Referee’s Bookshelf: Realms of Power Series for 5th Edition Ars Magica

So, as mentioned I’ve been running some Ars Magica for the Monday evening group, and after the first block of sessions I’m now looking at preparation for the next set. My plan is to introduce new concepts to the game bit by bit, giving myself a chance to fully look over supplements and decide exactly what parts of them to incorporate into the game as I go. The first set of supplements I’m going to look at are the Realms of Power books.

Part of the Hermetic theory of magic followed by Ars Magica PCs is that supernatural events can all be traced back to one of four sources, known as the Realms of Power – the Divine, the Infernal, Magic and Faerie. (The less said about 3rd Edition’s Realm of Reason the better.) Whilst past editions have had supplements dedicated to some of these realms – Faerie was detailed in Faeries for 2nd edition and Faeries Revised for 3rd and 4th, and the Divine was looked at in Pax Dei for 3rd – neither the Infernal nor Magic have had a supplement devoted exclusively to covering those Realms before 5th Edition. Indeed, the 5th Edition Realms of Power series is a noteworthy example of the more systematic approach Atlas has taken with supplements for 5th Edition. This makes sense because although not all the Realms are created equal – the Divine, in particular, enjoys a certain pre-eminence for obvious reasons – all four are of comparable significance when it comes to being sources of supernatural phenomena – and, thus, they’re all equally useful for generating adventure hooks for Ars Magica.

The Divine

Making this one the first entry in the series is a logical choice – religion, and therefore the influence of the Divine, is near-ubiquitous in medieval Europe, and it will therefore be a feature of pretty much every Ars Magica campaign you could care to run. At the same time, it’s also the supplement which by far demands the most sensitivity, since it involves discussion of various flavours of monotheism which remain fashionable today. To a large extent, this issue is handled using the traditional stance Ars Magica has followed: mainstream Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all valid religions, as are minority monotheistic religions like Zoroastrianism (mentioned mostly as a small cult under the Mythic Islam chapter, presumably because the vast majority of Zoroastrians live in Islamic countries at this time), whilst heresies tend to be aligned with the Divine as well unless their followers are led astray by other powers. Given that there is no one position you can take on this stuff which will be agreed to by absolutely every adherent of the religions in question, Atlas here take up a compromise which will bug hardline religious purists but which most moderate sorts will, if not agreeing to, at least be willing to entertain for the purposes of a work of fiction. Referees are left in the position of either coming up with their own take on this stuff (I am willing to bet actual cash that someone out there is running an Ars Magica campaign where Muslims are pawns of the Devil, given that there’s plenty of people who seem to genuinely believe that that’s really the case) or interpreting the default position for themselves.

The interpretation I’ve used for my campaign is that “orthodox” religions represent “safe harbours” – zones of belief which have been established as being genuinely Divine-oriented through years of established theological consideration. Any “heresy” that survives for long enough will either reveal its true nature as a deception, be accepted by its parent religion as a legitimate variant practice (as some associated Eastern Catholic churches are by Rome), or will survive thanks to the Dominion’s benevolence to become a significant religion of Mythic Europe. The formation of a legitimate new religion is a rare thing in part because of the hostility from orthodox camps (who with some justification believe it’s safer for everyone to just stick to the safe harbour rather than floating off into dangerous theological waters), and in part because novel heretical movements tend to be quite bad at cleaning house and driving out Infernal impostors and other deceivers – and, indeed, lots of heresies are started by Infernally-inspired charlatans and false prophets specifically for the purpose of creating strife and misleading the faithful.

So, what do you get for your money here? Well, in keeping with the medieval tendency to cook up ornate hierarchies of angels, just such a hierarchy is presented here, with stats presented for each type of angel, as well as the expected details on Divine regiones and special powers that those particularly associated with the Divine can call on (including miracles and divine intervention). At the same time, you also get far more in the way of full-blooded historical content than you do in any of the other Realms of Power books. After all, wizards, faeries, and followers of Satan all manifested far more often in folklore than in reality during the medieval period, but whilst we can dispute the reality of the things religion talks about, the reality of religion as an institution is undeniable. It isn’t really possible to get a depiction of medieval Satanism “wrong” because there was no Satanic orthodoxy back then (and little evidence of any organised Satanist activity at all), but medieval Christianity, Islam and Judaism are real religions that it’s genuinely possible to get wrong.

