So, I kicked off my Ars Magica campaign recently, and for this first clutch of sessions the main aim has been to establish the magi characters and their Covenant and give it a geographical and historical context within Mythic Europe. The players decided to locate their Covenant in the Provençal Tribunal, because in the default 5th Edition start date of 1220 you’re at an interesting point in the Albigensian Crusade where the first burst of the Crusade has petered out and the Cathars and Count of Toulouse have made something of a comeback and it could conceivably go either way from here.
As luck would have it, Atlas Games recently put out Faith & Flame, the Tribunal sourcebook for Provençal, so that’s been the supplement I’ve been primarily using to run the campaign at this point.
By this point Atlas have more or less got this whole “Tribunal supplement” deal down pat, and Faith & Flame is structured in a way which broadly makes sense for this purpose. You open with a chapter covering local history and culture, mostly focusing on the real-world history details but with half an eye on the Order of Hermes to make sure a space is reserved for them. Then there’s a chapter covering the local Hermetic culture, describing what makes Provençal unique as a Tribunal and giving a quick rundown of the major Covenants and the state of play of local politics. In one nice touch, there’s a list of suggested parens for player characters, so if you want your PCs to have grown up locally and been educated by significant NPCs and thus have inroads into the wider politics of the Order beyond their own Covenant you can.
After that, you have a series of regional chapters covering the interesting features of different portions of the Tribunal, including major issues of mundane politics, significant supernatural issues, and more detailed writeups of the major Covenants (including quick portraits of significant NPCs from the Covenants in question). The whole package is rounded off with a detailed chapter on the lost Covenant of Val-Negra, the former Flambeau HQ, which is essentially a big spooky dungeon crawl with an Ars Magica twist.
On the whole, it’s a useful, information-dense resource which I was glad to have because it helped me give some instant background and context to each of the player characters and populate the world with NPCs drawn from it. A happy consequence of the way the Code of Hermes forbids overt meddling in mortal affairs is that the local mundane history doesn’t depend too much on what’s been going on in the Order of Hermes, so if you wanted to use this book as a quick historical reference with some pointers on modelling Catharism in Ars Magica system terms and provide your own take on what the Order of Hermes are doing in Provençal you absolutely can.
At the same time, the reverse isn’t true – the Crusade has affected every level of society in the region, including the Order, and the closer a Covenant is to the major centres of the Crusade the more intensely it has affected them, to the extent where at least one Covenant presented in the book has divided into two factions over their response to the Crusade, so whether or not you use the Covenants here mostly as written (as I by and large intend to) or whether you just use them for inspiration it’s a useful resource for thinking about how Hermetic magi might react to the situation.
As useful a resource as it is for cherry-picking bits and pieces of content from, at the same time in some respects it feels like it suffers from a slightly rushed editing process. It would be handy to have more page references here and there – for instance, so you could flip directly from the summary descriptions of the Covenants in the Hermetic Culture chapter to the detailed descriptions thereof in the regional chapters. And at points the supplement just doesn’t complete its thoughts – I found at least one NPC mentioned in the Hermetic Culture chapter where we were promised to be told exactly what was going on with them in a subsequent chapter, but the detailed explanation promised simply isn’t there. That isn’t so fatal if you’re willing to come up with the details yourself, on the other hand it is rather the point of published supplements for games to come up with these ideas for you.
Faith & Flame is a supplement which probably cheats a little from covering such an interesting region at such an interesting point in its history. The research on offer gives enough of an overview of that history to sit down and get gaming and also is likely to inspire people to research the period further, because it’s just that fun, and as such I am willing to overlook some of the editorial shortcomings. On top of that, it manages to tip its hat to the various Rennes-le-Château-based conspiracy theories about Templars and buried treasure and Mary Magdalen and so forth without going full-on The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail/The Da Vinci Code about it, which lets you choose for yourself just how much pseudohistory to inject into this region of Mythic Europe.