Prep Faster, Breathe Easier + City Encounters Contest
From Hannah Lipsky
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0495
- A Brief Word from Johnn
- Prep Faster, Breathe Easier + City Encounters Contest
- A Different Guide to Adventure Writing
- RPG Micro Reviews
A Brief Word from Johnn
New Contest to Celebrate 500 Issues
I received many emails for ideas on how to celebrate 500 issues. Thanks very much. A few I’ve noted and will tackle in the future.
We seem to be on a roll with contests lately. I just received the first round of edits for the pick pockets contents contest (thanks David!) and I’m still chugging away on editing the combat hazards entries (thanks to Rick for editing some!).
One of the suggestions was from Daniel at www.steamcrow.com who said we should do 500 of something, such as 500 random city encounters. That’s pretty ambitious, but it sounds like a great idea. Let’s do it.
I’ve got some prizes lined up, as well, to further celebrate.
How We’ll Get to 500
Send in city encounters 1-3 sentences long. Any genre is welcome, no game rules required. Each encounter should contain some conflict to make it interesting to play.
- A poisonous animal has slipped into a potter’s store and the owner hires the PCs to kill or capture it without breaking any of his wares that line walls and shelves.
- A shadow demon is summoned to assassinate a bard during a performance. The bard sings of the mistakes, ineptness and evil deeds of the PCs. Do they intervene when the attack happens?
- A nervous merchant hires the PCs to escort him and a
- wagon load of goods to the port where his customer waits. Thieves wait until mid-way through the exchange to take advantage of the chaos of port crowds and potential argument of whose gold was just stolen – did the exchange take place before the attack or not?
The theme for prizes this time is “take your pick.”
NBOS software. Winners pick which product they receive.
Kobold Guide to Game Design. Winners decide if they want volume 1, 2, or the just released volume 3. (PDF)
GM Mastery books. Take your pick of Inn Essentials, Holiday Essentials or NPC Essentials. (PDF)
Contest closes July 20. Multiple entries give you more chances to be randomly drawn for a prize. Plus, if 100 RPT fans submit just 5 entries each, 500 entries should be a snap! Let’s try to hit 500 random city encounters to celebrate RPT #500.
Email entries now to [email protected]
Playtest Request from A Reader
RPT reader Erik Luken of Arkayn Games is looking for playtesters for his upcoming fantasy RPG. Interested parties can email Erik at [email protected] He will send you a PDF of the game, along with a brief note of what he’s looking for. All participants would be acknowledged in the book itself.
For more information, visit: http://www.arkayngames.com
Natural Daylight Bulbs Helped
A while ago I asked for tips on improving my dark basement gaming area. We plan on renovating the basement, so I didn’t want to make serious changes that would only get wiped out in the future. I eventually decided to take Dominic Crawford’s tip for a stroll:
Extra bright full spectrum bulbs for existing sockets: http://www.rewci.com/30wablhdfusp.html
There are three things that make this a viable option. First, it’s as simple as it gets to replace light bulbs. You can use a brighter fluorescent bulb than regular incandescent bulbs in most fixtures since they use less electricity for the trade-off.
For example, the bulb linked above uses 30 Watts of power, but puts out the equivalent of 125 Watts of light. Since typical ceiling light sockets are max of 100W of power, this will yield more light per bulb.
Being full spectrum is important, because this simulates daylight more closely. Incidentally, this is great for people’s miniature painting stations!
More on why this is better can be found here, on How Stuff Works: How Daylighting Devices Work.
So I purchased a couple of full spectrum bulbs from Home Depot and installed them. My wan yellow game area is now a pleasant white. I think the sun would be offended if I called it daylight down there, but the bulbs do make a difference. 14% less dingy is a win in my books!
So, if you have a dark area, try these fancy shmancy full spectrum bulbs.
Prep Faster, Breathe Easier + City Encounters Contest
There are tons of tips for how to be a better DM. Most of them involve a lot of time: carefully planning out encounters, documenting plot threads, tracking down the perfect NPC portrait. But even the least prepared DM has still invested a fair amount of time into the game. Many suggestions add to that time considerably.
I realized awhile back that all the extra map making, monster token creating and terrain sculpting were making me dread each week’s session. I believed that if I could do extra prep, I should; I owed it to my players and to myself to be the best DM I could be.
Sure, I love gaming, but before the game there were a couple extra hours of printing and cutting and searching, hours that were hard to carve out of my already busy week. Gaming slipped from each week to every other week, then to as little as once a month.
