One of my greatest experiences as a tabletop role-playing gamer was the six months I spent playing Ars Magica back in the mid 90s. Even though I definitely lean toward simple, low ‘crunch’ rules systems and Fantasy isn’t my genre, I still count Ars Magica as one of the all time greats, and its Fifth Edition has made the game much more approachable. For the purposes of this review, I’ll catch you up on the very basics. The game is set in “Mythic Europe,” which is essentially Medieval Europe, but a version of it where magic and fairy tales are all true, where God and the Devil battle for the souls of Man, where Giants roam the North, where mermaids lurk in the deep, and where fairies haunt the wilds. In the game, you take on several roles. Your primary character is a magi (wizard), who is a member of The Order of Hermes, a sort of secret, magical society that runs all things supernatural in the Old World. Your group of wizards form a covenant, often a location, but more importantly a shared set of values/rules. You also take on secondary characters called companions, who are interesting folk in their own right (knights, priests, etc.). Finally, you might be called upon to step into the role of various ‘grogs,’ who are essentially peasants (often much like ‘red shirts’ in Star Trek). That’s the basics. Magic and wizardry are the focus of the overall game. To get more pop-cultural, when I first started reading the Harry Potter books, I thought, “this could be one possible future of Ars Magica.”
Guardians of the Forest is a setting book for the Rhine Tribunal. Tribunals are political regions within the Order of Hermes, and this one is centered on the Rhine River in Germany. The book gives a great deal of overall information on Mythic Europe’s version of Germany, getting down to various regions and cities. It gets into major power players. Some individuals and some covenants that hold political, magical, and temporal power. It also gets into some interesting creatures and items that could definitely enrich your game.
Germany is not high on my list of places to set an Ars Magica campaign, but darn it, there’s a ton of cool potential there. And now that I’ve actually been to Germany (Bavaria, but still…), it does hold more appeal. I really didn’t like an idea that came into the game in its Third Edition (when White Wolf was producing the game), that the magic was going away. The whole ‘magic is going away’ thing is all too common, especially when you’re dealing with Historic/Fantastic settings. I just don’t like it. By the Fifth Edition, this concept has been abandoned (as has the one about one of the Houses turning into vampires…ugh). However, in the Rhine Tribunal, human settlements have helped to break the power of ancient forests. Essentially an eco-magical disaster. I like the way it’s handled, and the potential storytelling you could work into it, with some magi trying to bring the forest powers back and others happy with the way things are going.
There are a lot of story seeds and interesting ideas in this book. It’s definitely a good addition to an Ars Magica Game Master’s library. Even if a game were set in other parts of Mythic Europe, I could imagine pieces of this being useful, especially since some of the political machinations will likely have far-reaching effects.
For now, Ars Magica remains a game I want to run, but a game I don’t know if I’m ready to run. With the Fifth Edition, I feel a lot more confident. Finding enough players with enough interest may be the true challenge. It’s a game that does kind of demand more mental investment than others.