Cover for Ars Magica, fifth edition
|Designer(s)||Jonathan Tweet 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)
|System(s)||d10-based with strong magic system|
Ars Magica is a role-playing game set in a quasi-historical version of Europe around AD 1200 with added fantastical elements, called Mythic Europe. The game revolves around wizards and their allies. The game was developed by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein·Hagen and first published in 1987. The current edition was written by David Chart, working for Atlas Games and published 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 would have an opportunity to be the Story Guide, and each player would have more than one character, so that if they felt their main character would not go on an adventure (for example, if they were busy with their research) a secondary character may be used. Troupe play has been de-emphasised in recent editions, however, and in the latest (5th) edition of the game is relegated to an optional play style described at the back of the book. Many "troupes" opt for a more traditional system with a single story guide, or have one player be the "Alpha" story guide with responsibility for the overall plot, and a few "Beta" story guides who run side-adventures.
In order to produce an "authentic" feel from having such a historical setting, the game uses medieval Latin for a number of key terms.
The first two editions were published by Lion Rampant Games. In 1991, Lion Rampant merged with White Wolf Magazine to form White Wolf Game Studio. White Wolf published the 3rd edition, which greatly expanded the settings and peripheral rules while leaving the core system intact. White Wolf also published many supplements, detailing specific regions of Europe, or outlining stories that could be played in the original setting. Ars Magica was later sold to Wizards of the Coast in 1994, who produced several supplements, but just before publishing a 4th edition sold the rights to Atlas Games. Atlas published the fourth and fifth editions, and new source-books and supplements.
The 5th edition was released by Atlas in 2004, including extensive changes to the system, especially the combat system and character creation. Many players felt that the alterations to the combat system were long overdue, 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 later 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.
The setting, Mythic Europe, is based on Europe of the 13th century; the geography is the same, and the mundane (non-magical) politics are practically identical. However, in Ars Magica the "Medieval paradigm" - the collection of folk beliefs and superstitions - is correct; this means that the beliefs and superstitions of the medieval period are existent reality: lost children are really abducted by Faeries, sickness and crop failure are caused by Demons, Angels help the righteous, and dragons and other mythical creatures exist. In 3rd edition, to tie the game into the World of Darkness line, this was the case because those were the beliefs; other editions distance themselves from this interpretation, simply taking place in a world where those beliefs happen to be true.
Player characters take on the role of both a Magus (or if female, Maga), and of a Companion (in Latin, "Consors"). Companions are select skilled non-Magi (warriors, foresters, castellan, and so forth) who help wizards conducting 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 (skilled peasants) who can be controlled by any player. The wizards live clustered in specific citadels called Covenants, which are often built in places of power. Covenants are the home base for the Magi, but the Magi tend to roam the Magical Europe for their adventures. Some sources for the game consider the covenant to be the central character of the game.
The Order of Hermes 
Magi belong to one of the houses of the Order of Hermes, a society founded by the wizard Bonisagus who created a consistent way to describe magic, allowing Magi to share information, and the Parma Magica, a magical shield which allows a measure of protection against hostile magics (and, in some cases, non-hostile magics as well) which allowed Magi to trust each other. Magi from outside the order must join or die, though the Order doesn't insist that Magi present both options.
The Order is divided into Tribunals, which each administer a large country-sized region of Mythic Europe. Once every seven years, the Magi within a Tribunal stage a meeting, also called a Tribunal, where new Magi are presented to the order and the Quæsitores judge disputes which cannot be resolved within or between covenants. Once every 33 years, each Tribunal sends a representative to a Grand Tribunal.
Each of the thirteen Tribunals corresponds to a set of modern countries. Each tribunal has a distinct cultural and historical flavor which affects play. For example the Roman tribunal is a densely populated area with a shortage of magical resources but offers high political plots while Novgorod is a hostile environment where barbarian invaders and magical beasts can be a recurrent problem.
- Greater Alps - The Alps, including modern-day Switzerland and Austria, as well as parts of northern Italy.
- Iberian - Modern-day Spain and Portugal
- Normandy - North of France
- Provençal - South of France
- Roman - Italy
- Theban - Mainland Greece, Bulgaria, and Western Asia Minor
- Transylvania - South-Eastern Europe
- Rhine - Rhine river, Most of central Germany
- Novgorod - Eastern Europe, Poland and Russia
- Stonehenge - England and Wales
- Loch Leglean - Scotland
- Hibernian - Ireland
- Levantine - Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and South-Eastern Asia Minor
Like any medieval border, the territory of each Tribunal is not precisely defined.
