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Game Design Masterclass: Ars Magica

While there are many games with interesting and clever rules, there are few that introduce new concepts and ways to play. Ars Magica stands out as offering not one but three RPG innovations that were new to me when I first picked up the game in around 1992 in its second edition.

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The basic setting of Ars Magica is pretty straight forward. It takes a historical view of Medieval England, but one where magic works, and those who study it gather together in remote strongholds called ‘Covenants’ for mutual protection from the manipulative nobles and easily frightened peasantry. Magic scares people, so it’s best to surround yourself with a few guards and allies so you can be left to study it in peace.

You Don't Start at First Level​

This brings us to the first aspect of the game that stands out; you don’t start at first level. Each magician in the Covenant is a player character and a skilled and experienced master or mistress of the art, with powers to reflect this. Magic is highly potent and your characters have more in common with Gandalf and Merlin than Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. Some powerful spells can control armies and summon hurricanes. No wonder people are frightened of it! While games where you are already highly skilled as player characters are no longer new (Firefly, Star Trek Adventures, Leverage, Dune, etc.) this was the first to introduce the concept to me. While it’s good to build a character, starting as—not only experienced, but highly skilled—offers a lot of opportunities, like starting your campaign in the middle where the PCs can really affect the setting.

Magic is Fluid​

Magic isn't just powerful, its also highly adaptable. This is the other element that really impressed me as well as forming the basis of the magic system in White Wolf’s Mage. In Ars Magica, your wizard character still casts spells. These are called formulaic magic and are tried and tested (and highly academic) magical rituals that can be relied on. As practiced formulas they are not only more reliable but they are also very powerful. These are the powers that tear down castles and fold space. But there is also the more improvised spontaneous spells. While this form of magic is less reliable and powerful it is highly versatile. Basically, you decide what you want to do and the Gamemaster lets you cast it as a spell using two of the fifteen magical skills. You just need to hope your skills are up to the task.

Each spell casting attempt is made using these magical skills. Five of these skills are ‘techniques’—I create, I perceive, I transform, I destroy and I control. The other ten are ‘forms’—Animals, Air, Water, the Body, Plants, Fire, Images, the Mind, Earth and ‘Magic’. So if you want someone to dance like a puppet you need to use ‘I control—Body’ if you want them to choose to dance you need ‘I control—Mind’. There isn’t a lot you can’t do with a combination of these skills, although it is almost impossible to become a master of all of them. The best option is to specialise. A healer might specialise in the Body form, a war wizard might become a master of Fire. But you can also specialise in techniques, mastering the Control or Creation of a variety of things. This all means that not only can you do some really cool and powerful things, but that everyone in the group can have a speciality and a style for their magic.

All this leads up to the most interesting innovation of Ars Magica.

Troupe-Style Play​

Troupe-style play involves every player playing several characters, using different ones at different times and for different missions. So, while everyone can create a magician who is a member of the Covenant, only one magician at a time might go out on the adventure. After all, these are usually to acquire things for their studies and few magicians have enough time for a day trip for something that isn’t useful to studies of their own.

This means that each adventure, one of the players gets to play their mage, and the others play back up characters, who might be thieves, noblemen, bodyguards, fixers or anything else they can imagine, all residents and hanger on at the Covenant. While this might seem an imposition, who gets to play the mage cycles each adventure, and the companion characters are all just as interesting. Magicians may be powerful but they are only any good with magic. They need other people with other skills to succeed in their endeavours.

This all makes Ars Magica a masterclass in using powerful characters. In the game it is all about granting the spotlight to each player, and who gets it is determined by their specialties not their power level. There is nothing to say you can’t have slightly magical characters among the companions either. Once exceptional group I lament not playing with since I moved towns had two guards who used to be elephants but were turned human as the mages needed more guards. They were perfectly human, but had a lot of trouble passing a bun shop. I played an ex-familiar as well. The same group even expanded the option for companions and guards to include the servants on the Covenant, which were entertaining enough for a trip below stairs to usually take a whole session.

