Discussing the GenCon 2015 panel

So, the Atlas "Future of Ars Magica" panel has come and gone. I'd like to discuss what we as a community have learned, and where we go from here.

  • There was no tentpole announcement from the panel.
  • There is no current, public plan regarding Sixth Edition, and the discussion might well continue until another panel at GenCon next year.
  • Ars Magica does not make sufficient money that it is a going commercial concern: it is subsidized by Atlas's other lines.
  • The model of splatbooks no longer works, and will be replaced by standalone works.
  • Some standalone works will be in print, many will not.
  • Kickstarters will be more common.
  • The standalone works are not necessarily in a shared world. Some are in Mythic Europe, others clearly will not be. They will similarly not necessarily link to each other.
  • Atlas is grappling with online support, following some success with Feng Shui 2, but have little experience or aptitude in this at the moment.
  • Atlas wants to know what we'd like, either for a Sixth or for supplements. Mail Cam.

Now, in a sweeping example of confirmation bias, I'd like once again to suggest that of we are going to write a standalone primer set of rules, we need to strip everything out of it and simplify it incredibly. It's not clear to me if the standalone story packs are meant to be used in conjunction with the 5th edition book. I suspect not. So, they will either need to have a rules chapter glued on the back, have a free or close-to-free rules supplement on the web, or use the grey matter of an experienced player as a reference.

When I say "everything" I really mean everything. If you are going to have a ruleset that lets me work in 1220, in the court of Queen Elizabeth, in the Roman Empire, in the Merovingian courts, in Aztec South America and in the modern day, then a lot of the stuff which is specifically about 1220 needs to be peeled out so it can be added back in as an option if desired. Houses go. The specific Attributes go. The specific Abilities go. The specific Virtues go. Latin from the Art names goes. The weapon table goes. Books as the specific method of gaining experience go. I think we really need to boil the ruleset down to a purely mechanical document, so that if you are writing a book set in Jacobean England, you put a different layer over the top than if you are writing a 1920s Urban Noir.

Note: I'm not talking about whatever Sixth will be. I'm talking about whatever goes into the back of the Ars Magica equivalent of "Masks of Nyarlathotep".

We also need to do community better. I'm not sure how, really, but we need to create new points for people to enter the community, connect, create, collaborate and store their material. I'm a Librivoxer: as a group we have created just shy of 10 000 audiobooks. I'm going to work through the LV explanation of why it works the way it works to see if I can find anything to explain how to make this community better without having an Atlas community manager pushing it (because LV is all-volunteer). I hope people will come up with suggestions as to why we have such a fragmented, non-evangelical community now and what we can do about it.

So... Fate. Just sayin'.

Fate doesn't have the magical mechanics...but, FATE, or GURPS, or any of the generic systems, sure... If we want an Ars Magica which lets me pistol whip a gangster in a speak-easy, we really do need to wonder if Attributes like Quickness and Dexterity still need to be separate. If you want ot run Jane Austen Ars Magica (and frankly I really, really do) you need Social Class to replace Presence. The virtues and abilities all change, too, to note the points of conflict on which you'll roll.

So, yes, we need to get our generic system worked out.

Sad to see that the Ars Magica line doesn't stand on its own two feet, but hugely grateful that the team at Atlas value the game enough to have subsidised its production.

I'm not even sure that the Arts themselves need to remain, to be honest.

I think the best thing about the magic system is not the ability to combine those fifteen arts but the ability to determine how hard a given effect is to achieve; base level, modifiers for range, duration, target, etc. We've seen it working very well across numerous traditions across a dozen books and those traditions use different methods, powers, arts, abilities, all to generate a casting total to be compared against that effect level.

If you divorce the fifteen arts from the magic system for a moment, you can then imagine period-specific styles of magic becoming the focus of the system - we get to write those different eras either as stand-alone periods that can be picked up and played, or as points during the development of magic.

Just as we have tried to do with the Tribunal books, each period brings a different play style and a different style of magic. We also get to represent these different historical traditions in a more authentic manner, which I can see appealing to the potential author pool.