Realms of Power 
Four "realms of power" influence Mythic Europe:
- The Divine realm
- The God of the Abrahamic religions and His agents in the world. The Divine realm is opposed to magic (see Christian views on witchcraft), and magic is weaker in areas where the Divine is stronger (in cities and around churches); yet, the Gift is part of a Mage's soul, and therefore a gift from the Divine.
- The Infernal realm
- Satan and his minions. In the medieval context, this includes everything from Satan himself to illnesses and bad smells. Demons tempt the faithful to sin, and while the Order of Hermes refuses to explicitly name the Infernal as their enemies (which could provoke their anger) their laws state that they can "never be allies". Magic is weak where the Infernal is strong, though infernally-tainted magics do exist, and are usually of great power, in order to tempt Magi. Any Magus found guilty of diabolism is expelled from the order and hunted down.
- The Faerie realm
- Creatures of traditional fairy tales. These creatures are capricious and often malicious as they are addicted to human attention and emotional expression; however, their study can be rewarding, since magic is strengthened somewhat in faerie areas. Magi are allowed to ally with the Faeries, as long as they do not incur their wrath and thereby bring their fellows into danger.
- The realm of Magic
- A mysterious and largely unexplained force in the world, which the Magi manipulate to create their spells. Magic is distinguished from Faerie largely in that the latter is concerned with humanity, while the former is not.
Additionally, a "Realm of Reason" appeared in the 3rd edition. "Reason" was associated with skepticism and scholarship, and its "rational" aura alleviated the effects of the other four realms. 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 exists and fairies are real, and yet the "True Reason" promoted by the realm of Reason claimed the opposite, and thus resembled a delusional state of mind rather than a rational one. 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 a highly controversial addition to the game, and was presumed to be part of an attempt by White Wolf to "retcon" Ars Magica as part of the backstory for their World of Darkness role-playing games; neither the 4th nor the 5th edition of the games has included the "Realm of Reason," and all references to it have been stricken from the canonical setting. Later Dark Ages sourcebooks for the World of Darkness lend some credence to this presumption (insofar as they show that White Wolf liked the idea), as does the fact that Mark Rein Hagen (one of the core figures at White Wolf, co-creator of the World of Darkness) was one of the founders at Lion Rampant, and a co-creator of Ars Magica.
The game system is based on the d10. When an action is performed, one of the character's eight attributes is added to the relevant skill, and a d10 is rolled. The total of attribute + skill + d10 is compared to a target difficulty. The action succeeds if the rolled total is greater than or equal to the difficulty.
If the action can only result in a simple success or failure, the die roll of 1-10 is merely added to the total (called a "Simple roll"). If there is opportunity for exceptional success or failure, it's called a "Stress" roll. On a Stress roll, results of "1" and "0" have special meanings: a ONE is rerolled, and the result doubled (additional "1"s lead to successive doublings: quadrupling, octupling, etc; the final non-"1" being enlarged by the multiplier); a ZERO is treated as a zero (rather than a ten), AND one or more additional d10 botch dice are rolled. If any of these botch dice show a zero, the character has botched - failed in some disastrous way; if none of the botch dice turn up zeroes, then the die-roll is treated as a zero. Assuming the roll didn't botch, the total is (as above) compared to the difficulty of the action to determine success or failure (and the degree of success or failure).
The focus of the game is the magic system. There are 15 Arts divided into 5 Techniques and 10 Forms. The Techniques are what one does and the Forms are the objects one does it to or with. This is sometimes called a "Verb/Noun" magic-system. The Arts are named in Latin, and can be used to cast 'Formulaic' spells (spells which are written down and have known, fixed effects), or 'Spontaneous' spells (which a Magus creates on-the-spot, usually for a specific purpose).
The Techniques are named after the corresponding first-person singular present tense indicative mood Latin verb.
- Creo is the technique that lets the Magus create from nothingness, or make something a more "perfect" examplar of its kind; this includes healing as healed bodies are "more perfect" than wounded bodies.
- Intellego lets the Magus perceive or understand.
- Muto lets the Magus change the basic characteristics of something, giving something capabilities or properties not naturally associated with its kind.
- Perdo lets the Magus destroy, deteriorate, make something age and other similar effects - essentially, making something a worse example of its kind.
- Rego lets the Magus control or manipulate something without affecting its basic characteristics.
The Forms are named after the corresponding singular accusative Latin noun.
- Animal is used for animals. Since bacteria were unknown in medieval times, illnesses are evil spirits, which come under Vim.
- Auram is used for anything that has to do with the air, including lightning. Weather phenomena such as rain and hail may be covered by Auram or Aquam.
