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Friday, 11 September 2020

A wizard prang

I never have managed to get a game of Ars Magica up and running, despite at least two concerted attempts. We even got as far as full character sheets. Why didn't it happen? Perhaps the degree of world-building needed looked too daunting -- though you wouldn't expect that to deter a group battle-hardened by Tekumel and Glorantha.

Mike and Roger were talking about it this month on their Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice podcast. I'll put money on their campaign happening before mine. (I'd even consider putting money on their campaign actually happening.) And I was reminded of one aspect of the Ars Magica rules that was certainly original but that never thrilled me. The troupe system.

I prefer to really steep myself in a character, which means one character at a time. In Ars Magica you play the magi and also their companions (non-wizardly adventuring friends) and sometimes the magi's servants ("grogs") -- the point being that the magi initiate things and formulate plans, but they don't all swan off adventuring together on a regular basis. For me, one of the line-up would feel like my real character and the other two would just be NPCs that I'd play for the sake of the campaign.

The reason for the troupe is that you typically have your group of players turning up each time, and nobody wants to sit out in the kitchen, so the magus/companion/grog arrangement ensures there's always a character for everybody to play. But hang on a tick. If you're playing online, you're no longer constrained by the need to physically assemble a limited number of players at the same time each week. Now you could have some players take the magi; they might be the ones who can't turn up regularly or who are living a long way off and couldn't travel to a physical session anyway. A different group of players could then take the companions. You can assemble a regular game around whoever can show up (usually the companions and one or two of the magi) and keep the grand planning between the magi for special sessions.

There must have been a point where somebody said, "What about if we got two different actors to play Cordelia and the Fool?" Playing over the internet is meant to shake things up. There are different and possibly better ways for your players to enjoy themselves. So I think it's worth considering, at least.

By-the-bye, I like the idea of some characters playing strategically while others get their hands dirty. You could use it for an SOE game -- any war-based campaign come to that. Or it could be a Star Trek style exploration game, with the regular weekly players comprising the away team and those who only have odd moments through the week playing the bridge crew.

Also it occurs to me Ars Magica would be a great system for a Wizards of Grand Motholam campaign. Now will I buckle down and run it? I guess we'll see.


  1. I come at the idea of troupe play by recall a game of DC Superheroes. So, the GM had a deck of heroes and he randomly dealt them out to the players for a scenario. PC1 was Superman (original blue suit/red undies), PC2 was Green Lantern (Hal Jordan); PC3 was my character, Robin (Tim Drake) and PC4 was The Flash (Barry Allen).

    If you don't know who these characters are and what they can do, well, you're on the internet. Just look them up.

    Anywho, the upshot of this is that while the rest of my "team" was fight a Giant Nazi Robot Dinosaur, I got to do a lot Acrobat Dodging with a side of "get the idiot civilians out of the way."

    And that was okay for a one-shot. Except that then the GM announced that it wasn't a one-shot and we'd be playing these folks in a lengthy campaign. So, I'd be Robin among a bunch of people who could do a bunch of stuff I couldn't and with their powers and skills could probably do anything I could do better than I could do it. And that kind of sucked.

    Now, granted that pure power doesn't necessarily equal agency. Still, if I'm playing Ars Magica, I'll admit that I'd occasionally like to play the super-wizard instead of the companion (aka presumably dude who fights folks the wizard hasn't bothered to disintegrate yet) or the grog (aka presumably the dude who acts as the wizard's gofer).

    1. From the moment you said you got Robin, John, I was going to say you drew the short straw. That's not troupe play, though, which Wikipedia defines as an RPG "in which a group of players takes different roles at different times." So that would be if the campaign had you variously play Superman, Jimmy Olsen, and Krypto, say, while another player might play Batman, Alfred or Robin.

      I don't think in Ars Magica that it's a power thing. The companions can be very powerful, and typically more so in terms of their political and social influence. The magi are more concerned with finding the Philosopher's Stone and that sort of thing than hurling fireballs. At least, that's the impression I got from reading the rulebook.

    2. I know that's not troupe play. The point is that I didn't really want to be stuck playing Robin amid a bunch of supergods. The idea that sometimes you play the Wizard and sometimes you play the Wizard's butler works better than you always play the wizard's butler.

    3. The need for the troupe system arose when we had games with two levels of play, strategic and tactical, involving different characters, and only one set of players to cover both groups. Some people don't mind it. I can only play one character at a time, and personally I'd prefer to sit out either the strategic or the tactical sessions. At a pinch, if I thought of one of the companions as my character, I could join in the strategic planning sessions by running a magus as an NPC, but I'd rather somebody else did it, not least because I could then grumble, as we carried out a mission, "Those magi have no idea of the realities of everyday life. Their plan is totally impractical and we're going to have to make it up as we go."

      I thought of another example: a campaign based on The Wire. One mode of play is strategic, involving the police chief, mayor, senior officials. The other is tactical: McNulty and Moreland, reporters, other guys on the street. With two different groups of players those games become not only more immersive, they're richer too -- because there's a conflict between orders and implementation that you won't get (or can only fake) when the same people are playing both groups of characters.