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.)