Setting up a saga in Hibernia

My troupe-to-be decided (with some gentle prodding...) that they would like to play in (or on?) Hibernia. Now, while I was an ArM storyteller/GM many years back (when 4e was still new), the others don´t have ArM experience, besides playing through the "Return of the Stormrider" recently, with me being the st.

So, I´m faced with several decisions at once. How to start a new saga? Where to place it (besides chosing the tribunal)? How to have all of us getting a handle at the rules?

Given the political situation in Ireland in 1220, I think my players would have more fun being irish than english - it is always easier to sympathize with the underdog. Besides, I imagine the irish being closer to the supernatural world than the english, so that would be a better fit.

The idea given here to start out with grogs seems sound advice to me. So I think I will have them create some grogs. (as an aside, I don´t like that word, as in german it denotes hot tea with rum, so I call them knecht instead. That is not a spot-on translation, as it rather denotes a menial laborer or even serf, but it works for us so far.) Then, I will need a short grog-only story, perhaps even one with some connection to the political situation in Hibernia at that time - being displaced from their home by some arrogant english lord or something like that as a start. So the players can see the rules in action and at the same time get a first impression of the situation.

Then, pretty much the same thing with companions. Perhaps we need some ideas for the magi first, before deciding about the companions, but then again, not fitting it all together on a metagaming level might be interesting as well - just like in the Real Life (tm), sometimes you have to take what you get, and work with folks you would not work with if you had the choice.

Of course, the most important decision is the question where to place the covenant, and what covenant this will be. I don´t see them in Connacht or on the eastern coast, so this leaves - more or less - Munster or (western) Ulster as the general area(s). I´m not sure about the season of the covenant as well - setting up a spring covenant might be quite a challenge for new players, and Hibernia does not seem a place where this is easy anyways. I guess my players need to have a say in that decision, as it is not my game alone. But then, these guys are used to the classical RPG approach, where the GM sets the background and the story, with the players being part of the cast and the spectators, but not the director or producer.

Any ideas, comments, hints on these thoughts?

Getting The Contested Isle will be really helpful.

Er, well, yes, I forgot to post that I own the book, of course. The book led me to the statement that I don´t see the covenant in Connacht.

The nearest to a covenant in Connacht that you'll find is Praesis and that is considered the border between the Order's lands and those given over to Ireland's old traditions. By and large, the Irish traditionalists respect the old treaty that concedes Connacht to those traditions, which is why you won't find a canon covenant located there yet. If anyone is going to chance their arm and settle there it'll probably be the English. But I think you already alluded to that.

Meath might make a good choice. You have Praesis to your west, which could make for instant rivals, and I think you can go a fair way north and south before you start bumping into canon covenants. If you want a stretch of coast then Munster seems pretty open around the south-west to west. Those are where I'd look. If you wanted to downplay the political scene then I'd pick Munster. If you wanted to put the covenant into the heart of things, with each province in easy reach and Praesis on your doorstep, then I'd go with Meath.

Connacht is forbidden to the Order by ancient treaties, but a group of Hedge Wizards (The Pact of Oireadh, pg 44)are described as one would a covenant. Also, Praesis (pg 46) lies along the border and is shared by the OoH and the CCC.

Starting play with a grog-centric adventure is always a good way to start a saga. Especially when dealing with players who aren't familiar with the game's rather sophisticated magic system as yet. The trick, however, is to decide what sort of adventure to begin with. May I humbly suggest attempting to thwart a cattle-raid, or perhaps recover the livestock?

It kind of was. It was meant to be a place where the two great "orders" could meet and interact. Then it fell apart a bit. And then Ballack levelled it and is rebuilding it as an English covenant. An English covenant on the border of Connacht. Make of it what you will.

The Alpine Apprentices from my saga will be going to Hibernia after Gauntlet, and they have begun talking in character about what they want to do. Those who are talking seem to favor founding a new covenant over settling into an existing one, mostly because they are tired of being told what to do, and also because they enjoy the challenge of building from scratch.

Accordingly, I went through Contested Isle and came up with the following short list of potential covenant sites. May it be of use to you:

  • Aileach (p 91-92): Faerie built castle, Aura unknown. Castle rebuilds itself. Outer wall 17 feet high, 13 feet thick, 77 feet in diameter. Vigil is interested in the sight and will fight off rivals with Certamen and Wizard's War.
  • The Hill of Uisneach (p 72): Mystical center of Ireland and Aura 5. In Meath, though all five provinces meet here. Stone of Division, an Arcane Connection to each province. Used for swearing of oaths, including by Hermetic magi. Merlin stole the stones for Stonehenge from this place. An early covenant formed here in the early 800s, but vanished one summer without a trace. Legend says a magus here meant to rule Ireland, but broke a geas and was taken by Faerie.
  • Inisclabhall (p 92): Wooded island with Aura 2 and a secret tunnel connecting it to the mainland. Recently given to a knight for the purpose of building a motte castle, but nothing is there yet.
  • Kilree Tower (p 58): 80 foot high tower with Aura 4, in Ossory a couple of miles southwest of Kilkenny. About 20 miles west of Ashenrise. In a cemetery owned by a priory.

One obvious way to get your saga rolling is the search for a cathach: a magical artifact which must be taken, not made or given. I've not yet gotten to that point in my saga, the players have about half a dozen sessions till gauntlet, but my plan is to make a few potential cathachs known to them, and let them decide in character which to pursue.

Don't neglect the wonderful roleplay opportunities which come from letting the magi debate choices like this in character. Few other games encourage long IC discussions the way Ars does. While you CAN debate covenant creation as players, there's every reason to do it as magi. You don't even need full character sheets to do it. Let the players make Grogs and companions to learn the system, while their magi debate what to do with nothing but backgrounds and personality traits.

Thanks for all your input. I think I will have to look at Meath more closely. (Sorry to say, but the name Ballack has to go in my Saga - I don´t need any soccer jokes in my game...) Also, the magical places on Doctorcomics small list will get a closer look as well.
Cattle raiding is an important aspect in Ireland, I will surely look at that.

Perhaps I will really start out with playing just some Grogs, and then Companions, while developing mages parallel to it and discussing the covenant question in character. That might be a really good idea, to give the players more involvement with the characters and the background. I don´t have any player feedback regarding their preferences right now, but seeing that they are more used to the GM setting the background, not building part of it as a group, I guess that they would rather use a ready-made covenant (which would mean more work for me, of course...)

I'm in Doctorcomics' Alpine Apprentices saga, and I'm giving Jason props here.

Playing apprentice is really tough, and Doctorcomics has made it a lot of fun. If you're starting off a saga for the long haul, I think it's worth contriving an event to get apprentices together and having them strike out on their own. Modeling things on the Alpine Apprentice approach has a lot of merits, chief of which is that newly gauntleted magi are invited to leave the Tribunal soon after their gauntlet. Playing an apprentice outside of this particular method involves them being overshadowed by almost every other character type in Ars Magica.

The benefits of starting out as an apprentice is that it allows one to percolate their magus build over time. I can easily create a concept that will have all kinds of min-maxed capabilities, and I can also try working on a bold concept that will ultimately fall apart because I forget something crucial during the character generation process. Slowing the character generation process down and working through an apprenticeship really reduces the risks of either unworkable characters or extremely min-maxed characters.

Ok, I will look into that (I guess). I was thinking about getting "Apprentices" next anyway, hoping that this will help exactly with that.

Jonathan is very kind. The Alpine Apprentice saga has been very educational and it has certainly had its challenges. It has also had its great moments and I'm gratified the players seem to be having a good time, Before you do it, some lessons I have learned:

