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

Pargates

Villager
Ars Magica has always been the game I admired most, even though I have never actually played it. The setting and style of play described in the books had a huge influence on me, but it was hard enough to find enough people to play the top-tier RPGs, let alone a more challenging and open system like Ars.
 

Talassa

Explorer
I never had the chance to play this game before, but I am now planning to run next month the Stormrider adventure Jumpstart for Ars Magica second edition, at a public meeting in Lisbon, as an homage to Greg Stafford.

Ars Magica is a game which was undoubtedly influenced by him (Glorantha, Pendragon) and which influenced many other in return (Vampire, DnD,...).

#WeAreAllUs

 

grodog

Adventurer
Thank you for this article on the history of ArM, Jonathan---the game is still near and dear to my heart, on so many fronts.

Out of curiosity, who added the concept of regios to the game, and how much influence (if any) did they have on TPO's treatment of the planes?

Allan.
 

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