History of ARS MAGICA design

Is there anywhere an account of how ARS MAGICA came to place the limitations on magi that now exist?

The limits of Divine Power and True Nature make some sense from the medieval background... but more specific things like the cumulative effect of exposure to magic, the limits on longevity, the need for vis and so on.

Also the social limits put into the Code.

I ask because I'm currently running a game in which magic returns to the 17th Century, care of the meddling of that Mr Newton of Trinity College, Cambridge and I'm coming across some of the same issues. I wonder if I'm genuinely running into the same balance problems or if I'm allowing my memories of AM to overwhelm my judgement.

Unfortunately, the product you really want is an out-of-print collector's item. "Order of Hermes" for Second Edition is the book where the game as we know it started. See if you can get your eyes on a copy.

It was made available recently as a Pdf on warehouse23. warehouse23.com/products/ars ... -of-hermes

I stand corrected. In that case, get dat book - it's the founding document for Ars Magica as we know it.

Order of Hermes is actually a first edition book. Prior to that book there were no houses.

While the code of hermes was present in the first edition core book as something that existed in the setting. The code was not written out, merely described, I had at the time pictured it as a much much longer text. The original authors wrote an article for white wolf magazine in 1988 describing the Order of Hermes for use in other RPG's (I've sadly misplaced my copy).

The laws of magic and twilight (later warping) came later (some of it was in Order of Hermes).


I can only speak as a watcher from the outside, rather than a master, secret or otherwise.

The idea that there are limits to Hermetic Magic appears very early. IMO, this is mostly a reaction to D&D. No easy healing in AM! No arbitrary creation! D&D creates an arbitrary distinction between divine and wizardly magic, but AM shall do this better! We want our wizards to be powerful, but not all-powerful! Naturally, AM5 is clearest about these limitations, and their nature, because that's what AM5 does.

Twilight does not exist in the 2nd Edition core rules. This was quickly added, however, and never went away. AM5 softens its impact.

Already present in AM2 core: Botches. Covenants. Houses, pretty much as we know them today, though sometimes with some tweaks. (Bjornaer have Heartbeasts, for example, but Shapeshifters are not enemies.) Grogs, companions, troupes. Demons were utterly evil. Parma existed, but smothered one's ability to perceive the wonder of the world.

Faerie Magic is ill-defined until AM5, but was generally interpreted as ranging between 'weird' and 'natural', because that's what the cool kids were all about during the 90s.

Longevity Potions were potions, and have increased in effectiveness over the years. And have gotten much cheaper.

Warping is all-new for AM5. AM5 also makes explicit that human nature is mortal, and to become immortal is to become less; this fits the milieu but had not been explicit. But Decrepitude has been around as long as I have.

Limits on Art scores have loosened across editions, consistently; a score above 20 was once extraordinary.

Game balance is a secondary issue, I think: A game can be balanced at many power levels. Also, the solutions that work (or do not) for AM's Mythic Europe do not necessarily apply to Mythic Enlightenment Europe! You might do better absolutely ignoring AM and spend time reading, say, Strange&Norrell (later than your period by a bit). For me, AM started out as yet another D&D 'heartbreaker': A better D&D, with a real medieval setting and without having to make excuses for powerful wizards. You might want to start with that... and you might not.

BTW, I also second (third?) the old OoH book. Atmospheric.



How different is the 1st edition Order of Hermes book from the 3rd edition one? I've got the 3rd ed, it seems to cover very similar ground.

I can't tell you why they were added originally, but I can tell you why they are still there in ArM5: to make it possible to suspend disbelief in medieval Europe with powerful wizards. Without those limits, it is very hard to believe that magi would not have changed the world. For example, without the cumulative effect of exposure to magic, all grogs would be enchanted all the time, which radically changes the feel of the setting. Without the need for vis, covenants need no supplies, because everything can be created magically, with a few easy spells. Without limits on longevity, magi become even more powerful, and can spontaneously obliterate Paris (or at least they could without the limit requiring "Destroy Paris" to be a ritual spell).

If you are trying to put together a game with powerful magic and something like a real-world historical setting, I would expect you to run into many of the same problems, so it probably isn't just your memories of ArM.

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I'm now home with my books and can give some more solid information

I did find the issue of white wolf magazine where Tweet and Rein*Hagen described the OoH for use in other games. It was issue 11 from..it actually doesn't have a date on it but they were handing them out for free at gen con origins in 1988. The article has redcaps and "grand tribunals" wizard's wars and certamen, covenants, high crimes, low crimes, a code and a peripheral code but no actual code of hermes written out.

First edition has ritual spells and says that they are necessary to do certain types of magic but the only thing specifically called out by the ritual spells description is summoning elementals (so the limit of creation wasn't an explicit thing).

Second edition introduced houses. Looking through, I don't see the limits of magic or twilight

Order of Hermes is a second edition book. I had remembered wrong. It contains the history of the order in much more detail, it introduces twilight. It has the code of Hermes written out.

Third edition is the first one that has a section that lists the limits of magic (they were different).

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That would be "Order of Hermes" for 2nd ed and "Houses of Hermes" for 4th ed respectively

"Order of Hermes" has lots of stuff about the Order, life of a magus, apprenticeship, definitions of the 13 Tribunals (which the 2nd ed core book does not even mention), plus more details about the Houses (which are all defined in brief on a single page in the 2nd ed book)

"Houses of Hermes" is only about the Houses, there are new Virtues, Flaws and Spells for many of the houses, plus a fully statted magus for each House. Much of the material the OoH book had which is not here I felt was included in WGRE. But this book has the same message and information about the houses as the 2nd ed OoH, only in more detail.

Thanks a lot everybody for the information.

I believe I did once own a copy of that version of Order of Hermes but it was a very long time ago and any memory of reading it has long gone. I will see if I can find that White Wolf article too. I can understand the decision to dedicate the line to a 'historical' setting though I sometimes wish they had written more about adapting the system to other times and places.

I'm not in fact using AM as the engine: the current manifestation is too encrusted (in a nice way) with the history of the line and little details that make more sense in the Mythic Europe category.

The game system is GURPS and I'm using a variant of the Syntactic Magic from THAUMATOLOGY which is very similar to the Arts and Techniques from AM.

The catastrophe of magic returning has given 36 people in 1677 Europe ranging from madmen and street performers to Kings and Dukes access to magic though no real clue as to how it works. They have formed their Council of Magic and written their oath and their first big political battle will be between the people who want to keep it secret and those who want to open up to the world.

Magery doesn't cause people to hate you... But casting magic without proper shielding does: people within a range dependent on the amount of energy put into the spell get the urge to kill whoever is making that Terrible Noise.

I'm enjoying the development of the setting and finding questions I haven't thought through popping up at every session.

In that case, Chapter 4 of Lords of Men ends with a good couple of pages on how to suspend disbelief about how magic doesn't utterly break the feudal system. (Unless your goal is to have the upheaval do just that.)

My goal is to go where the set up and the decisions of the player characters lead me.

Random luck may also play a part.

I cannot see the truth of magic being revealed without a whole lot of trouble, perhaps to the level of a second Thirty Years War.

But I will let it play out as the logic seems to lead.

Very interesting! I'd like to do something similar in the future :slight_smile: