I first came across Ars Magica in the early ’90s, and it was one of the games we tried soon after leaving behind AD&D. It was a refreshingly different take on fantasy (at least for us), and it remains one of my favourite RPGs to this day.
The core idea behind Ars Magica is that magi are the most powerful and versatile options available for players, so everyone gets to play a magus. There’s absolutely no attempt to balance things out – from the start, a magus can throw lightning bolts, teleport vast distances and level whole villages.
Because of this, Ars Magica focuses on troupe play – everyone plays more than one character. Everyone has a magus, but they also get to generate and play a Companion character. Companions are effectively the other character classes in standard fantasy games – warriors, rangers, bards, rogues and so on. When you go on an ‘adventure’, then one or two magi will go along, as well a group of companions. Everyone gets to play a character, but not everyone gets to play a magus on every adventure.
Along with them, are the Grogs. These are hirelings and henchmen, from shield grogs who are just there to put themselves in harm’s way, to hunters, cooks, healers or anyone else needed to keep the magi feeling ‘at home’ whilst on the road. Whist Companions are heroes of the story (but can’t compare to the magic that magi are capable of), Grogs are standard people. The group of grogs is played by everyone – they’re not considered important enough to be controlled by a single player.
The final character in the group is the Covenant – the place where the magi live. As standard, Ars Magica is set in Mythic Europe – a relatively historical version of Europe in the 12th/13th century, where faeries and demons and the power of God is real. Magi are also of course real, but they are distrusted by mundanes (the common folk), blamed by the Church and sought to be used by the nobility.
So a covenant is an out of the way place (a manor, castle, tower, small village) where a group of magi (normally the player characters plus grogs and any other NPCs) live and study. It can be built up like a character – spending points on libraries, defences, resources and other characteristics, and it’s health is just as important to the game as the health of the actual characters are.
So rather than being a band of wandering murder hobos, an Ars Magica group has a home they need to keep safe and connections to the outside world which they need to manage.
But the PC magi aren’t unique – there are other groups of magi throughout Europe, all loosely bound together into the Order of Hermes, an organisation which enforces the Code of Hermes on all its members. Since magi who are non-members are hunted down and killed (sometimes after being given the option of joining), this means that the Code applies to all Magi.
The Code is the other thing that sets Ars Magica apart from many other fantasy games. Magi are powerful, so can normally find ways to solve most problems. The issue is, they’re often not allowed to, since the Code forbids interfering in mundane affairs. The Church doesn’t like magi, but for the most part they tolerate them. The problem for magi is that their magic has absolutely no power over the Divine. You might be able to burn down a village, but the Church will probably remain standing. The last thing that the Order of Hermes wants is for a crusade to be declared against them. An army marching under the banner of Christ would be difficult to deal with.
Even if the Church were to be defeated (and many in the Order would disagree with that on moral grounds, especially since many of them are themselves Christian), that would simply open the way for the Infernal, and that would be bad.
So Ars Magica is a game where the PCs are powerful characters who are limited by politics rather than game rules.
So what do magi do? Mostly, they sit in their labs and study. The rules in Ars Magica for inventing spells and items are extensive, and can become a significant part of the game. There are rules for reading books, creating spells, crafting powerful items and making grand discoveries.
Timescales are measured in seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, and creating a new spell or item can sometimes take years. Which may not sound exciting, but the outside world can sometimes have ways of intruding, and making items requires magical resources.
This all means that going out on adventures becomes a necessary interruption to downtime. Something I complained about in my discussion of Blades in the Dark was that the split between ‘scores’ and ‘downtime’ felt artificial and severe and we found ourselves repeatably fighting it. In Ars Magica, it works a lot better IMO. A magus can spend 10 days out of any season doing other things without penalty, and each extra day gives a -1 penalty to any attempts to learn or make things. This gives a lot of flexibility, and feels a lot more natural, allowing multiple mini-adventures during a downtime.