Then I realized something – my players liked the tokens and terrain, but they liked it even better when we could game every week. My extra prep time translated into extra fun, but was it enough extra fun to make it worth it?
Below are some of the techniques I’ve adopted to get the most in-game fun out of every minute of out of-game prep time.
Bottle Cap Minis
I have some minis, and for a while I found, printed out, cut out, glued, carefully cropped and numbered images of the monsters my party would be fighting.
This took up my time in several ways: not only all the work to create them, but sorting them out before each encounter, and planning encounters carefully to ensure I’d created the right tokens ahead of time. I was using up prep time, using up game time, and limiting my choices.
So I switched to bottle caps. I’ll put down similar-looking ones for similar enemies, and try to vaguely match the theme. Caps with pictures of eagles on them become griffons, and that sort of thing. For large enemies, I cut out 2″x2″ squares of cardboard and put a bottle cap on that.
I know my players miss having pictures of goblins in front of them, and being able to point at the number on the token and say, “I target goblin #2.” But I know they don’t miss waiting an extra minute before each battle for me to find the right tokens, and it’s not much harder to say, “I target the Blue Moon on the left – that’s the goblin with the spear, right?”
Yes, tokens are better and more fun than bottle caps. But now I have several extra hours a week that I can use to make other fun stuff for the game, or just to relax. I no longer have to scramble for the right token or mini, and I can represent any monster the players might encounter.
Was the switch worth it for me? Definitely. Is it worth it for you? That’s up to you.
On the Table? It’s Terrain
If I’m using bottle caps instead of tokens, what about those beautiful maps? There’s nothing quite like a hand-sculpted, hand-painted castle or dungeon. Those epic battles get a lot more epic on paper models of ships or around a ski boot modified to look like the foot of a colossus.
That’s great and all, but that takes a lot of time and money. If you have it, that’s fantastic and your group will surely appreciate it. If you don’t? You can still have fun battles with exciting terrain.
Spare pens and pencils become the walls of buildings. Dice become sculptures, pits or obstacles. Empty boxes of chocolates are pitted walls or tree stumps. Rubber bands laid down next to each other are rivers of lava that cross the battlefield. Pixie sticks are tenuous rope bridges across the chasms.
I’m not saying you need to scour your house to find the right impromptu terrain. I’m saying, just don’t clear off the table as thoroughly before you game.
Table Books, Prep PDFs
A minor but frequent annoyance was schlepping all my books around the house. I kept them upstairs on a bookshelf in my room, took them over to my couch whenever I was preparing for a game, then brought them down and spread them out on the table whenever it was game time.
The maps kept ending up in different places. I always had to scramble for the right dice bag. Pens and pencils floated around constantly. When the game was over I’d have to schlep it all back. Sound familiar?
I finally gave up and cleared out an area on our game shelf downstairs. All the books, maps, minis, pens, pencils, dice and sundry go there at the end of the game. At the start of the game, I take them out and move them the five feet to the table. If the other DM who lives with me wants to borrow my DM screen for his game, he knows where to find it – and where to put it back.
But how do I prep without my books? Well, I use my laptop for prepping anyway. I type up plot notes and NPC stats, then print them off. So now I use .pdfs of my gaming books to prep. I don’t have to move my books around, and I still have all the information I need.
This might not be viable if the books you use aren’t available in PDF, in which case consider photocopying the pages you most often reference. It’s been a significant time saver not to be always moving my books around and then looking for where I left them last.
Reuse Random Encounters
My party used to fight a lot of hyenas. The PCs got demolished the first few times, but slowly got to the point where the sight of hyenas didn’t quite fill them with raving terror. A couple months later, I was unprepared for a session, so am I threw a few hyenas at the party again. Unsurprisingly, the now higher level party mopped the floor with the hyenas.
They loved it.
That encounter showed them, more than anything, how much they’d improved over the course of the campaign. Both in levels, and in terms of tactics.
Now I make a habit of occasionally reusing challenging encounters to show them how much better they’ve gotten, and to let them take a break from tough fights.
When the monsters constantly scale with the party it’s hard for them to feel like their power level has changed at all. Reusing old encounters fixes that, and gives you a few encounters’ less of prep to do.
Never cancel a game for lack of prep. Sure, prep can make your game better. Prep usually does make your game better. Players appreciate well put together sessions and elaborate props. I’m certainly not discouraging you from pouring hours of prep into your game; if you have the time and it makes you happy, go for it.
