Session zero, no covenant?

Hi still waiting for my books to arrive (I may have ordered a lot.. whoops).

Thinking of how I might run our first saga - we are all new to AM.

Is this initial Saga idea possible/feasible:

(Usually 6 players in our group + one SG/DM/Referee)

Session zero: 4-5 Grogs + 1-2 Apprentices doing something. Introduce the game mechanics, give Grogs a chance to shine and introduce magi/magic lightly. Perhaps introduce the letter/intro to Calebais that they take back to the magi.

Session 1+: Run Calebais - The Broken Covenant. (This will now include Magi too)

Q1: Can it work for the players to have NO Covenant base to start? Or at a minimum should they have a Spring covenant with just an Aura? (My thinking is that they can obtain Calebais once that is resolved)

Q2: For those who have run Calebais: do you usually use the same characters for the entire Calebais story? ie: the 1-2 characters playing Magi get to be Magi for the entire 5? sessions? And the other players as Grogs/etc? Or do you tend to rotate them out every 1-2 sessions when there is a break point?

Calebais could be the base from which they start, for sure. It could also be a goal to unlocking the secret information to another site altogether for which they only have clues and legends, but want to access directly. (i.e. The Secret Location of Val-Negra, the lost Domus Magnus of House Flambeau.)

I have read Calebais myself a long time ago, and unfortunately haven't looked at it seriously.

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Trying to start with no covenant or a starting spring covenant is a common beginning approach that issues one basic question- where did the magi themselves come from? They presumably have parens, who are at covenants, with libraries, so why did these magi who almost miraculously finished their apprenticeships at the same time decide to chuck all those resources and decide to try and establish a covenant of their own?
I mean something akin to the Irish wild times (don't make me try and remember the spelling) where they are not bound to the rules of the order and have no parma would be much closer to traditional adventure based roleplaying and allow them some time to gather resources with which to establish a covenant before they take on the burdens of doing so.

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As written, Calebais works best with a base to which the PCs can fall back to. This can be a covenant managed by NPC magi, like Semitae or a Rhine covenant housing the PC magi as peregrinatores (see Guardians of the Forest p,20 box). This allows you also to make expeditions to Calebais with different magi, and to take some lab time in between them.

Such an outcome would not be typical. It would also strongly condition your saga. Best read Calebais carefully to the end before deciding this, or basing your plans on it.

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I think that will put way too much weight over SubDeorsum's shoulders, managing that covenant with these NPCs. We are running Calebais exactly like SubDersum, without any fall back covenant. If at some point they decide they have to retreat and start doing some homework in a lab before carrying on, we will probably handwave it away with the magi travelling back to their parens' covenants and move on.

Or just start chopping some trees and building huts on the top of the well and start a spring covenant on top of Calebais, and then dig their way down as they advance.

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I noted this fan-written adventure (The Kidnapped Mother in Law) a while back and think it might work as an introduction to setting/mindset.

I have not run it but I think it is quite cool:

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Nice. Reminds me of the old Stormrider jump start kit.

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My standard approach when experimenting with a new system and/or introducing new players is:

  1. Use a published adventure that takes no longer than 2 sessions;
  2. Pre-generated characters only
  3. After it is finished, it is finished. We will never look back at this. This won't be extended into a full fledged campaign.

These recommendations come from this article. I do think they are pretty solid.

I introduced every new player I've had in Ars using this framework. For the saga it was Nigrasaxa, with small adjustments to make it 5ed instead of 4ed (quite easy to do, actually). The players used the templates from the corebook as characters.

I like the Nigrasaxa saga because it introduces several key elements of the game and the setting at once. A non exhaustive list below:

First Chapter.

  1. You are magi, but there are stronger magi who might ask favors;
  2. You try to keep stable relations with the local nobility;
  3. The mundanes and the church are expected to be against magic, but you shouldn't simply antagonize them;
  4. Faeries;
  5. You can go back to the covenant to pick up supplies.

Second Chapter.

  1. Deal with problems caused by another magus;
  2. Manage the expectations of the covenfolk;

Third Chapter.

