The Bloody Business of Combat

Part of what I like about Ars Magica combat is it can be brief and bloody, just like one would expect from a game featuring medieval bloodletting.

Admittedly, the game's focus is not combat, but with most groups, it comes up - especially if the group is new to the game and coming off of D&D or Mage: The Ascension or some other game with lower lethality. Admittedly, the mages are not used to having shield grogs - especially the armorclad Flambeau Knight who would likely never want someone to die in his place.

In any case, on the one hand I'm not a storyguide who likes to hide my dice behind a screen, and I don't like to fudge rolls. If dice are in the game, they should have some point.

That said, when a person works to hard on a character, and builds in hooks that are part of the long term storyline of a Covenant, having them killed in one punch seems a bit too gritty and anticlimactic for my tastes.

SO, where is the middle ground? How have people responded to this lethality when it comes to companions and mages?

For my part, I'm considering a system of player fiat using a number of tokens. When a oneshot death hits, a player can choose to take one. The selection of tokens does not refresh until all are used.

Red (x2): The Martyred Comrade - someone near you intervenes to take the horrific wound.

Black: The Cruel Wound - Some sort of horrible wound falls upon the victim, taking the form of an appropriate Minor Flaw. A form of destiny, this horrible wound cannot be healed by magic.

White: Magic Gone Wild - the mage uses a fast-cast defense to avoid their fate, but their arts betray them. Roll botch dice as appropriate, then add 2 automatic Twilight Points. Rather than certain death, the victim face Wizard's Twilight as their defense magic goes awry.

Grey: The Angel of Death appears before you and stays the stroke that would otherwise end your life. It is not your time yet. Choose a short-term goal important to your character; upon completing it, the Angel of Death will come to collect what you owe.
(A form of short term death prophecy. This token is not refreshed until the destined-to-die succeeds in his goal.)

Orange: The Devil himself appears before you, and offers you continued life in exchange for... something. The details of the pact are worked out between the victim and the Storyguide after the session is over. Usually, the victim is marked in some way. Note: this violates the Code of Hermes. (This token can only be used once in any Saga)

Purple: Courage of Heroes - The victim calls upon all of their hard-won knowledge to turn an otherwise mortal wound into a graze. The character spends 5 Adventure Exp and avoids certain death due to their superior knowledge.

Green (x2): Flat of the Blade - rather than taking a lethal wound, the lucky target instead receives damage as if it were scuffling damage. This may leave them gasping for breath and out of the fight, but at least they're not dead.

I'm still mulling this over.

Originally, I offered folks a 'miracle' if they would do something that enriched the game - a diary, make some grogs, put together a playlist of music, etc. etc. Some went for it, others said they were too busy (which I saw as them saying it was not a priority - fair enough).

How have others approached this issue? IS it even an issue for most SGs?


Confidence points can be used to boost your Defense roll, sometimes making the difference between a lethal hit and mearly a crippling one.

Also, never underestimate the value of surrender. I'm yet to see a combat that started with a lethal blow. Usually they include one or two wounding hits first. It is both purdent and acceptable to lay down arms rather than die in a hopeless battle. Prisoners, especially important ones (as most magi and companions are), are worth far more alive and to be ransomed, as they would be dead.

The fact that the pool does not refresh until tokens have been used is tricky here. You have included demon dealing and other stuff there that will need to be accomplished to renew the whole pool and IMO that is a tad too much.

I tend to incapacitate players and give them 5 rounds to get some kind of aid before dying outright. Unless it is climatic combat, then the dead die outright. My players know that. In a lot of combats I do not even roll dice but assign a +4 to +6 to the roll of their antagonists to make the combat flow as desired. It is the players that perform great or fumble against their sparrings. Take in mind that the "sparring" might be a dragon :wink:

The token idea is cool, buit I would not overdo it. There are too many of them there IMO. ANd I would renew them for achieving meaningful results, not only "once the pool is empty" if you want to go through that route.



For something (nearly) in period, you could try using a tarot deck instead of chips.

