Running Ars Magica in a Non-Traditional Setting

I have been wanting to run a game set in the early 16th century focusing on exploration in southeast Asia for a while. I had originally intended to run it in 5th edition D&D since it would be easy to recruit players, but I came across my 4th edition Ars Magica book and realized this would put a really interesting spin on the game. After reading the forum for a bit I decided I am going to upgrade to 5th edition and get several sourcebooks, though I don't really want to buy everything until I have actually recruited a group.

In my original conception the game was going to have something of a pulpy feel, lost temples in the jungle, mysterious islands with strange creatures, lost civilizations, vast underground realms, etc. Probably with a dash of Lovecraft as well. I will retain some of this, but with Ars Magica the focus will shift from the looting of strange civilizations to wanting to learn from them. I want to create a world where the players have a reason to explore in order to increase their own magical knowledge, as well as find magical loot.

The game will start just after Cabral's return from India. Probably 1502 or 1503. An magical artifact will have been acquired while in India sourced from points further east. The players are dispatched with a ship and told to set up a covenant to explore the origins of this item and to learn about the magic of the region. They will have some options of where to set up base, but probably they will end up in Melaka or somewhere in Java. I want to give them plenty of time to interact with the local before Albuquerque shows up.

A few questions for the forum. First of all, one of my goals is to make the magic in these areas seem different from Hermetic magic. Some of this is relatively easy, mystic martial arts could seem different just by allowing them to use physical attacks as part of their casting and balancing it with careful spell selection; though it would be much more difficult to produce something that could be balanced for a player as opposed to NPCs. But I wanted more variety then this. What sourcebooks should I focus on getting first that provide rules for different magical traditions? Looking at the game's web page it looks like Ancient Magic, Hedge Magic, and Antagonists all offer different spins on other magical traditions. Which of these would be most useful for providing some variety? Also, which book covers magical traditions in Islam?

Another aspect is I want to provide the players with opportunities to change how magic works based on what they find when exploring. I know from reading forum posts that expanding Hermetic theory is something specifically possible in game, I am not sure which book covers this, however. Is it in Hermetic projects?

Aside from which sourcebooks, does anyone have general tips on running a game in a non-traditional setting and what kind of changes they made to the setting to make it work? One specific area that I think I will need to make changes is that I don't think the standard four realms cosmology is sufficient to capture the variety of beliefs in the setting I am using. Has anyone tried adding an additional realm to capture alternate cosmologies. I know from reading forum posts that a lot of pagan gods are considered fey but this doesn't seem like the route I would want to go with Chinese beliefs, to name one specific instance.

Has anyone run a game set in China, India, or Japan? If so I would like any tips on what they changed to make the game fit better in these cultures. I am pretty good on general history of various southeast Asia countries and China, OK on Japan, and rather weak on Indian history. Though my focus has been on trade rather than the mythology of these areas so I could use ideas specific to magical beliefs.

Also, how easily have people found it to recruit players locally? I haven't tried running a game since moving here and while I haven't had trouble recruiting players before after moving Ars Magica is a relatively obscure game so I am less certain that I can get players for it.

I don't plan to run the game for a while, aside from the pandemic we have a little one who demands too much of my time for me to be able to commit to a game, but given the amount of custom material I am going to have to create I am getting started well in advance of actually recruiting players.


Beyond Sand and Sea covers the middle east which they will need to cross to get to southeast asia. I would also recomend Hedge magic and The Mysteries if you are going to consider creating a new magic system from that far away, then probably rivals and perhaps ancient magic. Lords of men includes some slightly more advanced combat options, but these are very focused on European combat techniques and are not the main focus of the book, so it isn't a must have. After that the realms of power, especially faerie and infernal can provide assistance for constructing challenges in the way of hidden (in a regio) cities and the like.

Welcome to the ars magicka forum!

Working from existing material, you could go in a few directions:

  • Sahirs of the Order of Suleiman could have ridden along with the islamic expansion and be found in muslim areas;
  • You could take Fertility Magic as a basis for some tradition in pagan lands, perhaps where Hinduism is dominant, in a cult devoted to one of the many fertility deities of south and southeast asia;
  • You could consider adapting HMRE elementalists along the lines of the chinese conception of the Elementals;
  • Something based on martial arts would be a very different take, but you would probably be needing to build that from scratch;

As to playing with auras, I know some on thus board have done that. Hopefully they see this thread. One if my GMs has hinted through an NPC in a home game that "Dominion auras" of the Celestial Emperor in China don't work like western Dominion auras, and in fact don't hinder magic.

