Running Ars Magica – advice for new story guides, part one

Ars Magica 5 – Advice for new Storyguides!

I am writing this article to hopefully help new Storyguides (referees/gamemaster) in coming to terms with the roleplaying game Ars Magica, published by  Atlas Games. The whole Ars Magica community is hoping that the new edition will bring many new people into the game – it is much clearer and better presented than the 4th edition in my opinion, and makes an ideal starting point. However certain things about the game are not immediately obvious, and so hopefully these simple ideas will prove useful in coming to terms with what is a unique, challenging and very rewarding RPG experience!

Ars Magica 5th Edition - the only book you really need to run your game

Ars Magica 5th Edition - the only book you really need to run your game

About the Author

I am no authority on Ars Magica; despite having briefly played two earlier editions, I did not really come to Ars Magica until 4th edition circa 1996. It took many years for me to really get in to the game, and my first major saga, as Ars campaigns are called, did not start till 2000. I have written for the game (on The Mysteries Revised Edition and The Lion & The Lily; The Normandy Tribunal), but my understanding of the rules is significantly less than many other Ars players, though I was involved in the play testing for Ars Magica 5th edition – but so were over one hundred other folks. All my suggestions should definitely be taken with a large pinch of salt – your experience may vary distinctly, so do not take anything I write as normative, spoken with authority, or even particularly useful – every games group’s  idea of what makes a fun game is different!

I offer this advice with humility – I am aware that everything I say can be contested, and disagreed with. It is however free advice, and it has worked for me over several very enjoyable years of running the game.

The Lion and the Lily - 5th edition Tribunal Sourcebook for Normandy

The Lion and the Lily - 5th edition Tribunal Sourcebook for Normandy

Your First Problem

The first issue you will face is of course finding players. It is my contention that different RPG’s work well with different size groups – in my experience D&D/d20 works well with 5-8 players, to allow a wide spread of classes, and Pendragon can work with fairly large groups – though my game with 26 players did have a few issues!  Call of Cthulhu works best with just 2-3 players. Ars Magica is a complex game, and for a first game I would recommend no more than four players, plus yourself. With six players, a game may well become  a little unmanageable for a new referee, or slow. My honest advice is that for your first session, two to three players is plenty.

Many players have heard that Ars Magica is a game for history buffs, medievalists and those who love number crunching. This is far from the truth, and it is important that you stress it is a game of Mythic Europe, and that the game reality is therefore based upon you and the players version of history. Almost anything can and will be done; some sagas make Monty Python & The Holy Grail look like a PhD thesis on Medieval Europe, while others are painstakingly researched and ‘authentic’. Some have dragons rampaging through the countryside, merfolk haunting lonely seashores, and wise women herbalists in every village., in others players lose hours discussing the protein yiled of a medieval turnip.

The degree to which your Mythic Europe is historical and mythic will be addressed later, under the title Player Expectations – but for now, I encourage folks to use history as a tool, not let it become a chore. In one of my most successful games the Magi prevented the signing of the Magna Carta– no matter! They may well change history, so don’t worry, and the presence of an ahistorical magical technology, Hermetic Magic, may well have had profound effects on culture and society. You aim to have fun – and if fun involves rigorously accurate medievalism, go that route. If not, do not. No one will care,  as long as you have fun.

Once you have found at least one player, which is enough at pinch, or preferably two or three, get them together to chat over the game. My advice is not to invite them to the game venue – that suggests you intend to just start playing. Go to a bar, a pizza restaurant, or a friend’s house. Stress you want to chat roleplaying, not actually run a game that night. Do however take the rule book with you!

Tales of Mythic Europe - an excellent selection of scenarios for the new referee

Tales of Mythic Europe - an excellent selection of scenarios for the new referee

What to Tell the Prospective Players

Well, that is down to you. I personally would explain the game was about medieval wizards, and is set around 1220 though any time from 1066 to 1300 will work just as well, or even earlier or later. Explain that the game has “the coolest magic system ever!”, and that it takes place over many years, taking in the whole of the characters lives, focussing on the exciting bits when they go on adventures rather than the day to day timescale of most rpgs. However explain that on adventures the timescale is often second to second when facing a terrible wraith, an angry werewolf or pleading for your lives at a Tribunal (a Council of Wizards).

