The Primus Level Game

Darkwing and I have been running an Ars Magica saga since the very beginning of I think 2009 - three whole years of weekly play, which has seen the years 1160 to 1218 covered. Just 58 years out of Gauntlet, the magi are now quite powerful - indeed a few dodgy assumptions about Items of Quality early on and the power level may be slightly higher than it should be. Hey, it is inevitable we make mistakes with rules from time to time, but the story has not suffered.

I think back to my first few games of Ars Magica back in the late 90's. As a new storyguide I struggled to get the combat system, and magic seemed immensely powerful in this game compared with other fantasy rpgs I was familiar with. I was unsure how to handle the sheer range of power spontaneous magic gave the characters. My experience with D&D was limited, and maxed out at third level characters, so the potential of Wish spells etc was not something I had dealt with. I ran a story about bandits in the Breckland - and the magi loved sending them running in horror, the grogs barely got a blow in :slight_smile: Dungeons clearly would not work, and stories about medieval politics and power were easily resolved with a few discrete well placed spell. "High level" NPC's were a nightmare to create -- I did create some, and used others from the old Houses of Hermes book, but mystery stories were hard because well placed Intellego spells solved them, and "dungeon" type encounters were circumvented with cunning use of sponts to break doors, pass through walls, and blast enemies. I ended up telling stories about moral issues and people, forcing the characters to make difficult decisions - and think about the ramifications of their power.

A decade later I had run a lot of sagas, was comfortable with the rules and Metacreator had let me design NPC's in a fraction of the time I had by hand. More importantly, I had realised that more powerful characters face real brakes on their magical power as the xp system makes it harder and harder to advance to stratospheric levels of power. Knowing more about games like Magic the Gathering now, my players looked for clever combinations of Virtues and Flaws, and could make viable magi -- but the stories i could tell were also more interesting. Story Flaws in 5th ed gave me an idea what kind of things they wanted to feature in the game, and I could plan a rough saga arc. I had run maybe a dozen sagas set in Spring covenants, and wanted to try something different. I'd written and run Tribunal Freeforms, and the Houses of Hermes books really gave me a feel for the different House cultures.

I don't know if i will ever recapture the magic of my first faerie story, or the later idea i gathered that faeries were less twee and dangerous magical beings, but something utterly frightening and manipulative, invasions of the unconscious like UFO encounters. I think your first covenant always lives in your memory, and i don't think I will ever again have players like Pete and Polly and Kev working out the accounts down to the number of candles they burnt each season for their covenant. However by Christmas 2008 we were ready to try something new - and Tom suggested a winter covenant setting, with powerful magi, and we decided to write a new Stonehenge Tribunal from scratch. St. Peter's School York formed the basis - the magi of Alba Rosa were school teachers, and we started off with them arriving at their new home, and meeting the established magi.

58 years later, they are now the only survivors. My character Oswald has largely retired to his lab as I have run more and more - Tom will run again soon so I can play. The other magi have all trained their apprentices, and those apprentices have formed a second generation in a covenant about nine miles away in the woods. An early investment of vis in a magical flying ship really paid off in terms of the stories we could tell - they have flown all over mythic Europe (being a playtest group this is handy) and explored all kinds of odd things. From saving Dunwich and defeating Leicester's rebel army in the invasion of 1173, to diverting the Fourth Crusade back on track and saving Constantinople in 1203/4, they have met Popes and Saints, found lost magical treasures, broken the Code and faced trial, and always somehow won through.

And now the power level is ... impressive. Frightening even. Pete had originally played Lucius Delvander of Flambeau in my Antiqua Natura saga that lasted 28 years back in 1999/2000/2001 - and when the power level got to roughly 30 years out of Gauntlet he joined us. After 50 years or I allowed a story with incredible ramifications for play. The Primus of Flambeau Garus resigned -- and Lucius schemed to reunite Mithraist and Mercurian factions of the House under his Primushood. And he suceeded, and i now had a player character Primus, who was often in Iberia. Time to retire him?

We thought of it, and decided no. Janus (I'm using forum names for people who post here) plays Colt; and Colt has the Virtue Primus Lineage for House Verditius. We worked out his position in the House, and now after several sessions of politicking, his parens has replaced the unpopular Stouritis as Primus of House Verditius. It is only a matter of time till he becomes Primus. And Julia, Lloyd's character, has found the staff of Pralix, and is deeply involved in weird mysteries we can't talk about here. It looks likely she too will eventually gain such power as Primus of house Misc can grant - her and Darkwing are both originally from Cad Gadu, and re now increasingly caught up in the internal politics of that domus magna.

