So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.
So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?
Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.
With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.
Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.
Some games need a little extra something before they really click with you. Changeling: the Dreaming largely didn’t click with me until its 20th Anniversary Edition, but its recent supplement, the Book of Freeholds, finally helps give me a picture of how I’d actually envisage a Changeling campaign functioning.
The supplement, as the title implies, is an in-depth look at the subject of freeholds, including a detailed system for designing your own for your PCs to manage. It’s not a thick thing – it’s less than 60 pages, in fact – but it’s really helped me get a handle on what I want out of Changeling.
Specifically, once you make sure to add in a freehold focus to your Changeling campaign, what you end up with is a sort of whimsical modern-day Ars Magica. Freeholds are basically Changelings’ sanctuary from the banal world where they can let their fantastical side all hang out, just as in Ars Magica your covenant is a sanctuary from the chilly reception wizards otherwise get in Mythic Europe. Likewise, adventuring to defend the freehold against threats, stave back Banality and harvest Glamour is much like the way Ars Magica characters seek to defend their covenant against threats, ward off antithetical sources of power, and gather magical power for their own purposes.
Other World of Darkness games had played on this idea to a certain extent, of course – particularly Werewolf and its cairns – but it feels to me like Changeling freeholds seem closer than anything to Ars Magica covenants in terms of how the inhabitants are supposed to buy into them and the sort of interactions that they set up with the outside world.
Ars Magica is notable as being the RPG where reading books and undertaking extended crafting projects in downtime is given as much attention (and can potentially be as much fun) as actual adventuring. Savvy referees, of course, realise that the downtime action can feed into the adventuring and vice versa; being savvy publishers, Atlas Games have realised that whereas traditional RPGs call for traditional adventure scenarios, Ars Magica calls for scenarios based not just around immediate short-term adventures but also long-term projects and events. In this article, I’m going to be reviewing three collections which offer a range of such long-term scenarios.
This is essentially a compilation of extended examples of the sort of projects that can be accomplished using the main Order of Hermes magic system as presented in the core book; whilst additional options based on information on other supplements are presented here and there, it is entirely possible to accomplish any of the goals presented here – a covenant built inside an active volcano, a new Tower of Babel, a living corpse, a magic zoo, and more – simply using the core magic rules and the occasional bit of lateral thinking. Where it gets into quasi-scenario territory is in the scope of these projects; we’re not talking something you can knock out in one season by yourself here, but substantial works that would probably require amassing an awful lot of support to get through.
New spells and magic items to support the projects in question or with broader utility are presented, as are a range of considerations when putting such major works into effect and complications that the referee might throw at the players when they attempt these acts.
At first sight, the supplement seems to be of rather narrow, niche interest, but it’s actually a bit more diverse than that; not only is a godsend if your PCs actually choose to undertake a project similar to one of those offered up here, but there’s also enough information given which can be readily adapted if they try to do something broadly similar. On top of that, it’s great as a source of ideas for projects that NPCs can be working on if your own Covenant isn’t interested, which helps create the impression that magi in other Covenants do stuff other than lounge around reading books.
Transforming Mythic Europe
This is sort of a broader take on Hermetic Projects. Whereas the former supplement was focused mostly on very specific projects, this involves undertakings which may have magical, political, and other dimensions involved with each in their own way create profound changes in the Mythic Europe setting and associated changes in the Order’s relationship to it.
It’s a convention of the setting that the Order by and large doesn’t actually do that much to transform Mythic Europe – the Code of Hermes is specifically set up to discourage intervention to explain why the setting looks as much like real-world history as it does. It’s also a tacit assumption of most campaigns that PCs will either directly flout this law or find one way or another to justify breaking it, so it’s nice to have a supplement which offers some guidelines on how to go about managing projects involving long-term, major changes.
The book offers three different major twists that PCs could conceivably add to the setting – convincing the Order to integrate into medieval society as a Fourth Estate alongside the clergy, nobility, and peasantry, rather than the aloof recluses they are typically presented as being, constructing an island nation of magi, and providing magic to the mundanes to such an extend that it effectively becomes a sort of technological revolution. Some of this entails convincing the Order to accept radical changes to its ways, some of it entails careful persuasion of mortal society to accept what is happening; the chapters go into detail about how to accomplish this as well as how to execute any relevant magical and supernatural feats necessary to pull off the job. The authors seem to be broadly aware that different campaigns will set mildly different baselines when it comes to the Order’s insistence on non-interference, and also notes how different Tribunals set the bar differently in canon, which is also useful.
What’s really neat about the book is how it sneakily ends up offering a set of alternate setting concepts for Ars Magica; by simply assuming the outlined steps in the relevant chapter have already happened, you can already get a fairly good idea of what the setting would look like if the Order of Hermes really were an integrated part of society, or really did have its own island nation where it could do what it wanted, or really did act as the catalyst to produce a far more high-magic society than that envisaged in the core setting. This makes it a great example about how a line offering such apparently specific and narrow suggestions for scenarios can also actually be a really handy supplement of more general use; even if you don’t want to play through the process of raising the Island of the Magi, having it already be a thing in your campaign could be a lot of fun.
This offers a brace of truly apocalyptic scenarios – a set of extremely different crises which bring Mythic Europe to the brink, and perhaps over it.
This didn’t really grab me as much as I thought it would. For one thing, it doesn’t include the actual, Biblical end of days – the closest you get is something which has some very minor parallels but is radically different in nature from what goes on there. Apparently David Chart (who stepped down as Ars Magica line editor with the release of this book, 5th edition being more or less complete at this point) felt that you couldn’t do Revelations in a way which kept the PCs involved – but at the same time I would argue that Revelations is so weird and allegorical that you absolutely could spin it in such a way that the PCs could meaningfully intervene.
The lack of the Biblical Apocalypse is a specific symptom of what I consider to be a wider problem, which is that the four disasters in this book are all tied to the Realm of Magic. It’s almost like when they were brainstorming which scenarios to include that they forgot that Faerie, the Infernal, and the Divine even existed, and then their efforts to include those Realms in the scenarios in question are a bit half-assed.
Now, some people like that, arguing that having the world-ending climax of a game based around magic focusing on the Realm of Magic is thematically appropriate. They do have a point, but I would argue that the distinctive thing about Ars Magica is not the magic taken in isolation – it’s the magic framed in the context of a medieval worldview and inserted into real-world history. The faeries, demons, and angels are all important to that, and yet God and the Devil are near-irrelevant to all the scenarios presented. Given that each scenario would seem to throw the entire Biblical timetable out of whack, you’d think that both God and Satan would intervene here if they’re going to intervene at all, and yet… nothing.
This is exacerbated by the fact that two of these Magical apocalypses are riffs on Norse myth – you get a Fimbulwinter scenario and a Ragnarok scenario. Not only should these really be combined for the purposes of Norse myth, but the side order of “lulz, turns out that cosmologically speaking you should have been paying way more attention to Norse paganism instead of Christianity” is irritating. They’re also the only world-shattering scenarios to arise from groups outside of the Order of Hermes, Atlas overlooking an amazing potential scenario – the long-running standoff in Spain and Outremer between the Order of Hermes and the Order of Suleiman igniting into an all-out no-holds-barred magical war which threatens to shatter the very pillars of creation.
As far as the other two concepts go, neither appeals. One relies on the designers arbitrarily declaring “Surprise! This particular House in the Order was secretly a doomsday cult all along!” – right down to retconning the House’s writeup in Houses of Hermes to make it work – which is just unbelievably obnoxious. (Their plan is also apparently inspired by a Legend of Zelda game.) Another involves a weird magical plague, which seems to miss the opportunity to play with some exciting real history. (Why go for a magical plague when the Black Death was apocalyptic enough in its own right?)
To the book’s credit they do go above and beyond when it comes to detailing potential ways the world can be transformed by these scenarios, to allow play to continue in a radically transformed world. On the other hand, this really cuts to the heart of the thing: anyone who, likes me, leans harder on the “history” side of the “magic meets history” premise of Ars Magica is not likely to want to play in a world where magic has eliminated history entirely – and are more likely to be excited by the prospect of inserting the Order of Hermes into real historical events than they are by magical apocalypses of an entirely ahistorical nature. (By comparison, the alternate societies depicted in Transforming Mythic Europe retain enough connection to actual history, to my eyes at least, that they feel like perfectly cromulent variant takes on Ars Magica, whereas the postapocalyptic scenarios on offer here feel like they go outside the bounds of what I want out of Ars Magica altogether.)
