I played in a (very short) Ars Magica campaign decades ago and loved the game, but my group wasn't too keen on it so we went back to Shadowrun and D&D. Very recently I saw a copy of 5th edition at my local store. After devouring it in the course of a couple days I've fallen for the game all over again.
Anyway, here's a couple questions I've come up with so far as I started to theorycraft characters/sagas. (It'll be a while before I actually have the free time to run a game, and that's assuming I can find folks willing to play in my area.)
1: Tremere start with a Magical Focus in certamen. Both the minor and major Magical Focus virtues say a character can't have more than one focus. Does this mean Tremere can never have magical focus in anything else (like necromancy, which they're supposed to have a strong tradition of) or is there an exception for them since the certamen focus is a house virtue?
2: A more general question: If every supernatural creature has magic resistance equal to its Might score and having magic resistance gave the Order of Hermes such a massive advantage over older traditions, how the heck did hedge wizards ever deal with a world full of faeries, demons and other creatures? What do folks typically benchmark the Mights of your creatures at? It seems like a magus has to be extremely specialized to get the penetration necessary to deal with even moderately powerful creatures. Or am I misreading things?
The ascendancy of OoH over other traditions has less to do with their general Magic resistance due to Parma than the other traditions’ lack of it. Though beating decent MR isn’t so hard it often requires work ahead of time with collecting ACs and the like. It also has a lot to do with the effect of Parma that mitigates the effects of the gift allowing them to coordinate and work together in ways most other traditions rarely do except in very small groups.
It's probably worth pointing out that house-ruling that Tremere can replace their Focus with another if they have another, have both the house Focus as not a technical one and a real Minor/Major Magical Focus, or similar is one of the most common house rules because of this issue.
As written, yes.
Though necromancy is so narrow you'll hardly need the focus, IMO.
Oddly enough, the actual resistance to magic is not the primary reason why Parma Magica made the OoH the dominant group is is in 1220. It's the detail that it blocks the social effects of the Gift.
Most other magical groups find it very hard to cooperate - or even trust each other on very basic levels. This is because of the social effects of the Gift (ArM5, Core, p. 75-77).
Bonisagus managed to create a fairly simple ward against that (it's a side effect of Parma Magica), which allows Hermetic magi to work together and share resources - they can actually operate as an Order.
This mean that the OoH will usually have far better resources for learning magic - re-read the bits on reading/writing books or teaching, and consider for a moment that most other traditions will tend to suffer from internal paranoia. And if you spend large parts of your time of building traps to prevent your peers from "stealing your secrets", why would you ever write a book about them?
That said, compared to most of the other known magic systems (eg. from Hedge Magic, Revised Edition or Rival Magic), Hermetic Magic is IME both very powerful and very flexible. It doesn't always do everything better than everyone else. But it does do a very wide variety of things very well. And on top of that, you can afford to specialize, because you have allies.That's a luxury that many (/most/all) hedgies cannot afford.
This does not mean that the Hermetic maga will automatically come out on top in every confrontation. But it does tip the odds in her favour.
Thank you everyone for the quick replies. It's heartening to know that the forums are still so active considering the game was published in 2004.
A couple more questions as I read the book and continue to theorycraft....
3: I don't have the bestiary or any of the books about magical creatures yet. Just in general, at what kinds of Might scores do various kinds of creatures benchmark? The core book has examples at 10, 20 and 50, are those typical? If an adventure for beginning magi had them confronting some faeries raiding a village for example, what Might would you make the faerie soldiers? Their leader?
4: How viable are generalist magi? Are most characters that you see heavily specialized, slightly specialized, or generalists?
5: Besides the core book, which other books would you recommend? Are there any you would consider essential that aren't immediately obvious? Any books from older editions that you would recommend?
Might 50 is supposed to be very powerful creatures. Might 100 is the de facto maximum.
In your example you could make the rank-and-file faeries have Might 5-10 and the leader Might 15-20.
Some specialization is strongly encouraged. A "pure" generalist will be bad at everything. (Only slightly exaggerated). No need to be hyper-specialized though unless you want to.
Beyond the core rules, I'd recommend the three Houses of Hermes books first of all.
After that, the book covering your chosen tribunal if there is one.
Beyond that it gets a bit tricky to prioritize the books. Probably Mysteries and the four Realm of Power books next.
4: It’s generally pretty easy to raise an art score to 5 or 6 in a single season so there is feeling of opportunity cost with a starting score at or below those levels. That said, I will often place a single xp (for a score of 1), if I have just a few left over, in a few forms that are not my character’s core competencies. Sometimes this allows me to select some spells that are just beyond reach without that one point but it always increases the character’s resistance, both Magic Resistance to spells of that form (slight improvement) and what are called Form Resistance often added to soak which is a significant improvement unless you have an otherwise large soak or defense against those threats (for instance Ignem protects against fire damage and Mentem helps you defend against lying and whatnot). Generally it seems best to start with at least one pair of arts that allows selecting a level 25-30 spell. In other words make your magi able to do “that cool thing” that sets them apart from the other magi. Because of the thing I mentioned above, low level but high quality books known as roots, you can generalize the character in game.
5: I think ErikT is mostly correct on his book suggestions but I would add Covenants and Arts & Academe, possibly before the various realm books. Covenants has some interesting optional stuff with covenants and personalized hermetic laboratories and discusses some stuff around books and fleshes out Craft Magic, using magic to build a house from previously procured wood and other materials. Arts & Academe really helps one get into a more medieval thinking space w/r/t the way stuff supposedly worked back then and how spells affect things because their understandings of things are how the world of Mythic Europe actually works, it’s a difficult aspect of the game putting oneself into that sort of headspace and not taking our HS or greater understanding of science and technology to design magical effects.
Generalists - can feel dull compared to your sodales with more focussed magic. However, the specialist non-specialist with good all-round arts and Life-Linked Spontaneous Magic allows you to get that one spell you really need for the situation you're in, at the cost of exhausting your magus.
Books - there are threads detailing reviews of books and recommended purchase order. This one and this one were useful.
Short answer - depends what you want to play in your game. If you like mystery houses (bjornaer, criamon, merinita, verditius) then HoH: Mystery Cults is a must. HoH: True Lineages contains four more lovable houses, plus the original research rules, hermetic justice rules, how the redcap network does its thing, and extra certamen rules. HoH: Societates contains four houses (including a lot of Ex Miscellanea with funky new abilities) and lots of stuff on magic combat, illusions, and using mundane agents.
Realms of Power - Magic is great as it has really good rules for creating magical characters, creatures, spirits, etc. Whether you want Faeries, Divine or Infernal depends on how much you want to focus on those elements in your game (but all three are great).
Covenants - first supplement I bought because the extra boons and hooks gave me so much inspiration for weird and wacky settings for your magi.
I think the best characters are slightly specialized, as the highly specialized tend to suffer badly outside their core competence. Generalists suffer from being unable to manage Penetration reliably and without specializing in spontaneous magic (Diedne Magic, Life Linked Spontaneous Magic) will still struggle to manage useful spontaneous magic.
That said, it's quite easy for a specialized magus to become more generalized, but it's a lot harder for a generalized magus to become specialized, because that's usually a matter of virtue choices (focus and affinities/puissant arts).
4: My troupe favours specialization. In part because you kinda want spells of level 20-25 (or even higher) as a starting character, which can be tricky on a generalist. And in part because there's an unspoken agreement to net step on each other's toes. By which I mean "You're the Corpus expert? Great! Then I don't have to cover that too! I'll probably pick up some Corpus at some point, but it can wait."
I do have a magus who appears to be a generalist (and who was actually imagined to be a generalist) - but who's actually very specialized in his own way. He's a Verditius mage-smith, who (IIRC) has more XPs in Magic Theory than in all of his Arts put together.
5: I'm just including this point to draw attention to @darkwing's excellent post above.
In a one shot generalists are great, however, long term, they fall behind. Due to how Summae are made, magi can in a season get a score of 6 in a magic skill starting at 0. A generalist removes their ability to get that big boost, as most of their scores are around 4 or 5. In the long run, this gives the generalist an XP disadvantage to the specialist, and XP measures power for wizards.
Ars Majica has amazingly powerful starting wizards compared to most systems , however, the cool stuff starts at 20+ which generally needs some degree of specialisation. A specialist can have "you're dead", "I own your mind", "invisibility", "fireball" etc, spells right from the start. A generalist is limited.
Most the best generalists are specialists anyway, typically in ReVi. I've noticed my specialists in other areas are commonly better generalists than most characters written to be generalists are, for essentially the same reason. Most people trying to build generalists just end up making a mage who is weak at everything rather than someone who is a good generalist; essentially, they make a specialist and skip the specialist part so they're barely any better in general while lacking a specialty.
Not only are good generalists very hard to build, but beginners will usually find dealing with other things for a specialist easier as well. So I highly recommend specialists to all beginners.
Meanwhile, the advice in the core book about not exceeding 55 experience in an Art is bad advice. First, it somewhat assumes you don't have any Virtues, because if you have any Virtues that grand experience it changes the relative distribution of what it means to be over specialized. Second, the game favors specialization, so recommending spreading things out goes against what the game actually favors. The core book already demonstrates repeatedly targeting starting scores of 12+3 in an Art, which can be done with more breadth with Skilled Parens + Puissant Art while breaking that 55-point advice than it can be with Affinity + Puissant Art while sticking to that 55-point advice, so the book subtly demonstrates that its own advice is not to be followed.
I did experiment with an idea of spending 28 XPs per Technique, costing 140 XPs total.
He didn't work out terribly well, but does illustrate the problem with the "classic generalist".
Because that's a lot of XPs for casting and lab totals around 10-15.
I'm not convinced that I agree with @callen that one should ignore the suggested 'limit' of 55 XPs per Art.
But I can certainly see where he's coming from.
That was one of my thoughts in designing my current Tremere magus with an Affinity to Terram. Throw a car/dumpster/landscaping boulder at the problem. (Yes, modern setting, thus cars and dumpsters to throw).
@DragginSPADE, I like to base my initial Arts scores on the "widely adept" model shown in the core book for 4th edition, then customize (XP off here, add them there...). That PDF is among the free downloads on Atlas's website, so you might consider grabbing it if only for the magus Arts templates in the Abilities section.
Unless there is something similar in 5th ed. core?
That reminded me of that post on how a MuVi specialist was the ultimate generalist.
Anyway a generalist can be flat and dull as any specialist out of their speciality unless you find a mix of virtues which actually helps them. For example there is an easy correlation between generalist magi and spontaneous experts, because of course it is more general to make your spells on the fly that having to anticipate them and invent a lot of spells from a lot of Te/Fo combinations. So stuff like this can be quite handy to boost your specialist: