Replacing Vis as a concept - Game Design

Salve Sodalis

I'm pondering new games, new settings and new ways to twist the Ars Magica system.

In particular, Vis. Vis is pretty much unique to the Ars Magica setting. Other settings might have spell components or ways of channelling magical power, but vis, as a highly diverse, universal magical fuel is pretty unique.

So what if we got rid of it?

Obviously this breaks the game entirely. No rituals, no enchantments, no studying from vis, no vis-as-magical-currency. So you need to replace it.

Now vis is essentially just magical fuel. It powers other magic and can be studied as a physical manifestation of magic. What other ways are there tat we could fuel magic? I'm thinking:

  • Geomancy to channel naturally occurring but diffuse magic into an area where it can be tapped
  • Sacrifice to pull the magic within a creature out to use, killing or wounding it in the process
  • Propitiation to ask for the magic fuel from a potent god or spirit, possibly involving some kind of sacrifice, behaviour or actions
  • Worship to either power something directly, i.e. worship IS power, or as a form of Propitiation to a god who the supplies the power in a more formalised and reliable sense
  • Specific magic fuel like Warpstone in Warhammer, some external magic fuel that comes from a specific place/time and has a set nature

Are there any other methods that anyone can think of, any from existing fantasy settings that could be adapted?

How could you adapt settings where there is an abundant flow of magic that characters tap into, like the weave in Forgotten Realms, or the Warp like Warhammer? Those settings often have elaborate rituals, but no direct vis analogue.

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You'd be surprised, if you looked for a link with d&d, that they are indeed there. 3rd edition made magic item creation entirely dependent on money - and you could indeed decide there's no such thing as vis, merely expensive components, and derive a cost accordingly. But old school d&d, 2nd edition and before, did require obscure components based on GM fiat such as the last breath of a pixie, a dragon scale, a ground up mandrake root, etc. Why? It was never clear. How a PC could invent a formula? Neither. That's where ars magicka vis comes from. The mandrake root became herbam vis, the dragon scale became ignem vis, the last breath of a pixie became auram vis. Suddenly, magic item creation made sense.

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I've been reading a lot of xianxia (chinese punch wizards) novels lately and they have a huge assortment of 'natural treasures' - basically qi altered plants and minerals, as well as spirit stones, which serve as the base currency for cultivators rather than gold/silver. Spirit stones are mostly used to power 'formations' and are basically qi batteries, they can also be used (inefficiently) to further your power.

The natural treasures were used to make magic items and craft alchemical pills that are the 'better' way to further your abilities. Other options include consuming the cores of spirit beasts, the flesh of 'demons' (what a demon is varies by story) or (if you're really evil) old fashioned qi vampirism.

And to add extra difficulty, you need natural treasures that more or less align with your current power level, because stuff that's too strong for you can seriously mess you up.

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How about you need to harvest all or part of the Magic Might of a magical being in place of Vis?

You would be constantly hunting new magic might creatures, guarding and maintaining the ones you have captured, restoring partially depleted Magic Might, and encouraging new ones to form - breeding and/or putting mundane creatures in powerful regionnes to warp.

Portable Vis would be difficult for the mage about town

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Instantly, I thought about cley from WorldTree, but maybe that's too similar too raw vis for your question. I have not played WorldTree for twenty years, so I cannot remember the details.

But I agree with @temprobe on this. Or at least I think I do; I may have misread him. Your suggestion is really working backwards. We got vis to rid us from the finite list of anticipated ingredients, and have one concept to fuel whatever idea the players come up with. That is Ars Magica's forte: flexibility.

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You could adapt the Threshold Magic idea from GURPS. Normal GURPS magic requires either stored power or the mage's bodily strength to do spells. (Enchantments are treated differently, time being the currency there.)

But the dreaded Threshold Mages can cast any magic they know and don't need their own or anyone's strength. But they have a limit to how much magic they can cast without harm: harm to themselves, to others or to the world itself. And the limit only regenerates slowly.

So in an emergency a Threshold Mage could move mountains... But only if he's willing to risk, say, dropping down dead of super fast aging or all the magic in the immediate area always attracting demoncs from then on.

How would I do this in AM? I think that voluntairly accepting Warping to power your greatest creations is very flavourful, don't you?

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You could also look at Exalted 3e. There, to power their sorceries, they have to gather energy from the area. Depending on the spell they cast, it can take them time to collect the energy.