This is where Ars Magica shines. It offers a wide variety of characters, each with their own speciality, to make sure that it is never a problems to not get to play your ‘main character’ but often part of the fun. Troupe style play has now seeped into several games, especially ones with powerful central characters (like Buffy) and games of ships or spacecraft with large crews (like Star Trek). While it works very well in any game, there is something about the set up of Ars Magica that resonates especially well with troupe play. It lets you populate the whole Covenant quite quickly, even down to the boy washing dishes behind the kitchen, and often gives them all a background. Your whole Covenant comes alive very quickly for everyone, as everyone has had a hand in making it. Ars Magica is not about the Gamemaster doing all the work this time, but the whole player group taking part in creating the setting and background of the game with their own characters. Even without its innovations, it’s an excellent game, but with them it is essential reading.
 

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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine


Banesfinger

Explorer
Can you explain the game mechanics? Is this a stat + modifiers and roll to beat target number?
How narrative are the rules?
How does magic refresh? Is it slot based? (renews each day)
 

sevenbastard

Adventurer
It's the blue print for 3e. Super powered wizard with some less effective hangers on.

Seriously though using the concept for any D&D campaign makes sense. Wizards have a lot of incentive to delve into ruins and dungeons for lost magical secrets.
 

It's the blue print for 3e. Super powered wizard with some less effective hangers on.

Seriously though using the concept for any D&D campaign makes sense. Wizards have a lot of incentive to delve into ruins and dungeons for lost magical secrets.
Compared to 1e and 2e, D&D Third edition actually moved the needle toward all classes being more equal in power. I'd say Ars Magica actually took the existing imbalance in the early D&D editions and simply made it make sense narratively.
 

sevenbastard

Adventurer
Compared to 1e and 2e, D&D Third edition actually moved the needle toward all classes being more equal in power. I'd say Ars Magica actually took the existing imbalance in the early D&D editions and simply made it make sense narratively.

I don't disagree. Charm Person and Sleep make even low level casters game changers.

Though if you use the spell disruption rules in 1e caster become a lot less capable in combat. Also the rolling to learn spells can nerf a caster pretty fast if the fail on some of the big ones. Plus the Impact of spells, like the con drain for Identify puts added restrictions on there use.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Can you explain the game mechanics? Is this a stat + modifiers and roll to beat target number?
How narrative are the rules?
How does magic refresh? Is it slot based? (renews each day)
Yes it is a stat+skill+d10 vs target number. Stats range from -5 to +5 in a scale not dissimilar to D&D’s Ability bonuses.

In the case of a magic roll, it is Technique+Form+Stamina (a stat) for a formulaic spell, divided by 2 if spontaneous and Fatiguing, or divided by 5 if non-fatiguing (generally, cantrip-like at this level). Fatigue is tracked like health levels and are recovered over time. Ritual magic get extra skill scores added to the roll.

The D10 can be read as a normal roll or, more likely, a ’stress roll’ where 2-9 are read normally, but ‘1’ is counted as a 10 with an extra roll added (so ‘1’ + ‘6’ = 16) and a ‘0’ counts as a zero with an additional number of d10s rolled. The number of extra ‘botch dice' increases in conjunction with the nominal danger of the situation, and each one rolled is checked to see if they also come up with a ‘0’ which would make it a ‘botch’ - the more rolled, the worse the botch.

I think that Ars Magica was the first RPG to self describe itself as a ’Storytelling’ game and make notions towards being ‘narrative’ in design. These days the term can be disputed as to what this actually means in a game. In the case of Ars Magica, the innovations of Troupe style play (with no adherence to game balance between characters and shifting ’Storyguides'), group-shared Covenant design, the structure of a ’Saga' being based on Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) along with copious advice about how to structure stories in the text, meant that being ‘narrative’ was the main thrust of the game.

Magic in the game does not rely on spell points or any other such measure. Wizards are really powerful and can cast their spells as many times as they want, indefinitely - although spontaneous magic can Fatigue a character. However, the consequences of a botched magical skill roll can be really bad and over time the use of magic can ‘warp’ the casters and/or send them to ’Twilight'. Other spell casters can also counteract their magic, and make magical duels - formal contests are called ‘Certamen’ - to see which spell comes out on top. Similarly, some spells might meet magical resistance from various sources that need to be overcome through the casting roll.
 
