Ars Magica

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This article is about the role-playing game. For other uses, see Ars Magica (disambiguation).
Ars Magica
ArsMagicaRPGCover.jpg
Cover for Ars Magica, fifth edition
Designer(s) Jonathan Tweet[1] and Mark Rein·Hagen
Publisher(s) Lion Rampant, White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Atlas Games
Publication date 1987 (1st edition)
1989 (2nd edition)
1992 (3rd edition)
1996 (4th edition)
2004 (5th edition)
Genre(s) Medieval fantasy
System(s) d10-based with strong magic system

Ars Magica is a role-playing game set in 'Mythic Europe' - a historically grounded version of Europe and the Levant around AD 1200, with the added conceit that conceptions of the world prevalent in the High Middle Ages are literally true. The players' involvement revolves around an organization of magi and their allies and foes both mundane and supernatural. The game was developed by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein·Hagen and first published in 1987.[2] The current edition (the game's fifth) was written by David Chart, and published by Atlas Games in 2004.

Ars Magica was one of the first examples of a Troupe system. Early editions recommended that the players collaborate to create the campaign world and story:

  • Each player having an opportunity to be Story Guide. (e.g. alternating by play session, 'chapter' of a story, or at the whim of the troupe)
This scheme has been de-emphasised in recent editions; in Fifth Edition it is relegated to an optional play style described at the back of the book. Alternatively a troupe may select one player as "alpha" story guide with responsibility for the overall plot, and one or more "beta" story guides to run peripheral sessions and/or stories.
  • Each player having more than one character; when the primary character lacks opportunity or reason to participate in a session (typically due to laboratory or library activity), a secondary character is played.

To enhance the 'authenticity' of the historical setting, the game uses medieval Latin for a number of key terms, particularly in the game's most prominent feature, a system of Hermetic Magic.

History[edit]

The first two editions were published by Lion Rampant Games, with several modules published by Atlas Games. In 1991, Lion Rampant merged with White Wolf Magazine to form White Wolf Game Studio.[3] White Wolf published several adventure modules for the game before adding its Third Edition rulebook, which greatly expanded the settings and peripheral rules while leaving the core system intact. White Wolf then produced at least a dozen Third Edition supplements, including the addition of Divine and Infernal mechanics, rules for shamanic magic, beginning the Tribunal series and completing the 'Four Seasons' tetralogy of stories begun by Lion Rampant. Ars Magica was sold to Wizards of the Coast in 1994,[4] who produced several supplements, but just before publishing a 4th edition sold the rights to Atlas Games. Atlas then published the 4th edition, added several new stories, and continued to expand peripheral material and the line of Tribunal books.

The 5th edition was released by Atlas in 2004, and included extensive changes to the system, especially the mechanics for combat, experience, and character creation. Many players felt that the alterations to the combat system were long overdue,[5] especially the rules for armour, which in previous editions made wearers much more likely to die in combat. Ars Magica 5th edition won the Origins Award for Best Role Playing Game of 2004.

Many characteristics of the Storyteller system developed by White Wolf can be traced to Ars Magica and the fact that the Storyteller system was developed by one of Ars Magica's co-authors; White Wolf's Mage: The Ascension was envisioned as "Ars Magica in the Modern World," and many of the changes in Ars Magica's 3rd edition were introduced in order to make the game-worlds more compatible.[6]

Setting[edit]

The setting, Mythic Europe, is primarily based on Europe of the 12th and 13th centuries; the geography is the same, and the mundane (non-magical) politics are practically identical. However, in Ars Magica the "Medieval paradigm"[7] - the way the world was described or understood in that time period - is the literal truth. In this setting, Faeries actually do steal lost children, Demons cause disease and crop failure, Angels help the righteous, and dragons and other Magical creatures are real (though perhaps forgotten or hidden). In 3rd edition, to tie the game into the World of Darkness line, this was reality because of the beliefs; other editions distance themselves from this interpretation, simply taking place in a world where those beliefs happen to be true.[6]

Player characters typically alternate between the role of a magus (plural magi; female maga/magae), and a companion (Consors). Companions are select skilled non-magi who help wizards conduct their affairs (as magi tend to be distanced from "mundanes" due to the effects of their magical "Gift"). Additionally, there are a number of Grogs (usually skilled peasants) who can be controlled by any player. (As of the Third Edition, Grogs are also a viable player 'class'; the Fifth Edition has added an entire supplement dedicated to 'fleshing out' Grogs.) The wizards generally gather in specialized strongholds called covenants, which are often built in places of power. A covenant is typically a 'home base' where the magi are in charge (though they may travel Mythic Europe for reasons of politics, resources, study or even leisure). Some consider the covenant to be the central character of the game.[8]