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In a way, this is how Muspelli work their magic.
I don't think they're the only ones (I seem to vaguely recall something else), but I may be mistaken or confused.

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A few ideas, some of which touch on things already discussed:

Magic Limited By Rare Stuff
This is the category vis is in already - you need some thing to do certain magic, and that thing is hard to get and/or limited in quantity. Other variants might include:

  • Magic requires appropriate ingredients or catalysts, and the more powerful the magic the more rarefied they need to be. e.g. Level 10 CrIg needs a mundane ruby, while level 50 needs a dragon's egg. Same concept as vis but less generalised
  • Magic requires life force. Sacrifice (voluntary or otherwise) is a necessary component of powerful magic.
  • Powerful magic isn't something mortals can do. For that, you need to summon a spirit/god/demon and bargain with them. This requires true names, specialised rituals, maybe gifts etc.

Magic Limited By Location
Magic is restricted to places of power or similar. Sort of exists in Ars already with auras and regiones, but as a bonus/malus rather than hard requirement.

  • Magic taps into leylines or nexuses of power or something similar, which may vary in power (making powerful magic possible only in very select places)
  • Magic doesn't stick around at ground level. E.g.cthonic energies are heavier than air and sink deep below the earth, while astral energies are lighter than air and float towards the sky. Powerful magic requires being deep underground, or high up in the air (that's why wizards like towers so much).
  • Powerful magic requires an environment attuned to the magic and that becomes more intense as the magic gets stronger. Think of the study requirement flaw, but it applies to spells and lab work too.
  • Powerful magic is not possible in the terrestrial world at all, and requires accessing higher planes of existence (think astral projection or trances)

Magic Limited By Time/Complexity
Magic takes time, and that time increases exponentially as it gets more powerful. Complexity is similar, in that powerful magic is simply too involved to do without a lot of prep and a good reason.

  • Casting times increase exponentially with magnitude. A level 5 spell takes a round to cast, but a level 50 spell takes a week (without breaks).
  • Powerful magic is too complex for one person, so powerful spells need many magi working in tandem.
  • Powerful spells are as hard to master as entire schools of lesser magic. Think of Fenecil's rituals, which must each be learnt and advanced as an ability but if all ritual spells and enchantments were like that.
  • Powerful spells can only be cast when the time is right. e.g. spells require auspicious astrological factors, and such confluences for powerful spells are so rare they can only be cast rarely.
  • Powerful spells take up so much mental "space" that learning one requires you to forget a lot of smaller useful magic. Learning really big spells leaves no room for anything else (this is the case in Discworld).
  • Powerful spells require questing, or emulation of some supernatural being. Imagine if the system of mystery initiations was something that also applied to learning (and using?) powerful magic.

Magic Limited By Bad Stuff
Magic itself is corrupting, or maybe the intensity of studying magic wears on a person, or some other nasty consequence. Either way, magic is not good for your health and the more powerful the worse it gets.

  • Corruption, a la Warhammer. Magic draws on the power of evil stuff and taints the user, maybe also attracts demons/monsters.
  • Magic is powered by your own life force and if you go overboard you get sick or die.
  • The god(s), elder beings, eldritch things from beyond, or what have you might start to pay attention to you if you cast magic. The bigger the magic the more likely you are to be "spotted". This is a bad thing.
  • Learning and/or using powerful magic strains the mind and drives people mad.
  • The caster is fine but magic taints or destroys the land. The pressure against going crazy with powerful magic is social rather than practical (think Dark Sun).

What seems most thematic for me in terms of the Ars Magica paradigm (Historical Europe but many things that were believed at the time are literally true) is to have all powerful magic require intervention from spirits. Essentially, make all magic work the way Solomonic magic does in canon. The goetic arts would likely be more prominent too.

You could also work in the "Magic needs magical places" quite readily, by making magic above a certain level only work in a powerful enough magic aura, and really powerful stuff can only be done in the magic realm.

Magic only working at auspicious times also seems thematic, but I'm not sure how you could implement that mechanically.

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Mage the Ascension and Mage the Sorceror's Crusade, which have some Ars Magica DNA, have Quintessence, which is more of a universal vis, but it has a Resonance. So you can use Vampire Blood to heal someone, but the deep Death resonance may cause complications, compared to the "Restful" resonance of Quintessence collected from a Sacred Glade... In Mage sacrifice can also be a source of Quintessence, your own blood, animals, other humans etc. It's slightly more of a measure of "life force" than just "pure magic juice."