On reflection, medieval Ireland really is an obvious location to set an Ars Magica chronicle. The conventional history of the period is turbulent enough to offer plenty of matters of interest to come up, whilst it’s also isolated enough and has enough wilderness to believably have a healthy Order of Hermes contingent there. On top of that, it’s rich in local legends of magic, faeries, saints and devils, to the point where its folklore seems tailor-made to fit into the Ars Magica cosmology.
It’s a bit of a surprise, then, that Atlas took until 2013 – comparatively late in the life of the 5th Edition publication process – to put out The Contested Isle, their treatment of the Hibernian Tribunal of the magi of Ireland. What Lawford, Romer, Ryan and Shirley deliver here is a Tribunal where the local Order of Hermes’ traditions are steeped in the local culture due to years of isolation – right down to a certain acceptance of inter-Covenant warfare that’s not unreminiscent of the clan warfare of Ireland at the time.
Set against this is an influx of continental magi more connected to more mainstream interpretations of the Code of Hermes, riding the coattails of the English invasion and associated with the new ways the English are trying to impose on the realm. All this takes place against the backdrop of a territory where ancient magic and entities have never quite been brought to heel by the Order of Hermes, the local Order having never taken that whole “Join Or Die” ethos that seriously. Will the newcomers respect the old ways – and the pacts underpinning them – or throw all into chaos? And if they do, how will the pre-Hermetic powers of Ireland respond?
With meaty chapters offering insight into the very particular ways that the four Realms of Power manifest on Ireland – from its rich tradition of local saints (and the devilish forces they face) to various faerie creatures and the magical entities that used to hold sway there – The Contested Isle generally offers plenty of fodder for playing an Ars Magica campaign set in Ireland.
The main thing I think the supplement is missing is more of a treatment on how to set up a new player character covenant set there, if your players don’t want to be associated with any of the pregenerated covenants; in particular, some guidelines on how to design a covenant aligned either with the local traditions or with the new “English” ways would be particularly handy, as would suggestions of places where a new covenant might be especially welcome. This is a weakness of many of Atlas’ Tribunal books, but seems especially acute here, where the fine balance of power doesn’t seem to provide much space for shoehorning in new covenants. This is a problem which is easy enough to overcome with a little thought and work, but it does feel like something the designers should be giving pointers on.
If you don’t want to set a campaign exclusively there, the supplement remains useful. Magi from Scottish and English Tribunals in particular may have cause to visit Ireland, as would anyone investigating the deep history of the druids and House Diedne. With this supplement in hand you can make the visit rich and vibrant and make it clear that once you step into a different Tribunal, it’s like visiting a whole other country as far as the local Hermetic culture is concerned.
Mythic Perspectives was an Ars Magica fanzine that came out between 1997 and 2001. This was the era of 4th Edition Ars Magica – a welcome return to form for the game after the various missteps of 3rd Edition (mostly involving various kludges added to make it the backstory to the World of Darkness – including the imposition of the Realm of Reason and various unintended consequences arising from it, like libraries counteracting rather than helping the decidedly intellectual, empirical, experimentation-oriented and scholarship-focused magic of the Order of Hermes).
It was also just about the last era when producing a fanzine through conventional printing methods rather than throwing it up online or maybe doing it as a PDF download made even the slightest bit of sense. These days, most of what you’d want a fanzine for is provided much better via online communities – with greater regularity and interactivity at that.
Still, back when I was running my Ars Magica game for my now-dissolved Monday evening group, one of the players gave me a couple of copies of Mythic Perspectives (thanks Andrew!), and I’m favourably impressed. These were issues 8 and 9, two of the three issues released in 1999 – and the last issues to be put out with any regularity. (One more squeaked out in 2000, and another in 2001.)
The tail-off in publication frequency can be attributed to the fact that Mythic Perspectives was put out by Damelon Kimbrough through his Gnawing Ideas imprint – and in early 2000, Atlas recruited Kimbrough to become the line editor for Ars Magica. However, his stint in the job would be short-lived; he would be replaced by David Chart in 2001, and Chart would go on to manage the line up to 2015, thus overseeing not just the tail end of the 4th edition line but the entirety of 5th edition issued to date. According to the fandom grapevine Kimbrough got married and moved to France in 2008, where he pursues other interests these days; good for him.
The 1999 issues, then, represent perhaps Kimbrough’s inadvertent “audition tape” for Atlas Games – produced on the back of winning the 1998 Origins Award for Best Amateur Game Magazine. As you would expect of a product of the Ars Magica fandom, it’s a delicious mixture of folklore, real history, and game system tinkering, and there’s a familiar name or two in the credits – indeed, David Chart contributes some considerations on “Society and the Gift” in issue 8.
Atlas Games have traditionally been a bit weird about putting their Ars Magica catalogue on DriveThruRPG, and I’m not sure why that’s the case – they’ve been happy to put the new editions of Feng Shui and Unknown Armies up there, for instance, and have gone to the extent of putting up Statosphere, a shopfront for fan-made Unknown Armies material along the lines of the DM Guild for D&D. Perhaps the issue is contractural, because as well as putting their full range up on Warehouse 23 – Steve Jackson Games’ awkward PDF outlet – they’ve got the last three issues of of Mythic Perspectives up there as PDFs too. (Presumably their deal with Kimbrough to bring him in as Line Editor gave them rights to these but not the earlier issues – or perhaps they just haven’t been able to produce nice scans of the earlier ones yet.)
The Lion and the Lily is the Ars Magica 5th Edition supplement detailing the Normandy Tribunal, which corresponds to the northern half of modern-day France. This is a place where the mundane authorities are starkly divided between the King of France and the King of England, whose extensive possessions in Anjou and Aquitaine mean that the extent of French rule is much more limited than we are used to thinking of it as being.
To provide scope to allow player characters to interact with this fascinating bit of history, and to account for the fact that the region is one of the most highly populated in Europe at the time so avoiding contact with the local population would be difficult, the Tribunal is presented as being reasonably permissive when it comes to interactions with mundanes, to the point where if these interactions don’t actually result in magi suffering harsh reprisals from mundanes the attitude of the Tribunal is “no harm, no foul”. This makes it an excellent place to consider for your Ars Magica game if you aren’t up for a stiflingly strict interpretation of the Code of Hermes (and let’s face it, who is?).
Other cultural issues further cultivate the unique flavour of the Tribunal. A shortage of vis sources has knock-on effects on the Hermetic economy, including the development of a system of liege and vassal Covenants paralleling secular feudalism as practiced in the realm as well as providing a further reason to go easy on interactions with mundanes (since these will sometimes be necessary to keep the vis flowing). Furthermore, the craze for troubadour’s tales has prompted mages to consider such things as Hermetic tournament and adventurous mages errant – and of course this is Mythic Europe, so King Arthur and his associated legends were real and had extensive ties here.
Offering a brace of Covenants to populate your campaign with whilst leaving space for PC covenants, the supplement also makes sure to avoid keeping things too static, with various issues potentially about to erupt that could change the face of the Tribunal forever. Had I not gone with the Provençal Tribunal for my now-demised Monday evening Ars Magica game, I’d have been very tempted by The Lion and the Lily.
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.
Art & 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.
Art & 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; Art & 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 Art & 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.
So, in my ploughing through the various Ars Magica supplements on offer I’ve come to what I think of as the “expanded magic” supplement. These are supplements which add onto or provide alternatives to the Hermetic magic system as provided in the core rulebook; this includes hidden secrets possessed by the Order of Hermes, lost magics as yet unknown to the Order, hedge magics belonging to lone practitioners and small groups here and there, and a few types of magic which may pose an actual danger to the Order’s monopoly…
The Mysteries, Revised Edition
Updating the original 4th edition supplement, The Mysteries is built around the idea of mystery cults but isn’t exclusively devoted to them; rather, the titular Mysteries constitute a range of magical techniques that have not entirely been folded into the mainstream of Hermetic magic, but are practiced by individuals and groups within the Order of Hermes, either within the established Mystery Houses, or cross-House Mystery Cults, or as areas of obscure knowledge that are widely experimented with but aren’t part of the “core curriculum” (these latter “curious common magics” get an entire chapter filling you in on them). The book therefore mixes in both accounts of how these specialist magics work and details of groups dabbling in them, and rounds itself off with a chapter of additional Mystery Cults to round things off (along with an appendix on immortal magi).
Implementing all of these ideas in one campaign would, frankly, be incredibly difficult; however, the basic idea of new forms of magic which allow you to accomplish things not allowed for by the Hermetic magics in the core rulebook and which player characters can try to track down is a sound one. (It provided the basis of several other supplements in this vein, after all.) What puts these Mysteries aside from, say, the sort of magic outlined in Ancient Magic, Hedge Magic, and Rival Magic is that they are varieties of magic which, thanks to their association with Mystery Cults and Houses within the Order, helps get player characters seeking them out to engage with and become entangled in the politics of the Order of Hermes by virtue of needing to track down and gain the trust of individuals within the groups in question to obtain them.
The book is also, of course, a natural companion to Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults, and indeed there’s some bits in here like Hermetic Architecture which you will want to have handy to get the most of some of the Houses outlined in there. I suppose this is why The Mysteries is listed as a core supplement on the Atlas website; between this factor and the way the book covers little miscellanea which aren’t offered in the main rulebook, it provides a really dense set of options for Ars Magica which a whole swathe of other books build on.
Ancient Magic offers a range of varieties of magic which have either entirely or are right on the brink of extinction. (The language of Adam, for instance, has at least one speaker still living – unfortunately, it’s Cain, who for this post-White Wolf iteration of the setting isn’t the first vampire but could very easily be reskinned as a vampire if you really wanted.) Thus, there’s an extent to which it’s another selection of little magics which are a bit more simple and narrower than the main magic system, but the method by which PCs obtain them are different; PCs have to go out into the world and explore to track down their last remnants, and then undertake extensive study to reframe them in Hermetic terms. There’s a fairly diverse range of magics on offer, but unlike The Mysteries it may be a little trickier to work these in; whereas it’s reasonably easy to work in a Mystery technique in any campaign where the PCs are regularly interacting with Order of Hermes types, Ancient Magic will often not come up unless the PCs actively have a reason to go looking for it, though then again an Ars Magica party which doesn’t include at least one lorehound eager to hare off after long-lost wisdom would be an unusual one.
Naturally especially useful for campaigns where House Ex Miscellanea is a big deal, Hedge Magic covers varieties of magic which are still practiced by small groups here and there outside of the context of the Order of Hermes typically, but which can be folded into the Order’s practices under the right circumstances. (In particular, a practitioner of hedge magic isn’t necessarily Gifted, which means the Order puts less of a priority on putting the “Join Or Die” ultimatum to them than they would for Gifted individuals.)
The types of magic on offer range from types which feel like perfect fits for Ars Magica – folk witchcraft and Viking-style rune magic – to varieties which I don’t think work quite as well. Elementalists, for instance, don’t feel like they really fill any niche than a Hermetic mage working largely with Aquam, Terram, Auram or Ignem wouldn’t fill, and likewise I’m not sure there’s much conceptual space in between the various types of “Learned Magic” and the scholarly Hermetic magic of the Order of Hermes.
The final member of the quartet presents a clutch of different magical groupings which each, in their own way, could conceivably become an existential threat to the Order of Hermes. Neatly, the designers make sure that none of these varieties of magic are quite as flexible as Hermetic magic, and crucially the Order’s possession of Parma Magica provides, at least in the baseline default setting, a crucial advantage. Of course, this does mean that protecting the Parma Magica is all the more important…
Of all the supplements in question, this is the one which I think merited going last – not because it’s bad, so much as it’s a niche application. Any particular Ars Magica campaign is quite likely to involve wizards going after lost magic or delving into the mysteries of the Order, and anything which helps give a bit of colour to House Ex Miscellanea can only be a good thing, but whilst many referees may find it interesting to pit their players against a potential rival society of magicians, in other campaigns the subject will never come up. Furthermore, most of the varieties of rival magic here are quite regional, so it may be difficult to shoehorn some into particular campaigns. Still, the options are nice to have.
My Ars Magica campaign is currently in one of its breaks as the GM rotation in my Monday evening group passes around the crew, so it’s time once again to look at what supplements are out there and consider how to use them in the campaign. This time around I’m going to look at some supplements which expand on covenants – the groups of magi Ars Magica campaigns tend to revolve around – and the sort of characters who fill out the numbers there.
This short and sweet supplement provides guidance and suggestions for running characters (or even playing them) who haven’t yet hit adulthood. The general assumption is that these rules would be used for Hermetic apprentices, which admittedly is one of the more likely routes for kids to become significant to a campaign, but you could also use it for mundane childhoods too. I can anticipate dipping into it here and there in the near future, because thanks to an improvised encounter in the most recent block the PCs now have a Gifted child in the covenant who’ll need teaching, but the supplement also provides a nice insight into formal medieval ideas about childhood, as well as offering guidance on how kids can find themselves at the heart of supernatural trouble.
Due to its brevity, there’s not much more to say about it beyond the fact that it neatly expands the scope of Ars Magica and the range of characters it can support, as well as usefully clarifying the process of bringing up an apprentice. Particularly in the context of troupe play, having a framework for playing the occasional session with the players cast as children of the covenant is also helpful.
This one pretty much does what it says on the tin, offering a comprehensive look at all sides of the grog equation. You get some useful setting information describing how grogs tend to be organised, what guard duty is like (including some fun “roll to stay awake” rules), what other responsibilities non-martial grogs take on and so long, you get some pointers both on the use of grogs in magi/companion-focused sessions, ideas on how particularly lucky or favoured grogs can graduate to companion status, and you get a bunch of ideas and support for running grog-focused sessions, or even a grog campaign. Additional sample grog statlines are provided, along with a useful template system which can be used to quickly generate more personalised grogs without taking an undue length of time about it. There’s even pointers on livestock as grogs if you fancy running a session where the players all play dogs or something, which is handy for me since my players have been talking about investing in a pack of hunting hounds.
How useful this supplement will be to you will depend largely on the style of your campaigns. If you aren’t up for running with the “people play a range of different PCs” aspect of troupe play, or if you want your campaign to focus primarily on magi and companions and just want to use grogs as a background element to explain who does the chores whilst the PCs do important stuff, you might not have much use for it. But if you want a game where players regularly play grogs, or where grogs and their management are a significant part of play, this is a goldmine.
To a large extent this supplement is simply an expansion of the existing covenant creation rules in the core book – for instance, there’s a massive list of new Boons and Hooks to use when designing covenants – along with additional details on how covenants are actually arranged and governed (including a fully written up example of a covenant’s charter). You also get details on customising and adding more details to magi’s laboratories and the covenant library, which are likely to be the most important locations in the covenant itself, plus a really useful list of ideas for different forms in which all the different flavours of vis might take (vis being physically manifest lumps of magic that can be used for various purposes).
Covenants makes a useful counterpart to Grogs as well, since the discussion provided here on covenfolk and the various offices and jobs they might have helps to flesh out the life of grogs whilst avoiding needless redundancy. There’s also a chapter discussing covenant wealth – where it comes from, where it goes, and suggestions for different ways to manage it ranging from getting in-depth and detailed to simply winging it. The latter is my inclination for my current campaign; whilst careful bean-counting might be appropriate for a campaign in which the players have decided to play members of a poor covenant which must carefully ration out its resources, but instead my players chose to play a wealthy covenant, so it’s fair enough to assume that they an afford to buy whatever mundane purchases they want provided within reason – and of course, extramundane resources are likely to be purchased from other magi, who will tend to be more interested in receiving payment in magical resources than in funds anyhow.
As far as my own purposes go, Covenants may be more useful as a resource for filling out the features of other covenants and thinking about their governance, since my players have already created their covenant and decided what features it has. For this purpose it’s great, and since we found the selection of Boons and Hooks in the core rulebook a little sparse I’d probably want to use it in creating covenants in any subsequent campaign.