I could easily see Buddhist and Taoist monks, Taoist alchemists, and some martial traditions employing mysteries very similar to the Criamon paths.

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I have experience running the game in a non-traditional setting and one where I was thinking of expanding the game into indonesia and japan.

However I also have a little one who is rather demanding right now and I also way too sleep deprived to write you a proper long response. I will do my best to come back to you at a later time when I am more capable and the little one allows it.

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(memo to self: check thread in 15 to 20 years time)



Mark Shirley has written an excellent article in sub rosa #16 about adapting ArM5 and Mythic Europe to play AD 1470: After the Plague.



You may be interested in some of the Hermes Portal articles. 10 and 11 have details about Mythic China- they're for 4e Ars Magica but some of the concepts may be useful for you. It also includes a discussion of non-standard realms.

Of the three of Hedge Magic, Rival Traditions or Ancient Magic- I would recommend Hedge Magic. Folk Witches are very "European witch trope", but they can be adapted into other forms pretty easily by changing out their supernatural abilities. Learned Magicians have a few different adaptations and will work for many kinds of magic traditions that involve reading and creating charms and amulets. Elementalists can work if you adapt them to elemental paradigms that work better with the location you have, rather than the classic four.

The book as a whole has six different traditions (counting Nightwalkers) who can be used as points to start for adapting non-hermetic magic.

Ancient Magic has some more interesting things, but those are not complete magical traditions- Rival traditions has three whole traditions, but you may prefer more examples to use.

I think if you want a more Pulp Magic/Lovecraft feel, where books are very important and people cast rituals using libraries that have kind of subtle effects- I would go with a version of Learned Magicians, myself.

The rules for changing hermetic magic are in True Lineages (Original Research), Hedge Magic (Integration of Hedge Traditions) and Ancient Magic (Integration of lost traditions). I think they're mentioned in Rival traditions as well.

As a final note: Because 5e Ars Magica assumes that characters have a central base of operations that they continually return to and improve- this is an important thing to keep in mind if you're running a game with a lot of travel or exploration. They may need a mobile base to act out of.


That's not accidental. There's a lot of Greco-Buddhism in there.


Thanks, I am going to start them with a ship and a guide that can take them to a port where they can set up base, but Islam is the dominant religion in the area at the time so understanding Islamic magic will be essential. I would like to get all of the books that expand the magic system, but I plan on adding books slowly. I see a few recommendations for Hedge Magic so I will start there and add the others.

Does Lords of Men include naval combat? Expanded mass combat rules would be useful, but I don't know I can justify an entire book that I would only use one section of. The Realms of power all sound useful, it is just a question which ones to start with. I have the fourth edition faeries book, is the fifth edition much different?

I definitely need Sahirs and the Order of Suleiman. Is that in Sand and Sea? A major conflict in the region at the time I am starting the game is Islam is just shifting to the preeminent religion displacing Buddhism, Hinduism, and some animist beliefs. This spiritual and magical conflict will be a major existing conflict for the PCs to step into as outsiders.

Fifth edition Faerie is considerably different, and one of my favorite books. You could safely put it off until after Hedge Magic and The Cradle & The Crescent (Sahirs are here), I think.

There is no naval combat in 5e as far as I know; 4e's Mythic Seas is the most recent take on that particular element.

I would love to hear the details of what others have already done with this area. I am planning on having them based out of either modern Malaysia or Indonesia, specifically Melaka or Aceh (or maybe a port in Java) depending on whether they want to get involved in the colonial conflicts with the Portuguese or have this purely be in the background.

