A view on the Forms and the wider world

This blog post is a broad pondering the meta-physics of the forms of magic in the Ars Magica role playing game.

Instead of considering the metaphysical thinking in the medieval period – which is where Hermetic magic is meant to get its roots I started to think of a way to consider and compare the forms. This idea does not at all match to what I understand of the basis of Hermetic magic in the setting or the current guidelines. As I said, this is a pondering.

It came out of thinking about why it is easier to change some things into other things (it’s easier to change a person into an animal). Why?

What if there are a set considerations for all things:

  • Intangible vs Tangible things (eg. the mind vs trees)
  • Living vs Non-living things (animals vs rocks)
  • Changing vs Fixed things (water vs rocks)
  • Sentient vs non-Sentient things (people vs rocks)

…then it might be possible to look for how many steps from each other they are.

  • Animal (Tangible, Living, Fixed, Non-sentient)
  • Aquam (Tangible, Non-living, Changing, Non-sentient)
  • Auram (Tangible, Non-living, Changing, Non-sentient)
  • Corpus (Tangible, Living, Fixed, Sentient)
  • Herbam (Tangible, Living, Fixed, Non-sentient)
  • Ignem (Tangible, Non-Living, Changing, Non-sentient)
  • Imagonem (Intangible, Non-Living, Fixed, Non-sentient)
  • Mentem (Intangible, Living, Changing, Sentient)
  • Terram (Tangible, Non-Living, Fixed, Non-sentient)
  • Vim (Intangible, Living, Changing, Non-sentient)

And each step of difference creates a “hermetic” magnitude of difficulty when changing one to the other, or using one with the other.

Ok fine. To what purpose?

Well if Ars Magica had its time again I think it would make sense to break away from the thinking of the medieval period in the backbone of the magical laws.

Because Hermetic magic should be (and is) flawed just as the representation of the divine in Europe the setting is flawed, and many other parts of the setting use contradictions as levers for stories.

Don’t get me wrong – in the setting the characters would still try to leverage their mindsets, learnered philosophies, and all sorts of esoteric thinking in using magic “in story”, but out of story the magical meta-physical laws would be slightly different. This introduces a deliberate contradiction between the in-story beliefs and the “actual” truths.

Essentially – The magi are watching the shadow play on the wall of Plato’s cave and believe they see the real truth of magic – this demonstrates why some types of magic can do things that Hermetic magic cannot. It adds depth to the already existing contradictions in the setting and sourcebooks.

…just a ponderous post. Happy gaming.

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Discussion on Mystery Cults and Virtue Initiation 

The ways that Mystery Cults grant virtues and flaws bugs me. Not because it’s broken, in fact it looks to be designed for consistency and meta-game balance, and in play it might be ok. Recently however I have been designing a number of characters using accelerated advancement as example characters and its highlighted to me that sometimes those characters have a disadvantage or an advantage based on stats and skills (Communication in particular) that are probably otherwise not relevant.

Also the sacrifice of time and resources is the most potent part of a character’s life as it represents the opportunity cost of another activity, and the choice to tell a specific story. Further I’d generally argue that resources equal time.

When the Ability + Skill + Trauma vs Number calculations are all said and done the outcome is frequently a cost which is roughly equivalent to the gains; with flavour to the story and character.

There is also a different process for gaining virtues through the magic realm whilst consuming vis which has a similar outcome with different story drivers. It also requires sacrificing something, be that vis, time, or gaining flaws.

So keep the flavour suggestions of the mystery cult, or training deal, or magical realm journey and also standardise the mechanics. Perhaps the system is better served with a simplified approach?

Putting the numbers as fuzzy as this has no play test, an approach is to make the benefits balance the costs of initiation:

Benefits:

  • Each minor virtue costs 15 points.
  • Each major virtue costs 45 points.

Costs:

  • Each minor or major flaw grants opposite of the above. This is basically allowing a one-to-one match of character advancement to continue.
  • Each pawn of vis grants 1 point, spent or gifted or lost in whatever style suits the themes of the character and story. Perhaps the point value needs to scale to suit the rarity of vis in the saga.
  • Every initiation requires a season. This is in service to a mystic, or sacrifice, or building something, or doing favours; whatever suits the story.
  • Each additional season spent grants 5 points.

So now we have a system which requires sacrifice, places the onus on the game lore for the in-character changes, and makes building the character’s quicker and simpler. That seems like a win and it’s not overly far from the material in Ars sourcebooks.

Crying for points

New Target: Illuminated

Discussed a decade or so ago, T: Illuminated is interesting as it has aspects of sensory magic and might be a useful addition to the special faerie duration: Fire. The idea is that the target may include anything which is illuminated by a light source. That light source may be mundane or magical, and can be anything from a candle, a roaring fire, or a magical beam of light.

