Writing a saga

Taken from my blog post at magioftom.wordpress.com/2014/12 ... ing-sagas/ , I know this is a bit long but I reread it recently and wanted people's feedback on the best way to present a fan jumpstart saga.

Ars Magica does not have any published sagas. There’s a few scenario books, some designed to have followup scenarios later, and antagonists, who can occur several times, and some scenarios (like the City of Brass) will take a lot of work, with years of expedition planning and preparation and maybe multiple attempts to reach the target. However, David Chart points to the difficulties of making scenario books useful to as many groups as possible and pointing out these are multiplied several times for sagas. Also, he points to the Ashes of the Damned campaign for Warhammer and even though the Middenheim instalment (author: D.Chart) was well-received, overall it did not sell well and that the twenty-first century is harder on big campaigns that the 1980s.

Say, however, that an ambitious fan wanted to have a go at creating one. Maybe he (because I’m thinking of me here) wants to share their ideas on how a saga could work. Maybe he (because I’m thinking of CJ here) wants to create a “my first saga” to show those new to Ars how to get a saga underway. (Note that Ars is an inclusive game, and that gaming genius is not solely confined to handsome geniuses of Anglo-Danish descent.) Whatever their motivation, it is worth thinking about how to present their work. Today, I’m thinking of the formats of the best published roleplaying campaigns I’ve been in.

To create an example: the saga of Trucido Totum (a rough translation of “I kill everyone/all/the whole”, a motto of many Flambeau and a good few storyguides) has two main themes. These are the increasing belligerence of a local mundane lord, and the infernal corruption of a village. We also need to weave in some involvement with the wider tribunal, an opportunity to get involved in a mystery cult, and some other things to break up the flow so players aren’t continuously battling knights or demons.

If this was a 1980s classic (such as a Chaosium one for Call of Cthulhu) you could have:
•Chapter 1: Meeting the neighbours – introduces the local lord and his knights, who are suspicious about the wizard’s tower.
•Chapter 2: Murder in the village – introduces a nearby settlement where Glenn the Miller has disappeared. Was it his wife’s lover, or the farmer who owed him money, or are fairies to blame?
•Chapter 3: An invitation to visit – a redcap arrives, and among the mail is an invitation to come and meet the magi of the nearest covenant. Includes a description of the what the covenant looks like, the personalities of the main magi and what they may want to talk about.
•Chapter 4: A Challenge on the border – patrolling knights from the local lord cause trouble for the covenant.
•Chapter 5: The mystery of the missing livestock – sheep disappear from the nearby village. A tainted creature turns out to be the guilty party.
•Chapter 6: The stone circle. If the player magi were interested in a mystery cult after speaking to other magi in chapter 3, this story involves going to a mystical site for an initiatory rite.
•Chapter 7: Pushing daisies. The magi learn of a vis source contained in daisies growing in a local graveyard, but will have to negotiate for access.
•Chapter 8: Under siege – the local lord becomes paranoid, raises a peasant levy and his knights and proceeds to assault or besiege the covenant.
•Chapter 9: Unholy rites – strange happenings in the local village are due to an infernal cult who are trying to appease the dark forces that besiege them.

Alternatively, you could merge chapters 1/4/8 and 2/5/9 and have a suggested timeline of events.

If done in the style of Griffin Mountain for Runequest, or like a White Wolf supplement you would have:
•The local lord, his men, and the story seeds “A suspicious lord”, “a challenge on the border”, “under siege”
•The local village, including all the supernatural details and relationships between villagers, and the story seeds “Murder in the village”, ”missing livestock” and “unholy rites”
•The nearby covenant, and stats for the redcap who serves the local area.
•Sites of mystical interest, including a stone circle (with mystery rite described) and a vis source.

