Ars Magica 4th Edition
Author: 4th Edition by Bill Brickman, Bob Brynildson, David Chart, Nicole Lindroos Frein, Geoffrey Grabowsky, Peter Hentges, Lydia Leong, Marc Philipp Messner, John Nephew, Chris Pramas, Wade Racine, Roderick Robertson, John Snead, Jeremy Strandberg, Jeff Tidball, and Robbie Westmoreland. Original Ars Magica by Jonathan Tweet and Mark Rein*Hagen.
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games
Line: Ars Magica
Page count: 272
Capsule Review by Eduardo Penna on 08/16/99.
Genre tags: Fantasy Historical Conspiracy
As you can see by the enormous list of authors (and I didn't included an equally long list of contributing authors), lots of people have been working on the fourth edition of Ars Magica. And I think they've done their job very well.
Lets start with the physical and visual aspects of the book: in my opinion the cover is low-average. I would have preferred a full-page picture instead of the symbol of the Order of Hermes. The other books of the line done by Atlas, particularly The Dragon and the Bear and the recent Ultima Thule, have beautiful pictures as their covers, but I guess they didn't wanted to spend a lot of money on the cover of the first rulebook of a game that has changed companies so many times.
The interior art is average, with the exception of John Scotello's stuff, which is excellent, and Dave Allsop's, which is a bit below-average. But the main problem with the art is its absence: for those who like White Wolf's and AEG's style of lots of pictures, this is a shame. I don't feel particularly annoyed by this, since what you lose in art you gain in text. But some full-page pictures at the beginning of each chapter would have been nice, and for a game called Ars MAGICA there are few pictures of magi doing magic. Although the cover is soft, the book is very well bind, and has resisted the passage of time (my copy has 2 years) much better than some hardcover books I have, and is superior to every sofcover books I've seen.
Ars Magica's system is a variation of the popular Attribute+Skill method used in a lot of different games today. Correction: today's systems using this method are variations of Ars Magica's, since if this was the first game using it (and if it wasn't, it's certainly the one that popularized it). You add one of your eight attributes (called Characteristics in Ars Magica) to one of your skills (called Abilities) and add the result of a d10 roll to the result. If the total equals or exceeds the difficulty (the average difficulty is 6) assigned by the GM (called Storyguide), you are successful.
There are also various ways to read the dice results: simple die (rolled in situations where the variability of results is low and there's little likelihood of extraordinary success or failure) results are read normally (a 0 is a 10); quality dice (used in situations where there's a chance of extraordinary success and no risk of horrible failures, such as when you take great care to prepare for a given situation) are read as usual, except that when you roll a 1 you roll the dice again and double the result, except if it is another one, in which case you quadruple the result etc; in stress die results you read 1s as in quality dice, but if you roll a 0 it counts as a 0, and you must roll a number of botch dice determined by the Storyguide (minimum of one die), and if any of those rolls is another 0, you fail spectacularly, or botch (the gravity of the botch is determined by the number of 0s rolled in the botch dice).
Character creation differs slightly for each the three types of character. These types are the Magus, the Companion and the Grog. The Magi are members of the Order of Hermes, the predominant magical order in Medieval Europe, and are much, much more powerful than your standard AD&D mage. Companions are talented individuals such as knights, minstrels and priests that are friends of the magi and help then in their quests. Grogs are servants of the magi that typically act as bodyguards and perform day-to-day labors. I'll expand on this later. The first step in character generation is to envision your character concept. Is your companion a valorous knight or a witty thief? Is your magus a powerful fire mage or a subtler illusionist? At this point magi also choose their House (a House is a clan-like division inside the Order of Hermes, more on that later).
The second step is to generate your Characteristics. You can use either a random or fixed point system. The Characteristics are 8, and they are divided in four groups: Intelligence/Perception, Strength/Stamina, Presence/Communication and Dexterity/Quickness. They range from –5 to +5 (although most normal people have then between –3 and +3), being 0 the average score. The next step is Virtues and Flaws. Picking Flaws gives you points to buy Virtues. Magi and companions may pick up to ten points in Flaws to buy Virtues, while grogs are limited to three points. Flaws include things from a minor Obsession to Blind, while you have Virtues like Light Sleeper and Giant Blood. After this you must choose your Abilities. Companions and grogs always get twice their age in experience points to spend in Abilities (this means that being older gives you more starting Abilities, but remember that in this game you start to feel the effects of old age at 35 years), while the amount of experience magi have is age plus a quantity that depends on their House. Magi also start with lots of magical related abilities. After that you decide your Personality Traits (which range from –5 to +5, but normal people have then between –3 and +3), which affect some rolls related with emotions and personality (Coward +2 would mean that you'll probably run when the demon appears), and dictate how you pretend to role-play your character. Magi have an extra step concerning their magical abilities and spells (more below).
