Jonathan Tweet: On The Origins of Ars Magica

By the time I started college in 1987, I was a die-hard Chaosium fan, and I taught my new college friends RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu. These friends and I talked a lot about roleplaying games and game design, and we tried to figure out how to create the best possible games. I had already been creating game systems since 1978, and in college I got a couple game articles published in magazines. My big ambition was to do a RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu campaign in Egypt, but all that came of it was an article in Different Worlds about Egyptian magic in Call of Cthulhu. The big shift came when my friend Mark Hagen and I decided to create our own roleplaying game and went into publishing ourselves. The resulting game was Ars Magica, which was a big influence on 1990s game design and which launched the careers of several industry professionals.

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A lot of different roleplaying games influenced Mark and me. We played a lot of RuneQuest, set in the mythic world of Glorantha. The setting was a big influence on Mythic Europe, the setting for Ars Magica; and the unified mechanics inspired our unified die rolling mechanic. We played a lot of Call of Cthulhu, which RPG designers all seem to point to for inspiration. The historical setting of CoC is one of the big draws, as is the historical setting for Ars Magica. We played a little Pendragon, which released while we were in college. It is streamlined compared the RuneQuest, with more emphasis on personality, and we really admired it.

Mark had been to Australia and taken part in a giant, live-action Traveller game, and he was excited about live-action play. Sometimes when we played Call of Cthulhu, the players stood up and acted out their parts, and we did that sometimes with Ars Magica, too. It helps when all the characters are humans, and no one has to pretend to be three feet tall or draconic or anything. In one Call of Cthulhu game, another player wrestled Mark to the ground and twisted his arm painfully behind his back, “in character”. We didn’t know much about ground rules.

Eventually, Mark and I decided to create an all-new roleplaying game, and we had a concept that had never been done before. The characters would be powerful troubleshooters in a multiverse where all sentient beings shape reality around them. The characters could come from any sort of culture—ninjas! shamans!—and travel to any sort of world, and their mind-training gave them special powers. The setting was inspired in part by the movie Dreamscape and in part by New Thought. New Thought is the spiritual philosophy that one’s mind manifests the physical world around you, appearing in Christian Science, the New Age, the novel Illusions (1977), and the self-help book The Secret (2006). In retrospect, the idea seems painfully American, but I was enamored with it at the time. Mark and I put together a playtest with the friends we’d gamed with, but it was a flop. After the first session, our players said they didn’t like it. “Mindscape” was canned. We needed a new direction.

Our Plan B was a game that would “do wizards right” for once. In D&D, the main spellcaster started life as a mere “magic-user”, and the status of “wizard” was achieved only at 9th level. We wanted a game where you were playing full-fledged wizards right from the start. Earlier I had invented an RPG in which wizards were more powerful than everyone else, but they were NPC monsters rather than a playable class. For the game that would become Ars Magica, we needed powerful mages as player characters.

It was also our goal to advance the art of roleplaying by creating a game that focused more on the story and less on pillaging. The RPG field was starting to lean more toward story, with James Bond 007 (1983) as something of a milestone, as well as Pendragon (1985).

Our little two-person company was one of the first businesses to buy a Mac to do page layout digitally. I laid out Ars Magica with PageMaker. We still taped the illustrations onto the printed pages and then turned the paper masters over to a local print shop. An advantage of being early adopters with Mac was that we got special characters before everyone else. Mark was enamored of the alt-8 dot (•), so he used it in his pen name: “Mark Rein•Hagen”.

Mark and I threw everything we could into the game, including lots of things that are not really about making wizards cool and powerful. We picked up personality traits from Pendragon, and we added a Confidence trait that was inspired by the morale rules in a WWII hex-based war-game. We brought in advantages and disads from Champions. Some were strictly practical, like feats would be in 3E. Others “virtues” and “flaws” were more narrative driven. These features helped the players think about who their characters were as people, not just as adventurers. Players were also coached to describe their characters with details that brought to life their exceptional attributes. Later when we published a second edition of Ars Magica, we pushed the story elements even further. In a nod toward inclusivity, the main example wizard in the game was a women, and we wrote second person (“You make an attack roll”) so we could avoid using gendered, third-person pronouns.

In Ars Magica, skill checks and attack rolls work the same way, with a die roll, a bonus for natural ability, and a bonus for learned ability—roughly “die + ability + skill”. Two other games with similar systems appeared around the same time as Ars Magica: Cyberpunk by Mike Pondsmith and Talislanta by Stephen Michael Sechi. Those systems were each a little different, and Ars Magica’s system is the one that most closely resembles the system that debuted with 3E.

