Jonathan Tweet: Legacy of Ars Magica

Ars Magica had an obscure origin, but it had long-lasting effects. We did a number of influential support products that influenced 1990s game design, and it launched the careers of five of us who were part of the Ars Magica crew.

TheStormrider.jpg

Over the years, I had bought a ton of roleplaying games, and I was almost universally disappointed by how difficult it was to get a new roleplaying game off the ground. For Ars Magica, we created The Stormrider, a “Jump Start Kit” that would let a group hit the ground running. It had pre-generated characters, one-page rules briefs, and an introductory adventure designed to walk the gamemaster through the rules. Years later at Wizards, I spent a lot of time designing introductory game sets for Magic, Pokemon, and D&D, as well as reviewing others’ introductory sets. The practice of summarizing information for players on a single sheet of paper is great way to force yourself to come to terms with the game or setting that one has designed, and I’ve use “one-pagers” in all sorts of ways ever since.

Ars Magica sold well enough to warrant a second edition, which allowed us to make a couple improvements. For one thing, we moved the game from a quasi-medieval fantasy world to “Mythic Europe”. The new setting was roughly “the Europe of AD 1200 as the Europeans thought it was”. People of the Middle Ages thought there were fairies, so in Ars Magica there are fairies, etc. Ken Hite says that the first way to improve an RPG campaign is to move it to Earth. Ars Magica has definitely benefited from being connected to real world history, as did Call of Cthulhu.

Another big advance with 2nd edition was the Order of Hermes, a supplement about the various “houses” or factions of wizards. This idea derived from the cults in RuneQuest. Like RQ cults, they provided special rules and story elements for the characters, as well as a connection to the wider world. The “houses” of Ars Magica became the clans in Vampire, the factions in Planescape, and similar groups in many 90s-era RPGs. Thanks to my error laying out the 2nd edition rulebook, we had two blank pages we needed to fill at the last minute. We added a page of templates for non-wizard characters and a page of house templates for wizards. Thus the houses from the supplement actually appeared in preview form in the 2nd ed rulebook before Order of Hermes released.

The crew working on Ars Magica included me, Mark Rein•Hagen, Lisa Stevens, John Nephew, and Nicole Lindroos. From this start, we all became professionals in the game industry. After Ars Magica, I worked as a freelancer, then worked at Wizards for 15 years, and now I’m back to freelancing. Mark joined up with White Wolf and published Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as a follow-on line of games in the “World of Darkness”. Lisa became the first employee at Wizards of the Coast, working there for many years, later buying Paizo and publishing Pathfinder. John Nephew founded Atlas Games and is still publishing today. In fact, he’s gone from publishing support material for Ars Magica to publishing the core game line itself. Over the years, Atlas has published influential RPGs, such as Feng Shui by Robin D Laws and my own Over the Edge. Nicole wrote some material for Atlas Games and eventually founded Green Ronin, a successful RPG publisher for almost 20 years now and going strong. Sometimes I wonder how we all came to be in Northfield, Minnesota, at the same time and why so many of us saw our dreams of designing games come true. How did that happen? Maybe, for one thing, there isn’t a lot to do in the Midwest. People need to make their own fun. D&D originated in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and maybe that’s not a coincidence.

For the usual reasons that friendships and creative partnerships falls apart, Mark and I broke up our friendship and the business in 1989. We had published together for only two years, but those were formative years for both of us. He went on to release Vampire and a line of follow-on games. It’s easy to see the influence of Ars Magica on Vampire, and some of the text from Ars Magica appears verbatim in the first edition. As for me, I wanted something that was the opposite of Ars Magica, something accessible, easy, fast, and open-ended. I wanted the players to do more creative work so that the game designer could do less, and that’s how Over the Edge came to be.

Mark continued publishing Ars Magica at White Wolf, but after several years it was acquired by Wizards of the Coast. By this time, Lisa Steven was at Wizards. Once Wizards was making money on Magic, she got me hired to run the roleplaying lines and she acquired Ars Magica. That lasted about year, and then Wizards did their first ever top-to-bottom spreadsheet of income and expenses. Once the executives could see how much money was going out the door, Wizards cut out all the groups that were losing money, such as roleplaying games. Ars Magica ended up with John Nephew at Atlas Games, where it still lives.

