New to Ars Magica

Hi folks! I'm new to Ars Magica and I will be running a game here pretty soon (Note: I've Gmed many other systems for over 20 years). Maybe even this weekend. This Saturday will be at least character creation day. :smiley: The only thing I have planned for the game so far is running a Crusades (in the Near East) type setting. However, the game might begin in Europe. It seems the game has a lot for GMs and players to learn. So I welcome any advise you might have for a newbie player/GM to the game.

It does have a lot of content. Don't insist on using all of it right away :slight_smile:

Don't Panic!

Now that that's done with, I can really recommend having read the book.
Or at least the first 200 or so pages of it.
Ars tends to reward players who have bothered to read the rules. :slight_smile:

As a new player/GM, don't be afraid to get things wrong to keep the game moving. If you find out you can't actually do something, assume fun botches/exploding rolls made unrealistic lucky things happen.

I would only add that you keep in mind what kind of game you want to play. What do you want out of that "Crusades" setting? Then, work the game & system to fit it.

Ars Magica combat can drag a bit but can also turn quite vicious, especially if you don't put out lots of healing-related vis and magic. Be mindful of that.

Information regarding the near-east & Crusades is mostly given in the 4e tribunal book, which is a bit out-of-date but can still be useful. I've written a sort-of-review of it, along with some notes on the region in general, here:
redcap.org/page/Which_Tribun ... the_Levant
Alternatively, you can head more towards Egypt, which has a 5e tribunal book, or Mesopotamia (likewise). In any case, a middle-eastern setting would be quite different from a standard, European, setting.

Sorry for the wall of text, but this is the script for a podcast episode I'll be releasing in May, about designing magi for new players. I hope you find it useful.

Hi, and welcome. I'm Timothy Ferguson, and I was one of the most prolific authors for the last edition of Ars Magica. Here are some hints to designing a character you'll enjoy.

Play style

Get your group to decide if they are going to do the suggested thing, which is that each story has one or two magi and companions, or the thing most troupes seem to do, which is that everyone just sends their magus. This matters, because it determines what role your magus will play. Is the magus going to be in charge whenever he is on stage, or is he part of a group of equals? Is he going to be the heavy artillery, despite not being from a combat-ready House, or is there going to be another magus bringing the fire, so that yours can specialise on something else?

House

Which House you pick doesn't matter, initially, but some bind your character development choices more than others. Houses Merinita and Verditus have inner mysteries which use a completely different sort of rule system, and most Criamons are pacifists. I believe the best Houses for new players are:

House Bonisagus: pure magical researchers and diplomats. They can be researching pretty much any style of magic, and this gives them a reason to be out in the world discovering secrets.

House Flambeau: There's a philosophy behind it, but they love solving their problems by killing things and breaking stuff. Ars Magica can cause a sort of choice paralysis in new players. House Flambeau strips this away by essentially saying "Your options are the knife, the pistol, the grenade, or the flamthrower." Once the game rolls on there a lot about chivalry and flame mysticism, but as a new player, it's a simple choice.

House Jerbiton, which just lets you pick a minor Virtue in lieu of a House virtue: in the setting they also don't care if you later join another House. This is the one to choose if you don't want to make a big deal out of your choice for now.

House Tremere prizes obedience. This means your character will always have something to do, and may be provided with resources to do it. Sure, you follow orders, but so does James Bond, and he seems to enjoy his life most of the time.

Characteristics

Characteristics are a bad idea, and the game should not have them. As a magus, you'll feel the need to put Intelligence at a minimum +2, so your character is not the stupidest magus in the group. This means you are all making the same boring choice, and when Intelligence is required, you all make the same Knowledge rolls. This leaves you enough points to put +1 against any other two Characteristics. There are rules to get extra points by trading down your physical Characteristics, but ignore them on your first go around. Just wade through this.

Virtues and Flaws

Virtues and Flaws are ways to make your magus unique, but their usual effect is to make them more like their Housemates. You'll be given one free minor virtue based on your choice of House. Most of these you can safely ignore in your first game, although the one for House Bjornaer (turn into a specific animal at will) is useful and fun.

