The Ars Magica campaign I’d been running for a year and a half came to an end the other day. It’s been an interesting experience and I thought I’d share some thoughts about the game.
Ars Magica is a game about wizards in a fantasy version of mediaeval Europe. It has a detailed and flexible magic system, in which the expectation is that PC wizards will invent their own spells rather than learning from a list.
I’d never experienced Ars Magica as a player before I ran it, and I think that led me to make some mistakes when starting the game. I thought that the magic system’s flexibility would mean that I could run it as a rules-light game, where players would tell me what they wanted to do and I’d do the number-crunching for them. In practice that led to me taking an overwhelming amount of complexity, and led to unintuitive results for players who didn’t see the workings of the system themselves. I now think that Ars Magica works better when all the players are engaged with the complexity of the system.
For those who enjoy engaging with it, I think the complexity of the magic system contributes to the mood of the game. It’s a game about being a wizard of the type who spends months in magical study, and the fact that you as a player are trying to learn and understand the complex magic system does make you feel like such a wizard. A certain amount of min-maxing is even appropriate in-character: you as a player want to make the best spell you can given the magic system, which is exactly what your wizard character wants to do.
Even so, the system is still a little too unwieldy in my opinion. There are a lot of rules that make perfect sense when you read the rulebook through, and lead to elegant results, but are a pain to actually play. Inventing new spells is fun to do when there’s no pressure, but the spontaneous magic system requires you to do it on the fly during the game, which can lead to play grinding to a halt at dramatic moments. Rarely is everything you might need for a particular scene all in the same section of the book, so running the game without having memorised the system involves a lot of flicking back and forth. Down-time activities (in which wizards study, invent spells etc. between adventures) take up a lot of time if done live and are best done by email between game sessions.
Another problem with the system is that it has rules that push players towards roleplaying a particular kind of wizard, in a way that’s at odds with the flexibility that’s one of the system’s selling points. Specifically:
- People can only become wizards if they are born with the Gift. A side-effect of the Gift makes other people react negatively to Gifted individuals. There are pages in the core book detailing how encounters between e.g. magi and innkeepers should go, due to the social effects of the Gift.
- Religious belief generates a supernatural aura which strongly inhibits magic. This means that it is difficult to use magic in inhabited areas, since nearly everyone the setting is religious.
- The Order of Hermes (to which all PC magi belong) forbids its members from interfering with the mundanes.
That’s three different system elements pushing groups to roleplay wizards in a particular way: as outsiders living in the wilderness at the edge of society, interacting with normal society via non-Gifted proxies.
The way that Ars Magica pushes players towards a particular style of roleplaying through the mechanics of its magic system has got me thinking about how magic systems can be used for this purpose. More on that in a future post, possibly.
The fact that the setting is ‘mediaeval Europe but with magic’, rather than a mediaeval European style fantasy world, also had an interesting psychological effect on me. I couldn’t resist trying to make the setting historically accurate; if I suspected I was getting something wrong, it harmed my enjoyment of the game. I read up on mediaeval history, which was enjoyable and worthwhile reading in itself, but which may have interfered with the fun for the players, who were expecting the setting to conform to the usual (actually highly anachronistic) fantasy fiction tropes. If the setting had been a mediaeval-themed secondary world, I would have accepted those anachronistic tropes more easily and been able to run the game more smoothly.
Ars Magica remains the most enjoyable RPG I’ve experienced just as reading material. The system, as experienced when reading it in the books, does feel elegant, and the background material is interesting. Several of the books can also be read as general-readership history books, if you strip out the supernatural and game elements.
In conclusion: Ars Magica is an awkward, but interesting and enjoyable game, to be recommended if the whole group knows what it’s letting itself in for.