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Arilyn

Hero
There are no levels in Ars Magica. Experience points are spent to improve your abilities. There aren't really classes either, outside the broad wizards, companions and grogs (guards and servants). Wizards specialize in magical traditions which can get very political. Companions can be anything that's superior to commoners, but not spell wielding. There are lots of grogs. It's fun for players to create a pool of grogs which can be available for anyone to play. They have a more simple sheet, and don't always last too long. 😁A lot of players have a blast playing through grog adventures.

There are no magic slots. Spells that you have memorized take little effort and are predictable. Spells you create on the fly are much more risky to cast and can have consequences and will drain energy.

The players also create the wizard covenant and have points to create the covenant's resources. Covenants go through stages as you play, so you could play out the covenant's lifespan from small and fairly new in "Spring" to gaining strength and power in "Summer" to settling into that power and retreating somewhat in "Autumn" and then the decline in "Winter."

There are usually fairly long gaps between adventures, especially the wizards who spend a lot of time in their studies. The flavour is strongly Medieval Europe. The bestiary is especially cool because it weaves in the Medieval view of animals and monsters.

Ars Magica is an awesome game and continues to be a favourite of mine.
 

Ace

Adventurer
I was blown away by the magic system in Ars Magica when I first read it, sometime in the early 90's. Troupe play was also a revelation. I don't play AM much, but the magic system is the one with which I compare all others.
Its a very good magic system though Noun/Verb flexible magic showed up in a rare game called Melanda Land of Mystery back in 1980.

It was a forerunner to FUDGE as well with a character creation that was narrative, what you did determined your stats and skills.

I've never seen a copy though, Its pretty rare and Ars Magica certainly brought syntactic magic to mainstream gaming.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
I don't disagree. Charm Person and Sleep make even low level casters game changers.

Though if you use the spell disruption rules in 1e caster become a lot less capable in combat. Also the rolling to learn spells can nerf a caster pretty fast if the fail on some of the big ones. Plus the Impact of spells, like the con drain for Identify puts added restrictions on there use.
I called it the spell lottery, either you were incompetent or the central determinant of the only real strategic element of the game (you were the bazooka/ballista others protect and make sure gets reloaded whenever it needs it)
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Its a very good magic system though Noun/Verb flexible magic showed up in a rare game called Melanda Land of Mystery back in 1980.

It was a forerunner to FUDGE as well with a character creation that was narrative, what you did determined your stats and skills.

I've never seen a copy though, Its pretty rare and Ars Magica certainly brought syntactic magic to mainstream gaming.
I never saw Melanda Land of Mystery before, although I would say that Traveller players I’ve known have often laid claim to using Troupe style play in their gaming set up, and other ideas (like spontaneous casting) may have been floating around elsewhere too (Maelstrom RPG). I don’t think the writers of Ars Magica make any direct claim of originating their ideas, but it is a game that brought a lot of them to the forefront of gaming at the time and was influential because of it.

Not sure what you mean by narrative character creation. In Ars Magica, it was based on points build for the most part, although Characteristics were originally rolled and distributed and personality traits are mostly freeform. By today’s standard, noting that a number of ideas from Ars Magica have disseminated over time to other games, people would probably see character creation as quite mainstream in style.
 




TrippyHippy

Adventurer
I never played Ars Magica, but without it we likely never get the Storyteller games and system from White Wolf. So it is a good thing that this game exists.
Actually, White Wolf’s Storyteller mechanics are more linked as a development from Greg Stafford’s Prince Valiant (also described as a ’Storytelling game'), which used ‘dice pools’ of coins and abilities measured in dots. The WoD games switched from flipping coins to rolling D10s instead. Jonathan Tweet was the main mechanical designer of Ars Magica, I think, and Mark Rein-Hagen turned to other system designs for Vampire et al., when Tweet took a hiatus.

