On Mysteries

I read this on Timothy Ferguson's site, and find myself very much in agreement.

Although some'll probably disagree with this, I think it'll be an interesting and worthy read nonetheless:

I agree. I think it's wellphrased there.

But i'm a prodestant Criamon. :laughing: :wink:

On the other hand, before the canon was defined, there were several interpretations and variations of Christianity, not to mention the protestants and heretic groups such as the cathars, which saw things in different lights.

I do agree it shouldn't usually be personal, but I also think it should be possible for special individuals to devise new paths and interpretations; that is, it shouldn't be taken lightly and it shouldn't be simply a rules matter, but a story one.

I think that's the key.

I'm not real big on the recreating-history part, but I'm very into the Mythic feel and great stories. If you treat the initiation mechanics as a pick-and-choose buffet, they become a boring powergaming shtick. But if you use them around a theme and in a story-approriate manner, they can be great. I'm not sorry to have them around.

I agree with Timothy's assessment; it hits as some of the same issues I have with the 5th edition Mysteries book. There's no real mystery in the Mysteries as presented in that book. Mystery Lore skills are just a tool to special powers from one Magus to another, without any particular meaning. Here's three guidelines that I try to follow in picturing mystery cults in the game.

Mystery cults should have one or more secrets encoded in their Lore. These secrets can be vague (look at the symbolism for historical alchemy for example) and don't need to be objective true in a strictly literal sense, but in general they shouldn't be falsified in the game. The Empedocles mystery of the Criamon is a good example of this and the published work should never have said OOC that it was false. The Elusinian Mysteries discussed in the new tribunal book are another good example.

The secret should ideally be of interest in itself and to non-magi. Secrets aren't just tools for magicians to learn cool powers from. Again, see the Elusinian Mysteries as a good example. A whole cult of Magi, other than the Mystery Houses themselves, is much less interesting and inclines towards just being centered around the cool powers.

The Mystery Lore should only be applicable to virtues related to the secret in some way. An ancient organization of alchemists from Alexandria is not going to be able to teach faerie secrets. The Children of Hermes cult from TMRE is an example of what not to do. Initiation scripts should reflect the secret and the general ethos of the cult and need to be agreed upon by the players and storyguide. You certainly shouldn't be able to pick and choose ordeals.


I agree with this also but want to point out that mystery religions aren't necessarily complete and exclusive moral systems in the way Medieval Christianity is. In late antiquity it was not uncommon to belong to more than one mystery religion, sometimes in a fashion that does seem a little like modern New Age. The Elusinian Mysteries were meaningful to initiates but did not define their entire universe.

I generally agree with Timothy's sentiments, but like most aspects of Ars Magica, I think the RAW provides a wide degree of flexibility within which different groups will allow different things.

For example, how initiation scripts are created. Someone, somewhere, has to initially create them, right? It makes sense to me that the character doesn't simply say, "hey, I can assemble whatever script pieces I want to gain this new power". But it's not unreasonable that the players can do that, as long as the group agrees to such a thing. Can players be abusive in how they design initiations for a Cult? Certainly. Is this different from other aspects of the AM rule system? Not at all.

Similarly, the RAW seems to imply that each Mystery Cult has an equivalent grand unified theory... with sufficiently high Cult Lore in any given Cult, one can self-initiate any virtue they want. In any Saga I run, this just wouldn't work that way; for any given Cultish worldview, some effects just aren't possible. (The Children of Hermes being an interestingly-vaguely-defined MC that seems to be the exception that proves the rule, with their attempts to actually grandly unify everything Mysterious into one big happy Cult.)

I'd like some more Mystery Cult rules... ideas on how to differentiate expanding one's cult into new areas (the way that the Mystery Houses tend to have tracks of Inner Mysteries within the confines of the Greater Mystery), from Schisms, where the belief system of originally-related cults begins to separate. But, overall, I don't think the "have rules that give a saga room to decide on specifics" approach taken to be particularly out-of-character for the way the line handles rules.

Put me in the "yes, but..." crowd.

I feel that any magus should be allowed to persue whatever path to power he or she would like to take, but the troupe and storyguide gets to say how appropriate an initiation is. I think the key thing is the LORE of the Mystery.

Since I am not one of the authors, I cannot comment on the fundemental metagame reasoning that they had for including the Lore in the initiation total, but, for me, it revolves around what is the mystical theories that surround the path to insight and power. In similar way that Magic Theory helps with Original Research in Hermetic Magic, the Lore of the Mystery helps with experimentation in initiation. I know it isn't one-to-one, but conceptually similar to my way of thinking.

So, if a magus decides he wants Second Sight (and then Affinity Second Sight, and then Puissant Second Sight) but does not want to follow any known Mystery path, then I still feel that they sould be allowed to persue it by investigating and constructing a coherent mystical worldview (as evidenced by a, say, "Mystic Vision" Lore score) and building a reasonable initiation around that through experimentation (first he tries getting a Magic spirit to teach it to him and/or then tries blinding himself in one eye. etc.).

