Improve the skill system

I have some issues with the skill system in Ars Magica.

The first one is pretty straithforward : there is too many social skills compared to other fields (like physical activities that all go in athletics and swimming or combat that only need one skill and sometime brawl for doging).

But my biggest issue is about the cost of skills and their importance for mages.
I feel that some skills that seem important like awareness will never be upgraded because loosing one season on non magical stuff seems a waste of time.

What do you think of that ?

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The first is really dependent on the type of game you run. If social interactio and skills are what's important in the game then that's where you will find many different skills. If the game is concentrated on combat, then you will have many separate combat skills. For things that do not matter much you will find many different abilities clumped together in a few skills.
So too many or too few skills of a certain type - it all depends on your game.

Your second issue does not sound like a problem at all. On the contrary, it sound like exactly how the system should work.
Many magi will concentrate on their magical skills to the detriment of other skills - which is where companions come in.
Some magi will want a more well-rounded skillset, which they will pay for by not being quite as powerful magically.


On the contrary I would argue that you have come upon the point of the game. Ars magically is very clearly not a combat game, and the game system reflects that. Combat does not get a lot of attention in the skill system, the combat system is clunky to deal with and a large segment of the mechanics are dedicated to rules that allow a combatant to take hits for another combatant because the combat system is primarily there to make sure that magi can use shield grogs to prevent themselves from being attacked while they resolve the combat with magic.

I think ErikT did a great job at explaining this and I will not answer this point specifically but rather address a more general point you seem to get at.

Ars magica has lots of things for players to spend XP on,and not enough XP to spend on them. This IMO is a central feature of the game that should not be changed in a major way. Not just the amount of skills (and arts) serve this purpose but the scaling cost too. When the game works like it does where you can easily pick up a level or two of an ability (or art) but going beyond that takes years of effort you get a system where specializing requires a big effort. This creates a situation where a player can safely specialize and remain secure in the knowledge that for someone else to excel at the same thing they would need to invest a similarly big amount of resources to gain the same level of compentence. At the same time it is not possible to specialize in very many things at once. Thus every player can choose a niche of their own where they excel beyond the others players.

If you change the system you risk inadverdently changing something that turns out to be connected to a core feature of the game, which in turn may have wide reaching consequences for how the entire game plays out.

e.g. if you reduce the amount of social skills, you run the risk of making it so that the niche for a wide range of social characters to exist is either reduced to a "social generalist" who can excel at all possible social situations or even making the niche of social specialist obsolete in total, by making it so easy to excel socially that anyone can do it as a side hustle.


Erik and Euphemism have talked brilliantly, so I will try to mention something in another tangent.


Spells can't properly reproduce skill knowledge, and I think this is an important part of the balance mentioned by Erik and Euphemism. But consider that with a handfull of selected spells you can drastically improve your capabilities.

  • Intuition of the Forest gives you +3 for nature-oriented rolls, which should include hunting through woods, awareness of creatures, looking for plants, etc.
  • Shriek of the Impending Shafts gives you an amazing +9 in defense against wooden weapons, and you could reasonably develop something similar with InTe.
  • Aura of Enobled Presence gives you what essentially amounts to a +3 in social rolls.
  • Wizard's Sidestep gives you one guaranteed defense, and then, +9 in defense.
  • Sight of Transparent Motive tells you what someone is feeling. High level Folk Ken here.
  • On that note, we don't even need to mention Frosty Breath of the Spoken Lie
  • With Eyes of the Cat you can see in the dark.

And on and on we could go...

My point is, magic allows a magus to achieve easily what would take years for a well trained mundane to conquer, and even a few "low key" things that are pretty much impossible for a mundane (such as seeying in the dark). Most of these utility spells are lvl 10, 15 at most. A few ones are level 20. This means that most of them are accessible to basically any magus in just a couple of years of study (Tech 5 + Form 5 + MT 3 + Aura 3 = 16, all you need is a lab text).

Imagine it, spend one season to learn Intuition of the Forest and you can grant yourself, at will, the same level of competence a mundane would take roughly 2 years to get?

So no, I don't think magi are lacking in skills, neither do I feel that they are losing something by studying magic instead of training in something mundane.


