With the Ars Magica 5th edition line coming to what appears to be a close, now actually seems a great time for first-time players to try it out. This sounds counter-intuitive, but my argument is that with the full list of books, all the rules are now known. Players new to the system can then purchase the supplements they’d be most interested in to help tell their stories and focus on the mechanics they might find the most interesting.
This post is intended towards new people getting into Ars Magica. It’s a combination review and purchasing guide. The rough idea is that for people just getting into this game, what books should they focus on if they’re on a budget and can’t just order every single book in one go? In this post, I’ll break books down into rough ‘types’ that can be categorized together, give a quick opinionated review on them, and give suggestions on which ones to buy first for a saga getting into Ars Magica. Lastly, I’ll show a sample list or purchases a troupe might make.
I figure this might be a second-spring type post. The product line is likely done, which seems like a great time to get into it—new players, new blood, and knowing in advance what purchases to make.
First four purchases:
The Core Rulebook. Not too much to say here. You… kind of need the core rulebook to play any RPG. Unlike many other RPGs, one book can technically run a whole saga. Other books are great, and borderline necessary, but not actually necessary. There’s no Monster Manual or DMG forming a core set.
Covenants: Of all the books put out by Atlas, this is the one I’d rank closest to must-buy for both quality and “you really need to have this to run a great game.” Every Ars Magica game has a Covenant. It is more than once described as ‘the central character in any Ars Magica Saga.’ There are just so many rich options here, both new mechanics and inspirations, that I rank this one a must-buy and a great second-purchase for any gaming troupe.
Tribunal Book: After you decide where to set your saga, I strongly recommend purchasing the Tribunal Book for it, assuming it’s one of those released for 5th edition. When I was a younger DM (90’s or so), we all looked down on ‘published supplements.’ We figured a ‘true’ DM made his own world and dungeons. We were also really stupid. Published supplements take a lot of weight off your shoulders and provide great fodder to use. Each Tribunal book includes a lot of useful info, including but not limited to: Geographic and historical context, features unique to the tribunal, a list of pre-made covenants and figures, adventure sites, story ideas, and in general, everything you’d want from a book focused on a game world, region, or adventure. The authors do a great job of painting a living, breathing country. My first Tribunal book purchase was Guardians of the Forests (Rhine Tribunal), and setting my current saga there has made GM’ing much easier. Other Tribunal books will come lower on the list, but may still be a good purchase. However, buying the one where you’ll be playing is a great investment.
This book is a good fourth purchase for a gaming troupe. It’s designed as an appetizer for other Ars Magica supplements, to know where you want to focus. The idea is that it presents several different short adventures. Each of them is standalone and requires no additional purchase beyond the core book. Each also serves as an introduction to other products. So, one example focuses on battling demons, and introduces Realms of Power: The Infernal. If your troupe likes the adventure, it might purchase that book. Another is an urban adventure and introduces City and Guild, etc. The book is lower-priced than other adventure-type books such as Tales of Mythic Europe, and is geared specifically as an in-depth purchasing guide. For new troupes, this is a great book since it will help you define your focus much better than my list will.
Now that your troupe has bought four books, you’re in pretty good shape. You know the rules, you’ve got a great covenant, you have a very rich setting for your local area, and you have a good idea of what to purchase next. In theory, ‘Hooks’ will make the rest of my list redundant, but I’m curious to see what my sodales think of the way I categorize the various other books out there.
Optional: “Inspiration and application” books
I define this category as pre-made things to help get the Storyguide, players, or both, started. The theme of these books are that they show the rules being applied to create in-game characters or covenants. I wouldn’t list any of these as essential to purchase, but can be handy as a way to get things started if you’re struggling. Appropriately, one is geared for players, one for the GM, and two for the troupe:
Magi of Hermes: Players in particular will find this a great resource to help translate the rules in the core book to a practical application. Very little here is new mechanics, rather they’re cool ways to interpret the ones presented in the Core Rulebook (for the most part). This isn’t a necessary book, but a good source of inspiration. ST’s will also find these at least a couple characters to be suitable NPC’s to drop into most sagas.
Antagonists: This is a good SG resource. As the title promises, it provides 10 antagonists (not necessarily villains) for your saga. One caveat: Many of them rely upon the players having semi-regular contact with mundane society. They are somewhat less-geared for a high-fantasy saga or a covenant that’s extremely secluded. I certainly don’t regret the purchase, but you might not want to buy this book if you’re set in the Black Forest, as my saga is. Note: SG’s shouldn’t let the players read the book, for obvious reasons.
