What Does It Take...

...to run an Ars Magica saga?

See, I'm a decent storyteller/GM for a host of other systems that shall go mostly unnamed (several versions of the big dungeon-crawling system, that one system set in Seattle in the future, and the one about creatures of the night that turn into bats to name just a few). I consider myself able to craft stories that are intriguing and fun, and that keep the players involved and coming back for more abuse. The one thing about those systems that I don't have with Ars Magica is the ruleset; I'm still trying to learn that, and I have a whole bunch of reading to still do on it.

But besides the ruleset, what does it take to run an Ars Magica saga? I see all kinds of comments about players taking certain Virtures/Flaws because that's the kind of story they want to be involved in, and then there's the whole troupe-style to things, and you've got Magi and Companions and Grogs who all may be doing different things. And on top of that, you have to account for seasons and such with people not even being able to go adventuring or doing anything because they are tied up for months at a time. So while I'm aware of these things, I still don't know what it takes to effectively run a saga in this system.

Why am I asking? My friends have asked me if I'd run a saga for them. Not sure if we are doing this here, or on another site, or over skype (we are all separated by hundreds of miles), and I don't want to wholly embarrass myself in front of anyone.

Any advice anyone can give me - books to read, things to do, prep to deal with, etc. - would be a most excellent help.

What it takes to run a saga is much as any game. The willingness to master the rules and the willingness to look past the rules to move the story forward. The line between mastering the rules and looking past the rules is difficult to guess, and is a function of the troupe. My personal experience as an SG to follow the rules strictly so that all of the players have a clear idea of what is possible. The key here is that the setting suggests that the players have a lot of agency for their character's advancement and their home (the Covenant). You should maximize the story flaws of the PCs and the Hooks of the covenant to craft the greater story.

PbP allows the greater flexibility of looking up rules in a bit more of an ad hoc fashion and getting up to speed. I used PbP to bolster my understanding of the rules, and after a couple of years, I now feel comfortable running sessions in a face to face/skype type of game.

A few advices...
More than any other games that I played, Ars Magica requires good communication between players and SG, and an agreement from the players that they will have to do their share (specifically, learning the magic system and not always counting on the SG to spoon-feed them, getting ready for the next session - planning season and research to allow smooth sailing).

For you, as SG, you have to decide and agree with your players what kind of game they want to play so you can decide where to focus and what to drop. Since Ars Magica is a very rich system WITH and extensive background, it is easy to get lost by trying to track every possibility, or integrating every single extension books.

Points to clarify from the start:

  • How much do you want to follow the Mythic Europe background ? How high fantasy do you want to go stay rather low key ?
  • What kind of stories you players prefer ? Intrigue ? Investigation ? Discovery ? Big heroic battle ?
  • What characters do they want to play ?

With answers to these questions, you can decide in with Tribunal you want to base your Saga, if you need any of the Realm of Power rulebooks, which house rulebooks do you want, if Mysteries is relevant or not, if non-hermetic traditions are and so on.

I would suggest that as a starting point, give to the players only the information coming from the Corebook. Don't start to go into Cults, House secrets and such. There is enough in the corebook to create many interesting characters, it will allow you to start with a solid base, and as the PCs evolve and the players master the system, bring in elements that could lead to interesting character development.

It is classic, but it works well: building a Spring covenant from scratch is an easy starting point for a Saga, especially with beginners in Ars. If you want something more spicy, consider setting them up in an dying winter covenant, with a single old mage, looking for some fresh blood to revive it. It allows you to have an NPC which can assign mission to PCs without stealing their glory as he is himself too close to Twilight to dare attempt anything.

If you are reading this forum since a while, you will notice that everybody took a different take on Ars. Some are history buffs using it to fuel their saga and at the other extreme, they are those who like flying castles and binding angels to their will. They all have fun, but try to make them agree on certain points is... err... challenging shall we say :smiley:

For me, I asked myself a few questions and tried to answer them:

What Kind of adventures do I want to play?
Which kind of mythological monsters do I want to have in the saga?
How close to the really big cities (London, Rome, Constantinople, Paris) do I want to place the saga
What level of power shall I have?
How far from civilization do I want the covenant to be?
What millieu (northern russia, central germany, islands of the mediteranian etc?
How powerful is the church where the covenant lies?