As a rule of thumb, a virtue adds +1 to your dice roll if it covers an entire characteristic, +3 if it covers and entire ability, and +6 if it covers a specialised situation in an Ability. If you can't find one you like, use this to just make them up and have your troupe approve them. Sometimes this is faster than wading through the book to find the precise name for what you hope to find. "I want to great fun at parties", for example, is a +3, even if you don't manage to decode it down into Ars-speak as a Knack in Carouse.

Just because you can choose a heap of Flaws doesn't mean you should. Virtues can be earned in-game, so there is no need to make your character a one-eyed, kleptomaniac with a determined enemy just to afford another Major Virtue. Pick Flaws you will enjoy having and that signal the kinds of stories you want.

Similarly, don't pick virtues because they maximise your killing potential unless you really want stories about your killing potential. Pick virtues for the fun, not the mechanical advantage. As an SG, I keep a copy of the VF list of each character, so I can make sure I hit those narrative marks.

The Magical Affinity virtue is the game's way of telling you it will give you a bonus if you pick a character theme. Take it, but not at the Art-wide level: choose a motif that's yours. This is far more important than most of the numbers on your sheet.

Spells

Pick spells you think would be fun to cast: your SG's job is to give you great opportunities to cast them. In roleplaying games, the GM sets the size of the creatures attacking you to suit the power of the player characters. It doesn't matter if you can deal +5 or +10 damage: that just means the enemy you are facing in the story looks a bit different. I'm not saying don't take combat spells: I'm saying that designing for maximum killing power is pointless, and you know its pointless.

Don't spread your build points across the Magical Arts. Pick a Form (a noun) and one or two Techniques (verbs). Don't choose Aquam, Auram, Imaginem or Vim. I love them, but they take a bit more getting used to than practical things like Herbam. A high enough Form will let you do minor magic in the other Techniques of that Form using the spontaneous magic rules.

My rule of thumb is cribbed from the Amber Roleplaying game: always choose at least one attacking spell, one defensive spell, and one spell that affects your surroundings. Sometimes spells do double duty. It's great to have majestic spells: I loved playing a new maga who had Incantation of Lightning and a flight spell, but In Ars Magica, small spells get through magic resistance, or the diminishing effect of civilisation, better than powerful spells. Think about clever ways to use spells in the 10-20 level range.

Abilities

Don't get bogged down in Abilities. For new players I let them keep a pool of unspent points, and use them up as their idea of the character gels through play. Avoid spending 1 point on heaps of Abilities. Abilities are what your magi have servants for. Make big purchases in the Abilities you want to do cool things with during scenes in stories. Your character's already a superhero: you shouldn't care if they have 1 or 2 in their Area Lore skill..

I also have a "buyer's remorse rule". If you've spent points on something, and it's never mattered to your character, you can cash it back in and spend it one something else. Did you buy Artes Liberales 6 to look wise, and then find out you wanted practical skills? Take your points back. I personally extend this to spells and Virtues, but your troupe may vary.

Each ability gets a specialisation, which is a 1 point bonus in limited circumstances. Again, fill them in as you go, and switch them under the buyers remorse rule. Don't get bogged down on how to make sure you wring every advantage from the design phase.

Weapons

Most magi don't use them. You're a magician. You can kill people by waving at them for a minute or so. Even if your best combat spell just throws a rock, it's still better than a dagger: just carry some really pointy rocks. You have a bodyguard. Let them do the weapons while you cast spells.

Suggested stat block for a new magus:

Intelligence +2, +1 in any two other Characteristics, all others 0, which is human average.

Virtues and Flaws: You get a free one for your house, which you can often ignore in the beginning. Take a Minor Magical Affinity, and a Story Flaw, at minimum. Work up from there if you like.

Abilities: You get 165 experience points to spend here, but there are some compulsory buys. At minimum the game suggests (Native language (specialisation)) 5, Latin (specialisation (specialisation) 4, Artes Liberales (specialisation) 1, Magic Theory (specialisation) 3, Parma Magica (specialisation) 1. Your native language is a free, so that costs 90 points, leaving you 75 to spend. That's:

two abilities at a score of 3 with three at a score of 1 or
one ability at a score of 3, with three abilities at a score of 2.
five abilities at a score of 2.
If you already have a score of 1 in something because of a Virtue choice, then just have a 1 in something else, to refund the point.

Arts: you have 120 points to spend on Magical Arts. Chose one noun and one or two verbs.

