Cultural Norms and Ars Magica

My groups played up some of the medieval differences. We didn't go hardcore realism, but nor did we try to play "modern values" in a medieval game, as it didn't feel respectful to the time period we were playing.


Timothy Ferguson has a really interesting blog post about pre-romantic models of love (Link), that I found very useful.


The issue with this within Ars Magica is that the central conceit of Mythic Europe is: what if what people believed in the 13th century were literally true? But which people? The game cosmology has a Christian bias and this has mechanical effects. There is a limit to what you can do without heavy house-ruling.

For starters, there are the four domains of power: Divine, Magical, Faerie, and Infernal. Divine doesn't mean just any god as in, say, D&D or RuneQuest 'Divine magic'. The Divine realm of Ars Magica is that of the God of the 'religions of the book'. Pagan gods are Faerie-realm entities which, mechanically within Ars Magica, only exist in so far as people believe in them. And the Divine realm is paramount, explicitly and essentially more powerful than the other three.

Similarly, the concept of the Infernal realm is very much based on Christian eschatology. So, in Ars Magica, Christian theology and ontology of the 13th century are literally true and the basis of game mechanics.

As to transgenderism, the rules of magic state that men are essentially male and women are essentially female in an ontological sense that precludes the possibility of even changing gender by means of magic (you can still use imaginem or muto magic but those only last so long as maintained). This is explained under The Limit of Essential Nature which is one of the two fundamental limits of magic and not a possible limitation of Bonisagus' theory.

This goes well beyond social/cultural "setting" fearures such as making Transvestite a flaw. The flaw statement that in Christian or Muslim lands an openly transvestite character will be "regarded as a freak, shunned, laughed at or chased" should be relatively uncontroversial given the cultural context. But Christian theology is a different matter. That is literally true in game-mechanical terms and the essential nature of gender is part of that to this day.

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Have a look at the errata:

Transvestite (p. 59): Replace this Flaw with the following. "Gender Nonconforming
Personality, Major or Minor
You do not conform to the expected behaviour for a person of the gender that your society would assign to you in the absence of social cues such as clothes and behaviour. This may mean, for example, that you dress as a member of another gender, or that you structure your life in a way considered appropriate to another gender, or that you are sexually attracted to members of the same gender. It does not necessarily mean that you disagree about what your gender is, although it may. As a Minor Flaw, it does not normally cause you problems, whether because your society accepts your behaviour, or because you can turn people who object into newts, or for some other reason. As a Major Flaw, it does cause you problems."


Thanks, I was not aware of this.

I would not call this an erratum. It reflects a change in perspective between 2004 and 2022.

I like the fact that the flaw can now be made either minor or major. The description of the old minor personality flaw did sound like the major story flaw Dark Secret (at least within the Christian/Muslim societal context).

Is it still the case that men are essentially male and women are essentially female for the purposes of the Limit of Essential Nature in Hermetic Magic, or has that also been errata'ed away?

The easiest way to handle this in Ars Magica is: applying essential nature to sex, not to gender.
I should add, that it always was better in Ars Magica to not apply essential nature to behaviour casually, but rather reserve it for specific Essential Personality Traits (RoP:M p.43).

That is still true. There is still no mention in the game of what makes someone a man or a woman, however.


I'm not talking about behaviour, I'm talking about the equivalent of a Hermetic magician trying to answer the proverbial call of Emperor Elagabalus for a physician to change their sex. They would be forced to say "no, can't do" even with magic.

Also, the statement upthread that

seems rather incompatible with this ontological view of sex. If I'm not mistaken, intersex people were not part of the 13th century understanding of the world. The way Bonisagus' magic works leverages Aristotelian ontology in a way that, to me, goes beyond game 'flavour' into game cosmology and mechanics. In other words, you simply cannot assume a 21st century understanding of physics (let alone chemistry, biology, or psychology) aplies in-game. Following that assumption to its logical consequences will break the magic system.

Isn't there a gender non-conforming magus written up (statless) in the Byzantine book?

Very non-conforming for whatever gender you choose.
There is one magus/maga there who is stated to be a genuine hermaphrodite.
(Syagricus of House Jerbiton, p117)

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Searching for Syagricus throws up this thread from 2011, which is interesting on the subject of sex being "essential nature".

