Ars Magica Primer

From The Z-Team Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Ars Magica Primer
Game Setting
Mythic Europe
The Order of Hermes
The Order of Hermes
The Code of Hermes
The Peripheral Code
Hermetic Book Cycle

Since most of you aren't familiar with Ars Magica, these pages will serve as a primer of sorts to bring you up to speed on the system, the setting, and Order of Hermes.

Ars Magica is a fantasy pen-and-paper role-playing game currently published by Atlas Games. Its title 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 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 wizards and magic, and the characters who must deal with them, and is set in a world very similar to Medieval Europe.

(Content here is liberally drawn from other Ars Magica sources.)

The Setting

Mythic Europe

Main Article: Mythic Europe

The setting of Ars Magica is known as Mythic Europe. It is a medieval world, rich with fantastic elements drawn from real-world myth, legend, and wild imagination. Some plot-points actually used in published Ars Magica adventures include...

  • A cult of diabolists collecting shards of a fallen star to conclude the vile ritual that will summon forth an infernal army (Fallen Angel)
  • Saving the faerie queen of Winter Bright from the king of Summer Dark who captured her in his castle, to restore the balance of seasons to the land (Faerie Stories)
  • A Karaite leader, working miracles in the service of God, seeks out the aid of wizards when his community comes under threat from an angry mob (The Bishop's Staff)
  • Appeasing the great dragon Pan Caudarax, guardian of Iceland, lest he destroy the land in revenge for his destroyed unhatched egg (Land of Fire and Ice)
  • A count is healed at a magical pool that is contested between the Church and two groups of wizards (Ordo Nobilis)

At the same time, Mythic Europe is also founded on real-world history and allows immersion in the rich world of medieval Europe. Some other points from published canon...

  • Bargaining with the Benedictine monks of the abbey of Glastonbury (The Black Monks of Glastonbury)
  • Trading blows and diplomacy with the Rhine League, formed by Mainz and Worms to combat the robber-barons on the Rhine (GotF))
  • Taking sides in the Albigensian Crusade
  • Discussing the university of Montpellier and how the Cardinal Legate Conrad of Urach is planning to increase papal control of it (Art & Academe)

Different groups place the emphasis on different elements. For some, Ars Magica is a game of wild fantasy totally removed from any historical veracity. For others, it is a chance to learn more and immerse themselves in the rich world of medieval Europe. Most groups try to strike some sort of balance, enjoying the fantasy while also taking the opportunity to learn something about what the past was like.

The ArM5 core book provides a wealth of further information on Mythic Europe (on pages 199-210), including highly useful advice on how to incorporate elements of the world into your game. If you wish to minimize your reading, however, you can skip this chapter. The information below should suffice to jump in and play the game.

The Magical 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 – creation, for example – while the other ten are Forms such as mind and fire. The wizard's ability to cast a spell is calculated by adding together the scores in the appropriate Technique and Form.

A wizard in the game are called a magus (plural, magi). 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.

© 1997 David Chart

The Order of Hermes

Main Article: The Order of Hermes

Reference: Dialect on the Wizards of Hermes, a priest's take on the Order.

The major player characters in an Ars Magica game are wizards. All wizards of power in Mythic Europe are members of the Order of Hermes, and it is assumed that your main character will be one as well. So it's critical to understand the game and world from that perspective.

All members of the Order take a vow to uphold the Code of Hermes, also known as the Hermetic Oath. This is a detailed oath that sets the obligations of the wizards towards each other and the world at large. Although there are several fine points, there are two critical aspects to the Oath:

  • The wizard swears to accept the judgment of others in Tribunal. The Order is divided into regional councils, called Tribunals, in which every magus (in the region) gets an equal vote. By establishing the authority of a Tribunal session, the Oath unites magi into an Hermetic Society. All wizards are answerable to the other wizards in their region, creating peers, allies, enemies, and so on.
  • The Oath has many parts, but it essentially comes down to something like "don't interfere with the magical growth of other members of the Order". As whether you did is determined by vote, upholding or evading the Code is as much a matter of politics as it is of law.