Through the Aegis: I still chuckle at the pun in the title. Well played. This does for covenants what Magi of Hermes did for magi characters. It presents five fully developed covenants, at different power levels, spread throughout Mythic Europe. I personally found this a ‘fun’ purchase, rather than a necessary one, but I came to this having already played in a few 5th ed sagas. Other troupes may want to bump this higher on their list.
Hermetic Projects. We’ll call this an ‘advanced’ book from this category. I debated whether to put this book here or in a later section. It’s close enough in style to Magi of Hermes or Through the Aegis that I put it here. It focuses on six different covenant-wide projects that your magi can dedicate themselves to. Examples are the Tower of Babel, a magical ship, and a covenant inside a volcano. This book is excellent but I wouldn’t recommend it as an early purchase for a troupe new to Ars Magica, since it will heavily focus your saga in a particular direction, which new troupes may not want to commit to. It makes a great second purchase from this category.
Recommended: “Hermetic Order detail” books—Houses of Hermes
I actually rank this lower on the order you should purchase these than the ‘optional’ books above. The reason is that, for new troupes, the ‘inspiration’ books, if necessary, can help a new troupe get off its feet much better than this category can. However, if they’re in good shape, they can skip the above category entirely and focus on these.
Simply put, each of these three books is dedicated to four of the twelve houses of Hermes. I wouldn’t venture to say what order to purchase them in, since each will have different magi. At heart, they give tips on options for each of the respective houses—their history, their philosophy, and good tips on how to build a magus from each one. Further, each book introduces at least one ruleset that is frequently references in other books, such as Original Research, Mystery Initiation, or revised combat rules. These introduce more new rules than the ‘inspiration’ books. Quick review here:
Houses Of Hermes: True Lineages. This book focuses on Bonsagi, Guernicus/Quaesitors, Tremere, and Mercere/Redcaps. The primary new mechanic introduced here is the concept of Original Research, presented in the Bonsagus section. All other sections are well-written and intriguing, but Original Research is the only one that introduces new game mechanics that are not found elsewhere.
Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults. This one focuses on Bjornaer, Criamon, Merinita, and Verditius. Several different rulesets are introduced here, which is fitting as these four houses are the only ones with their own special rules. Rules introduced here are the rules for Mysteries and Initiations, the four Humors, and shapeshifting. Of these, the Mysteries and Initiations are the most commonly referenced to in other works. Some books do a good job of hitting the high points of the rules when referencing mystery mechanics. (If you skip this book, you can still read “The mysteries: Revised Edition”, which also gives excellent detail).
Houses of Hermes: Societates. This is for Flambeau, Ex Miscellana, Jerbiton, and Tytalus. The Flambeau chapter provides some additional combat rules, errata for non-penetrating attacks, and suggestions on how to be combat worthy. The Ex Miscellena chapter introduces the most new game mechanics and is probably my favorite section of the four. Ex Miscellena is the most ‘make it up as you go’ house, and it’s good to see it get a treatment here to help you make your own lineage. The section on Jerbiton is not one I’m fond of, regrettably. It is the only part of any Ars book that I feel just plain isn’t especially well-written or focused.
These above books are helpful but optional. They’re a great way to delve into your own houses, but some troupes will balk at buying all three books.
“Other types of magic: What’s next for my magus?”
I decided to lump two somewhat distinct categories here. One of these included magic rules waiting to be discovered (Ancient Magic, the Mysteries: Revised Edition), and the other was for currently-existing magic (Hedge Magic: RE, and Rival Magic). After some thought, I figured this is better in its own category.
Broadly speaking, these four books each include mechanics for broadening Hermetic magic—major rulesets and game changes that are not to be found in the core book. Ancient Magic and the Mysteries focus more on the magic itself and less on how it is present in Mythic Europe. (By definition, Ancient Magic is all-but forgotten). Hedge Magic and (presumably) Rival Magic introduce new rulesets, new systems, and flesh out their place in Mythic Europse, but focus less on how Hermetic Magi can incorporate them. In general, if you want your Magus Character to learn new spells, buy Ancient Magic or The Mysteries. If you want more character options, NPC’s, or society ideas, buy Hedge Magic or Rival Magic. I doubt you’d want to make any of these four books one of your first purchases, but you’ll eventually want at least one—possibly one from each sub-category. Detail here now.
