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RPG Codex Interview: Ars Magica: Years of Conquest (Now on Kickstarter!)

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RPG Codex Interview: Ars Magica: Years of Conquest (Now on Kickstarter!)

Interview - posted by Crooked Bee on Wed 24 October 2012, 20:37:32

Tags: Ars Magica; Ars Magica: Years of Conquest; Black Chicken Studios; J.E. Sawyer

From Black Chicken Studios, the creators of Academagia, comes a single player turn-based computer adaptation of the pen and paper RPG Ars Magica, Ars Magica: Years of Conquest, currently running its Kickstarter campaign. We've been intrigued about it, not least because the world needs more PnP-based CRPGs, and odds are, thanks to Kickstarter the future will bring at least some. So, as usual, we decided to run an interview about it.

For this interview, we have (again) teamed up with Obsidian Entertainment's Josh Sawyer, lead designer on Fallout: New Vegas and Project Eternity and a connoisseur of the PnP Ars Magica, to find out what exactly we can expect from Years of Conquest; the questions in the interview are ours and Josh's combined. How close will it be to the pen and paper game? How will the Covenant gameplay and the combat be represented? And what influence will the folks at Atlas have over the game?

We sent a list of these and other burning questions to Larry Sawh, President/CEO of Black Chicken Studios, and you can read his answers below.

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You call Ars Magica: Years of Conquest a "Medieval Simulation and Role-Playing Game." Usually, a CRPG combines exploration, interaction and combat from an isometric or first-person perspective. Will Years of Conquest be a traditional CRPG in this sense, or rather a game in the style of Academagia, with a text-based CYOA-like interface and tons of skillchecks? How different do you want the presentation to be from that of Academagia, and what other video games could you compare it to?

If we had to liken it to another game, we'd say King of Dragon Pass: the majority of player activity is in the Covenant simulation, but it's punctuated by text quests, adventures and judgments, which themselves can give rise to our Combat engine. The Combat engine plays out rather uniquely (see below), and has a definite old school feel- it's not isometric, though. As for Academagia, that was a menu-driven sandbox raising game, and is a different beast altogether- the UI for Ars Magica is much more contextual, much better organized, and has a lot less in it: that's a by-product of the fact we are using the 5E Ars Magica mechanics, though. ; )

Early next week, we're producing a concept screenshot for a Dialogue, which will show the direction we're taking the UI.​

For those unfamiliar with the Ars Magica PnP system, can you briefly present it and point out its main strengths? How faithfully do you intend to reproduce these strengths and the PnP system in general, including the fatigue-based magic system, in your game?

This is a tough question. How to distill the magic, history, role-playing, alchemy, mystery, faith and personality of the table-top game? It defies classification.

In short, Ars Magica is a role-playing game set in Medieval history, in which you chart the rise and fall (and perhaps rise again) of a Covenant of mages and their underlings. The forces of the supernatural surround you: faeries, demons, magical beasts, and the encroaching world of the mundanes and the Dominion. Every character in the Covenant has a life of their own, with likes and dislikes of their own, and you can play any of them when you need them. Their personalities grow as the years pass, and by the end of every Ars Magica Saga you usually have a story or two to tell about everyone, even the least peasant. The heart of the Covenant is the mages, and each of them are vying for greater knowledge, power and prestige. The magic system is pseudo-scientific, and applies an interesting rigor to spells which you see virtually nowhere else. Your mages can research, study, and distill the forces of magic, creating ever more powerful, useful, or fun spells. Furthermore, via Spontaneous Magic, you can create a Spell to do most anything within the limit of your ability. We could go on and on, but that hits all the key topics. : )

We strongly feel that magic is an omnipresent part of the Ars Magica system, so it's omnipresent in our game, too. Whether you are looking at the Covenant map, in an Adventure, or a Combat, the spells which are contextual to the situation are available for use. And if you don't know the Spell, you can always try it Spontaneously. The Fatigue mechanic (and Twilight, too) are present, per the 5E rules.​

To build on the previous question, no matter how faithful the translation, there are always limits to bringing a PnP RPG over to the computer. This is particularly the case with Ars Magica - where putting points in verbs (e.g., "control" or "destroy") and nouns (e.g., "fire", "energy" or "images") allows you to both learn established spells and create your own, and eventually do crazy things like moving mountains or making the sky rain fire - which sounds very difficult to reproduce in a computer game. What are some of the things you know just cannot be implemented in an Ars Magica CRPG?

