Starting an Ars Magica game. Need some help!

Most RPGs are pretty easy to start off: everyone is sitting in a tavern when a man rushes in and exclaims how kobolds stole some magic item, and he needs the help of the PCs to recover it!

Ars Magica doesn't seem to lend itself to such things, mostly because the Covenant is such a vital element in the game.

I'm very new to AM and want to run a short game but I'm having a hard time figuring out how to start it. I'm thinking my players could be part of a near-dead Winter covenant but that's as far as I've gotten. Everything else after that I have no problem with.

So how do you get a new AM game started?

Well, you could have the characters be freshly gauntleted, meeting at an inn with their parens (who naturally get into an argument about whose apprentice should lead the expedition), to be sent out to found a new covenant in the wilds of XXX, thus expanding the borders and securing vis sources against the depredantions of YYY, the foul tribunal of suspected diabolists and people who have carnal relations with sheep and Englishmen.

They meet, chat and, armed with magic, three grogs, two dogs and some promissary letters, head off to find a suitable location. Throw some old maps and a few by-the-road encounters at them (possibly working in future companions) and let them do the work.

You'll need to fill in details, but the characters story flaws and a bit of background on the area should let you get just about anything off to a fine start. It probably won't work too well if you've a specific story to tell, but if you can fill in details, the players (and hopefully you) will have a blast. What they choose will tell you what they want as a covenant, and building it from scratch (with gifted books a while down the line) will make it theirs in a way a generated covenant will never be.

I started my campaign with Murion (take a powerful mage) telling the freshly gauntleted characters to do sth (explore sites for a covenant in my case) and vaguely promise rewards (player characters can then negotiate for what they want as payment). This meeting was to be kept secret from Fengheld (use your noble opponent here) and was overheard by THE VILLAIN (no guys I'm not telling his name :stuck_out_tongue: ).

Don't forget a James Bond and M scene: Everyone gets something from a list of useful gadgets. Players love this even if the gifts are symbolic (charged items, a Q8 tractatus, an ever-sharp quill)...

How short is short? How many players?

Assuming one 4-5 hour gaming session and four people plus you, here's my suggestion:

The magi are assigned to the Covenant by their Tribunal at the request of the Quaesitores for one of the following reasons:

  1. They are "monitors" for the one or two older magi of the covenant because the older magi have just skirted the line of diabolism, meddling with faeries, etc., but not enough to justify Marching.

  2. The Covenant itself has been Marched and partially sacked, but because its location is coveted by other factions in the Tribunal, a "nobody gets it" political arrangement is worked out where the player magi are assigned to it as regents/caretakers under restrictions (and, if you keep playing the covenant, probably huge political interference).

  3. Everyone's dead, and this is a Broken Covenant of Calebais-style investigation.

If you're not going with Option 3, which is self-explanatory, I would say plan a threat to the covenant over four to six seasons.

Season 1: Magi get to know their covenant. Small encounter involving elder magi (if there) or mundanes. If no adventure experience, allow study.

Season 2: Learn of potential threat (crop failure, advancing Welsh/German/Saracen/Mongol army, restless dead, whatever). If elder magi are there, come up with a reason why they're useless, probably just because they're too old to be bothered. This problem will develop over time; if it's an army, you know they're sacking the towns some ways away. If it's crops, you know this is a bad year and conditions aren't good for the next year. Roleplay the magi's attempts to develop their knowledge of how bad the problem will be.

Seasons 3-5: Magi have time to research magic and make small items to deal with the problem.

Last Season: Resolution encounter - the magi get to use their clever plan and newly researched goodies on the problem. They may face combat or the much more difficult task of casting magic without driving suspicious peasants to riot.

You can, of course, continue from here into a small saga, but the archetypal story framework above should be enclosed enough for a one-shot.

Starting with a Spring or old Winter covenant, using all new players, is a recipe for disaster. I reccomend you place them in a summer covenant, with plenty of elders to aid and guide the players as they learn the game and become more comfortable with it.

I should have made Marko's guidance explicit in my suggestion, too. Someone needs to "run" the covenant so the magi don't have to do all the bookkeeping until the system is fully understood. You can fudge that with an autocrat NPC and maybe one or two older magi.


Others in this thread have suggested putting your PCs with elder magi, in a summer covenant for example. There is a major pitfall with this - whenever your PCs encounter something too tough to deal with, they'll just go running to their bosses for help. In fact, the elder magi will be able to deal with threats far easier than the PCs, so why don't they do it?

This is why Mistridge (2e to 3e) never worked for me. Why should the PCs ever do anything when Grimgroth and his pals could do it so much easier? If there's a dragon knocking on the door, the PCs would never fight it. And you can't use the excuse that "Grimgroth is in his lab and doesn't want to be disturbed." There are only so many times this excuse will wash, and if the covenant is falling down around his ears, Grimgroth would damn well come out of his lab and act.

I specifically avoided this when setting up my current saga. An established covenant in the area wanted to sponsor another covenant, hoping to gain an ally (they were without any) as well as some prestige. They therefore 'fostered' a group of magi (the PCs) for a few years; allowing them access to copy from their library and a secure base from which to explore potential sites to set up their own covenant. The sponsor was keen that this was not too close to themselves (to avoid competition over vis resources), which prevented the PCs from 'running home to daddy' when things got tough.

I actually had to force the PCs out of their sponsor covenant in the end; they were getting far too settled! However, it worked very well, all told. The help of the elder magi is useful at the beginning of a saga, but there should be a way to terminate that relationship IMO.


Except the mentor (Grimgroth) is in twilight for a year when that dragon knocks. And sometimes for 7 years.

There is an introducing adventure to ArM called Promises, Promises.
In this adventure the mentor is a redcap so he can give informations but cannot cast spells to defeat the villains.

Some thoughts:

  1. Give the elder magus a 4 in Decrepitude. The guy honestly can't walk out of his sanctum and cast a ritual spell without being bedridden for two months. That spell will rain sulfurous fire down on any invading army, but if it's something requiring wandering, it's up to the young 'uns.

  2. Elder magi are ridiculous. If you've already established that the magus just plain doesn't care about things that he should, he could plausibly say, "I'll be in my lab, researching a Hermetic Limit, and I will be very, very ticked if a dragon knocks in the roof."

Or, alternatively, it's "ix-nay on the agon-dray in front of Majora! She'll just cast a Level 70 PeAn ritual on THE WHOLE COUNTRYSIDE to make sure it's dead, no matter where it is. Last time, when we had a faerie problem, she caused a three-year famine with her Perdo Herbam."

  1. If you don't like the elder magi being crazy or irascible, you could have your covenant on the hook where magi only get vis if they help out the covenant. So, if Lucius of Guernicus has to get off of his archmage butt to solve whatever's going on, he's going to make sure that, in his precise, Quaesitor way, that he's getting most of the vis that season/year (depending on how it's parceled out).

Amen to that, especially #2. All the elder magi my group has fallen in with are based on cartoon old people (Professor Farnsworth from Futurama, Yzma from The Emperor's New Groove...)--they don't get out much anymore, they all have their favorite chairs, and they jealously control the minutia of the covenant and use the whippersnappers as runners and cannonfodder.

Anyway. You could still start out with your inn/kobald rushing scenario, just make the man rushing in connected to some covenant in some way. A grog in over his head, or something. How to get them together in the first place isn't hard, magi do associate with each other. Make it some pre-arranged get-together of them. Maybe they're all the former apprentices of one covenant (trained at the same time to conserve effort), or magi (that one works if you want them at different levels of experiance). Maybe they're just the local unattached magi and it's like a covenant job fair. Or dating service. Or Magi Market.

Wow, thanks for all the great suggestions!

It sounds like the best thing for me to do is to put my characters in with a Summer/Autumn convent. That way I can use the elder magi to guide the PCs but these magi can be too frail/cranky/senile/etc to save the PCs everytime something difficult comes along.

I have the Lion and the Lily sourcebook and one of my ideas was to have the PCs form a new convent that would be a vassal to an older one. Would this be too much for new players to bite off at first?

