Cultural Norms and Ars Magica

In the part about "What is Ars Majica" a part about a discussion on the game world and the boundaries to exist in the game amongst all players would be helpful. Some other games have done that kind of thing recently.

I am not a good enough writer to put together a proper piece, so I'll just write something which is setting the tone.

After the usual preamble about you play a character, blah, blah...

"Ars Majica is set in Mythic Europe. It is 1200AD in Europe where magic is real, and what some people consider myths and mistaken beliefs on science and alchemy are actually correct. We recommend before starting the game, have a discussion with the playing group about what they want in their mythic Europe.

The game world, like the real world, involves conflict. Horrible things can happen; torture, rape and when you add in magical elements such as mind control and shape shifting, the level of depravity can go beyond most people's imagining.

The world of medieval Europe has some quaint ideas such as rats spawning from grain and mischievous fairies souring milk. It also has some ideas that are distressing, such as disabled people being cursed by god.

Mythic Europe had a great distrust of strangers. Tribalism and racism is endemic. Due to the overpowering influence of the Christian church, anyone believing in something else; Paganism, Norse, Roman, Greek, Egyptian Gods, Animalism, Druidic, Wicca, Judaism, Islam, will at best be tolerated, but never trusted.

While many of those beliefs are on the fringes of Mythic Europe, they are true. A believer in Odin may get divine assistance, just as a Jew, Muslim or Christian might. The Druid or Wiccan could call on spirits and animals for assistance.The above are examples and in no way represent a complete or exhaustive list.

Sexism is not even a concept, as the place of men and women is so set in the fabric of society.

The story guide and players should discuss what elements they may want to veto in the game as the game is meant to be fun. While a character dying isn't much fun, it is a risk most people would accept in a game, become if the risk of death does not exist, success seems hollow. More depraved elements like rape, torture, being mind controlled to do both, players may want to veto, as it may completely ruin their game experience.

The playing group may decide their Mythic Europe is more tolerant of everything, different religions, different cultures, the differently abled, etc. They may decide women's liberation happened in 1000 AD.

The group may decide to set their game in Mythic Iran or Mythic Egypt. The group may decide the Abrahamic religions never rose to prominence in Mythic Europe, and Roman and Norse gods are the powerful divine influences. The group may decide to have the grittiest most authentic medieval experience possible.

The history and game world presented in this book is a starting point, and all playing groups should decide what parts of Mythic Europe they want, and what changes would make it the best game world for them.

4 Likes

There is a passage in a game about ancient Greece called Agon. It has a very wise passage that I think is very applicable to Ars Magica. Perhaps we could benefit from a similar statement. Not just implied, but as a bold statement.

This idea is very much implied in the writings of ArM5. However, the opposite is implied in some of the legacy material that is still floating around out there.
It may be stated somewhere in so many words and I just do not recall. That is okay. I am just saying that the implied rule of inclusion should become an overtly expressed rule in core, highlighted with a text box.

8 Likes

As a historian, I have to call that out as a false misconception. The past was sexist, and people were aware of it. But it was not as sexist as we tend to thing (yet very much more so than we can imagine), but all through history at every period there were people going against the grain. For example, it is a popular misconception that women did not fight in the middle ages. That is plainly untrue. I am not talking about Joan of Arc either. Women did in fact join auxillary troops, strapping on sword and armor. They were generally not front line fighters, and most of the time it was a support role. But it happened all the time. When the walls were over run, the ladies did not sit their waiting to be abused. They stabbed and got stabbed.

5 Likes

I accept there were outliers, but weren't they seen as freaks who should get back in the kitchen?
I'm thinking a player could play a Brienne of Tarth type, however, unless the SG tones the sex based roles down, wouldn't she be seen as a weirdo?.

1 Like

Historically there was one core reason that women didn't fight- though it may not have been expressed as such by the culture: women bore babies. You could kill 75% of the men in an area and have little impact on the size of the next generation (though whether the children would be considered stigmatized or not was a separate issue), but every woman killed was a lasting scar to the community.
However if women fighting meant more women would live as a net result then this changes the dynamic. And women who would not bear children would similar to men, though again there might be other issues- lack of training, weakness due to age if that was the cause of their infertility, and general uncertainty about their status as being infertile. And again, while these were underlying reasons, they were not likely to be discussed as a rational decision but cloaked under nobler ideals and language, meaning the conversation and decisions would be opaque and possibly far from situationally ideal.