If faeries (powerful immoral spirits that can be friends or foe to magi) are pestering the local peasants, who are blaming it on the covenant, then the magi may need to investigate. They may also need to harvest raw vis (magical energy in physical form) from local magic places, creatures or happenings, which may mean dangerous travel. Also, they may want to travel to see other magi, in order to swap books or discuss political issues.
The focus of downtime – magical study – also has the advantage that magi don’t always want to go on adventures. They want just one more season of uninterrupted study to get a new spell invented, or new item created. This gives players a reason to actually want to play a Companion rather than a Magus.
Another push towards using Companions is that magi have a supernatural aura about them which make animals and mundanes nervous. This makes it difficult for a group of magi to turn up at a village and pretend not to be magi – everyone is going to guess pretty quickly that something is odd about them, and possibly kick them out. Yes, you can force the issue, but politics…
The game system is not simple, but it’s relatively consistent. Each character has characteristics which normally range from -5 to +5 (-3 to +3 in later versions, with special options for going outside that range), and skills which go from +0 to maybe +4 or +5 for a skilled professional (though there is no hard limit, and much higher levels are possible). These are added together, and added to a d10 roll to give a score. The higher the better.
If you roll a ‘1’, then you roll again and double the result. Multiple 1s means multiple doublings. If you roll a ‘0’, then you roll a number of d10, and if you get any further 0s, then you botch (fumble). The number of dice rolled when checking for a botch depends on how dangerous the situation is.
Characteristics and skills are purchased with points, so you can pretty much build the sort of character you want. You also get Virtues and Flaws, which are special traits. In later editions, a number of Flaws are Story Flaws – they aren’t rules penalties, but things which may cause trouble for you character. They may be enemies, events from your past or just a type of bad luck that tends to plague your character. Since they give the GM reason to throw trouble your way, they are good for the GM, and since they can make your character the centre of attention, they can be good for the player (though they may cause harm to the character).
For magi, you also have to buy Arts. There are 15 arts – 5 Techniques and 10 Forms. The techniques are effectively verbs (create, destroy, change, etc), and forms are nouns (animals, fire, mind, etc). However, and this is one of the other nice things about the game which adds to the flavour – the Arts are in Latin.
So you have the techniques of Creo, Intellego, Muto, Perdo, and Rego. The forms are Animal, Aquam, Auram, Corpus, Herbam, Ignem, Imagonem, Mentum, Terram, and Vim. I’m not going into details on which each is – but most of them should be fairly obvious to even non-Latin speakers. And if they’re not, then they’re easy to remember after a short while. A number of other terms are also in Latin, which adds to the game’s flavour.
So if you want to create a fireball, you roll your Creo + Ignem. If it’s a bolt of water, Creo + Aquam. Read a mind? Intellego + Mentem. This is a clever way of doing magic, and provides a lot of flexibility. Spells will have a target number and at least two arts (changing a man into a beast would require the lowest of Corpus and Animal). If you don’t know a suitable spell, then you can try to invent something on the spot. Such magic is known as Spontaneous, and isn’t as powerful as knowing the spell (Formulaic), but is more flexible. Formulaic spells, once learned, are never forgotten. You simply gain fatigue when casting spells at the limit of your power.
Magic has a limitation that it is temporary unless raw vis is spent in casting a spell. You can heal a person, but the wounds will return when the spell expires. Magical creations will likewise vanish. The need to find vis for both study and spell casting is one of the things that drives the need for adventure and gets magi out of their labs.
Character creation for magi is also tied into the background – there are a number of Houses in the Order of Hermes, and you must choose one of them. Each House gives a political affiliation, and also broad hints on personalities and goals for a character. House Flambeau tend to be combatative and like fire or destructive magic, House Bonisagus tend to enjoy study and expanding their arcane knowledge, House Jerbiton tend to get on well with mundanes etc. It gives new players a good introduction to both the setting and character creation, as well as being a source of adventure hooks during the game.
