Ars Magica: Shot in the Foot from the Very Beginning

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 . . .


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14 Responses to Ars Magica: Shot in the Foot from the Very Beginning

  1. zhai2nan2 says:

    I think TVTropes would call this the “Status Quo is God” problem of story-telling.

    The people in charge of the story “bible” don’t want to deal with big changes (such as magitech) or logical debates about how magic works.

    So they decide that magic is omnipotent on condition that it do nothing.

    The bigger problem is that RPGs aren’t sold by gameplay.

    RPGs are sold based on whether an isolated gamer can look at the book and imagine that it would be fun. RPGs are sold before the gameplay happens.

    The usual experience is that ten gamers buy the book, only six of them find people to play with.

    Of those six, five have grandiose ideas for their characters, and the game-master shoots them all down and makes them play characters that he considers reasonable.

    And then after a few sessions, everyone decides that other gamers suck, and they all play computer games instead of tabletop RPGs.

  2. Agree totally, there is a disconnect between the potential of the Magi and the setting. For a long time I’ve been pondering uplifting aspects of Ars Magica, and combining them into a more mythical setting which has the dragons and fae built in. Either picking a setting already established in a book series, or going solo on a setting too. One day. I read on the forums about somebody doing Harn this way, and I’ve heard of other games stealing the magic and base mechanics for modern settings.
    Without the historic disconnect, the game would soar.

  3. MarioJPC says:

    I don’t think so.
    I mean, other backgrounds limit. The Sexual roles can be a problem… so do you make than the men and women are equals on rpg socities? Or the cast systems, the poor can’t be on the palace and the rich can’t go easily on the mud. But stories grow on difficulties, or on the every day plaything (Sundering for example), the players can do it differently. In any ambientation the rules and stories are thougt to increase the way on your games.

    I thnk, your article is ok of course.

  4. RJL says:

    The trick is to realise that the Oath can be breached; especially by the player characters.

    The existence of a police-force and laws against murder in New York, say, do not prevent the fictional series “Law and Order” from telling stories about murders in New York. Nor, as we all know, unfortunately, do these prevent murders from occurring, occasionally in real life in New York.

    The same thing applies here. The Oath of Hermes does not prevent you telling stories about player characters who break that Oath (or find ways to bend it), nor does it prevent you telling stories where NPCs break or bend the Oath (with the player characters needing to do something about it).

    The Oath of Hermes is in fact a game design device to help you (the players) tell stories about precisely the things that it obstensibly prohibits the characters from doing.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      I disagree. The Order of Hermes has a limited pool of members. In Law and Order there is a city full of possible law breakers, and the protagonists can chase and prosecute antagonists to their hearts content without diminishing their own organization’s numbers. Also, Law and Order is a show about law breakers. Let’s say I don’t want to run a saga about the characters being policemen who catch and prosecute criminals (Code breakers). I want to run a saga about magi interacting with the Hanseatic League and exploring trade in the Baltic Sea. Oh, I can’t, because magi can’t interact with mundane society without becoming law breakers.

      You say the code can be broken and I can run any kind of saga that I want, but it’s not true, because if I default to the canonical interpretation such a saga will be colored by the fact that the magi must break the code to engage in the mundane interaction I’m going for. I don’t want them to have to break the code to interact with the Hanseatic League, to use my example again.

      The Oath of Hermes does not, in fact, help me tell stories. It hinders certain stories, and tells me how others have to transpire even if I don’t want them to. For example, I think magi should be able to spy on each other. It adds tension. Oh, the Code tells me they can’t. And if they do, the are automatically law breakers. Again with the Law Breakers. It is limiting, and its limitations to not contribute to a saga’s creativity potential. It shoehorns it into cops vs. criminals.

      • RJL says:

        I still don’t see the issue. To take your example of magi interacting with the Hanseatic League: sure, that is something that sounds, at-face-value, to be something “against the Code”.