But your players would rather you wing a session with bottle caps and scraps than have to miss a game because you were afraid it would be less than perfect.
A Different Guide to Adventure Writing
From Jared Hunt
In response to the excellent article by James Edward Raggi IV in RPT #489
I enjoyed James’ article and he makes a lot of good points. I couldn’t help but feel, however, that his article presents a method for adventure design that could be considered adversarial. While many groups will relish this style, I know there are many people who enjoy a different type of game. This article follows James’ layout but presents an opposing viewpoint that may or may not fit the needs of your group.
Success and Failure
The most important thing to remember when constructing an adventure is it should be fun for everyone. You’re playing a roleplaying *game*, after all. As a GM, your job is to ensure that every element you include is calculated to achieve that goal.
You have absolute power at the gaming table and can bequeath success or failure at any time. Using this power too much will remove incentives to play well. Not using it at all ignores the potential this power has to improve the flow of the story and increase the amount of fun experienced by everyone participating.
An important part of GMing a game is deciding when to fudge the dice. As a player it sucks to die to pure bad luck despite having a good plan and solid tactics. The possibility of death should always be present, but it should be reserved for occasions of poor planning or foolishness rather than random chance. Having an entire storyline collapse because of a single poor dice roll is not fun for anyone. Conversely, feel free to have certain actions succeed despite poor dice rolls if the player put a lot of thought or exceptional roleplaying into them.
So what are the consequences of deciding to play this way?
The party is just lost and sitting around because they didn’t find the secret door that leads to the next section of the dungeon? No problem. It either doesn’t get explored or you place the contents somewhere else another time.
The party missed a vital clue and has no idea where to turn next in a murder investigation? Maybe an old contact calls them with a tip? Maybe the killer gets away. No matter what happens, the important thing is to either provide the players with the information or move on quickly. Your players are not professional, trained investigators – providing a little outside assistance allows them to celebrate their characters rather than making them feel inadequate.
There are too many options to choose from, the players are disorganized and can’t agree on an option and look to the GM for guidance? Easy. My favorite solution is to call for some sort of diplomacy check from each character and allow the player with the highest score decide what to do next. This may not please all your players, but chances are you’ll have fewer people using Charisma as a dump stat in your next campaign.
One of the big advantages of this style is your hard work on an adventure never goes to waste. It is important to realize that, to the human mind, the illusion of choice is exactly the same as real choice. It only becomes an issue if you tell the players what you did. As long as they aren’t aware that the room they just searched in this building is exactly the same as the one they didn’t explore in the last building, they’ll be happy to uncover the clue or find the treasure, and you’ll have saved a bunch of work by not having to reinvent the wheel for each game session.
Playing this way means that the game won’t just stop at any time because a random disastrous result brings the mission to an abrupt end. If things in the game have gone badly for the group, allow a few characters to die or get captured. They should feel the pressure of their bad luck or bad choices, but a TPK is rarely the most fun option.
Every adventure must have situations that directly and truly threaten the goals and values of the characters participating. This will usually, but not necessarily, involve a threat to their lives as well. If there is no true threat, it is not an adventure, it’s a tour.
As long as it fits the premise and style of your campaign, feel free to create situations specifically designed to kill characters. This often comes in the form of a monster or trap that’s way too tough. Avoid “save or die” situations though. Killing characters off through arbitrary situations where their fate is decided by a single roll is not the way to encourage players to invest in their characters.
When you create especially deadly situations, make sure the characters have plenty of warning. This accomplishes two things:
- It tells them that the world isn’t scaled so they can kill everything.
- It prevents them from stumbling into a lethal situation and feeling like there was no way they could have prevented it.
Choices in an adventure are made meaningful when the players believe they are significantly altering the flow of events taking place. An adventure should never dictate a character’s choices (or their thoughts or feelings).
I stand by my statement, however, that the illusion of choice is exactly the same as real choice so long as the players believe in it. This may sound dishonest, but it is actually just good storytelling. Everyone participating in a roleplaying game is willingly suspending their disbelief in many ways to make the game work. Respecting and using that suspension of disbelief is what makes a great GM.
Another hallmark of great storytelling and great GMing is the posing of interesting and engaging choices. The best of these are always forced on the heroes – either forcing them to choose between things they want (but can only have one of) or between things they don’t want (but have to choose one of).
