Ars Magica (published by Atlas Games) is one of those games that I’ve heard of, over and over again for many years, but never read or played. The basic premise is pretty simple. The setting is basically Europe in the year 1220. The catch is that this is a “Mythic Europe,” where myths and legends are true. The game is centered around an organization known as the Order of Hermes, which is a loose confederation of wizards of various sorts. The game is known primarily for its comprehensive magic system, and its “troupe” style of roleplaying, both of which will be discussed.
Let’s start with the physical book itself. The cover consists of several elements. At the center are three entangled snakes, each with a symbol on its head: an axe, an ankh, and an apple. Sadly, after reading the book, I still can’t explain the significance of this. Around the snakes are twelve portraits of wizards, each representing one of the houses of the Order of Hermes. Around them are four boxes, one with an angel, a second with a dragon, a third with a devil, and the fourth features a faerie. These represent the Realms of Power, which at the game’s essence are what make this Mythic Europe as opposed to just plain old Europe. The Realms are of the Divine, Magic, Infernal, and Faerie, respectively. The cover indicates that the game was created by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein-Hagen. David Chart, who designed the 5th edition, is only mentioned on the back cover.
I really like the cover design, even though the art itself leaves something to be desired. It’s got a very iconic look, and the entire line of 5th edition sourcebooks follow suit. My only real complaint is that the title doesn’t seem to stand out enough. That’s an odd thing to say, given the size of the title, the font, the color, etc. But somehow it just doesn’t jump out at me. My eye is instinctively drawn to the center of the design, to the small triangle all the snakes are facing.
The interior of the book is not in full-color, nor is it in grayscale. Instead of gray, they went with red, which is yet another thing to distinguish the book from any competition (text is still black and quite readable). I loved this concept at first, but the more I read, the more the color bugged me. I think it is ultimately more distracting than anything, and I’d much prefer a copy in standard black and white or grayscale. There’s plenty of art throughout, though again, most of it comes in red or pink. The quality of the art ranges from pretty good to pretty bad. The book is filled with charts and other sidebars, most of which I consider to be quite useful.
The setting, once again, is Mythic Europe in the year 1220. There is plenty of advice for running an historically accurate game, one that plays as a more generic medieval Europe, or in a setting that has nothing to do with Europe at all, but the game assumes that Mythic Europe will be your playground. Europe is Mythic due to the influence of the Realms of Power mentioned earlier. The Divine Realm is the realm of God, and is the most powerful. I must say I am impressed by the game’s use of real world religions (Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths). They treat them with respect while still managing to integrate faith into the game world. The designers don’t step on anyone’s toes, and players are encouraged to decide for themselves how much religion to infuse their games with, and exactly how it will be portrayed. That’s a breath of fresh air compared to the many other games that shy away from religion with the fear that they may offend.
The Divine Realm is offset by the Infernal Realm which, predictably, contains demons and devils who all work to undermine and/or destroy mankind. The Faerie Realm seems to be born from mankind’s dreams and emotions, both positive and negative, and the faerie seem to provide an interesting dichotomy with mundane people. The Realm of Magic is the realm of possibilities, and this is where the Order of Hermes fits in.
The Order is made up of humans born with the Gift and trained how to use it. The Gift is their innate ability to warp reality to their will. It is magic. But the Gift comes with some drawbacks, most notable being that it inspires mistrust in everyone the mage meets. This is why wizards surround themselves with mundanes that they can trust, who then represent the magi in dealings with the outside world. This is also part of the reasoning for the troupe play style, which we’ll get to soon. These small societies, made up of a handful of mages and their mundane associates, are called covenants, and each covenant is a part of the Order of Hermes.
With the basics of the setting out of the way, let’s look at the book in detail, chapter by chapter, and discuss what we find there.