The Order of Hermes[edit]

Standard player-character Magi belong the Order of Hermes, a society of magically "Gifted" humans founded in 767 A.D. by the witch Trianoma and magus Bonisagus after the latter developed a breakthrough in communicating and manipulating magic (termed 'Hermetic Magic' for its roots in both the Greek deity Hermes, upon which the ancient Roman Cult of Mercury was based, and the works of the legendary figure Hermes Trismegistus). While magicians at this time were scattered, rarely social and highly distrustful of each other as a rule, two factors strongly favored mutual co-operation. One was Trianoma's intense political vision of an organization that would unite the Gifted for their mutual benefit. The other was Bonisagus' second profound invention, the Parma Magica: a highly efficient and easily taught ritual allowing a magus to maintain a robust general protection against external supernatural forces, which could allow these disparate individuals and traditions to meet on common ground with some assurance of safety. Over subsequent centuries, with very few exceptions, magi who quit or refuse to join the Order have been hunted down and destroyed, giving the Order a definite monopoly over magical resources within its 'jurisdiction'.

While each of the Order's twelve Houses maintains a distinct baseline or tradition in pursuing and transmitting knowledge and power, the Order is also divided into Tribunals, each defined by a geographic region of Mythic Europe. Each Tribunal holds a gathering of its magi once every seven years; attendance is not mandatory, though it is essential for certain of the Order's procedures (e.g. those who have completed their apprenticeships are formally presented for official membership; the Quæsitores judge the types of disputes deemed beyond simple inter- or intra-covenant resolution). Once every 33 years, each Tribunal sends a representative to the 'Grand Tribunal at the site of the Order's founding in the Black Forest.

The Tribunals loosely correspond to groupings or portions of modern-day nations; each has a distinct cultural and historical flavor which is expanded in the Tribunals of Hermes series. For example, the Roman Tribunal is a densely populated area with a shortage of magical resources, offering highly politicized plot-lines (both within and without the Order itself); Novgorod features vast areas of harsh wilderness where pagan tribal warfare and magical beasts are significantly more common than elsewhere.

As with the typical medieval border,[citation needed] the territory of each Tribunal is not indisputably defined; this is partially illustrated (via the Fifth Edition Covenants book) with the 'Tribunal Border' characteristic, which situates a covenant in a location that could place it in more than one Tribunal (depending on political favors, conflicts over resources, and so on).

Realms of Power[edit]

The overarching premise of the Ars Magica setting is that the "mundane" world of ordinary, physical existence is a place where four great supernatural forces have varying degrees of influence and presence.

The Divine realm
This is the supreme, holy force of Creation - God as represented by the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, and his agents in the world. Divine influence diminishes anything not attuned to it (i.e. anything of a Faerie, Infernal or Magical nature) and is absolutely opposed to all things Infernal. One of the Order's struggles is in reconciling their avoidance of mundane politics with the inexorable spread of the Dominion (Divine influence permeating the land as more land is settled by Christian and Muslim nations and more centers of Divine worship are constructed).
The Infernal realm
Satan and his demonic forces. In the medieval context, this includes everything from Satan himself to illnesses and bad smells. Demons are compelled to corrupt, destroy, and tempt all mortals to sin; while the Order of Hermes refuses to explicitly name the Infernal as their enemies (which it is assumed would draw too much attention and wrath to the Order), they have been forbidden from entering into agreements with Hell's minions ever since a corruption scandal nearly ruined House Tytalus in the 11th century. As the evil/negative counterpart to the Divine, Infernal power also weakens the effects of any Realm not attuned to Hell or other forsaken spaces. Infernally tainted forms of magic do exist, usually of great deceptive or destructive power, or acquired too easily for understanding, especially in order to tempt magi. Anyone in the Order found guilty of diabolism is expelled and hunted down.
The Faerie realm
Creatures of traditional fairy tales. These creatures are often capricious, sometimes malicious, but invariably addicted to (even dependent upon for their very existence) human attention, emotion and creative expression. Despite such considerations, Study of the Faerie realm can be rewarding to some. Magi are allowed to associate with the Fae (in fact, one House of the Order has become increasingly dominated by its members' pursuit of 'Faerie Magic') as long as they do not incur their wrath and thereby endanger their fellows.
The realm of Magic
A mysterious arcane force, to which all magi (among other rare entities) are inherently attuned. This is the power almost exclusively used to cast spells and enchant objects. Magic and Faerie have some positive resonance with each other, reflected in either aura's benefit to the other realm's powers, and in that remote or lost pagan traditions can have connections with either (in some cases, Faerie entities seem to have 'replaced' Magical ones when the devotees of the latter either lost their way or went extinct).