Ancient Magic: This book is about finding non-Hermetic magic and mastering it slowly. Each style of magic is its own mechanic that when mastered, expands Hermetic Magic. Each has its own ability such as new ways to make Aquam not suck, bypassing the need for Arcane Connections, etc. To do so, the magi must find Insight sources by going on adventures. This is potentially more game-breaking than The Mysteries, but also provides better adventure ideas to get magi out of their labs.
The Mysteries, Revised Edition: Truthfully, this is somewhat similar to Ancient Magic, but with a funny hat. It is one of the two books (besides Houses of Hermes: Mystery Cults) that provides an excellent grounding on how Mysteries work. Very broadly, Mysteries involve getting a new Virtue that may be a new way of doing magic. In return, you have to do some combination of having an adventure, accepting a flaw, spending some time, etc. Your mileage may very on whether you think this or Ancient Magic is a better purchase. Both books are quite similar in mechanics. I incline towards Ancient Magic, but it’s a difference by millimeters.
Hedge Magic, Revised Edition: This is a book I’d recommend. As I discussed earlier, this has more about non-magi character options and integration into Mythic Europe, at the expense of less rules that are immediately useful for Hermetic Magi. It’s a bit advanced in terms of getting the hang of how the mechanics work, but once you get past the intro chapter and its first example, you’re golden. This book shows various types of non-hermetic magic that are somewhat common in Mythic Europe. Broadly speaking, there are several different traditions, such as folk witches, Learned Magicians, and Elementalists. Characters may be Gifted, in which case they have good access to their tradition’s powers and can advance fairly easily, but suffer from the Gift. UnGifted characters have to sink a lot of virtue points just to gain any powers at all, but of course don’t have the penalties of the Gift. This book is a good buy for SG’s who want to introduce other types of magic, whether to add variety, add enemies, or possibly as character options for Companions. The main option for Hermetic Magi (other than meeting other characters), is to use Original Research to integrate the Hedge Magic abilities into current Magic Theory. Truthfully, that isn’t the focus of this book—if you want to focus on Original Research or options for Hermetic Magic, you should buy The Mysteries or Ancient Magic. This book, while lower down on the ‘you should buy this quickly if you’re a new troupe,’ is nonetheless high-quality. I liked it.
Rival Magic: I don’t own this one, so I’ll be brief here. This is for Gifted characters that are almost as powerful as the Order of Hermes. Unlike Hedge Mages, who frequently integrate into society, these are extremely powerful magi. One important note: One of the groups here, the Muspelli, are integral for a chapter in Dies Irae. In the latter book, it simply assumes you own this book rather than bringing in the essentials. As such, you’ll want to purchase Rival Magic before Dies Irae; otherwise 25% of the book is not useable.
Companion-level: Life in Mythic Europe
These books are lower on the magic end of the spectrum. Instead, they highlight a particular aspect of Mythic Europe. These help present a major aspect of the setting, a huge slice of life. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying every book in this category, but you should buy at least one. Since few covenants live in true isolation, at least one of these will help add to a major aspect of society. These books are particularly important if your saga heavily involves companions. In general, each of these tends to be low on magical content (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), which is why I didn’t include ‘Hedge Magic’ here.
City & Guild: As you would think from the title, this is a great resource about city and economic life in Mythic Europe. It’s a great resource for sagas that interact heavily with mundanes, or even those with economic ties to major cities. It helps show what life in Mythic Europe is like for everyone who isn’t in a covenant, religious, exceedingly poor, or exceedingly rich. My current saga is set smack-dab in the Black Forest, so I wouldn’t have otherwise recommended it for my own troupe, ironically enough. For nearly any other troupe, this book is a great buy.
Lords of Men: This is a heavier examination of the Nobility. It also includes rules for mass combat. I regrettably consider the writing in this one a bit drier than many other supplements, but it could just be my own opinion. Obviously, a good purchase if the Covenant frequently deals with knights or the nobility (or if one of their own companions is one of them). Quality-wise, I put it below City & Guild, which again is my own opinion.
The Church: I don’t own this book, so I can’t comment on it. If my sodales could chime in, I’d appreciate it. I’d also especially like to hear how it is differentiated from Realms of Power: The Divine.
