An op-ed on the upside and downside of canon

Hi all,

I set out to do some work importing Durenmar material to Project: Redcap today, and I did that. I also ended up writing my first opinion piece on Ars Magica since a letter to the editor of Mythic Perspectives in 2001. :slight_smile: It's supposed to be about how the extensive canon of Ars Magica has both positive and negative effects, and (hopefully) ends with some advice about how to manage the tension between the two.

I'd be interested to know what the forum community thinks, and will gladly link back to this thread so Redcap readers can see your responses.


-Andrew Gronosky

Didn't make it easy to find...
Here's the link to the article.

Can we reply here instead of on the wiki? I get jitters about editing other people's wikis... which might be counter the whole point of a wiki, but hey.

This is something I've been bandying around the office a bit lately; the strength of an established, canonical setting vs. player free-for-all. And there's one thing I think stands out to be disagreed with:

Which is fine. It's an opinion piece and we're allowed our opinions, but I'm going to try and present an argument that might change yours. :slight_smile:

I think what you're seeing is people are resistant to change to an established canon they have adopted as their own. That's the thing about canon settings for anything: people adopt them, they become the mental property of the audience. When the creator (or authorised owner) goes and makes changes, people get upset - because someone else is now making changes to their property, and worse, that someone is allowed to / has the authority to do so!

Star Wars highlights this beautifully with the various changes Lucas has made over the years, giving rise to 'Han Shot First' t-shirts and a general dissatisfaction with Ep1-3 by even the most die-hard fans - not just over the quality of the films in general but equally because they canonically clashed with the original three films.

For anyone who has ever worked on the Warhammer 40k license, rabid fans are something you will be intimately familiar with. Forums / posts on totally unrelated topics (and forums!) can quickly devolve into raging anger-fuelled arguments about 40k from even the slightest commentary. I can probably find one on this forum with enough digging...


I'm going to counter by saying that people actually do want to be told how to play, for the most part. This is exactly why projects like the starter-covenant fan-book have gained such traction. This is why settings like Forgotten Realms have so much more traction than something like GURPS or Amber; Forgotten Realms is literally covered in clear instructions on how to play within the setting, Amber and GURPS are not. It's certainly not the only factor, but it's definitely a factor.

The vast majority of people aren't that creative; they're not authors, they're not even trained (or have hobby-experience) in story-crafting. They want something they can hang their hat on; it's why Harry Potter fan-fiction or Twilight fan-fiction is so much more popular both for authors and readers than fiction-sites where authors contribute completely novel content. It means people can immediately start toying with characters and settings that both the author and the readers are familiar with.

Anyway, that's my 2c.

And for me, that's why a rich canon is really important to any RPG system. Canon gets people in the door, rich mechanics convinces them to stay.

Good comments Kid gloves.

Speaking of the Forgotten Realms setting. Witness the rage unleashed when 4th Ed DnD "updated" the setting, changing a great deal about it that people liked (and had indeed taken ownership of) and using the new edition to introduce lots of stuff from the 4th ed DnD books that was previously absent in the Forgotten Realms. This sudden jarring change to canon, seemingly introduced to more closely aligned it with a different canon (that of the 4th Ed main books) divided the players into those that loved the Realms, and who saw this as a violation, and those who did not have strong opinions on the old realms, who were able to adopt the new canon without problems.

And I agree about the strengths of a good strong, well developed canon. I'll play games with rubbish mechanics as long as I love the canon. But games with great mechanics and rubbish settings don't get a showing. Although the GM and rules nerd in me will always be trying to "modify" good mechanics to work in good settings.

Facepalm thanks. Guess I was tired after writing that.

Whatever works for you. Thanks for your thoughts.

Respectfully, Erick strangled the Amber game in its sleep. He had authors perfectly happy to write for him, for free even, or to buy the game from him, and who had completed supplements like Rebma, and he just didn't publish because they didn't meet his artistic vision. I mean, there's a reason why Lords of Gossamer and Shadow can get kickstarted: the demand was always there.

It's not about the looseness of the canon, it's about one guy running the game as a personal hobby.

Canon is for authors, not for players.