- Aquam is used for water, or any other liquid. This includes ice in the 5th edition; In 4th edition, Ice was Terram, since it is a solid.
- Corpus (the incorrect declension Corporem was used in older editions) is used for the human body.
- Herbam is used for plants and fungi, and their products - cotton, wood, flour, etc.
- Ignem is used for fire, and fire's basic effects of light and heat.
- Imaginem deals with images, sounds, and other senses, though humans' ability to perceive them is part of Mentem.
- Mentem deals with intelligence and the mind, such as human or ghosts. The minds of animals are not affected by Mentem but by Animal.
- Terram stands for earth and minerals, or any other non-living solid.
- Vim has to do with pure magic; many spells to ban or control demons and other supernatural beings also belong to this Art, as such beings often have a form that expresses magically.
For balance reasons, all spell effects in Ars Magica end at sunrise or sunset (whichever occurs first), unless a special resource known as 'Vis' is employed; magically-created food, for example, only sates hunger until the spell ends. Additionally, a spell may not affect the moon or anything beyond, or create 'true life' (i.e, creating a mindless undead servant is possible, but resurrecting the dead is not).
Thus, Creo Ignem spells create fire (or light, or warmth); a Perdo Ignem spell may quench a fire, create darkness, or drop the temperature in a room. A typical Perdo Imaginem spell is granting invisibility to the caster by making one's image disappear. Rego Aquam could turn water into an unusual, but natural form (e.g. creating a pillar of water), while Muto Aquam could turn water into, for example, oil or wine; or change the nature of water so that it's murky and green but still healthy to drink. An Intellego Mentem spell may permit the caster to understand any language, or to read minds; and so on... A mage's skill when casting a spell is the sum of their scores in the appropriate technique and form.
If a spell involves more than one technique, or more than one form, this is known as a requisite . The lowest technique score and the lowest form score are used, as they are taken to be the limiting factors on the caster's magical knowledge. For example, a spell to turn a person into a stone statue would involve Muto + Corpus or Terram; The player would add the character's Technique (Muto) score to the lower of their Form (Corpus and Terram) scores to determine their casting total for the spell.
By combining these techniques and forms, the Magus may achieve any effect and spontaneously cast a spell with that desired effect. However, there are often severe limits to the level of power a Magus can generate by casting spontaneously, and so he may also choose to learn a "formulaic" spell with that desired effect. A Magus is further limited in terms of the spell's application: Ars Magica features a set of magical 'laws', similar in concept to those of physics, defining the upper limits of any magical spell (Creo Corpus, for example, cannot create 'true' life, nor can it restore the dead; magic, in general, cannot affect the flow of time, nor can it affect the 'lunar sphere or anything above it' (i.e. the realms of the Divine, according to medieval thought)).
Magic is treated in this game-system as a serious object of study: Magi are supposed to spend a long time in their laboratories: preparing new spells, studying their Arts, creating magic-items, etc. The game system provides rules for magical research on a timescale of 3-month seasons.
These seasonal activities usually concern learning or lab projects, and are most important for Magi. Although participating in stories awards you Story Experience, the real progress and advancement in the Ars Magica system is from these seasonal activities. Hence, the flow of time is this game system is most often a lot faster than in other RPGs, since player characters primarily advance in the down time between adventures. To accommodate this, Magi may elect to prolong their lives with special magical items, known as longevity potions; this only slows the aging process, however, and beyond a certain age the potions will have no effect at all. Secondary characters are meant to come and go, eventually dying in action or even living to retirement, while the Magi carry on.
Learning is mostly done using books to Study from. Every Covenant will have a respectable library, since the magical tradition of the Order of Hermes is a scholarly one. One can also learn from teaching or training, if a suitably skilled individual can be located, or practice alone. 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 strict limits on what a Magus may sell to a non-magical 'mundane'). Finally, a Magus may learn from exposure while working a trade or performing lab activities. This is the least efficient way to learn, but it is a nice side benefit to the result of the work done.
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.
- Kenson, Stephen (August 2000). "ProFiles: Jonathan Tweet". Dragon (Renton, Washington: Wizards of the Coast) (#274): 10, 12, 14.
- 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
- "A BRIEF HISTORY OF GAME #10: LION RAMPANT: 1987-1990".
- 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.
- "Is combat busted?". The Ars Magica FAQ. Project Redcap. Archived from the original on 24 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-23.
- "How is Ars Magica related to White Wolf's Storyteller Games?" section of the Ars Magica FAQ
- The Medieval Paradigm section of the Ars Magica FAQ
- Covenants section of the Ars Magica FAQ
- Quaesitor section of the Ars Magica Wiki
- "True Reason" section of the Ars Magica FAQ