Report from the Grand Tribunal of Stonehenge: Ars Magica UK convention 2010

OK, it’s all over. I am just working out how many hours went in to organising  it all: at least 70, as the Cheltenham con is not part of a larger event, so I end up doing pretty much everything. Still it was worth it just to meet some lovely folks, and spend a weekend dedicated to one of my favourite roleplaying games.

For anyone reading this who does not really know me well, Ars Magica is a roleplaying game set in 13th century Europe, as it was believed to be. Dragons live in the mountains, wizards study in lonely towers, and faeries haunt the forests. It’s not a computer game — it is a game played like Dungeons & Dragons by people with pencils, paper and funny shaped dice.  This was the fourth annual Ars Magica convention here in the UK; I ran the first two, Neil and Sheila ran last years in Cambridge and will host the event in 2011, and there have been three now in the US as well, held the same weekend. This was the largest so far: a total of 37 people being at at least some of the event, though not all were gamers, a few were guests or friends dropping in to say hi!

Woodcut of the freeform players by Pitt Murmann

Woodcut of the freeform players by Pitt Murmann

The venue is great, and usually very busy with community events and classes, so we were lucky to get it for a whole day and Sunday morning.

We opened on Friday with a very cheap meal at the Happy Garden restaurant, a local Chinese. It was great to gather 24 people together and just chat, and enjoy relaxing. For the Norwegian contingent  it was probably a much needed rest. Of course the day started much earlier for me and Becky, dashing around meeting delegates, and doing all kinds of preparation work — but that’s what happens when you host!

After the meal we made our way to The Cotswolds Pub where David Sivier gave an excellent paper on Fairy Beliefs in the 13th century & beyond. I learned quite a bit – I was not aware that changelings did not appear till the 16th century – up till then the fairies just left a wooden image in the place of kidnapped folks. The bit about the bloke who interrupted the fairy attempt to steal his wife and kept the captured wooden simulacra they had planned to leave as a useful bit of furniture made me laugh! I noted a number of similarities in the narratives with my recent work on poltergeists, and others had many questions for David who came all the way from Bristol to give the talk. Thanks Dave, and a belated happy birthday mate! (Same day as mine, the 23rd August). I was too tired to say much,a nd fighting sleep – because I was exhausted, but I hope Dave posts it somewhere on the web!

After that people just chatted or played card or board games – it was one o clock before people departed for their digs, even Lisa (who does not game) staying till the end, and I got home to find a problem with both my keyboard and printer, so much later before I finally managed to grab some much needed sleep. The gas was off: we have had a few leaks in the street recently – and it was morning before I could grab a quick wash and run down to open up the venue, Gas Green community centre. It’s a great venue, with two generous sized halls, a few rooms upstairs and a kitchen area, and served our needs well.

The guests were rather late this year, despite good weather; we were due to begin games at ten, but it took till eleven fr most people to gather, so we proceeded straight to the freeform, Puck’s Dell. I had worked rather frantically to complete this in time, and while it ended up with 23 players rather thn the planned 25, it was I think a success. Well at least most of the feedback I got was very positive. The sight of 20+ people dressed up running around scheming, dealing, plotting and manipulating each other was really entertaining, though as I was the only referee I was rather busy, and utterly exhausted by the end, where many true identities became apparent – think of it as As You Like It meets Ars Magica and you get the atmosphere and a rough sense of what it was about.  It is impossible to single out any one player, but it was amazing how Andrew O. composed an eight line song and melody (with help from Taryn) and got everyone to perform it while also trying to get his non-existent covenfolk (recently changed back from mice) to meet the many demands of magi and companions, and I think Nick Galaxy was absolutely amazing as Lugh the Apprentice!  Lloyd however was disappointed that his character the priest Father Gerard did not get to conduct any marriages, a fact given the plot I find astonishing, but then again he did not get to conduct any funerals – the only “death” was Sir Pharisee, turned in to a collection of sticks and flowers.  Barrie looked awesome as Geron, and Black Tom was also a lot of fun to watch scheming. However really I saw very little of the game; though the fireworks between Kirstie and Andrew Sceats characters at the end was really fun!

Freeform game at Grand Tribunal 2010

Freeform game at Grand Tribunal 2010

For those who don’t know what a freeform is: it’s a bit like a huge murder mystery game, where everyone is given a character sheet with what they know about their characters and then has objectives to meet. It is hard to explain, and for a lot of our players was the first time they had tried it, but they really got in to it,and Daniel Vandenburg and Ivan really worked hard making tabards and stuff, and were excellent fun throughout.

Anyhow, after the freeform I was utterly exhausted, but it was straight in to games. Tom Nowell ran a mystery playtest, the first of three over the weekend, for Atlas Games by special permission of line Editor David Chart, with the players signing Non-Disclosure Agreements.  This was part of a book still “in production” for Ars Magica, so I can’t say anything at all about the session (or the other two) but hopefully the feedback provided will prove useful for the authors.

Meanwhile Becky and  I played Leif Olav Josang’s The Unquiet Grave,  a wonderfully written game for grogs, with elements of low humour and high adventure, set in 13th century York (which happens to be where our Tuesday night saga is also set). Its a great adventure, possibly the best I have played for Ars Magica, highly recommended. Leif should publish it on the Special Ops Atlas Games site or in the Sub Rosa fanzine. Becky had never played Ars Magica before, and had only roleplayed twice, but she enjoyed herself too.

At the same time Nick Galaxy ran the entire Fourth Crusade, including the sieges of Zara and Constantinople, in just four hours.   only caught glimpses of it, but it looked great, and I heard the row between the Doge Dandolo and Boniface and things seemed to pan out as they did historically, except Zara surrendered and was spared sacking. I wish I could have played that as well; but we had to reshuffle time slots, so I missed out. I must ask Nick to let me see the character sheets though, because it looked like an incredible game, and because I am one of the authors of the latest Ars Magica supplement The Sundered Eagle which covers Constantinople and the Tribunal of Thebes, and indeed wrote the “modern” history bit.

The Sundered Eagle

The Sundered Eagle - out soon!

I’m going to have to speed up or this will be immensely long; the evening saw only one game run, as Lloyd wanted more time to prep hs mystery playtest. I think a boardgame was played, but I wandered off to get food, letting Tom Nowell take my place in Andrew Sceats’  The Archmage is Busy; he had just run a session and I felt he ought to be allowed to play because he could not make the Sunday morning.  I think it was run with 3rd edition rules, and apparently it was a fantastic scenario – maybe someone can write a review, without too many spoilers as I hope to play it in the future?

I got to relax a bit in the evening and chat freeforms with Mark Steedman, games with the Mark S and Ars writing with Mark Lawford.  Then it was home fr a much needed shower, and last minute prep for Sunday! The Author’s panel featured Neil, Sheila Mark Lawford and myself, and we read a message from David Chart where many forthcoming releases were discussed or hinted at – but no we can’t tell you, yoiu had to be there! Thanks to Lloyd, Mark S and Andrew O. we managed  link up with Caifornia, and chatted to folks at the Grand Tribiunal US event briefly before we lost connection I think, but that was fun too, and the raffles raised £187 for our three charities, which was amazing. 🙂

Sunday opened promptly, and all the remaining delegates (bar Sheila who was off to church) were in a game; well Becky watched mine. Two were Mystery Playtests, one run by Kev Sides, one by Lloyd so I can’t say anything about them as they are covered by the NDA. I myself ran Twilight Fades – a very unusual Ars Magica game, in that it was set in Summer 2010 with four bored eleven year olds banned from TV and trying to find something to do in a  rural Suffolk village – but by the end it was classic Ars Magica, kinda, sorta! I really enjoyed running it – excellent performances all round, Barrie James and Barry Cowden were hilarious, Mark Lawford somehow kept them moving and was the sensible one but a pleasure to play with, and Daniel Vandenberg’s Matilda was priceless —  “I want to be a Ballerina!” Well soon she was a ballista – not quite what she had in mind! 🙂

And then it was one o clock, all too soon, and time for everyone to go home. Not that everyone did – for many it was straight down to Wetherspoons for the Flying Ship Design contest! I had to pop up to meet JK at the Queen’s Hotel, but caught them later, and that evening was treated to a lovely birthday lunch by Leif, Karl and anders before they set off home for Norway in the morning.

Despite being utterly exhausted I enjoyed a wonderful weekend, and will do it all again in 2012! next year Neil and Sheila are hosting again, and I hope to make it, finances permitting.

So how did it go? Really well I think. I was shattered for my birthday on Monday – but we had fun, and what was noticeable this year was how much the emphasis was on grogs and non-magi characters. Puck’s Dell has Grogs, Nobles, Magi, Apprentices, Magical People/Faeries and Covenfolk as the five types of character – I hope all were equally fun to play. Twilight Fades, The Archmage is Busy and The Unquiet Grave all emphasized grogs. It just goes to show what you can do with the Ars Magica setting, even without your magus in the limelight, and how much potential troupe play has.

Apologies to anyone I have not name-checked in this brief run through — it was lovely to meet you all. I have to dash, but see you all again in 2012. Next year Neil and Sheila are hosting again, in Cambridge, as part of the Consternation con.

cj x

Grand Tribunal is held by kind permission of Atlas Games. “Grand Tribunal” and the “Grand Tribunal” logo are trademarks of Trident, Inc. d/b/a Atlas Games, used with permission.
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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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3 Responses to Report from the Grand Tribunal of Stonehenge: Ars Magica UK convention 2010

  1. Leif Olav Jøsang says:

    LOW humour? Bah! My puns are too good for you! 😀

    Thanks again for yet another great GT! I do plan to polish The Unquiet Grave enough for Sub Rosa or Special Ops, though Life and Laziness seems to come in the way. 🙂

  2. Dave Sivier says:

    Hi Jerome!

    It was great meeting you and everyone else at Grand Tribunal again. They’re a great bunch of people and I’m glad that you and the others enjoyed the piece I read on changelings. I’ve posted it up over at the Ghostlystayuk site as ‘Images and Changelings’ in the ‘Paranormal Research’ section, if anyone wants to read it.

    I’d be very interested indeed to read your comments about it. If you want, you’re most certainly welcome to post it up here with your comments and observations on the phenomenon and the relevance they have to poltergeists.

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