Additionally, a "Realm of Reason" appeared in the 3rd edition. Reason was associated with skepticism and empirical observation, and its "rational aura" challenged most supernatural effects. Many fans of the game consider this to be paradoxical and inconsistent, since applying reason and rationality to the world of Ars Magica should really lead to the conclusion that magic does exist and fairies are real, etc., and yet the "True Reason" promoted by this fifth realm posited the contrary, and thus resembled a delusional (yet effective) state of mind rather than a rational one.[9] The realm of Reason had additional counter-intuitive effects - for example, imposing penalties on wizard's magic use in libraries, despite the consistent portrayal of wizardry in Ars Magica as a scholarly pursuit.

Reason proved an unwelcome addition to the game; neither 4th nor 5th edition have included this 'Realm', and all references to it have been stricken from the canonical setting.

System[edit]

Die-rolling conventions[edit]

Ars Magica's mechanics use the ten-sided die. To perform a typical action, one of eight Characteristics (Intelligence, Perception, Strength, Stamina, Presence, Communication, Dexterity or Quickness, each generally rated from -5 to +5 for humans; a Characteristic of 0 is 'average') is added to a relevant Ability, and a d10 is rolled. The total of Characteristic + Ability + die roll is compared to a target difficulty or Ease Factor; the action succeeds if the rolled total is greater than or equal to the target number.

If the action is routine or trivial and nothing in particular is at stake, the roll is read as 1-10 and simply added to the total (this is called a "Simple roll"). If there is an opportunity for exceptional success or failure, the die is read as 0-9 and is called a "Stress" roll. For Stress rolls, results of "1" and "0" have special significance. A '1' is rerolled and the result doubled (consecutive "1"s redouble the eventual "non-1" (two consecutive ones = x4, three = x8, etc.). A roll of '0' is also re-rolled (more than once in cases of especially hazardous activity) as a Botch roll. If any botch die also comes up '0', the action has been botched: failed in some disastrous way. Otherwise, the roll merely equals zero.

Magic system[edit]

The centerpiece of Ars Magica is the system of Hermetic Magic devised by Bonisagus. It consists of 15 Arts, divided into 5 Techniques and 10 Forms. This is sometimes called a "Verb/Noun" system: the Technique is the verb (what effect the magic has), and the Form is the noun (the entity, object or substance that is affected or brought forth). These 'verb-noun' combinations can be used to cast both Formulaic spells (which are recorded in texts, are learned through study and mastered through experience, and have known, fixed effects) and Spontaneous spells (which a caster improvises with no prior knowledge other than the Arts themselves, giving the potential results greater flexibility but lower potency). Every apprentice (with a few Ex Miscellanea exceptions) is "opened" in all 15 Arts before fully joining the Order; each Art begins with a Score of 0 and a mage may usually only increase one of them during a season (see below).

Each Technique is named by a first-person singular present tense indicative Latin verb:

  • Creo ("I create") brings objects and substances into existence from nothing, or makes an already-existing target a "more perfect" version of itself (e.g. healing magic, as healed bodies are nearer perfection than wounded bodies).
  • Intellego ("I perceive") detects or reveals, enhances a target's natural senses or conveys supernatural ones.
  • Muto ("I transform") alters the nature of a being, object or substance, adding unnatural properties and/or removing natural ones.
  • Perdo ("I destroy") decays, disintegrates or otherwise diminishes the target, making something a worse example of its kind (i.e. the opposite of Creo).
  • Rego ("I control") involves manipulation of the target in any way that does not alter its nature, e.g. direct a target's movement, put a creature to sleep, or force a tree to bear fruit out of season. This is the main Technique used in spells of protection or 'warding'.

Each Form is named by a singular accusative Latin noun:

