extremely detailed replies.

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What I'm about to say is not necessarily the system (and the world it is set in) falling apart, but it's something to be aware of.

You don't have the classic cartoon villain. Many RPGs have undead, orcs, drow, a culture so villainous they slave traffic halflings. While an RPG group may be murder hobos, if they are murdering obviously bad things, all good. They can own the moral high ground. Still be heroes. It's that meme "It's always OK to punch a nazi."

In Ars Majica, the bandits, why are they bandits. How did society fail them? They aren't necessarily bad, and in fact they might be essentially good people who are desperate.
A lord may well have valid reason for his grievances with the magi and the covenant.

While in other RPGS Demons and Devils are by definition servants of evil gods, even using infernal in Ars, generally it's a slow burn. Subtle, offering compromise deals where the advantage seems worth it. There's no red horned monster holding a flaming pitchfork.

To some degree this is a strength, especially if you want to do a morality play in a RPG setting. Having a party of murder hobos is hard to fit in Ars.

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The hard part IMHO is to want to play that murder game, but it has already be proven beyond doubt that my opinion is less than universal.

I played for half a year with a player who was a brilliant roleplayer; I have never seen a more lively and convincing portrayal of a shield grog. There was depth and ambiguity in his relationship to the magus too. He would not OTOH ever play the Church as anything less than the Big Bad.

If you enjoy cartoon villains, I do not think it is that hard or even that wrong to fit them into Mythic Europe. Whether you will still enjoy it in the long run, over the decades that a saga is supposed to last, is really up to you.

Canon [RoP:I] makes a point of elaborating both demons as deceivers and corrupters, and demons as destructors. The deceivers and currupters are subtle and - well deceptive - they offer something that the human individual actually wants, and all they want in return is something intangible that they cannot even see or feel, that is their soul. That's the game of ambiguities which I value in Ars Magica for decades. However, the destructive demons are there too, so if you want a cartoon villain, they could serve the role.

And we have to admit that life is too short to tell every story that could fit into the Ars Magica setting, and each of us should strive to tell the ones we enjoy the most. Cartoon villain stories are there for the telling for those who like them.

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