The big question in my mind is how would a magus know how to do this? Or, put another way, what is the in-game motivation for the thinking on this path? Does it come from Magic Lore -- is the magus aware through his ML score that there are traditions that only gained power after powerful multi-month rituals and quests that could grant these greater and possibly non-Hermitc powers?

Really, to me, what it comes down to is "Does this approach make sense?" If the initiation is not thematically similar to the themes/beliefs of the Mystic Fraternity of Samos, then they should not be allowed to use MFoS Lore in the initiation and probably should not be alloweed to follow one of thier scripts at all thus forcing experiementation. If it is close but kind of wishy-washy, then let them use it, but dip into the +/-5 script "appropriteness" pool and skew the difficulty based on that.

Whatever the case, though, I would argue that you should not get in the way of a player having a good time. If they want a character that has Gentle Gift, Philosophic Alchemy, Secondary Insight, Nature Lore, and Puissant Second Sight, then HELP them find a way to make that happen. The mechanics are there and I am betting that the talented storyguides out there kind find an in-context way to make it make sense.

Just my two cents.


I tend to agree with this. There are a few other reasons for the approach taken, as well.

First, someone has to make the Mysteries up, in the real world. If we don't provide mechanics and guidelines for doing it, then we're saying "only official authors can do it", but that's counter to the whole philosophy of Ars Magica; we provide mechanics for making your own world.

The Mysteries also have to be made up in the game world, because they are objectively wrong. The Criamon might believe that their Mysteries reflect the objective structure of the world, but they are wrong. Someone, at some point, made the Mysteries up. Now, in game, this is more like designing a machine than writing a novel, in that some things you try simply won't work, but they are created as much as discovered. Given that, the general philosophy of the game is that player characters should be able to make it up, because player characters should be able to be among the most important figures in Mythic Europe. They don't play second fiddle to our cool NPCs.

This, incidentally, is why there are no rules for creating new Divine religions. In game, those come from God, who is, in the end, more of a background element than an NPC.

The Mysteries don't focus on personal transformation because Ars Magica is not designed to support those kinds of stories. It supports stories of magical discovery and development, as well as stories of doing cool stuff with magic, and so that's what our version of Mysteries plays to.

Of course, the mechanics will also support you doing things differently in your saga.

Respectfully I think you are reading the current solution back into the problem here. "Someone made them up" is only necessary if you think that Mysteries are human inventions. If you see them are real, underlying aspects of the universe, discovered by humans, then they are byproducts of Creation.

Is Hermetic Magic "wrong" even though someone made it up? It is a system that works, demonstrably, and has a moral code attaxched to it. I admit I would like to see some sort of supernaturalness to the Oath so that its a real investiture, but I do see that there are two levels of Mysteries, and that for the OoH, a real world sort of system where because the mysteries themseves are not self-occulding, the elect have to do their own enforcing is used (like the Masons in modern occult folklore). I do think we could, in Sub Rosa or somewhere, have a real shot at the Order as a proper Mystery Cult, where if you broke the laws of the cult, your power did not work so well, or worked better but only in peverted circumstances. Chinese mysticism is full of this sort of thing (as is Christian mysticism, of course, although the Christian God is rather more forgiving than his Eastern counterparts and so is a bad model for what I'm taling about.)

As an alternative, mysteries could:

  • come from the nature of creation itself
  • come from the naturte of creation itself and be pointed out by demons, for a price.
  • come from deals with powerful magical spirits
  • come from deals powerful faeries (or whatever is backstage in Faerie)

Human instigators are only necessary because the current book says human instigators are necessary. I'm not against human instigators - if we just embraced "nature of creation" we could easily say "For you to create a Mystery where you can Speak Faerie, by writing a few books, hitting yourself with a leek on the top of a sacred mountain, and having a tremendous amount of sex there needs to be some facet of the universe, proabably Faerie in this case, beyond your own ego that this corresponds in a mystical way to." I'm not sure "I, a player, want this." is a counter-argument, because then you just put it back on them "What do you see about what you are doing as being sacred enough that it's not just a random series of actions? What is sacred about this? What part of the cosmology of Mythic Europe recognises its sacredness?" and because we don't accept it when a player says "I a player want a mystery where I don't need a huge Cult Lore skill."

As it is, because we have this humanocentric view of Mysteries, we need to stop players getting them easily, and so we put mechanical obstacles in the way. You need a huge Cult Lore to get to the top of every Mystery Cult, -except- the mpst popular one, Christianity, where the Pope is chosen by the Holy Spirt moving through the Cardinals, and so you can be pope and a Satanist at the same time. (Why the Holy Spirit choses evil popes every so often is a matter of some debate, but it clearly does.) Keeping companions out of Mysteries by making them, effectively, an academic discipline seems an accidental side effect of the limiting mechanism, and the limiting mechanism seems a deliberate part of the "pick what you like" approach.

I do agree with that point.