Yet you will also account for exactly what your magi does in all his ‘downtime’ – he may be reading books to gain experience points in magic or skills, inventing or learning new spells, making magic items, brewing longevity potions, or much else! The possibilities are huge, and indeed a little daunting, but the players will have the opportunity to learn as they play. They DO NOT HAVE TO UNDERSTAND ALL THE RULES FIRST!

The Covenant, Your Home

The setting for the game is a Covenant, or a community of Wizards. They may be the only Magi present, or there may be others in the Covenant – really that is down to what kind of game they want to play.

If they are just founding a new Covenant (called a Spring Covenant), they may well be the only magi there, indeed probably will. They will all have just finished their apprenticeship as magi, and having learnt magi are trying to set up a new home. Alternatively, they can be junior members of a more powerful older covenant – they may have access to better resources, but also will have to expect to negotiate with, and perhaps serve or defer to older and (hopefully) wiser NPC magi. This is the first decision you will have to make: and while in many games it will come down to the Storyguide’s choice, I strongly suggest that in Ars Magica these should be collective decisions. Which appeals best to them? Let them talk it over, and then make a group decision…

The Covenant is like a character, one shared by all the players. By encouraging prospective players in helping define what the game will be like, you really enter in to the spirit of things…

Then ask the players if they would like to design their first Covenant, or discover or build it in play. Explain if the design it they will be following rules, which give you points to allocate, and good things and bad things to design. It makes it really their covenant. (There is an excellent book called Covenants, with many complicated options. A this stage if you own that supplement just use the additional Boons and Hooks – if you don;’t understand that concept yet, look it up in the main rules.)

If they let the Storyguide design the Covenant then it may be a ruined or abandoned place that they come to take over and reconstruct. I would advise letting the players design it, but if they are dismayed or not interested in the prospect, they don’t have to! Do tell them before they spend the points they should try and imagine what it looks and fees like, and then generate their characters. The actual Covenant will be drawn up much later… So is it a castle, a cave system, a floating ice palace, a glen in an enchanted forest, hidden in a bustling city, atop a towering mountain, or in a magical region, a sort of pocket dimension? Perhaps a village on stilts in a marsh, a ship which sails from port to port, or a burning tower of flame which is hidden from the world by powerful magics? Let the players decide, and encourage them to be creative. There must be friendly villages somewhere nearby – these are the covenfolk, who perform day to day duties and provide food. How do the Magi find food and water? Are they hidden from the world, or obvious but not known as Magi? Encourage discretion – the Order does not wish to advertise its presence overly!

The idea may well change significantly late when it comes to spending points, but a name and rough idea is useful. It gets folk interested, and in the spirit of the game.

5th edition Covenants - completely different to the second edition book of same name!

5th edition Covenants - completely different to the second edition book of same name!

The Order of Hermes

Now comes the background. The Order of Hermes is a discreet, though not completely hidden magical Order who share a set of magical techniques devised in the 9th century by the wizard Bonisagus, especially a form of magical defence called Parma Magica which allows magi to be defended against each others spells, so allowing them to get on with one another and live in comparative harmony. Parma Magica (the name is Latin for ‘Magical Shield’) is a skill – as it gets higher, your protection gets better. Some magical powers will penetrate it, and ultimately you may well be able to cast spells on each other – but it is some protection against your cranky comrades spells!

This magical protection is unique to the Order of Hermes, and allowed them to triumph over all the lesser magicians of Mythic Europe, who are called Hedge Magicians, and generally despised as ignorant barbarians. The first characters will start with a Parma Magica score of one, affording little protection, as it was the last thing taught to them as they graduated from their 15 year magical apprenticeship. They will wish to get better quickly, to be better defended against hostile magics. Perhaps when designing the Covenant they might want to include a book in the library on the theory of Parma Magica they can all study from?

Magi & Other People

Magi are scary folk. They have something called The Gift, which is the magical nature which lets them learn magic – but that makes them frightening to normal folks and animals who can sense it. As children they may well have been persecuted for their oddness, and even today people do not like them. They get a -3 to all rolls on social interaction with non-magical folk. Therefore they tend to be secluded, and stick to their covenfolk who are used to The Gift, especially the trusted turb which is the term for a group of grogs, a grog being a guard member of the covenfolk trained in weaponry and charged with protecting the magi from mundane threats like bandits and wolves. They also have trusted friends called Consortes, or in English Companions, who often travel with them and help them deal with mundane folks like Churchmen, Innkeepers, Peasants and other riff raff. Companions may come from any social class, from Noble Knights to learned Clergy to a faerie blooded Washerwoman – but for some reason they have befriended and are trusted by the Magi. Now comes the important part – from adventure to adventure, you will play EITHER your companion or your magi – the other character will be at home at the Covenant improving their skills researching in the lab or attending to their business. SO each player has two character, but they won’t both be in play at the same time, and your companion should be friends with one of the OTHER players magi. You will also play a grog, but that is a minor supporting role – don’t worry, you don’t need to think about that yet!

Now the gift actually comes in three different degrees – the standard Gift, described above, the Blatant Gift –you are overtly magical and terrifying (-6 to mundane social rolls) or for the very blessed the Gentle Gift, where people and animals are not scared of you, as your magical nature manifests kindly or not obviously in any way. As Gentle Gift is a major virtue, it is rare – so Companions are very important.

Where are we playing?

There is now another choice for prospective players – where in Mythic Europe should you set your saga. This really comes down to personal choice, but again I would let the players have some say. Explain there are 13 Tribunals, or Regions recognised by the Order – these being

Rome – Italy & North Africa (with a third edition supplement covering it)
Rhine – Germany (with the fifth edition supplement Guardians of the Forests covering it)
Normandy – Northern France (with the fifth edition supplement The Lion and the Lily covering it)
Provence – Southern France (referenced in second edition supplement Covenants and the third edition supplement Mistridge, but no Tribunal book yet)
Iberia – Spain and Portugal (with a third edition supplement covering it)
Transylvania – the Danube Basin and North Balkans (not covered in any book published to date)
Thebes – Greece and Constantinople (not covered in any book published to date)
The Levant – the Outremer, or Holy Land (covered in the fourth edition supplement Blood and Sand)
Novgorod – modern Russia and Poland (covered in the fourth edition supplement The Dragon and the Bear)
Greater Alps – Switzerland and the Alpine area (covered in the fourth edition supplement Sanctuary of Ice)
Hibernia – Ireland (not covered in any book published to date)
Loch Leglean – Scotland (covered in the third edition supplement Lion of the North)
Stonehenge – England and Wales (covered in the fourth edition supplement Heirs to Merlin)

Guardians of the Forests - the 5th ed Rhine Tribunal Sourcebook

Guardians of the Forests - the 5th ed Rhine Tribunal Sourcebook

The excellent Ars Magica FAQ contains information on all these books. However the 5th edition has reset canon, so you are in no way bound by any of the books, unless you want to be, and arguably even Lion and the Lily and Guardians of the Forest are not canonical – you can design your own Normandy or Rhine Tribunal to taste. It’s your game! Atlas Games may well publish some new tribunal books in the future – check the forthcoming products section of their website for details.

If you have no strong feeling, I’d say Normandy, Rhine  or Stonehenge was a good choice – it’s pretty much medieval Europe as we tend to think of it. If you are willing to buy a book, Heirs to Merlin by David Chart while not 5th edition tells you a great deal about real medieval life in England and Wales, and has a chapter on the English and Welsh covenants and Hermetic culture, and is like Normandy what many of us think of when we think of ‘medieval’ things. However the Levant, Novgorod, or Thebes may feel more exotic and magical to British or American gamers – it’s your call.

HINT: Project Redcap has vast amounts of resources on other people’s saga details in which the have detailed covenants, maps etc for many tribunals. Steal shamelessly if you want to! You’ll find Project Redcap at – it is an invaluable listing of Ars Magica related websites.

Once you have chosen a setting, you can discuss the possibilities for characters with your players…

Thinking about your Characters

The overall aim is to make the players excited about the game, but also to make them feel and realise they will be active participants. Once they have grown to love the system you can suggest they might want to run some adventures themselves, while you play, in the shared setting. However, in many ways it is like a traditional rpg – you will do most of the hard work to start with! Even if you do not fully know the setting or rules yet, don’t panic. The aim is to enthuse, and to remain one step ahead of the players.

The next thing they will want to do is generate characters – do not expect them yet to read all the rules though. They certainly would benefit from it – unlike say Call of Cthulhu, where the rulebook contains secrets, the ideal is that each player should each buy a copy and read it thoroughly – but that may be to much to ask at this stage. You can however point out that eventually they will want a copy of at least the core rule book each, for ease of reference. However, by the end of your pizza meet you may wish to tell them that Order is defined by its Twelve Houses, of which magi belong to one. A quick keyword intro works – something like

Bonisagus – magical research, theory and diplomacy
Tremere – hierarchy and magical duelling
Merinita – Faerie Magic
Bjornaer – Animals and Shapechanging
Flambeau – Fire & Destruction
Tytalus – Competition and Mastery
Guernicus – The Police and Lawyers
Verditius – Masters of making Magic Items
Mercere – Travel and Communications
Jerbiton – magi who interact with the Mundane world; art, beauty, scholarship
Criamon – mystics who study magical riddles
Ex Miscellanea – Exotic and unusual magi from various small magical traditions.

Societates: one of the excellent Houses of Hermes line

Societates: one of the excellent Houses of Hermes line with more detail about the Houses

(I have by the way noted that I have used plural magi throughout – my apologies. I’m not good with language. )

Now before you all scream – those are appalling misrepresentations, or crushing stereotypes – it does not matter. Once the players have expressed an interest in one, hand them the book and let them read the relevant part while you eat your by now cold pizza or quaff your warm beer. Once they have read several and selected a House they like, you can suggest they should feel free to create an unusual member of the House if they wish and challenge the stereotype, or play to it. That is down to them…

Now there are three supplements each of which provide far more information on each House. They are very useful, and you may want your players to read the relevant section once they get in to the game, and are designing their characters, but really it is optional, and you certainly don’t want to do it just now. They are Houses of Hermes: True Lineages (which covers Guernicus, Bonisagus, Tremere and Mercere ) Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults (which covers Verditius, Merinita, Criamon and Bjornaer) and Houses of Hermes Societates (which covers Jerbiton, Ex Miscellanea, Tytalus and Flambeau). You certainly don’t need these books ot start with – you can run a whole saga off the core rules (as I have!) but they are very nice and can be picked up later when your players want to gte more involved in their Houses if you so wish. Your players may well buy the book if they enjoy your game?

The usual urge is now to give them character sheets and let them start designing. Resist it. Talk more about the game, and let them make up a little story, and maybe make some notes about their characters. I find a single side of A4 in which they let their imaginations run wild for the mage and for the companion helps – when it comes to character generation you then have a framework, and rather than being overwhelmed by options, the issue becomes fitting the stats, abilities and Virtues and Flaws to their character idea. Schedule a time to meet with each player to run through the magic rules and character generation on their own, or at best two at a time. You will thank me, and if you have already got an idea of what they want to play you will be able to advise them on useful and interesting, yet relevant, Virtues and Flaws…

With only one book, or even with several, character generation can become frustrating if too many folks need your advice at once  It is MUCH better to design characters one on one, with plenty of time.  For later magi the players will have the advantage of having read, digested and understood the rules. However the trick here is to as previously remarked enthuse the players with the idea of the game, making them share the ‘ownership’ of the saga.  In the next section I will explain what key concepts I would introduce before character generation – (spells and the magic system); but there is perhaps scope at this time or drawing up companions, and allowing the players a chance to familiarise themselves with the stats, the abilities, and the breadth of possibilities. Though I would never suggest it to an experienced player, I might even suggest virtues and flaws could be chosen later, when you generate the magi. Although some will change the numbers on the page, the alterations in math are usually straightforward to reverse engineer. However, it is really unfair and a bad choice to let the players design the magi or covenant before you have fully explained and allowed them to explore the Magic chapter…

