2005-07-28 : The Ars Magica Knock-off Fishbowl

It was then that they turned toward their fall. They didn't realize it, but it was then.

This is not "Ars Magica as it oughta be," by any stretch. This is a game I'd like to play with a setup like Ars Magica's, but for which Ars Magica's rules and setting are badly unsuited.

The setup is Ars Magica's: wizards living in isolated sanctuaries with their companions and servants.

Specifically absent:
- The Order of Hermes and its houses. Instead, wizards associate and collaborate with one another according to interest, compatibility and opportunity.
- The Code of Hermes as law; also, a body of judges within the body of wizards.
- Wizards as defiers of God.
- Location in real Europe and its history. Instead, the setting is "like Medieval Europe," but not homogenized - no, with room for all of the best and most interesting bits of that whole geographical, historical, and social range.

Specifically present:
- The sanctuary coming into crisis. We play the game to find out whether it survives.

Everybody plays some characters. Everybody's responsible for lots of other stuff. With regard to characters and stuff, a person can be its creator or its underwriter (or its nothing). These roles don't change: I create something, you underwrite it, I'm its creator and you're its underwriter forever.

One person has to be the chronicler, who writes everything down that needs written down. You can pass this job around. It comes with perks.

As for GMing ... I have an ambitious vision. It's support for full GMing by one person at a time when that's what's called for, support for one person stepping in to GM for another for the short term when that's what's called for, support for mix-and-matching GMing in real time according to immediate needs, all without being abstract or wonky. Now I happen to know that this is possible, but can I formalize it? We'll see.

The whole ruleset will be a non-casual adaptation of Dogs in the Vineyard's. It'll steal from Polaris, the Mountain Witch, Primetime Adventures, Spione, Legends of Alyria, and probably Capes too, and it'll keep stealing from Universalis, Sorcerer, Trollbabe, and the rest. Thanks, everybody.

I'll continue in the comments. Also, this is my first fishbowl post. "Fishbowl" means that only I can post comments - this is my working space - but everybody can post marginalia.

1. On 2005-07-28, Vincent said:

Creating a Sanctuary
A sanctuary's defined by three things, so they're what you have to create. They are: touchstones, pressures, and mirrors. Create them all intermixed and collaboratively. Give the chronicler the notebook!

Go around the table a bunch of times, starting on the chronicler's left. On your turn, a) say a touchstone, a pressure, or a mirror, or else b) name a touchstone, a pressure or a mirror that someone else has said, and say that you'll underwrite it.

The chronicler writes down every touchstone, pressure and image, lists its creator, and then lists its underwriters.

You are absolutely allowed to make suggestions to the person who's talking! They get the final say what the chronicler writes, but they should entertain all opinions.

There are several conditions that have to be met before creating the sanctuary can end. Once they're met, sanctuary creation ends when every player underwrites in a row.

The sanctuary doesn't exist in the whole world. It exists in isolation, really speaking.

It connects to the whole world via its touchstones. A touchstone a) is literally stone, and b) exists in two places: its place in the santuary and its place in the whole world. To leave or enter the sanctuary, you have to pass by one of its touchstones.

A touchstone's place in the sanctuary must be like it's place in the whole world. In the whole world it's in a wall down behind the wharf of a prosperous Hanseatic town; in the sanctuary it's tucked into the bank of the pond. In the whole world it's a standing stone on a lonely crag; in the sanctuary it's a standing stone on a rise away from the buildings and gardens.

Your sanctuary's not complete until it has at least one touchstone connecting it to another sanctuary.

When you create a touchstone, you create both of its places. This is important: for its place in the whole world, you have the whole geographical, historical, and cultural range available to you for inspiration. One of your sanctuary's stones can be in a place in the whole world like Renaissance Spain, another in a place like Mongol-invaded Poland, another in a place like pre-Christian Norway - no problem.

When you underwrite a touchstone, you're declaring that you want a hand in creating and acting for the place across it.

A sanctuary is subject to lots of different pressures, of course, both internal and external. I'll divide 'em into four broad kinds.

- Competition. The sanctuary has to fight for something significant to it or go without. Examples: Both the wizards of the sanctuary and the village healer across one of its touchstones use a particular rare flower. The sanctuary has to buy its bookmaking goods from the same merchant who supplies a university in the whole world.