When I was led the design team for D&D 3rd Ed, we changed “magic users” to “wizards”. It seemed like a no-brainer, and it’s only in retrospect that I see what a big change that represents from how things were in 1974 when D&D was new. We also up-gunned wizards, but honestly not enough to make them seem like wizards in the traditional sense. For that, one still needs to play Ars Magica.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Nutation

Explorer
I loved playing in Mythic Europe. (I don't play Ars Magica anymore.) For the publisher, I assume all those supplements nominated themselves (Mythic Iberia, etc.) without having to think too hard. I also like troupe play, and my groups do it a lot, but few games explicitly support the style.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
When I was led the design team for D&D 3rd Ed, we changed “magic users” to “wizards”. It seemed like a no-brainer, and it’s only in retrospect that I see what a big change that represents from how things were in 1974 when D&D was new. We also up-gunned wizards, but honestly not enough to make them seem like wizards in the traditional sense. For that, one still needs to play Ars Magica.
So that was a deliberate design choice? It seemed like the design was to make all the classes balanced and equal in power, even though the actual result was powerful casters who only got more powerful with more spells added to the game.
 
The new setting was roughly “the Europe of AD 1200 as the Europeans thought it was”. People of the Middle Ages thought there were fairies, so in Ars Magica there are fairies, etc
I think that's a very interesting take. Like, for instance, the laws of physics were not generally understood by most people, not even in a practical way, so why couldn't there be a gigantic bird like the Roc that could fly? Cubed/Squared law? What's that? The earth sure /looks/ pretty flat. Etc...
….
We also up-gunned wizards, but honestly not enough to make them seem like wizards in the traditional sense. For that, one still needs to play Ars Magica.
D&D wizards always seemed like they did a lot /more/ than wizards in the traditional sense. A wizard of myth & legend might foretell the future, change (himself or someone else) into a bird, vanish from sight (whether invisible or teleportation might not be clear), lay or curse or un-do one or cure a disease - and, he'd probably use a ritual, potion, herbs, deal with a demon/spirt, or need a focus (philospher's stone, Moses's rod, whatever) to do it - if not simply explain to the subject what (weird, hard to complete things) /he/ had to acquire/do to get the desired results. Fireballs and lightning bolts and force fields and all the overt tactical battlefield magic of D&D, not nearly so much.

And was that even really what people in general thought was possible c1200? There was some significant skepticism of claims of supernatural power, especially overt powers, even then. Most of what a 'realistic' wizard based on beliefs of the past would be able to do would be things that could as easily have been the result of tricks and luck. The significance of his "arcane knowledge," OTOH, might go far beyond overt abilities he might display...
 
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Parmandur

Legend
I think that's a very interesting take. Like, for instance, the laws of physics were not generally understood by most people, not even in a practical way, so why couldn't there be a gigantic bird like the Roc that could fly? Cubed/Squared law? What's that? The earth sure /looks/ pretty flat. Etc...
Personal Medievalist bugaboo here, but...people in the Middle Ages were actually very acutely aware of practical science, their theoretical models just happened to be bonkers (though less bonkers than one would suspect). Sure, the Doctor might have a strange idea of bodily humours and no concept of germ theory (ideas that are still current among some cable TV personalities), but his nutritional recommendations would usually be pretty good.

And was that even really what people in general thought was possible c1200? There was some significant skepticism of claims of supernatural power, especially overt powers, even then. Most of what a 'realistic' wizard based on beliefs of the past would be able to do would be things that could as easily have been the result of tricks and luck. The significance of his "arcane knowledge," OTOH, might go far beyond overt abilities he might display...
A better game version of what people in the 12th century actually thought the world was like is Pendragon. But then, that was written by a trained anthropologist.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
I think the idea of one page rules briefs and intro rules packets was fantastic.

The 4e Keep on the Shadowlands rule packet was how I learned 4e.