Art & Acadame: This is another one I don’t own, but I’ve heard much of. At its heart, it focuses on science, education, learning, and ‘magic-lite’ rules such as invention, medicine, astrology, and so forth. I will definitely state that of all the Ars books, this is one that gets referenced quite frequently in other works. From what I can gather, it’s a controversial book. I heard one of its authors lament it as “The book of no, Tim, you can’t do that” I believe this refers to the fact that this book presents many far-reaching rules that would curtail other future projects or ideas, in that it can force SG’s down a specific path for an idea they have. I’ll ask my sodales to comment on what they find for this book, if they recommend it, or if they agree with the semi-informed review I’ve given it. (For the flip-side of these books, the “No, Jim, you have to do it THAT way,” see the Realms of Power, below).
“Optional (but high-quality) Adventure Books:”
This is a catchall for pre-made adventures. They’re quite versatile. An SG should probably buy at least one as they make things much easier. The only reason I don’t put these higher is because many GM’s like making their own adventures, and because the writers do a great job of providing hooks, story seeds, and suggestions in all their books already.
Tales of Mythic Europe: This is your basic adventure compilation, and it’s a good one. There is a good blend of adventure types to appeal to various magi here. This is probably my favorite in this category. It’s just plain a solid book, suitable for newish troupes, which is what this list is geared towards.
Thrice-told Tales: This is a clever book in that the stories here are meant to come back. It’s a bit more advanced than Tales of Mythic Europe, both in terms of SG involvement and expected player-level. Each story is meant to be at least three adventure blocs, spread over time. It’s a neat concept and one I don’t see often in RPG supplements.
Tales of Power: This is much like Tales of Mythic Europe, but geared towards more powerful magi. Again, it’s high quality. It’s a bit more niche though, in that the adventures presented might not be suitable for all troupes.
The Broken Covenant of Calebais: This is a specific adventure centering around a long-abandoned covenant. It’s the closest to an adventure module you would expect to find in another RPG supplement such as D&D. It’s a fun read, if narrowly focused. Calebais has been one of the signature covenants for several editions of Ars Magica. My only quibble with the book is that it shows its age—more than many other books, this one is the clearest example of reinventing old rules and trying to make them fit into the current 5th edition framework, rather than fresh ground. If you’re new to Ars but are very familiar with more traditional RPGs and looking for a similar experience, this would be a good purchase. Otherwise, much of the sentimentality of it may be lost on you.
Dies Irae: The capstone of Ars Magica 5th edition. Each of these four major adventure scan span a whole saga. Each also has the potential to ruin the entire world. It’s often a sad read, as you see the potential for the Order of Hermes, and Mythic Europe itself, to fall. Important note: One of the chapters assumes you have a copy of ‘Rival Magic’ handy. Don’t buy this book unless you do (or you’re fine with only three of the four major sections being useable.)
These books are geographically based. Each focuses on a specific section of Mythic Europe. Most or all of them are great reads, but I’m putting them lower priority on the ‘must-buy’ list since there is already a pretty rich selection. Presumably by this point, the troupe has already purchased the Tribunal Book for where they’ll be playing. Here are the selection of books available for other locations:
The Cradle and the Crescent: I’d probably rank this as the best of the ‘other places’ books, again assuming that you’ve already purchased the Tribunal book for where your saga will be set. This is a very interesting book—the authors do a great job delving into the historical and Mythic aspects of the area. There is a very rich breakout of alternate magical traditions and an entire chapter devoted to the Jinn. This book resonated with me, though some of that is bias—I loved the Hermetic Sahirs section in Houses of Hermes: Societates, and was curious to see more. I’d still rank this as the best of the geographic books.
Other Tribunal books: All of these are solid quality. Once you’ve bought the one your saga is set in, there isn’t a burning need to buy one from another Tribunal. Not every Tribunal is represented in 5th ed, but several are. The ones I own are Guardians of the Forests (Rhine Tribunal), Against the Dark (Transylvanian Tribunal), The Sundered Eagle (Theban Tribunal), Faith & Flame (Provencal). That is roughly my order of preference, though it could be simply because I bought the Rhine Tribunal book first and set a saga there. There are several other 5th ed tribunal books that I don’t own and wouldn’t feel comfortable commenting on.
Lands of the Nile: This focuses on the areas near Mythic Egypt. It includes a chapter on tomb exploration, which makes for a fun read. I found the rest of the book a bit dry, but that could only be personal preference. I do recommend the Cradle and the Crescent above this one, however.