As a side note, I'm personally moving to the "universal vis" house rule similar to Mage rather than have 15 different types to keep track of.

Another point about Mage is that powerful workings are only available to PC's using group magic, as it takes forever to become powerful enough to do them on their own.

To speak up on Exalted's model, you have regular Sorcery spells, which use slightly different mechanics. In the latest edition, the caster has to spend a certain number of rounds rolling their Intelligence+Occult to create "Sorcerous Motes." If you have "maximum" pool of 10 dice, you can technically roll 0 to 20 successes, 5 on average, which is 0 to 20 sorcerous motes in a round or 5 on average.

The spells are broken down into 3 Tiers, which require separate levels of initiation to learn, and cannot be cast in groups.

Terrestrial Circle Spells - equivalent to level 20-40 (roughly!) in Ars Magica. Typical cost of 5-20 sorcerous motes, so "on average" 1 to 4 rounds to cast for an optimized Sorcerer.
Celestial Circle Spells - equivalent to level 30-60 (roughly!) in Ars Magica. Typical cost of 10-30 sorcerous motes, so "on average" 2 to 6 rounds to cast for an optimized Sorcerer.
Solar Circle Spells - equivalent to level 50-100 (roughly!) in Ars Magica. Typical cost of 25-50 sorcerous motes, so "on average" 5 to 10 rounds to cast for an optimized Sorcerer.

If you wish to enchant a valley so that people won't enter, you are now making a Sorcerous Working, which is similar to Ars Magica's enchanting rules, but are more generalized. Typically, they can take a long time to do, must often be started or finished at the right time, require rare ingredients, etc. They also allow for group participation. Similarly to the above, they are broken down into 3 Tiers, and at the most basic level (Terrestrial) can allow for an enchanted laboratory, all the way to rewriting reality (Solar).

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One other possible source of Inspiration, might be the 2nd edition of D&D, which introduced us to Dark Sun, where arcane spellcasters could either be Preservers, or Defilers. You also had to gather energy from the plants and the earth around you, but if you were a Preserver, you took the time to cast spells, so that you gather the energy from a larger circle, so as to preserve the life of plants, and the fertility of the earth, but if you were a Defiler, you cast your spells faster, gathering energy from a smaller area, but causing plants to wither, and the earth to be barren.
The Defilers are the reason Athas, the world of Dark Sun, has become mostly a barren desert.

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Going back to this.
I'd make the rituals the requisite for tapping into that flow of magic.

You could have these provide a bonus to the casting total, either a flat bonus, or something based on the aura (say, +5*aura) when you take extra extra time (say, your ritual takes 2 hours per magnitude)

Or you could have them replace vis.
You could do a direct analogue aura = vis, and if the aura is not sufficient, make a spellcasting roll, and, unless you fail, count again the aura, and so on, until you've amassed enough points from the aura.
To clarify: I want to cast a lvl 30 ritual in a lvl 3 magical aura. I need 6 points, and the aura gives 3. My casting total is 22.
First time, I get 3 points. I roll, for a total of 27. I succeed, but take 1 fatigue level.
Second time, I get 3 points again, bringing me to 6. I roll, for 28. Again, I succeed, but lose another fatigue level.

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I don't get "warping" from what you write above.

Going for "aging themselves quickly", you could have each spell cast require an aging roll with a penalty equal to the spell's magnitude.
You can, of course, adjust that. For exemple, you could have the penalty be equal to (Spell Magnitude - Aura), which makes magical auras all the more precious.

For the "affect surroundings" part, you could just roll as many botch dices as the spell magnitude (or, again, magnitude - aura, or magnitude - warping, or 2*magnitude - aura - warping, or something else, you get the idea), each botch affecting the surrounding in some bad way.
Hum... Keep that, and roll another botch dice when a botch dice comes up "0". The number of botches time 2 becomes the magnitude of a detrimental spell cast on that place.
OR the number of botches become the number of "flaw points" affecting that place. So 3 botches could become "plagued by a supernatural entity)
OR each botch permanently decreases the local magical aura by 1 (for the Dark Sun option. This works well if auras mitigate detrimental effects from spells, since those who harm auras definitely harm future spellcasting there)

In short: What do you want exactly? What's the end result, what's important, and how severe do you want the failures to be? Once you have answered these, the rest is pretty easy :slight_smile:

A bit offtopic, but I'm in the mood: I'm not in any way a fan of removing vis from the game (I think it's the main reason magi don't just DEO -or similar spell- enemies away), but I deeply dislike the idea of stocked vis because I think leads to scenes like getting magic apples and then piling them up for decades without them rotting or anything, and these old covenant huge vis stocks numbers, to the point that from time to time I toy with the idea of decaying vis.

But anyway that made me think: Gribble, why do you want to remove Vis? Is there something bothering you about it, or something you want to acompish without it?

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It's pretty trivial for magi to move vis into more durable items RAW. A level 15 ReVi spell, or a day of lab work (which can be fobbed off onto an apprentice).

I've always assumed, and it's what I use in my sagas, that vis is very rarely stored in its original form unless it's already convenient and durable. If I recall there's even something in HoH:TL about it being traditional to keep vis in ornamental objects.

That said, I can see the argument around the quantity thing. Not being able to stockpile vis, or at least needing to deal with spoilage, could add some very interesting dynamics. Would make vis sources massively more important, and conflicts over them a lot higher stakes. Not sure I'd go for it in my games but it's interesting to think about.

The flavour of the GURPS Threshold magic is something that used carefully and responsibly gives the magician a small amount more flexibility and power but if you go beyond the safe limits you find yourself risking harm to yourself and others.

I don't say Warping is the only way to do this in AM: there are probably better ways to do it.

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In my games we've always moved vis into more durable forms like coins or tokens with designs representing the appropriate art. What we found is that while we'd be strapped for some forms, we'd often acquire large stocks of the less used stuff, even when our vis input for it was low.

As for why....I've looked at changing the setting for Ars Magica before, I ran the Scions of Nathas game that was an entirely new setting. I've written stuff that puts Ars in different time periods (1600s and modern day) and that puts the rules set in different worlds. One of the things that sometimes doesn't translate as well is the reliance on vis sources that often depend on magical auras. Sometimes, I'm looking for a more universal magic system, sometimes I want a system where I can use other kinds of magical fuel.
For instance, a setting I've had on the back burner for a while now is a fantasy world which is mostly a huge desert containing the remains of many ancient civilizations. I wanted each one to use magic differently, but in a way that the PCs would be able to learn, adapt and adopt the magic they find. This is something that Ars already has rules for. I wanted one past civilization to have drawn their power from religion, either from the gods directly or through worship generated by mortal worshippers. I wanted another to use some form of geomancy, they literally reworked the landscape to funnel free moving magic and cast their rituals from places of power, confluences of these funnels. Another group would use sacrifice, both of their own life force and that of others (I see this as an innately corrupting form of magic, they didn't make a very pleasant empire).
Ars Magica really only has the one system, some places or things generate vis. Which is perfectly fine. But there other concepts out there that could be used in Ars Magica itself or in other settings that use the same ruleset.

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I think you can resolve a lot of this within ArM just by making vis scarce, and playing on the more obscure features. There are virtues, I think, to replace raw vis with fluid vis from various sources in various ways. The rumoured rare components may contain vis, but because vis is rare, you have to make the quest and follow up on obscure rumours.

What I dislike with the current system is the imbalance. Most starting characters I see stockpile vis. Except the enchanters who find themselves constantly short, at least if they want to enchant stuff to actually use in stories. Vis becomes its own accounting game, at the expense of roleplay. Making vis more volatile would solve this problem.

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For example it would take little work to convert the tytalus specific "leper magic" virtue into a form of self-sacrifice magic.

in mechanical terms, all the virtue does is that you get to create vis that must be used instantly by taking wounds.

its flavor is related to leprosy in the core setting, but it would be extremely easy to drop that in case you want a different flavor in a different, hypothetical, setting.

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Thinking about Earthdawn Threadweaving talents.

Perhaps in Ars you have VisWeaving supernatural skills, corresponding to each Form, or Technique, or even all Arts.
Spend a Season meditating in a Magic Aura and you can "weave" a number of pawns of Vis into a single VisWeaving skill, equal to minimum of the Aura value or the particular VisWeaving skill level.

Say you have Terram VisWeaving at level 5, and no current Terram Vis. 1 Season of weaving in Aura 3 gets you 3 pawns Terram. a 2nd season fills your Terram Vis to maximum level 5.

Unless we say each level of VisWeaving is worth 5 Vis? Or perhaps a pyramidal total?
Do you have to use a Virtue to get a particular VisWeaving skill?

Not certain how you would trade Vis.
Some auras may give bonus to a particularArt Vis.

Con is that this will lead to Form Vis specialists. And increase in bookkeeping

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