If done in the style of The Boy King campaign for Pendragon:
•1220: redcap mail – includes an invitation to a nearby covenant (see:ADVENTURE OF THE WIZARD’S DINNER), and a request to trade vis
•Intrigue – successful intrigue rolls will tell players about the local lord and his paranoia.
•Suggested adventures for this year: “DEATH AND THE MILLER” (describes the disappearance of Glenn the Miller)
•1221: redcap mail – includes a message from the levant from magi asking for support in their defense of the land against Islamic wizards. If any magi showed interest in the mystery cult in 1220, they receive a mysterious communication (see: ADVENTURE OF THE STONE CIRCLE)
•Intrigue – warns them the local lord’s knights want to cause trouble for the covenant, and that the villagers nearby are demoralised by all the accidents in their village.
•Suggested adventures for this year: A CHALLENGE ON THE BORDER (describing knights attacking unless the players headed them off following an intrigue roll), THE ADVENTURE OF THE MISSING LIVESTOCK (to slay an infernal creature preying on sheep)
•1222: redcap mail – includes a warning from a local quaesitor not to interfere with mundane unless in clear self-defence. If there are any bonisagus in the covenant, there is a letter asking for submissions to the next folio.
•Intrigue: The local lord has been buying ladders and wood for siege engines, and asking how many men his manors can spare for a levy.
•Suggested adventures: UNDER SIEGE (where the local lord attacks), UNHOLY RITES

General adventures for the period 1220-1222: THE ADVENTURE OF THE DAISIES (about a local vis source)

If done in AEG 7th Sea style (see “A murder of supplication” on the AEG website for a free example. Also used in the Freiburg Campaign) – this consists of hard points (encounters which must happen), soft points (encounters which may happen), Optional stories (if required by players being members of particular secret societies).
•Hard point 1: meeting the neighbours. Describes a local lord and his court, and players try to negotiate for local rights. They may gain the impression he is warlike.
•Soft point 2: a character gets into a confrontation with a drunken knight who won’t back down. If the player is beaten or backs down, he is arrogant and says no-one crosses his lord. If he is defeated, he will swear revenge.
•Hard point 3: Murder in the village. Glenn the Miller has disappeared, and people are convinced it is murder. Magic or very good investigative skills may reveal the mundane reason quickly (his wife’s lover did it)
•Soft point 4: Wild goose chase. The players, following the villagers’ suggestion there is a supernatural cause, go to hunt down a fairie in the woods. The fairie is innocent and tells the players he has no involvement in the mortal’s sins.
•Soft point 5: Tracks in the woods. If the players are out in the woods, they spot the tracks of a large creature unlike any they have seen. They are unable to find the creature in the woods today (the creature won’t appear until Hard point 9)
•Soft point 6: Loose lips. If the players haven’t uncovered the reason for Glenn’s disappearance, they can be told gossip about all the jealousy, adultery and envy within the village.
•Soft point 7: An invitation to visit – a redcap brings a message from a nearby covenant, and the players get a chance to meet magi there.
•Optional point: if the storyguide wants to introduce a mystery cult, one of the magi makes an offer to a player mage to join as an initiate next year.
•Hard point 8: Challenge on the border- a group of knights comes over to the covenant’s lands and causes trouble.
•Hard point 9: Missing livestock – the local village has suffered losses not explained by the recent raid from knights. Following tracks into the woods, the players encounter an infernally tainted creature.
•Optional point: The stone circle – if a player wanted to join the mystery cult, there is a chance to perform the initiation rite at a local mystical site.
•Soft point 10: Pushing daisies – a local graveyard contains daisies which are a source of vis. The players need to negotiate for access.
•Hard point 11: Under siege – the local lord besieges the covenant. Can the players drive him off?
•Soft point 12: Parley – if the players cannot defeat the lord’s forces, they are offered a chance to surrender if they agree to pay him taxes and assist in magical defence of his land.
•Soft point 13: A quaesitor calls – hearing the local lord is going to war, a quaesitor arrives a few days too late. He asks questions as to what happened in the defense of the covenant. If all is well, he is friendly, if not he tells them to expect to face charges at the next Tribunal meeting. The players can also volunteer information about other things they have seen – he will seem interested but is too busy to investigate fully himself.
•Hard point 14: Unholy rites – there are strange events in the village. When the players investigate, the locals have formed a cult to appease the dark forces that assault them.