  • So I wanted to play a low-to-medium powered saga where there are enough vis and magic to make it interesting, but not too much so that everything is a cake-walk.

  • I love the Greek tradgedies and I think I can be woken up in the middle of the night and answer most questions about the Illiad. So naturally I chose the Theban Tribunal.

  • But I wanted the players to have some saying, so I started up them as apprentices in Loch Leaglean Tribunal and made them move away from that tribunal to find one of their own, but during the months (RL time) we played i LL i gave them an opening to be accepted to the Theban tribunal which made it easy for them to move there.

  • I think that it is important to have nobles and the church nearby, so that there is a medival feeling and not just a remote covenant with wizards. So I placed a covenant on the Island of Samos in the Greek archipliago, where it takes a few hours to walk to the capital of the island, but there are villages nearby. Samos has two port cities which makes it easy to travel and there are a few barons or the like who can show that there is powerblocks. It is a city that was taken by the Venetians, but it lies close to Smyrna and Ephesos who are coastal cities of the Empire of Nicea and enemies of the Venetians.

  • The greek mythology is something many people know some about from books and TV series as well as Holywodd films (300, Percy Jackson, Troy, Xena, Young Hercules etc) so if I say that they see a centaur of a nymph, or starts to describe a greek temple, my players can visualize it easy.

  • I want the Church to be powerful, but not as a hammer to smite the pathetic wizards, so I have said that in my campaign, there are many orthodox churches on Samos, but in the early years of the 13-th century a big Roman church was built in Vathi (the capital) thanks to the Venetian Lord. So there are some friction between the two christian churches, enough to make it possible for some infernal plots in the shadows. Also in the RL history, for a while it was according to the catholic/roman church a decree that if you belonged to any other christian church than that of the mother church of Rome, there was no salvation in heaven. Which meant that all orthodox followers would go straight to hell, but it was removed during the era that we play.

  • Lastly, I want to play adventures where players have to defend themself from the local nobles and the church as well as infernal problems, but also faeries and mystical beings of the magic realm. For example, Samos was the home of samia, the first queen and a nymph. She is a power in my game that the players have met. This far she is seeing them as allies, but with faeries you never know. Also I want bigger adventures where they feel that they like Heracles do great deeds and saves a princess or two, but at the same time it is not a thing that happens often.

in conclusion, ask yourself, what kind of story do you want to play. Shall it be like Lord of the Rings where the players are the main heroes of the world, or should it be more like Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy where ordinary people (although with an edge or two in some field) gets to do their personal quests but they are never that powerful...
Also is it a world where the church has nothing to say as it is a weak institution or is it a threat to all magi and if anyone see you cast a spell, the church will know and send after an inquisitor? Are there many other supernatural threats?
How is the nobility and other power players, are there merchant houses that wants to own Covenant lands and business?

Most importantly: What will be fun to you to play DO you like the strong Scotsmen who fights against themselves between clan and clan or do you want a dark story beneath the harsh Ural mountains where the elements are the most dangerous things? What type of adventures do you like? Is it the intrigue and politics of the French court in Paris or is it the war against the Moors in Spain and North Africa?

Ignore...double post

I've been the SG for a 4th edition saga running about once a month since just before 5th ed came out. (The free download of the 4th ed rules inspired a few friends.) I also had been a GM for several other systems, but Ars did seem a bit daunting.

We started out with a Spring Covenant, set in Stonehenge, since that's the area the players seemed most interested in, historically. There was a senior magus gathering newly gauntleted magi to get things going. We had little guidance on picking virtues and flaws, or even designing new characters, so after a few years of real time playing the game, two of us introduced an additional maga/us with a better design. We did not completely retire our original magi, but they tend to be background characters, brought out for special occasions.

Some things I learned as GM ...
Good story-telling and plot-development skills do transfer from one system to another. Our first stories included a rescue mission, a vis-hunt, and a shopping trip gone awry, which were all adventures I might have run using other systems. Stories have become more character-driven as our saga progressed.

A few early sessions where we focused on one rule set at a time (studying, enchanting, combat, ageing, twilight, certamen, etc) went a long way to making us (me) comfortable with the rules. Before each of these sessions, I gave the other players a reference card with a summary of the rules for that particular activity.