I know people like it, but canon will kill the game if you let it.

Assuming there will eventually be a Sixth Edition, the only way the game can grow, which is necessary for its survival, is to discard some of its rusted-on fans. This is true of every fandom.

Next time around I expect (and, no, I'm not part of any effort to write a new edition):

  • Blank canon, so that new authors are not forced to wade through a billion books to get up to speed.
  • The Order of Hermes and House Tremere will change their names. Too many gaming companies make money from ancillary purchases now for the owner of Ars to keep sharing its IP with whoever actually owns these trademarks. Even if they have a right to use them, they need to clearly be the official vendor for their own fangear.
    ^ The combat system will be radically simplified, based on concepts of narrative control, rather than the current system of multiple vectors of definition. Hitting a guy with a sword should not take four dice rolls.
  • Some of the Characteristics will likely go: they are just Virtues pretending.
  • The skill system will be made it a freer list, and historically accurate but useless ones, like Philosophae, will likely go.
  • There will be a lot less Latin.
  • Certamen will either work, or be killed: it's had three goes at relevance and I don't think its every made it to being relevant, because players like a rule of law instead of a Code Duello.
  • I think the idea of every hedge magic tradition having its own system of numbers is played out.
  • The Tribunals are weirdly placed, and we all know it. If there's a Provencal at all, it might as well be in Provence.
  • I think the game may focus on the UK, because I think we've failed to do much there in this edition. How much has happened in Wales, for example? Time to pick the low hanging fruit.
  • Some of the Houses are exhausted as sources of inspiration, or will be radically rewritten. For example, Jerbiton will likely be Greek next time, IMO, and will probably not have a roleplyingish name. (Jerbiton? I mean. What language is that even in? Middle English?).
    ^ 1220 is substantially less interesting than, well, pretty much any other, earlier time. I'd like to go back to 1060, so you have the Normans taking Sicily and England...but setting the game -after- the Third Crusade / King John, and the Fourth Crusade and the fall of Constantinople seems to me like having the character turn up during the Reconstruction phase. Alternatively, I'd move it forward to the Age of Discovery.

So, canon is a good idea only for authors, and only to the extent that it doesn't strangle the game.

Regardless of if you like canon, or loathe it, the way it can kill the game is the paramount consideration, and that means that changes are inevitable, IMO, regardless of what current fandom likes or does not like.


I respectfully disagree with the first point. The Line Editor would not care about continuity or consistency with canon if it didn't benefit players. The majority of discussion on these forums seems to me about the setting, not rules or stories -- when there is a discussion about stories, more often than not it is a story idea that springboards off something in canon.

As to the second point, wholeheartedly agreed. It's already getting to the point where I don't feel comfortable bringing existing ArM players into my gaming group, because the general community has this reverence for canon that I think kills off wonderful possibilities, like what if Ars Magica didn't ignore the existence of Celtic magic?

Respectfully, hitting a guy with a sword takes two rolls, opposed rolls, there are some derived calculations that happen after the rolls to make it a bit of a grind to determine actual damage, though. Can you tell me what you mean by concepts of narrative control?
Philosophiae is not useless, it has implications for ritual and ceremonial magic, and House Verditius uses it, too. Is it less often used? Sure, but so is Sailing in a saga where the participants are land-locked.

Sorry, yes, it's six dice rolls isn't it (or am I the only one who uses rolls for initiative?). Three for the player and three of the person with control of the adversary.

I mean that in some game systems, victory in the single combat roll lets you, as victor, explain how the scene plays out. The game does not attempt to simulate individual blows (or, in Ars-speak, individual slices of time set arbitrarily as combat rounds based on the time between spellcasting opportunities). This would let you pull out a lot of the numbers in the combat sequence, and simplify the Virtues. It actually doesn't matter, in terms of the dice roll, wether you win because you hit first, or because you hit harder, or because you can suck up more damage. All of that can be something you just describe once the dice tell you how well you have won. All of this nickel-and-diming for +1 on Size or +3 on Soak really doesn't matter to the resolution system, IMO.

I wrote the implications for ceremonial magic into House Jerbiton, so, sure, I get it. My question is: does a point spent in Philosophae really and truly give you the same advantage as a point spent in Charm.