  • Animal affects "all natural living things that are not plants or humans, doing to animals what Mentem and Corpus spells do to people" as well as "things made with animal products" such as leather, wool, cheese, silk, etc. Since bacteria were unknown in medieval times, illness (e.g.) was considered either a form of possession or an imbalance of 'bodily humors'; thus, magic dealing with disease is relegated variously to Creo, Mentem and/or Vim effects.
  • Auram affects lightning, wind and gaseous substances; other weather effects typically require an Aquam requisite (see below).
  • Aquam is used for any liquid, with the exception of blood (which requires Animal or Corpus magic to affect); non-liquid forms of water will involve requisites (see below).
  • Corpus (the incorrect declension Corporem was used in older editions) applies to the human body, making it crucial to longevity formulas.
  • Herbam primarily involves plants, but applies equally to any organic matter, living or dead, that is not of animal origin.
  • Ignem involves light and heat, and is heavily represented in the fire spells of House Flambeau.
  • Imaginem (previously Imagonem) deals with images, sounds, and other sensory stimuli (thus is involved in most illusionary effects).
  • Mentem deals with emotions, memories, thoughts and spirits.
  • Terram involves earth and minerals: mere soil is the simplest target, while stone, metal and gems require progressively greater investment of spell levels to achieve the same effect.
  • Vim ("power") involves magic itself, as well as demons (the overlap is not widely understood, but the fact that there is one is a significant obstacle to the Order's 'public relations', particularly concerning the Church).

A mage's skill when casting a spell is the sum of their scores in the appropriate technique and form.

Some spells involve more than one Technique, and/or more than one Form at once; each Art used in addition to the basic pair is called a requisite. All relevant Art Scores are compared: the caster's lowest Technique and lowest Form are used, reflecting the limiting of the caster's magical knowledge.

Regardless of how high one's Art Scores may rise, there are outer boundaries to the application of Hermetic Magic (whether Formulaic, Spontaneous or even Ritual). Bonisagus's theory outlines a set of inherent Limits, similar in concept to the laws of physics; the two central, 'Greater' Limits are:

  1. Magic cannot influence a pure manifestation of the Divine; while earthly Relics (however sacred) and agents of the Divine (anything "separate from the mind of God") may be resistant to magic they are not immune, but it is impossible to (e.g.) interfere with a Miracle (which may be prayed for by an agent or supplicant, but is itself a direct intervention by Divine will).
  2. Magic cannot permanently change a target's Essential Nature (the implications of which vary depending on the target in question).

There are also eleven 'Lesser Limits' (addressing more specific 'blind spots' such as aging, creation, time and the soul) which are generally thought either to derive from the two Greater Limits, or to be flaws in Hermetic Theory which may eventually be 'corrected'.

Additional statistics for every spell (which have been redefined in nearly every new edition of the game) are Target (what or whom the spell is directed at), Range (how far the Target may be from the caster), and Duration. For reasons of balance, some spells require the expenditure of "vis" - magical essence in physical form - which all magi and covenants tend to make a point of hoarding and/or trading. No Creo effect, for example, can be permanent unless vis is consumed during the casting. Some Formulaic Magic is so effective that it can only be achieved with vis and an elaborate, time-consuming ritual (hence, Ritual Spells). This automatically applies to any spell of a greater Level than 50, any spell with a Duration of 'Year', and any non-Imagonem spell with a range of 'Sight'.

Character development[edit]

All characters (magi, companions and grogs alike) improve their Abilities by applying experience which can be earned through Exposure, Practice, Training or Study. Magic, however, is stressed as a multifaceted discipline with a greater variety of avenues for improvement. Magi are expected to spend months at a time with books and/or laboratory equipment: inventing new spells (or learning or modifying existing ones), strengthening their Arts, enchanting items, and so forth. Ars Magica includes rules for magical research within the game's standard 'advancement' timescale of 3-month seasons.

These seasonal activities generally concern either study of a text or laboratory activity. Although participating in adventures, missions and other endeavors outside of seasonal activity gives characters Story Experience, the most substantial progress (and the raison d'etre of many in the Order) is nearly always from the seasonal activities of magi. Hence, time in an Ars Magica campaign may pass much faster than in other RPGs (if, for example, all player-characters are engaged in seasonal activity, standard "roleplaying sessions" are unnecessary for that period) but is also more 'accounted for' (since regular and exact periods of activity give highly defined benefits). To accommodate this, many magi prolong their lives with unique (to each individual) longevity formulas (generally called "longevity potions", though the form one takes is not always a potion); this only delays the aging process, however; beyond a certain point one's longevity formula will have no effect at all and must be reformulated (preferably with increased knowledge of the appropriate Arts and/or greater quantities of vis. (A prevalent attitude among members of the Order is that Companions in general (and Grogs almost invariably) will come and go - perhaps killed in action, occasionally living long enough to retire - while the Magi carry on. Magi may concoct longevity formulas for non-magi, but this is a rare consideration, less effective than devising one's own personal formula, and is an expensive prospect in time and resources in any case.)

