Setting as Written

In the Tribunal thread, I stated why I did not feel any of the 5th edition Tribunal books worked for a newly starting saga. A number of people suggested just using the ideas I liked and throwing away the rest. I wanted to explain why I don’t find that an attractive option.

In any role playing game, it is really helpful if all of the participants share a common understanding of what the world is like. One of the advantages of using real history is that there is an relatively easily available background data that everyone can pull from that allows different players to come to a common understanding of what is going on. Similarly, if you someone uses a tribunal book, and it is used as written, there is a whole slew of information that everyone know about the setting. Once you start changing things, you lose that tool that keeps everyone on the same page about what the world is like.

But the "setting as written" has bits I wrote in it telling you not to do this, telling you that no saga is vanilla, telling you to work out a play contract and then design your world based on your story flaws and covenant hooks. -That's- your common understanding.

The setting as written isn't what you think it is. The setting as written is that no-one ever should play in the vanilla setting.

I have a theory. It's that I'm only ever writing what I write for about five or six people. Now, hopefully, that's many, many sets of "five or six people" all across the world (I can hope, right?) but the scope of what I do needs to be appropriate to a troupe of just a handful of players. So when you say "everyone", I hear "my troupe", because that's all that matters; to a bunch of guys playing thousands of miles away it doesn't matter whether you alter an aspect of a Tribunal or even the medieval paradigm itself as it has no bearing on their play style.

So any alterations you want to make to a given Tribunal need the consent of maybe six people, and that's not that many to gain agreement from and actually I can't think of a single change that someone might suggest that would be a deal-breaker if the vote went against that change.

Take Hibernia, for instance. If you decided that the imposition on covenants to keep cattle was terribly un-Irish and you put it to your troupe that you wanted to omit that from your Hibernian saga, then go ahead. I'm not sure what it might gain other than closing off a couple of story avenues, but losing it doesn't suddenly break anything. Or if you thought that the Hibernian tradition of bee-keeping and the exchange of honey between friends and allies was a little too twee for your tastes, then drop it by all means. That kind of detail adds a little flavour to a saga setting, but really doesn't do anything mechanically. If you felt strongly that a covenant shouldn't have to prove its right to exist to the Tribunal in which it is based, then talk it through and see what the troupe says.

I know I'm going back to Tribunals and I think your point is more about the wider world setting, but in writing Hibernia we made sure that the kind of local customs we developed were either purely cultural in nature, such as the bees and even the Macgnimartha, or could be explained as part of the peripheral code (which is an in-setting mechanism for defining differences in law and governance between Tribunals) stemming from The Code of Hermes. The content on Wizard War (page 25) was not the first draft, for instance, as we had to look closely to ensure that we didn't contradict The Code itself. As for the Hibernia's rules on membership rules, the Core book (page 15) states this:

"These areas are roughly fixed by Grand Tribunal decisions, but the magi in them can change the name of the Tribunal at will, and set the membership requirements freely."

The core book does give a fair degree of leeway to the individual Tribunal books.

So as for the idea of taking what you like and excluding what you don't not being an attractive option, I sympathise but I'm not sure what the answer to it is; the Ars Magica library consists of books filled with play suggestions and options. If you don't ignore the bits you aren't going to use then you either use all of it or none of it, both of which are a little extreme.

Let us use the Hibernia Tribunal as an example. Suppose the feature I want to remove is the cathach. You have to belong to a covenant to be in residence, and you can only be a covenant if you have a cathach, and you can't actually put the cathach inside your Aegis of the Hearth. Every single covenant description in the book talks about their cathach. The story about the magic elk antlers and how they were used to defend the foundation of the covenant was great. It is a colorful, exciting part of the setting. If a give a new player a copy of the Tribunal book and say, "But we are not doing the stuff with the cathach," it leaves questions regarding what replaces that.

When I was living in the DC area and was part of a campaign that was set in a covenant that was right on the edge of the Normandy Tribunal and Provincial Tribunal, there was a whole story line regarding which tribunal we were going to go with. I argued strongly that the Normandy Tribunal was insane, that whatever the Provincial Tribunal was like, I didn't think they would rob us of our gold and food. The fact that there was something definite, something that we could all refer to rather than not was the deciding factor.