        However, a careful reading of the Code is that mundane interaction must cause “ruin” to other magi to be problematic. This is a deliberate game design choice, because exactly what “ruin” means is something that you (the storyguide) and the players decide, and the characters in-character can argue about that too. So, merely interacting with the Hanseatic League in some way is not necessarily a problem. It depends on the local in-character interpretation of the Code (which is something that you, the players, ulitmately decide) and, of course, what your characters actually do when they interact.

        In-character, even if the Code was silent on interacting with mundanes, nonetheless, if the player characters did interact with mundanes in a way that annoyed other magi, then there would still be a response that your player characters would need to deal with. So, regardless of the Code, if the player character magi do things to mundanes that annoy other magi; other magi will do something about it. So, you will still have the same story issues. The Code is just a list of things that other magi find objectionable. Even if the list wasn’t there, other magi would realistically still find those things objectionable, so if your characters want to do one of the those things, they still need to find ways to do them quietly, or in ways that pacify other magi, or just cope with the fact that other magi will be annoyed. The Code is just a game design device to remind the players to consider these issues. And, of course, it is realistic for a functioning society of wizards to generate some rules to govern their own behaviour.

        Finally, even if your player characters (or NPCs) want to do something “against the Code”, so what? The capability and enthusiasm of the local Hermetic authorities to detect and do something about Code breaking is ultimately in your hands, as storyguide and troupe. The game does not pre-suppose anything in this regard. If you want magi to scry on each other, then magi do. The existence of the Code doesn’t stop you (the players) and neither does it stop the characters (if you don’t want it to). The existence of the Code *does* create story opportunities around scrying, but no-one forces you (the players) to use those story opportunites. The existence of laws about jaywalking (in reality) neither stops people jaywalking nor does it criminalise most of the population.

        “It is limiting, and its limitations to not contribute to a saga’s creativity potential”… I totally disagree with this. Limits inspire creativity. Either by trying to work within them, or finding ways to bypass them.

      • Matt Ryan says:

        Ok, so your take is that the Code exists to say, “if you do this (mundane interaction), there may be such and such consequences (annoy other magi, etc.). Wouldn’t a sentence saying, “the Order is fairly small, and your interactions with your neighbors (mundanes and faeries) may color the interactions between other magi and their neighbors (although as I type that I don’t see how, really), and those magi may not like what you are doing.” That creates just as much story potential as the Code. The difference is that with the Code, you (the PCs) are Code-Breakers (bad guys), and the magi complaining are upholding the Code (good guys). My question is, why do I have to be the “bad guy”?

        I find the Code an unnecessary hoop to jump through to tell stories. You don’t, and that’s grand. My original point is that the Code of Hermes restricts players from interacting with the history that forms the game world. I’ve written scenarios for the line, and in every case, I get playtest comments that say, in effect, “we would never start this adventure because the Code prohibits us from interacting with our neighbors.” I’ve seen the same comment from playtest groups of other authors’ scenarios. So to me, based on my writing experience, the Code seems restrictive.

        You disagree and find the Code useful. Grand. You think its a necessary component to the setting. Wonderful. I’m glad your having fun playing.

      • RJL says:

        I think that we will have to agree to diagree.

        For me, a mere sentence like you describe is too weak, because it wouldn’t influence game-play strongly enough. The point of Ars Magica, or Mythic Europe at least, is that it is the game-world where the Order and the Code does exist; and you tell stories in the context that those things do exist.

        “My question is, why do I have to be the “bad guy”? — good guys break the Code too. It is hard to argue that a magus who destroys a crusading army, say, to save a town of innocents is a “bad guy”. Equally, it is hard to argue that a maga who does a “deal with the devil” to save her beloved is a “bad guy”. Having a legal Code for the characters helps you to tell more sophisticated stories, where the characters have to make choices and face consequences. It is no accident of game design that many of the things the Code prohibits are exactly the things that player characters want/need to do.

