I’m going to have to try to keep myself somewhat on track for this review, as I could go on and on about this game, spiraling down tangent after tangent. Ars Magica is one of my all time favorite tabletop RPGs in spite of the fact that I’ve only played it a relatively small amount. I got a chance to play in the last six or so months of a really excellent campaign back in my senior year in high school. Our group was huge, with probably 8 or 10 regular attendees and probably that many more occasional players. To this day it’s the largest group I’ve ever been in. The primary game master was a student of Medieval History with a deep knowledge of the era and of the game. He was even friends with or a correspondent with at least one of the primary figures in the game (Jonathan Tweet, I think). I believe he even went on to contribute to later supplements. When that game ended (the GM had to go and move because of wanting a career or a life or whatever), we tried a couple other short-lived campaigns, but they petered out.
Years later, Atlas Games published the Fifth Edition. I bought it, but with no game going on, it went on my shelf for years. When I finally got around to reading it, I realized they’d gone and made a sort of ultimate edition. For the first time this extremely complicated and involved game seems like something that could be run right out of one book, not some MacGyvered together Frankenstein’s Monster version of the first four editions and a pile of house rules and apocrypha. In this book, everything is presented in a logical way, spelled out with examples and suggestions. It’s still a complicated game. There are still a lot of moving pieces. It’s still pretty daunting. But for the first time, I feel confident enough to actually run it, thanks to this edition.
So, you might be asking, what is Ars Magica? The simple answer is that it’s a Fantasy tabletop role-playing game set in Medieval Europe. That’s easy. But wait! So the setting is more than just Medieval Europe. It’s “Mythic Europe,” a version of the world as it was seen by those who lived in it, a world where magic is real, where fairies lurk in shadowed woods, where God sits in judgement of mortals, where demons hunger for the souls of mortals.
Unlike most Fantasy games where players tend to have a mix of characters like warriors, thiefs, monks, etc., Ars Magica is all about the wizards, the magi. A player’s core character is a magi, a wizard who has learned his or her skills from the Order of Hermes, a secret society that exists in the shadows. Much of the game is about magic, about finding it, learning about it, using it to accomplish things, and growing magical power. This isn’t just about a character with a couple spells that work like a fantastical version of handgun. This game digs deep. Perhaps your character is in the process of training an apprentice. Maybe she is trying to explain something outside the current understanding of magic theory. Maybe he wants to invent a powerful magical item. There are so many options for stories and goals, so many different ways to engage in the system and the setting.
In the game, your character is from one of twelve houses. Each house has its specialty or its general philosophy. There are the battle magi of House Flambeau, the mystics of House Criamon, the shape changers of House Bjornaer, and the enchanted item crafters of Verditius among others. If there’s a type of wizard from fiction or film that you’d like to play, chances are he or she could be fit into this game, into one of the houses. Then there’s the magic itself. In an elegant twist, it’s more than just learned spells you tend to find in other Fantasy games. Instead, you have Techniques and Forms, essentially verbs and nouns. You mix a verb with a noun, like Creo (I create) Ignam (fire) and you can make fire where none was. Muto (I change) Corpus (body) might allow you to heal someone by changing their body from injury into health (though making that change permanent requires other things). There are learned spells, essentially well honed uses of the Technique and Form mixed with the right sounds and gestures, that your magi can learn. This is called Formulaic Magic. However, there is also Spontaneous Magic, where you can cast things on the fly. It’s more challenging and more dangerous, but unlike in Dungeons & Dragons, for example, you won’t find yourself standing around helpless in the darkness because you didn’t memorize a Light spell that morning.
There’s so much to the magic in this game, as that really is the focus, that I could go on and on. There is, however, more to the game. Once you’ve got your magi character sorted out, there’s another character to make (yeah, you’ll have more than one character to explore the world). Your second character is called a Companion. This is a character that would be your primary character in any other game. They should be well rounded, have goals, have interesting personalities and plenty of reason to get involved in stories. They are, however, not magic users, nor should they be tied too closely to your magi character. A companion could be almost anything. Perhaps he is a peasant who has been cursed to become a werewolf and seeks shelter and aid from the magi. Maybe she is a disgraced noble who dresses like a boy and wants to be a knight. A priest just returned from the Crusades, a Moorish soldier who fled North to find a new life, or a scholar trying to learn the secrets of the Faerie folk might all be potential companion characters. Because magi like to spend as much time as they can learning and experimenting, they really don’t like to go out adventuring. So it’s not uncommon for you to actually play your companion more often in sessions than your magi.