I can sympathize with the desire to play by-the-book. Sure does make things easier.

On the other hand, I still think the Tribunal you play in is so important for your saga - for many sagas, at least - that it's better to tailor-fit it to your needs. There is simply no way the tribunal book perfectly anticipated the needs of your saga.

So I think there are advantages both ways. What works for one group and saga might not work for another. I do think that omitting general features like how covenants are accepted is far easier than changing the "flavor" of the tribunal - like ramping up the magic, or introducing major factions.

I know you probably already have a number of your own answers to this question, but here's my take:

  1. You don't need to replace it with anything. If you drop it, all you drop is a little local flavour, you lose the image of the covenants displaying their cathaigh at Tribunal, and you lose some story potential. Nothing else stops working. Founding a covenant becomes a process of showing wealth (cattle, etc.) and claiming all the land you can walk around without casting a spell.
  2. You could drop the bit about having to keep it outside of an Aegis. If you do that, then nothing else stops working. All you do, is make it less vulnerable to assault.
  3. You could say that an assault on the cathach is an attempt on the magical power of a magus. If you do that, then nothing else stops working.
  4. You could make the possession of a cathach an entirely cultural affair with no legal standing at all. If you do that, then nothing else stops working.

Importantly, you probably won't be making that decision on your own (I would hope) as it's really for the troupe to decide upon, so you would have five or six heads working on how it plays out if you drop that small part of the published setting.

The importance of the cathach in the Elk's Run story is that he used it to show great cunning, cunning that impressed the Tribunal. The story still works if you remove the need to have a magical trophy to symbolise your covenant.

But the example of the cathach that you give is such a small part of the published setting. Now, if you pick something large like the treaty that prevents magi of the Order from settling in Connacht, well that does have a significant impact on the setting and the Hibernian/English mindset.

One of the points I don't know how well came over from the people arguing for 'Setting as Written' viewpoint is that in my experience groups where every single one of them is trying out a new RPG for the first time tend to play 'Setting as Written' completely until they get comfortable enough with the setting to know what they want to change. Ignorance prevents the fine tuning of a saga to match what suits their players. It is why from my viewpoint you should make the setting up of a new saga as easy as possible, and introduce things like Tribunal politics after several sessions, so that the players can grow into their characters skins, learn the setting etc. first. Rather than making the politics a required part of the introductory session.

Most RPGs I have learnt over the years bring in new players successfully with prepublished adventures, rather than just a basic rulebook and my introduction to Ars Magica was the same. The first group I learnt with the GM made too many mistakes trying to learn and the group broke up after one session, the second group played from Twelfth Night, and flawed as that adventure is it worked well enough to get us into the setting. I have had both Mistridge and Triamore as saga settings in past games, and both worked well enough to allow play with just those and the main rulebook of the edition. I would stongly argue for a full Covenant setting book for 5th edition as well, for the same reason.

It might be a inaccurate view of mine, but 5th edition seems specifically aimed at dedicated fans, who have already learned the game rather than for new casual players wanting to try out a new game line.

Nothing. You wanted a book without such flavourful oddities, so why would you want to replace it with another bit of flavourful oddity?

If you want a tribunal that works like the basic one in the core book, cut out everything but the map of covenants and the magi, and assume the tribunal works like the one in the core book.

If you want a more interesting tribunal system than what you've then got... well, then you want a tribunal that isn't the basic one.

The tribunal can't simultaneously have complications and not have them.

Ars Magica, actually almost any RPG, has another way of dealing with parts of the setting you don't care for other then throwing them out. You can always just ignore them or gloss over the details.

You don't wan't your covenant to have to worry about protecting a magical keepsake just make sure all the troupe members agree to ignore it. Sure you have one it's listed on your covenant sheet but you never use it, a couple of nameless grogs guard it, and no one is ever going to steal it. You wheel it out at tribunal and that's about that.

You want to start a covenant in the Rhine Tribunal but don't wan't to deal with all the political crap. Just assume all the stuff is taken care of and don't take Hooks and Boons that would apply to that.

These features are still present in the setting but they are not a part of your story.

The only book(s) at fault here, if any, are the core 5th edition rulebook and the possible exclusion of a clearly labelled 'this is the entry-level saga book' for new groups. The problem with the latter is it is a high risk venture, because RPGs aren't known for their broad-market appeal, it'd need a huge amount of marketing to meet its own goal and even then it might be the case that the Ars Magica environment is already fairly saturated.