The 5e basic set has fantastic rules summaries and I find it more convenient at the table for many rules questions then the core books.

Moldvay Basic was significantly better for me learning D&D in the beginning than the AD&D PH and DMG combo.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
I loved playing in Mythic Europe. (I don't play Ars Magica anymore.) For the publisher, I assume all those supplements nominated themselves (Mythic Iberia, etc.) without having to think too hard. I also like troupe play, and my groups do it a lot, but few games explicitly support the style.
It was geeky fun to explore the history of Europe to develop those supplements.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
So that was a deliberate design choice? It seemed like the design was to make all the classes balanced and equal in power, even though the actual result was powerful casters who only got more powerful with more spells added to the game.
Specifically, we up-gunned low-level wizards. High-level spellcasters didn't need any improvement, and in fact we should have reined them in.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
D&D wizards always seemed like they did a lot /more/ than wizards in the traditional sense. A wizard of myth & legend might foretell the future, change (himself or someone else) into a bird, vanish from sight (whether invisible or teleportation might not be clear), lay or curse or un-do one or cure a disease - and, he'd probably use a ritual, potion, herbs, deal with a demon/spirt, or need a focus (philospher's stone, Moses's rod, whatever) to do it - if not simply explain to the subject what (weird, hard to complete things) /he/ had to acquire/do to get the desired results. Fireballs and lightning bolts and force fields and all the overt tactical battlefield magic of D&D, not nearly so much.
Here we were comparing RPG wizards to wizards in fantasy literature, not to wizards in European society or folk belief. You're right that fantasy magic spells are way flashier than spells in folk tales or superstitious beliefs.
 
Personal Medievalist bugaboo here, but...people in the Middle Ages were actually very acutely aware of practical science, their theoretical models just happened to be bonkers (though less bonkers than one would suspect).
OK, I did not use 'practical sense' the way I meant to, my bad. ;)
Like, there's science (math/physics) involved in building a bridge, so a practical application, but people built bridges without the math/science for a long time, using experience & rules of thumb, instead.

The interesting point about a fantasy world based on medieval belief, would be that there aren't the same impediments to some fantastical elements - the one that always bugged me was scale. IRL, humanoid giants, flying birds with feathers as big around as a ship's mast, and fire-breathing dragons and the like don't just not exist, they're physically impossible. A rational person in the middle ages might not believe in such things, but he can't point to mathematical proof & scientific theory borne out by experimentation, to show they're impossible. So, if a giant steps over his town's wall, his reactions will not include "/that's physically impossible/." The same goes for feats and magic. A strong man can lift a big rock, a stronger man a bigger one, so Herakles lifting a mountain, just the extension of that. Tea brewed from an aromatic herb makes you feel better when you sick, and you recover, so a 'magic herb' curing plague or making people young again, might be outside your experience, but you've no solid proof it's impossible.
 

Parmandur

Legend
OK, I did not use 'practical sense' the way I meant to, my bad. ;)
Like, there's science (math/physics) involved in building a bridge, so a practical application, but people built bridges without the math/science for a long time, using experience & rules of thumb, instead.

The interesting point about a fantasy world based on medieval belief, would be that there aren't the same impediments to some fantastical elements - the one that always bugged me was scale. IRL, humanoid giants, flying birds with feathers as big around as a ship's mast, and fire-breathing dragons and the like don't just not exist, they're physically impossible. A rational person in the middle ages might not believe in such things, but he can't point to mathematical proof & scientific theory borne out by experimentation, to show they're impossible. So, if a giant steps over his town's wall, his reactions will not include "/that's physically impossible/." The same goes for feats and magic. A strong man can lift a big rock, a stronger man a bigger one, so Herakles lifting a mountain, just the extension of that. Tea brewed from an aromatic herb makes you feel better when you sick, and you recover, so a 'magic herb' curing plague or making people young again, might be outside your experience, but you've no solid proof it's impossible.
I mean, the Medievals were quite good at math, and engineering in general. Sure, they thought that elemental Earth wanted to move to the center of the Earth due to the power of love, but they had the math right for why the building project worked.
 

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