I strongly support the trend in adventure design to provide prompts when players are stuck. This causes the entire group to be biased toward action, and provides a strong incentive for the players to work *with* the GM. The players retain control of their character destiny by choosing how to react to the prompts, but it keeps you from having to deal with the player who might otherwise be bored because nothing is happening.
The GM’s job is to facilitate (not provide) excitement for her playing group. She is responsible for the setting and can therefore cause virtually anything to happen. If the players are taking no actions and not interacting with the setting, the GM should feel free to have the setting take action itself via the environment or through NPCs. Allowing the players to sit around idly ignores the options a GM has and is a waste of everyone’s time.
Many groups enjoy a “scout the next room, ambush the beasties, collect the loot and retreat back to camp and get spells back” method. If they’re really enjoying this pattern, great! It’s still worthwhile, however, to mix things up with wandering monsters, traps that isolate them from camp and time sensitive encounters. Allow the group to dictate what is most fun for them, but don’t allow them to become complacent.
With few exceptions it’s not usually worth keeping a strict record of time or encumbrance. While it’s possible that the decisions players are making would reduce their characters to a snail’s pace, don’t feel obligated to punish them for it. Remember, this is a *game*. If everyone is having fun, don’t mess with it!
So, you’ve heard a bunch of philosophy. Now it’s time to put it together into a kickass dungeon! (Of course, these principles can be applied to non-dungeon environments as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.)
The first thing to remember is the usefulness of thinking in terms of encounters. While adventures should be flowing, natural sequences of events, encounters allow you to organize the discrete portions of the adventure in a manageable and fun way.
The simple fact is that the time between encounters is usually pretty boring, and you should feel free to think like an action movie director and skip to the exciting parts. Some GMs get caught up in trying to create tension during movement between encounters but, more often than not, it simply kills the pace of the adventure.
Think of your adventure design as a loose flowchart. Each encounter has ways in, options for interaction (e.g. combat) and ways out. Try to anticipate the most obvious actions the players may choose, but realize they’ll usually surprise you, and be ready to improvise.
One of the greatest appeals of the dungeon environment is that each part of the encounter is pretty defined: the door is the way in, fighting the monsters and taking their stuff is the interaction, and the next door is the way out. The further your adventure strays from pure dungeon-crawling, the more you have to be ready and willing to adapt.
Any situation that involves combat and deadly traps could result in character death. This shouldn’t be happening constantly, but it should be possible if the players are foolish and hasty. When it happens, try to come up with a replacement character as soon as possible. It might be necessary to stretch willing suspension a little, but the important thing is to get the player back involved.
Make sure your adventure contains challenges for every class in the party, but avoid throwing out challenges they can’t reasonably overcome. While this is obviously not realistic, it rewards the choices players have made with their characters and makes for a much more fulfilling experience.
Avoid creating challenges that require a specific spell to overcome. This is especially true if it will mean the party has to retreat and camp so they can memorize the correct spell. This sort of design slows pacing and encourages players to agonize over every spell choice. Conversely, if you have a player who loves this sort of guessing game, feel free to reward him for his attention to detail by having cool ways for him to use spells that might otherwise have been considered “useless”.
Be sure you have lots of variation in your encounter design. Mix up encounters with lots of weak enemies, encounters with a single powerful foe, a few moderate enemies and so on. Create groups of enemies that can support one another in combat. Incorporate traps and environmental hazards into your encounters. Make sure the residents of a location take full advantage of natural features. In short, keep the players on their toes.
When the battle is over, give the players their rewards. A treasure that can’t be transported is not a reward at all. It’s just annoying. It might be amusing to disguise the value of a piece of treasure once in a while, but overuse of this trick is just frustrating for your players.
Random encounters can be a wonderful tool. They add variety to adventures and keep players from feeling too safe when they’re in a dungeon environment. A few fun options to keep in mind for your random encounter table:
- Environmental hazards like rock slides, floods, lightning
- Neutral and non-combat encounters with potential allies or resources
- An obviously overwhelming encounter the party needs to retreat from
Keep in mind the other advice in this essay when using random encounters. They exist to increase the amount of fun everyone is having. If you roll something on your chart and judge that it isn’t appropriate, either roll again or treat it as a no encounter result.
For the most part, if you roll a random encounter that you’re sure will prevent the party from finishing the adventure, it’s probably better to ignore it. The point of the game, after all, is to allow the players to bring their characters to a satisfying climax for the adventure. Allowing a random event to spoil an epic conclusion is poor storytelling.