Just a reminder that as soon as you harm something in the forest the spell ends. Least that's my reading, that killing something is significant harm.

I have some too, and with every other RPG system I have ever seen for that matter.

@ErikT has already given a good answer, but I'll take a slightly different angle.

It is generally an advantage for the flow of the game that people have different specialities, so that each have a time to shine, and everybody has cause to call for one another. In Ars Magica most of the game tends to be about magic, so that's where you have the widest range of traits and different avenues to specialise in. The majority of the rest is social interaction, so that's where the second largest range is. This makes it possible to make a range of magic workers and a range of social workers with very different abilities, so that these stories get a lot of variation and interaction.

It is very important that the magi are not too good at awareness, because that makes the scout critical to their story, and creates opportunities for roleplay.

It is logical that bargaining in the town market is very different rumour harvesting and very different from the intrigue of politics. One could simplify, but that would make these critical characters very similar, and that would not be good.

It is very important that combat does not require too many skills, because the poor shield grog would hardly ever get any stage time if there was not room for some good secondary skills as well.

I agree that there is a potential issue with many social skills, but my problem is that I struggle to tell them apart. It is unrelated to the narrow selection of skills in other categories.

Of course, it all changes if your game is 90% combat at 2% social interaction. Then you probably want another game.


Actual words of the spell are "cause significant harm to the forest" (emphasis mine).

In my view hunting a deer (for example) hardly qualifies. Felling a tree, on the other hand, surely does. Lighting a fire? Depends.

But that's neither here nor there.

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I think this is, to some extent, a reflex of more combat oriented games where the selection of social skills is much more narrow, and with which I personally have more contact. The simple change from "Charisma" to "Communication / Presence" is enough to cause confusion sometimes.
(To be honest, the same can be said about adding Quickness to Dexterity.)

But I wouldn't say it's a matter of "many social skills". It's mostly a matter of habit.

You are certainly right that it is not a direct consequence of the number of skills. I just joined a 2ed game, with separate attack and parry per weapon rather than broad weapon classes. The combat skills are still well-defined with no confusion, but this has nothing to do with habit. I have not played a combat heavy game for fifteen years.

It is the combat system which makes the combat skills unambiguous. Round by round the rules tells you exactly what skills to use. As long as we do not have a social system along similar lines, there will be some border cases which are hard to resolve. Habit can help, since enough rulings will establish an implicit system, but building such habit takes so long that it rarely happens.

And, other reasons notwithstanding, fewer skills means fewer candidates when a ruling is required. It does help. And in that respect, 5ed is a massive step forward compared to 2ed, also when it comes to social skills.

Yes, agreed, the game has too many skills and not enough XP for them. Look at Magi of Hermes, most of the characters have at least one, if not more, purchases of virtues that grant XP for the character concepts. Most people when making their PC's want to give them neat abilities, not just boring things like 50xp to round out their concept.

Ars Magica very simulationist, and even then, yet a Poor Knight character will barely have the XP to their job at all. The knight companion in the core book, has Wealthy and barely enough XP to make a 25 year old character competent enough to be fun to play.

If you want more epic play, you have many options not limited to:

  • (1) More XP at character creation
  • (2) More virtue points at character creation
  • (3) More XP awarded in session
  • (4) Collapse social skills i.e. Bargain and Charm, Etiquette and Intrigue etc

Worse, Ars Magica characters start with a very weak Characteristic set compared to D&D's standard 15,14,13,12,10,8 array. This is +2,+2,+1+1,0,-1 for six character, or a net +5 out of 6. Ars Magica starts you with +5 out of 8 if you do +2 +2 +1, and only +7 out of 8 if ou give your character +1 in 7 characteristics. Frankly, that is rather lame and boring. Worse, few options like in D&D to increase characteristics with weapons or enchanted items, only very expensive rituals.

At the same time, Ars Magica is predicated on the NPC's not changing the status quo of Medieval Europe. This is a critical factor in the game design. Even then, well designed PC's will shake things up easily.

If you want more epic play, change the rules to your taste for your game.