Chapter One is the Introduction, where we learn a bit about the setting, what roleplaying is, and the basics of the system. What I did not realize on my first read through is that this is not really the basics of the system. It is the system. Roll a d10, add Characteristic and Ability, then compare the result to an Ease Factor (difficulty). Looks pretty easy (and is, in fact, very similar to other games designed by Tweet). But then there’s a Stress Die, which the book doesn’t make very clear is rolled in stressful situations instead of the basic roll mechanic. The stress die works very much like a simple die roll, except that if a 0 is rolled, it does not count as 10, as is normal. Instead, the total is 0 (regardless of Characteristic and Ability), and you roll botch dice for further bad results. It notes that sometimes botch dice aren’t rolled, and you can roll from 1 to 10 botch dice, but how you determine how many you roll is unclear. There’s a nearby chart that gives some loose ideas, and I suppose the GM decides how many botch dice are appropriate based on that, but it’s pretty vague. A stress die that rolls a 1 yields favorable results, in the form of rolling the die again and doubling the result. Thus, a stress die can be a good or a bad thing, or be treated just like a regular die roll (on a result of 2-9).
Chapter Two is all about the Order of Hermes, from its foundation by the magus Bonisagus to present day. Though, truth be told, the history is pretty weak. The foundation is covered quite well, but the almost 500 years that follow are condensed to less than a page’s worth of events. There’s a short write-up for each of the current twelve houses of the Order, as well as the complete Hermetic Oath that all members must recite. There’s information on Tribunals (the interior organization of the Order) and how the Order relates and deals with various aspects of mundane society (peasants, the Church, nobility, etc.). The information in this chapter is all really good, though the chapter itself is only seven pages long. This means that each topic is touched on, but it feels like a lot more information could be included.
I suppose I should briefly touch on troupe play, before heading into the next chapter. Mages are very powerful characters, and a group of them would have very little trouble with just about any situation. This, mixed with the fact that they generally prefer to stay in their laboratories working on various projects, and therefore won’t be journeying together often. To facilitate this, every player creates a magus. Every player also creates a companion, one of the mundane people associated with the covenant made up by the magi. Adventures typically focus on one player’s magus, with the other players running their companions. Next adventure, a different player runs his magus, and so each gets his or her turn. There’s also a third character level, called grogs. Grogs are the lesser characters of a covenant. They could be of any profession that makes sense, even those held by companions. The difference is that grogs have little or no value to the story, and therefore can be passed between players as needed. This method of play, where each player controls two or more main characters (though not at the same time) and any number of lesser grogs, and the spotlight passes so each magi gets a chance to lead the story, is one of the aspects of Ars Magica that makes it unique. Though you don’t have to use this style, by any means.
The third chapter deals with characters, both what the various pieces of the character sheet mean and how to create them. Characteristics consist of Intelligence, Perception, Strength, Stamina, Presence, Communication, Dexterity, and Quickness. These are rated from -3 to +3, with 0 being average. Abilities are the skills characters can learn, and are rated with positive numbers. Adding a Characteristic and an Ability to a d10 roll determines if you’re successful in any given task, remember. The system also includes a Reputation mechanic that is simple, yet far better than any other I’ve encountered, making it pretty easy to determine if anyone has heard of the character, and what they’re known for. Characters get Confidence Points as a basic reward mechanic. These points can be spent to receive a bonus to a roll. There are several templates for grogs and companions, and a template for each Hermetic house. These are made to just be picked up and ran, and it is recommended that they be used (rather than generating your own characters) for the first several games, until everyone’s familiar with the rules. The rest of the chapter is dedicated to creating characters from scratch.
Six pages are devoted to character generation. Everything is explained in very brief terms, and if it wasn’t for the example character being created alongside the rules, it would be very hard to comprehend. Lots of point spending. Grogs and companions are pretty straight forward, but magi have some extra steps dealing with their apprenticeship and their life after being accepted to the Order. This mostly deals with spells and magic, and is part of why they suggest using the templates until the system is fully understood. The magic system can be pretty complex, and can seem quite intimidating. A group of players creating characters (a magus and a companion each) can expect to spend a full evening doing so, with most of that time spent on the magi.