Only if you wish to see the sex of an individual as always either male or female. Hermaphrodite Syagricus is an extreme (and definitely not 1 in 60) example magus showing this not to be the case.

Even in the modern day the 1 in 60 figure is controversial. I could refer to scientific papers, and then others would counter with different articles, and by the end of a multi-post heated argument we'll all still be holding dearly to what conforms to our pre-conceived biases.

Let's skip that and suggest in a fictional world, if someone wants a world with 1 in 60 people with an intersex condition that would be identifable in Mythic Europe, awesome, and if someone wants a world where the topic never comes up, also awesome.

I'm not arguing from my own preference. What I'm saying boils down to observing that the Ars Magica magic system, game-mechanically, is based on Aristotelian philosophy being substantially correct, warts and all. And the realms of power, game-mechanically, are based on Christian theology being substantially correct.

I don't personally like either, but you're going to break things either game-mechanically or in canon if you bring into the game modern knowledge of human physiology or claims that pagan gods belong to the Divine and not the Faerie realm.

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I agree with you. Certain intersex conditions can not be identified without modern medicine. To suggest canonical ME has 1 in 60 people intersex doesn't hold together logically, however, if someone wants their world to be like that, so be it.

I'm not bothered in breaking canon if it makes it better for the players and it is agreed upon.

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While Christian Theology has a large weight in the game, it's not all encompassing, so why should gender be under it's aegis? After all, not all of the things in the game are exactly medieval, and some of them have been affected by our more modern sensibilities, like female Maga being fully equal to Magi.

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Hermetic magic is central to the game mechanics and that is subject to two absolute limits: the Limit of the Divine and the Limit of Essential Nature.

On the limit of the Divine, the rules say

Hermetic Magic cannot affect the Divine. ... Hermetic powerlessness in the face of miracles is a result ... Only direct action by god is completely innune.

On the limit of Essential Nature, the rules say

Any magic which violates a thing's essential nature must be maintained. ... A thing's essential nature cannot itself be changed. ... All human beins are essentially human, mortal creatures with reason, senses, and the ability to move and reproduce. ... Men are essentially male, and women are essentially female.

This is essentially Aristotle.

This stuff happens to interact with Christian theology. Joan of Arc, mentioned upthread as violating cultural gender norms, was executed as a heretic. Her heresy involved in no small measure her gender non-conformance, including the fact of wearing male clothing. During her trial she recanted from her heresy, including agreeing to wear women'a clothes. She then relapsed into heresy and that's why she was executed. And one of the things she relapsed about was wearing male clothing. Even her defence that wearing a skirt in prison would have made her vulnerable to rape by her guards was dismissed as an extenuating circumstance to the fact that wearing male clothing was in fact heresy.

That's a pretty clear example that, at least in the 15th century, Christian theology considered male/female gender to be God-given essential nature and going against it was heretical.

You can play your saga anyway you want, but that doesn't mean that this Flaw needs to not exist. The flaw doesn't change your Essential Nature, it defines your Essential Nature, same way that being a Dwarf, or having Hunchback, Poor (Characteristic), or any other Flaw would define your character's Essential Nature.

The limit of Essential nature only means that if someone has Dwarf, for example, there's no way you can permanently cause him to be size +0. That's part of his Essential nature, even if most people's have size +0 be part of their Essential Nature.


Joan of Arc was charged of a lot of things and under a lot of pretexts by her English enemies, with the purpose of being able to kill her. But her trial in Rouen occupied by them was anything but a shining example of Christian theology at work.

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More than a change I'd call it an improvement. The debate hold in this forum to change from Transvestite to Gender Nonconforming was something to frame and put on a museum on how to improve a game by realizing how some people were extremely uncomfortable with things as written only twenty years ago, and taking and active effort to be as inclusive and respectful as possible.

Regarding gender or sex and essential nature, I don't see why a gender nonconforming character had to be waved away as male or female just because gender at birth. I would happily arge that how they feel about their own sex and gender is indeed their essential nature, despite the book (or Aristotle for that matter) only quoting two genres, which I would understand as two (the most common) examples, not an exhaustive list.

Is it not into the medieval paradigm? Given that what an essential trait is is just a theoretical construct, I think the answer to that question is something you are making up, not something carved in stone. So I'd be careful to answer the question in the more open an less excluding way.