The magic system is the best one I've seen in any RPG. Magi have scores in magical abilities (called Arts), and this Arts are divided in two categories: verbs (or Techniques) and nouns (or From). There are five Techniques: Creo (create), Intellégo (know), Muto (mutate), Perdo (destroy), and Rego (control); and ten Forms: Animál (animal), Aquam (water), Auram (air), Corpus (body), Herban (plant), Ignem (fire), Imáginem (image), Mentem (mind), Terram (earth) and Vim (raw magic). And yes, those names are in Latin (Latin is the language used to power Hermetic Magic), and they're a pain in the ass to learn when you start to play, but it makes the game much more colorful and helps a lot in the suspension of disbelief department.
Magic is done by combining a Technique with a Form. So, if you want to create the classic fireball, you would use your Creo (create) and Ignem (fire) scores, while if you wanted to read someone's thoughts, you would use Intellégo (know) Mentem (mind). There are two kinds of spells: formulaic and spontaneous. Formulaic spells are standardized castings, with detailed steps to do each spell. This are easy to cast, so you can achieve more powerful spells with then, but the problem is that you must first know the spell, and that takes time.
The other type of spell, spontaneous spells, is made on the moment, but are much more difficult to cast then formulaic magic. The way the game handles how many spells a magus can cast is fatigue: casting spells tires the magus, and spontaneous spells tire even more than formulaic ones. There's also a detailed system for laboratory activity, which includes rules for magical items, potions, inventing spells, taking apprentices etc. The big catch of this magic system and the motive of why magi haven't taken control of Europe is raw vis. Vis is how magi call magic in it's purest form, and raw vis is magic manifested physically in our world (magic mushrooms, dragon's blood etc). You need raw vis to make any kind of magic last for more than a lunar month, and the thing is more rare than gold.
The combat system is good, although a bit slow in some places. It takes in account your health and fatigue, and it's easier to fall exhausted than dead. It starts with a good initiative system that, unlike some systems, takes in account the weapon's length instead of speed. So yes, you may move your dagger quickly, but I'll stab you first with my spear since you have to get closer to use your quick dagger. The attack system has a carryover mechanic that enables you to accumulate excess points in your attack roll and use all of then as a single, big attack bonus later. The damage system takes in account good attacks as much or more than the lethality of the weapon.
Gameplay is different from everything you ever seen. As I mentioned before, there are three kind of characters: Magi, Companions and Grogs. Each player creates a magus and a companion, and the group creates a common pool of grogs which all players have access to. The group lives in a Covenant, a place where some magi live together alongside lots of grogs and some companions. The Covenant is, perhaps, the most important "character" in the game, since, while there can be generations of normal characters, the Covenant will always be there. Also, in Ars Magica there's no single Storyguide: the GM seat changes frequently.
Time is measured in the four seasons, and adventures happen only one time per year or so. When the characters do go out in adventures, players take either their companion or magi, alongside a grog or two, to control, leaving the other character in the covenant. The rest of the time is spent by the magi in laboratory activities, while companions and grogs hone their skills. Hermetic intrigue (that's why "Conspiracy" is up there in game theme) is also a favorite pastime. Sagas, as Ars Magica campaigns are called, can last for years in real time, and generations in game time. This way to play is called the Troupe style playing.
The background is based in a single premise, called the Medieval Paradigm: what people thought was true in the Middle Ages IS true in Mythic Europe. So demons exist, angels help the faithful, giants roam the north lands and fairies roam the nearby woods. The most powerful organizations of mages, the Order of Hermes, has almost become a fourth social class, alongside nobility, clergy and peasantry. The Order is divided in many Houses, such as House Flambeau (war-mages), House Bonisagus (scholars) or House Merenita (fairy-loving mages). There's little information in the rulebook about the setting, but you don't really need then: the best sourcebooks you'll find are in your local library. Books on European history, fairy tales and ancient myths are excellent sources for any Ars Magica Storyguide.
Resuming, Ars Magica is a game with a decent set of rules that shine in the magic mechanics and a wonderful setting. Troupe style playing is a fantastic way to roleplay, one that I recommend to anyone. Give Ars Magica a shot and immerse yourself in Mythic Europe. It'll be worth the trip.
Style: 3 (Average)