Ars Magica was actually linked as a historical setting for the World of Darkness games for a while though (when it was released in its 3rd Edition). This was retconned in later editions, however when White Wolf let Ars Magica go to Atlas Games (4th and 5th Editions). In a sense, White Wolf’s replacement for letting go of Ars Magica, was Vampire: The Dark Ages.
 
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Ars Magica was actually linked as a historical setting for the World of Darkness games for a while though (when it was released in its 3rd Edition). This was retconned in later editions, however when White Wolf let Ars Magica go to Atlas Games (4th and 5th Editions). In a sense, White Wolf’s replacement for letting go of Ars Magica, was Vampire: The Dark Ages.

I don't know about that. I started playing the White Wolf games with the 1st editions and there was plenty of talk back in the 90's about how the two were connected together.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
I don't know about that. I started playing the White Wolf games with the 1st editions and there was plenty of talk back in the 90's about how the two were connected together.
That is what I am saying.

The Ars Magica setting, in the 3rd edition (which was published by White Wolf) was the historical setting of White Wolf’s WoD games. They shared groups - Order of Hermes and House/Clan Tremere came from Ars Magica originally - and tried to link in the paradigmatic concepts of Mage with the 'Realm of Reason’ as a rising force.

They became ‘divorced’ when White Wolf sold off the Ars Magica game to Wizards of the Coast and latterly Atlas Games. The 4th edition removed as many connections with the WoD as they could. At the same time, White Wolf ended up making its own historical 'Dark Ages' setting.

The mechanics of both games weren’t linked though. They used different systems.
 
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RareBreed

Villager
Since Living Steel by Leading Edge Games also came out in 1987, I would argue that it concurrently had the idea of Troupe style play. In Living Steel, you had two kinds of characters you could play; Ringers or Alpha Team members. The "Ringers" who were the military characters who came out of stasis from an earlier failed war against the Imperium, and the Alpha Teams, were made of members like paramedics, policemen. engineers and construction to help with societal functioning and rebuildinng.

The players were supposed to create at least one Ringer each and a total of 30 Alpha Team characters for the entire group. The background of the game is sort of like a sci-fi version of The Morrow Project. The setting is an apocalpyse in the future caused by an alien invading force to a planet called Rhand. It has a very deep history with many major players (the "good guys" Seven Worlds, the "bad guys" Imperium made up of their Starcaste and Landcaste trampling on the poor Bondsmen, the honorable but warlike alien Dragoncrests, and the implacable and insidious Spectrals).

Where Ars Magica had a Covenant that acted as a base of operations and Vis was a strategic resource for the Mages to acquire, Living Steel was in essence an apocalyptic game setting where things like power generators, industrial plants, and food production were important. An entire chapter and at least 1/4th of the charts were dedicated to rules about building tooling and infrastructure (if you played Fallout 4, scrounging for componennts to build and repair things will feel similar). Somewhat similar to The Morrow Project's "bolt holes", the Ringer and Alpha Team were awoken from specific locations, but these locations were not designed as a long term base of operations. Part of the goal of the game, as in The Morrow Project, was to establish a base and help survivors (except in Living Steel, the setting was either immediately after the apocalypse or one year after, not 150 years like in TMP). Where the Ringers were the heavy hitters (think Mars team from TMP, the Alpha Team characters were like the Recon and Science Team). When you rebuild society, you don't just want combat monsters, you want people with the right skills to do so.

And if anyone is curious, Living Steel uses a slightly modified version of the infamous Phoenix Command Combat System (PCCS). I personally think the notoriety is not deserved even if you do have to look at a lot of charts. PCCS was the first game to have "continuous initiative" (a system later borrowed by 1st ed Shadowrun and Hackmaster). Instead of "rolling for initiative" and giving each character X number of actions, every action had an action cost, and you just kept adding it up. Therefore, it wasn't as important as who started an action first, as who completed an action first. I still find this system to be the best form of initiative.
 
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I wouldn't consider Ars Magica as a pioneering game at starting characters at higher level. GURPS has been around for a long time and you started and built characters at whatever point level the GM set.
 

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