Changing a traditional rules heavy campaign into a story game

I´ve been an Ars Magica storyguide for 23 years. For a long time I played Ars Magica with one group and had a lot of fun. We started with the third edition, converted to the fourth, then to the fifth. Though the last edition consists of nearly 50 sourcebooks with lots of extra rules, our game settled at a medium level of complexity. Many rules we simply ignored. The campaign is still alive after 23 years.

3 years ago I started a new Ars Magica campaign in another city with other players. Quickly I noticed that this group was very different. The players had very good rules knowledge, they were very good in optimizing their characters, we had tiring discussions about prizes and experience points, the rules got applied at the best possible way relating to their characters and their mages had goals like "becoming the youngest archmage in europe". My preparations went overboard, because I had to consider far too much rules, the game bored me more and more and I was offended at the haggling at the gaming table. (I have to add, that the players are all experienced roleplayers. Two of them are even familiar with pbta and similar games. Nonetheless, in this Ars Magica campaign they act like heavy tacticians and powergamers.)

At the same time I became acquainted with rules light story games and fell in love with norwegian minimal games (Archipelago etc.). My reservations to be the storyguide in this Ars Magica group grew bigger.

Today it was discussion time. The players want to continue the campaign, but I´m not able to go on as we did so far. I think, at the end, they understood my problems with the status quo. At least, it seemed as they´d be willing to accept some experiments, if this could save the campaign.

Then I drove home and thought.

What, if I take the setting and the content of our game alone. I chuck out all the rules and game values. The players know their characters even without numbers. They too know roughly, what they are able to do. So, why not putting something like a deck of Archipelago decision cards (Yes, and... Yes, but... No, but... etc.) on the table and saying: "Alright - the game goes on"?

What do you think? Did someone do something like this in the past? I´d like to hear about it!


  • I think it's an excellent idea. And definitely worth trying: even If you find it doesn't go well after one session, you can switch back (or to another game) afterwards.

    Just make sure the actual procedure of gameplay is clear (even if that's just in your own mind), since - for example - plopping down those Archipelago cards - doesn't actually tell you how to play.

  • edited April 2018
    Hello, that's my story only with Ars Magical instead of Rêve de Dragon 1st edition. After tweaking the rules from task resolution to conflict resolution, I kept only the maps, crafting recipes and market price lists and the players had a blast. There was more intrigue, bravery and fantasy than the game ever yielded in 3 hour of time. Of course, it wasn't the same game anymore. It was... more true to the game original intent, though !
    Namely, in a barbarian occupied village, the travelers take part in organizing the Resistance. A brash young hero attempts assassination on the chief of the horde with a javeline throw. The alchemist finds in a storage enough overlooked chemicals to prepare an uncanny amount of quickness elixir. Finally the villagers flee through the swamps mounted on doped up giant snails.
    The whole thing was 3 series of rolls : travelling, Resisting, fleeing. Each player doing their thing with no fear of splitting the group, etc. The rules I had come up were lame, it worked great.
  • Have you considered troupe style play? I'm asking because that's sort of one of the big unique things that AM pushes as its own solution to these issues. The main GM in an AM campaign could technically speaking distribute most of the GMing work to the group by having other players run their own stories in turn.

    Then again, if the GM doesn't really believe in the rules system, I don't think it's going to ultimately work anyway; at least to my eye the system is the game in AM, I'd consider it a big blow to the game's overall sensibility if the GM was actively bored with the dense mechanical logic of the game. Nothing wrong with playing a different game in the same setting, though.

    Ultimately, acknowledging that we don't know the group the way you do, I would personally expect the game to peter out quickly after you switch systems, simply because it's always difficult to move a campaign between systems. "System matters" as the saying goes, and it's not unlikely for the players and the fiction to just migrate into a different game without issue. It works for some people, probably because they didn't care about the rules in the first place, but for a group that seems committed to playing AM-with-rules a switch to Archipelago seems like a massive jump to an entirely different game. Many campaign details that were very important in AM will be meaningless in a different system, which alone means that you might be better off starting a new Archipelago game with a clear slate.
  • I would consider using James V. West's simple and elegant "The Pool". It's genre-agnostic and free, too.

    It profits from everyone being on the same page regarding the setting and what's appropriate (e.g. realistic thriller or Hong Kong action). It sounds as if you have your Ars Magica lore down pat, so that's a plus.

    The eye-opening feature is that "The Pool" does not recognize difficulty!

    "I force the SWAT team to take cover by firing my Uzi" and "I shoot everyone in the room" have the same difficulty. This may sound as if it could be abused but the cool thing is that any abuse is so utterly obvious and lame that in my experience it becomes a non-issue quickly.

    (I am not an expert on The Pool but I have run it half a dozen times with both total newbies - students on a class trip - and experienced roleplayers. Minor problems with a tone-deaf player, but otherwise great. YMMV.)

