One of the advantages that historically-themed games like Ars Magica have is that there’s masses more setting information out there for historical settings than could ever be produced for s fantasy world, with a richness and depth that goes beyond that of any invented setting. One of the disadvantages of that is that it can be quite hard to get a really good overview of important subjects compiled with an eye to being gameable.
Thus, it’s quite handy that Atlas have produced a string of Ars Magica supplements which focus on the reality of 13th Century Europe. It isn’t that you couldn’t draw this information together yourself with enough time – but that would be a lot of effort which the designers have saved you, and they’ve described these matters with an eye to integrating them into the Ars Magica system in interesting ways.
City & Guild
This is a supplement covering medieval towns and cities, merchantile activity, guilds of craftspeople, trade, and so on. This is subject matter which both has the potential to be rather dry and tends not to be the sort of thing that we tend to put front and centre when we think of medieval Europe, but I actually think that its slight obscurity is part of what makes this supplement of interesting. It is true, of course, that following the fall of the Western Empire that much of Europe became much more rural and trade became much more sparse, but it is a massive oversimplification to take this assumption too far and including cities, trade, and guilds enriches a historical medieval setting. (Indeed, in my current campaign the city of Toulouse is not too far away from the PCs’ Covenant, and one of the PC Companions is a merchant.)
Though there are some system bits provided in here if you really want a rigorous system for working out how many pots your potter makes in a season (or whatever), a large part of the value of the supplement comes in its discussions of how guilds, cities, and the liked worked during the time period. Whilst this is not a substitute for looking to more rigorous sources if you want to become an expert (and a decent bibliography is provided if you want to read further), I think what Atlas have usefully done here is provide an introductory condensation of information with a specific focus on stuff which makes for good gaming material. There’s an extensive discussion of town charters, for instance, because the authors recognise that there’s an enormous amount of interesting political gaming that can arise from interactions with a town charter – whether it revolves around acquiring one, blocking the acquisition of one, changing its terms or trying to abide by its requirements. On top of that, they show a decent amount of imagination when it comes to working in aspects of Mythic Europe even to this subject, with ideas offered about the sort of charters which might be offered not by the secular or ecclesiastical authorities but by faeries or Hell.
The discussion of the workings of guilds is particularly interesting, not least because it points out a very nice way to allow for women to be extensively involved in them which seems on the face of it to have some historical credibility: namely, that whilst formally many guilds were closed to women, in practice women could be entered onto the membership rolls of a guild under their father’s name. This is a nice example of how “historical accuracy” isn’t really an excuse for locking women out of having powerful, interesting roles in society in historical RPGs: yes, in women faced barriers above and beyond the barriers they still face today, but equally there have always been women who have found their way past those barriers.
In terms of trade, the discussions are also of some interest. It is worth remembering that the default start year of 5th Edition campaigns is 1220, which would be when Venice and other cities had become major powers through the power of trade, so it’s definitely in the high medieval era when a functional economy is coming back into Europe and the power of coin is rising once more. Indeed, if you start a campaign in 1220 then the hottest news of the past few years would be the Fourth Crusade, in which Venice used its economic leverage to persuade massed armies of Crusaders to go and friggin’ overthrow Constantinople for them, establishing a Latin Empire in the East and leaving the region of Byzantium convulsed in conflict between the Latins and the rump states of the Byzantines. Even if your campaign doesn’t take place in that part of the world, it’s a major illustration of how trading powers had become geopolitically significant by that point. (There’s also a very useful bit at the back giving quick summaries of typical trade goods from a range of different regions, which is handy if you want to come up with a particular trader’s stock in a hurry.)
City & Guild gives such an interesting overview of such an overlooked set of aspects of medieval European life that I would say it is useful not only for Ars Magica but, in addition, it’s also useful for any historical RPG set in the era and of at least some utility for games in any fantasy setting with comparable social institutions.
Arts & Academe
This is a supplement which naturally has an awful lot of overlap with the core fantastic elements of Ars Magica; after all, Hermetic magic is presented as being steeped in the philosophical, scholastic, and academic outlook of the medieval period (to the point where your Artes Liberales skill contributes to some magical rolls!), so even your main mage PCs in an Ars Magica campaign are going to be interested in chatting about Plato or Aristotle with sufficiently well-read scholars, and fine artists or wise scholars are, in turn, excellent concepts for Companions, since they are placed to interact usefully both with significant non-magical institutions and with the Order of Hermes itself.
Arts & Academe, then, offers both an overview of the world of education, scholarship, and the fine arts in the medieval period, as well as a dense but rewarding breakdown of the worldview and theories then in vogue. It’s particularly fascinating as an illustration of how medieval thought at the time of 1220 AD (the default start date for 5E campaigns) is currently undergoing a new flowering, thanks to many works (especially by Aristotle) which had been lost during the Dark Ages being reintroduced to European academic circles. If you want a particularly deep look at the theories of the crystal spheres, the humours, the geocentric version of the world, what medieval thinkers really thought the world looked like (no, they did not think it was flat), and so on, this is a really great supplement. The authors, Matt Ryan & Mark Shirley, also have a keen idea of how some academic practices back in the day came close to magic in their own right – particularly considering how the distinction between astronomy and astrology was rather fast and loose, as was the distinction between chemistry and alchemy.