We actually dodge this problem by allowing only the 5E core rulebook Spells (and the attendant ability to Spontaneously cast them.) As you note in the question, there is always a limit, and we are forced to draw it a touch earlier than 'the Player's unlimited imagination.' ; )​

Ars Magica has a distinctive "wizards as scientists" feel, much more so than something like D&D, by virtue of emphasizing the way a wizard researches his spells and conducts his arcane experiments. How important is that going to be in Years of Conquest?

It will be as important as the player chooses to make it. Certainly, if they do not engage in these kinds of activities, their mages will not be as powerful as they have the potential to be. Of course, an enterprising player can get around this through trade with other Covenants, but even if you want to do nothing but focus on your grogs and companions, you can reach the end of the game by doing just that. Don't expect to do very well in the Magic or Faerie realms, though...​

Can you introduce our readers to the game's setting and backstory? What kind of main plot objective(s) will it have?

Certainly- the game opens in 1000 A.D., at the formation of a Covenant in the Weald of Sussex. At this time, this is actually covered by the Andredeswald, an ancient and primeval wood little populated or travelled. We can't spoil the main story yet (it's a mystery you'll have to solve), but suffice to say it involves ten very powerful, very old oaths.​

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Do you plan to implement certámen (ritual magi dueling)? If so, how will you represent it?

It does appear, yes, and will be using the 5E rules. It has a specialized version of the combat system to represent it.​

Spell botches add a colorful "wild card" element to casting in Ars Magica, but are heavily reliant on storyguide adjudication and imagination in the moment. What role will botches play in Years of Conquest?

Botches do appear, but they draw from tables based on the Arts used. There is a whole, deep system which could be created for Botches, but that would have to come in a stretch goal, if demanded.​

The Kickstarter page mentions that your newest engine allows you to implement spontaneous magic. Can you elaborate on how that is going to work?

Sure- every screen has a context, and some of them (Dialogues, in particular) have more than one. Within these contexts, certain Spell Effects are available for casting- if you know an appropriate Spell, you can cast it right away. If you do not, you can use Spontaneous Magic to do the same. Your use of these magics, though, is all dependent on what you are doing, and where you are.​

Companions and grogs can provide some of the most interesting character development and interaction in Ars Magica's "Troupe" system. What role will companions and grogs play in the development of the covenant?

They play an essentially equal role in Covenant gameplay. The role they take in Adventures and Combat depends on if you bring them along- you can form parties drawing from almost everyone at the Covenant. You can leave your mages at home, too, if you wish. Sometimes that may be a good idea. ; )​

Will the roles of filii and parentes ("children" and "parents" magi) play a role in covenant development, or are all magi of a covenant considered to be free of those relationships?

They do play a role, but a very minor one, mostly related to the Longevity Ritual, which is what allows mages to extend their life.​

How will you go about recruiting followers and managing their relationships? What kind of personalities and traits will your followers have?

New Covenfolk are presented to you at key points in the game, and you have a few (Adventure related) ways to acquire unique ones. They have pretty divergent personalities, but like Abilities, you are able to 'train' them to be weaker or stronger. It's not an exact science, though, and good or bad things can happen when you try it. This is actually a facet of the game we're quite proud of: directing two mages with opposing personality traits (methodical vs. intuitive, as an example) has the potential of giving rise to an unexpected Adventure, sending your Covenant off in an unanticipated direction. It can be good, too, if you have compatible mages together.

Traits themselves are divided into two categories: opposing and dramatic (they trigger in any situation.)​

How will Years of Conquest's turn-based combat be presented, and what combat mechanics do you currently have in mind? Is it single character or party-based? What are the options the player will have in combat, and how does your environment come into play?

It's a pretty unique party system, adapted from Academagia Year 2. As mentioned earlier, it is very old school: your foes are presented on one end, and your party on the other, and you act according to 5E initiative. What sets it apart, however, is the Environment. This is a pool of factors, constantly changing and refreshing, which advantages and disadvantages all combatants. Where you go in the Environment, and what you do there can provide you the means of survival- only the most hardy or well protected warrior can ignore the Environment, and even then, probably not for very long. It also turns on and off Spell/Spontaneous Magic options- if an opponent is sniping from a bush, you can set it on fire. If an opponent has taken shelter in a building, you use the furniture to attack them. Is it raining? Change it to acid. And so on.​

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According to the Kickstarter page, "stories, opportunities, armies, and crafty agents of your foes will appear on the world map, and you must decide which challenges to face, and which to allow to go by." Are we looking at an event-based gameplay here, i.e., different events might appear at the same time and you have to choose among them? Does that also mean there will be numerous distinct routes through the game?