If you have a score in sailing, and all of your stories are landlocked them, IMO, your SG is not doing his job properly. How, precisely, is the SG meant to give you powerful points of conflict where your victory is due to your Philosophae score? IMC, Philosophae and Magic Theory are the same Ability (also, any Form is useable as a Craft Ability at 1/5 its score where relevenat), and I can't see that it has done any harm at all.

You were being rather specific, and I was responding to that. You said hit a guy with a sword. It takes two rolls, not four. To resolve a round of combat between two combatants takes 4, if it's the first round it takes 6.

I have some frustrations with the overall combat system, don't get me wrong. A single die roll well, two bad die rolls, really, can make combat exactly as narrative as you indicate. Botching on a defense roll will change the narrative rather quickly and it happens much more frequently than it should. I don't like the idea of making combat the result of a single opposed roll, period. I think there needs to be elements of chance in the mix, all the time.

Maybe, I don't know. I've wanted to play a game where a character lives in the city in a Divine Aura of 3, where he needs every point he can to cast spells, and often casts them ceremonially. Some magus types can invent spells well in excess of their capability, if they are ritual spells or mastered with ceremonial casting, it can make all the difference in casting scores.

Maybe Sailing was a background skill? I give skills to characters all the time to represent background, sometimes they come into play, sometimes they don't. That's not entirely the fault of the SG. I have an apprentice character with a stealth score of 3, who has used this ability less and less as his magical power has grown. It will always be there for him when and if he needs it, but if I don't use it when the opportunities are present, then it's not the SG's fault, and if the SG doesn't present those opportunities, I'm not too upset, because it was part of his background story. I can honestly see that it's reasonable to have Philosophiae and MT merge, but does that mean that ceremonial casting uses magic theory now? What about the Verditius mysteries reliant upon Philosophiae score, do they double the Magic Theory?

I'm intrigued about your Art/Craft conversion, you could vlog about that! It's something I'd thought about for a long time, but it makes useful Arts even more useful...

Personally I think Charm is a bad skill precisely because it's so broad and constantly usable compared to most skills.

I'd rather dump it all together, and let it fell into Etiquette and Carouse depending on the social situation you're trying to be charming in.

Philosophae is rather narrow, but it's charm being far too broad that makes the disparity so huge.

Seems that a few of us disagree with mr Fergusson on what the next edition will look like :slight_smile:
He did however do the brave thing and throw up a guess - and not even necessarily what he'd change, but what he'd expect to see :slight_smile:

I can't disagree with Mr. Ferguson strongly enough. I'd count myself among the "rusted-on fans" that Atlas would lose if they were to go this directon.

That's something that's controversial enough as a statement that I don't need to address it here fully. Suffice to say that there are a lot of people who think (and thus make their purchasing decisions) otherwise.

Your approach as a whole pretty much describes the nWoD vs. cWoD changes. And we all know how well that has worked out in terms of commercial success. Certainly the game is enjoyed more by a narrower subset of the fanbase, but in the end the game lost its mass appeal without a properly fleshed out shared world. For me (and probably most people) it's a good thing I can take my character and play in any other group knowing he'll fit the setting instead of having to completely change him or even make a new one to fit what they have come up with for a rather non-specific setting.

Some of these points I'd like to address on their own though...

To take a pointedly hostile position (no actual offense meant): That's what they're paid for and it's why I pay money for the books. If I'm left to my own devices to flesh out the setting anyway, I don't need to purchase further sourcebooks. There are certainly people who think otherwise, but there also at least some people who think the same - and it's one more part of the already rather small target audience that roleplaying games have today. The market is shrinking and trying to change the game significantly in order to reach a broader audience has never worked out so far (and that includes big names like Dungeons & Dragons, Shadowrun, and the World of Darkness). Roleplaying games nowadays mostly survive by catering to established fanbases.