3 Likes

They were not outliers. Our modern view of history is very poisoned by 1950s propaganda at the height of sexist theory. It just isn't true, and by comparative analysis with the science of anthropology, it is impossible for it to be true Yes there were gender roles, and yes there were cultural memes that supported these ideas. But in realpolitik these things quickly fell apart.
There are too many well published stories of "outlier" situations for me to believe that unpublished stories were uncommon.
You also need to take into account that homosexuality and transgender people were just as common then as they are now. It was just not well understood or discussed. nd the rate of persons born intersexed is one in sixty. This is a biological fact of humanity that has not changed in the fraction of a blink in time since then.

I can accept the notion that these ideas are ingrained in the memes and propaganda of society, but to say that they are a fixed part of the fabric is just a blatant falsehood.

8 Likes

While in general I do agree with you Marko there is an environmental side to the expression of these traits as well- especially the social environment. A homosexual man in even the 1950s was far more likely to have a wife than a homosexual man in 2020. He might live a second life in secret and the wife may or may not know about it, but while it would not affect the incidence of homosexuality it would affect the expression of it. Similarly amongst those who were closer to bisexuality their homosexuality might be something they simply learned to suppress. The same holds true for transgender, though the timeline adjusts a bit.
On top of that in a society where people are executed for homosexuality there will be less expressed homosexuality due, in part to the short lifespans of those least able to suppress those urges.
On top of this there is also a question as to how much homosexuality and other behaviors are a matter of genetics versus other environmental factors ranging from how they were raised as children to population overcrowding, so the incidents may have deviated due to those factors as well in ways we do not currently understand.
What is certain though is that they did exist, in whatever ratios, and largely found a way to get along in that society. It is also quite clear that medieval europe is not a homogenous culture. The Catholic church has long "marketed" the priesthood to homosexuals as a way to overcome their "unnatural" desires, since God was supposed to grant an exception from sexual urges to allow priests to uphold their vows of celibacy. In the eastern church those with homosexual urges may well have made up a larger portion of the eunuchs. In other paces it may well have been simply something you didn't talk about, and during the early middle ages when the roman traditions of homosexually united "brotherhoods" in a unit were still fading it may well have been a secret of certain classes.

4 Likes
  1. There is no letter "c" in the Greek language. My baptised name is Marko :slight_smile:
  2. We are in agreement. I do concede that these roles were omnipresent in cultural memes, I cannot believe that these formed some sort of core "fabric of society".
    Thoughts, perceptions, and reality; these things do not often agree.
1 Like

Roleplaying allows you to play these off against each other - and thus check by experiment, what might and might not have worked.

If everyone at your table wants that, then fantastic. But others such as myself prefer to leave these things in the background without relevance to Hermetic culture or the game we are playing. These are both valid options, and I feel that the core rules should make a blatant statement that these are both valid if everyone at the table wants to play that way.

3 Likes

My apologies, I am used to "Marco" of a Hispanic origin, rather than Marko of a Greek origin, and I tend to type quickly and a bit habitually when it comes to word spelling.

1 Like

The Brabançon mercenaries had women in their ranks, and slightly later there was a littoral pirate-Lady.

1 Like

Friendly reminder that sections of Mythic Europe at typical game start are ruled by and/or majority populated by polytheists and Muslims. The Kipchaks and the Almohads are as much a part of Europe (and its fictional Ars counterpart) as the HRE or England are.

7 Likes

I wholeheartedly agree that the game should have such as disclaimer as the one from AGON.

In my youth I mostly played RPG's via groups organized at the municipal level and the sexism there was rapant to the point where it drove away practically all the young women because they could not stand the sexist attitude of their male compatriots.

When I started playing in (GM in for) mixed groups as an adult I decided to adopt a similar tactic to the one employed in AGON and started out every game by asking something along the lines of: "This game takes place in a fictional game world of the past (or future) in a society much like our own, and as such one might expect that society to cling to similar notions of gender roles and sexism as is found in our real world. However we play this game for fun and there is no necessity in including sexism in our games. Would you prefer that we simply decide that sexism does not exist in the game world?".

In every instance where I asked this question I have found that in particular the female players both would rather that the game does not feature sexism as an element and that they are quite happy to be asked.

As an aside it is quite an interesting challenge to adapt scenarios to make them more inclusive.

11 Likes

I agree that the disclaimer mentioned would be great and should be employed at tables when starting with new groups. It's not just acknowledging that atrocities happened, either, but that the fundamental forces of power in this setting are horrifically unjust by modern standards, from the social institutions of feudalism and the Catholic Church, possibly right up to the God backing those things Himself. RoP:I had to make sinning project the essence of moustache-twirling wound-festering cosmic insanity into the world around you just to make the Divine Realm seem like the lesser evil by comparison.