Supporting powerful wizards as player characters took a lot of work. The magic system is elaborate and flexible, allowing wizards to cast big spells that they’ve learned as well as casting smaller spells that they invent on the spot. Since the other characters are not as powerful as the wizards, we instituted troupe-style play. Players swap roles, so you might play your wizard in one session, play a “powerful companion” character another session, and in another session play a number of expendable guards (known as “grogs”).

Ars Magica never achieved hit status, but the fifth edition is still in print from Atlas Games thirty years later. Lots of game fans and RPG designers point to the game as influential, and it apparently has a great reputation in France. Mark and I both learned a lot from creating this game even if our later games were quite different.
 
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Jonathan Tweet

Comments

Birmy

Explorer
I was one of those '90s teens who fawned over pretty much anything White Wolf put out in their heyday, so I ran a 3rd edition campaign of Ars Magica back when that was the current version (ignoring the troupe play; I was in junior high and didn't want to bother talking my players into it). My campaign heavily ripped off Matt Wagner's Grendel comics (again, then-current) and was probably a "railroad" before I knew the term, but it certainly endeared the game to me. I haven't played any later editions, though I'd love to come back to it as an adult.
 
The characters would be powerful troubleshooters in a multiverse where all sentient beings shape reality around them. The characters could come from any sort of culture—ninjas! shamans!—and travel to any sort of world, and their mind-training gave them special powers. The setting was inspired in part by the movie Dreamscape and in part by New Thought. New Thought is the spiritual philosophy that one’s mind manifests the physical world around you, appearing in Christian Science, the New Age, the novel Illusions (1977), and the self-help book The Secret (2006). Mark and I put together a playtest with the friends we’d gamed with, but it was a flop. After the first session, our players said they didn’t like it. “Mindscape” was canned. We needed a new direction.
I always figured Mage: the Ascension was closely related to Ars Magica, I never suspected it was a failed first attempt at it.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Definitely a fan of Ars Magica but it has been a while It inspired some Roshambo based on the *verb - err technique? 5 pointe Roshambo of course.

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pogre

Adventurer
Love this game! Never found the right group for it for a truly long term campaign, but I own a ton of it. Thanks for co-creating it!
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Ars Magica never achieved hit status, but the fifth edition is still in print from Atlas Games thirty years later. Lots of game fans and RPG designers point to the game as influential, and it apparently has a great reputation in France. Mark and I both learned a lot from creating this game even if our later games were quite different.
5 editions, and consistent to feel, no huge changes to mechanics... and still selling 30 years later? That's a hit game.
Ok, maybe not a hit, but it's a cult-classic, at least.
Anyway, thank you for writing it, thank you for the history of it, and of the bullet in Rein•Hagen...
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Definitely a fan of Ars Magica but it has been a while It inspired some Roshambo based on the *verb - err technique? 5 point Roshambo of course.
We used this for Dueling mages of course... works for non-magic combat too actually.
 
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Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Description of Physical Combat Styles
palm up symbol
Creo / Perfection & Truth

This style invokes the perfect and flawless, it's very much a "schooled in battle" style. If your are closer to perfection than your opponent, you will win. Efficiency as in economy of motion and precision of form is emphasized. This is perhaps the most internally aware style its practitioners often enter a state of self hypnosis from which they express confidence and truth of form. Your attacks often get through your opponents defenses by brute force.
Quote: "May the better man win. "
Maneuver Types: Mostly fast straight forward, relatively simple and efficient maneuvers which don't involve too much interpretation of your opponents current actions. Whatever moves this style is applied to the focus becomes correctness of form.
Examples: "basic strikes" "stopping parries" -> ie "blocks ", "pure retreats"
Flaw : somewhat predictable it is what it seems.
Adversary Styles : To Intellego it seems like you are broadcasting your next move, though they are less able to exploit it than Rego. You cut through Perdos chafe and tend to ignore Mutos deceptions completely.
Benefits: amongst the most precise, and decisive very quick often the least fatiguing of effects.
fist symbol
Rego / Control & Redirection

