Sunday, 19 August 2018

Welcome to the Covenant (Ars Magica)

Some friends of mine have been agitating for a new ongoing game, and I offered several options. Only one was fantasy, and that was the one they jumped for. Ars Magica 3rd ed shall be my new RPG home for the next however many number of Seasons.

I loved this game when I was in uni. I know the game's had other editions since, but it's the edition closest to my heart. It's beautifully designed, the artwork's evocative - I mean, just look at that cover for a start - the rules are fairly straightforward, but most importantly there's a flavor of gaming here to suit every palate.

The biggest drawback is that it wants a lot of record keeping - fairly mathsy record keeping at that. If you're not prepared to keep clear notes, heaven help you. In D&D you can often fudge it, but in this if you don't keep track of what you're up to each season, you are asking for trouble.

For those of you who haven't had the pleasure: this is troupe-style roleplay set at the tail end of the High Medieval period. The third Crusade has come and gone, and gunpowder hasn't yet burnt down the feudal world. The great plagues and famines have yet to devastate the continent, but it's only a matter of decades rather than centuries before the Black Death claims the lives of millions. Speaking of:

Did I mention how much I love this setting? 

The game presumes magic exists, and achieved its greatest heights during the classical and Roman period, when the Cult of Mercury spread the rituals and, more importantly, scrolls and proto-grimoires, of the wisest Magi far and wide. Your main characters are heirs to that magical tradition, who have become part of the Order of Hermes to further the study of magic.

However this isn't a story about wizards. It's a story about people who band together, forming a covenant or magical community. Everyone in that community is a potential character, from the lowliest Grog to the more powerful Companions to the Wizards in their ivory towers. The idea being that you, as a group, chart the course of that community from its birth in Spring to its eventual Winter, and possibly beyond. This will take years. It may take centuries, and over that period you can expect characters to come and go. The covenant, if all goes well, survives. 

A covenant begins in Spring, bursting with hope and enthusiasm but lacking resources. Not unlike the first time you leave home and go to university, or get your first job, or whatever might happen. Some covenants sputter and die at this point, but those that survive pass on to a glorious Summer, when their power is at its height. Then comes Autumn, when ambitions mellow and things settle into a quiet routine. After that comes Winter, when the rot sets in and power fractures. 

The writers captured this chronology in the Four Seasons books in which a covenant's cycles are charted over the course of four campaign arcs. Not coincidentally named after Shakespearian plays, it starts with Midsummer Night's Dream, in which a starting covenant struggles against the odds. The Tempest cements their rise with a challenge that seems linked to the very origins of the Order. A Winter's Tale plots the fall from Autumn to Winter, while Twelfth Night offers the possibility of redemption through glorious death. 

This Saturday is the first session, when the players design their covenant and create their first characters. They're all experienced gamers but none of them know the system. So what happens next?

Well ...

Here's a few tips for those starting their first game, whatever the system.

1) KEEP CALM. You know this system. Maybe the others have played this before, maybe not. Whatever else happens, you know for a certainty they've never played *your* game. Take a breath, don't lose your cool, be prepared to explain everything at least six times … and keep calm.

2) BRING EVERYTHING. Maybe it's different for you folks, but my guys prefer analog. They don't want it in .pdf; they want the actual thing. If there are six people at your table, yes, they will all want character sheets - but they'll also want a character generation cheat sheet, a spell list, or just something to read while they wait for the slower folks to get their heads straight. The great thing about .pdfs is you can print the bits you need and ignore the rest. Have extra character sheets, extra Virtues and Flaws sections, and some background material people can read.

3) SMILE, FOR PITY'S SAKE. Everyone knows this is meant to be fun, but this is as much about your performance as it is about the game. If you look worried, they get worried. Being a good keeper/DM/whatever is as much about reading the room as it is knowing the rules. Smile. Crack jokes. Be at ease. It'll kill their nerves and keep the session rolling.

4) BE GENTLE. It's their first time, after all. Remember what I said about repeating things six times? Make that twelve. Or however many times it takes for the message to get across.

5) START SIMPLE, GET COMPLEX. I started character generation with Grogs. They're the cannon fodder, the red shirts, the expendables. Yet they use exactly the same character generation system as everyone else, which means they're perfect for getting the players' feet wet. Once they'd done a few Grogs  they could move on to something more complicated. If this was D&D, I'd start at first level. Sure, it's tempting to give everyone levels and magic items so they can wallop dragons, but if this is everyone's very first game, never ever start above first level. To you it's all so simple, but to them it's incredibly intimidating. There's all these new terms, strange dice, a long list of abilities and characteristics to keep track of - and that's before they go anywhere near the dungeon or swing a sword in anger. On that note: no dragons. Goblins, yes. Giant rats, yes. Maybe a wolf if you're feeling daring. Anything capable of causing a full party wipe in one attack round should be nowhere near this adventure. Dragons come later. Complexity comes later.

Right now they've created Grogs and are halfway through Wizards. Next time it's covenant design, and the first small scenario.

So far we have:

Taleh Ex Miscellanea, clever but not spontaneous, a witch of the old school.

Brun de Avilla, a mountain of a man whose scars from past torture prevent him speaking.

An unnamed wizard of Verditius, a cunning vintner and inventive genius.

An unnamed archer (jeez, mate, really?) whose excellent armaments hint at an unsavory past.

Diego, a farmer and animal husbandman, whose drinking lets him down time and again.

An unnamed bear Bjornaer, whose master still pursues him after all this time.

Another cunning archer, Ella, a mercenary who had one brush too many with bad luck.

An unnamed Merinita magus, extremely intelligent and charismatic, a master of arts.

Everyone's having fun. That's the most important thing, after all.


No comments:

Post a Comment