I would say that what makes ars most distinct is the long term nature of the game- the fact that you can actually learn magic more quickly by spending years in a lab and library than running around throwing fireballs at monsters. unfortunately it is a concept that is increasingly alien to many who are more interested in what video game designers call roleplaying than having long term durable characters. It is also effectively a single setting game with the size and pricing of a generic system with multiple settings of support. I don't think devolving the game into stand alones is the right way to go- but unless they are willing to sell the rights to the product line (or at least for future editions, not for the residuals on what they have already created) for something I can afford it would seem that that boat has sailed. I think going the way GURPS has gone- writing PDFs and if sales of those is high enough then selling books instead of starting with books and then selling PDFs after getting the initial sales would certainly make sense.
Does anyone know if Atlas has even considered selling the line?

Which is kind of the idea behind Fate, no? It allows you to create the mechanics for a variety of things you can think up. It's a game about telling stories, which is what Ars Magica had started out as, but has by and large grown beyond that with a relatively ponderous rules system. Granted, with Fate, you need to develop a coherent magic system and place it within the Fate core rules.

Does it make sense for Atlas to produce a generic system that can be adapted to produce an Ars Magica style setting? I don't know, it doesn't sound like it if Ars Magica as a product line doesn't make enough money to support itself, I'm not sure that the setting would be any different.

I think part of the reason that Ars Magica isn't supporting itself is rules/splatbook bloat. I can see this in my own group, where players don't have book X or book Y and are thus ignorant of how X or Y works. The problem, though, is that you can't get book X or book Y because they're out of print, and there isn't sufficient demand for reprints yet (and PDFs aren't a great solution). This makes it hard for new players to invest in Ars Magica in the first place.

If/when 6th edition comes out, I really hope that all the HoH and RoP stuff gets rolled into the main book. This will probably mean that a lot of the RoP stuff will have to be harmonized (for example, monster build rules and Method/Power rules - Magic Realm method/power would be for hedge magicians) and a lot of the HoH stuff would need condensing, but that's probably fine anyways. This probably means a 400+ page rulebook, but I'd be VERY happy with that (and would back on Kickstarter).

Another book could be the Mythic Europe setting book. This could hold your Church, Nobility, City/Guild, Art&Academe stuff as well as summarized hermetic tribunals. Then you've got 2 necessary books that are a lot easier to keep in print than 10-12 books with info spread throughout.

One thing that needs addressing is the layout and presentation of books, which is generally not user friendly. For example, all the spell guidelines and spells for a TeFo combo should be presented on a single page. Pg 125 in the Core book is a particularly bad example of t his, as Auram spells starts 1/2 way down the first column, and the CrAu guidelines are on the next page, requiring you to turn the page back and forth. The same thing with the CrCo guidelines. The Mysteries starts on the 3rd column of pg 91 and spills onto pgs 92 and part of 93, where it could all have fit on pgs 92-93 (facing paces).

I'm not so sure about 'generic' systems, but certainly the Characteristic and Ability list could use some updating. Something like Athletics covers a broad range of activities, but then you need Charm, Carouse, Etiquette, Folk Ken, Guile and Intrigue to deal with social situations, and often it's VERY hard to interpret which your Storyguide will choose to use. Roll Guile and Folk Ken into Intrigue, roll Charm and Carouse into Etiquette, so you get Intrigue (Lying, Reading People) and Etiquette (Making Friends, Having Fun) specialties. As far as characteristics go, I'm not even sure we need Quickness at all, and Presence/Communication could well be rolled together, while an actual Willpower characteristic might be a good idea.

Timothy, thank you for posting this. I could not make it to Indy, but am trying to do my part to keep the game moving. I hope we will one day look back on this time and call it "The Interregnum."

I want to add that everyone at Atlas was extremely supportive of Ars Magica, and John Nephew in particular spoke very passionately about his love for the game. I don't believe based on their comments that it will languish. They are convinced that a game does not have to keep putting out supplements any more to thrive, and while Ars may not be a huge moneymaker, it is still thriving. I sold about ten copies of the core book at the booth this weekend, and those new players all have around 40 more supplements to buy and enjoy as they read and play the game. So Atlas has time to develop intelligently, with an eye for special quality. Whatever happens in the future, I feel confident it will be awesome.

