New to Ars Magica. New Player Questions

I'm new to Ars Magica. I just got the book. And I've got no previous experience with Ars Magica at all. All I've heard it that it is a pretty decent game with an awesome magic system. And so far from what I've been reading I like... But I'm not understanding this troupe style of playing. I come from games such as D&D, WoD, Legend of the Five Rings, etc. Where you would typically only play one character. Can somebody explain to me how a typical game session goes down? I'm rather curious but I can't seem to wrap my head around the part that would make having multiple characters a plus. And what type of campaigns (sagas?) are typically ran with Ars Magica?

Typically, each player has one magus character, and one companion character, and some grogs (and maybe the grogs are a common pool shared by some, or all, of the players). I find it easiest to think of the magus characters as the main characters and the grogs are retainers/men-at-arms, etc (kind of like movie-extras), and the companion characters are somewhere in between.

The advantage is that you can more naturally tell a greater diversity of stories. You have a larger cast of characters, but not all characters are involved in every session/story. I can (as a player), for example, have a magus character who is a bit useless in, say, town based adventures, and (as a player) I'm not left out of the game if my magus stays at the covenant rather than going to town; because I can play an appropriate grog for that session/story instead.

Practically every episodic TV series is organised like this. There is a small number of main characters, who drive the main stories, and a larger group of supporting characters who turn up more or less frequently depending on the nature of the specific episode.

It is also easier (if you want) to tell stories where player characters sometimes die, if there are "expendable" grog characters available.

The other advantage, if you also share story-guide duties, is that everyone gets a chance to play.

Sagas are typically (but not always) based around telling the story of the covenant (i.e. the immediate community that the player character magi are a part of).

Out-of-genre models are, say, "Star Trek" (where the community is the ship), "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (where the community is Buffy and her immediate friends), "Agents of SHIELD" (where the community is the field operations unit, or whatever it is called).

An in-genre model is the king Arthur myth (where the community is Camelot).

Well, there are a couple of ways to run troupe-style game. Most particularly, the role of SG may or may not be rotated among the players.

The important thing is to keep in mind what we're trying to accomplish by embracing troupe play: giving each of the players their chance to shine and face real challenges without having to concern oneself overmuch with things like character balance or niche protection.

Example: Player 1's magus is investigating a mysterious plague in a nearby town, suspecting Infernal agents to be at work. The SG decides to run a story based on finding and stopping the demons responsible for infecting people with their magic.
The SG will, of course, act as SG.
Player 1 will play his magus.
Player 2 decides to run her companion, Friar Abelard.
Players 3 & 4 portray the magus' trusty grogs.
Over the next few game sessions, the troupe plays out that adventure and, when the next adventure rolls around, the players will likely play different roles. Probably with another player running their own magus (or equivalent) through a story specific to their own character.

There are two other things to keep in mind as well. The first is that, due to the seasonal nature of character advancement in Ars Magica, characters will frequently find themselves having adventures during different sessions that occur at the same time period in-game. The second is that due to the character-driven nature or Ars Magica adventures, a substantial part of the responsibility of getting Companion and Magus characters involved in stories lies with the player who designed said character based upon what Virtues & Flaws the character had been assigned.


In my personal experience, typical play usually goes like this:

  1. One of the players is the Main storyguide - usually they're the one who said "hey, I've got this great idea for an Ars game!". In my group, this was Laura - she wanted to tell some stories based around literal farie tales (Cinderella, Frog Prince, etc.) in the Black Forest. You can think of this as the backbone of the Saga - the "A" plot lines that string everything together.

  2. A few other people are Beta Storyguides - these are usually the folks who take over plot lines dealing with individual character's story elements. For example, I'm currently Storyguiding my friend Joe's character through uncovering her Diende heritage, while Joe is the Storyguide for my character's desire to be part of a Kaballah Mystery Cult and the (really bad) relationship he has with his Paren.

  3. At times, other folks will pipe in with "I've got a scene I want to storyguide", and we go with that. For example, Richard (our fourth player) sometimes pops in with his own plot line that he decided to put together (which he vetted with the rest of us first), regarding the political mechinations of Lord Fir (an angry, bitter genus loci of the Black Forest) against Duremar (one of the older covenents in the Black Forest).

