A Little House History

Today’s post is only going to interest Ars Magica players. I’ll get back to  posting about my ridiculous life tomorrow, or the day after, depending on how ridiculous it gets.

Houses are a staple of the Ars Magica Role-Playing Game.  Wizards (called magi in-game) are separated into Houses, groups descended from a common spell-casting ancestor, the apprentice of the wizard who was the apprentice of the wizard who was the apprentice, etc. The magi of House Flambeau, for example, are descendants of Mr. Flambeau and continue his magic of fire and destruction. They are the demolition experts of the game. House Merinita, on the other hand, prefers nature and faeries. Every magus character must come from a House, a defining element of both the character and the game system. But have they always been?

While I don’t have a copy of the first edition of the game, but I do have a copy of Order of Hermes, the 1990 supplement that first described the different Houses as well as other aspects of the Order of Hermes, the term the magi use for their confederation of wizardry. The Houses have since been re-defined – two of the twelve by yours truly – but without major revision. Two nights ago, while thumbing through old magazines in search of a cover image to scan for this blog’s header image, I found my copy of White Wolf #16. White Wolf magazine was produced from 1986 to 1994/5  by White Wolf Publishing, the company behind the Vampire rpg that made everyone wear black eyeliner throughout the early 90’s. Or was that Flock of Seagulls? No matter. Published in 1998, issue #16 has an article on page 36 titled, “The Houses of Hermes.”

The article introduces the 12 Houses to players through a tribunal, a regular meeting of an area’s magi. Did that mean that in the first edition of the game, players didn’t have to worry about a House and just made a medieval wizard character? Instead encouraging my creativity, I’ve always found that the House-concept stifles it. What happens if I don’t want a demolition expert, or a nature lover, or an item-enchanter, or a wizard-soldier, or any of the other stamped templates that I have to choose from?

According to the 1998 article, players attend the tribunal and meet other magi from the other Houses. If this is the first inclusion of Houses, I guess players also get a House once they attend the tribunal. “Hey, I was just a wizard before but now I’m a wizard with an address! Oh, a House isn’t a physical thing?” The Houses are pretty much as they are in today’s edition. The real gem is the suggested issues that the players and the new House wizards need to discuss. All of these issues later became bylaws of the Order. If you play the fifth edition of the game – and you really should – the Order of Hermes already has rules for how wizards are supposed to deal with these issues, and if your character doesn’t deal with the issue in the prescribed way he is a lawbreaker and an outlaw.

First Issue: a hostile baron is encouraging on a group’s land and the tribunal needs to decide how to deal with him. Should they make peace or, “launch an attack.” Nice. In the recent version, magi are prohibited from launching attacks at mundane princes, because it might endanger the Order as a whole.

Second Issue: two groups dispute a faerie forest. Once wants to raid it, the second wants to protect it from raiding. Less clear cut, but the recent versions says that Order cannot “molest” faeries, and raiding a faerie forest for its vis (innate magical goo that collects in various items and is used to make enchantments) is legally questionable.

Third Issue: A magus is suspected of being a diabolists, someone who deals with demons. Some magi want to prosecute him while others want to protect his privacy and demand more proof from the investigators. In ArM5 (notation for Ars Magica fifth edition), dealing with demons is a crime punishable by death, and investigators have a right to investigate.

What is interesting to me is that these issues were initially potential plot points in an rpg adventure. They are things that a player might do. Later they became things that a player can only do if he wants to break the law and become a bad guy. One of my biggest pet peeves of the game is that there are too many rules telling players what their wizard characters can’t do. I’d rather have suggestions about what my wizard can do.

“Summon a demon and make him give me cool powers. Nice.”

“Ah, you can’t do that, the Code forbids it.”

“Oh. Well, that knight that lives next door to us is a pain in the fanny. Let’s go throw fireballs at him and wipe him out.”

“Sorry. The Code. Can’t attack mundanes.”

“Okay. Well, that mysterious forest must have some neat magical sources. Let’s go explore it and take them.”

“Well, that forest also has faeries, so you might want to think twice about taking something that belongs to them.”

“So let me get this straight, I have a totally cool character who can cast really neat spells and make fantastic magical items. But, he can’t blow up his neighbor who is a pest, fight the forest faeries and take their stuff, or make deals with demons for even cooler powers. What can I do?”

“You can go to meetings and talk about the stuff you are not supposed to do and look for other wizards who are doing that stuff.”

“Can I kill those wizards and take their stuff?”

Okay, not every role-playing game is about killing creatures and taking their stuff, and not every role-playing gamer wants to do that. Only the ones I play with [silly grin icon to show I’m not serious].

Still, it’s a good note to myself that in future projects I’ll focus on what the players can do and not what they can’t.

 

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3 Responses to A Little House History

  1. I’d be ok with characters doing all that taboo stuff, they just need to accept the ramifications if they get caught. Laws in the Order are one thing, being caught is another. 🙂 That troublesome Lord can be dealt with via some clever mind manipulation magic, and as long as the subtle approach is taken nobody will be wiser.
    Like mission impossible for Magi.

  2. Imrryran says:

    You are right, the 5th edition rule book sorely lacks examples of magi’s lifes and deeds, giving basic ideas on what fun and great and epic things players could achieve.

  3. zhai2nan2 says:

    White Wolf never play-tested as much as it should have, and thus they were very cagey about writing down what had worked in play-testing.

    Gygax’s teams tended to play-test a lot, and they left some written traces of adventures that sucked, with the note “don’t run the module like this or it will suck.”

    White Wolf never wanted to admit that its rules had ever resulted in bad play-tests, so they tended to wall off play options.

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