Which of these styles works the best to create a coherent whole for players while being straightforward for the storyguide?

I liked your post darkwing!
I think that a fundamental question one has to answer first is how flexible a saga framework one wants to create. With flexible I mean a saga that can, first and foremost, adapt to different groups of PCs -- in terms of strengths and weaknesses, goals, and general nature. I also mean a saga that can work with different moods, from gritty horror to lighthearted humour to epic fantasy. And I also mean a saga that can easily be ported to different times and places, cut and pasted with other sagas etc.

Basically, you'll be trading flexibility for WOW. If you are a good story writer, you can create a saga that's fantastic for a given PC group and mood if played in isolation, but generally these sagas are very "fragile" because they carefully balance all the various elements and don't work so well for most groups and moods and if cut-and-pasted with other material. They are like custom-taylored suits: great on the person they were taylored to, but rather bad-looking on most other people. Or you can create a nice, modular saga with lot of neat ideas, whose individual elements can be plundered and pasted to work with different settings, and that can work well with different troupes; but by necessity these generic sagas are a bid blander, a bit less specific, a bit less thrilling. They are like off-the-shelf suits, with e.g. shoulders cut a bit larger, so that they can accomodate most wearers. This tradeoff is, I think, particularly evident in a game like Ars Magica, where a group of characters can be so incredibly diverse in terms of goals, abilities etc. It's as if you were not trying to design suits for humans of a given gender, but suits for the inhabitants of a Star Wars setting.

The ideal writing style changes depending on the level of flexibility you want to achieve. The Griffin Mountain/ White Wolf style is best for maximum flexibility. 1980s Chthulhu/7th sea is best for a very specific group of PCs (i.e. that's what I'd write from scratch for my particular group of PCs). The Pendragon style is somewhere in between. If I were going for a "my first saga" design, I'd probably ditch flexibility and go for a 1980s classic style/7th sea adventure with memorable, pregenerated characters created to strongly interact with each other and with the environment and to strongly entice exploration of this or that aspect of the game (from labwork to combat). I'd also try to make the plotline as linear and railroaded as possible, at least in terms of big picture, so as to minimize the risk of the SG getting "stuck" and so as to maximize use of material (if you have 4 side adventures of which you'll only play one because they're mutually exclusive, you are wasting 3/4 of your effort); though of course I'd put a lot of effort into hiding this from the players, who should be confronted with the illusion that the final outcome really depended on their choices :slight_smile: Allowing real choices for stuff that in the end has mostly cosmetic impact is one good way to achieve this, as is the use of "reconnecting branches": if the party is defeated and taken prisoner by the pirates, the pirate ship sinks during a storm leaving them stranded on a mysterious island -- if they defeat the pirates and take them prisoner, whether they head back north to their home port or boldly sail towards the pirate cove, the ship still sinks during a storm leaving everybody stranded on the same mysterious island :slight_smile:

As an overall saga it would work with breaks in the middle for adventures based on player flaws. But as a campaign arc it would work.

I've thought about it...

The amount of work is incredible. I did give it a basic try using the Norman invasion of Sicily, and it's one of those thigns that is possible, would take forever, and then people would just ignore...

The GPC style of campaign works because it's clear from the start that the PCs have no power to really influence the course of events - the design of Pendragon has the PCs as bit players in the legend. In Ars Magica, this is simply not the case, so it won't work well.

If I were to do a saga type, I'd combine the White Wolf supplement approach with a fairly broadly-tailored starting set of a few adventures. Only a handful, all focusing on communal covenant-related hooks rather than on the individual players (probably with inserts saying, for example, "If one of the PC magi has Enemies related to either the Quaesitores or the War Faction, then Culus ex Guernicus is one of them, and will work to find or manufacture evidence of their wrongdoings"). After the introductory adventure arc, the SG has a covenant and environment (as set up in the saga seed) and ideally the fallout from the introductory game arc to work with, as well as the PCs' Story Flaws to build new stories around.