I think we really need to nail down the community development model here, but have nothing much to add at this point beyond flagging it as a vital thing. We've been comparatively poor at supporting fanzines / podcasts / cons and as a community we really need to up our game in the new model.

In the session, people were talking about a quick start kit and about the Fiasco playsets, but I don't get the sensation people were discussing them as entry points to the Ars creative community, rather than as entry points to a specific at-home game.

In terms of the formal creation of licensed material, I'm not clear, following the panel, how that will work. Assuming a kickstarter model, then there will effectively be a certain number of kickstarters per year as a maximum (Kickstarters, even if they make budget, take time, staff and energy also, it's very important the early ones not fail and deliver quality product.)


  • someone (let's call him Andrew) gets a great idea (let's say "I want to make a supplement which lets you do Strange and Norell"), and writes up a rough, and sends that to Atlas which then says 'Yes, let us kickstart"
  • or he does this, but first he gets a team of writers on it before he hits Atlas.
  • or someone at Atlas says 'We need some people to write a thing for us...and the project manager for this is Andrew."

I'd like to get some idea of which model they are going with, because that does need some thinking about from the current and potential author pool. Are we going back to pitching books? Do we need a collaborative space online? How public is that space (remembering access to the development process is often a kickstarter perk for high tier backers) Does this alter how we do stuff now (for example, is SR going to get a Patreon account? Is Atlas?)

So, some of the author pool use the term 'metagame' for he process of creating the line: it's not a "job" and we don't generally use the narrative of gaming professionalism popular on venues which discuss this sort of thing. We were playing a game, and by playing that game, we made the Ars magica ruleset. David was the GM. A lot of us have been saying "Well, who is the new GM? Probably Cam..." The interesting news is that there is, apparently, no new GM. The metagame we were playing has finished.

Great game guys! I enjoyed it very much!

Time to work out what the metagame we are playing -next- is. How we play, who the players are, how much time an dedication they are putting in...all of that is slightly nebulous now and I'd like to discuss it.


Despite the allure of more new and shiny, treating and marketing AM as a complete and extensive game for a few quarters might be a good thing.




Rule 242 has many exceptions

I can see that, but the lead time for creating new product, particularly in Kickstart form, is longer than a couple of quarters. Letting things lie fallow might be a good idea, but if you want to unfallow things in, say, June 2016, you need to start thinking about certain things now, not in June 2016.


Is 6/16 a hard date? If it is, then yeah, no time to smell the roses or let the saplings grow. Onward, onward.

But maybe the best thing for development of the game at this point is a sabbatical; if there is a new Ars Magica "metagame," maybe the thing to write is a website or page, as an individual rather than a community, and the GMs that replace David are some unknown people who come across it, like it, and get sucked in, and literally become GMs. What kind of material? Maybe adventures, maybe a sample covenant, maybe some characters, maybe a D&D/PF-style optimization guide complete with colored ratings and "borrowed" graphics, ongoing sagas, whatever.

I've been sucked into buying things (I'm looking at you, L5R cards and rpg stuff) because I got caught up in "free" Internet material, and I'm far from the only one.

The community of players to be are not likely to be drawn by good rules (otherwise Shadowrun, Vampire and so many other games would have failed horribly) or more supplements (they don't even have the many already in print) but by gravity.



No, it was me plucking a date out of the air, so that they have a product to announce at next Gen Con. It's not a hard date at all.

I think volunteerism like this, lacking a community, is likely to fail, because the volunteer will drift off into other, rewarding pursuits which have communities. I really can't see a future for the game if it's just one guy (I nominate CJ...) pouring his soul into it for no money and with no community around him.

The problem is that volunteers are welcome anywhere. Ars would be competing for the time of the volunteer with -everything else-. In my case, my writing time is now my ukulele and Librivoxing time, not even roleplaying.

I think, Ken, we are envisioning community in different ways...it can be loosely structured, but it needs to have ways for new people to navigate it, to find ways of interacting with it.

Cam emphasized at the end of the panel that anyone who has comments or ideas or feedback about Ars Magica should write to him, cam@atlas-games.com. I think he is taking over the role of GM, to use your metagame metaphor, as far as the Ars community is concerned.

