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Why Ars Magica?
I think the first question about this campaign that needs to be answered is why I’m choosing to abandon 4th Edition.
1. Been there, done that.
Including the short Dark Sun campaign, I was DM of a 4e campaign for 3 years solid. As much as I appreciate the purity of the system and the tools WotC offers, I just need a change.
D&D focuses on monster killing as the primary method for improving characters (both through experience & loot). I appreciate the simplicity this offers, but it really does strain plausibility. In my 4e campaigns that wasn’t a big deal (since we kinda agreed to ignore plausibility) but I’d like to try a more storytelling-focused rule set.
Advancement in Ars Magica focuses on the passage of time in-game and the quality of training and/or experience available.
One strength of 4th Edition is that the PCs are epically heroic. Though the game is structured to present constant challenges to the characters, the odds of character death are quite low and the rules don’t support any sort of long-term consequences for combat mishaps. When combined with the focus on monster killing for advancement, 4e tends to present combat as the most logical first response to any given conflict.
Combat in Ars Magica, on the other hand, presents the possibility of instant death and/or maiming. Combat skill and equipment are still very relevant, but combat must always be entered with the knowledge that your character could die at any moment. This tends to make combat less frequent and more dramatic. It also means that negotiation is usually the most logical first response with physical force as a backup plan.
4. Episodic Campaign Style
Ars Magica rules are based on the concept of troupe-style play where each player has both a mage and a companion character as well as the chance to run several minor shared characters. Since the magi require lots of time in their labs (which can and should be handled outside of game sessions) players can swap back and forth between their alternate characters depending on the needs of the current session.
This style also allows for sessions to take place with several players missing. In fact, while I plan to involve 5 players, my assumption is that only 3 or 4 will be present at any given session.