The fourth chapter is 30 pages of an extensive collection of Virtues and Flaws. These are your standard advantages and disadvantages, or whatever term you’re most familiar with. There are about 250 of them listed here. There are two points here that I really like. One is that every character needs to select (as Virtue or Flaw) their social status. This can be anything from being a landed noble to a merchant to a branded criminal. Most feature both benefits and drawbacks for your character, but help to form a clear idea of who your character is, and how others might react to him. The second thing I like are what the game calls Story Flaws. While I disagree with calling them Flaws, I like what they are and what they do. I’ll just quote the book here: “Story Flaws are background features which can drag the character into stories.” Some examples include Diabolic Past, Feud, Mistaken Identity, Oath of Fealty, True Love, Blackmail, Heir, or Visions. Basically, these are ways for the GM (or Storyguide in Ars Magica) to tie your character into the story. As befits the troupe play style, the game suggests each adventure should incorporate one and only one of these Story Flaws, and the next adventure should use one from a different character.
Chapter Five details the Abilities characters can learn. Nothing truly noteworthy here.
Chapter Six is about covenants, the small groups of magi that in turn make up the Tribunals which make up the Order of Hermes. It is assumed that all the PCs are of a single covenant, which is a physical place as well as an association of people. There are (very briefly explained) sample covenants for a troupe to use as-is or adapt to suit their needs. There are also guidelines for creating one from scratch. I say guidlines here because there are no rules. While I appreciate the respect for players this makes evident (trusting them to create a covenant that will help bring interesting stories, instead of being able to overcome any threat), I think rules would help the creation process, especially since so many terms and traits are poorly explained, or not explained at all! It’s one thing for the Characters chapter to tell you not to create a magus until you’ve read and understand the chapter on magic. This chapter says things like “Books are described on page 165, Lab Texts on page 101, and vis and its uses in the Hermetic Magic, Laboratory, and Long-Term Events chapters. Enchanted items are described under ‘Magical Enchantments’ on page 95.” Yes, in the space of two sentences, it refers you to three different pages and three different non-consecutive chapters, just to learn about what you’re trying to create.
Hermetic Magic is the topic of Chapter Seven, and is the heart of the Ars Magica system. It really is pretty simple. It’s one of those “easy to learn, impossible to master” type concepts. Magi learn (and have ratings in) Techniques and Forms. Techniques tell you what effects you can perform (such as Creo: “I create”), while Forms dictate what you can manipulate with magic (like Ignem: “fire”). You combine them to generate an effect (Creo Ignem would conjure fire or smoke, for example). Also explained in this chapter is Wizard’s Twilight, which can affect magi as the power of magic courses through them. Twilight is a dream-like state which can last anywhere from two minutes to more than seven years. It can be seen as the consequence for dealing so closely with so much magical power, but that’s not necessarily true.
Chapter Eight deals with the wizard’s laboratory. Each magi is assumed to have his own lab in the covenant, and it’s here that long-term goals are dreamed of and, in many cases, accomplished. When a magi doesn’t go adventuring with the other PCs, it’s assumed that it’s because he’s busy working in his lab. Here, a magi can learn or invent new spells, enchant items, stave off death for a longer life, write lab texts, etc. This is where the book becomes almost unreadable. Or, to be more precise, it reads like a math text book. Enchantment alone takes five pages of dense rules to explain.
The ninth chapter is dedicated to spells, and it’s no surprise that this is the longest chapter. Every combination of Technique and Form is given at least a handful of existing spells for your mage to cast, and some of them are quite inventive. Given the fact that this is the fifth edition of a game focused on magic, this is to be expected.
Long-Term Events is the title of Chapter Ten. In this chapter, we look at the standard rules for experience points and how to spend them. This is also where we look at writing books, though it’s never made clear why you’d want to. You can learn from books, so I understand reading them, but I don’t know why I’d want to write a book, when I could be spending time doing other things in my lab. As is now becoming standard, there is a lot of math in this chapter. Warping, which causes Twilight, is finally detailed here, as is aging, which makes this one of very few games in which your character does age, and that can affect abilities or even mean the death of a character.