        The Code is not a game mechanic like the aura adding a bonus to spell casting, which the players have to follow. The Code is piece of the setting which individual characters can follow or not, for good and bad reasons, depending on the circumstances of the character and story.

        While playtesters might say to you, “we would never start this adventure because the Code prohibits us from interacting with our neighbors”; what they really mean (I think) is that their characters need sufficiently compelling reasons to break the Code and/or the story needs to be flexible enough to cope with characters who don’t “start the adventure”. In play, (as both player and storyguide) I routinely encounter situations where the player characters shrug their shoulders, ignore The Plot and wander off to do something else. Which is fine, there should just be different story consequences to this than if the player characters immediately pounce on The Plot and start sleuthing.

      • Matt Ryan says:

        You still haven’t explained how you see the Code of Hermes helping you tell stories. I understand it’s not a mechanic, its an artificial device included by the designers. (An interesting note of research would be to see if the Code existed in the first edition, and how the original designers saw magi interacting with the medieval world.) The Code tells me what my characters can’t do. It’s restrictive. My question is, do we need that restriction?

        I understand that the Code can be broken. My point is that the game gives us a really cool world and then puts roadblocks in the way when we try to interact with it. Yes, we can get around the roadblocks. I just wish we didn’t have to. I wish we didn’t have to contrive stories that are compelling enough for the player characters to have to break the law, or bend the law, to engage in the story.

        You don’t have that issue. Grand. We disagree, that is also grand. I’m not trying to convince you to change the way you play. Are you trying to convince me by defending the party line? Why does the party line need defending? Why did Monte Cook need to write a defense for his Numenera game mechanic? I’ll tell you why: because it’s bad. In play it’s clunky, counter-intuitive, and brings the flow of the game to a grinding halt. The Code isn’t as bad as that, far from it, but it’s more of a roadblock to play than an on-ramp to fun.

        And really, thanks for participating in the conversation and remaining civil throughout the discourse.

  5. zhai2nan2 says:

    >The Oath of Hermes does not, in fact, help me tell stories. It hinders certain stories, and tells me how others have to transpire even if I don’t want them to.

    Game designers always try to manipulate players they will never meet into playing the game in the right way.

    Originally, this made sense, because before Arneson, we just had war games, and game designers were trying to pressure military officers into planning battles in the way that High Command would approve. Obviously there was some attempt at professionalism there.

    However, after Arneson and Gygax, the psychological pressure remained, but was applied to entirely fictional worlds, becoming an exercise of intra-fanboy hate.

    You *can* run any game in a way its designer would hate, if you can convince a group of players to go along with your idea. But if your gaming group dares to tell anyone about how you went against the designer’s intentions, be prepared for nerd-rage. For that matter, be prepared for your own gaming group to mutiny because they suddenly develop an inexplicable personal loyalty to the game designer.

  6. Heaven's Thunder Hammer says:

    The solution I found was to start the game close to the time the Order was founded. The PC’s were graduated in 773, in time to influence some of the first rulings on understanding the Order’s rules. They got to interact with history as they saw fit, because until then there was no organized group of powerful magic users to influence events. They were able to do all sorts of crazy shit because there weren’t enough Quaesitors to police their shennagians or people to complain about their mundane interference.

    I also feel Ars Magica players for a very, very long time had an exceedingly over restrictive interpretation of the Interference with Mundanes that didn’t do the line any favors. If the OoH hasn’t changed history (and it would) it should have dramatically scaled back magical powers.

    • HTH is dead right “If the OoH hasn’t changed history (and it would) it should have dramatically scaled back magical powers.” The more I play the more I do not undertand the use of strict history in settings. By 1220 the world woul be forever radically changed.

    • Imrryran says:

      I agree the the magi are much too powerful to be consistent with the setting. Magi are already a bit too powerful when just out of apprenticeship, but once the player characters can routinely destroy cities it becomes toonsland unless everyone around the table restrict themselves.

      In my sagas I usually make the arts grow as abilities. The magic system is then more consistent with the setting, even if not perfect yet.

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