- Dependency. The sanctuary depends on someone else, some particular arrangement or circumstance, for something essential. Examples: The sanctuary depends on the good will of the lord over one of its touchstones for its staple food supplies. The sanctuary depends on the sponsorship of a more powerful sanctuary for its access to books. The sanctuary depends on seasonal propitiation of the nature spirits for a significant fraction of its magical resources.

- Obligation. The sanctuary is obligated to provide someone else with something significant. Examples: The sanctuary's obligated to copy books for its sponsor sanctuary. The sanctuary's obligated to devote one tenth of its research to shapeshifting.

- Want. The sanctuary lacks something it needs. Examples: The sanctuary's too crowded, it wants work for space for its wizards. The sanctuary's too isolated, it wants for contact with other wizards. The sanctuary's far removed from any high-quality glass production, and so wants for good glass instruments.

Your sanctuary's not complete until it has at least one pressure from another sanctuary, at least one pressure from across one of its touchstones, at least one pressure magical in nature, and at least one pressure strictly material in nature.

When you create a pressure, be sure to say which other sanctuary, which touchstone, which essential supply.

When you underwrite a pressure, you're declaring that you think it's an interesting pressure and you want a hand in increasing it.

A mirror is some concrete thing in the sanctuary, a room or a tool or a path or a tapestry or, yes, a mirror. Two things set it apart from the rooms and tools and etc. that surround it: someone loves it, and it reflects some aspect of the life of the sanctuary.

Your sanctuary's not complete until it has at least as many mirrors as there are players, plus one.

When you create a mirror, just describe it!

When you underwrite a mirror, you're declaring that you want to participate in its appearance and development in the game.


direct link

This makes...
MW go "I don't know AM"*
JN go "Underwriter?"*
JK go "Covenant Traits"*
Sben go "Fascinating"*
Sben go "Location?"*
Chris go "Ooo!"*
CS go "Shifting GMing = cool"*
SDM go "Real or Practice?"*
XP go "Box <-- --> Vincent"*
ecb go "suhweet"*
JN go "Isolation = Regio?"*

*click in for more

2. On 2005-07-29, Vincent said:

Q & A #1

MW: I don't believe I've written anything about Ars Magica you haven't read. You've read my interview at Primeval Press, right?

And you've certainly seen this little animation:

JN: Hang in there.

SBen: No reason WHATSOEVER. That's right on.

SDM: Practice. But I'm not really practicing design here; I've done the vast majority of the design work for this game already, in Dogs. Here I'm practicing the part of my craft that comes after the design work. Will it result in a finished game? Could very well.

It gets dumped or backburnered at the first sign that it's competing with Red Sky A.M., however.

JN again: Like regio, yes.


direct link

This makes...
SJF go "Use this in Red Sky AM?"*
XP go "Creator/Underwriter=genius"*
HS go "Underwriter = understudy?"*

*click in for more

3. On 2005-08-01, Vincent said:

As a group, brainstorm a good list of characters-to-be, and then divvy them out amongst yourselves.

Nobody owns any characters yet, and won't for a while. Everybody will get a full share of them, not just one single character. Also we still aren't distinguishing between the GM and the other players (although we will later).

So now DON'T continue around the circle. Instead, the chronicler goes through the list of pressures, reading each out in turn. For each pressure, as a group you need to position at least three proto-characters.

Here's the rule: For each pressure, you need at least one character on the outside of the sanctuary and two characters on the inside. The proto-characters inside the sanctuary must be people who have to deal directly with the pressure.

When you're done with the pressures, list the touchstones. For each, you need at least one person outside the sanctuary who knows of the touchstone's and the sanctuary's existance.

Now list them all, by their positions only. That's what makes them proto-characters. "A senior wizard," "the captain of our guard," "the Manor Lord," "our second undercook," "our librarian," and the like.

Divvying Characters
Put the list of proto-characters where everybody can see it. Now go around the circle again.

On your turn, a) take ownership of a proto-character, or else b) underwrite a character that someone else has taken ownership of.

