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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

Arilyn

Hero
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.
There are no levels in Ars Magica. You build characters in a similar, but not identical way, to GURPS. I think what the OP meant is that wizards begin more powerfully than in D&D.

Having said that the basic rules of Ars Magica are not particularly groundbreaking, except for the magic system. The style of play with wizards, companions, and grogs, the troupe style play, the building and lifespan of the covenant and the true Medieval flavour are what really make this game exceptional.
 

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Committed Hero

Explorer
Not starting at 1st level & troupe play are part of the same feature of Ars Magica - that players are encouraged to make up to three PCs of varying power levels: the mage, a companion who is still better/more unique than the average schmuck, and the average schmuck. So you may play one session with a bodyguard while your mage is back home doing experiments to increase his magical prowess, then play the mage when the problems your bodyguard bring back come to bear at the covenant's walls. It was a surprisingly fun twist to play a mundane person in an entirely everyday adventure from time to time.

Given Ars Magica's cross pollination between 3rd edition and World of Darkness, it is easily one of the top 5 most influential games in the hobby.
 


I love many of the concepts in Ars Magica, and it’s long been on my bucket list of games/campaigns I dream of running someday.

But it’s a product of its times - extremely crunchy mechanically. There are whole pages of formulas for the myriad of processes you need to carry out. The sub-systems have sub-systems. And given troupe play and the complexities of even basic PC and companion actions, it’s simply not a game you can play without deep commitment and engagement by everyone involved. The presentation of 5e doesn’t help, with the tiny, tiny font and walls of text.

Which is a shame. If someone dramatically streamlined the mechanics of Ars Magica and improved the layout and usability, it would be an insta-buy for me.
 
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pogre

Legend
I love many of the concepts in Ars Magica, and it’s long been on my bucket list of games/campaigns I dream of running someday.

But it’s a product of its times - extremely crunchy mechanically. There are whole pages of formulas for the myriad of processes you need to carry out. The sub-systems have sub-systems. And given troupe play and the complexities of even basic PC and companion actions, it’s simply not a game you can play without deep commitment and engagement by everyone involved. The presentation of 3e doesn’t help, with the tiny, tiny font and walls of text.

Which is a shame. If someone dramatically streamlined the mechanics of Ars Magica and improved the layout and usability, it would be an insta-buy for me.
I mostly agree, although 5e was a better in this regard. I'm with you - I wish I had time and invested players to run this game again!
 


MGibster

Legend
I came up with a totally original idea for a superhero game. In real life, it would be almost impossible for any human being to be an expert martial artists, detective, inventor, etc., etc. like Batman. I came up with a clever idea of creating a game where "Batman" is actually a team of separate individuals who wear the costume and go into situations befitting their specialty. So one Batman might be a crisis negotiator and he's the one you send to interrogate suspects, a former NASCAR driver might be the one who drives the Batmobile, a MMA champion might be the one who beats up criminals, etc., etc. At some point I realized I was just following in the footsteps of Ars Magica.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
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.
Like I say, I have met Traveller players that are adamant that they were using Troupe style play to man out large spacecraft in their games. That came out in 1977, so the idea may go way back even though it may not be in print. The same is probably true of a lot of ideas in the hobby.

I’d note that the writers of Ars Magica don’t go to great pains to claim any of their ideas are necessarily exclusively original to them. One of Mark Rein-Hagen’s quotes:

What we call creativity is actually evolution. Creativity is hiding your sources. However, if you are creative enough in hiding your sources, you can reveal them openly, for they will no longer be recognized. That is the real achievement, the actual creativity.

I think, that wherever the ideas originated from, it was the combination of ideas to make Ars Magica that was certainly original and influential, and it still remains a pretty unique experience to play today.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
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.
Well, you’ve had points build characters of high level in games like Champions previously, so I don’t think that aspect is particularly new. What Troupe style play encourages, however, is groups of mixed levels of competence and ability.
 


Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Well, you’ve had points build characters of high level in games like Champions previously, so I don’t think that aspect is particularly new. What Troupe style play encourages, however, is groups of mixed levels of competence and ability.
FATE encourages mixed competence by giving "story power" distinct from and in some ways inversely to other competence. You can easily play a Frodo and Aragorn side by side, and Frodo's player will be taking out towers of orcs as they argue over him because he decided that would be cool luck to swing a rescue from his sidekick..
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
FATE encourages mixed competence by giving "story power" distinct from and in some ways inversely to other competence. You can easily play a Frodo and Aragorn side by side, and Frodo's player will be taking out towers of orcs as they argue over him because he decided that would be cool luck to swing a rescue from his sidekick..
I think Fate is another example of a game that serves as a nexus of ideas that you could probably cite in other antecedents, but can nevertheless be judged as a whole game package for itself.
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
I love many of the concepts in Ars Magica, and it’s long been on my bucket list of games/campaigns I dream of running someday.

But it’s a product of its times - extremely crunchy mechanically. There are whole pages of formulas for the myriad of processes you need to carry out. The sub-systems have sub-systems. And given troupe play and the complexities of even basic PC and companion actions, it’s simply not a game you can play without deep commitment and engagement by everyone involved. The presentation of 5e doesn’t help, with the tiny, tiny font and walls of text.

Which is a shame. If someone dramatically streamlined the mechanics of Ars Magica and improved the layout and usability, it would be an insta-buy for me.
I think the earlier editions are actually simpler than the later ones in a number of respects. Might be worth having a look at Ars Magica 2nd edition, on PDF at least.
 



TrippyHippy

Adventurer
I understand there was a draft Gumshoe game titled "Tales of the Quaesitores" or some such. But I've never seen any indication that it progressed much beyond an interesting concept.
There was, but that was when they announced the end of the 5th Edition line, which was almost a decade ago now. Not seen much sign since, which is a shame.
 

Ars Magica 3E was build 2 PCs: one wizard, one Custos. You "own" these. The grogs are group property. If neither your wizard nor your custos fits, you either take a grog already written or write a new one, for the adventure. 3E also assumed rotational GMing.
 

RareBreed

Villager
Like I say, I have met Traveller players that are adamant that they were using Troupe style play to man out large spacecraft in their games. That came out in 1977, so the idea may go way back even though it may not be in print. The same is probably true of a lot of ideas in the hobby.
Except that the Traveller rules themselves didn't enforce any notion of this style of play. There was a section on employees and hirelings in the 1977 edition of Traveller, but it specifically calls them out as NPCs. If different groups of players decided to let them be controlled as players, I would consider that more of a house rule, and not something spelled out specifically in the rules, nor even thematically part of the game setting.
One could even argue OD&D itself could have been played that way if the DM allowed roleplaying of henchmen and followers. But they are specifically spelled out as NPC's.

Regardless, I wouldn't give Troupe Style play credit solely to Ars Magica. The concept of having a much larger pool of people around the PC's has been around as long as the hobby itself, but it took Ars Magica and Living Steel to make Troupe style an official way for players to play multiple characters as well as being integral to the game setting (though I freely admit, Ars Magica is far more popular than Living Steel and more influential on the game hobby).
 

TrippyHippy

Adventurer
Except that the Traveller rules themselves didn't enforce any notion of this style of play. There was a section on employees and hirelings in the 1977 edition of Traveller, but it specifically calls them out as NPCs. If different groups of players decided to let them be controlled as players, I would consider that more of a house rule, and not something spelled out specifically in the rules, nor even thematically part of the game setting.
One could even argue OD&D itself could have been played that way if the DM allowed roleplaying of henchmen and followers. But they are specifically spelled out as NPC's.

Regardless, I wouldn't give Troupe Style play credit solely to Ars Magica. The concept of having a much larger pool of people around the PC's has been around as long as the hobby itself, but it took Ars Magica and Living Steel to make Troupe style an official way for players to play multiple characters as well as being integral to the game setting (though I freely admit, Ars Magica is far more popular than Living Steel and more influential on the game hobby).
As I said previously, there is nothing in print but I have gaming friends that are adamant that they played Traveller this way. The point being that ideas such as this may have been around for a long time without necessarily being ‘official’.

However, what I would say is that Traveller is a game that shines when you do play it this way with a large craft, and these days those types of rules are offered in print - the Element Cruiser box set.
 
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