I quickly learned that a spreadsheet to keep track of all the NPCs we interacted with was handy, so they could reappear in subsequent stories. Recurring NPCs, even minor ones, has been much more prevalent than in other systems.

One of the players has taking on the role of "historian" for the group, recording the events of a game session, so that we can refer back to them, and let previous actions have consequences in later stories.

There have been times where we get into the story, and completely ignore the fact that we could or should be rolling dice, even during combat. Whatever narrative makes the scene exciting/interesting/plot-advancing takes precedence over the crunchy rules for us. This is also very different from running other systems.

I am fortunate to have players who enjoy the more "sandbox" aspects of Ars, and who are quite willing to make things up, and not wait for me to have all the answers or details.

I think that the main differences from the games you've mentioned are:

  • Ars magica is a lot more player-driven, primarily because there are mechanics (Story Flaws and Hooks) to support that in the form of players explicitly stating what sort of "adventures", or Stories in Ars Magica jargon, they are interested in: love affairs, persecution by demons, inheritance of great power etc. Also, magi can really change the world if they want, so they are often the initiators of Big Stuff Happening.
  • Ars magica tends to involve a much larger palette of player characters then other games: each player plays 1 magus and 1 companion, plus possibly several grogs, and maybe (eventually) familiar. The trick of running a good saga is to somehow weave all the individual stories of these disparate characters together into a coherent whole (the Covenant is a very effective "convergence" tool).
  • Most of the time, characters are not adventuring (this meshes well with b)). They are doing their own "everyday" stuff: studying, earning money, debating church doctrine etc. Ars magica has its own mechanics about these "seasonal" activities. These are a lot of fun and, unlike in other games, advance the "power" (think D&D level) of characters at least as much as Stories, if not more. Stories intrude on this routine, shaking things up and bringing excitement -- often unwelcome excitement from the point of view of the characters!

Motivation and desire to do so.
Having the rules is generally an advantage.
As is having some players, I suppose. :wink:

I believe I'm familiar with all of those, though perhaps not the same editions. :wink:

I might suggest just starting with the core book, and then expanding when you're comfortable with that.
I'm told the lab system can take a bit of getting used to but I dearly love it myself.

See above. Oh, and time.

Ars Magica tends to encourage thinking of stories as currency, so might pay you to take certain traits the might normally be considered advantages, but give you points because they either cause stories (Story Flaws) or narrow down your character (Personality Flaws).
Think of it as the system paying you for helping the GM with ideas.

Troupe-style is... awesome, but not necessary.
If no-one in your group but you is willing to pick up the slack and tell a story, be a GM and have fun. The game still works.
Personally, I encourage everyone in my troupes to come up with stories, even minor ones, and take the lead on those.
Have fun, it doesn't have to be big; I remember persuading a player to describe what happened at the wedding of two characters. Essentially it was her first experience as a GM. but it was a very limited scene, and she survived. Last I heard, she GMs a bi-weekly CoC campaign.
So, in short, relax, don't worry about it.

Having a second character is really practical when your magus wants to stay in his lab Thank you so very much!. Or when the person who ran the story last time, the story you're in the middle of, suddently can't be there this saturday, and someone else has to dream up a new story. Or when your grog can't go because she's pregnant. Or whatever have you.

Don't worry, we're usually a friendly bunch, especially when you've told people you're new )

Get the core book. Decide how closely you want the saga to follow real history. Decide how much research you want to do.
And jump in.

...and if the sharks look threatening, don't be afraid to ask :slight_smile:

Hi, Egon. Welcome.

I've run many, many RPGs over the last 30+ years. In my experience, Ars may be the most labor-intensive game I have ever run (and I have GM'd Hero System and GURPS, both requiring a lot of books and prep). But it is important to see this as part of the game design. That is, as a game which is more simulationist than not, it is intended that the preparation be part of the fun. If you as GM, or a player, spends a couple of hours one night planning out laboratory activities or designing a library, that's work which you don't need to do in other games. But it should be fun for you. If you don't enjoy recreating the simulation and playing out the thought experiment of that simulation, Ars can feel like too much for the reward you DO get.