When you take ownership of a proto-character, you need immediately to begin to establish him or her as a character. That means you need to do some or all of the following:

1. Give the character a name.
2. Give the character personal details: age, sex, race, marital status, sexuality, parentage, parenthood, background (broad strokes only!)...
3. Say a few words in the character's voice.
4. Respond in character to someone else's new character.
5. Choose a second proto-character to be this same character, if there's one appropriate. (For instance, "a senior wizard" from one pressure might also be "our librarian" from another: take both if you think it's good!)
6. Attach the character to one of the mirrors - one of the characteristics of a mirror is that someone loves it, right?
7. Attach the character to one of the touchstones, or even a second touchstone.

When you underwrite a character, you're saying that you think the character's cool and you're excited to test her and see what she's made of.

Keep going around until every single proto-character is owned.

Drawing the Sanctuary
Somebody has to draw the sanctuary. This is the chronicler's first opportunity to pass responsibility. If she does so, the person she passes to becomes the new chronicler.

You'll need a pretty big piece of paper.

The sanctuary is a big circle. The pressures are wedges cutting into the circle. The touchstones are arrows coming out of the circle. The mirrors are points inside the circle.

Don't write in the characters, list them down the side.


Put related items near to one another - for instance, if you depend on a Norman English Manor across one of your touchstones for your staple foods, put that pressure and that touchstone close together.

Now, you used to draw a circle and arrows when you were creating a town in Dogs too, but you don't anymore. This drawing process might turn out to be the same kind of unnecessary - useful primarily to me while I figure out how to proceduralize.

The GM
This actually comes after character creation proper, but I'm'a tell it here anyway.

The chronicler chooses who'll be the GM, by looking at the list of who owns and who underwrites what. The GM should be the person who owns and underwrites, in combination, the strongest threats to the sanctuary.

(And you know that that will occupy many pages' worth of explaining.)

I think I figured out how to realize my ambitious vision. This is the first step!


direct link

This makes...
JN go "New players later?"*
Lud go "Manipulable Campaign Creation!"*
JN go "Outside Characters"*
JN go "Step 7"*
JN go "Feedback loops..."*
JN go "Or even index cards."*
HS go "GM swaps as threats/chronicler change(s)?"*
MH go "Very cool stuff"*
Chris go "Stakes"*

*click in for more

4. On 2005-08-01, Vincent said:

A bit more about isolation:

My thinking is that if you put your back to the sanctuary and walk, and keep walking, at some point you'll find yourself in the whole world. If you then turn around briskly and walk back, you'll never return to the sanctuary. You'll instead have to find a touchstone to return - and no way of knowing where the nearest is, if there are even any.

Furthermore, if someone lets you walk ahead of them out of sight and then follows directly in your footprints, when they leave the sanctuary and arrive in the whole world, they'll be somewhere potentially very far away from you. "Somewhere" here referring to all three of geography, time and possibility.


direct link

This makes...
JN go "Touchstones (tangent, sortof)"*
JN go "All three..."*
Chris go "Touchstones & New players"*

*click in for more

5. On 2005-08-04, Vincent said:

If you don't know Dogs in the Vineyard's resolution rules, you won't be able to read this section.

Non-casual Adaptation
The conflict & resolution rules can't be about the social ramifications of violence anymore. They have to handle escalation differently. This isn't a game about "will you hurt someone to win?"


The stats are, straightforwardly, arguing, fighting, seeking, working. Fighting and working are physical, what distinguishes them is whether you're engaged in violence. Arguing and seeking are non-physical, what distinguishes them is whether you're engaged in trying to change someone else's mind about something.

You roll only one stat at a time, not pairs.

Stats range from 3 to 6 or so. You'll be rolling fewer dice than in Dogs.

When you start a conflict, you establish the stakes, you set the stage, and you establish the arena. The arena doesn't change over the course of a conflict; if you decide arguing isn't working and you want to switch to fighting, that's a follow-up conflict.

For escalation, instead of rolling new stats into your pool, you roll the same stat again. If you're fighting and you escalate, you roll your fighting stat again.

When a conflict starts, your immediate circumstances and advantage are all that you've put on the line. If you lose them (whether you win or lose the stakes), it's only inconvenient.

To escalate and roll your stat again, you put more on the line. Your well-being. Your friends' well-being. Your good name. Your self-respect. Your integrity. Your life.

This'll be represented by increasing the die size of the fallout you take, of course. Starts at d4s, increase it whenever you want your stat dice again.

However, you take fallout on your raise instead of on your see. On your turn you raise the same as always. Then:

- If I take the blow, I don't take fallout, but you get to keep one of your dice. Me taking the blow means that you're advantaged wrt the stakes.