The characters are probably between 70 and 80 in age - I think the oldest has hit their 90's - so by Hermetic standards middle aged to mature? Our stories have shifted - Pete plays his young apprentice as much as he plays his Primus, and emailing redcap deliveries and political issues he must contend with within his House has become increasingly important. They still adventure, but most mundane threats can be met with overwleming magical force - and the creation by colt of a "flying covenant" disk has opened up new possibilities. Once again I'm having to learn how to tll completely new stories, as the Primuses of other houses begin to push their agendas, and complicated decade long schemes emerge and are vaguely grasped by the players, while the real tensions in their own Houses make political issues more and more important. Will they support the Bjornaer Harmonists or the WIlderists? Are Tremere right about Tytalus backing of the dauphin's invasion of England to dislodge King John? Can House Flambeau really be unified? And what are the Tremere really doing?

The problem with being Primus of House Flambeau is you will always attract young guns out to make a name for themselves, even by Wizard's War. And everyone wants a piece of you, and your support. Suddenly I'm running a power politics game, where the next Grand Tribunal will really count for something -- and the characters have tremendous influence. This might not be to everyone's taste -- but I have never done it before, and the challenge is interesting. I'm learning fast, and I look forward to Tom (Darkwing) taking on the Storyguides role -- but by the time this sage ends, I think we will have played a very different saga to any I have played before. I'm still learning, but it is still fun - well the players keep turning up.

The shift has been gradual - when I asked tonight what they thought of the Primus level change in how the stories were going, not one player had really noticed until I made it explicit. It developed organically out of the characters plots and ambitions - they never really noticed how the saga was changing, as the stories leading to it came from their own plans and ideas.

I don't know how it will end -- but my original plan was to tell the whole story of the characters lives, and I will end I think the saga if Tom agrees once the first few succumb to age, Twilight, or violence. They will have shaped Mythic Europe, and by 1250 the Order of Hermes. And then I may well finally retire from running Ars Magica, at least for a while, having run a second (perhaps third - the Mistridge saga was very popular though only lasted six months) long running saga, and perhaps play some other games. I've been heavily involved with Ars for well over a decade and written a lot for the line over that time - probably time to let others write more stuff, and for me to explore what other systems have to offer, and wave a fond farewell to Mythic Europe. That's still six months to a year in the future I think -- but I thought I'd share a few thoughts on the Primus level saga, and I wonder if anyone else has run a game at this sort of power level before?

So, be honest, what do you think? Is power politics in the Order of Hermes an outrageous aspiration for the latter stages of a saga, or could it be fun? Would you like to run political Ars at this level, if your characters developed that far? Would you allow a Primus in your game, knowing they will be far from the covenant and feature in only some stories? Or do you prefer the day to day life of the covenant, and the excitement and challenge of the newly gauntleted magi making their name in the world? For a fast saga (if one year game time per four sessions real time is really fast, roughly a session a season??! - I know players who have played Ars in the same covenant with their characters for nearly twenty REAL years!) I think this has potential - but I'm only just exploring it.

Anyway apologies for rambling on - hope of interest to some folks at least. And I'd love to hear your ideas and criticisms.

cj x

1 Like

Sounds fabulous. Too bad you're not my neighbor. :wink: I think one of the great things about troupe play is that you can use that primus but switch to another character for sessions when that primus is busy.


Oh so much this!

I haven't run such a high-level game, but I have played in one (an extremely over-powered 4th ed game) and your account pretty much matches my experiences. It was a lot of fun, one of our group became Primus of ex Misc, others could challenge for similar positions if they wanted to, and we were accounted as some of the more capable members of the entire order. Since the game had been run for a couple of hundred years before I joined (in real life, it had started in 2nd edition before the schism war, I think), there were quite a lot of ex-PCs hanging around who were much more dangerous than us - too dangerous for the order to trust most of the time - whereas we were tasked with dealing with Order-wide problems and wars.
One of the challenges was to achieve any objectives without breaking the world - physically, politically, or socially. We started a new tribunal, my character was working on establishing his own house (in the setting, Jerbiton had been 'purged' and my character was trying to re-start his parens' original house while pretending to an ex misc magus), the immortal Genghis Khan had invaded North America with the full resources of his 'Jade Empire' - and killing him would break the world since he had linked his lifeforce to the planet! When we had to stop the campaign (players moved away, boo), we were just about to resurrect every magus of the order who had ever lived, to raise a big enough army to stop Genghis' army of wizards...(I said it was an over-powered game, many house rules, the Divine had had a lot of problems before I started playing (including the Vatican being an open Hell-mouth spewing hordes of demons...), whole countries had been moved around the globe by magi, most of the faerie/pagan gods had been destroyed by an former PC, which left magi having to fill the power gap and deal with stuff that you'd normally get angels turning up to fix, etc.)