Ars players also argue vigorously, and just about every phrase of the above paragraph is tripping a landmine for an active poster on these forums. So try not to get too attached to any one viewpoint, especially and including mine. Instead, get all the advice you can, and when you ignore three quarters of it, just keep that part to yourself. We'll never know.

I would humbly point you to my own ongoing campaign, HBO Ars Magica, which has had about 20 episodes. You can see our website here: https://sites.google.com/site/hboarsmagica/

And feel free to reach out to me privately if I can help answer any questions, or if you just want to share experiences. I think you're asking a great set of questions, and you're wise to probe Ars's unique challenges as a game.

I completely agree.

I started running Ars Magica in 2006 with the 4th Edition and the Nigrasaxa campaign, which provides a relatively good introduction to the game on a small scale.

Somewhere between then and now I started compiling giant timelines of European history and plotting out a world's worth of meta-events so that my next campaign, set in the Rhine Tribunal, will have historically accurate Germanic tumult for the players to sandbox in. And I enjoy it. (NOTE: you do not have to this; I've run much more flexible sagas.)

What I recommend is that you educate your players about what's going on both with the mechanics and the mythology of Ars Magica before you generate characters as making magi without a handle on the options often leads to disappointment.

As a side note, I cannot recommend highly enough the new book Through the Aegis.

This book has five complete covenants ready to be played. Each has four magi which are perfect for new players to take on, along with a couple of senior NPC magi. Most of the work which goes into making a new covenant -- what books are in the library, how many soldiers does it have and what are their game statistics, what are its vis sources -- has all been done for you. Each covenant is set in a different Tribunal, each of which is supported by a 5th edition Tribunal book should you decide to play that particular covenant. There are stories built in, and if you don't want to use any of the ready-made PC magi, there are tips for making new ones to replace them.

Even if you never use the covenants in the book as is, you can plunder their libraries, vis sources, labs, NPCs, and enchanted items, saving yourself hours and hours of time. Through the Aegis is the best book in the line since Covenants.

Yadda, yadda, make your own mind from random bits thrown by all of us.

  • The Covenant is a character
    That's the first consequence of Troupe-style, everyone should work together to build a stage where their stories will be told. The structure and the grogs are a common resource that everyone will play as support characters. Even neighbors and adversaries can be handled by players.

  • The Alpha Story Guide is just a facilitator
    Troupe style and Story Flaws implies that players have to take the lead. It's less adventures into the unknown and more theater and improv. Take for instance a Criamon who wants to do his next station, you should both roughly plan how the story will flow to allow the player to build his personna and make the choices that will bring about the consequences he's looking for.

  • Charop and retcon
    Designing magi is a much more involved process than in other games. Getting it right the first time and avoiding the traps is not easy, you should allow to revisit the concept and correct the character. Also, if you consider adventures as "retelling of a legend from 100 year ago", it explains the inconsistencies in the same way that Merlin's myth places him at different locations at the same time.

  • Long term events
    In some systems, getting a month of downtime is unusual. You would spend 4 sessions of play handling 36 hours of game time. In Ars Magica, 4 months of game time will pass by in an hour, a little 15 minute visit to the local noble followed by planning your next season in the lab. After all, your magus will be active for 100 years and more and 100 season-long sessions would cover 25 years in 2 years.

  • Failure and consequences
    You are supposed to fail, or at least not quite succeed the way you wanted. There will be consequences to your actions: nobles, church, faeries, tribunal politics, someone will not be happy that you solved a problem. You won't be gone to another adventure after 3 months so they will have 10 years to plan their revenge.

  • This is a team effort
    Sure you can drive the show, and if you're good enough your players might be happy to take the backseat. But just tracking the character's evolution is a lot of work for a single person, make sure everyone is involved in the effort.

  • Middle Age and the alien mindset
    Mythic Europe background is fully developped, just using wikipedia you could spend week reading on places and peoples. And there are many weirdness such as no inertia, spontaneous creation of maggots and poor's hour at the end of market days (anything unsold becomes free).

Also, see cj.23 simplified Ars Magica concept game, or how to play without character sheets.

