Friday, February 5, 2010

How I learned to stop worrying and love Ars Magica

Once again I'm inspired by Daniel Perez. His recent love letter to Vampire: The Masquerade has got me thinking of paradigm-shifting games I've played. And since this blog is about exploring my passion for RPGs I should probably talk about other games I've played besides D&D.

I was introduced to Ars Magica in 1987, soon after it's release. I was home after my horrible first year at Bowling Green State University. I was supposed to be working on my saxophone playing so I could re-apply to BGSU's School of Music. Instead I was floundering in indecision about my future.

I was spending much of the time I was not working one of my three jobs thinking about or playing AD&D with my friends. It was a time full of role-playing goodness. I had a subscription to Dragon magazine and devoured it's contents to learn new ways to expand play. It was in those pages that I first found Ars Magica.

I don't remember the issue and I have long since sold my back issues (and for that mater it could have been White Wolf magazine - if anybody knows, please let me know), but there was a short piece of fiction about a flame-wielding Magi. I like to believe that it was written by one of the games authors: Jonathan Tweet & Mark Rein•Hagen.

Anyway, the wizard in the story was unlike anything I'd read to that point. I found the use of magic in the story unlike anything in AD&D. After the artcle were two write-ups for the Magi. The first was a typical AD&D stat block. The other was for Ars Magica (AM).

I found the AM character sheet facinating, especially how the magic was portrayed as skills in various magical disciplines. Also, the AM Magi had mechanical elements on the character sheet to represent various disadvantages and story points. This is pretty commonplace now, but it was earth-shaking to me then.

I found an ad with information for ordering the game from an unknown company called Lions Rampant. I soon did the unthinkable: I ordered the book sight unseen on the merits of that story and the character sheet alone.

I received the book shortly before heading back to school at BGSU. I was living on campus while technically a Junior (uncool) and was working in a dorm as a Resident Advisor (even more uncool). I read the book cover to cover several times.

Even after reading it as I did i had a lot of questions. I found the address for the company and hand wrote a letter asking them all of my questions (this was before the Internet was the sprawling monstrosity it is today.

To my utter amazement I received a hand-written reply several pages in length (as I type this post I'm 25,000 ft in the air over Nebraska so I can't check to see which of the designers wrote the reply, I'll have to check when I get home - yes, I kept the letter inside the well-worn cover of the game book). He answered my questions point for point.

Let me point out here that Dragon magazine gave me the opportunity to write in letters and ask questions if I wanted. But that was D&D. I was very intimidated by the stature and history of that game and looked with hero-worship to Gary & crew. With AM I felt comfortable building a dialog - a relationship. I now know that this sort of relationship building is a staple of independent press games. I've heard Fred, Chad, Luke and others speak of it on several occasions. But back then...again, monumental.

Some of the things that made AM so cool in my mind: stats that were modifiers in and of themselves, impovisational magic, troupe style play, control of multiple characters in play and building the story colaborotively.

Sadly I only had one opportunity to run a game of it. My college AD&D group obliged me and let me start. We never got past character creation. Maybe I built it up too much. Maybe it requires a bigger buy-in from players. Whatever the case, it is one game that i regret never pursuing further.

But I think there is still time. I think I'll dust it off and see if the magic still exists between the covers. In it's day it was avant guard. Today is it passé? We'll see.

Next time, more Exploring Elric: Twilight Civilizations!

Follow Your Bliss,

Update: Find Ars Magica 4th Edition PDF free here at the Atlas Games site. Also includes free adventures, campaign and character sheets. No excuse now, time to Creo Ignem.


  1. I always wanted to try Ars Magica, and even owned 4th edition for a while there (I still have the Kabbalah sourcebook), but never got around to it. Maybe one day we can try this out.

    Considering we keep saying this, one day, we're gonna have to have a month-long con at some point!

  2. If I can find it, I thought there was a free PDF download of 4th ed. I'll make the time if folks are interested.

  3. Added link to the free 4th edition PDF from Atlas Games in the post.

  4. Troupe play, and the magic system are two things I like to try and bring to other RPGs. Cause I'll never find a group who will actually play Ars Magica.

  5. @Norman, I always thought that AD&D 2nd Ed. Dark Sun screamed for the troupe play approach. Imagine a city state, now have each of the players creat a Templar character, plus maybe a psionic of wizard character and a bunch of (gladiator/fighter/rogue) slaves. Treat the game just like Ars Magica with rotating DM and each adventure players pic which characters to bring along.

    Thanks for posting, I'd love to hear what steps you took to include the magic and troupe play in other games, tell us what worked and what didn't.