It costs 121 points to have a score of 11 in one art, 10 in another, and 0 in the rest. I'd give you the point if it were my game. Alternatively, two verbs at 7 and one noun at 11 (with two freebie points).

Pick spells. You have 120 levels of spells. Spells are the fun bit. Since you are limited, don't browse the entire book. now: just read the bit that matches your technique and form combinations. If you are specialised as above, each spell's maximum level is Technique+Form + 8. Technically it's 9 with a relevant Magic Theory specialisation. That means if you have only two arts, and a relevant MT specialisation, your maximum spell level is 30. If you have three arts as above, the maximum level is 26.

Hi,

  • Limit the number of AM books you use, severely. You can run your game just fine with only the core rules, and you might be best off doing so. You might think you absolutely need RoP:Divine because, you know, Crusades. But you don't. You might want Cradle and Crescent, but you really don't need that either. If you hae a Bjornaer in your group, you might need the shapeshifting rules. Start with more than one book, if you want, but be ruthless about what you don't want to include.

  • Encourage players to make characters who excel at some kind of Hermetic magic. This echoes Timothy's advice. I have posted here about how pumping a single Technique, a single Form and a single Focus really helps start things off. Forum search will probably find this. Simple, effective. Promotes spotlight sharing among players. But there are other ways to go.

  • Take a personality Flaw. Take a Story Flaw. (For players.)

  • Don't be afraid to max out virtues and flaws. (Slight disagreement with Timothy on this.) If there's good stuff you want, go for it. Remember: The magic system is a renowned feature of AM, so starting off being really good at magic makes that feature shine brighter.

  • Do not make covenant design part of play, but start with an established situation, the stage on which you expect much of your campaign to be set. In dramatic terms, the first session should start with Act II of the overall story arc. So if you want the game to be about fighting the crusade, start at the first fight. If you want it to be about defending holdings won in the crusade, start with the holdings already held. It's tempting to start earlier, but it is usually a mistake.

  • Echoing Timothy, characteristics in AM are a problem. But, rules. Magi should have at least an Int of 2, probably 3, and a Stamina of at least 1. (So if you don't trade away other characteristics, you can have Int3+Sta1 or Int2+Sta2+X1.)

  • Corpus is probably the best Form, at least for a beginner. Someone should have it.

  • Favored Houses, assuming you don't use the HoH supplements:
    ---Bonisagus, Jerbiton, Flambeau: All the reasons Timothy describes. Jerbiton might be especially interesting in a Crusader game.
    ---Tytalus: Makes a fine rogueish character, toppling applecarts, getting into trouble, resisting temptation (or not).

  • Houses worth avoiding, especially if you don't use the HoH supplements:
    ---Verditius, Merinita, Criamon: They are a bit strange, their magics don't really shine unless you have the supplements, and some of their HoH rules need revisiting.
    ---Guernicus: Until everyone has a very solid footing, these guys work best as NPCs.
    ---Mercere: Most are not really magi. Best as NPCs.

  • Decide what kind of characters you want and don't want in the game, and let your players know. Maybe you don't want to deal with pagan, Muslim or Jewish magi in your Crusader game! Maybe you do want every magus to have a tie to his noble family. Etc.

  • Simplified covenant design: Magic Aura 3. 10xp for anything a magus wants to study, unless plot gets in the way. 5 pawns vis per year per magus, unless plot gets in the way. Otherwise describe the covenant exactly how you want it to be. Give the covenant a few big and small problems that it has, that cannot be solved with anything already described (if it can, then it's not really a problem) but that are not inconsistent. Of course, if the game is about the journey, there won't be much of a covenant; AM does not handle this well.

  • After a session or three of play, let players utterly rewrite their characters if they want. Maybe retcon, rollback or redo other things too.

Anyway,

Ken

My suggestions will echo some of those of other posters.

  1. Start with the corebook, and absolutely nothing else. Well, maybe except wikipedia and folk tales about the lands and times you are going to explore. In fact, if you start with grogs (see 3, below), you can begin by ignoring a sizable chunk of the corebook -- namely chapters 2,6,7,8,9, which include some of the mechanically more complex portions of the game.

  2. Talk with your players about the type of game they want. Ars magica can support a very, very wide variety of games, themes, moods etc. and it's best if everyone is on the same page. Do you want political intrigue? Lots of gritty fighting as mercenaries/bandits/holy knights? Investigation stories "Name of the Rose" style? Supernatural horror?