This style is about mastering your opponent and accuracy. Compelling / Redirecting the actions an opponent in a directed fashion can defeat them or make them easier to defeat. These moves are themselves strongly adjusted and controlled to suit the immediate situation and adversaries apparent position.
Quote: "Playing your opponents game is a guaranteed way to loose, make them play yours."
Maneuver Types: These maneuvers try to use and change what your opponent is attempting into what you would rather it be. Sometimes the real benefit kicks in next round.
Examples: "locking weapons" "diverting parries" and "dodges","planned retreat / escapes", "throws","maneuver opponent onto bad ground"
Flaw: assumes accurate understanding of your opponents game...
Benefits: some of the most accurate of actions and can be very devestating in effect.
Muto / Change & Misdirection

Complexity is a part and parcel to this style. All ones actions are indirect if not completley changing from one moment to the next. This style is about misdirection even when it isn't out right deception. Your moves are sometimes intentionally complex and cannot be assumed to be what they appear at first glance. In wrestling this is the slipperyness your adversary cannot get a grip on.
Maneuver Types: This includes some of the trickiest and complex maneuvers.
Quote: "Assuming too much will be your downfall"
Examples: "spinning feint"; "subtle feint" various "fakes" and "flourishes" "blinding powder in the eyes" and other combat "tricks" as well false openings like "trapped doe" and pretense of inferiority or superiority. "change ups" and "weapon switches".
Adversary Styles : Intellego is the only style which really knows what this style has in store, Rego falls hook line and sinker or at best assumes badly. Perdo can't resist nibbling, but Creo out right ignores the trickiness and complexity.
Flaw: Much effort is spent to no real end these are often less efficient than other styles (and even a subtle feint is planned and can be read by those who chose).
Intellego / Patient Perception

This is considered by some the thinking mans style for you analyze the moves of your opponent, predict them, then finally act with certainty. All acts in conflict involve an element of dissemination and if you know your opponents plans your maneuvers can undermine and exploit them completely. If you are its master there is no "fog of war". This style tends to appeal to the patient and those who refuse to be fooled.
Quote : They who know the truth cannot be decieved "
Examples: "reading" and "scanning" of your adversary "looking for opportunities" , finding openings "for attack" or "for escape", "finding the best position of advantage.
Flaws: Takes the most time ensuring certainty... often little is left and assumes a planned action of some sort from ones adversary so continually adjusted plans(Rego) and unplanned actions (perdo) defeat it.
Benefits: Intellego effects normally are most often useful "next round" - ie they carry over allowing results more extreme than otherwize achievable.
Perdo / Wild Destructiveness

This is the style in which one cultivates instinctual and to some extents "natural" "ultimately quick" and "wild" destructiveness. Your attacks get through the cracks in their defenses not by aiming but rather by attacking everywehere. This is sometimes considered a barbaric style, even anti-intellectual, but fighting is a very solid instinct amongst all living things. You make your adversaries world so dangerous their indecisiveness will kill them. Its masters are more ofen comfortable with improvised weapons than many.
Quote: "You will wreap the whirl wind"
Examples: "Wall of Steel"; "Fancy Footwork" "Bob and weave","Wild Flurry","multilimbed / multiweapon barrage"
Flaw: lacks true follow through and tends to be interupted by resolute quick planned actions (creo and muto to a lesser degree.)
Benefits: Fastest and "truly" unpredictable this style is often dangerous even in defense.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Wow I had meant to just post a rationale/simplification of why the techniques/styles interacted the way they did... but it copied off my old page so well.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
AES Magica continues to be one of my favourite role playing games. Some of our most memorable characters and stories rose from this system. The magic system is still the best one out there.
Hard to imagine that anyone would even try to create a better magic system. Only a game devoted to wizards and to campaign play could even try.
 

Jonathan Tweet

Explorer
5 editions, and consistent to feel, no huge changes to mechanics... and still selling 30 years later? That's a hit game.
Ok, maybe not a hit, but it's a cult-classic, at least.
Anyway, thank you for writing it, thank you for the history of it, and of the bullet in Rein•Hagen...
Ars Magica had a lot of influence on other game designers, both directly and through World of Darkness, so I'm happy with how it turned out.
 

jcprice

Villager
It's really good to read this history. Ars Magica is still, in many ways, the game by which I measure all others, probably because of a fondly remembered campaign back in the 90s. However, I'd argue that the magic system is unequalled in its ability to engage players and drive mechanical and narrative engagement. The Covenant system was also a strong core of the game and a strong driver of narrative. Games without those interlocking sytems at their core seem hollow by comparison.
Thanks!
 

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