New Sagas: preferences, pitfalls, and advice

There are tons of "I'm starting my first saga, please give me advice" threads but I am hoping this is not that. I'm more interested in having an open discussion of what different choices folks make, what their preferences are, what they see as issues with any particular choice in saga start and how some of those issues might be ameliorated.

The big question in my mind is how do you choose how to decide important questions such as "Which Tribunal?" or "Do we want a Spring, Summer, Autumn, or Winter Covenant?" or "what power level?" Do you prefer to gather the people and say "What do we want to play?" or do you prefer some initial situation, however vague, before gathering the people, ie "I plan to run a Rhine game we will be doing the Rhine start of going around and trying get the support to form a covenant?" Do you prefer troupe discussions or a more unilateral approach?

Related to that question is how do you like to get the characters on something of the same page? Do you think character restrictions are helpful or softer narrative limits such as "this is a mystery cult covenant so your character should want to join that cult, design your character accordingly." Or maybe no restrictions is best but then how do you help push folks to cover possible gaps in important abilities or wildly divergent character concepts or goals?

I'm sure there are many other questions, possible issues that come up, etc. and you should mention those thoughts here as well, long as they relate to starting sagas.

Anyway, just thought of this as something I'd like to discuss in a convention workshop but realized maybe it would be better on a forum.

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Ask your players?

Speaking of convention workshops, Image From The Wizard Torn is this weekend. Ask CJ if you can do a discord or zoom or something.

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Yes, their question of “What would you like to see in an online convention?” is what brought this thought up. Unfortunately I probably won’t be able to attend any slots.

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My method, and the advice I always give for anyone starting a new saga, is to talk everything through as a group and come to a consensus. In my opinion to get the most out of an Ars saga from the beginning it needs a lengthy session(s) zero where you collaboratively decide answers to all the questions, and ideally do character creation together so ideas can bounce back and forth.

"Just talk it out" is pretty simple advice, but the real trick (and what most people new to Ars will not have a good handle on) is what questions need to be answered. While the core rulebook and Covenants give plenty of material for saga creation, it's a lot to take in for a new player and some very important things are very easy to overlook.

But then again it's totally possible and valid to also do the opposite and have one Storyteller decide all that stuff, it's just a lot of work for them and they'll hit the same problem of needing to know what questions to answer. It depends on the style and dynamics of the group which will work best.

For brand new players a checklist or step-by-step saga creation guide would honestly be a great bit of supplementary material. Just a cheat sheet of things to consider when setting up a saga (with a line or two about why it's important). Like the "Sagas" chapter of the core rulebook but expanded out a bit. The content in it wouldn't be anything new, it's just a matter of having it in a clear order and accessible for people who haven't actually played the game yet. There are loads of things that become obvious a few years into play that are 100% not obvious before play has started...

Regardless of whether you discuss the questions or the Storyguide answers them unilaterally a guide like that would be a big help for people getting into the game.

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That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m going fo here. Any suggestions on what sort of items in that “checklist on decisions that should be made” would be? I think I’d like to try and compile something like this but I am aware that my experience being an alpha SG is pretty limited and my own biases and preferences are also going to limit the sort of questions and advice I might consider important.

I can think of a few group breakers which have to go on that list,

  • What themes and scenes are off limits? (this is of course not specific for ArM)
  • What Evils should only be available as antagonists? (demons, church, nobility?)
  • Power level is worth more than one bullet point.
    • e.g. whether there is a min/max culture or a more ... whimsical (?) approach to character design.
    • Which books (and optional rules) should be available for character design?

Most troupes have limited patience to discuss these matters, so if the check list is long, SG needs to make most decisions.

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Don’t forget:

  • What level of rules and setting discussions are you interested in?

:wink:

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In a saga I played in, we chose the tribunal by everyone getting 3 votes for tribunals they'd like to play in, and one veto of a tribunal they didn't want to play in. People's vetoes ruled out several different places, and of the places people voted for Stonehenge came top and Hibernia second so we went with Stonehenge. Covenant season was chosen by the fact our alpha SG nearly always has spring or winter covenants.

I think asking people what they don't want is important, so are there any stories they don't want (like less mundane interaction, so maybe an isolated covenant).

For house rules, the quickest way is to ask people what spells or magical items they think their character wants to do most. You can then check if your understanding and their understanding of these match.

To use two popular examples:
Teleporting - if you use Leap of Homecoming, does a magus take their clothes and personal possessions with them or do they need requisites for this? If someone makes a ReCo specialist to do this and you insist on requisites, they need to know before character creation.

Creatures of magical might - some people don't like the might-stripping spells such as Demon's Eternal Oblivion and its magic and faerie counterparts, and are particularly concerned about people multi-casting low level versions of these. They make house rules about how this works - sorting this out is important if someone is playing a PeVi specialist.