That’s not all. There’s one more layer of characters for you to enjoy. One of the most fun things to do, especially if you’ve had weeks of intense magi play, is play a Grog. These are essentially peasant “Red Shirts.” There tends not to be a lot of depth to them, they die really easy, and they do not drive the story. Often, they just do what they’re told, carry stuff, and take a bullet meant for a magi or companion. But playing a grog can be so much fun. Managing to infuse some interesting character into a grog can leave a lasting impression, too. To this day, the people from that game back in 1995 get a chuckle about my brother’s grog (well known as a great archer) missed a shot, turned to the rest of the group (including magi) and said, “can’t be hit” and everyone just accepted his word for it and tried to find a new way to solve the problem. A grog, a red shirt, a nothing, ended up being the reason for a great moment in a game.
Last, but very, very much not least, there’s a character type I haven’t mentioned and it might be about the most important in the whole game. Everyone takes part in playing the Covenant. Essentially, the covenant is the group of players, it’s their home, their little society, and it takes on a life of its own. Like the magi and companions, the covenant has virtues and flaws, it has resources, enemies, and for lack of a better term, character. In many games, the players all take a hand in crafting the covenant and making it in their image.
Ars Magica is a game that works best in long form. A lot of what makes the game and its mechanics interesting and special are things that only come into play as in-game time passes. There are a lot of ways to run and play the game, but typically, a game will start out with a lot of sessions taking place in a relatively short in-game time. If your founding a covenant, for example, you might play several sessions that all take place over the course of one or two seasons. Once that’s done, however, sessions might take place over a more and more spread out time. Maybe an adventure takes place in the winter of 1066, but the next one doesn’t take place until the summer of 1070. Those skipped seasons and years aren’t useless, though. That’s time your magi will have been doing things, time you’ll need to work out through the various mechanics of the game. What did they learn, what did they make, what did they write? These are all questions that need to be asked and figured out as the seasons pass, even when not played out in a typical game session. That might sound like boring bookkeeping, but believe me, once you get into this game, you’ll be reveling in all the crazy stuff your magi can get up to when not being distracted by the events of individual game sessions.
This later part is where something I really like comes into play, though it’s also fairly controversial. When we played back in the 90s, my game master encouraged us to write a ‘lab notebook.’ This was essentially a journal of what our magi was getting up to. Each season would have an entry, sometimes fairly in depth, other times not as much. It not only served as a good way to give our perspective of the game to the GM so he could have a better handle on things and know we were engaged, but it also provided another outlet for storytelling. My own character, almost entirely through entries in my lab notebook, was experimenting with a theory that the Gift (the natural ability to work magic) was hereditary. This included searching out children of gifted people as well as actually having a child. This child was growing up and would likely have become an apprentice had the game gone on longer. At almost no point did any of this come out in individual game sessions, yet, it might have had major repercussions down the way. I absolutely loved the lab notebook and it’s something I’ve tried to include variations of in later games. I have, however, found a lot of players are very resistant to participating. I’m not sure if it feels like homework for people or what. I find in-world character journals to be an excellent way to get deeper into character development and game play, but I haven’t had much luck convincing others of that.
In this book, there are recommendations for various styles of play. Obviously, the default setting is Mythic Europe and the game is written with that in mind. There are a few suggestions for using it with other settings, and suggestions for what degree of Mythic VS Historic Europe you might want to use. The default start time is 1220 A.D., though it shouldn’t be too difficult to adjust things to another time. On a related note, when my mother was working as a teacher’s assistant, she started reading a series of books. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. They feature a young magic user who is going through several years of training before he becomes a wizard. He lives at a school with four houses, each with distinct specialties and philosophies… It would take some work, for sure, but I definitely think you could boost up the timeline and make the Harry Potter novels a possible future of Ars Magica. When I was reading the first couple novels, I kept thinking about how much they echoed some of the ideas of the game. I’m not a Potter expert or even especially an enthusiast, but it’s an idea. I never did like the idea that the magic was ‘going away.’
As I said, I could go on. There’s a lot to cover. I don’t think this is a game that’s going to go over well with every group. If you just want to show up on Sunday night, eat some pizza, roll a few dice, tell a couple jokes, and leave, this might not be the game for you. If you want something a bit more complex where you as a player have to really get your hands dirty, make lots of choices, drive the action, and build a memorable world with lots of great stories, give this a try. I often refer to Ars Magica as my dream game. I say that because for the last 20 years, I’ve wanted to get a group of like-minded players together and play out a long-term game. It’s always near the top of my gaming wish list, but I haven’t had any luck yet.
If you think Ars Magica might be for you, I can’t recommend it highly enough. In no way is it a one size fits all game and it’s not the usual rules-light kind of game I’m into. But it’s absolutely one of the best.
Here’s a video I did talking about some movies that get me in the mood for Ars Magica.
I’ve made a longer video about some of my thoughts on the game.
Also, check out my review of the Rhine Tribunal book.