There is nothing at all that requires it to be so.
You could have one or even several covenants "back home", but the PCs are HERE and NOW and have to settle whatever problem you came up with. If afterwards you/them want to keep going you can "retcon" in the covenant(s) once they go back home.
The big bad about this, is that the characters must have the ability to cast any spells needed from the start, which is far from automatic. In a pinch that can be solved by having a "helper mage" or "guide" along that isnt much good for other things, but which if pressured might just barely have the ability to cast the required spell, or maybe have a in item that takes care of it.

No, and, in fact, that solves some of the guidance issues without having too powerful older magi there - when bigger covenant says, "go on top of that mountain and see if there's any vis we can share," you've got an adventure and there's a good reason why not everyone goes.

My personal design to this scenario would be that you have a "failed" elder mage trying to run his own covenant - in his day he thought he was really great, but he tried to reach beyond his grasp both magically and politically and now he's a shadow of his former self. The players are magi he'd invited to try to make a go of his own covenant, but his past problems have caught up to him, and he needs to be the vassal of this bigger covenant to avoid political repercussions in Tribunal.

The "failed" elder also allows adventures where your crisis is the elder mage's fault - say he's got something that's collateral for a vis loan from the Redcaps, and now he's vanished with it and Redcap "repo men" keep showing up and tearing apart sancta to find it.

Or the elder mage has managed to turn himself into a slug that oozes acid, and now he's unable to turn himself back.

All good ideas, along with the Twilight-addled or decrepitude-ridden concepts. But then if these are your elder magi, why bother with elder magi at all? Once you've played out a few "Oh don't worry about Senilius, he'll just sit in the corner and bleat" scenarios, the joke gets old.

A good solution is that offered by the OP - vassal covenants. Still capable of gaining story hooks from your liege, but not in the immediate proximity and not available for help. This is sorta what I did with my saga, although we don't have vassalage in our tribunal.


My first 2 sagas were about a bunch of newly gauntleted magi going out to found a covenant.

They were a total disaster.

After that we started with a formula we have used successfully twice, each time a significant (50% or more) of the players were new to the game.

The characters would starty as the new dudes at an older (summer or autumn) covenant and be directed to do a copuple of things. Thjis gets them used to interacting with mundanes, the combat system, the limits of their abilities and the supernatural environments. They will have strong backup in case they screw things up mughtily, though, something I have found important in the past (they managed to kill the king of Castile "by accident", for example).

After those sessions (some 6 months of gaming time) they moved to do whatever I fancied. Usually 2-6 sessions (1 month or so game time) of settling down in a new location and from there onwards we launch the "proper" campaign. In mosdt cases they act as a detached outpost of the main covenant, but not always. The most successful campaigns were designed like that.

So yes, I think that some supervision is a neat thing to have. It is a quite common concept in canon as well: successful covenants are not founded by total newbies, generally.

Just my 2 mythic pennies worth of :slight_smile:



whistling and rolling eyes

In my other campaign where i'm ST i did some preliminary establishing adventures with some pre-generated PC's for the other players. When I got them together, it was with a shipwreck and as if by magic finding a perfect island covenant site.

I completely agree; I've always had the elder mage do the day-to-day administration and gathering of major resources, so there's at least that going for him (and keeps newbies from getting too overwhelmed with covenant accounting or doing something disastrous with the covenant).

Sort of like, "I suspect Senilius has lost his Gift, but gosh knows the grogs love him. I can't get them to bring me a mug of water, but they'll build a whole stable in a night for Senilius."

Or, for a less likeable elder mage, "I'd take over from Senilius if I could, but the doddering fool is the only one who knows how to get to the regio with our largest vis source, and I know he hasn't written it down - I've searched his sanctum."

Or, at Tribunal, a Quaesitor or the Praeco says "it is only because you are trusted by Senilius that we even consider your words."

Or, perhaps, what I call the "Sauron hook":
"I know Senilius is old and failing, but he has Harnessed Magic and all our covenant buildings were raised by his enchantments. If this crisis causes something to happen to him, the whole covenant's coming down."

Excellent hook, I love this!!! :smiley: