Covenant Sweet Covenant

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.

Apprentices

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.

Grogs

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.

Covenants

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.

Learning More About the Order of Hermes

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.

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.

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Referee’s Bookshelf: Faith & Flame – The Provençal Tribunal

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.

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Thoughts On Ars Magica Ahead of a Campaign

It’s beginning to look like I’m going to be running some Ars Magica for my Monday night group, having wrapped up my Traveller campaign for the time being. A big reason is that membership of the Monday evening group has been fluid for a good long while, so the ship’s crew in Traveller was becoming cluttered with former player characters and my planning was littered with exciting backstories generated by the Traveller lifepath system that I couldn’t really address properly due to the absence of the players in question. Ars Magica, conversely, is a bit more suited to PCs appearing and disappearing; even an important player character could conceivably get lost in Wizard’s Twilight for years or get sent by their House to the other end of Europe on a mission, and not every PC will participate in every adventure anyway if you go with the aspect of “troupe-style” play which has each player potentially running multiple characters.

The other big reason is that Ars Magica is awesome, so when the Monday gang mentioned enjoying it in the past I jumped at the chance to run some.

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