Even more simplified?! The combat system in 5th Edition is one of the most basic combat systems I know (and as has been mentioned it takes two rolls - unless you start adding in other aspects of combat which are not simply just "hitting a guy with a sword"). Going for full narrative simplicity (like Bloody Versus tests in Burning Wheel) takes out a lot of the tension of combat as a "back and forth" - I know for a fact that my players wouldn't enjoy such a singular approach. Decision making in combat and turning the tides is something has to have some time and space to unfold, and not simply be interpreted afterwards into a single opposed roll. So in my opinion the combat system actually might as well get more detailed again - using magic in combat is something that's not even addressed properly in the current edition.

None of the Ars Magica games I have ever played had even the remotest connection to (or interest in) the UK. While I have no actual insight on this, my guess is that Ars Magica has a rather huge non-native English speaking demographic amongst its fanbase (the relatively large number of licensed translation is just one indicator in this) mainly because it presents a rather diverse European setting where everyone can find some spot where he feels at home. Focussing entirely on the UK would alienate yet another part of that fanbase.

Consider this my oldschool defense roll. :wink:

This is only true in a trivial sense, in that (if the players themselves don't care) no-one will care if a troupe doesn't follow canon --- whereas every man and his dog will vocally care if an author doesn't follow canon.

But the reason why the players care about authors following canon is that the players themselves want to use canon in their games. The players like canon. Canon is written for the players by the authors. Canon is (an important reason) why the players buy books.

Players even buy books that they don't "need" in order to follow canon. As reading about and collecting a strong canon is its own pleasure.

The trick is really for the line editor and authors to write the canon in such a way that they don't box themselves into corners (which generally, ArM5 is pretty good at).

I doubt it. Although, I could easily imagine a potential ArM6 being set in a different century. Which would make much of current canon irrelevant.

I admit that I don't know anything about the licensing around these terms, but I would be surprised to see much name changing. Without the existence of these named pieces of canon, you are not talking about ArM6, you are talking about another game entirely.

Maybe. It is a possibility, I think. On the other hand, "narrative control" concepts tend to scream short-term play. It is an option to re-envisage ArM as a short-term play game (rather than a long term, saga based game). However, it is not too clear to me what the business model for such a product might be.

I could certainly see some existing Abilities becoming Virtues (or a similar mechanic). There certainly should be a greater focus around the in-game use of Abilities --- i.e. if there is no/little in-game utility why is it there?

The proliferation of overlapping Area Lore and Org Lore (and to a lesser extent Profession) Abilities is also (for me) a problem in play. Particularly, when a single character has multiple Abilities that can all apply to the same task (it's not such a problem when different characters are using different Abilties for the same task).

Hard to see why. It adds considerable verisimilitude.


If ArM6 moves the setting time, then geographic wriggles (or name changes) can be easily made.

I'm not sure why that would be case?

I can see it being a reboot (ie. everything from older editions is similar to the new canon, but anything is free to change)

House Tremere isn't that huge a thing. The Order of Hermes is the big deal.

Renaming House Tremere would have no real knock-on impact, but renaming the order would.

If hedge traditions don't have different systems, what makes them different?

It adds a huge amount to the setting, for me, that there are many different ways of doing magic rather than just "hermetic" and "non-hermetic". Or even worse: "hermetic" and "hermetic but with less stuff".

I have some sympathy for that perspective. On the other hand, depending on what you think magic is in the setting, it might not make much sense for there to be many radically different ways of doing magic. Afterall, the setting implies that the Order is the culmination of the historic merging of many different traditions, and the greater understanding that flows from that --- but that is kind of contradicted by the parallel presence of many disparate hedge traditions that work on "different numbers".

Also different in-character "systems" doesn't mean that each hedge tradition has to have totally different game mechanics.


The UK hasn't been covered in 5th because there was Heirs to Merlin and Lion of the North in 4th ed, and 5th ed has concentrated on tribunal books which weren't covered by 4th.

As it turns out, english-speaking players create a lot of Great Britain-set material as there's a lot of excellent english language resources for historical research, and plenty of english language fiction to inspire. Players in other languages will probably find things easier to research in a language they know. It also helps that most people's idea of "feudalism" (a very nebulous term at best) is defined by the types used in the lands of the kings of France and England and the Dukes of Normandy (whose spheres of influence and bloodlines overlap in a few places).