Assisting with Character Generation

OK, first piece of advice. Read the rules yourself carefully first.  Some rpg’s are forgiving – you can do character generation with a player, reading the rules as you go. I do not find this the case for Ars Magica! Your players may not have any idea of how character generation works, but you should have a pretty good idea yourself. However before you or your players start designing Magi, it is vitally important you have read the chapters on Hermetic Magic, Spells (or at least the introduction no need o memorise every spell yet, or indeed ever!) and really Laboratory. You may also wish to familiarise yourself well with the Laboratory rules, and the rules on Aging and Warping. You should make sure you have made at least a couple of grogs, a companion and a magi or two yourself. They will come in handy as NPC’s in your later sessions after all, and trying it out will really make sure YOU understand the character generation rules. Failure to do this may well result in a miserable time as you struggle to help others!

Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults

Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults - covers Bjornaer, Merinta, Verditius and Criamon

However, before you start trying to guide players through character generation at least you should understand the following quick checklist – work through it, looking things up…

*the techniques and forms, and what they do
*how to cast a formulaic spell
*how to cast a spontaneous spell
*quiet casting and shouting and waving etc – gestures and voice
*how to create a casting total how the dice work!, and how to work out penetration.
*the significance and importance of spell mastery, and why it is a good thing
*the idea of vis, and how important it is
*ritual spells, and when they are required
*how to work out a lab total (assume aura 3 usually for character generation I find)
*at what age aging cuts in
*what the stats do, and how to create them
* the importance of the abilities penetration, finesse, parma magica (see above), concentration, artes liberals, philosophiae, magic theory and Latin at least 3 or 4 for magi characters. Check the sections on learning from books by studying, writing books, and setting up your lab to see why some of these are important.
*understand how range/duration and target work, and how to calculate spell magnitude and thus level (once you know this you can design spells!)
*understand target bases for each form, and how to improve them.
*noted how Size effects characters both in magic that can effect them and wounds.
*understood the encumbrance rules
*be able to briefly explain the concept of Warping and Twilight if asked
* be ready to explain the Code of Hermes
*understand the pyramid points used in Arts, and the xp used in abilities and how they differ
*understand Virtues & Flaws, their effects, and most importantly the limits on how many of any given type you can take

There are a few easy to miss things in there with serious ramifications, so I hope the list is useful. It may look daunting, but it will save time in the long run.

Next up, generate two or three grogs. You can compare them with the ones on the Atlas website to see if they look about right. Keep them – they will come in handy later! You will make mistakes. Do not worry. Just keep learning. If you have questions, ask the Berklist or Atlas forum.

Next up, design three or four very different companions. Keep them, and repeat above process. By this time you should have a notepad and pen handy at all times – some neat ideas, rules précis, and useful advice will come to you as you create these characters. Later in your saga these characters will feature as NPCs – but for now they are a learning exercise!

Now make your first mage or maga (a female mage). If you have enough time I’d recommend creating one from each house, to get used to them, and because then you will have them for use in your sag as NPC’s. Some you will later age using the Older Magi rules, which will give you a chance to try out the lab rules in the privacy of your own home, so to speak. Use the Template characters at first if you like – they are there to help you. However, if your players are going to work from the ground up, so should you. This is going to take a long time, but the experience will really pay off in letting you get a hang of how the rules work. Furthermore, it really will provide you with a fantastic ready made stock of magi to people your saga.

Art & Academe - medieval science, arts, education and medicine explained!

Art & Academe - medieval science, arts, education and medicine explained

I could provide lots of (probably bad) advice on spell selection (I advise starting with the listed spells, and then modifying a few effects to see how that would change the range/duration/target and thus the level of the spell. (And then maybe later creating a few unique spells using the guidelines for later characters.) You will soon note the trade off between Abilities and Arts, and by now you well versed in Childhoods, Pre-Apprenticeship, Apprenticeship and Companion and Grog points totals. Note things like Skilled Parens – players tend to like that virtue, and how various Virtues and Flaws effect different characters. The Ars character generation system is a beautiful thing, but you will have to come to love it, and it is a difficult beast to tame. Once you have the knack you will be pleased with it though, much like the magic system!

