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Introduction to Ars Magica

Ars Magica is a fantasy role-playing game currently published by Atlas Games. It has many features in common with other such games, and many unique features that distinguish it from the crowd. Ars Magica is a game about covenants and magic, and the characters who must deal with them, and is set in a world very similar to Medieval Europe.

Role-Playing Games

Role-playing games (or RPGs) are sets of rules for taking on the roles of imaginary characters, and guiding them through the situations they encounter. They are normally played in a group of between three and seven. One player takes on the task of describing and controlling the imaginary world, while the others describe and control individual characters. Very few RPGs are competitive: the idea is not to beat the other players, not even the one in charge of the world. The characters may compete with one another, but the players normally cooperate to make sure that everyone has a good time. The rules vary greatly from one game to another, as does the imaginary world in which the characters live. The most important factor is always the imagination of the players, however.

No Real Magic

Ars Magica is Latin for "The Art Magical" or "The Magical Art" (not "The Art of Magic," whatever the cover of the rulebook may lead you to believe). It is a game, and contains no information about any magic that is purported to be real. It will not teach you anything about magic, no matter how dedicated to the game you become.

Mythic Europe

Mythic Europe is the official setting of Ars Magica. It is a world very similar to Medieval Europe: the same kings rule, and the same cities dot the landscape. The difference is that the legends are true: there are dragons in the Pyrenees, and faeries in the deepest forests, while demons seek to corrupt the innocent. The power of the divine protects its own, but magi are generally outside its influence.

Most magi live in covenants, and almost all are members of the Order of Hermes. The Order stretches across Europe from Ireland to the Russian steppes, from Denmark to North Africa, and imposes its own rules on its members. The most important of these protect magi from one another, forbid them from interfering in mundane affairs, and prohibit dealing with demons. Since enforcement is carried out at Tribunals where all the magi of a region gather, clever use of political influence can let a magus get away with most violations, but dealing with demons is never forgiven.

Ars Magica sagas can concentrate on the politics of the Order, the mundane life of Medieval Europe, or the fantastic creatures in the wilderness, depending on the interests of the players. They can be epics spanning decades, or cover a single year. To a great extent, as with all RPGs, the game is what you make of it.

Superb Magic System

At the heart of the Ars Magica rules is the magic system. This is generally regarded as the best magic system in any RPG because of its flexibility. Magi learn magical Arts, of which there are fifteen. Five are Techniques, creating, for example, while the other ten are Forms, such as mind and fire. The magus's ability to cast a spell is calculated by adding together the appropriate Technique and Form.

Magi can cast formulaic spells, which have defined effects, or spontaneous magic, which does whatever the magus wants, if he is powerful enough. Spontaneous magic is much more flexible than formulaic, but also weaker.

The game provides detailed guidelines for what can be done with the various Technique and Form combinations at different levels of power, so that it is fairly easy for the Storyguide to adjudicate the effect of a spontaneous spell.

The magic system also provides extensive rules for magical study and research. Magi can improve their Arts, invent new spells, create magical items, train apprentices, and bind familiars.

Covenants

The central "character" in a standard game of Ars Magica is the covenant. This is both the place where most of the characters live, and a term for all the people who live there. Some of the inhabitants are magi, powerful wizards, others are companions, skilled individuals, generally without magical power, and the rest are grogs and covenfolk, the guards and servants.

The covenant can survive the death or departure of any member, and its development over the course of the game (the "Saga") is a central theme. The covenant provides a reason for all the characters to stay together, and a motivation for them to work together. It also provides an easy way for the player running the game (the "Storyguide") to get the characters involved in a story, since anything that threatens the covenant will concern all of them.

Troupe-Style Play

The covenant also lends itself to troupe-style play. In a conventional RPG, one person runs the world, and the other players always play the same characters. In Ars Magica every player has at least two characters: one magus and one companion. The companion is associated with the covenant, but not the player's own magus particularly, and only one of the two characters is played at a time. Often, the players also have a few grogs, which may be controlled by a particular player, or held in common.

This style of play is useful because magi are much more powerful than companions, but companions are (or should be) vital to the Saga. If a player could never play a magus, she would miss out on many of the best features of the game, but the same is true if she could never play a companion.

Some groups take this idea further, and have different people run sessions for the covenant. This means that everyone has the chance to play characters some weeks, and a wider range of imaginations builds the Saga. In this case one player is usually appointed Alpha Storyguide, with overall responsibility for the Saga, while one or more of the other players are Beta Storyguides, with responsibilities for defined areas.

Copyright 1997 David Chart


What is Ars Magica? Ars Magica FAQ Table of Contents History of Ars Magica >