Whilst the book stresses that it’s discussing “Mythic” equivalents of the traditions in question, rather than the reality of them, at the same time the chapters discussing the three major Abrahamic faiths actually seem to be fairly well-researched. Christianity gets the most space, which is logical enough considering that the Order of Hermes’ extent more or less matches the expanse of Christendom, but Islam and Judaism are covered in substantially more depth than I remember getting even from my (actually surprisingly diverse and well-done) Religious Education classes in school. Here the “all these religions are valid” stance pays off, because whilst Islam and Judaism don’t quite get the page count Christianity does, they’re covered in more than enough detail to feel like genuine, rich, complex ways of life with their own particular theological positions and internal disagreements and controversies besides. I wouldn’t recommend the book as a means of directly learning about the faiths in question, but as far as providing models for handling them in medieval Europe-centred fantasy RPGs it’s a great little resource.

(Note that two versions of this supplement are available; the revised version was put out when it was discovered that significant sections of the 4th Edition Kabbalah supplement, which were used in the Judaism chapter this time around, were actually plagiarised. The only significant difference between the versions is that the Judaism chapter has been rewritten so that the plagiarised material is no longer used.)

The Infernal

The Infernal has the advantage that nobody (aside from a few lonely cranks) claims to be part of a Satanic tradition dating back to the medieval period, but at the same time theologians of the era fretted about the Devil enough to produce a lot of flavourful material to draw on without running the risk of offending many people at all. After giving a quick rundown of how the three major religions of Mythic Europe depict the origin of demons and the Devil, the book presents a demonic hierarchy to match the angelic hierarchy raised in The Divine, as well as plenty of black magic, corrupting powers, and metaphysical consequences of sin to go wild with. Primarily intended as a source of adversaries for the PCs, this supplement more than any of the Realms of Power books could have descended into being just a Ars Magica take on the Monster Manual, but it rises above that by providing a range of distinctive traditions for infernalists to dabble in.

To be honest, of the four books in this series this is the one I have the least to say about, mostly because it has the easiest task of any of them. Not only does it demand vastly less sensitivity than The Divine, it also deals with a Realm which is generally going to be understood by most Ars Magica participants, at least in broad brushstrokes, whereas the distinction between the Realms of Faerie and Magic has always been somewhat fuzzier. On which note…

Magic

Next to The Divine, this is the book which demanded the most care from its designers, though for different reasons. Although lots of cultures believe in one form of magic or another, Realms of Power: Magic focuses mainly on the interpretation of the Realm of Magic through the lens of Hermetic magi, who don’t resemble any real-life occultists sufficiently that there’s much risk of any particular subset of the population getting upset over it. (Obviously, there are occultists out there who have very particular ideas about magic and get het up when they see people Doing It Wrong, but literally any work about magic including works by fellow occultists is liable to put such people’s noses out of joint.)

No, this isn’t a tricky book to write because of who it might offend, but because of how close it cuts to the core of the game. Although the companion rules, troupe play, and the range of support  materials for non-supernatural aspects of medieval society make it theoretically possible to play an Ars Magica campaign which doesn’t centre around magi or a covenant, let’s face it: 99% of Ars Magica campaigns will have magi at centre stage, and what with magic being both what mages do and a definitive aspect of what they are, any bold statements about magic made by a supplement can transform people’s understanding of the game utterly. It doesn’t help that of all the Realms, the Realm of Magic is the one which the core rulebook delineates the least.

Magic manages to walk this fine tightrope by offering a range of differing interpretations of what the Realm of Magic itself is like, whilst at the same time offering enough specifics to make the supplement feel worthwhile. The end result is a place that borrows from ideas as disparate as Plato’s plane of perfect Forms, real-world Hermetic ideas of microcosms and macrocosms, and various mystic traditions of magical pursuits being a path to personal transformation and/or mastery of your own universe, and weaves all of these things together into a place where all of that has some sort of validity.