There's been a few threads of people asking for house rules in the past (I think I once did one asking for house rules to check at the start of a saga) but the forum is not letting search work right now.
EDIT: Search is now working, my thread is here
A big thread was this one
The one referencing Project Redcap is this one

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Yes, but what are the issues with deciding on a tribunal in that manner vs. the SG collecting the group by saying “I want to run a game in the Theban tribunal”? I can see a few. That it limits the alpha SG in giving a more specific situation or conflict for the characters to be built around. Sometimes the SG has a particular story they have worked on and would like the characters to fit into that somewhat, maybe it can be localized but maybe it’s not so easy to do that.

I wasn’t exactly asking for “what are house rules” but what are the issues or benefits of deciding these things one way vs. deciding them another? What sort of advice can be given for getting the more random group of characters one is likely to see from less situational input to fit together better. These solutions can be narrative conceits (the Order as an organization is one but it’s a very broad one and fraught with its own particular relationship tropes that are likely to push characters apart), ways to make the decision seem fair (the vote and having a veto is that, perhaps), advice around getting the less vocal players involved in these decisions.

Before one decides one needs to decide how to decide.

The issues and benefits of different ways of deciding will very much depend on your particular group of players.
How much do they want to be involved in that kind of decisions? How much experience do they have with Ars Magica? How good are they at coming up with story ideas?

That depends on how you want to decide on the main plots and saga themes.

If the SG has a major saga-long plot line to run, it does not necessarily fit in a tribunal of the players' choice.

If several beta-SGs have major saga-long plot lines to run, they do not necessarily fit in the SG's preferred tribunal.

In my opinion, the question of tribunal cannot be isolated from character design, covenant design, and plot design. The covenant you want to design is certainly not the same in Transylvania and in Hibernia. The characters you want to play may be less different, but probably still different. Leaving the tribunal choice to a popular vote increases the risk that the covenant is a random selection of magi with nothing in common and the saga becomes a disconnected string of random encounters.

So yes, I think it is a good idea to talk it through and decide together, but not in terms of a vote. It should rather be a constructive discussion, like «if we play in Rhine I want to play that merchant magus from Lübeck, or maybe if we play in Iberia I have this cool idea for a Sahir,» inviting players not only to reject ideas they do not like, but supplementing character ideas which fit together with the first. And of course, the (beta)-SG saying that they have absolutely no plot ideas which would fit in Normandy, could be read as just a vote, but it really is just an observation with consequences which everybody should observe.

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Three points I find important, plus a fourth minor one.

  1. I've found that a really, really good approach is to decide as a troupe what themes will be explored in the saga. With "themes" I mean everything from genre (horror, romantic fantasy, military etc.), to geography (the Theban bureademocracy, or the uttermost north), to rules (mysteries, church politics, introduction to ArM5 etc.), to character roles (femme fatale, doomed warrior, great leader burdened by duty). Obviously you can have multiple ones at the same time, even in the same category I've found that it's a fun minigame to try and see if you can come up with a basic saga concept that incorporates everyone's wishes.

  2. I've found it's quite important to make sure each major character (magus or companion) has a reasonably defined "personal area" that does not overlap with that of others. E.g. it's best to have at most one artist, one invincible warrior, one genius inventor, one character with True Faith. If multiple players want to cover the same area, then a) that area should become more central to the saga and b) you should make sure it's "split up" evenly between their characters. For example, if three different people want to play "fighting" types, then a) the saga will be about fighting, whether demon-hunting or a large scale war, and b) one character might be a "storm witch" that brings large scale, if somewhat imprecise, magical havoc; another might be a mystic ninja protected by a Death Prophecy; and a third might be ... a magical sword that possesses its users turning them into peerless swordsmen and great leaders of armies? Essentially, zoom the sagas on the themes of greater interest, so that every major character gets a separate area of the canvas of approximately the same size.

  3. If you can avoid it at all, avoid voting (or the tyranny of a minority, e.g the storyguide(s)). Only consensus. If you can't reach consensus on what type of game to play, you should probably change troupe! Note that one way to reach consensus is to advertise online for players saying "I want to play a saga where magic is dead, and the Order tries to keep its edge in the form of reputation, mundane knowledge, and accumulated wealth for as long as it can". Then, by definition, you have the consensus of anyone who says "count me in". But this is not an approach that you can use with your long-standing gaming group.

  4. A minor, but useful point. Grogs! They are a great way to bring into a saga either inexperienced players, or new "tentative" players who'd like to join an existing one, but would like to try it out before committing fully. Also, they are a great way to explore certain themes in a "minor" way before deciding you want to bring the saga into that direction. The reason in both cases is that grogs are simpler to create, much more focused, and they do not disrupt the saga by leaving it.

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A saga is driven by the Storyguide. Of everyone there, the alpha story guide has to want to run the saga. I think the Alpha SG should have the main say of covenant type and tribunal.

Saying that, the players have to want to play. I'm a big fan of at the start, sitting down and having players say stuff they absolutely don't want.

Some players might want a gritty realism. Anyone playing a RPG has to accept death is an option, however, a grog, companion and/or magi getting raped, tortured, not for me.