Back when White Wolf were publishing Ars Magica, in the 3rd Edition they introduced the idea of the Realm of Reason, a fifth Realm which acted to suppress the supernatural in all of its forms, as part of a vague effort to present Ars Magica as a credible backstory for the World of Darkness games. This late addition to the setting was an awkward fit in all sorts of ways, not least because of the way it presented academic libraries of the time as being houses of Reason which would suppress magic in a game setting where the most powerful wizards are presented as being highly academic and very given to poring over their books.
Atlas Games junked Reason for 4th Edition, and it’s never come back; Arts & Academe stands as a good argument as to why it shouldn’t, because the products of reasoned, academic scholarship in the Middle Ages are so fantastical to our modern worldview that they deserve to be integrated into the game alongside Hermetic theory, rather than standing in opposition to it. Thanks to its clear discussions of such matters, I would say that Arts & Academe is a very important supplement for anyone who wants to make the cosmological worldview of Mythic Europe have real depth to it.
Lords of Men
This supplement does, as the title suggest, takes in the nobility of Mythic Europe – in several different models as practiced across the continent at the time – as well as giving additional insight into secular rulership in general. In addition to that, though, it also takes a good look at the life of the average peasants – the Men of Lords, as it were – as well as various subjects of worldly import. There is an interesting chapter on the Hermetic law on interference in mundane affairs, which offers some pointers on just how cozy you can get with your local lord before it becomes a problem, and there’s an extensive section on mass combat that may be useful in my own campaign if the players start to take a detailed interest in the outcome of the Albigensian Crusades. There are also expanded combat rules to give additional options, which again sort of makes sense since the characters most interested in combat aside from Grogs will typically be Companions of a knightly or mercenary background. On the whole, it’s a solid supplement, if a bit of a grab-bag of odds and sods fitting the general “secular authority” theme.
As the title implies, this is a supplement-length look at the Church. Specifically, it’s what we would think of today as the Roman Catholic church, since that is the main variant of Christianity in most of the Tribunals of Mythic Europe. (To cover the various Orthodox churches and other groups would take a whole other supplement, and be largely irrelevant in many campaigns, but thanks to the Crusades the Roman church has a presence in more or less every Tribunal the Order of Hermes recognises.)
This is a supplement which obviously has a lot of interests in common with Realms of Power: The Divine; it distinguishes itself from that book by focusing much less on systems for representing the supernatural and miraculous and much more on providing an in-depth description of the structure and functioning of the church. The book covers subjects ranging from typical parishes and congregations to the governance and structure of the church to the monastic life, with extensive explanation of each and plentiful story ideas associated with them to boot, as well as specific notes on events which will be still in living memory in 1220 AD and which are, if your campaign follows history, just coming up on the horizon.
Specific chapters are offered for some issues of particular interest. The Knights Templar get a chapter covering their unique niche (nicely, the chapter also offers guidance on how other military orders differ from the Templars, so its ideas can also be used to represent them), and there is an entire chapter on the role of women in the church, which carries the obvious but welcome caveat that individual groups can of course elect to be a bit more ahistorical if they want to make women more equal in the church.
There’s also a very neat chapter on corruption within the church, both providing pointers on how to handle such plotlines and providing examples of three potentially controversial groups who could, believably, conceal some form of Infernal subversion or could simply be a bit eccentric but basically pious and decent sorts. (Interestingly, none of these are the Templars.)
What makes this chapter – and the supplement in general – so interesting is that the authors clearly are very knowledgeable about this stuff, and as per their biographies several of them are clearly sincerely religiously Christian, so unlike many depictions of corruption in the church in RPGs (and in fantasy in general) this clearly comes from a place of love and understanding rather than blanket condemnation. The discussion of how medieval stories and rumours of corruption in the church differed in their tropes from the lurid anticlerical fantasies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries is particularly interesting, because of course the later anticlerical tropes have, as a result of being extensively used in the original wave of Gothic fiction, become perennial starting points for depicting bad priests and rotten churches in fantasy fiction, so hints on how to make stories about the enemy within fit a medieval.worldview better really help when it comes to giving a distinctive flavour to Ars Magica stories on such themes.
Lastly, the book is rounded off with an excellent chapter describing the current state of the Franciscans in 1220 and their future evolution if the campaign does not change history – useful because, of course, in 1220 St. Francis is still alive and his community of friars is a novel and revolutionary new force in Christendom, and therefore may conceivably play a memorable role in an Ars Magica campaign starting at the assumed start date.