Target: Illuminated (+2) The spell may affect any number of targets who are presently illuminated by a light source. The target is also expanded by an additional secondary light source per magnitude, where the secondary light source is within illumination range of the first. This allows a chain of illumination to be established. Illumination is also valid if spread or reflected by natural means (reflective water, mirrors, etc).

I think it is a clever extension to include non-magical reflection. If the illumination is spread in special natural ways by mirrors then the spell target is also manipulated. Likewise something which protects from illumination is also protected, so standing behind a barrier will allow somebody to avoid the spell; although the barrier itself would be valid.

A sample use could be:

Nonna’s Unbelievable Stories

Perdo Mentem 35, R: Voice, D: Fire, T: Illuminated

People illuminated by the targeted fire will believe almost any passable lie while the fire burns, even after they have left the light.

(Base 4, +2 Voice, +3 Fire, +2 Illuminated)

Free new spells compendium for Ars Magica.

Thoughts about WFRP 4th

4th edition Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay was launched recently by Cubicle7 and I’ve recently joined an in-progress game. Learning a new-ish set of rules while playing isn’t ideal. It is darn enjoyable. This post is initial thoughts and grumbles.

TLDR = The complexity in the system is hurting it, and it needs to be streamlined; or given more streamlining options for when quick play is more important than the rolls.

For example the complexity in picking/assigning by race, then mechanics of use in fate/fortune and resilience/whatever points is daft. The points are present to allow a player character to help control the outcomes and fake-out their risks.

Why does this need two sets of points with two separate caps, with different choices for races, and choices to make at character creation on where points should go?

This design choice in 4th edition demonstrates how the mechanics of 2e were reworked from the inside of the system to create 4e, not rewritten holistically.

That’s a strength and a weakness in the system – depending on what crunch you like and how flexible the group is.

I’ll report many months from now when I’ve more than a handful of sessions done, however these are my first impressions:

  • Far better all round than WFRP 3rd edition, which I think was a misguided edition – much like D&D 4e we can pretend it didn’t really happen.
  • Better than 1st edition, which was great for its time but hasn’t aged well.
  • Better than 2nd edition, for now. If this edition does not get the love, support, and books that 2e has, then I think 2e will surpass 4e. I’m worried that Age of Sigmar is already distracting the product owners from more 4e content.

As a product the art style and polish in the graphics is excellent. Every career grouping has an illustration, and you really know you are reading a Warhammer product. I felt the same about the art and material presented by FFG for Deathwatch too – high quality presentation.

The audience of the new edition is certainly the players of 2nd and 1st, which is good and bad in terms of styles of game I tend to play. Many players are solid fans and I think they will like this. The challenge will be growing the playerbase with a better offering vs keeping the existing fans engaged.

The grim dirty and painful setting is present, and very palatable through the core book. However I think there is a missed opportunity to make WFRP more than just a 2e re-vamp – which is what it feels like to me. Everyone is a dirt eating scrub, again. Rare are the knights and heroes, especially when a class is recommended as a random roll. The system offers more flexible movement between classes of character, and seems to lean into letting players choose once play has started.

The system also lets a player choose, and gives a minor xp bump to those who take the random choices. This reflects the previous editions but I don’t think it makes sense as the default way to start a game because several randomly rolled classes has a lower probability of forming a useful group of characters, especially if group makeup will make a difference to the story.

Most “modules” assume the group has a mix of skills and talents, and rolling randomly won’t suit that. So why make that the default? Because early editions liked to make this selection random to reflect how shite life is for the PCs. If you like that then 4th will be ok too.

When generating my character to join the existing group I re-rolled on the random class table three times, as each choice didn’t suit the group. That shows how doing it randomly only suits some games, probably shorter ones. It certainly makes no sense to have attributes for a group’s motivation, when they are forced together without a story premise.

I know too the line – “if you don’t like it, then don’t use it”, yeah well that’s always true. What does the random choice say about the setting and mechanics? It’s a tribute to earlier editions. AD&D had a table for random classes back in the day, and I don’t think players who liked role playing used them often. IMHO.

I’m a fan of keeping the lore, going heavy into setting, and telling stories across those themes, however a huge issue I saw in all editions of Warhammer is the juxtaposition of character mortality vs campaign style games. Some people like playing unskilled peasants (I guess?), but I don’t feel like that is a way to build a long campaign, especially when the characters have very little to keep them from suffering terrible wounds and permanent disasters.

The characters should have the option to play or act heroically, however all the mechanics indicate that failure and pain will result from anything remotely risky, and nobody actually wants to be a hero in the setting. You’ll die. The message appears to be max out your combat skills, avoid combat, and be happy eating dirt and earning pennies. Grumble.

That’s really dull. If I wanted to play a boring scrub I’d play with excel spreadsheets. At present 4e feels like edition 2.5+e. It’s good, but if the GM had said “we play 2nd ed” I’d be just as pleased with my character, and would have had almost the same options in-play.

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Penetration HR for Item Creation using Arcane Connections

In many myths and stories weapons and devices are crafted to hurt specific creatures, or a type of creature. Ars Magica does not specifically support powers meant for classes or types of opponents. Examples like the way Stormbringer from the Elric saga drinks energy, or Sting from the Lord of the Rings warns when orcs are near.

In Ars Magica items can be designed with powers to affect supernatural creatures however often these creatures will have resistance to spells and powers. As Penetration vs MR is the existing mechanic in-play to represent this I think it makes sense to provide options for Penetration which empathise the saga and story aspects of these special tools.

These are the types of proposed special options in item creation in Ars, all which modify how an item calculates its penetration score for a particular power:

  • Prescribed Penetration
  • Entity Penetration
  • Arcane Penetration

Note that if any of these options for additional penetration are used together their effects are not multiplicative, meaning that they modify the base amount of penetration in the enchantment, not the boosted amount.

Prescribed Penetration (+5) – Penetration of invested powers is enhanced when used with the Target for whom the AC applies, and is otherwise ineffective. The goal with this style is to prescribe the type of target and how the AC is used within the enchantment.

This adds half again the Penetration point already invested into the invested power design, however the invested power has zero penetration against other targets.

Invested powers using Prescribed Penetration must declare the material and technique of ACs which can be used and the manner in which the power interacts with the item. The method must also match thematically to the use of the power and item.

i.e. a magical sword could be given a “blood drinking” power to gain enhanced penetration against foes. That invested power could not make use of another AC which wasn’t blood.

The AC need not be “fixed” or permanent, however the AC must be physically touching the item when the power is invoked.

For example: Blood on a sword. Powers invested in a magical blade have enhanced penetration only if the wielder is able to first inflict at least a light would with the blade (or otherwise draw blood of the victim onto the blade).

Entity Penetration (+10) This option links the invested power to a fixed arcane connection to a specific individual, thing, or place. When used this enhances the penetration by doubling the invested base item penetration.

Arcane Penetration (+10) the penetration of the invested effect uses the penetration skill of the person activating the power, as per the Form + Tech + Penetration ability with all normal modifications for the arts of the invested effect rather than points invested in Penetration.

Arcane Penetration also requires that the activator also be touching the magical device when the power with this option is activated, and when a power with this modification is used an arcane connection is formed from the activator to the item for one week per magnitude of the power.

Tips for Creating Custom Datasheets in MetaCreator for Ars Magica

Back in 2011 I wrote a custom datasheet for MetaCreator to add Crossbows in Ars Magica – and was asked recently how to do this (an AG link too); so this blog post is a few tips for getting started with metacreator custom datasheets (aside…please don’t tell me you’re not using bastard swords and crossbows in Ars Magica! Its in Lords of Men and the author also stated his intent on the Atlas Games forums in 2010, despite the name “bastard sword” not being used till many centuries later. For heavy hitting fighting characters they are excellent as they function as a long sword when used one handed and a two handed sword when used without a shield).

For MetaCreator – Adding new virtues, flaws, abilities, spells, equipment, and basically anything which is already established in the framework of Ars Magica in MetaCreator is as simple as creating a new DataSheet (a new .mds file) and editing it with the material you need.

The MC help for editing data files is pretty good and clear, the tips for that I have are:

  • To get a file, copy the current Ars .mds file and delete everything in it, but keep the structure. This ensures that the data will be read in as it will match the structure.
  • Keep the true Ars5 file open at the same time as you can copy/paste between files.
  • You’ll need to set the properties correctly if you want to reuse it, so: … a order or level of importance in the properties of the file.
  • Then copy paste a sample from the official file into your new file and edit names and details. Simple!

It’s not a great editing experience in terms of adding a lot of new data at once. I might have missed a programmatic way to do that.

Then you import the file using MC’s menu when a new character is being edited, and the new options will appear.

There are some file properties which need to be edited too but I can’t recall the tricks for that, but I do remember it didn’t take me long to suss how the versions and references hung together.

If you want to also add new formulas and rules that is much trickier, and it needs additional files.
E.g. the crossbow needed a weapon damage calculation to be slightly different, which meant editing in the macro language (and I’m a disastrously poor developer).

If you want to create your own help file which is usable from within the application then I wish you luck – I did it once successfully and it did my head in.

Ref: MetaCreator for Ars 5th edition by AlterEgo software

Metacreator screen and help file

Laboratory Activity without a lab?

Wandering Magi typically have limited access to a laboratory, so will rarely be able to create a lot of spells and items. Enforcing the rules of no-lab-no-results encourages Magi to join covenants and to find novel solutions to not having a readily available laboratory – however I think there is reason to allow Magi some capability to invent spells while away from their labs.

