It’s time I set my sights on planning the next Ars Magica slot for my Monday evening group, so it’s time to look at another brace of supplements. This time around I am going to look at the Houses of Hermes series, a three-book collection of supplements providing expanded information on the inner workings of the titular Houses. This radically expands the detail provided on the Order of Hermes, but given the extremely sparse notes on the Houses provided in the 5th edition core book this is no bad thing – particularly as in my campaign the player characters have to prepare to host the Provence Tribunal meeting in 1221.
Houses of Hermes: True Lineages
That said, the first of the series doesn’t just provide information of interest to members of the True Lineages (Houses which you can only be a member of if you served as apprentice to a member). It additionally provides further information of more general import associated with each of the profiled Houses. As well as cleverly providing motivation to buy the book, even if none of the player characters in your chronicle is in deep in the politics of any of these Houses, these additional sections neatly illustrate how each House expresses an essential part of the Order as a whole.
Here, under Bonisagus we get guidelines on making breakthroughs in the Hermetic theory of magic, under Guernicus we get a more thorough consideration of the Code of Hermes than the core book offered as well as some guidance on investigative magics, under Mercere we get some inside information on the magic of the Cult of Mercury from which the Order of Hermes evolved, and under Tremere we get some decidedly spooky material as suited for the Transylvanian tribe who might or might not have a vampiric destiny, depending on whether you want to roll with the World of Darkness as a future history of Ars Magica.
As well as providing inside details on the workings of the Houses, we also get some insight into their foundation and the legendary establishment of the Order, with Atlas not neglecting to work in interesting adventure seeds here and there. The upshot is a book which will sooner or later become useful in just about any Ars Magica campaign – unless you dump the Order of Hermes concept altogether, though at that point you’re playing something so divergent that you’re not necessarily going to get much out of any Ars Magica supplements and you probably ignore half the core rulebook besides.
Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults
This book is an interesting one, because as well as being part of the Houses of Hermes series it is also closely tied in with The Mysteries, a supplement covering those Mystery Cults of Mythic Europe that aren’t lucky enough to be full-blown Hermetic Houses. Indeed, the system for Mystery initiations given here is reprinted from that book, so whilst you don’t need The Mysteries to use this, you may find that if you use this book a lot The Mysteries may be useful to you anyway.
As a result of these Houses being constructed to exclusively control particular secrets, the information in this book isn’t as broadly applicable as, say, the notes on Hermetic law in True Lineages; if you want to interact with the material here you either need to be a member of the applicable Mystery Cult or be willing to straight-up steal their secrets.
As far as the individual cults go, there’s clearly been an effort made to distinguish them in terms of their outlook and their internal politics. For instance, House Merenita has some interesting factionalism built into it, whereas Verdititus is more cohesive and unified but has a number of more recent controversies provided.
Unlike True Lineages, this book isn’t likely to see much use unless and until a significant PC or NPC from the Mystery Cults features in your campaign. Then again, in my experience there’s always at least one player who is drawn to this Mystery stuff like a moth to a flame, so in practice this is another very useful supplement, particularly since without it the referee would need to invent initiations and inner secrets for the Cults wholesale. (And even if you want to do that, the systems and ideas presented here can help a lot with that.)
Houses of Hermes: Societates
The last volume of the series revolves around those Houses whose members come together not out of a lineage of master to apprentice dating back to the Founders, or from common membership in the same Mystery Cult, but from some more nebulous common interest – whether it’s Flambeau’s specialisation in combat magic and chivalry in the name of the order, Jerbiton’s interest in finding a way to live harmoniously alongside mundane society, Tytalus’ emphasis on strength through conflict, or Ex Miscellanea’s special status as the House for Order of Hermes members who don’t strictly belong to any Hermetic magical tradition.
Since like True Lineages this supplement doesn’t have to detail specific Mystery Cult-style initiation processes for the Houses in question, it is able to follow that supplement’s lead in providing information of more general interest beyond just the bounds of the Houses in question. Combat magic naturally gets a spotlight in the Flambeau section; techniques for living in cities without getting your magic utterly squashed by the local Dominion aura are covered in the Jerbiton chapter. Tytalus get to present rules on debating, whilst Ex Miscellanea’s chapter not only offers a handsome range of non-Hermetic traditions for characters to belong to, but also offers guidance on non-Hermetic Supernatural Abilities. Finally, an appendix offers support for Agencies – extended networks of mundane stooges and fronts through which magi can act without overtly meddling in mundane affairs.
Building On a Solid Foundation
At the end of the day, I would say that the Houses of Hermes books are even better than the Realms of Magic series as an expansion to Ars Magica. Unless you’re deliberately running a core book-only game, or a variant campaign where the Order of Hermes doesn’t exist, it’s stacked with ways to make the Houses both interesting cultures for your players to be members of and useful sources for the generation of NPCs – especially when your players decide, as they almost inevitably will, to stick their noses into other Houses’ business. And the extra rules of additional cross-House usefulness are handy to pull out if moments come up when they are especially relevant, even if you aren’t likely to consult them on a regular basis.