In the case of Ars Magica, I tend to assume (and the books generally support) the Order of Hermes' differing priorities from the rest of society result in top-down radical adjustment in the norms of the covenant communities they construct around themselves. Exactly how far that reaches depends on how socially involved the magi are and how willing they are to skirt or flaunt the Code, of course. The last campaign I was in went to the extreme end of that - our covenant had great sway over the charter of the town it was in due to close friendship with the owning noble, and made a whole campaign subplot out of building it into a haven for women's opportunities, bringing women into normally-male trades and letting them develop their own guilds, founding a university for women to learn law and medicine and such things, all sorts of juicy stuff.

But even on the opposite end of the social involvement spectrum, with highly insular covenants, the Gift being so rare and non-hereditary means magi collectively don't care nearly as much about the things that the rest of society cares about - those who held to those in spite of the practical realities likely didn't pass the baton forward very far (the bizarre statistical miracle of House Mercere having even a dozen Gifted members notwithstanding). And since the magi's internal community doesn't care about those social norms, they're also less likely to care during the hiring process, leaving most covenants as rare places for those who don't fit in so well to go and find a measure of prosperity.

And then, of course, there's the fact that outliers have always existed, and not just in ways people with power are willing to tolerate. RPGs tell stories of exceptional people, and even if it was uncommon, lots of people who went against the grain found success and happiness in little pockets throughout history. Enough of those wins stacking up is how history starts to change, even if it's slow, even if it's just a little.

10 Likes

@Corteia has excellent talking points here for starting sessions of Ars Magic sagas.

That is what such sagas are about. How egotistical and weird are the individual magi after 15 years of apprenticeship isolating them from most society? What are the priorities and allegiances of their covenant in Mythic Europe? What are the underlying morals of both?
The decades following 1220 provide many changes in the world views (philosophical, religious, scientific, perhaps magical) of the societies and social strata of Europe and Mythic Europe. Do the magi take up some? Do they make up some? Do they make some happen?

5 Likes

Aside from Jerbiton apprentices, who at the end of a 15 year apprenticeship might wish they were isolated from the rest of society.

I agree that discussions of what topics are off limits is extremely useful. I have stepped on toes, particularly in Online games where I don’t know the people.

There are some assumptions which I believe make mythic Europe more interesting, but are not for the squeamish. They can be toned down, but there was a reason peasants were afraid of armored men. There were reasons why women didn’t travel alone. A 5% difference in skill level or strength, in muscle based combat, makes a huge difference.

There were female warriors, archeology has proven it was much more common than expected. But… that was outside of the Church’s influence and law. It was what pagans did, not what “ God Fearing” people did. It is a good tension to set up, female warrior who has to hide her profession from the Church. But it could easily offend some people (maybe the devout, maybe women, maybe both.)

Differing levels of acceptable realism definitely need to be discussed. Otherwise there are going to be game splitting arguments.

2 Likes

I think when you consider that anyone with the Gift will be unable to operate in society, and the whole Order is well outside of normal society, an draws it's culture more directly from Roman and Hellenic, which was far more permissive, they are forced to make up their own rules. So anything goes, as it were and won't break the setting.

But if one wants to have mundane society be as realistic as possible the only thing I can add is that as of the 13th century the idea of a love based marriage was not yet common. I think the idea of Romantic love itself wasn't popularized until the Troubadours which I think was primarily 100 years post the setting (though it could have started by then, I can't recall), but marriage was an alliance between families and the union was only to produce children of that alliance uniting the families. I think this wasn't just nobility, but also up and down the social heirarchy. The Church, of course, not due to celibacy (though never stopped anyone from having an affair or even children!). And the Order wouldnt' be this way either. But it is the waters they navigate.

1 Like

I think to a Magi mundane society is a strange and alien place. And to a mundane the Magi are strange alien and they would feel somewhat scary due to the Gift or Blatant Gift.

The Order is well outside mundane society, and in a lot of ways personally better. But given the nasty, brutish and short life in the mundane world, the Magi might feel superior (long life, personal power). And I think the culture is an egalitarian/meritocratic(amongst the Gifted otherwise it's more of an oligharchy) version of the Roman/Hellenic model of society.

Unless the Magi has the Gentle Gift ... it will make normal interactions and alliances nearly impossible. I don't think they could take it over and they give off the "unnatural abomination" vibe. But they could influence it from the shadows, for the Magi that are concerned with mundane society. Some would just further retreat, and seek out fresh vis supplies to build power.

1 Like