The result is that your player character is limited in his actions when these may impact or anger other wizards, lest they turn on him in Tribunal. There are several powerful factions in Mythic Europe that he must be especially wary of:

  • The Church is a powerful social institution, wielding Divine power and aligned with saints, angles, and other Divine beings. You must take care not to turn the wrath of the Church on your peers.
  • The demons of Ars Magica are corrupting, vile and dangerous beings. They are so abhorred, that wizards are prohibited entirely from bargaining with them. You must avoid doing so - or at least, avoid getting caught.
  • There are many powerful faeries in Mythic Europe. While you may generally deal with them as you wish, their great power means that you need to be careful not to cause enmity between them and other wizards. If your dealings with them causes them to lash out against other wizards for some reason - you are in trouble.
  • History has taught the Order that it is necessary to refrain from creating affiliation with mundanes (those lacking in magical power, such as nobles and the people they lead), too, lest one court wizard turn on the other. Members of the Order are therefore prohibited from "meddling in the affairs of mundanes". Of all the prohibitions of the Code this is the most dire, as no one can live in Mythic Europe without relying on the toil and craft of the mundanes. Still, you best be wary of undue meddling, especially of overtly aligning yourself with one mundane faction.

When dealing with other members of the Order, two issues are often the most important. First, wizards like their privacy and resent someone else peering into their affairs. Refrain from scrying on your peers, or entering their private sanctums. Of course, more basic morality - like not stealing their property - is also expected.

Secondly, the one natural resource wizards covert is Raw Vis. Literally "raw (magical) power", these are rare magical things like the tooth of a magical wolf or the dew collected in a pristine meadow on the autumn equinox. A wizard can do much with raw vis, and so sources of raw vis are valued and contested. Much of Hermetic politics revolves around managing ownership rights over raw vis.

The Realms of Power

Main Article: The Order of Hermes and the Realms of Power


All these different characters live in, or are in some way affiliated to, the covenant (think "coven of witches"). This is the "home base" of the characters, and the adventures revolve around its interests. As all characters live there, its interests are the interests of all characters and the interests of the characters form the covenant's interest.

The covenant typically houses a handful of magi (one for each player), an equal number of companions, and a larger contingent of grogs and various other covenfolk (servants, craftsmen, and so on). The conditions and facilities of the covenant can form the heart of an Ars Magica game - from the contents of the library that the wizards use, to the lavish (or miserable...) living conditions that the covenfolk enjoy.

Game Mechanics

To play a character, you need to understand how the game mechanics of Ars Magica work. There is no point in going over all the mechanics here - we recommend reading the relevant parts of the core Ars Magica Fifth Edition book. However, we'll provide a brief primer, to help direct your reading.

The game determines the success (in non-trivial) tasks with a die roll. All rolls are made using a 10-sided die. Any roll can be either a Stress Roll roll or a Simple Roll. You can learn about these by reading ArM5 p. 6-7.

Each character has certain basic features (see ArM5 p. 18). These include a list of Characteristics (the character's inborn attributes, such as Strength or Intelligence), Abilities (learned skills, such as Latin or Brawl), and for magi also the Hermetic Arts. Each of these traits has a Level, a number indicating how it affects relevant die rolls.

In general, you make the roll (stress or simple, as determined by the storyguide), add the relevant traits, and add any further relevant modifiers the storyguide decides are appropriate. The higher the end result the better - if it passes the Ease Factor, a number decided by the storyguide, the action succeeds.

There are several typical types of checks. The Ability Check is perhaps the most common. To make an ability check, roll the die, add the relevant Ability, and add the relevant Characteristic as determined by the situation at hand. For example, you might add Guile + Communication to lie effectively, or add Guile + Perception to discern a lie. See ArM5 62-63 for more details on ability checks.

A second type of roll is the spell casting roll. Casting a spell involves the Hermetic Arts, which are divided into Techniques and Forms. You generally add Stamina + one Technique + one Form + any ambient supernatural aura (as determined by the storyguide) to your spell casting roll. A magus has a list of known ("formulaic") spells, whose (Level-10) serves as the Ease Factor. Alternatively, he may attempt to cast spells he doesn't know, but this is more difficult (see Spontaneous Magic). See ArM5 p. 81-82 for details on casting spells.

Finally, you need to understand how to run combat, including wounds, fatigue, and how to calculate whether you hit and so on. See ArM5 p. 171-172, 176, 178-180.