Hey guys! I'm new to Ars Magica, have only played D&D and Mutants & Masterminds in terms of RPGs. I'm very unused to the Ars Magica style of storytelling, though. Namely, how do you make Ars stories exciting, intense, and/or rewarding without lots of combat?
In many role playing sessions, the Story Guide (SG) or Dungeon Master if you will, lays out the story to connect one fight to another. So, in a sense, the through line of the story doesn't (and may not need to) exist: the players are happy to hack and slash their way through hordes of monsters until they get to the end guy, whom they kill and reap the big magic item.
Ars Magica (AM) can be played like this (although I suspect most of the forum writers here wouldn't care to play in this type of game). There are some difficulties, as healing and recovery in the Rules as Written (RAW), are more involved than in D&D and can eat up resources (vis) quickly in a low vis campaign.
All of that being said, here is what I suggest. Instead of creating a story that requires your group to kill a bunch of monsters, replace 90% of the monster encounters with puzzles. Not the "two statues by two doors, one always tells the truth, one always lies" puzzle, but, encountering a severely broken rope bridge, a bartender that WON'T just give out information, a lake that needs to be crossed, but no boat is available. As players can spontaneously cast spells to solve these troubles, it allows your group to use their creativity to master the story, rather than their bastard swords.
At its most basic, the idea is to provide modes of conflict that can be resolved without necessarily relying on violence. The power and flexibility of Hermetic magic thus becomes a boon rather than a liability.
Let's say a group of monsters have stolen a local farmer's favourite pig. In D&D, you'd probably track the monsters to their lair, evade and traps, and mow down the goblins/kobolds like wheat until you were able to retrieve the animal. In Ars Magica, your first step would probably be to find out what sort of being took the pig then attempt to locate it, possibly requiring you to explore a regio (this is arguably less aggressive than the standard dungeon as most of the hazards faced are 'natural') once you've found the creature responsible you could kill it with magic, but depending on its motives that may not be an effective way of dealing with the problem - a demon might steal the pig simply to inflict privation on the farmer's family, a faerie might do it because the farmer neglected to leave out a bowl of cream that night. In such cases, the demon will have already gotten what it wants or other faeries will continue to bedevil the farmer unless he resumes the placating gesture.
Sorry for the rambling reply, but if you'd like any more specific advice I'm sure you'll find no ends of help here.
Let me point out that combat in Ars Magica is much deadlier than in D&D or M&M. Fighting is generally the last resort, at least for ordinary mortals. Once this concept comes across, think about what might be done to get through without fighting.
There's negotiating, bribing, sneaking, thieving, and politics; adventures can be built around exploring ruins, tombs, magic sites, regios (which might have all of these or versions of these), coping with (sometimes slaying, sometimes capturing, sometimes out-thinking) a wide variety of monsters.
That said, fights can make rattling good stories, too.
In good game sessions the dramatic tension was what the group enjoyed. Think about using the npc and characters in ways that allows for a setup/foretelling, introduction, a few dilemmas and then the resolution. This is why the characters have story elements built into character creation.
Also some of the best dramatic tension can be between players, so it's important to get the players to detail their persona.
Social Dilemmas and Being Clever With Spells.
In my experience, if everyone in the troupe tries to play PCs and NPCs as if they are real people, then a web of social connections pretty quickly builds up over a few sessions (within the covenant esp. including between PCs, and between the covenant and the nobles/townsfolk/etc who live nearby, and with other covenants). Social Dilemmas then pretty much just arise naturally whenever something happens.
For Being Clever With Spells, I think that the key, as storyguide, is to not try to get too caught up in trying to think out Problems and Solutions in advance. Just present/create Problems and let the players worry about the solution. Try to not anticipate an "intended" solution, allow the players to be creative.
One could write a very large essay about that. I'll just say two things I find relevant.
First of all, keep in mind that "story" in Ars Magica has a very specific, mechanical connotation that corresponds somewhat to the D&D adventure. One of the characteristics of Ars Magica is that in many Ars Magica games "stories" are, from the perspective of characters, relatively rare and possibly extraordinary events. In between stories, there are seasonal activities - magi invent spells, merchants invest their wealth, artists create wonderful pieces of art, churchmen try to reform church doctrine etc. Ars Magica supports all these activities mechanically, and they create a background for your stories that is both fun to play in itself and adds a lot more "depth" and meaning to individual stories. I would add that to this "dilation" on the time axis, Ars Magica adds "dilation" on the "character cast" axis: between magi, companions, and grogs, Ars Magica sagas tend to be about much larger "communities" of characters than typical D&D/M&M adventures.
Second, I would point out that D&D and M&M can also produce exciting and intense stories without lots of combat, even though their mechanics tend to be very detailed when dealing with combat, and less so when dealing with other stuff (Ars Magica is a bit more balanced in that regard, although not nearly as much as newer games). Ways to make a story fun:
- Find something that is central for (some of) the characters. Ars Magica provides mechanics for this: Personality Flaws (stuff that characters want to see happen), Story Flaws (external stuff that happens to the characters and is important to them), and Hooks (stuff that happens to the covenant and is important to it). This could be becoming a famous artist, making the local maid fall in love with you, find out who killed your brother, espiate a sin etc.
- Create a few complications around that thing. Crass ignorance in your public, a love rival, red herrings about your brother's death, a demon who tempts you.
- Construct a series of challenges against both the strengths and weaknesses of the characters (measured by Virtues, Characteristics and Skills). For example, the character with a love interest could have a terrible Charm -- and maybe even a Flaw related to it like Disfigured. Make him fail miserably at charming the young maid. But maybe he's good at something else: maybe he's good at Faerie Lore, and at poetry, and he has great artistic potential (the Virtue Free Expression). Then have the character's love interest kidnapped by faeries, and he runs to the rescue solving puzzles, navigating strange surroundings, and wowing the faerie queen kidnapper (and eventually the lovely maid) with his heart-wrenching poetry.
I would reinforce the importance of those Personality / Story Flaws and Covenant Hooks as well. When the player group sits down and designs their characters and the covenant both, those all should be stressed.
They should also be viewed more in a positive light than they frequently are. These should not be viewed as penalties that you are taking on your character or covenant. Instead encourage people to look at them as positive statements back to the SG / DM as to what sort of conflict and/or stories you would like to see or tell with the character or have surrounding the covenant. These then form a list of things your players are telling you they want to see in the game. Be sure to explain this to your players very clearly and directly, so that they aren't instead trying to make overly gamist choices in this regard. Instead, if they build things with this in mind, you have that ready list of things that they are already telling you that they are interested in.
Then just go down the list, much as Ezzelino describes. Figure out ways to include these things that your people are interested in into the motivations and plotlines of major NPCs, and then just sit back and watch what happens. Things will get complicated and interesting all on their own after that. And it won't necessarily involve combat, though it could.
You could also take something like Skilled Parens and turn that into something that comes back to be interesting. A player Magus then has a developed and more or less positive relationship with a powerful Magus then? Well, who is that Magus? What do they want? And once you know that, how would they like their former apprentice to be involved?
Combat is ok. The important thing is that it isn't just a combat for the sake of combat. Instead, make sure the fights that happen, are happening for a reason, any reason at all. That there are 'stakes' behind each fight, and a real reason to feel like winning is important and losing is bad, beyond threat of character loss and/or having to retreat etc.
That is the crux of any good story, not just in Ars Magica. Tie things into characters, make them believable people with motivations ( NPCs and PCs alike ), and then watch them run. You'll start to get a feel for them all like they were real people.