So usually at the END of a session, we plan out the next one: someone says "OK, I've got the next scene ready for Joe's character's investigation, and Laura has a few scenes ready to go for the next farie tale. My character's next initiation isn't for 3 seasons, so he'll be in his lab for the rest of the year." And we go with that.

Usually, we plan out the story lines in our Google group, between sessions, and have meta-game discussions of "what's going to happen" or rules arguments, or stuff like that there.

In terms of play: usually only one or two wizards are involved at any given time. Because of the way XP is given out, you usually end up planning out your XP sources. For example, if a wizard is in their lab, reading a book for a season, they're not going to WANT to come out and go adventuring - because there is more XP in the book than there is in slaying a dragon. So, instead, one of the other wizards, who is creating a magical item, decides that he can spend a few days out slaughtering beasties, and so is able to gain both the Adventure XP, as well as whatever he was doing in his lab.

In going out on the dragon hunt, he usually grabs a companion (ie, a non-mage PC - perhaps the alternate character of the player whose wizard is in the lab) - such as a knight with a Holy Sword. The rest of the players grab Grogs: theoretically "disposable" characters, such as the grunts, cooks, and low-line soldiers of the Covenant.

Hilarity ensues.

From a gamist perspective, the reason this works is that the wizards that don't go are still collecting XP in their labs, doing whatever it is they want to do. The one wizard who is out adventuring is able to optimize his time, because he's earning both adventure XP, as well as getting a magical item (that he's taking a break from creating for a few days) as well. And the rest of the players (whose wizards are staying inside) still get to RP some fun, wacky grog characters...who, lets be honest, will probably get eaten by the dragon.

To put a simplistic spin on the question: it goes down in exactly the same way, except that you switch characters and GMs between sessions much more often.

First, well come to the game and the AM forums!

As did most of us, if not all.

First - and many have heard me say this (too?) many times before - there are 101 ways to Role Play, and every one is right - just not right for everyone. So - read, and adopt, adapt, or toss whatever seems best to suit what you feel is "fun" for your roleplaying experience. In the end, it's yours, not ours. :wink:

There are many ways to play D&D etc, but - as a ~very~ general rule - they are all "adversarial" to one degree or another, and on most every level. That is, the relationship is one (or more) of Player Character vs. Player Character (in friendly competition, if not mortal combat), Player vs. Dungeon Master (similarly), etc. It's usually more competition and less cooperation, even on a "meta" level. Get bigger than the others, get stronger, try not to get killed (too often?) - that often sums up the majority of the game.

If a PC gets "a henchman", that henchman character is subservient to the Player's main character (to make that "team" stronger) - a fighter henchman to protect the wizard PC, a cleric henchman to heal the fighter PC, etc etc. Each sub-group becomes its own little "fire team" within the larger group, and they tend to complement each other in combat and adventure. And even if all the Players and Player Characters are "working together", those PC/Henchmen pairings always seem to work most closely as a "team", sometimes despite other concerns, often joined at the hip thru thick and thin (any role-playing considerations and "internal" conflict aside).

From the start, that is not so with Ars.

With AM, the Troupe system encourages all players to consider The Saga from the perspective of a Game Master or Story Guide - not "How can my character(s) dominate?", but "What will make the best story?" "You crush your enemies and retire wealthier than the wildest dreams of avarice - the end." Yawn - or, at least, if it's all just that easy! Every good story needs good obstacles to overcome - real ones, and often long-term ones.

That's where many of the "Flaws" come in, especially one that don't seem like "handicaps". These are not (all) there just to balance a more powerful character (like in Hero System). Many are there because they help the story - and that's what everyone should be doing, with every character they bring into the Saga. (See page 36, col i for more on this.) Decide on the challenge(s) you want your Character to overcome, and help write the story for that to happen even as you design that character!

Or - as you design both/each of them!...

Right, different concept, I remember feeling the same way

In Ars, "experience" is not based entirely (solely) on "adventuring" - you can't kill a dragon and expect to learn French from it. Even if you kill a dragon and learn a weapon from it, you can't do that once a week every week - experience is limited to a max "per season". So... there is no incentive to "go, Go, GO!" a'venturing non-stop - at some point, you might as well sit down and read a good book on Lore and let the experience sink in, you're not going to get any "better". :confused:

And because of that, because the "action" can sometimes move more slowly... not everyone stays together. Maybe some magi go to Denmark to investigate a problem there, and others stay in the Covenant ("at home") to study and deal with another issue. If the SG wants to run the "Denmark" story tonight - which Players are involved?