Yes and no; certain events occur as specific times, and you must choose between them. Others are procedurally determined, and are based on your Covenant's traits. By the end, Years of Conquest will have the replayability you'd expect from our other titles: in other words, a huge amount. ; )​

Your Kickstarter pitch also talks about "new generations" that arise "as the years age everyone." Does it mean a playthrough is not limited to a single main character, but continues with a new generation? How will the coming of a new generation work?

The main character, meaning the mage the player creates, does not die during our time frame. Or, rather, if they do, that's the end of the game. Everyone else, however, can and (apart from other mages you might recruit) will die. Depending on the destinies you have them fill, they might marry and have children, or die without issue- in the first case, you have new Covenfolk already. In the second... well, better recruit the next time you have the chance. : )

You can actually play the whole game as a hermit, but we wouldn't recommend it.​

In Academagia, the player often had to spend time grinding for specific skill levels. How do you balance the Ars Magica CRPG to make character development meaningful and at the same time avoid excessive grinding?

Ars Magica, like the tabletop game, has periods of Covenant activity and periods of Adventure- it will be up to you to decide how best to prepare and act in each stage. You still will be able to succeed at Adventures even if you are not well prepared, but if you really want good results, you'll have to spend some time researching spells, training and developing magic items- but we feel that with the use of Spontaneous Magic in the game, Player grinding will be fairly focused, since they'll have access to buffs and alternate routes when they want them. The goal is to be more flexible about means of success: Destinies, Abilities, Covenant Traits, Personalities and Spells/Items will all be valid means of overcoming Adventures.​

When you say that "if you really want good results, you'll have to spend some time researching spells, training and developing magic items," it brings to mind the calendar management in Academagia, where training was a matter of selecting an option from a drop-down menu and waiting for you skills to improve, which could be criticized for not really being an exciting kind of gameplay. Will Years of Conquest use a similar system for training and research?

No, in Years of Conquest individual actions are mapped to icons for easy use. We don't envision too many menus, except, perhaps, for Spell/Item Creation. Part of this is a reaction to the feedback we had on Academagia, but another part is the rules themselves lend to neat organization.​

For Years of Conquest, you are working under license from Atlas Games, the publisher of the PnP Ars Magica. Have you already purchased the license from them, or is it conditional on the success of your Kickstarter? How closely are you going to be working with them, and will you have to submit the game's story and design to Atlas for approval?

We have already obtained the license, and they have already approved the design- we sought that before we went to KickStarter, actually. We are working very collaboratively with their team. Since our game is meant to be canon, we'll be continuing that relationship into production. After all, we want to create the definitive and authentic Ars Magica adaptation. ; )​

You also say you will be working with "established Ars Magica authors so that, as much as possible, the game itself can be considered canon." Who are the authors you are cooperating with and what exactly will they do on the game?

This is more of a question for Atlas Games, alas! We're working with David Chart, the Line Editor, and John Nephew, the President, at this moment. Should we be funded, they'll be pointing us to their team, I would think. We've heard from several writers, just saying hello, but no decisions have been made yet.​

To conclude this interview, what have you got planned as far Kickstarter updates are concerned? Do you intend to release screenshots of Years of Conquest's gameplay or UI before the campaign is over? And most importantly, have you got a plan B in the unfortunate case that your Kickstarter falls short of the funding goal?

We have quite a few more updates in the works, in which we introduce the gameplay concepts, especially for players new to Ars Magica. We'll be producing a set of concept screenshots, as well, with the first out next tuesday. This one will be showing what a Dialogue looks like, and how Spontaneous Magic options will appear. In a way, we already have Plan B under steam: we are presently working on Academagia Year 2, along with an unannounced project, now in the editing phase. Unfortunately, we would not be able to proceed with an Ars Magica game without funding- it's a costly endeavor. We feel confident so far: KickStarter is the place where the indies of the indies can succeed, and if the fans want an Ars Magica game done *right*, this is the way to accomplish it. So far, we've heard from some very passionate fans, and that gives us a lot of hope that the people we want to make this game for are out there.​

Thank you for your time.

Be sure to visit the game's Kickstarter page to study the reward tiers and contribute if you'd like to support the game.

We are grateful to Josh Sawyer for contributing to the interview. Special thanks are also due to Grunker and Jaesun for their feedback and comments.

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