Some people may be deeply religious and not want to deal with an infernal plot; or may really want that and have a true faith character. Not having at least a diabolical side plot or story would let this player down.

Some people, especially from a diverse cultural and linguistic background, may want the constant background thrum of racism in Mythic Europe toned down.

Some people, especially ones with a disability, may want the tone of disability and ugliness meaning one is cursed or evil be toned down.

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There is no right or wrong way to go about this and different games, groups and GMs will have to find their own way.

For me, as a GM, I like to write a lot of material in advance, including long plotlines, lots of foreshadowing, lots of encounters, lots of NPCs so my players are likely to get lumped with the setting I give them. Also likely the general mood, story and even the covenant that I create for them. That is so I can control the initial conditions of my story that they can then get busy wrecking.

I've also been a player in a game where the troupe decided on what we wanted with regards to high/low magic, then we came up with some ideas for the covenant and played a game of Microscope to create the history of our covenant. I can't recommend this method highly enough, Microscope is hugely fun and works so well for covenant history building. Our GM then went away and started work fleshing out the setting around what we had all mutually chosen.

That sounds pretty interesting. What do you mean by the game of Microscope?

It’s a game specifically about creating histories. Great fun.

A genuine pitfall is to emphasize everyone making magus, companion, and 3 grogs all at once. I've heard more than few groups who got exhausted from excessive character creation and quit the game.

This leads to a broader point - while the game talks about "Troupe Play" is this something your group actually wants to try?

Considerations:

  1. How historical of a game do they want? Is is just medieval-ish? Or does everyone need to read books on history to "get it"?
  2. How fantastical of a game do they want? Is it medieval with a bit of magic, or is it High Fantastic Super Magical Europe?

So, if they want a historical game, chances are you need to:

  1. Keep the power level low by
    i. Banning Arts Summae
    ii. Banning "Trainers" at the covenant
    iii. Be prickly about fast travel methods. As Fast Travel drastically changes the tone of the game.
    And/Or
  2. The Quaesitors are ruthless about punishing any infractions of interfering with Mundanes, have the powerbase to back it up.

If you want a fantastical game, then the default character creation is really lame and low powered. Bonus XP, reducing flaw requirements (i.e. 1 personality flaw, 1 story flaw, 1 hermetic flaw for magi), potentially giving extra virtue points.

Picking Tribunals is a discussion. If you want "normal" light medieval fantasy that's more or less familiar and somewhat historical, you want to pick Stonehenge or Provencal, or Rhine Tribunals.

If you want something more exotic, pick a different tribunal.

On the troupe play aspect raised by Heaven's Thunder Hammer, my experience has often been one Alpha Storyguide running almost everything, with another player doing the odd session or story here and there. Many players do not GM and have no interest in doing so. However, this really means the ASG needs their own GMPC, which can be fine but needs to be handled carefully. In my old Brunnaburgh game, I was ASG and ran a GMPC when my two other players were GMing, but I probably GMed 80-90% of the game.

Related to this is the nature of mage vs companion vs grog play. Most of the players I've played with, myself included, want to play the mage, so the idea of having one player mage with some player companions isn't something I've really seen. More common is that companions and grogs are background characters with whom its fun to do an occassional session where they have their own, much more mundane adventure. In a Theban game I was a player in, we had a great grog session revolving around my PC mages manservant and the other PC mages bodyguard going to buy some books, getting robbed and then having an adventure through Constantinople trying to get the money AND the books back without the mages finding out that they'd screwed up. Its VERY rare that we mixed mages and companions in a session though.

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Yes, definitely see the ASG and one or two BSGs most often. I don’t know that this is a problem and very often I see the ASG choose a magus character who is either a labrat (Bonisagus/Verditius) or has goals that keep them less interested in running off for adventure (in a current saga our ASG is playing a Rusticani who lives among the village of covenfolk).

I don’t think it’s difficult to set up the 1 or 2 magi and the rest companions/grogs sort of adventures, the bigger difficulty comes in when it’s an event at the covenant and the other players send the grog you’re playing to wake your maga who is happily in bed and drag her into the story.

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Certainly a topic for discussion,

  • are people happy to play grogs?
  • do they care to develop grogs and companions?
  • do you want to have a big peripheral cast of specialists and grogs that nobody has time to maintain?
  • is it ok to disturb every magus at the first sight of trouble? Or does everyone expect the grogs and at most one magus to be able to cope? This is really a question of what is comme il faut in the covenant - the troupe has to interpret Hermetic customs so that they suit the story they want to tell.
  • what would be a typical cast for the stories the SG(s) want to run? (e.g. number of magi)

In a slow-paced saga, it is possible to run stories to introduce all the PCs, including three grogs per player, a few at the time, so that the players can spread out the char gen over time. In a fast-paced game, the grogs may be played once at most before they die of old age. It is certainly important to agree how the characters are going to be used, but the main deciding factor is what stories the SG(s) are willing to run ...