Answer: all of them! Because, if you're smart, each player has one "Mage" Character in one location, and one "Companion" Character in the other - specifically because those 2 characters (of the same player) are not joined at the hip! So every player can have a "main character" in 2 places at once (plus Grog Characters if there is action in 3+ locations).

And that's why the "Companions" are (usually) not designed like henchman to the Player's mage, but as "companions" to the Covenant as a whole. Any Companion should have a reasonable excuse to go a'venturing with any mage - except, perhaps, that same Player's mage! In fact, the wider apart the interests of the 2 characters, the more likely that one or the other will be suited to the foreseeable action, and the less likely that both characters will be needed in the same place!

Let's take a more specific example: there are 2 issues - a hedge wizard has killed some of your grogs and stolen some of your books and fled to Denmark - he needs to be hunted down and killed, but good. Meanwhile, back on the home front, a local Bishop is inquiring as to the goings-on in the Covenant - and he can't just be "killed, but good" - that would not do. So, one adventure has "combat and chase" written all over it, the other "diplomacy and cunning". So if Players each have a heavy-hitter character and a soft-touch character, they can involve one in each adventure - all good.

All kinds - but the adventures ~tend~ to be shorter and more intense - no long dungeon crawls, but a couple quick encounters, some puzzle solving (lots of "utility" spells in Ars, especially with Spontaneous Casting - see p 83), and then the season gets resolved (and xp handed out) and the over-all story moves forward in time. If a "longer" story arc is desired, it's not the detailed story of a month-long chase of the villain, but several years of encounters and near-misses, each smaller but isolated, allowing seasons to pass (for experience, for research, for new spells), but building up to the grand finale just the same.

This takes some different thinking on the part of the SG, but it can work very well once you get the hang of it.

Here's a link to a great on-line game that recently ended - the SG has written up each session - read and enjoy.

One of the things that I really like about Ars Magica that the game seems to encourage more than other games is making a life for all of the characters. What does your magus do on a day to day basis? There isn't an expectation that he's a rum soaked hero waiting for the next adventure to come along. He's got his own things to do, and there's never enough time to do it all, even for magi who can live much longer than other characters.
Companions and grogs are the spice of the game, grogs especially. They can often steal scenes, do something really stupid and come out smelling like a rose, or not. You can take chances with them, because you won't necessarily do it with your magus, or will do it less and less as he ages. Companions are the magus's link to the outside world (even for Gently Gifted) because they are just out and about much more than the magi, and if the magi aren't Gently Gifted, the companions are more than likely the spokespeople for the covenant/group.
But to me, the interesting bits aren't always what happens in a session (sessions are fun, don't get me wrong) but it's in the downtime where I can progress the character as I desire, and write his own story, within the overall saga. I'm in that saga that CH linked (play Breandan/Victor), every session has been a blast, but there is also a lot of fun to be had in the downtime. We had a bit of a logistical challenge posed to us. As we're newly gauntleted apprentices going to found a new covenant in Hibernia, having a functioning Aegis is fairly important, so all of his free time and elective instruction was devoted to getting Wizard's Communion and Aegis of the Hearth for the last two years of apprenticeship. It was a considerable sacrifice for the future covenant (he's Tremere) but he also asked to be named the first leader of the covenant (he's Tremere!).

I started to mention it above but side-tracked myself - often a mage will want to spend an entire season studying something, or "in the lab" inventing something, and an extended absence is just a dealbreaker. That's when that Player's Companion is the natural, logical (meta-)choice (even if perhaps not the best IC choice).

But there's usually a rationalization for (almost) any character to join any adventure, just to keep the players involved.

Yeah, magi are usually "skill-starved"* - they've spent the majority of their life studying magic, not quarterstaff or tracking or etiquette or Church Lore, and certainly not a "set" of skills that can work together** in a given situation. When it's time to go out into The Big Wide Worldsup[/sup] (or when it comes knocking on the door uninvited!), even a "social mage" or a "combat mage" may find a Companion has distinct advantages that they lack.

(* Okay, in Ars, skills are called "Abilities". Stats are "Characteristics", etc. A rose by any other name.)