- If I block or dodge, I block or dodge.

- If I reverse the blow, you take fallout. You get three dice of fallout at the die size appropriate to how far you've escalated.

I'll rewrite both the fallout tables and the fallout number results, to better suit the lower number of fallout dice you'll be rolling. I'm also going to call 'em "challenge" and "answer" not raise and see.

There are changes to how stakes work too: every character in a conflict has a goal; they can be compatible or incompatible with others' goals; there isn't only one thing at stake.

This whole thing really changes multi-party conflicts.

At the beginning of the conflict, each player says a goal for their character. When you raise, raise toward your character's goal. Anyone can see who wants to - including partial sees. Once everyone's seen who wants to, if the total against you is less than your raise, you win your goal. If it's your raise or greater, you take fallout, are blocked, or keep a die, according to how many dice are against you.

A partial see is when I raise, eg "I dash across and grab the book, 10," and you see with less than the full raise, eg "I stick out my foot to trip you, 5," counting on someone else in the conflict to complete the see, eg "...and when you stumble I catch and restrain you, 6."

Traits and relationships will work the same as always. I'll refigure the number of dice you get for traits and relationships, naturally.

That's the non-casual adaptation.


direct link

This makes...
MW go "escalating"*
JN go "Incompatible Goals"*
JN go "Oops..."*
Chris go "Escalation"*
JL go "Multiple goals?"*
VB go "MW: yes indeed."
HS go "Escalation"*
JN go "Attrributes and Arena Die Sizes"*
ecb go "whooee"*

*click in for more

6. On 2005-08-04, Vincent said:

Q & A #2
MW: Yeppers.

JN, re sane stakes: Let's keep stakes-setting as a general constraint. For instance, what's at stake is the immediate fate of our deceitful chatelaine. All of our individual characters' goals have to pertain to it: your goal is to capture her before she reaches the touchstone, mine is for her to reach the touchstone and escape, Mitch's is to keep you from catching her, etc.

JL: Does that answer your question? See how that works?

JN, re arenas and die sizes: Stats are always d6s. So the fighter guy will have 6d6 in fighting. Get in a fight with him, he rolls 6d6; if you reverse a blow on him, he takes 3d4 fallout. He escalates! He rolls his 6d6 again. Reverse a blow on him now, he takes 3d6 fallout. He escalates again! He rolls his 6d6 a third time. Now if you reverse a blow on him, he takes 3d8 fallout. I think you were misreading somewhere.


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This makes...
JN go "Thanks for clarifying the die sizes!"
JL go "Crystal Clear"*
SJF go "Potential brokeness?"*

*click in for more

7. On 2005-08-04, Vincent said:

I'll want to change the names of spontaneous, formulaic and ritual spells. Probably.

Spontaneous spells are like unassigned relationship dice: positioning. You'll have a pool of dice you can spend from when you use spontaneous magic to raise or see, the pool'll refresh under some circumstances, that's always what it was gonna be.

For formulaic spells, it's hard to see them as anything other than traits, mechanically - you cast Pilum of Flame as your raise or see, you get the 1d8 you have listed next to it on your character sheet, wham bam - and that's fine, BUT. It's fine but I don't want a) wizards to get way more trait dice than anybody else, nor b) wizards to get the same number of trait dice, yet they have to spend most of them on spells. So really it's not fine. I have a couple of alternatives I'm considering, but let me think about them more before I share.

Rest assured that however the particulars work, there'll be a list of spells, it'll be an obviously incomplete list, and the wizards and players will be able to create new ones in a fun and interesting way.

Ritual spells are the cool though. Check this: casting a ritual spell is a conflict. Your opponent is the inverse of the resources available to you - that'll be a mechanical known thing, like demonic influence in Dogs, attached to the sanctuary. 4d6+4d10 or whatever. 4d6 base plus 3d8 per participant, maybe.

Anyway, each ritual spell will have a list of component effects, with a weak/strong. Like "duration: month/year; area within its bounds: one building/the whole sanctuary; shared trait: all within its bounds are protected from magic 1d4/2d6; requires ritual maintenance: costly/trivial" or something for Aegis of the Hearth, for instance. Again I'll make a list, it'll be obviously incomplete, and I'll provide for you to add to it.