RPG Micro Reviews
via the Yahoo GMMastery group http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gmmastery/
Thanks to Al Beddow and Eric FitzMedrud for reprint permission.
3d6 roll low for skill tests, d6 is all you need for the game. Every little thing is built using the same system, from a butter knife to a trans galactic passenger liner. That’s also it’s flaw. In 5th ed., a simple umbrella was 70 pt.
There are two levels of play, heroic and super-heroic. In fantasy/modern, the lower point value, Heroic, where you pay for your gear in money not character points; and higher point-value, Super-Heroic, where your gear is paid for with your character points.
Warning: This game uses 12-second rounds broken into 12 segments. Your speed determines how many times you act in a round AND which specific segments that is (and those are called your “Phases”). Not bad, but if all you know is d20 takes some adjustment.
3d6 roll low for skill tests, d6 is all you need for the game.
Third ed. had a great library of generic and setting specific books. But SJ Games had a horrible time with quality control, and reprinting a book with a newer looking cover that people bought thinking it was an update.
Compendiums I and II came from tiny rules that had a different implementation across dozens of books and were finally consolidated into those books of rules.
4th solves a lot of that by being focused on what is put out, although not nearly at the pace originally promised. My only problem was with the “Powers” book, which is where things like super hero powers come from. The first few pages’ sound like double-speak to me.
Note: Either way, the GM must first carefully go through all the advantages, disadvantages and skills to weed out what they don’t want, and to set tech levels and scope for the latter. The “symbols” on advantages don’t tell the entire story.
Example: 4th ed. ability to ‘eat less’ can take you from just twice a day at lowest level to like once a month or more at the higher point costs. Not a symbol on it and I got stuck with a player wanting to eat once a week so he could save on food.
Warning: One second rounds, not six-second rounds. If you do NOT get this across to your players, you will have problems. I’ve had to re-teach a few people how to play when a certified SJGames MIB and GURPS GM ran games for people and they were literally cursing at the company months later.
3rd and 4th ed. had/have them. Free download or you can get reprinted for free but you pay shipping. 32 pages. Not bad.
Roll the two dice indicated by the applicable skill and ability, roll high. Uses a standard set of D&D-like dice.
Nice little system. Floating Target Numbers (TN) and you roll two dice determined by your attribute and skill as called for by the GM. Lots of great stuff for Serenity. I have it all and use it in my Savage Firefly and Traveller Serenity games (conversion to these systems aren’t that bad).
There is even a generic core book out, but as I understand it, people buy which of the three games they want. Meant to be light and fast paced. Action points.
Roll the one die as indicated by the applicable skill/Ability (plus Wild Cards get the extra separate d6), roll high. Uses a standard set of D&D-like dice.
Excellent system from the people who brought you Deadlands. There is a “Savaged” Deadlands from the company called “Deadlands: Reloaded”. Similar in char creation to Cortex, point buy for die size on abilities and skills, you take Hindrances to get Edges.
Experience points are based on how much was accomplished/session length, not on what you kill. Every five skill points you can buy an Edge or raise a skill or two (depending on what you choose to do) or even raise an ability one die.
Only one die is ever rolled for skill or attribute (Trait roll), but players and specified “wild cards” (named NPCs) all get to roll an additional d6 with their roll to attack or use a skill, and the d6 result can replace your regular die if it is better.
Target number is always four, and every four you get above that is a “Raise,” which makes things more effective.
Note: This is a game where the core rulebook is $10 and in digest form. The Fantasy Companion and Super-Hero Companion are digest form at $20, but very worth it.
Savage Worlds Lite
Available in the free downloads currently called “Test Drive v6.” You can also download for free the Savage Worlds-based rules for miniature games, which follow the core SW very closely.
Roll 2d6, modifiers always on the die roll, 8+ is always a success. d6s only required to play.
The newest incarnation of the classic and original Sci-Fi RPG. Based off the classic rules to keep the purist happy, with plenty of updated and new material for the modern gamer. Your character doesn’t die in character creation, but you have a character with a full background by the time you are done.
The game originally was rules and setting tied together in one set of rules. Now it is rules and setting separate. Of course, the original setting has influence on the current rules, but the split allowed Mongoose to create d20-system-like OGL/SRD for people to publish within the mechanics.
Combat is fast and furious with plenty of role play opportunities.
Warning: NO experience system. Your character is living out their life in the universe, making their way and fortune (or not). You improve skills through training, which if you bother, can be done fairly easily. There are other settings for the system put out by Mongoose (like Judge Dread) and other companies are publishing for it as well.