That doesn't follow: there are two versions of Faust and in one of them he gets everything he wants and goes to Heaven anyway, because he tricks the demons. If you accept players wanting things as an unopposed good in terms of game design, you can't really cordon off taking the advantages of Evil and not paying the price of Evil, because people do that in medieval folklore quite a bit.

Ars Magica is not designed to support those sorts of stories, I think, because its Mysteries are not designed to support those sorts of stories. I do agree there's a problem with an ensemble cast in a story if each of them wants to look at their Mystery to the exclusion of the rest of the group, but in this, Hermetic Magic is no different, really. In some ways it is worse because it does not have required story elements.

I do agree with that.

That's also true.

That was the point of the first sentence; the Mysteries are wrong about ethics and metaphysics, so those parts, at least, cannot be byproducts of Creation, at least not easily.

No, because it doesn't have a moral code attached to it. You can practise Hermetic magic without following the Oath; just ask any Tytalus magus. Mysteries can certainly be right in the same way as Hermetic magic; that's the point of the machine analogy.

With ethics, the answer to the first two is probably best as "no, they couldn't", because the God of Mythic Europe is quite mysterious enough without him building non-Infernal systems of ethics that will get you damned into the nature of the world. As for the second two, player characters can be powerful magical spirits or faeries, so if you say "OK, but not that powerful", you are saying that PCs are not as cool as the NPCs, which is something we want to avoid.

Well, "we, the troupe, want this" trumps anything we say about the nature of Mysteries, because if the troupe want it, then hitting yourself with a leek and having a tremendous amount of sex in between writing books will prove to correspond to some facet of the sacredness of the universe. Even Mysteries needing a huge Cult Lore is ultimately up to the troupe.

It's easy to provide the game reason for the Cult Lore: it makes not joining a Mystery into a sensible character choice. Since all the players are playing the game, they are likely to accept that as a good kind of reason, even if they draw the line in a different place and drop the Ease Factors by 3. It's a little harder to provide restrictions on what can be sacred in a game that most troupes will accept. Especially when the background is that Magic is, in an important sense, not the sacred. That's the Divine.

That wasn't me. At least not here.

Even though I didn't say what you're quoting... Players wanting things should be an unopposed good in terms of game design, because the whole point of games is to have fun. We have limits and challenges for characters because the players want them. Now, one player wanting things is opposed by what the other players want, but in the end, that's all it's opposed by. "We all want to play gods with the power to reshape creation at a whim, and we want to start off that way." Fine. Play Nobilis. You could probably make Ars Magica do that, but you're better off playing a game that's set up to handle it. "We all want to play transhumans who hop from one artificial body to the next and cannot permanently die." Fine. Play Eclipse Phase. This one would be really tough to do in Ars Magica.

I don't agree. The lack of support comes from the complete lack of meaningful mechanics for personal transformation. Even if personal transformation were made an essential part of the Mysteries, it can't go beyond "your character is personally transformed; roleplay it" because there are no mechanics for it to hook on to. Ars Magica is about as good at handling this as it is at handling body-hopping transhumans.

Hubris for Verditii.

The exception that proves the rule, in both senses. A lot of the Hubris section is basically saying that you have to roleplay being proud, and then producing some simplistic mechanics for specific situations. It's not that the author could have done better; it's that Ars Magica doesn't provide the structure needed to write mechanics for that.

As it hapens I do have rules for those... 8)

I can see this is discussion would begin to go in circles at this point so I'll stop and just say that if I can get my ideas into a more concrete form I'll send it into Sub Rosa as an article idea. I can see that I haven't thought it through sufficently to express it in a convincing form in a point by point discussion.

I'm just going to chime in to say two things:

  1. This is very interesting thread. Kudos.

  2. I agree in principle that taking on a mystery cult should include adopting some kind of ethical code - as well a a possible personality change. I imagined that this was taken up in "Code of Honour" or similar Flaw; similarly, the extent that this happens really comes down to the troupe and individual players. While real world magical practice has ethics embedded in every element of its practice, in a role playing game, it's not necessarily fun to find that just because you've learned Astrology you now have an ethical code similar to someone with True Faith. It's part of the social contract, and Ars needs to be flexible to accommodate different styles of play.


PS. I would love to see a Hermetic Mystery that is all about mystical elevation of the soul with no over supernatural powers involved, but rather a refinement of the soul...

That's the way I always pictured it and I never felt that Ars was lacking in support for this. The most important feature is just plain roleplaying, which the game has always emphasized. Beyond that, the mechanics for Mysteries specifically involve virtues, flaws, and personality traits. I think the system works fine if used in the appropriate spirit. I don't think things need to be more complicated than that.

Me too, or has supernatural powers involved as an incidental part. It could either be handled without rules as a belief system or the rules for initiation could be used to gain virtues and flaws. Mysteries shouldn't just be for Magi.

Mysteries can be used to grant hedge magic powers to non-gifted. So even your grogs can get these:)