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June 7, 2010 7:24 AM   Subscribe

"The impression that Ars Magica requires a Ph.d in medieval history to play was not helped by several supplements for the fourth edition that were in fact written by Ph.d’s in medieval history." Don't let that stop you, though; you can download the fourth edition for free.

Ars Magica was a pivotal game in the history of modern role-playing games, with its story-driven mechanics, very free-form magic system, and invention of troupe-style roleplaying. One of the creators would go on to create games for a little game company called White Wolf, and various pieces of the Ars Magica system would find their way into the World of Darkness.

Fourteen years, five editions, and four publishers leter, Ars Magica still boasts a very active network of players. There are currently two subscription-based fanzines being published, in English and French.

(The quotation is from this review of the fifth edition. Of course, the free fourth edition shouldn't discourage you from picking up the more recent edition!)
posted by kaibutsu (19 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

Ah, Ars - my one of my favorite systems. I have to admit, while I played a few RPG's, I mostly like collecting different systems. This was one of my favorites, along with "Roll"master and Phoenix Command/Living Steel
posted by jkaczor at 7:40 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

(and if anyone might be interested in an online-type game, drop me a line and I'll try to coordinate something.)
posted by kaibutsu at 7:40 AM on June 7, 2010

The guy that got me into the White Wolf games back in high school / college also eventually got me into Ars Magica. I don't think we ever actually played it, which frankly was fine by me -- it probably wouldn't have worked for our little group of mostly rules-lawyers. But man, the magic system was awesome. It just seemed like the way that medieval magic ought to work. I mean: it was semantic! That alone makes it worth reading.

Our favorite White Wolf game was Mage, and it wasn't coincidence. But after reading Ars Magica you couldn't help but feel how narrow and confined the Mage system was, and the Mage system was tremendously flexible when compared to almost anything else.
posted by penduluum at 7:45 AM on June 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I loved Ars. Unfortunately, my group had real difficultly adapting to the troupe-style of the game - they all wanted to play their mages all the time.
posted by never used baby shoes at 7:56 AM on June 7, 2010

Our favorite White Wolf game was Mage, and it wasn't coincidence.

Nothing in Mage is just coincidence.
posted by Snyder at 7:59 AM on June 7, 2010 [14 favorites]

I see it's not an unknown story here: the difficulty in finding an appropriate (willing/open-minded) group is the biggest obstacle to A.M..

my group had real difficultly adapting to the troupe-style of the game - they all wanted to play their mages all the time.

Which leads directly to typical campaign problems in other games -- hey, my druid has nothing to do in this dungeon crawl! Hey, my fighter is useless in this rogue quest! A.M.'s recommended system makes lots of sense, thematically and practically. Different adventure types come and go, and suitable mages take up the task. Meanwhile, I'd love to spend a one-off adventure running companions or some scene-chewing grogs, but most players raised on D&D have no tolerance for intentional imbalance (just the kind you can steal through min-maxing).

Ok, I'm a bit bitter, because Ars Magica is pretty much The One That Got Away of rpgs to me.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:20 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

...hey, my druid has nothing to do in this dungeon crawl! Hey, my fighter is useless in this rogue quest!

Yeah, D&D has three things that work well together for D&D, but are pretty narrow in terms of what you can do with characters and story:

1) Encounters need to be challenging for a party
2) Therefore, characters have to stick together for safety
3) And, party members need to approximate similar power levels to be able to participate.

Once you start playing games where characters can run off on their own, and it's easy to move the spotlight around, it's pretty easy to deal with disparate balance issues, because you just give people appropriate challenges/situations for their characters.

Full Light, Full Steam has a smart implementation of the troupe idea- players create one set of characters who are officers serving on the aethership, and then another set of low ranking crew, etc.

I'd like to see more games play with multiple character options for players, though it looks like the mainstream publishers are pretty happy with the traditional setup.
posted by yeloson at 8:43 AM on June 7, 2010

Ars Magica is no Chivalry & Sorcery, that's for sure....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2010

Just hearing a mention of C&S gave me a whole-body shudder. Ah, the good old days of early '80s RPGs, when "role-playing" and "combat simulation" were largely synonymous. Except for Traveller, where the bulk of the game was played during character creation.

I also want to point out that the other author of Ars was Jonathan Tweet, one of the all-time greats of RPG design and theory (and who deserves more than a damned Wiki stub). Everway brought fantasy gaming out of Europe and into the world (in a lot of ways), and Over The Edge is still one of the strangest and most entertaining RPGs ever written. (I mean, c'mon -- a William S Burroughs role-playing game? How are you going to beat that?)
posted by mkhall at 10:34 AM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Everway brought fantasy gaming out of Europe and into the world (in a lot of ways)

I loved Everway's picture cards. Brilliant way to set up scenarios. I wish more games took some lessons from the great graphic design that infused that whole game.
posted by yeloson at 11:30 AM on June 7, 2010

Ars Magica was the game I never played because I'm a medieval history nerd (by training, I have an MA and barely missed going on for the PhD) and I would totally be THAT GUY, or at least THAT GAL. I'd love to play it, but nobody in their right mind would put up with me.

And hooray for Everway! The Amber/Everway pbem my husband and I co-GM just rolled over in to year 9 last week. Until I saw someone cross Amber with Everway, I didn't know there was going to be a way to play Amber that didn't make my teeth itch.
posted by immlass at 12:58 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been meaning to try out Fudge or the also-free Fate system, which also seem principled on giving the players ways to re-negotiate the gameworld. They're also pretty minimalist as game systems, which might be good for snagging a few new players.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:02 PM on June 7, 2010

immlass: Your comment reminds me of an hour somewhere near dawn, the minds of my hgih school friends and I lost in the fog of all-night game. Someone decided to light a torch with a lighter, which was roundly ridiculed since there were clearly no lighters in medieval ANYWHERE. And then, inebriated on sleep deprivation, we spent a half-hour arguing about whether something like matches would have been available, or whether every poor adventurer who wanted the use of a torch had to go through the torture of a flint-and-steel process...
posted by kaibutsu at 1:15 PM on June 7, 2010

FATE is pretty awesome. We're playing a Mage game using the FATE rules and it works surprisingly well.
posted by khaibit at 2:11 PM on June 7, 2010

which also seem principled on giving the players ways to re-negotiate the gameworld.

Other games that give a lot of narration trading: Inspectres, 1001 Nights, Primetime Adventures, Polaris.

(There's a ton more, though those 4 are pretty awesome and easy to jump into.)
posted by yeloson at 2:29 PM on June 7, 2010

Ars Magica was great.

"I'm going to cast a spell. I'll hit that guy with a makey friendly firey spell."

"Your makey friendly firey spell is countered by an aromatic ambitiously pondersome watery spell."
posted by Wataki at 3:36 PM on June 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If anyone is in the Bay Area (East Bay - but flexible) and is interested - I'd be up for some Ars.
posted by schwa at 9:00 PM on June 7, 2010

Wow! I mean, I knew San Francisco was an open and friendly place, but...
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:05 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best RPG campaign I ever played in, hands down, was Ars Magica. I had a wonderful character who had no useful skills at all (he was a research magician whose spells were all theoretical), and who specialised in taking the credit for things other people had done. It's the mark of a fine RPG when you can generate a character like that and get away with acting like an asshole for years without the other PCs noisily lynching you.
posted by Hogshead at 7:19 PM on June 8, 2010

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