Didn't I steal this metaphor from you? Was it Erik Tyrell?

Same here. I knew Ars Magica wasn't a huge moneymaker, but I didn't know it was a actually losing money. Much thanks to Atlas for its great support of the game.

Yes. Either use an Ars Magica Light, which doesn't have all the bells and whistles but still IS Ars Magica (much like D&D5E's Basic Rules), or use an existing and popular generic system. Right now, FATE is #3 at 6.51% in ENWorld's combined Hot Games list, right behind D&D5E and Pathfinder. (Ars Magica is #46 at 0.19%, and sadly dropping.) FATE is also flexible enough for us to be able to mold it to serve Ars Magica, rather than to be its own game. So I'd suggest using FATE.

Another popular game system that might work out well thematically is World of Darkness (#6 at 4.81%) - but that would require licensing from White Wolf, which would be problematic. The next sort-of generic system is Savage Worlds (#8 at 2.5%), which can work but would make a weird coupling. GURPS is at #15 at 1.56%, BTW.

If a game system partners up with an existing rules engine (e.g. FATE), how difficult is it to subsequently cut ties if that relationship stops working out in the future?

From what I can see (as an amateur in the field), the main advantage of partnering up with an existing engine such as FATE is it opens up the FATE players as potential audience. Is there any data on the size of that audience and the conversion percentages for other games that have gone the same route?

Whichever way the wind blows Ars Magica holds a special place in my heart, and has done so since I stumbled upon 2nd ed in 1989. The game has given me so much, and continues to do so since we don't plan on stopping. I'm glad I had the opportunity to try and give something back to the community, since I answered the open call for Grogs years back. I'll still be on the forum and plan on contributing to SubRosa as an outlet for writing. I'll keep an open eye on fan projects as well as any official line projects in the future, to see if there is anything to join or support.

As for speculations of a 6th ed and strategy for development of supplements I'll leave this to professionals. But apart from some big things changing between 1st and 2nd ed the core mechanics of ArM has been changed very little over time, and I can't tell whether it needs major overhaul. Apart from the flexible magic system and the emphasis on stories about an order of wizards rather than the hack 'n slash fantasy otherwise popular back then - what initially sold me was the 'Magic Theory' ability, and the way it represented labwork and long term projects and development.

As for the Characteristics changing, that might be doable if there is some point with it. The traditional 8 stats arranged in groups of two may have meant more back in 2nd ed's method of rolling for the values. I kind of liked that, but also get irritated by the way extreme rolls may upset the balance. Do we need Qik in the future? Maybe not, the things it is used for may be calculated in different ways. Do we need both Prs and Com? Sometimes people get a little confused when to use which one. But we tend to use Prs for here-and-now socializing and Com for then you have time to work people over with words.'

As for Abilities I think the many social skills may confuse, but in my group we allow some freedom as to which one you use but the EF and results vary depending on your choices. It's a point sink if you don't prioritize and limit yourself. Why so many when Athletics is so broad? Perhaps because with the emphasis in the game for certain stories you needed more detail for social situations than for running and jumping? Combat usually has a big part in most rpgs especially fantasy but ArM really has simplified and limited this.

While I like the huge number of 5th ed books an all the possibilities I also realize it can be daunting and off putting to newcomers. It may seem immense and needlessly complicated. Simplification and limitation may be the way for the future. Back when i first started to actually play ArM is was 4th ed, and we didn't have a lot of supplements. We avoided Tribunal books since we already had our own Stonehenge Tribunal defined when Heirs to Merlin was published. We only had the Order of Hermes book and the Grimiore. So whenever we encountered a hedge wizard, diabolist, demon, faerie, dragon or other supernatural being we merely glanced at the Hermetic guidelines for comparable power levels, decided on some things this particular being was especially good at or where they could break the Hermetic limits. I think a 6th ed where Hermetic guidelines as we know them were the base, and particular traditions or creature-types could have a few supplemental ones. And each tradition could use their own combination of Arts or Abilities for casting- and lab totals.

But if and when development starts on a new project or a 6th ed I'd certainly like to be in on it.