  • It adds time. I'm passing a year of game time between sessions, so it is taking 15 sessions to do the entire apprenticeship. For some players, that is a speedbump, but for working adults with families, that is 8 months at best. Many entire sagas never last that long.
  • It can involve a lot of book keeping. Because an apprentice's instruction depends heavily on his master, you, as the SG, have to stat out all the NPC masters and advance them season by season as the apprentices advance. While some NPCs are needed in every game, if the players are Gauntleted magi they can generally do their advancement without your input. (Presuming you have a library statted out, of course.)
  • It encourages individual subplots. Unless all your apprentices are at the same covenant, the game often feels like six Ars Magica campaigns each starring one person, rather than one game with six protagonists. This creates more work and even occasional challenges at the table.
  • It makes the pcs subservient. For fifteen years, your pcs are essentially servants. For the first half of that time, they suck at pretty much everything. They can't do anything without permission or disobedience, they can't cast spells in the covenant's Aegis because they don't have casting tokens, and whenever they do see an adventure hook, at least some of them will insist they go tell their masters and ask what to do. It's not very empowering. Unless your NPC masters are all sensitive, generous and enlightened, the players are likely to feel stifled. Watch out especially for Tytalus. Their apprenticeship is essentially torture. I started my game with two Tytalus pcs. By halfway though the campaign, I had 0. If you have a player who wants to be Tytalus, consider raising them in another House and letting them join Tytalus after gauntlet. Unless your player is a glutton for punishment and wants his character to be manipulated, humiliated, and subjected to cruel and arbitrary punishment for a dozen sessions.

Reading that (thanks again!), I spontaneously consider not to do it that explicitly as you do. I think getting the characters ready to play should take 3 to 5 sessions, which will probably take us half a year. We play once a month at most. I guess I will have to define their masters to a certain point anyway. I´m not yet settled if the magi are locals, or if they are foreigners. If locals, the magi represent most, if not all, of the tribute given by the Coill Tree at tribunal, which might be an interesting idea worthy of further thought.

So you're starting as Grogs only? Interesting. Are your players totally new to Ars Magica? If so, getting to know the simple rules before all the magic and labs may be a good idea. And by getting to know the setting in the lite format before moving on to Hermetic society.

An idea that I tried as a player myself some years ago is to have the players create pre-apprentice children, and and them interact with a bunch of NPC magi without them knowing who is of which House, since the characters do not know of the Houses until after beginning their training. This can be a great helping hand for new players.
Run a story or two, and try to get a feel for which kind of magus they may like to end up as. When we did it the SG selected two NPC magi who both tested each pre-apprentice and then we had to choose a master. Still without knowing the Houses. Great fun.
Also, we advanced the apprentices 1/3 of apprenticeship at a time (for 1/3 the spells and exp for Arts and Abilities) and played a story at each stage. This meant players got a feel for the game, the setting, the system and we ended up with a lot more low level spells than if creating a finished magus, since we nedded and wanted somethign to cast even as a 5 year apprentice.

For a Hibernia saga we had a go at at one point, we created magi that were finished int he sense that they had all 15 years of training but had not yet sworn the Code or been taught Parma Magica. and then we went on Macnimartha (sp?) to cause trouble/test ourselves with Tribunal beingone year away. We founded a covenant of sorts (well, a camp) and went off to steal things. Each magus had some inside knowledge to the place they had been trained. And we drew in some grogs and covenfolk, among others some highwaymen roaming the place we settled - rather than fight the scary and dangerous magi they joined up.
As Tribunal approached we decided we had too much fun to stop, and decided to not go! Even though we had procured a place, cattle, and a cathach we held off declaring us a covenant. As most magi were away to Tribunal we raided a lot of them, taking books and also trophies, the high seat from their council chambers, the "talking stick" etc. Boy did we make ourselves unpopular! Or rather we would have if we had been mean about it, we intended to show our worth by doing this and to return things after we had read the books or for a minor 'finder's fee'. We were gunning for Reputations. But we ended this before we went very far along, to start a new saga to try and make some other points about planning a saga around some common goals of player characters.

I love Hibernia.

Doing something to bring the main characters into the game is a good idea, even if it is playing an event with the PCs as children.

The pro's of the grog-venture is that grogs are relatively disposable and you don't need to touch the magic system.

The con's of the grog-venture is that Ars Magica is a game all about magic, and you're running an adventure without magic in it. It is also very likely that your PCs will get attached to their grogs to the extent that many would like to continue them as their 'main' characters - which then means they're competing for player attention with the uncreated magi.

As such, I'd suggest starting out each player with one magus and one grog. The grog can but doesn't have to be a shield grog, but the grogs should definitely be created to a theme so they make an effective adventuring party for the kind of stories you want to run. Make the very first adventure one where each player plays both characters. Play up the Gift effect. Make sure there's plenty of scenarios where the grogs' abilities are useful. Make sure the magi get an opportunity to cast their signature spell(s).

This way everyone gets a feel for their magus, both in terms of what they can do and in terms of why they need mundane assistance. It also sets the group up for the idea of playing different characters at different times.

The first adventure can still be cattle-raiding or clearing out bandits if that's the kind of story the group like. The difference is there's a group of fresh-faced magi involved rather than just purely grogs.

Christian, I like the idea of advancing the magi a few years at a time. I think I will try this. And I will have to put some effort into the type of stories I want to run. Hibernia gives plenty of ideas, from cattle raiding to fighting the english to faerie stories to the races of old to druids and bards...

Kid Gloves, this is sound advice. I think now of having the players think about their magi first, perhaps even defining the children at the outset. Perhaps I will play a Tribunal session where the kids are delivered as tribute, and their masters to be choose them. Looking at the magus templates in the main rules, the kids would be between 8 and 12, I guess. Older kids would have been given to the Tribunal earlier, and younger ones not suited to apprenticeship yet. I would keep that rather short and rules-free. With that start, I hope the players will develop an attachment to their magi already. Then, I would create the grogs and play a short story to introduce the rules and some mundane aspects of the setting. Maybe I will create a grog myself, and just kill him in the story to highlight that these characters are to a certain extent expendable.

You, and a lot of other people as well!

Back then we debated what would actually happen with our extremely cheeky actions. Legally speaking what we did was not illegal, but deliberately skipping Tribunal and thus swearing the Code may be iffy. But because we were not full-fledged magi the responsibility was our parens'.
A lot of Irish magi may condone our audacity, and as long as we weren't total dicks about our raids things may turn out ok. I mean, we did not destroy anything, or steal and use any 'consumable' resource. We nicked trophies and knickknacks for fun, we thought a council chamber with a 'talking stick' was a good idea - if it was stolen the coveant's normal rules and traditions for doing things would be disturbed. And a minor ransom would be in order for their return. Books and lab texts stolen could be read and copied respectively and then returned with little harm done.
Hibernia has great potential for these kinds of things.

Of course, the English magi would most likely not condone our actions, if they don't respect the tradition of Macnimartha to begin with. But this resentment may make them look like sore losers and brand them even more as outsiders, garnering us more support from the Irish magi.

The time we deliberately stayed in this situation also had drawbacks though. No Parma Magica made us vulnerable to all sorts of ill effects. And apart from the magus with Gentle Gift and the one Inoffensive to Magical Beings all other magi felt annoying and sinister to each other. There seems to be only a limited time a group could hold it together like this.

And once we did swear the Code and declare us a covenant we were certain a lot of challengers would bother us for the first year for the land and cattle, and that someone would attempt to steal our Cathach. So we used the resources stolen and time until declaring ourselves to prepare defenses.

Why ever did we stop that saga?

I know that raising the dead is beyond the boundaries of hermetic magic, but still...

After only three years, we will try again to play some Ars Magica. (real life (tm) intervened) I need to start out slow, as I didn´t look at the game all that much lately, and my troupe has no clue anyway. So, I will start out with the troupe playing some unaffiliated grogs, who are actually displaced by the english invaders from their ancestral home. This is probably a violent event, and I will use this to test the combat rules. In the end, the invaders prevail, of course, and the characters flee. I had the idea that they will run into a (light) faerie story, which reflects and reenacts some of the prior invasions of Ireland, in which the characters are the invaders and the faeries are displaced by them. This will hopefully highlight two important aspects of Ireland: the bloody history of invasions, and the relative abundance of faeries.

I think you will find the combat rules very light as it is not a focus of the game. There is a big difference if they train together as a group vs just charging in.

You might want to story them fleeing because combat can get real deadly really fast.

Have you had a look in the Contested Isle book?