[Games Anatomy] I’m Not Playing A Game With Arse In The Title

Ars Magica, or ‘the Art of Magic’, is an early effort by White Wolf Games, (former-as-of-this-year developers of the World of Darkness and Exalted). It’s set in Mythic Europe, an idealised and romanticised version of the thirteenth century where magic works, fairies exist whether you believe in them or not, and there be dragons here. And there. And in quite a few other places. It’s an embryonic version of the Storyteller System, with many similarities to Mage in particular (unsurprising, given that they’re games about wizards by the same developer), but with some elegant and interesting structural differences in how the game is actually played. And, true to form, I can’t entirely work out how to feel about it.

Rather than going for the from-the-ground-up dissection of system and setting like I usually do, I want to spend some time discussing what makes Ars Magica different from its antecedents, and why the game both attracts and repels me in equal measure. Hopefully that’ll cover more or less the same ground.

Things I Like About Ars Magica

  1. First and foremost, the structure of the group. Everyone at the table has a Magus character (a powerful and learned wizard with a startling array of available magics and allegiances), a Companion character (a trusted associate of the wizard, who has some sort of worldly skill which the wizard needs in their friend/ally/catspaw) and several Grogs (mundane background figures of the bit-part caricature variety, like ‘jolly cook’ or ‘stern guard sergeant’). All these characters are assumed to live together in a kind of magical settlement called a ‘covenant’.
  2. Players take it in turn to act as ‘Storyguide’ and run a session or two of play covering a covenant’s antics and adventures around a sigificant event, and the assumption is that one session will cover one event and will represent perhaps a year or a season of game time. There’s no ‘random encounters’, no ‘roleplay every tedious bit of social interaction’ – instead there’s a tight get-it-done focus-on-the-important-stuff structure. Everyone else chooses which of their characters they’re going to send off on adventures or inhabit for the duration of this session’s events, and everyone else is assumed to be off keeping the background stuff ticking over. I like this because nobody has to stay as GM for very long, everyone gets a turn at GMing, and the regular rotations between not only who’s GMing but which character everyone’s playing should keep the campaign very fresh indeed.
  3. The very core principles of the rules are clear and apparent. You roll a 10-sided die for damn near everything your character might conceivably wish to do. You add or subtract modifiers based on a character’s characteristics, abilities, and personality traits, all of which are expressed as positive or negative modifiers – so things are expressed in the form that you’re going to be needing them.
  4. The combat system is clearly expressed in terms of stages. Book-keeping, movement, shooting, melee (which is a subroutine of three opposed rolls, basically ‘initative’, ‘hit’ and ‘damage’), then magic or any second shots that happen to be going on. All the stuff about actions (is it better to charge, bull rush or grapple?) is tucked away in an optional ‘duelling combat’ system that you don’t have to use and can reserve for really important fights.
  5. The basic principles of the magic system are awesome. Basically, there are five techniques (verbs) and ten forms (nouns) and if you can express something as a verb-noun command which operates within those provided classifications, it can be done. There are set, ritualised spells which have been inherited and tested, which brings out the Hermetic backstory of the game very nicely, but there’s also a fundamentally chaos-magic, freewheeling option for those without the patience to wade through and evaluate page after page of provided spells. Also, it’s all in Latin, although the game does rather huffily note that you can feel free to just translate them. AND there’s a page of hand gestures for each technique and form, so you could – if you were that way inclined – wave your hands about in a consistently mystical way when casting your Magus’ spells.
  6. The pre-generated characters are not remotely generic at all. Each one is distinct, interesting, comes with a bit of backstory and a sense of being an actual person rather than an archetypal representation. I had genuine trouble picking out one that I might be interested in playing.
  7. Mythic Europe. The fact that it’s a quasi-historical setting, rooted in yer actual medieval belief systems, means that you have this huge rich world of stuff that’s already been made up for you (and much of it is richer and deeper than anything one person could imagine, purely because it was imagined or made to happen or both by squillions of people over hundreds of years) and you can concentrate on breathing life into it. I have to admit, I’m not a ‘make up a whole universe from the laws of physics up’ kind of GM, and while I have a lot of respect for people that can do it, I hope they don’t expect me to remember, in the heat of the actual playing of the roles, that Our Gravity Is Different. I’m much more a ‘hey I read this book the other day and now I want to put this myth in the game’ kind of GM, and Mythic Europe is ideal for people like me.
Quiz time. Why is this one of Von’s favourite paintings?