Magi Design Ideas

There are two main design philosophies – the Generalist, with their points scattered over all Techniques and Forms, able to spontaneously make up low level spells easily in almost any circumstance, and able to cast a wide variety of simple  spells – or the Specialist, who concentrates their points in 3 or 4 or in extreme cases only two arts, such as the Flambeau who takes Creo (Creating) and Ignem (Fire) high, so they can cast dangerous fire magics from the beginning, boosting their arts with relevant virtues. Note the suggested limits in Arts for newly gauntleted magi, and make sure you put some points in secondary arts no matter how much you specialise. A positive Vim and Corpus score can often be helpful, and while techniques are used more, there only being five of them, remember that you can add the form total to Parma Magica and gain other bonuses (such as soak, which resists damage) from it.

It is my experience that when it comes to helping players with character design, you will be embarrassed by riches, or to put it another way, the players will be totally confused by the options available, as there are so many and they are so diverse. So first, introduce the stats and abilities, and generate a grog with them. They will need one, and can have fun browsing the Virtues and Flaws ( I like to photocopy them, cut them out, and hand them to players to sort through to speed things up, with a little table of how many of each type of Virtue or Flaw they must or can not take).

Now you must make sure that dice, stat plus skill versus target number (ease factor), and all this sort of thing is understood!

Next create their companions – if you followed my advice, and have had them sketch out whether a whole side or two about their character, or at least a rough outline, now you can really help, by pointing out relevant abilities, and Virtues and Flaws, and then they merely have to pick a few more which round out the character. Help them as much as you can, by advising, but not by dictating.

And once the Companion is ready, then it I time to start to their first Magi. You already know a little about what they want to play – but now you need to very quickly (!!!) explain the magic system, and show them the list spells, with an emphasis o the kind of character they wish to create. If you have got them to buy their own rule book, which in a perfect worlds they have, they may be ahead of you, and all you need do is check the maths. Unfortunately it is far more likely you are going to have to in a very simple way explain all the things on the checklist above – but while character generation is occurring, explaining the relevance of each rule and how it effects the design. This is why you must understand the rules so well- you want the player to make intelligent choices, yet not be bored rigid!

Stress the narrative options, the personality, the characters role in the Order, their history, childhood, and what they look and sound like. Don’t make players feel stupid if they struggle with the rules. If they are really floundering, step in and guide them. Explain they can make small changes once they have had a chance to properly read the book! Do not penalise the players for not having read two hundred pages of densely written rules. Instead let them read the sections on Hermetic life, the Code, and other fun stuff. A feeling for the setting and imagination are much better than a ruthlessly minimaxed powergamers character. Those who like that sort of thing will learn the rules and design it – those who don’t will just want to enjoy creating a unique and special character! Templates are an excellent way to start, but many experienced role players unwisely resist them, wanting to experience character generation in all its complex glory.

PLAN B: The Quick and Dirty Method

The above works fine, if you live in an Ideal World like me. For those who have the misfortune to exist outside the realm of Platonic Forms, (I’m the ideal of disreputable ghosthunter) here is Plan B.  (If you don’t like it, Plan C will follow). Let us assume that your players have at best only one gaming night a week if that, and like to play games, rather than spend ages on theory and designing characters. Let us assume they are working, and can afford to buy many games, which vie for their attention. Let us also assume that much as you like the idea this week, next week you will buy Advanced Weasels and Wombats, plus the Ferret Trouser supplement. You want to get a hang of the game, and see if you want to commit to it, without spending several hours in doing stuff. You are willing to read the rules, or at least the vital ones, and make a handful of characters. OK, let’s see what we can do.

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his merry men...

Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his merry men...

First, run a single session fast and dirty game. We will set it in the late twelfth century in England,, with a group of magi and maybe companions (but better all magi – players love to cast spells and it showcases the system better) travelling to visit the Covenant of Voluntas on the North Yorkshire Moors of England. There is a description of it in the Ars Magica 4th introductory story, or in Heirs to Merlin, not that it matters because the adventure is set on the journey, not when you arrive, so you will never need to detail it. This is a one off idea- the trick is to let the characters use magic to hurt some benighted mundanes and let them have a few cheap successes, while learning a bit about the game –and hopefully give them a feel for it.

Use the characters from the sample covenant on the Atlas website. Read what the virtues and flaws mean, and type the spell descriptions for each magi, or a précis and page number, on a sheet of paper you hand out with the spells. Give them a mage or companion each. Explain how to roll the dice, how formulaic spells work and sponts. Also give the players a grog each to play.

Run spontaneous magic by ear, and by what seems right. Do any calculations as they arise quickly, or make it up to keep the game moving, basing it on the rough power of similar level spells. In short, cheat…

The adventure opens as the characters travel through Sherwood Forest, near Nottingham. They are attacked by Bandits – well Outlaws really. The Outlaws you will need to generate – one Robin Hood, a Friar Tuck, Maid Marion, Will Scarlet, all four designed by you using the rules for creating companions. Create a single Grog level outlaw, and have as many unnamed outlaws as grogs by simply using those stats for each..

Let Robin and his Merry Men talk to the characters, in the spirit of robbing the rich to give to the poor. Roleplay to the hilt. Maybe there is a challenge, or some contests like drinking (carouse) a quarterstaff battle on a log over a stream, a hunt for the King’s deer, or whatever. Maybe the magi just toast Robin et al with magic. Have Robin and Marion escape death if possible, but so long as folks are having fun… Quite probably the Magi befriend the Outlaws, perhaps by creating some silver with a Creo Terram, or just by being sociable. Perhaps the Outlaws are scared by their Gift. The Outlaws are actually jolly nice chaps…

Next morning, and the characters continue on their way – to meet the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham. He is quite a prominent chap, and interfering with mundanes is banned, but… Design a grog as a soldier, and use his stats for the Sheriffs six companions. The Sheriff is another companion. Or adapt stats from the rule book or the Atlas site. The Sheriff does his moustache twiddling villain bit, unless the Magi can tell him they wiped out Robin Hood et al, in which case he invites them back to the Castle at Nottingham for a feast in their honour, and political intrigue carousing and dangerous explanations of who they are and their purposes here (cunning lies follow no doubt!) .

Next day, or later that day, or as plot required – if the players befriended the outlaws, Maid Marion catches up on a (stolen) horse. Robin has been captured and is to be hanged in Nottingham Market in the morning. She pleads with the Magi to help her rescue him.

If they befriended the Sheriff, he asks in the morning they do him a favour – a minstrel called Blondel has pillaged the Castle, and is escaping with a cart load of gold and silver. If they can  find and kill him, the Sheriff and his lord the Regent Prince John will reward them with their choice of treasures from the wagon. However Blondel is said to have magic powers when he speaks or sings – he must be killed outright, before he can open his mouth. (In fact Blondel is collecting the ransom for Good King Richard currently languishing as a captive in the dungeons of a castle in Austria, where he has found him held captive). The theft story is a complete lie – Prince John and the Sheriff have given towards the ransom, but want King Richard to die there so John gets the throne…)

If they befriended neither the Outlaws or Sheriff, have them attacked by a pack of wolves, and then reach Voluntas. So long as there are plenty of opportunities to use magic and have fun they will be happy players.

And then, while congratulating them on how well they did, (even if in reality there were awful) start talking about your saga, and what they want there magi to be like, and revert to plan A…

NOTE: this is a very simple one off idea, which does not really showcase much of the game at all. However designing Robin Hood and friends will give you invaluable experience in how character generation works, and the game should allow for a few combats, lots of use of skills, and some magic casting. It is a rather playful take on the famous legend, just designed so you can see if the rules interest you. However, the rules of Ars Magica are NOT the fun part of the game… they are in some ways a hindrance, till you learn them. Don’t let them get in the way of having fun. I’ll stat all the characters. Also my adventure idea really sucks – it is really meant as an illustration, and is in now way typical of Ars Magica. If it was I would not play the game !