Every other book in the series is likely to only sell to people who are either a) OCD about having every single book for a system before they start play (White Wolf must LOVE those guys!) or b) people who are already invested in the game and are looking for more.

And I agree that the 5th edition core rulebook is not quite as new-player friendly as previous editions. There's a bunch of reasons why that is - but by the same token I can't hold it to fault too much because 5th edition is also the edition that has spawned the largest number of sourcebooks and extensions - and that suggests they are selling.

Personally I'm glad the setting has a lot of pick-and-mix stuff to it. After all, it fits with the base setting that in itself has a lot of pick-and-mix too. That's the nature of anachronistic settings: we choose to include features A and B of medieval life, but we gloss over or flat out exclude features C and D. What constitutes A, B, C and D can vary from group to group.

For my money, the intention is that a troupe can pick up any (or all) of the game books and use any or all of the rules and setting information contained within, without a problem. As far as I can see, it is a (more or less) consistent game world, up until 1220. Any inconsistencies up until 1220 are mistakes rather than some intention from the authors. What happens from 1220 onwards is intended to diverge from saga to saga, because that is what each troupe is telling a saga about.

Where people seem to be getting confused, perhaps, is the suggestion that you can just mix bits and pieces from all over the ArM5 canon and expect to have a "good" story. For example, just because there are rules for characters from the Magic Realm doesn't mean that a Magic Realm dragon is going to be a sensible player character choice for a saga about young magi founding a covenant in the Rhine. Likewise, if your saga is about lab researchers embarking on a tremendous Hermetic breakthrough, then a story about doing minor favours for elder magi to gather enough votes to establish the covenant is probably not a very sensible story choice.

It is the responsibility of the troupe/storyguide to pick the elements from the setting that make for an interesting story, for you. If something doesn't interest you (say, the cathach from the Hibernia Tribunal), then it's something that happens in the background without comment. If some character doesn't fit the kind of story you are telling, then don't use that character. Not every modern film/book/story set in America needs to mention Iraq/the President/Miley Cyrus, even though the USA2013 Source Book probably would mention all three.

Seconded. A covenant book for 5th edition would be a good thing. Stonehege or Rhine would be my area of choice. Sinc ethe Rhine already has the whole rhine gorge saga seed in it, I would vote for stonehenge.


I've tried to put the "starting saga book" on the schedule several times, because it keeps coming up here, and every time John Nephew has nixed it for exactly this reason: they don't sell.

I suspect that Ars Magica is irredeemably niche. White Wolf and WotC both threw resources at it trying to make it big, and both dropped it because it stayed small. Atlas has worked on sustaining it as a niche game, and ArM5 has 31 supplements. (Despite that, there are still people who think that it is out of print, or that Atlas is not actively supporting it.) Hmm, that might make a good Sub Rosa column for the next issue.

I find that perplexing. While I believe that John Nephew is a much better business man than I, if there was a 5th edition tribunal book that I thought would make a good starting location for a covenant, I would encourage my players to purchase their own copy, or I would buy additional copies myself to help them understand the setting of the game.

I am really curious now: can we know the sell ratios of Triamore and Mistridge compared to other supplements (reference books, tribuanal boos, adventure books... whatsoever)in the same period?

This might be a good project for sub rosa, true.


Then just write one.

Seriously. You've all written covenants at various times. Just write one.

National Game Design Month is coming up. I'm not doing a full participation this year because I'm a bit down, and I'm boss at work for three weeks, and I'm just finishing one MOOC, starting another, and going back to Uni for reals, but I'd help. Ben doesn't know what he's doing for it. Just put a wiki together and write one. It'd be easy. Set it in Stonehenge and you'd have researchers on the ground.

You want one? Be the change you want to see. Just write it.

Dwight, that would mean they all had copies of the story seeds, yes? Doesn't that make your job harder as SG?

The Gauntlet, it has been thrown!

Well, that was what I was suggesting, so no problem :slight_smile: I am not sure I could cope with it all by myself, but would be willing to take part in the project.

OK, you're on. Wiki? Blog? Emails? What format works for you?