Between Sand & Sea; Mythic Locations: I don’t own these two. Anyone else is free to fill in the gaps.
“Filling in the Gaps” books: Optional but can be fun
These books are pretty optional, but might be fun for troupes that have played a while and want a change of pace in the saga focus.
Grogs: This book takes a step back from the spell-slinging and lets grogs come to light. It’s divided into an examination of grog characters and their life, easy ways to make them from scratch, and good adventures for them.
Apprentices: I think grogs was written a bit better than this one. By all means buy it, but don’t be afraid to give ‘Apprentices’ a pass.
“Playing with Ignem” books: Realms of Power
This is probably the most controversial opinion you’ll find in this review. I’d recommend you think carefully before you buy these. Just as the Art & Acadame book was the “No, Tim, you can’t do that,” I’d call these books the “No, Jim, you’ve been doing it wrong” books. Each of them gives a very in-depth treatment of one of the four Realms: Magic, Faerie, Divine, and Infernal.
These books are the second edge of a double edged sword. In the initial corebook, there’s only a very short section on how to make mythic creatures of the four realms. Players often lamented that there wasn’t a very in-depth framework on how to build mystic creatures with a Might Score. Then these books came out, and it seemed to have the opposite problem.
My main issue with these books, and this could be only personal experience, is that I’d built various NPC’s from the realms. Reading this book made me say ‘oh crud, my creatures don’t even fit the basics of how they should properly built.’ In particular, RoP: Faerie can be a bit tough to digest. I find the other books to have their information organized a bit better. RoP: Magic is pretty clear and well-laid out, though it does have the factor of “Ugh, I need to remake all my Magical NPC’s.” RoP: Infernal hits the mid-point as demons make good antagonists, are frequently fought in actual combat, and the PC’s are expected to have the least friendly dealings with them.
That having been said, these are (like most ArM5 books) very well-written, and interesting to boot. They are a good purchase, they just introduce many complicated rulesets that you have to work through when designing a creature with a Might Score. I’m interested to hear what my sodales think of this opinion.
So with all that, let’s put these in action. A ‘default’ template list (after ArM5, Covenants, and Hooks), might then look at the following:
• One book from the ‘inspiration’ list if they need some help with their covenant or characters.
• One or more books from the ‘Houses of Hermes’ line.
• A book that fleshes out a non-magical aspect of Mythic Europe, depending on troupe focus.
• An adventure series book.
Let’s take a hypothetical gaming group that’s new to Ars Magica but is excited for it. They agree to pool some money and make some communal purchases. The troupe mutually agrees that they want a covenant that has to deal with society on a semi-regular basis. Their ideal adventure mix is a blend between dealing with the upper crust of nobility and the church, Hermetic intrigue, and the occasional delving into refining magic theory. They decide to set it in the Rhine Tribunal, near Strassburg. After buying Ars Magica 5th edition, Covenants, and Hooks, they talk about other purchases:
• A couple players are a bit hesitant on all the character options, so they chip in for a copy of Magi of Hermes.
• The ST runs an adventure from ‘Hooks’ involving a lost shipment and relocates it to the burghers in town. The players love the adventure, and have already had numerous ties to the wealthy in Strassburg, making City and Guild a logical choice.
• An encounter with a hedge mage that the ST improvised proved an unexpectedly fun encounter. The troupe wants to see what else is out there, so they pick up Hedge Magic: Revised Edition.
• Numerous adventures on the Rhine lead to the players wanting to focus on more naval adventures. They pick up ‘Hermetic Projects’ as an inspiration for the Hermetic Shipyard.
• The ST is looking for a few more adventure ideas. She settles on ‘Tales of Mythic Europe,’ reminding the players not to read through it—it’s an ST resource.
Final list of purchases: Core rulebook, Covenants, Hooks, Magi of Hermes, City and Guild, Hedge Magic, Hermetic Projects, and Tales of Mythic Europe.
My thanks for bearing with me thus far. I’m interested in hearing your opinions—if you agree with my categorization, my reviews of the books, and my priority listings.
Also, and this is long overdue, a huge thank you to the authors. David, Tim, Andrew, Michelle, Mark, Erik, and all the others I'm forgetting because I'm typing this from memory. Thank you so much for this game. I absolutely love playing it, ST’ing it, reading the books, and coming up with ideas for it. It’s genuinely a dang fine system—great rules, great setting. And each book you’ve written, your enthusiasm for it comes through. Thank you for this game!