[i](** One early question will be "How good is X skill level?", or (put another way) "How much skill do I need to be "good" at Y skill?" A quick answer is found (indirectly) on page 31, column 1, under the "Maximum Ability" table. Those are before stats, and with no Virtues. "5" is roughly equal to minimum "professional level" - extrapolate from there. "5" is a respectable starting level for most skills (Magic Theory being one distinctly possible exception), but by no means unbeatable.

Also see the sentence before that "...most Abilities will not rise above 10.")[/i]

Note - not every player is excited about playing "a grog" for an entire session, or even "at all". I think this stems from the D&D xp mindset - if my character is not active, he's not getting bigger. Or perhaps just a sense of personalization - it's not "mine" so I have less reason to care.

No single RPG nor playstyle is for all players - be aware of possible hiccups, (get to) know your players, plan accordingly. Not every Troupe plays grogs (very often).

Game of Thrones is in one sense a good "Troupe style" example. (Each story arc is a bit too long and individual, but still.)

Whether you take the Starks or Lanisters the as the "main characters", their adventures take them in different directions at different times before they "come back home". (Yeah, by this season that's tougher for some, but the general concept is still there.)

Good point - in many ways and in a very real sense, the most important character is The Covenant itself. Magi may come and go, Companions will come and go, but The Covenant, as an institution, remains, and develops as a personality.

I understand that the Covenant is almost a Headquarters of sorts. But what makes it absolutely so important, is it like a Caern or Node from World of Darkness? I've also been reading things about multiple Story Guides. What's up with that? I've not been able to read up as much as I've wanted on the subject yet so sorry for possible dumb questions.

But I definitely think I like the troupe style of gaming more now... Or at least I understand it and see all the possible game ideas. Either way it's definitely a cool way to play.

More like a Sept, to stay in the WtA terminology, I think MtA called covenants "Chantries".
Broadly speaking, the word Covenant means all of the following:

  • A group of magi who have agreed to work (and usually live) together (Sept analog)
  • The location in which these magi settle, including building on the grounds (Caern analog-ish)
  • The agreement defining the rules under which these magi work together (the literal meaning of the word "Covenant", though this is more often known as the "charter")

Vis sources (at least partially MtA Nodes) and other property owned by the magi in common is generally not considered to bepart of the Covenant but property of the covenant - though some covenants have Vis sources inside the Covenant grounds.
Vis would be... Quintessence-analog as I recall?

The core book has some stuff on this on p. 220 as I recall, but here's a real life example:
One of my troupes has 7 members. We played yesterday evening, something which was a continuation of what had happened the session before.
I was SGing, because it was my story. After ... about 2-3 hours, the event I had planned was done, with the PCs involves making their way back from the Orkneys. This was going to take the rest of the season, so we decided to jump focus, and look at what the rest of our characters were doing, back home at the covenant.
We talked a bit about going out to hunt a supernatural beast that lives near the covenant, but kinda decided against it, partly because our main battle mage and 2 of our frontline fighter-companions were walking home from Caithness. Instead, we'd rather spend a season studying and preparing for the hunt.
One of the magi (magai, technically) decided to go talk to some faeries on hopes of getting a handle on what was causing another one of our plotlines. She decided to go alone, for some reason. These fae were the brainchild of one of the other members of the troupe, so he SG'ed for that lone player for a (surprisingly short) while, while the rest of us were trying to figure out what to study and what sort of parameters would be needed for a spell that one member of the troupe wanted to invent. 15 minutes later, the 2 of them were back in the discussion, and had actually managed to solve that plotline, just by asking the right people! (well, faeries anyway).

Essentially, the way we run it, players can just bid in with a story line, and then we make room/time for that story. Often these introduce locations or people that don't just go away, and when we interact with these people/locations, that person SGs them again.
Does that make sense?

(Does to me!)

Many RPG's are "competition-based" - the Players compete against the Game Master, the Players compete against each other, etc.

Ars encourages a more "cooperative" relationship between the Players - not necessarily their Characters, but the Players themselves, to achieve the best game experience possible. And that means everyone creating the best "Story" possible, in part by blurring the traditionally divided SG/Player roles, and having input from all players to the (current) Story Guide.

And on that specific point (and to directly address your question), if more than one player is capable of running a story, and all such players are on board with a good story, why not delegate some of the duties? Not only does this allow the (main) "Game Master" a break and to play their characters along with the other players' characters, but can raise unexpected sub-plots that a single Story Guide might not have the time/energy to create or develop.