  3. Ars magica differs from most other rpgs in that each player runs several characters, occasionally at the same time. This makes for a great canvas in which very deep stories can unfold. And while it might seem a source of complexity, it does in fact give you a great way to start simple.
    Start playing the first two or three sessions with just grogs: these are minor, expendable, quick-and-easy characters. I'd say, start with one per player, and let each add/move to a second one after a session or two. Grogs are great to give you and your players a handle on the pacing and basic mechanics of the game, and strongly focus your character creation, before you commit yourself to companions or the significantly more complex magi. Note that these grogs need not be associated with magi or covenants: they could easily be an intinerant monk with the mind of a great detective; a noble but disillusioned crusader knight; a minstrel whose music can enchant damsel and beast alike; a berserkr and skinchanger from the far north; the greatest archer in the land; a scoundrel and gambler with the devil's own luck but a weakness for pretty faces; a beautiful peasant lass who is really the daughter of a faery prince and can see into the future.

  4. Do not spend significant time creating the background before you begin. After choosing the type of game you want (see 2 above), and briefly researching the locale and time on the web (including juicy legends), make a bunch of grogs with some reason to be together (see 3), and drop them in the middle of the situation. As the story unfolds, and new characters are brought into the game, the background details will eventually fill up on their own. Note that "as the story unfolds" can mean "after forty in-game years, when the secret that the characters thought to have buried in their youth returns to haunt them in their old age": Ars magica is great for century-spanning games.

There's already lots of incredible advice that's been given. Here's another helpful resource that I find constantly inspires me with creative ideas for ArM and other fantasy RPGs:

  • Subscribe to Timothy Ferguson's podcast "Games from Folktales."

I often agree with a lot of what Timothy says, but I'll say that I think Characteristics are important in helping define your characters (imagine that. :wink: )

I think Ex Misc gives a lot of freedom to create any kind of magus you want, and so starting there and shifting somewhere else is also an option.

Remember that Virtues are the stories you know you will experience, and Flaws are the stories you'll be surprised with during play. They give the Storyguide options linked to the characters when there's a twist to the plot.

This is very much a Theatre of the Mind kind of game, and description means a lot.

There are not a lot of pregenerated supernatural foes floating around in the core material. You will need to make many of your own, or find them in supplements, or out of fanzines. I recommend you pick up Realms of Power: Magic-- the system creating monsters in that book will mostly work for all supernatural foes (but the Realm-specific books are optimal). Most mundane foes can be extrapolated from the samples in the core rules.

Definitely have a conversation with the troupe about how much history, how much fantastical, and what kind of game you're thinking of running. Intrigue in urban games or the heart of the Order is different from Crusades is different from supernatural machinations on the frontier.

Hi,

I once thought as you do.

About characteristics, I mean. I still think that Timothy almost always has something to say that is very much worth hearing, agree or disagree.

But characteristics... eh. Most people are average. So the only characteristics worth having are those whose deviations from average a game system can really model. Everything else is just character sheet clutter.

So, from an AM5 perspective, I'd rather model human strength or intelligence with a set of 4 Major and Minor General Virtues and Flaws. That provides us with 5 levels for each "characteristic," which happens to be a sweet spot for categorization. Of course, if you already have a major general virtue or flaw, supernatural versions might tack onto this for Mythic Competence or Incompetence. (Although my idea of a Major Flaw in something like this would already start with automatic failure as a baseline, with automatic botch at the GM's discretion.) Or maybe the major version is supernatural. In Mythic Europe, it is reasonable and even expected that great strength or genius comes from somewhere.

"Characteristics" can then become an arbitrary and extensible set of attributes, similar to some of the virtues in AM3 that provided bonuses to a category. This idea borders on the open-ended attribute definitions popular in some modern rpgs, and also in OTE. Going this route, one would probably want to ask players not to choose something like "Magic", although the AM3 version of that was definitely balanced, at 2VP for +1.

The 7 free points for characteristics could then become a few free Virtue Points, which would be a good thing on its own. Rather than spend points on fixed characteristics, I could have a perfectly normal guy who happens to be a guildmaster or knight, and move on from there.

But I've tangented: This isn't very useful for new players.

Anyway,

Ken