It’s beginning to look like I’m going to be running some Ars Magica for my Monday night group, having wrapped up my Traveller campaign for the time being. A big reason is that membership of the Monday evening group has been fluid for a good long while, so the ship’s crew in Traveller was becoming cluttered with former player characters and my planning was littered with exciting backstories generated by the Traveller lifepath system that I couldn’t really address properly due to the absence of the players in question. Ars Magica, conversely, is a bit more suited to PCs appearing and disappearing; even an important player character could conceivably get lost in Wizard’s Twilight for years or get sent by their House to the other end of Europe on a mission, and not every PC will participate in every adventure anyway if you go with the aspect of “troupe-style” play which has each player potentially running multiple characters.
The other big reason is that Ars Magica is awesome, so when the Monday gang mentioned enjoying it in the past I jumped at the chance to run some.
Ars Magica is often mentioned in the same breath as Pendragon in discussions about artsy RPGs of the 1980s, and there’s good reason for that. They’re both precursors to the “everyone plays a variant take on the same basic character type” that Vampire: the Masquerade and sequels made their specialty in the 1990s – Pendragon at its most basic assumes that PCs will be knights from Salisbury; Ars Magica focuses on wizards, and even though a broader range of player character types are available the mages are very much central to the game. (Specifically, play revolves around the Order of Hermes, who monopolise the practice of magic within Christendom in the same way as the Pope and Patriarchs monopolise the practice of religion and guilds monopolise skilled crafts; it is assumed that player characters are all either wizardly members of, important non-mage allies of, or “grog” servants working in a “covenant”, a self-contained wizardly community – think a monastery where magical experimentation takes the place of prayer.)
Likewise, unusually for fantasy RPGs of their vintage (Chivalry & Sorcery being a notable exception), both Pendragon and Ars Magica take place not in a secondary creation cribbing to some extent from Tolkien, but instead in an approximation of medieval Europe – Pendragon draws, naturally, on the era of King Arthur as depicted by Thomas Malory and other Arthurian sources, and so is a pleasant mixture of anachronisms, whilst Ars Magica is set in “Mythic Europe”, which is meant to be exactly like Europe in the real world (the default date being 1220 AD) except a) the Order of Hermes exists and b) the metaphysical worldview and supernatural folklore of medieval Europe is all true.
Another commonality is that both Pendragon and Ars Magica play the long game; Pendragon assumes one major adventure per year and institutes a “Winter Phase” in which PC knights raise families and tend to their manors, whilst in Ars Magica the year is divided up into seasons, and extensive downtime is required to accomplish magical research (with even the simplest tasks usually taking one or more seasons to complete). Whilst in both games PCs face aging, the response in each is different; knights in Pendragon will look to raise heirs who can inherit from them, whilst mages in Ars Magica can both take on apprentices and use magic to extend their lifespan to an unnatural extent.
So, there’s a lot that Ars Magica in common with Pendragon, which I suspect was a big influence on the game, but at the same time it also brings a lot of fresh ideas to the table. Whilst it isn’t the first game to include a freeform magic system – Maelstrom by Alexander Scott, an obscurity originally published in the midst of the Fighting Fantasy boom and recently given a revival by Arion Games, put forth an early example of such a system, though perhaps Ars Magica is the first really interesting and functional such system. Magic is basically broken down into a set of verbs and nouns, and mages invest different numbers of points into each; this means that whilst freeform spellcasting is possible, at the same time each wizard’s magic is going to be flavoured by the type of thing they’ve been studying. A wizard whose highest verb-noun combination is Intellego Mentem is going to spend more time prying into the secrets of men’s minds than one whose specialty is Creo Ignem, who is in turn much more likely to be a firestarter (twisted firestarter) than a Dr. Doolittle type who’s big into Rego Animal. In addition, there’s enough benefit to learning and using preformulated spells to make it worth considering spell research in downtime.
As far as my upcoming campaign is going to go, naturally a lot depends on what direction the players want to go in, but I’m inclined to
rip off pay tribute to an Ars Magica campaign run by Dan I played in a scarily long time ago by suggesting that the PCs be the new resident magi taking over an ancient covenant whose former occupants have faded away into obscurity. (In the terms used by the game, this would be a Spring Covenant established in the ruins of a Winter Covenant.) It’s one of the ideas suggested by the core book and it really offers an ideal mix between giving the player characters control of the covenant whilst at the same time having plenty of scope for there being dark secrets hidden away for them to discover as the campaign progresses.
The nice thing about the four weeks on, eight weeks off format for GMing for the Monday group is that between each bit I can look at the extensive range of support materials Atlas have put out for 5th Edition Ars Magica and experiment with incorporating these things bit by bit into the game. For the first block, I’ll just run with the core book to ease people into things before introducing new complications.