Personally, although Ars combat is lethal, I encourage players to get out of combat before it gets that lethal. Most NPCs surrender or flee when they get a major wound or three minor wounds.


Couldn't your opponent in turn spend Confidence to increase their attack roll?

I have.
Mage vs Bear in HTH Combat , bear rolls a 32 on its attack roll, mage killed in one action despite desperate rules searching and attempts at fast cast spells.
The GM gave me two chances to save my life one involved dealing with a demon and the other involved a deal with another supernatural being with would have broken my principles. So Dead mage, now haunting the covenant

In theory, assuming your opponent is a major character. If you are dueling to the death against your archnemesis, that's different than some peasant hacking at you with his billhook.

But, in general, the SG shouldn't be using the PC's opponents' confidence points to kill off the PCs. They should be used to keep characters alive or to further the story. If you aren't doing a climactic "do or die" finale, they shouldn't be used to negate the PC's attempts to stay alive. IMHO.

True, but that hampers versililitude. What if it is two PC's dueling it out? In essence, I think Confidence should be applied to rolls with a fixed ease factor, not in competing rolls. However, I do allow the use of Confidence to accomplish certain tasks (stand your ground even if you failed your bravery check, escape the lethal blow, and etceteras). But these are metagame uses of confidence not covered in RAW.

Basically, I am addressing the use of confidence, and suggesting that it can serve an expanded roll in terms of guiding and controlling the story. Kind of like Fame and Fortune points from the old & ancient game Top Secret. Or Hero points in the DC game (or was it the Marvel heroes game? I forget), or like gulp Willpower in that other game about wizards.

I very much like the idea of players taking a physical flaw instead of death (as well as normal injury of course).

Can lead to fun showdowns against the guy that "took my eye".

Simple solution to that... don't fight bears in HTH combat! :laughing:

the chance for instant death is a risk but unless bear surprises you, you can often spont a level 5 ward vs animals or some other spell to keep the bear away from you.

A 32 attack though is an incredible attack total that has to include some exploding 1's.

I have only one character that would fight against a bear but she also has size +2 in the form she would fight the bear in (Siberian tiger) that 32 attack would be countered by 10+ defense and good soak and 28 pts damage is only.

Most fights though you are looking at 5-10 attack advantage and 3-10 damage bonus for 8-20 damage before soak and that won't kill most mages. That and you should have some grogs in armor to give you time to run.

There are so many things WRONG with this I don't know where to start...

  1. Where are the shield grogs that are supposed to protect the life of a magus? That bear shouldn't have gotten anywhere near him!

  2. Unless the bear managed to totally surprise the magus, why isn't he running away!

  3. Confidence points in self-defense. If its a matter of life and death for my magus, I'd be STRONGLY arguing to be able to spend ALL of my confidence points to stay alive!

This is the kind of situation I'd be looking for a new Storyguide....

Well, I can see it happening.

Mage with animal ken talking to bear and insulting it to point that it choses to attack.

Still, generally there should be the shield grogs or enough warning of it is approach to counter it somehow. Bears are not stealthy sorts.

(Sounds like an important life lesson, and maybe entirely not the SG's fault. Where are the grogs indeed?...)

Combat, like games, involves a lot of luck.

Historically, only the warriors who were supremely skilled, above and beyond, lived to tell about it - and we don't know how many equally skilled warriors died from being just a little unlucky just once, early on.

The point is that "Combat is dangerous" - if you engage in combat often, you will eventually get unlucky. It's not a controlled environment, not even a little bit, it's unpredictable. And in that, we can predict one thing with certainty - if you go to that well too often, besides getting wet many times, you will fall in at some point eventually, and maybe sooner than later.

There is the old saw, "There are old warriors, and there are bold warriors, but there are very few old, bold warriors". Read Musashi's Book of Seven Rings or Sun Tzu for more about the philosophy of combat from people who made it their professions and took it seriously.