Outside of stating that I don’t feel Ars Magica has enough skills I’ll keep my heretical views to myself… this time.


If I wanted to improve the skill sytem, I would TeFo the heck out of it. We get 50 combo out of 15 Arts.

Seen that way, Bargain and Etiquette are the same technique applied to merchants and nobles. The same approach works for Professions: what is a captain but someone who knows sailors? You apply language proximity to people that are closely related to an archetype and use personality traits as resistance to technique (e. g. vs intimidation).

That should give 15+ social combo out of 8 skills, and allows you to pick non-standard classes of people.

You touch on a wide range of dubious features. I do not agree that characters need to be epic to be fun to play. Personally, I like PCs to be plausible compared to the rest of the world; on the high side, ok, but within reason. To epicise the characters, the magic system provides all the opportunities we need. However ...

  1. Ars Magica puts too much emphasis on dedicated study and too little on experience. For that reason poor characters are not only poor, but they are also incompetent, and mundane characters develop very slowly.
  2. Ars Magica assumes, in most cases, the same rules for PCs and NPCs. The PCs are somewhat above average, but the NPCs are too.
  3. The steep pyramid scale promotes generalists. High skills are too bloody expensive, so everybody tends to know a little bit about everything.
  4. Characteristics have a wide range and it is simply not possible to get skills high enough to outweigh a poor characteristic.

I am sure we could get a much better system if we threw out all the 1980s legacy, and started over. However, what we have works, and ad hoc patches it tend to create new problems and inconsistencies.


I'm not sure this approach respect the spirit of Ars Magica but I love it !

At the same time, the system allow me to have 9 in intrigue, being able to negociate a peace treaty between 2 kingdoms and 0 in bargain, being unable to negociate the price of an apple.

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It is quite plausible that the character would not want to take the same cynical attitude towards a poor peasant that he would with the mighty kings, and therefore is less effective.

The same, btw, is true for the warrior who does excellently with a greatsword, but cannot swing a longsword at all.

If this is a concern, I recommend Pabu which was introduced at a local con 25-30 years ago. To make a character, roll a D20. That's your aptness. To succeed at a task, roll a D20 under your aptness.

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At a certain point we have to accept we are playing a game.
A +5 strength represents someone like Hercules, yet Hercules loses 10% of arm wrestles to a +0 nobody. Clearly that doesn't make sense.

A specialist choosing to get to +6 spends 2.5 times as much as the person who got to +3, and yet the +3 person produces better work than the master over 20% of the time. To go more extreme, a person with 1 season of experience, produces better work 20% of the time, than someone with years of experience (I'm thinking level 4 would be years). Again, not very realistic.

And Ars Majica uses D10s. If one uses d20s it gets even more extreme. If we want to make it impossible for Hercules to ever lose an arm wrestle to an unfit person, do we only use D4s? (Before anyone answers, this is a rhetorical question.)

There are always compromises one makes with any game. One can always go more complex. One could make a house rule of similar skills giving bonus to other skills (Rolemaster did), so someone with Great sword 5 is credited as having Long Sword 2, etc, but every option to try to make the world more "realistic", or whatever people are looking for, adds complexity. We have to ask is the extra complexity desirable?


Yes, you can always justify this kind of thing one way or another.
after, it's mostly an issue of what you like and what you don't.

I'm very surprised how "divided" (maybe a big word, i'm not good enough in english to find a more proper one) the answer are on this post.

I though that some common solution would have been proposed (even if I myself am not sure on how the skill system can be improved)...

This is why I actually like GURPS.
A lot of less-than-flattering things can be said about GURPS, but is has some serious strengths as well.

Ars wasn't, in origin, a combat averse game. That's why the monster stat blocks are hugely crunchy compared to other games.

Over time, two things became obvious - people wanted to play their mages all the time, and the game makes it hard to write a retail adventure where the group might be a team of Bjornaers who turn into foxes, or a Flambeau wrecking crew. So we authors bent the game to be about the consequences of your choices and less about combat.

The bones of the D&D style game are still there though. That's what you are seeing. It's like when you see the knees of a dolphin and go "Why is that there?". It's a leftover of the path to get to here.