First – I’m happy to acknowledge this breaks the rules, or that the degree of the bonus needs to be changed to suit different games. And yes, it add complexity in a system which is already full of options and rules – YSMV.

The Apprentices source book introduced the idea that casual experience points can be spent on spont cast spells, at a rate of one point per level, to allow a magus (in this case an apprentice, see “Learning Cantations in Play” in Apprentices p.46) to learn a spell gradually. This makes a lot of sense for learning while doing, and when the option is presented among a set of level 3-5 spells it makes sense as they can be purchase cheaply without distracting the apprentice from other learning.

There are several small effects which might also be worth learning. Detecting vis, detecting aura, and a host of other low level spells which are frequently cast spontaneously are great candidates.

aside – Two spells from the Apprentices book look great (p.46-ish) – A Pestilence of Fleas (MuIm4, to itch the target so much they have a -1 on actions) and Whispering Fingers (CrMe5, whisper into the mind of somebody you can touch) are good examples. Both very useful, especially suffering a -1 to a target in combat, or following up a whisper into the mind of your target via an Intangible Tunnel.

Consider that a magus can learn these easily with a lab, and take a season. However that ignores the fact that a season has an opportunity cost for what else could have been done. Could the magus buy these spells instead of invent them themselves? Could these spells be learnt in the same season as others, thereby being stacked for efficiency.

This optional rule “opens the door” as an example of a magus learning a spell without a lab. Using the rules in Apprentices the magus just needs to cast the spell spontaneously and spend xp on it.

I guess that the rationale is that the caster is experiencing the spell and earning its subtle aspects again and again in-Play, so should be able to learn it without a lab eventually.

This seems like a casual way to learn a spell, but what if that magus applies themselves to practicing aspects of a specific more complex effect and devotes time to learning it as a seasonal activity despite not having a Hermetic lab?

As a House Rule a magus can progressively design spells without a lab within the following rough guidelines:

  • If the Magus is trying to invent a spell whilst performing some other activity which takes up most of their time, then the success points accumulated beyond the level of the spell is one fifth its normal value. Always rounded down.
  • If the Magus is distracted by many chores or goals, however they have enough downtime to spend pondering and designing; such as touring safely between a few covenants, or stuck aboard a ship, the success points are divided by four.
  • If the Magus is doing little else except trying to invent a spell however they still lack a lab, such as living at a covenant where a lab space is absent, the success points are divided by three.

Some examples:

A beginning magus with a low-ish lab total around level 25 is seeking to invent a level 5 effect while travelling and camping in the wild. Normally the magus would accumulate 20 success points per season, however the travel, rest, and logistics reduce this total down to 4 per season. The junior Magus is able to scratch away at a minor spell while he travels and hunts for 2 seasons (or a level 10 in five seasons).

A very mature Magus seeks to stay productive while visiting another covenant. The host covenant does not have a guest lab, however the Magus is provided with ample rooms, and the political and social activity is not at all arduous. He returns to his notes on a pet project within his focus and specialty, normally generating a level 65 lab total, on a niche spell at level 20. However his success total is reduced to one third, from 45 down to 15 which is still enough to generate the spell in two seasons (or a level 15 effect in a season, or a level 30 effect in three seasons).

The rationale for this is the Magus is able to gain some success points on a magical activity whilst doing something else, and that they can slowly progress their work. The invention might happen in disjointed seasons, say perhaps one season a year where the Magus travels for some obligation to their apprentice or House – they get some productivity.

Obviously the players need to ratify this suggestion to be used in the Ars game. The intent is to allow a magus to be productive on the same complexity of effect as normal, however to reduce their effective productivity.

And as always I’d like to add a few new spells into the wider community based upon one of the spells in the Apprentices book. A Pestilence of Fleas lends itself to a greater version for combat against groups – perhaps A Carpet of Fleas instead? Sure, not a huge change, but disruptive for crowds and armies.

A Pestilence of Nipping Bugs

Muto Imagonem 10, R: Voice, D: Diameter, T: Group

This sensory illusion makes all the targets itch, any tasks requiring Concentration or physical activity are penalized by –1.

(Base 1, +2 Voice, +1 Diameter, +2 Group)

As an Inagonem spell it isn’t locked to humans or animals…so lots of diversity in use.

A Pestilence of Fleas for Months

Muto Imagonem 10, R: Voice, D: Moon, T: Individual

This sensory illusion makes all the targets itch, any tasks requiring Concentration or physical activity are penalized by –1.

(Base 1, +2 Voice, +3 Moon)

Curse of Imaginary Pestilence

Muto Imagonem 20, R: Voice, D: Until, T: Individual, Faerie, Ritual

This sensory illusion makes all the targets itch and smell of rot, any tasks requiring Concentration or physical activity are penalized by –1, until the caster utters a sentence of forgiveness.

(Base 2, +2 Voice, +4 Until)