Another option is to take the Pathfinder Adventure Path approach and request that PCs take specific Story Flaws that will make them eligible to be drawn into particular messes.

That would be a kickass PC!

I see my low sense of humor is appreciated.

[spoiler]Actually, the idea was that he was an asshole Quaesitor. But the joke works either way.[/spoiler]

Among my players, I notice that most tend to construct characters with a long-term goal of some sort, like "I want to be a necromancer with hordes of undead at my beck and call". An end-game, reachable or not. Then I regularly feed them (sometimes false) information on how they can work towards these goals, and present obstacles when they make these attempts. From how they deal with these obstacles, I look for inspiration for a big meta-plot - I don't want preconceived notions before at least a few sessions have passed, but I want a big meta-plot in the background eventually. Something that should prove challenging yet appropriate for their strong sides and, possibly, coincide with a long-term goal or two.

Meanwhile, I encourage the players without long-term goals to find something to strive for. If they need motivation, I try to provide events that shake up their status quo. I prefer to have a decent grasp of every player's long-term goals before committing to a meta-plot, but that hasn't always proved possible.

If I was to write a saga for Ars Magica, I would start by trying to assemble a list of common character/player long-term goals and aims. Then I would, for each of these, provide a list of plot hooks, sub-goals and obstacles to overcome. Some sort of explanation of the reasoning and how similar lists can be created by the Storyguide for more obscure goals encountered - I read a thread here about vitkir PC(s?) striving to keep Christian influence out of Norse lands, which probably wouldn't make the actual supplement.

Second, I would assemble a time-line of major events (and minor events affecting the outcome of major events) that happened in the real world, or are stated in Ars Magica, during the time-frame of the saga. I would try to construct a dependency hierarchy from this - event A causes event C, but only if event B happens after event A and event D hasn't happened yet. Where I can't easily discern dependencies, I will add non-existent but plausible events to create dependencies, or strike non-dependant events (and move these to a later plot-hooks/sidequests chapter). Then I will add contra-factual events with new dependencies - event E can only happen if (the historical or AM-stated) event C never happens. F can only happens if a D has a different outcome than the historical. Et cetera. Exempli gratia, from ideas inspired by the vitkir thread, what if Carloman didn't die, but fought his brother for supremacy, delaying or possibly preventing any invasion of Saxony? Would the preservation of the Irminsul have an effect on the vitkir and their resistance to the Order of Hermes? Should somehow the Germanic tribes be able to unite, would even an Order of Odin be a possibility?

Third, I would assemble a chapter of plot-hooks/sidequests, both brief, recurring (Thrice-told Tales, anyone?) and minor(?) arcs, with ideas as to what character types, virtues, flaws or interests might indicate the appropriateness of each. Some sort of index would be nice.

Fourth, I would supply ideas for meta-plot themes and where to look for inspiration from player actions - how to let them cause effects that spiral out of their control and interact with history, changing it beyond how they may know it. Another example, from one of my own campaigns this time - a player wanted to learn Adamic, so he went with Feral Upbringing and with my permission started with a low and untrainable value in Adamic. Generally too low to actually cause any effects. But when the players were in the core of Schwarzwald he decided to call the wrong tree the wrong thing, which I interpreted as naming it and thereby giving the King Fir free reign, which caused some major unrest. Dankmar got razed and Durenmar was besieged before anyone other than the player characters really had any clue that anything was happening. The players' covenant were forced to contribute to the war effort, which proved expensive and dangerous, and provided an excellent backdrop for that part of the saga as well as my first ideas on a larger meta-plot.

TLDR;...so in short, I guess I would not write a saga for Ars Magica, I would write a supplement to assist Storyguides to create their own sagas using what works for me - inspiration from my players, a foundation in history, some sidequests to get (and keep) things going and an active imagination to tie everything together.