Chapter Eleven is called Obstacles, though it should probably just be called Combat, as there is about a page of information that does not directly relate to combat in this chapter. While relatively simple, there’s still a lot to keep track of in combat. You attack by rolling a stress die and adding your Dexterity, Combat Ability and any modifier from your weapon (attack total). The defender also rolls a stress die and adds his Quickness, Combat Ability, and any defensive modifier from his weapon (defense total). If the attacker’s roll is higher, he takes the difference between the rolls, adds his Strength and weapon’s damage modifier (damage total), and compares that to the defender’s Stamina plus armor bonus (soak total). The amount by which the damage total beats the soak total determines what level of wound the defender suffers. Pretty basic, but there are still four numbers that need to be calculated and compared for each and every attack, with only the soak total remaining relatively stable and predictable.
Chapter Twelve details the Realms that were mentioned way back at the beginning: Magic, Divine, Faerie, and Infernal. We finally learn about Auras (which is essential to creating a covenant) and how auras of the different Realms interact. Each Realm gets about a page of detail, which in my estimation is not nearly enough. Realms are the heart of the setting. They are the reason this is Mythic Europe. Each Realm has its own sourcebook available, which is ultimately a good thing, but that just tells me that they could have easily given us more information in the core book. There’s also a bit of information on Regiones, which are special types of auras, consisting of different levels of auras of different types within a single area. I can’t really tell you any more about them, because that’s about all I understood.
The Bestiary, as the thirteenth chapter, is a bit of a joke. Eleven creatures do not make a bestiary. There are three creatures from each of the four Realms, each at a different power level. The Divine Realm only gets two entries. All but two of the entries are specific entities, not something that can be used in a pinch for a more generic encounter. For example, if I want a low level combat encounter with a faerie, my option is Mateos, the Faerie Butler.
Mythic Europe finally gets its own chapter. The chapter is quite good at doing what it does, but what it does is not what it advertises. Really, with the exception of the map, the chapter isn’t about Mythic Europe. It’s about adding generic medieval elements to your setting, and encouraging you to go research Europe if you want to include any accurate details.
The final two chapters are about Stories and Sagas. While fairly short, they do give pretty good advice for running a game. The Stories chapter is nicely non-specific to Ars Magica, and is therefore worth reading whatever game you run. The Sagas chapter basically recaps the Mythic Europe chapter, but gives a little more information about the Realms and how to use them. Overall though, it does about the same thing as chapter 14, giving hints about the European setting, and encouraging you to detail it yourself, whether that’s accurately or not. This final chapter is also where the book finally gives some time to the idea of Troupe-Style Roleplaying. Note where I covered that topic in this review. That’s about where this topic should be discussed in the book. You don’t close a book with a key concept.
My overall impressions:
- Visual Design: I won’t normally do this, but in this case I have to split the interior and exterior components. The exterior is wonderful. It is eye-catching and unique (not always the same thing), and captures what the game should feel like. The interior’s red tone helps it stand out, but became bothersome for my eyes, and the art averages around the mediocre level. So I’d rate the exterior highly, but the interior poorly.
- Setting: I’m very intrigued by the setting. Unfortunately, I still don’t know much about it. It looks like there are plenty of sourcebooks to help me with that, but if I don’t have something firm to go on from the core book, then why would I spend money to learn what I should have already. I’d rate this as poor, but with potential.
- System: There’s definitely a very sharp learning curve here. The book gives many suggestions to help, from using the character templates and the sample covenants, but there’s still a lot to learn, with a lot of math to do. None of it hard math, mind you, but still…. I think after playing for a while, it would become quite simple, but like my comments about the setting, I don’t feel I’m given reason enough to pursue that. I’m a pretty smart guy, and parts of this book made me feel like an idiot. Because of that, I have to rate the system poorly.
What it comes down to: run the game, play the game, or pass on the game? Without question, I’d have to pass on the game. While there are aspects I quite like, and as a (hopefully) budding game designer I’m glad I bought it, I would not recommend it to anyone unless they had a very strong desire to play a powerful magic-wielding character in a fantasy setting. Even then, I might suggest something else, like maybe a fantasy adaptation of White Wolf‘s Mage.
Part of my problem with the game may be due to high expectations. When a game has actually been around for 20 years, and been in print for most (if not all) of that time, when a game has reached its fifth edition, I expect some real quality.