    Best wishes

  • edited April 2018

    In my old Ars Magica group, we´re practicing troupe style play. There are six players and every player has one mage, one companion and five grogs. If there´s an adventure, that leads the characters away from the covenant, the adventuring group consists of one mage, one companion and four grogs. The mage is the leader of the troupe, the grogs are subordinates (...well, maybe some of them have the urge to distinguish themself from the others). This leader-follower-thing had many positive effects: grogs became colourful characters, not only cannonfodder, there is no magic overkill on adventures and also we contained the advancement of the mages. In my newer group the players are very focused on their mages. It seemed to me that only a limited troupe style playing is possible. Some of the players say their mages´ natures base upon progress, so it is their mages, they send on an adventure. Some of them say there are not enough story offerings for their companions. Fact is: Some of my adventures are written for a special mage, some arise from more general problems. I rarely write an adventure for a special companion. Maybe I should do this more often. On the other hand, I don´t think, that this is a real obstacle for playing a companion.

    We didn´t talk about beta storyguides or similar things. Maybe two players could be willing to do this. We have one player for some bookkeeping. Things like this reduce my workload, but my problems with the gaming style continue.

    Honestly, I like Ars Magica... at least the basic rules. But there are nearly 50 source books, all of them contain extra rules. The weight of this rules are bogging me down. I found a good level with my old group. With my new group I too often feel like someone who tries to prevent the players from opening the box of pandora.

    Last night I imagined a typical spellcasting situation. Maybe a formulaic healing spell in a calm situation: minimal risk. The player announces the spell and draws an Archipelago card: "No, but you gain insight or knowledge that will be useful in the future." My players will say: "What? How can that be? It´s a learned spell without a stress roll!" So we´re searching for the cause of the failure. In Ars Magica, there´s one last possibility for failing such a spell: a failed concentration roll. So, if the player drew this card, his mage obviously lost concentration. What was he thinking about? Maybe he thought about an unsolved problem. The card hints, that he obviously found a part of the solution.

    Probably you´re right. This prospect is a bit starry-eyed. Maybe I´ll try it anyway... just to know that we didn´t miss the chance for a surprise.
  • edited April 2018
    My experience with similar switcheroos is that the group basically has to discover a new favourite game in the process. That is, if your fellow players dislike the heavy mechanization of the game the same way you do, then you might - might - stumble upon a successful combination of a new rules system and an AM campaign. Everybody discovers a new and more fun way of doing the things they really wanted to do in the first place.

    On the other hand, if the others only go along with a rules switch to humour you, while considering the change a negative in itself, that's quite a high hill to climb. Everything in the new era of the campaign reminds them of what they've lost. It would be easier to sell them on a new playstyle and rules set without the creative context of the old campaign weighting them down.

    My view on this is significantly colored by the fact that I myself rather like the AM rules environment. I get that trying to use all the rules at once with a group of dumb min-maxers would get exhausting, but I can also see how a group with that sort of attitude would actively like the complexity and game-mechanical basis. One GM wanting to move to a more lightweight direction won't change those preferences among the rest of the players.


    By the way, a question out of idle curiousity concerning AM: do the players realize that adventuring is a generally inefficient way to spend time for a wizard in Ars Magica 5th edition compared to other seasonal activities? Is this the case in your campaign anyway, or are the adventuring wizards consistently gaining major benefits from doing it? I have very little practical experience with the game, so I will happily defer to those who have played it seriously for an extended period, but my reading would seem to indicate that the optimal metagame should be to keep the wizards in the lab (or grove, or whatever) as much as feasible while the companions deal with distractions. A wizard adventuring is the easy mode, yes, but that comes at the expense of lost seasons of research; the sensible thing to do is to save your wizard's time and only bring them out after the companions fail or when the stakes are truly significant.

    (If you like the above idea of how the campaign dynamics should work, but it doesn't seem to be the case in practice, perhaps you should look into the way adventures are renumerated. Are you seeding every adventure with wizards-only rewards that help keep adventuring wizards on pace with more studious brethren? Are the players simply so stuck to the adventure-game paradigm that they haven't realized that they're throwing good research/study time away by adventuring? Is there some reason why Companions can't simply gather all the Vis and whatnot and lug it back home, without having the wizards along to micromanage them?)
  • I agree with your first three paragraphs: the danger is high... and it seems to me, if I change two or three more postings with you, I´ll bury the idea.

    Adventuring is an inefficient way to spend time, if your library is good. In our case, the covenant is built from scratch, the library grows slowly. I tried to balance this fact with a vis rich surrounding (you can also learn by consuming vis)... obviously not too succesful. After your last posting I ran the nearby solution through my mind: What if the players soon gain a big library?

    Yes... I think, they´d stay at home more often. But simultanously their gain in power and their possibilities would accelerate even faster than now. I´m not sure if I like this.
  • I'd say that you are brave to try it. If the players are happy to go along then it obviously has a chance. If the new system keeps enough of the old flavour then it has a chance. If the new system keeps everyone interested as time goes on then you have a chance.

    Kill or cure. It sounds like the old campaign is starting to look distinctly creaky so what do you have to lose?
  • There's no solution coming from just one person, especially if none of the others perceive a problem to be there! You definitely need to talk - but it's entirely possible that before you can even talk, you need to develop a shared vocabulary.

    Asking another member to be Story Guide for a few sessions might help with the "develop a shared vocabulary part", as you take up the role of a companion or grog and try to play in a way that you like. After a session or three, set apart some time to discuss both your collective and individual play experiences. Repeat.
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