Mongoose sells a “Book 0” (just like the old days) for $10 (I forget what the PDF goes for.) Buy the PDF of the main book, you get light years more for the small price increase over the printed Book 0.
4dF (that’s 4 fudge dice that are 6-sided with 2 blanks, 2 minuses, and 2 pluses on each die) run the game. Attributes and skills are adjective based, typically on a 7-point range including Terrible, Poor, Mediocre, Fair, Good, Great, and Superb. These can be modified as the GM sees fit.
Successes thresholds are set by the GM. “You need a Great result to succeed” and you roll the dice (with results from -4 to +4) to modify your skill to find out if you reached the result. That is, a +1 on a “good” skill would give you a “great” result.
The system was designed to be generic enough to easily run everything from Bunnies and Burrows to Superheroes once a conversion algorithm is developed by the GM. Capable of handling every kind of character creation method you would like, from narrative to point buy.
Major differences in capacities, like the variation in strength from a bunny to a human, can be handled using different narrative scales for the different types of creatures. (For example, ogre strength is +1 compared to humans, so even a mediocre strength ogre is a match for a fair strength human).
Modifiable for the level of realism, crunchiness, or narrative base you would like. The modifiability is the major strength and weakness of the system. Once you begin to tinker, to get exactly the right system that you have always wanted, you’ll just keep tinkering and tinkering and tinkering.
The basic set is free, which includes one simple form of the game called 5-point Fudge. You can also purchase the 10th anniversary edition with a lot of additional specialized combat rules and equipment lists.
I used Fudge to adapt Broomstix, and my 6-year old and I played Quidditch with it. It can be that simple if you want it to be.
Prose Descriptive Qualities
I have to admit I’ve never played this system but I love it anyway. It is the core rules for Ninja, Pirate, Monkey, Robot and Dead Inside.
2d6 to run the system, which uses simple narrative based qualities to determine the capacities of the character. For example, I might be an Expert Paleontologist, an average Father, and a Poor Mechanic. Something core to my Paleontology skill like identifying dino bones I use my skill as is, but if I tried doing something less core to that skill like writing poetry (something an educated person might be able to do but not well without more experience) I might receive a penalty for.
The game includes a mechanic for getting a bonus on rolls for being more descriptive of your actions called “being a badass.” The mechanic for resolving conflicts can be applied to anything from convincing the police officer to not giving you a traffic ticket to combat.
This game is only as flexible as you are willing to take narrative gaming. There aren’t equipment lists or monster bestiaries. This is a system about telling a story in whatever genre you are looking for.
It really doesn’t get much more lite than a 13-page core rule book.
Unfortunately, I’ve only played 3rd edition. In 3rd edition you played Troupe Style, which means everybody has a mage character (Gandalf stuff where spell duration is until the next moon and you could shrivel acres of crops in a few seconds), but you take turns GMing. When it’s your turn you do not play your PC.
Players also have Companions, which are like D&D characters, and officers to the Grogs. The whole group shares Grogs, which are like grunts.
In a typical adventure, one player’s Magi is chosen to take part and everyone else uses their Companions. The whole group shares the Grogs that come along like an RTS video game. Though, we tended to adopt them as personal PCs as well.
Actions are d10 based. Combat is more cinematic, less tactical. It’s usually fast because stuff is lethal and healing is slow.
Magi learn verbs and nouns and match them up to cast spells ad hoc (Wonder Twin Powers activate!) or by using the pre-fab spells supplied in the rules. Spells start weak and get up to level 50.
In addition to the cool Troupe style play, the group shares a Covenant. This is the home base, like a massive tower in a remote forest or a cave complex beneath a city. The covenant is the true character in the game, and a campaign is expected to last 500+ years in game time. So, goal #1 is to make the Covenant survive then thrive. Goal #2 is to achieve your magi’s missions and goals (often accomplished through research and sub-plot, not by adventuring).
The way we played, Companions were Goal #3. Being D&D grognards, we enjoyed seeing these PCs adventure, get rewards, gain skills.
The game is set in Mythic Europe, but we played in a modified Greyhawk setting. It’s intended there’s a balance and inherent tension between nobility (with their generals and armies), the church (and its powerful divine miracle casters and followers) and the magi (who are very powerful individually but get hunted down by the other two factions with torches and pitchforks).
There are many other cool aspects to the game that drive plots and character development.