Study is primarily achieved with texts, each designed to enhance an Ability, Art or specific Spell(s). A respectable covenant inevitably requires either a respectable library or sufficient commodities to exchange for the use of other libraries, since the dominant form of Hermetic Magic is a scholarly pursuit. Magi who are able to write useful books or teach well can use these as commodities, trading with other magi for books or training (though the Code of Hermes places limits on what its members may sell to 'mundanes').

Lab Projects concern magical projects to enhance your repertoire of spells or magical artifacts. The basic mechanics for this are more or less the same for all activities. All projects have a level of effect to which you compare your 'Lab Total'. Lab Totals are calculated as the magus' Intelligence + Magic Theory ability + sum of a Form and Technique + other bonuses. Other bonuses may be from local Aura, quality and specialization of lab, assistants, previous knowledge, sympathetic connections from items, or in rare circumstances another ability. Some activities merely require your Lab Total to match the Level of Effect, but most often the player simply accumulates points towards finishing the project each season. For each point by which a Lab Total exceeds the Level of Effect, the researcher accumulates one point towards the total Level. Thus a Lab Total double the Level of Effect allows the project to be completed in a single season.

The following Lab Projects are among the most basic ones:

  • Invent Spells. The magus invents a new magical effect from scratch. Inventing a variation of a known spell is easier than a completely new one. These Formulaic Spells are somewhat rigid in their definitions, but are more powerful than the more flexible Spontaneous Magic.
  • Enchant Device. The magus may create a magical artifact which may hold a magical effect like those of Spells. These can be used by anyone, not just magi, and do not suffer the usual modifiers to casting which spells do. Usually these cost vis to make, but the Lab Total gets a bonus based on the sympathetic Shape & Material bonus of the material used. E.g. a staff gives a bonus to enchant effects that control things at a distance. They can be made as Charged Devices (which cost no vis but have a limited number of uses), Lesser Devices (which require the magus to be able to enchant them in a single season, and may only hold one effect), or Invested Devices (which require that the magus spends additional time to prepare in advance, may be enchanted over several seasons, and may hold several effects based on the size and material).
  • Enchant Talisman. A Talisman is a special and personalized form of Invested Device, with many additional features. Talismans have a much higher capacity for the number of effects with which they may be enchanted, and are easy to enchant. Furthermore, the magus may attune some or all of the Shape & Material bonus the item has, and the bonus for his spellcasting. Should a Talisman fall into the wrong hands, it would leave the magus very vulnerable.
  • Longevity Ritual. A Creo Corpus effect that prolongs the magus' life by granting him bonus for Aging Rolls, making it more likely that he will avoid crippling effects of age until late in life. Magi may very well live to be 200 years old, or more barring other mishaps. Magi often pay specialist magi to perform this for them, to get the best ritual they can afford.
  • Bond with Familiar. The magus may find and attract an animal - magical preferably - with which he connects somehow. Usually this will be an animal which thematically is in synch with the magus' personality and magical arts. An Auram magus might bond with a bird, while a Herbam magus might find a squirrel. The Bonding process is long and hard, but may very well be worth the effort. The animal learns to communicate with the owner, and while it does not become intelligent per se, it is more enlightened than a normal animal of its type. One boon is that the Familiar might be enchanted with almost limitless amounts of enchantments, with a few restrictions about what the enchantments can affect and who activates them. But the primary benefits are from the Bond Scores: the Gold Cord concerns magic, and helps the magus avoid magical botches. The Silver Cord concerns the mind and helps the magus against mental effects among others. The Bronze Cord concerns the physical connection and helps the magus be more enduring and tough. The better Lab Total the magus can muster, the better Cord score he will forge.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kenson, Stephen (August 2000). "ProFiles: Jonathan Tweet". Dragon (Renton, Washington: Wizards of the Coast) (#274): 10, 12, 14. 
  2. ^ Wieck, Stewart (2007). "Ars Magica". In Lowder, James. Hobby Games: The 100 Best. Green Ronin Publishing. pp. 13–16. ISBN 978-1-932442-96-0. 
  3. ^ "A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAME #10: LION RAMPANT: 1987-1990". 
  4. ^ Appelcline, Shannon (August 3, 2006). "Wizards of the Coast: 1990–Present". A Brief History of Game. RPGnet. Archived from the original on 24 August 2006. Retrieved September 1, 2006. 
  5. ^ "Is combat busted?". The Ars Magica FAQ. Project Redcap. Archived from the original on 24 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-23. 
  6. ^ a b "World of Darkness" section of the Ars Magica FAQ. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  7. ^ The Medieval Paradigm section of the Ars Magica FAQ
  8. ^ Covenants on Project Redcap
  9. ^ "True Reason" on Project Redcap

External links[edit]