A lot of fun, but it wouldn't suit everyone.

It can be tremendous fun. Our last saga was set in Mann. Basically it means that we are the Middle East oil producing countries (early stages of the saga) and we develop into multibillionaires as the saga progresses. Hermetic resources are never a problem.

After securing Mann using our resources, we proceed to dealm with the Partitio Monaviae. It was hard, but we reached a status quo situation. This implied a long conflict with another Loch Leglean-funded covenant (we came fro Hibernia) until we made peace to search for a shared objective. We grew predatory, and decided not to keep it out of bounds of the 3 tribunals on a matter-of-fact thing, but to turn it into a Tribunal of its own. Thanks to our tinkering, Ireland is largely independent of the English crown and we ensured that Scotland and England battled it out until they were no longer caring about us (and the fact that the dragon Termaneagh of the island sank half the English invading fleet had something to do with it as well). Once the mundane problem was solved and the earl of Mann became the king of Mann and the Isles we proceeded to incorporate all the hedgies in the island into 3 more groupings (covenants) and to ensure we had 2 quaesitors on the island for redundancy reasons.

After that we started travelling Europe for support to our proposal of new tribunals. Our alliance with the Apple guild and the inclusion of Hereot as well was quite pivotal here. The pro-Muslim covenants of Iberia and us bouching for the Greek faction in the conflict over who “owns” (hermetically) Asia Minor was also really important. Surprisingly the Tremeres also ended up siding for us after a long observation of the process.

The final result was that we reshaped the tribunal borders of Mythic Europe: 4 new tribunals and several border shifts. The tribunal battle was hard fought but we won over. We had a non-wizard war-able position (2 archmages on residence, 2 more at stone shot in the old enemy turned ally covenant) and the racket we raised was big enough to ensure that the tytalians were happy with it, and the wilderists as well (Mann is quite a primal island, basically). A hodge podge alliance that we had lots of fun assembling in a real world year of adventures across the continent to get the needed support. We had to support some positions we were not really keen on supporting. For one thing we supported the harmonists being expelled from house Bjornaer and Lezyica being incorporated into the Rhine tribunal in order for them not to fire everything they had at us for supporting the secession of the Low Countries. We also had to agree to basically finance (to a pretty high limit) some altruistic projects of the OoH using our resources for a period of 10 grand tribunals; those would be decided in each grand tribunal.

We only went for a single target, but it was important at it was lots of fun to play high level politics here.

So go for it. It is certainly different from dealing with the local abbot, but it is still fun. It is A LOT more mage-centric than other adventures, but it is cool. A lot of the stories we told were about what was happening WHILE the archmagus or other maguis of our covenant was meeting with the council in, say, Estancia-es-karida: what the entourage was doing in the meantime and how they earmned the trust of the locals when a problem arose. Sometimes we went out and faced a MAJOR issue that was the price for their support. We used the artillery there. And sometimes we went out about the lost son of a miller that a band of pixies had abducted, and that by some chance was the crush of the daughter of the Jerbiton primus. We tended to go for both ends of the spectre, since we fopund that the big stuff got somewhat dull for us from time to time, and then we had the secondaries take central stage.


I really enjoy playing power politics in the Order of Hermes.

The most active saga I'm playing isn't quite at that level yet, but it's not far off. The most senior magi of the covenant are approaching 50 years out of Gauntlet - so not quite at the level to be the heavy hitters of the Order, but certainly high enough to be key supporting figures. For some, at least. Most of the magi in our covenant aren't politically motivated, so wouldn't be that interested in the Primus job.

What we've done, though, is troupe-played gatherings or meetings of very important characters - including the Primii and the Council of Archmagi. This has typically been part of the resolution of a key event - our covenant was very closely linked to the destruction of a castle belonging to the Knights of the Hospital not once but three times. Amusingly not a single incident was our fault, but proximity alone brought the Order to the attention of the Hospital and very nearly sparked a crusade against the Order as a whole. The resolution of this was handled by the players - alternately playing as senior members of the Knights Hospitaller and as senior magi of the Order. Some Wizard's Marches did get handed out.

The only advice I'd offer is that retirement is worth considering of a character change means they're not going to participate in stories most of the time due to their total lack of proximity. For what you've described this doesn't sound the case, so it should be fine - because the scope of the stories is growing to encompass those characters effectively.

There's a bit of this in Transylvania: a bit of west Wing style play. Mongols and Dragon War as really big problems to deal with, as starters...