Now, each participant in the ritual takes one of the component effects as her goal in the conflict. If she wins her goal, the stronger of the two. If she loses it, or if there aren't enough wizards participating so no one took it as their goal, the weaker of the two. (Plus if no one at all wins their goal the spell fails.)

I also want to play some fallout games with magic, but I'm'a think about that more before sharing too.


direct link

This makes...
CRN go "Formulaic considered harmful"*
Chris go "Formulaic spells cost"*
JN go "Spontaneous become Formulaic"*
JN go "Dramatic rituals"*
JN go "Hard Spells and Botches"*
Chris go "Ooh!"*
HS go "Spontaneous to Formulaic"*
SJF go "Use arts as traits?"*
XP go "What's magic for?"*
JN go "Wizards should defy God!"*
GJS go "Belongings/components/props"*
VB go "duh!"*

*click in for more

8. On 2005-08-06, Vincent said:

Underwriting a Character
When you underwrite someone else's chracter, you're saying that you think the character's cool and interesting, and that you want to see what she's made of. It's not simply that you're a fan of the character; it's that you're committed to the character and you want to take an active hand in showing us just how cool she is.

("Showing just how cool" is code. It's code for "trying to break her in public." You help show us how cool she is by challenging her past her endurance. This is not a happy love-fest kind of showing just how cool.)

As a character's underwriter, you're responsible for four things with regard to the character:

1. Framing scenes that center on the character. This is your responsibility alone; neither the creator nor the GM get to do this. (The GM gets to call upon you to do it; I'll say more about that another time.)

2. Bringing the character into scenes in progress. You share this responsibility with the GM and the creator.

3. Creating (i.e. playing) the character's relationships, if no one else already is; also helping to play any "extras" interacting with the character. Also, playing the character's inverse magical resources in conflicts, if the character's a wizard.

4. Suggesting to the GM and other players specific conflicts and character actions that'd engage the character.

Having no underwriter puts a character at a significant procedural disadvantage, what with the scene framing rule. Characters who have no underwriter are automatically supporting characters. They can go on to become principal characters in play - but that's by someone deciding to underwrite them after all.


direct link

This makes...
JN go "One per PC?"*
JN go "Breaking in public"*
JN go "Who gets to say stuff, and when"*
MS go "Underwrite the underwriter?"*
MS go "MS, I think so..."*
JN go "Oops, that was me just above. :)"
MS go "Thanks JN :)"
JBJ go "I'm stealing this..."*

*click in for more

9. On 2005-09-14, Vincent said:

I've bumped up against a serious mechanical problem with this one. I'm looking for a way over, around or through.

Background reading: 2005-05-20 : Things on Character Sheets.

So here's Dogs in the Vineyard. As these kinds of games go, the resources the players have available are pretty complicated; they fill two thirds of a sheet of paper, they include all kinds of words and dice, they're constantly changing in small ways, fiddling up and down. But worse: at the top of that two thirds of a sheet of paper is...

...A character's name.

How many characters am I going to play in this Ars Magica knockoff game? 10? 20?

Okay, okay, so I have 10-20 character sheets. That's not the end of the world. I can have a little folder to keep them in, that's fine. Which set of resources I get to use as a player depends on which character I'm playing, no big.

But wait, these resources I have? Utilizing them is also pretty complicated. I have this big pile of dice in front of me that I have to roll and manipulate and make decisions about. I can stand to have, at a maximum, ONE pile of dice in front of me. More than one is too much for anybody to handle. Notice how important the group NPC rules are in Dogs; everybody uses them all the time.

So okay, well, maybe there can be group PC rules. That might work for this game-


And the whole thing grinds to a halt.

Having complicated player resources linked to a character is fine for one-character-per-player games. If a many-characters-per-player game is going to have complicated player resources, like this game is, they can't be linked to the individual characters.

Like I say, I'm looking for a way over, around or through. Any suggestions?


direct link

This reminds...
CMS of recent experience written up

This makes...
cm go ""around, maybe...""*
VB go "not really."*
XP go "Augment?"*
Sben go "Ownership"*
TA go "Decouple the PCs from the resource pool"*
VB go "yeah..."*
TA go "It's never easy..."*
pb go "Covenant Stats"*
MB go "unit of narration?"*
CMS go "recent experience with this"*
MVH go "Resources like in Blood Red Sands?"*

*click in for more

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