Ars Magica In Play
The above is a generalised view of the game, since it’s changed quite a bit between 3rd and 5th editions. The core mechanics have remained more similar than in games like D&D, and though a character from 3rd would probably work more or less fine in 5th, how character generation is done has changed, and some of the background has been tweaked.
Some bits, such as troupe play, though core to the rules as written, can be completely ignored, and we have played campaigns where everyone only ever plays their magus. We’ve also ignored the rules on covenants at times, and the degree of politics has changed from one game to the next.
The in-game rules can sometimes lead to a lot of… discussion. Magi have a form of anti-magic (Parma Magica) which protects them from the spells of other magi (it’s the in-game reason for how the Order has held together – it’s a secret known by Magi in the Order and not by outsiders, and allows magi to meet with each other in relative safety), but exactly how that works can be complicated. The berk-list (an Ars Magica mailing list going back a long while) had many discussions about whether a magus could walk on a magical bridge (would his Parma Magica dispel the magic of the bridge? Does casting an illusion on a sword make that sword unable to harm magi because it’s now magical?).
There tend to be a fewer number of these distractions during a game than you might get in D&D or Pathfinder, but they’re more fundamental to how the whole magic system works.
A lot of the fans of Ars Magica tend to be history buffs, and the setting reflects that. There’s an awful lot of detail in the setting (it is based on the real world), which can be overwhelming to a newcomer, and it’s spread out across a lot of books (at least in 5th edition). It can be ignored as much as you want, but that might not be obvious, and players who don’t know much about 13th century European history might be put off. On the other hand, most of what I’ve learned (and actually remembered) about history I learned playing Ars Magica. I also learned quite a bit of latin.
But there’s no reason why you need to set in Europe. If you do set it in Europe, it can be as real or fantasy as you want to make it. I’ve run Ars Magica in the World of Greyhawk, with the Houses transposed to that setting – and it worked quite well.
There are some aspects of the system which don’t match the rules. As mentioned above, it’s possible for starting magi to learn spells which will allow them to move around Europe with speed and ease (either through flight or teleport), which can make the entire point of House Mercere, which is to carry messages between the various covenants of the Order, pretty pointless.
The nature of the Gift which allows magi to use magic, and which also causes animals and people to react badly to them can be offset with a single virtue called The Gentle Gift. It’s really cheap, and it hasn’t been uncommon for an entire group to all take it. I did have a discussion with one of the designers where it was pointed out that it was meant to be really rare – but there’s nothing in the rules to enforce that (either through cost or other limitations) or even suggest it.
The point buy system of character generation does allow quite powerful one dimensional magi, which can unbalance things if you’re not prepared for it, or willing to put down extra restrictions.
But on the whole, I’ve found the system to be pretty solid. The magic system is one of the best out there, both due to the coverage of things magi can do in study, and also in the flexibility of how it works. The spell names are inspired – there is ‘Bolt of Incandescent Lightning‘, ‘Ball of Abysmal Flame‘, ‘Rusted Decay of Ten Score Years‘ and one of my favourites ‘Image From the Wizard Torn‘ (think what Luke did at the end of The Last Jedi).
It’s one of the few games where time actually passes. A single game session can often cover one or two seasons, meaning magi age and risk actually dying of old age if they fail to research longevity potions in time. If they do get old, they always have the option of training an apprentice, providing a fresh new character to take over.
Whether you’re playing magi in a new spring covenant, struggling to get the resources you need to build something that will be remembered, or in a winter covenant which is way past its prime and struggling to reclaim former glories (or the in betweens of summer and autumn covenants) there’s always plenty of reasons to go and do things. Being in a fixed place means stories can come to the characters, or they can go out and find their own. We’ve played mixtures of politics heavy and combat heavy games (spring covenants may have more adventuring, summer and autumn more politics since such covenants are already established).
So Ars Magica is a game that I really love, and we do have a habit of coming back to it every few years.