I feel sorry for the few readers, mostly friends and family, who do not play role-playing games and have no idea in hell what the last few posts have been about. I apologize. I’m trying to pump some life into little ole Metropollywog and am leaning on rpgs because rpgs are currently running through my mind. I plan other types of posts; I had a fantastically funny conversation with August (son) yesterday that should be recorded, I watched enough of Mega Shark vs. Crocosaurus to write a review, and George McDonald Fraser’s The Pyrates is knocking my socks off and deserves two or three posts.
And there is the god-awful Numenera I need to review. . . oh, but that’s role-playing games again . . . I should shut-up about Numenera, at least they are hiring . . .
Ars Magica Fifth Edition is a game about wizards in medieval Europe. That’s the pitch. The details are that the game has a magnificently structured magic system that lets players develop all kinds of power spells, limited only by their imagination and some of the in-game limits of magic as defined by the game. It has been lauded for years as the best magic system in any role-playing game, and that is a mighty powerful hook to hang your hat. There are a lot of role-playing games and a lot of game systems for the various types of wizards in those games. To be heralded as the best is noteworthy, without a doubt.
The game is set in medieval Europe, dubbed “Mythic Europe” because along side all the political and social history is a heavy dose of myths, the legends, fables, and fairy tales told during the Middle Ages. So you’ve got King John Lackland, the Crusades, the Templars, knights, monks, and merchants in the same cart with Reynard the Fox, Scandinavian giants, fire-breathing dragons, and Romanian flying horses. The level of research that the game holds the authors to is fairly high, but with the wealth of information available these days, that research is manageable. And its impressive. In thirteenth century Ireland, for example, I can find an area’s Irish king, the English overlord that contests that king, the local bishop, and the local heads of the families that make up the place’s nobility. Knights, warriors, clerics. More research and I can find the ancient Irish hero that killed his buddy at the local river crossing and gave it its name. In the game, this ancient hero becomes a faerie, who still stands over the ford on moonless nights barring travelers’ passage. It’s just unbelievably how detailed we can make Mythic Europe.
And here comes the shot to the foot; great magic system for the wizards, fantastic level of setting detail in the world, and the two can’t interact. According to the fiction of the game, the wizards have sworn an oath not to “meddle in mundane affairs” (read: can’t interact with the local knights and merchants), nor to “molest faeries” (read: can’t go kick the ford-defending faerie’s ass just to see if you can, maybe he is hiding a pot of gold). So you give me a really cool, really powerful character to play, put me in a really cool, very detailed medieval world, and then tell me that I promised not to interact with it.
I’m exaggerating, but the point is, the two most important, stand-out points of the game are at odds with each other. I think this is a mistake. Atlas Games, the owner of Ars Magica, hosts a forum, and posters are currently talking about alternative settings and what they would change in the game. This happens frequently enough and really isn’t surprising, being part of gamer culture and all – we love to kibitz and bemoan our favorite game – and has only come to my attention because there have been some good suggestions. But I think the fundamental change that would improve this game immensely is to let the players interact with the game world to their heart’s content.
“I want to lead a revolt against King John’s England!” “Great, load up your soldiers and get your fire-ball-wands.” (Actually, in 1220 when the game begins, it would be King Henry III’s England – that’s how detailed the research is!)
“I want to storm the Harz Mountains and find the treasure of the Nibelungs!” “Great, I bet Brunhilde is still sleeping behind a ring of fire. Go get her!” (Actually, Brunhilde is from the Volsunga Saga, not the Nibelungenlied, but the latter reuses material found in the former.)
You’re getting my drift. This oath also prevents wizards from spying on each other, stealing their rival’s resources, and generally being naughty. I like naughty wizards. I like catty, whinny wizards that know they aren’t powerful enough to just go lambaste their rival with spells but still pester, annoy, and plot against said rival. I think there are more gaming opportunities with a group of wizards who are powerful and envious of each other, than a gang of goody-two-shoes who are prohibited from visiting their neighbors.
So that’s me blowing hot air from atop my Internet soap box. I’ll end by congratulating the owners, editors, authors, and fans of Ars Magica, and saying that I am honestly impressed with all the work that you all have put in to make this a fantastic game.
Except for that Oath of Hermes thing . . .