Different Sagas will interpret the role of additional SG's differently. Often a "Beta Story Guide" will be in charge of all stories that involve some distinct sub-set of the plot - all stories in the Faerie Grove, or all stories involving that grumpy Flambeau in the nearby rival covenant. Other Sagas might only allow Beta SG's to run adventures for Grogs, or they have to suggest a short adventure that will be fully resolved and does not affect the main plotline. Many approaches, depending on the talents and preferences of the Troupe.

One thing I've not noticed being explicitly mentioned on this thread: for any given player, their Magus and Companion should not be linked; they should be wholly-separate. I've seen quite a few newbies to the game make the assumption "I make a Magus and a Companion ... for that Magus," but please note that this assumption usually results in both characters having reason to go adventuring together. Instead, think of giving them each a separate focus -- a weather-mage (who probably won't see much play in towns and castles, which tend to close their doors and light fires, in the face of nasty weather), and a people-centric Troubador type who spends all the time he can in towns and castles. For most situations (adventures), the player would prefer one character or the other, because one or the other will be much more useful.

I often advise new Troupes that the players should actively make Companions for the magi of OTHER players, so when the Troupe (the PC's) conclude that Magus-A (of Player-A) is the logical wizard to go handle the current problem, there's an obvious Companion or two to go along, but it's obvious that Companion-A (of that player) is obvously NOT right for the situation.

Why Covenants, though ... ?

Magi, almost universally, need their labs & Sancta in order to improve their Arts (adventuring XP, for the most part, is MUCH inferior for advancing the powers of magi!). Seasonal advancement, with most of the time spent in the lab, is the default assumption of the game. So, that's one reason for the importance. In-game, the assumption is that a covenant, with walls to keep out mundane nuisances and an Aegis ritual to keep out supernatural nuisances, and Sancta where the magi can be even safer, is the most-effective model that the magi have developed, for their preferred way of life.

One thing to realize is that Mythic Europe IS medieval Europe (+ magic)... a large group of "wandering adventurers" (especially if they include armed men (Grogs and combat-oriented Companions) will may be viewed by many nobles as a hostile war-party.

From a meta-game perspective, the Boons and Hooks of the covenant are simply tools to generate stories: players need to understand these not as "we are building our Fortress for the GM's NPC's to attack" but "we are signalling to the GM that these are the kinds of stories we want to run." The same is true of a character's Virtues and Flaws, of course: the GM is supposed to throw Flaw-centric stories at the PC's, also give them problems whose solutions involve using their Virtues.

As Tellus said, we manage the switching of SGs quite fine in our group.
Ars Magica can be very open, and that's how we play it. A session can start with someone asking "What do people want to do today? What do the characters want to do in this and the next seasons?". So we talk about current plotlines and personal projects. Whichever person owning a certain Plot Node acts as SG for a story for the characters who decide to go somewhere, do some ting.
This may be too open to some players and groups, who prefer more straight plotlines, with a more natural move between one story and the next.

As for multiple characters, I believ in the concept of having a Magus and a Companion who want to do separate things. That way you avoid wanting to play both of them, to bring both on a story. And ideally the Companion has interests and abilities in common with another player's magus. If the Magus is a combat mage the Companion could be a rogue or a sociable person. If the Magus deals win Hermetic politics and mostly plays stories in dealing with other magi, the Companion could be a hunter to go into the wild with another Magus.

So once we agree on what kind of story we play we each decide who to play. Ideally only 1-2 Magi go on the same story, to leave room for the Companions and Grogs. The Magi and Companions may have specific whishes about which Grogs to bring along, and we often have players playing both their Magus/Companion as well as one or more Grogs. Also, always bring along 2+ Grogs, because if only one player plays a Grog he is often overshadowed by the more powerful characters. But if several grogs come along they may be doing most of the work, being active characters to play, and speak among themselves about how utterly incompetent and lost in mundane situations the Magi are. Great fun.
Mind you, we have never really done the "create one huge pile of Grogs and just play different ones at different times. We each create one or more Grogs, which we put up for common use, but since the other players do this as well we mostly play and advance our own Grogs.

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Or slack off together. Or utter the by-now-ritual "mages are dicks!"