On Writing for Ars Magica

I’ve been given varied advice about writing for the ArM5 line over the years, much of it insightful, some of it blunt and unsolicited, but mostly helpful.

Here I have collated some of the most useful recommendations.

David Chart’s Definition of a Story Seed

One of the things I really like about the ArM5 line is the inserts (tidily summarised in the List of Inserts in the front of the majority of supplements since Art & Academe). Story Seeds comprise an ever increasing majority of these, but when I first started writing for the line I was a bit confused as to what was and what was not a Story Seed.

The Line Editor came to my rescue on this with this answer back in November 2012:

A story seed gives the SG an explicit hook for using an idea in a saga. It provides a concrete example of one way in which the player characters, who have no idea to the idea in question, can be drawn into stories based on it.

This is more valuable than a neat concept left open-ended because it is often very hard to think of ways to get the player characters involved in the neat ideas. The player characters are not part of the text, so they do not have any connection to what is being described.

Story seeds don’t nail chamber pots, because they don’t define anything additional; they just provide an explicit way to use it in a saga. People could, of course, use their imagination, but they are paying us to use ours.”

Like the great man said. Easy now eh? Get writing.

David Chart’s Guide to Writing Gaming Locations

My first draft of “The Silk Road and Beyond” for The Cradle and the Crescent was pretty woeful to be honest as I’d never written gazetteer material before. I had a particular problem with the descriptions for some of the locations I’d included, so I asked David for some clarification of what I was doing wrong. I believe his answer is applicable not only to writing for ArM5 but is a more general truth.

This was his succinct reply:

As a rule of thumb, for a gaming location you need a general description of the sort of place it is (which you generally have), a description of what makes it distinct (which you often have), and a description of the reason why you want to set a game session (at least) there (which was generally lacking).

Harsh but fair. I can’t say I’ve always strictly adhered to this implicit 3 sentence formula (sort of place / distinctiveness / reason to play there) but I have found it takes at least three concepts to make a satisfying description both as an author and as a reader.

Michael dV’s – Things to Avoid While Writing Tribunal Books

For those who may remember, Michael DeVerteuil was a “Be(ze)rklist” luminary (perhaps incendiary would be a better term) and the self-styled “heretic” responsible for the long running “Heretic’s Corner” in Hermes Portal. Ever vocal about his view, ever critical of those who differed in opinion, I nevertheless found Michael’s contributions thought-provoking.

Given all this I contacted Michael in 2010 by email to ask what he felt were the major pitfalls in the existing Tribunal books to date and he replied:

1) Plots involving Tribunal-specific threat to the survival of the Order (too overdone).
2) New information of general, widespread application to the Order or the setting as a whole.
3) Over emphasis on domus magnae (there are some significant Autumn covenants without primi living in them).
4) Bad mundane historical background (little or no history is better, though lots of *good* history is best, of course)
5) Neglect of the Dominion (a frequent problem).
6) Over reliance on modern travel books and tourist brochures (research the authentic original myths).
7) Writing with only one style of play in mind.
8) Misspelling local place and personal names.
9) Ignoring what is already in the canon.
10) Overemphasizing any one particular realm (even the Magic Realm, strive for balance between the four).

Re 5: A lot of Tribunal books or quasi-Tribunal books (Fire & Ice) are written as if the Dominion hardly exists, whereas it should pervade almost everywhere in mundanely inhabited areas. In canon, it emanates from shrines (some famous), specific relics (some of which would be of interest to characters), waxes and wanes according to the religious calendar, suppresses over a wide area (or not) lesser auras of other realms, and protects (or not) against imminent threats from other realms, yet how much detail on this do you see in the standard Tribunal book?

Re 7: If the supernatural is powerful, and omnipresently in your face, you have written necessarily for High Fantasy. If you actually have to go on a quest to establish any meaningful contact with the supernatural, you have written necessarily for Low Fantasy. If the supernatural is powerful but subtle and restrained in its contact with the mundane realm, troupes have more freedom to play in either preferred style. That’s only one continuum, of course. Other continua could include troupe style vs single storyguide, adventure vs study, hack and slash vs puzzle solving, deep vs light interaction with mundane society, or high (kings, the papacy) vs low (local gentry) political involvement. It’s best to write in such a way that the setting caters to all but imposes on none.

Andrew P Smith’s Hints on Writing Tribunal Books

Andrew wrote the first ArM5 Tribunal Book Guardians of the Forest with Mark Shirley back in 2005. Originally intended for ArM4 it was revised to fir the new edition and became the initial basis for the format of subsequent Tribunal Books that followed. When invited to join the writers pool for The Cradle and the Crescent by Niall Christie back in 2008, I contacted Andrew to see if he could impart any gems.

This was his helpful reply:

I would say that the most important things are to get the right balance between the various types of material, and the right balance between in-depth specific stuff, and overview-type material.

On the first point, you will probably want to have mostly a mixture of “mundane” place descriptions and mythic sites, with a smattering of both history and landscape description. (You need some of the latter two, so that the historical context is established and so that the reader can establish a picture in their mind of what the land actually looks like. However these should both be fairly brief.) I reckon a 50/50 split between mundane and mythic is a good baseline.

On the second point, one has to be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to describe too much, ending up describing everything in too little detail. Sometimes you will want to skim over areas briefly, but try to give meaty descriptions to the most interesting places, and inject plenty of myth. You will often find, say, a town for which you have little to say, except for a fairly boring paragraph of historical info, such as when it was founded, who its church is dedicated to, etc. Unless it is a city which needs to be mentioned, you could just as well skip it… Basically what I am saying is, feel free to be (somewhat) selective about the towns and sites which you cover. Devote the most words to the most interesting/mythic places. And don’t forget story seeds!

However, you will need to be fairly exhaustive in your research, to avoid missing something which *needs* to be in, but which you don’t (yet) know about. Otherwise you run the risk of “I can’t believe they didn’t mention (Site X), it’s one of the most significant (Y) in the area!” What you could do is browse fairly close-up on Google Maps with the Wikipedia labels on. Any “must-have” places will surely have a label… It should help you avoid missing stuff, and you may well discover some cool new places! You could also do worse than check out the series of Michelin guide books on France.

Finally, one often falls into the trap of segregating the magi from the nobility from the mythic. So you have three different Tribunals, one Hermetic, one mundane, and one mythic, which don’t seem to overlap. Of course magi can’t get too involved in mundane matters, nevertheless try to integrate these three facets with each other. Magi who have (mundane) political agendas, or who are linked to certain local mythic sites or legends. Local nobles who are also linked to mythic stuff…

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