(Of course, this game is not as bad as, say, RoleMaster, where any small fuzzy animal has a 1/10,000 chance every nip it takes to tear your throat clean out. Very Sad.)

I suppose it depends on what sort of verisimilitude you are seeking. Real life, where Stonewall Jackson gets shot by a nameless guy on his own side? Or Wilbur Whateley, the evil wizard, gets killed by the library dog. Or something a little more heroic, where major characters (good or bad) generally don't get killed by the extras.

I played in a campaign once where there was a big long build up to a final showdown with a recurring bad guy. Guy tricked most of the players into going to the wrong place while he tried to steal something from the Vatican. I was racing there to stop him and arrived just in time to see a Swiss Guard make an absurdly high attack and one shot the villain. Funny in a way, but really anti climactic.

I've seen a grog kill in the first round of combat my awesome Firebreathing Iron Horse Automaton that escaped the lab of Durenmar's artificer. The grog's player roll 1 three times and then an 8.

The same grog did something similar against a faerie knight's cat mount.

So, those nutzo rolls CAN happen, given that there's no upper limit to exploding dice in AM.

Other asides to various replies:

I had considered tarot cards.

Good catch - the Devil token should be an option, not forced before refresh.

Confidence is one tool mediate damage, as is spending a fatigue to double weapon score for those martially inclined - I am considering letting mages and companions do so AFTER the fact, like Confidence.

As for shield grogs, the most recent fight against.... sigh... a dragon (thanks, Sub Rosa!) began with the companions and shield grog leading the way, and being entangled in magically animated roots. The shield grog was thus unable to shield as per normal, but indeed - my new group is just learning the finer points of the system.

Wounds and fleeing: foes they have faced have fled when they took significant damage, or even less when the foes were inexperienced or cowardly. They've not followed suit. It may be that they do not expect mercy if they are beaten... I might need to note that.

Thanks to all thoughts thus far!


Against mundanes, IMS there are generally 2 rounds of combat at most: first turn the group is surprised and or prepares for the onslaught. The second turn the mages do something OBVIOUSLY magical (even if not necessarily harmful) and the mundanes surrender or flee shouting "witchcraft!!". That can led to further problems down the road, but does tend to avoid "massacre in the valley" kind of scenario.

Against supernatural beings things are not so obvious, though.

We also have a HR that says that you can't attack a character that has a protector. The protector can protect the mage (the usual protected dude) against up to 3 enemies at most (with the corresponding maluses for multiple opponents). While protected, a character can only use distance attacks. The protector receives all the direct damage attacks, including magical ones. That makes shield grogs really a shield grog instead of someone you can simply laugh at 90% of the time: you need to spend at least 1 round of combat dealing with them before attacking the magus. We have a big retirement house in our covenant with quite a few ex-shield grog cripples. They still live better than the average mythic European, though :slight_smile:

CH makes a good point there: if you do not want to see the randomness of combat on your skin, do not engage in combat in the first place.



IMO, Ars Magica is a storytelling game. The story should dictate the outcome of major events, not the dice.

I believe it is part of the reason why the players are encouraged to make multiple characters. Some leave, some grow old and die, some die in the heat of combat... but it should be a collaborative effort between the players and the storyguide.

I like Ars Magica because there are so many other ways you can deal with situations.

Killing someone or something is quite immoral - there are hardly any evil beings like the orcs in many games (apart from demons) - so killing is rarely ever an option and SHOULD be dangerous.

If you are a troupe of mass murderers who enjoy wading through blood without getting hurt then create characters that can wrestle bears (like Bjornaers or Flambeaus).

Sometimes killing is the only moral choice.
Your home village / covenant is being raided by Vikings / Mongols / Almohades / Saxons / Knights of Riga / (insert antagonist here). They are not going to sit and listen to your moralization. They are here to put you to the sword for one reason or another. They may imagine they are righteous, but there are only two choices; kill or be killed. Sure, you an save yourself by hiding or fleeing. But everyone you leave behind, their blood is on your hands. Sometimes Pacifism is the immoral choice.