  1. Tribunal politics
  2. Rival magi
  3. Be responsible for what you did
  4. Trading resources

There are also interludes between each chapter for the characters to study or work in personal projects (I usually handwave it with "just put 10xp per season wherever you want" for study, and give extra seasons if someone wants to invent a spell from scratch or enchant an item).


After that my players usually have a better understanding of what kind of game Ars is, what it can do, and what kind of saga they want to play.

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Q1. You are the SG. It can work with no covenant base to start with. You choose what obstacles to throw at the party. Don't make the obstacles too hard. If there are resource problems, you can have an NPC magic who is a lot older, who is a mentor figure who can swoop in and help. Give them a vis source they harvest and trade for mundane resources, etc.
While it is somewhat peculiar to have a bunch of new magi all the same age running about, it's not impossible. We are telling stories. Basically, no matter how improbable, it becomes acceptable as the sheer weirdness is why one chose to tell this story.

Q2. I got nothing. Haven't run it.

I have taken that approach several times, with different results. As a newbie, 25 years ago, it was never a success. But of course, that does not meant that it could not work for you.

The main reason it was a catastrophe 25 years ago was that we started with no clear idea about where we were heading and how to make a covenant. The result was that we fiddled with the minutia of finding a place to settle, and never got into the long game which is Ars Magica's forte.

When I tried to get a new game started twenty years later, I staged it as with ruined covenant to explore and refound. The redcaps had a political interest in drawing new blood to the covenant, and supplied the necessary rumours. That worked better, and the saga failed for other reasons entirely. I was not entirely happy about it, but it was probably teething problems and not a good reason not to try it.

Whether this will work with Calebais, I do not know, but it seems that others say that they should have a base to fall back on. If you start with apprentices, you can always have their alma mater as the initial base. Logically that should be their base at that stage of life and a point to fall back on. There is of course the risk that they fall back too much, and you as SG have to play too many NPCs and too much internal intrigue. You can limit the risk. Making it sufficiently remote will help, and so will being a bloody good SG.

If you were suggesting to start with a Spring covenant with absolutely nothing but the aura, I would say not to bother. I think the entire point with a starting covenant is that the magi have the resources to get into an everyday flow and take a few seasons of downtime advancements after a few sessions of stories. There is no reason that could not be a broken covenant that they repopulate, but I think you should be fairly confident that they will succeed in reasonable time. If one plays for months without downtime advancement, I think we are better off playing something other than Ars Magica.

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I agree, The players (And the covenant itself, which should grow to be a major character) need downtime to progress. If you are new to the system, the be very generous with downtime!

Bob

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I double agree. Is that a thing? Anyway.....

If I recall correctly, the OP has people from a D&D game environment who are used to leveling up, getting better numbers, etc, and it's a big power jump. Magic missile to Fireball....

Bigger numbers in Ars Majica is a slow process.

A companion may well start with his best skill with a +9 modifier, and by the time the companion starts degrading due to old age, may have got to a +11.

Due to this, I'd be generous with the right book for the right person also.

Person is a creo ignem mage, but didn't have enough spell levels for "Arc of fiery ribbons" at character creation? Magi finds the book.

Magi is frustrated he keeps meeting people who he can't talk to as they speak a different language? Magi finds a thoughts within babble book.

Magi realises he wants some mentem to go with his rego, let them find the quality 21 level 6 mentem summae (21/6 books are sometimes mockingly called the dummies guide to magic, or magic for dummies).

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I find that I am very slow to realise just how different D&D is. Not just different to Ars Magica, but different to other games in its own genre. Maybe the learning curve is even steeper than I remember, as one coming mainly from basic roleplaying derivatives.

And if the players want to see the skyrocketing power of levelling up, who am I to stop them.

Yet, it is worth pointing to other ways in which power increases in Ars Magica.

  1. Playing the long game means that one can develop contacts and political power in ways the itinerant adventurer can never do.
  2. The principal character is the covenant, which can grow in power by acquiring books and magic items, grow its income and employ armies, and take magical sites to harvest their vis.
  3. As the story evolves, a greater understanding of the world and its political realities emerge. This too is power to those who know how to take advantage thereof.

Admittedly, the companions will not normally be at the front of long-term action. Magi dominate that stage.

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Thanks very much. This sounds like a solid approach!

Thanks all for the suggestions and ideas and advice.

I think where I have landed is to do:

  • a one-off with pregens (thanks @RafaelB )
  • then we'll launch a campaign proper after we have a better handle on the rules and game play.

That campaign will have it's own covenant (again thanks all for pointing out why that would be easiest and best, esp for a new SG).

  • There will be plenty of downtime etc (I don't recall making any mention of reducing or removing downtime at all - but perhaps people assume that from the idea of no initial covenant - to be clear they'd have access to downtime/resources in that scenario and some have suggested way to do that. Anyway there will be a starting covenant):
  • I am tempted to still have grogs/apprentices as the opening scene before starting Calebais with the magi proper. I hope this will create more attachment and connection to the lesser characters.

I'd note that I think people have assumed a bit too much about the ability of the group to enjoy AM because they have mostly cut their teeth on D&D. Those kind of statements can be off putting to those looking to move into AM. Those new-to-RPG people that I introduced RPGs via our D&D group are great roleplayers and it would be a shame if they visit these forums sometime and feel less because that is where they started/the sum of their current experience. It just comes across as elitist, even if that is not the intent. Having said all that, people here seem really passionate and helpful - so I think its just a case of being mindful of how comments can be perceived rather than any actual game snobbery.

Anyway thank you all for the comments and ideas. 100% has helped better/correct my initial thoughts.

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Even just starting with a bare bones spring covenant there are a lot of stories to tell to get things up to a level you may want. It's why I personally no longer really like starting with no covenant or a recently started covenant and much prefer playing new blood at a Summer, Autumn, or Winter covenant.

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@SubDeorsum I'm so happy to hear you have great roleplayers in your group. Some of what you are hearing about D&D players is that... Well, they are just D&D players. They're not Role-playing-game players, they play only D&D, and that's it. This comprises a statistically significant segment of D&D players, of what proportion I have no idea. For the minority of the hobby who does not primarily play D&D (i.e. Me, and many people on this forum), reaching this type of player can quite difficult.

Otherwise, you plan sounds fantastic! One thing to consider is some players may like their pregens and want to keep them. :wink:

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I was not making assumptions. I was merely warning you of a pitfall that I have gone into myself. We never wanted to remove downtime either, but we were caught up in minutia and just lost sight of it.

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Again, late to the party, but here is my contribution:
you can absolutely start a saga without a long term Covenant, and have the first chapter of the saga be about choosing the site and settling it, while the party has some kind of "back up home".
To use my own saga as an example: the party were given temporary accommodation along with a deadline (the bottom two floors a large incomplete house in another Covenant and 2 years rent free) additionally, they did not have labs (which are all important to develop spells and make items). This both allowed them to have a place to leave books, gifts items and grogs not in use, somewhere to rest and also access to older magi who could give them a nudge or hint.

I absolutely recommend this. As mages go from apprentices to full mage status, they have a gauntlet. I ran for 3 people and we did the gauntlet for two of the mages (the players who were less familiar with the system). For one I ran the Narva scenario (moved to 1220 instead of 1241) and for the other the Specimen hunt. This gives the players a chance to test out the system and gain a feel for it, as well as test out their mages (and an opportunity to respec them if they see don't like the spell combo for example). Any grog which survives the opening scenarios can form the core of the new Covenant. Though doing 6 of them, for 6 mages seems like a lot of time taken out of the start of the saga.

The first proper PnP game that I played was DnD, and it was my second game too. As the most popular game, many people do. One game which I would say helped transition from the usual dungeon-crawling to a different type of game was the Pendragon campaign, which is also has a lot of downtime between quests, and activities/management of a family and manor.

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Sorry if I came across that way. My intent was to explain the differences in the systems so you point your group in the right direction to enhance their gaming experience, not to suggest those who play D&D are lesser.

Ars Majica can have hardened grognards who want to squeeze every possible optimisation and will get more excited about getting a new perfectly synergised virtue than story elements also.

The players are more important than the system in that context.

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