What’s particularly nice is the way the Realm of Magic is simultaneously a place where people are more themselves than in the real world, but at the same time also have the capacity to radically change themselves. On the one hand, whilst you are in the Realm you do not earn experience, for things in the Realm are by default eternal and unchanging. Instead, characters can directly harvest vis in the Realm, as well as undergoing transformative experiences to radically redefine their nature and become intrinsically magic beings.

As well as the usual rules for designing characters who hail from the Magic Realm itself, the book offers plentiful examples of magical animals (which, entertainngly, are said to possess the special powers which those wacky old medieval bestiaries ascribed to the animals in question), magical human-like personages, and magical spirits. In fact, between this and a handy appendix on wild beasts of Mythic Europe, I’d say this is more of a Monster Manual-type tome for Ars Magica than any of the other Realms of Power books are.

This kind of makes sense to me: Magic is, after all, posed as the reverse of Faerie, and since in the next book we see that the Fair Folk have overpowering motivations (conscious or otherwise) to proactively meddle with human beings, it makes sense to me that the Magic Realm would be more reactive – a place people have to go and discover rather than a place whose denizens come out and mess around in the mundane world – and likewise it makes sense for the Realm to be home to potent, idealised versions of real-world things rather than the fanciful caricatures and outright fantastical entities that live in Faerie. Nicely, the book also incorporates a wide range of ways in which characters can be drawn into matters of the Magic Realm through surprisingly mundane routes: for instance, there’s some fascinating lore on cats that would make a downright adorable subplot if you build it around someone’s familiar.

Faerie

Rounding off the quartet is Faerie, which discusses the various wild and pagan entities that can be found in the triune otherworlds of Arcadia, Elysium and Eudokia. This one is a bit bolder about presenting a “truth” behind the Realm than Magic, though it remains a truth amenable to at least some GM interpretation: the faeries of Ars Magica rely for their continued existence on borrowed human vitality. Some may take this through the eating of flesh or drinking of blood, but the best way is by basking in the light of human attention or strong emotions or worship. Many faeries don’t realise they need this and simply operate according to rules that make sense to them, rules that cast them as the sort of roles that crop up in human folklore over and over again; some faeries, however, are aware of their nature, and can even manipulate the circumstances of the stories they are cast in so as to effect a transformation of their nature.

On the one hand, I am mildly concerned that this take on faerie, with the whole self-aware story business, is a little too contemporary (or even postmodern) for a game which is meant to be based in a medieval worldview. On the other hand, it does make sense that they have this extreme level of subjectivity compared to the Platonic objectivity of the Magic Realm, and you can kind of reverse Plato around to say that just as the mundane world is the shadow cast by the World of Forms, the faeries are the shadow cast by the human imagination. On top of that, having a very out-of-place set of motivations and worldview for the faeries actually works really well if you want them to be truly creepy and alien – provided that those motivations prompt them to act like faeries in medieval stories, it’s all good.

I can sort of see why Faerie would come last in the Realms of Power series: the Divine is ubiquitous in Mythic Europe and Magic is the theme of the game, and whilst it’s conceivably possible to run an Ars Magica game without any appearance from the Infernal whatsoever, the forces of Hell are a sufficiently tempting adversary (and source of power) and the ban on diabolism so prominent in the Code of Hermes that I suspect it’s vanishingly unlikely for a campaign to go by without a whiff of Satan. Conversely, if you happen to have no Merenita PCs or characters with a particular interest in matters Faerie, it’s entirely viable to ignore the matter of Faerie completely. Realms of Power: Faerie is both a robust treatment of the topic, and also includes enough pointers on creating Faerie-oriented characters that you could conceivably run an entire campaign based around Faerie. (It would be entirely possible to use this plus the core rulebook to run a campaign in an alternate Mythic Europe where instead of the Order of Hermes you have a widespread cult of pagan Faerie-worshippers, for instance.)

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2 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Realms of Power Series for 5th Edition Ars Magica

  1. Dan H

    Reading these posts really makes me want to get back into Ars M.

    I’d actually put in an argument against Faerie being the least important RoP, for what it’s worth. While it’s true you might be able to ignore Faerie if you have no Merinita PCs, it’s also the only RoP that is *explicitly* tied to one of the canonical houses.

  2. Not quite – multiple houses have had some form of Infernal scandal in their past. And arguably Magic is tied to all the Houses, and the Divine has thorougly infiltrated most of ’em.

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