PLAN C- Chaos and Anarchy

What if my original suggestions are too time consuming, and the players hate the idea of playing pre-generated characters? Instead they all want to gather in a big huddle at your house and create their characters, then start playing because that’s how they do rpg? Well, if you have to, my emergency tips for this eventuality. I really do NOT recommend it though, ever, even with experienced players… however, if needs must…

1. Photocopy and blow up or write out on big sheets of paper the experience point scales for costs for Arts and Abilities. Make sure everyone can see it. You can get away with explaining how to create stats, but they will need this in front of them.

2. Have a handy list drawn up and prominently displayed of all Abilities in the game, and a few words explanation of what Chirurgery or Carouse actually means.

3. Write the Arts on another piece of paper, with a simple explanation of what each one means – for example CREO = create stuff, IGNEM = fire. Stick it to the wall. You don’t have to be a genius to work out then taht to cast a fireball you use Creo Ignem added together.

4. The clever bit. Make up a deck of cards, by creating suitable tables of card size in your word processor. Type the virtues and flaws, or a summary of each, on to the cards – about 4 copies of each. Colour code them by type – ie. personality Flaws = blue, Story Flaws = green, hermetic Flaws = red. Mark clearly if they are major or minor flaws or virtues. Then add another chart, showing incompatible types – so say ONLY ONE MAJOR PERSONALITY FLAW MAY BE TAKEN, ONLY ONE MAJOR HERMETIC VIRTUE, etc. Drop the cards on the table and let your players shuffle through them and read them ,and take them, and make a little pile or row, till they have chosen and can write them in their bestest handwriting on their character sheet. Invaluable if there is only one copy of the book between many players… but in future, buy more rulebooks !

5. Draw up a word processor document with two tables on it; each table is six rows deep, with the techniques listed, by eleven columns wide, for the ten forms Then once points are allocated to Arts, write in spell casting totals (tec +form +stamina) on one table, and just add aura, voice/gesture and die roll when you need to. The other table has tech +form =INT + 3 (AURA + magic Theory – this total represents the highest level spell the character can learn in that combination in character generation, and is ignored thereafter, so you can rip it off an discard it once they have finished making the characters. Save time though…

6. While one maga player is choosing her spells, have the other make grogs or companions, so they are not waiting for the book.

7. Ensure you have a ready supply of two aspirin, one dose of valium/diazepam, or a bottle of Scotch, (choose one, not all three!), and have written your Last Will and Testament and acquired a sword to fall upon in case the frustration, chaos and confusion proves too much for you as poor harassed Storyguide to bear. Alternatively, bring a deck of cards and be ready to suggest Strip Snap as alternative entertainment.

Ars logo

I will now leave Character Generation and Recruitment. One last word – it is often easier to convert non-roleplaying friends and relatives than find other role players if you do not already have a group, yet this possibility is often overlooked. My female friends in particular seem to enjoy Ars Magica – well some of them!

None of this is remotely official, or in any way affiliated with Atlas Games. It’s just my thoughts.  “Ars Magical” and the “Ars Magica” logo and artworks featured are trademarks of Trident, Inc. d/b/a Atlas Games.

About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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6 Responses to Running Ars Magica – advice for new story guides, part one

  1. Chico "Aramís" Napolitano says:

    Splendid explanation fellow!

    I’m interested in Ars Magica, and your text really helped me.

    Good job!

  2. I’d be very interested in your 2nd part, as my team could probably sue the help.

  3. Max Nevill says:


    I remember reading your thoughts on 4th edition back in the late 90s on in the Ars Magica sub forum. I was happy to see you on the playtesting credits and that you have ended up writing some good supplements for 5th edition. This article is very helpful for new GMs, I ended up following your advice unknowingly when I started my first 5th edition game. 🙂

  4. Pingback: I Have a Cunning Plan « Daniel's Gaming Blog

  5. Dave says:

    Is the title a reference to the song “Lather?”

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