Things I Don’t Like About Ars Magica

  1. Many RPGs have that ‘you must fill out an application form [character sheet] before playing’ thing going on, to a greater or lesser degree. The first stage of the game being boring paperwork increases the buy-in that’s needed from potential players, and – as I’ve discussed – RPGs already have buy-in problems compared to, say, board games. Ars Magica has a really profound case of this; there’s a four page character sheet (admittedly only Magus characters need all of them, but since everyone will be making a Magus, does that really matter?) and multiple characters to be developed and you have to work out what sort of person they’re going to be, in staggering and mechanically-expressed detail, before you start playing. I’m much more into emergent gameplay, generating a character’s character as you play them, and having the interesting things about them be things that develop in the game, shaped by your collective decisions and triumphs and failures, rather than
  2. The default structure of ‘one session per significant event, i.e. season or year of in-game time’ assumes that there’s a lot of time available and that players will be abstracting over a lot of things. I tend to be lucky if I can get a four-hour session in, fortunate if the players’ instinctive awkwardness is overcome within an hour, and mind-boggled when things move along at the kind of clip where a major plot can be resolved in one go. Admittedly, that last thing is down to me liking it when people roleplay out minutiae, but the thing is, Ars Magica seems to expect that everyone knows what’s important and skips over the little things – and little things, like when your character spends half an hour conning some university students into buying a ‘prize-winning racing pig’ despite this being entirely incidental to anything you set out to do, are kind of the best part of roleplaying. Or one of the best, anyway.
  3. The difference between an ordinary die (where the 0 on a d10 is 10, and is a good thing) and a stress die (where the 0 on a d10 is 0, and is a bad thing). It’s not that hard to remember but many of the people I play RPGs with would balk and shy from it like frightened racehorses because it’s weird and inconsistent and annoying. Even I have to admit that I do prefer systems where the numbers on the dice mean the same thing all the time. It’s just one more thing you have to remember in a system full of things that you have to remember.
  4. Eight. Stages. In. One. Combat. Round. Many of which have sub-stages (rolling for how much damage a missile weapon does, or constructing a spontaneous spell successfully) and all of which have slightly different internal processes. This sort of thing may be fine for experienced roleplayers, but I usually have at least one novice at my table, and at least one person (it’s usually me) who struggles with inconsistent turn sequences and remembering the exact process difference between a melee attack, a ranged attack and a magic attack, and whether you can dodge this or that, or whether you’re casting a ritual or spontaneous spell… I wouldn’t mind so much if it was a ‘combat is brief and dangerous’ system and you only had to go through those eight stages once or twice, but since it’s a ‘characters have lots of defences because we want them to stay alive to serve the story‘ system, a quick to-the-death struggle with a bandit might end up taking sixty-odd stages to resolve.
  5. Hermetic magic should have arcane and incomprehensible rules, an obligation to do a great deal of research and testing, and be heavily invested in the idea of a body of canonical knowledge transmitted from master to apprentice. However, the actual rules for casting, learning, devising or otherwise dealing with spells at your RPG table should not take up hundreds of cocking pages of unique sub-systems that both pad the rulebook to new-player-scaring proportions (“I have to learn all that?”) and are guaranteed to require play-stalling reference when they’re needed (because you don’t need any given fiddly little subsystem often enough to learn it, and everything has a fiddly little subsystem of its very own). Also, even the quick-and-simple spontaneous casting is done in Latin, and that makes quick reference quite fiddly for everyone except my one ex-girlfriend who’s doing a PhD in Classics. In the heat of the moment, when you have to think “oh gawd, how do I say what I want with just five verbs and ten nouns?” the last thing you want to do is look down at your character sheet and see these words and not even be entirely sure which ones are verbs and which are nouns.
  6. The pre-generated characters are loaded with mechanics – merits, flaws, traits, reputations. When everything about a character’s personality is not only represented with a mechanic, but with a significant mechanic that has bearing on some aspect of play, the front-loading of rules for this and that makes it sort of difficult to see where the player fits in at all. Also, if I were coming to the pre-generated characters first and the actual descriptions of, say, the thirteen different Houses of the Hermetic Order second (which I would be, because that’s the order that the book gives them in), I’d have to make an un-informed choice based on these quite complex people without having any idea how they might actually work as playing pieces in either the mechanical (you can do these things with magic) or social (you have these associations) context of play.
  7. Mythic Europe. A game that’s about the myths and magic of Western Europe (and let’s not kid ourselves here, it is basically Western Europe, even if the map makes it as far as Constantinople before giving up and going for the ‘pagan lands’ label) is always going to be somewhat parochial. Ars Magica fails to offer any sense of how the Thirteen Houses interact with, say, hedge magic, or Catholic heresy, or Jewish mysticism, or anything at all that might have come out of North Africa. The game is so pre-occupied with mechanising every aspect of the Hermetic magus’ character and abilities that it ultimately fails to live up to the potential of its historical setting.

I want to like Ars Magica. The essential principles are clean and flexible, but they’re buried under pages and pages and pages of cruft. The troupe style of play is interesting, but the systems for generating characters make creating and inhabiting so many of them a burden. The setting is potentially great, but White Wolf approached it with the blinkers firmly on, and it shows. I think, if I were ever to write a retro-clone, it’d be a version of Ars Magica with three-quarters of the rules ripped out.

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