I'm not much of an expert there, but for my money -

A difficult part of Ars Magica is that some of its mechanics are plot-drivers (Story Flaws, Hooks), but starting players usually don't really know what the ArM setting and trope-plots are so they don't really know which stories they want to tell. I'd advise you to either come to the players with a strong Campaign-concept, or to have a Covenant-Building Session.

Campaign-concept is more like That Other Game. In that Game Which Must Not Be Named, the game's premise is often very clear from the start, e.g: "In this campaign, you'll be fighting Against the Giants, starting from battling their goblin scouts and working your way up to their Storm Giant leaders in the upper Planes. I want everyone to be at the Bull's Eye bar, looking for adventure or mercenary work, at the start of the game". The same can be true for Ars Magica. Choose some initial Megaplot, and clarify it to the players - because they aren't familiar with the setting, however, you would really need to explicitly tell them the kinds of adventures they'll face and what their starting position/attitude is expected to be. The megaplot needen't be all-encompassing or last for decades; it's there to set the initial tone and start the saga off with everyone on the same page. Once everyone is onboard and playing for a while, the game can gradually progress to a more Ars-like player-driven saga.

The other option is to have a Covenant-Design Session. For this, the supplement Covenants actually helps but is still optional; the core rules would suffice. Go over the covenant options, especially the hooks and boons, and talk them over with the other players. This will be enough to clarify the typical-stories of Ars Magica and settle on the kind of stories that the group wants to tell, and the kind of setting they want for them. Don't fret over all the covenant options - just do enough to get the idea of the saga everyone wants to play, and fill in the rest later, off-session. Do we want Fortifications so we'll have stories about nobles being worried about them, for example? Do we want to be inaccessible to mundanes so our stories will be mostly about supernatural stuff? That kind of thing. In the left-over time start doing the magi and perhaps the companions to make them fit and further-elaborate on the saga you want to tell; again focus on the first personal plot-lines you want the character to pursue in the first leg of the saga, rather than all or even his major personal-plots as the player sees him.

Another unusual aspect of Ars Magica is that things take time. In those Other Games, characters advance instantly so that you naturally tend to pile one adventure after the second, with instant reactions and grand setting-changes. Try to resist the temptation to do this, even when it makes sense. Let reactions and plots simmer for seasons and decades, and do let NPCs take half-measures instead of escalating the conflicts. Try to move things at a glacial pace - it will help your PCs advance and develop between adventures, and it will allow you to develop the setting better.

Finally, I'd caution you against PC power. PCs can be very powerful, especially if given enough time to prepare, yet also very "fragile" if hit the right way. Realize how quickly PCs can gain power/capabilities with books and labwork, and plan accordingly. Magic Resistance can become surprisingly irrelevant for example, and wards and other protections can make PCs immune to massive amounts to normal damage while at the same time still being very vulnerable to some other sources of damage. (This is assuming you don't adopt house-rules on this, of course.)

This is where the troupe system with players having many characters, and not all magi going on an adventure becomes to begin important. Magi, in many ways, will be something of a glass canon. When you have more than two of them in an adventure, they can blast away almost all opposition (combat oriented or not) with their spells that it makes things extremely challenging as an SG. As an SG, I try and provide targets for my players to use their best abilities/spells/Arts, and also provide challenges, that require them to use the least favored of their Arts/Abilities, or think very creatively to get around the problem.

As an SG, I encourage players to specialize their magi. As a player, the longer I play, the more I feel that specializing in a Form is much more rewarding the specializing in a Technique. The beginner's impulse will be to specialize in a Technique, if they don't specialize in a Form, and this leads to generalization. My experience is that generalist magi are not fun to play, because they are almost always second fiddle or utility players used to solve something the specialist can't handle. Playing magi specialists often force players to think of inventive and fun ways to make their magi solve their problems with their best Arts, or use grogs creatively. As a player, nothing is more fun then pushing the limits of what my character can do in a given situation. One of my favorite experience is casting a spontaneous spell, expending fatigue in an effort to save the party (couple of grogs, companion and my magus) and having him pass out in the process, because he was at Dazed when he did it. The character had done a lot of spell casting in the scenario, most of it in his specialty of Corpus, but some of it, even within the Form of Corpus stretched his capabilities and fatigued him.