The Cradle and the Crescent would important not only for religious purposes but also because the regions outlined there are part of the global networks that define maritime S. E. Asia. I'm surprised the Ottomans haven't come up yet (a rare early modern topic gives me the chance to talk about my specifc field of study!) - it was their shipments of arms and technical experts that acted as a driver of Acehnese expansion and Johoran bureaucratization while duking it out with the Portuguese over the sea lanes (see The Ottoman Age of Exploration), their ever-growing cultural influence that set the tone for much of the new literature and art produced (see The Turkic-Turkish Theme in Malay Literature), their imperial universities in the Hejaz that trained many of the scholars who would build the foundations of an independent tradition of Islamic scholarship like Hamzah Fansuri, Shams al-Din al-Sumatrani, Nur al-Din al-Raniri, and Abd al-Raʿuf al-Singkili (see A History of Islam in Indonesia), etc.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how useful the book would be in a lot of cases. My Ilkhanid game takes place a mere 40 years after the conventional start date within areas covered by that book specifically and I've still found that my annotations and notes on TC&TC are functionally becoming a separate supplement. A 1320s book would be very radically different and I honestly can't even imagine what one covering the 1500s Ottomans would be like, the amount of work....


I've run Ars in Julian May's Galactic Millieu, and in WW2. It works pretty well, although Mage has probably worked the kinks of it out better than I did.

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Regarding China, we did start something there and it landed in one of the fanzines. Basically the Realm Table was twisted into Civilised and Wild, with the Divine Court being Civilised. The Buddhists had their own thing.

Basically it was based heavily on Taoist Meditations by Isabelle Robinet. When I'm not pecking at my phone I'll find the links, but I think it was Hermes Portal 10-11.

I've had this notion of running an ArM game set around 1800 in the Americas rattling around my head for a few years now. I've been stopped by the immense amount of research I'd have to undertake to do the various native American societies, not to mention their magical practices, any kind of justice.


Regarding martial arts, that's just performance. It's no different to my magus needing to play a flute. Just design the spell as normal and have the mantic component be a martial arts move.

@ Zaleramancer: Thanks for the Hermes Portal mention, those look really useful. Hedge Magic sounds like the book to start with for developing those traditions, though I will probably need several more. For the islands area I am thinking of a more inward directed magic that focuses more on permanent self improvement, this goes along with ideas about certain individuals, and especially rulers, developing personal spiritual power. There will also be animist traditions based on contacting spirits.

But in areas like China there would be more academically oriented magics based around Daoist or Buddhist ideas. And I'm really not sure what to do with Hindu traditions, that's the area where my knowledge is by far the weakest.

Regarding the base, I am hoping to start them out with a ship and get them quickly established with a temporary base that will later be a revenue producing area for their permanent base. My rough idea is that they make an arrangement with a local ruler, establish a warehouse that the ship they have can use to engage in trade while they are not using it, then set up a more permanent base in a magic regio fairly early in the campaign. Though maybe a mobile base would be better. My loose structure for the campaign is that they will have a permanent base on land and then go on a series of temporary expeditions to various places in the region. I think troupe style play will make this work with a main focus on the expedition but with action also happening at their main base involving characters that remained at home. This lets me have both the exploration component and develop a long term cast of characters in the community that the characters gradually become a permanent part of.

@The Young Ottoman: I always liked Ottoman history, though I think it's been over 10 years since I bought a new book on them. The Ottoman Age of Exploration looks good, are you talking about Kersten's History of Islam in Indonesia: Unity in Diversity? I might have to get that from a library, seems relevant. I read a lot of history so I am not looking for any sourcebooks for the history and culture of the areas, what I am looking for is the specifics of how magic works in these areas and how it differs from mythic Europe. The big exception is India, where I have problems finding anything that isn't either far too general or far too specialized. Though my interest has always been on economic development rather than topics of particular use to an Ars Magica supplement, though Reid's Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce or the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia have chapters on the religion in the area.

@Timothy Ferguson: I will take a look at the Hermes Portal issues. I will have to look to see if I can get Taoist Meditations at the libarary. I have read a lot of history for the region but I don't have any specialist books on religion or magic, before deciding to run the game my focus was mostly on trade and economic development. The books on my shelf can provide local character for the more mundane aspects of society but aren't very useful for developing the mystic parts. I agree with you on martial arts, that part seems pretty easy to do with careful spell selection and a good description. I would probably want them to be able to make a physical attack as well, but it's the spell doing most of the real work so that detail should be minor.

@Samsaptaka: I had considered running a campaign in the Americas with this period, but my knowledge of the area is far less and the material doesn't seem as detailed. Too much of what is available is later reconstructions. There is also a big issue in that navigating the colonial aspects and genocide would be much harder to do respectfully, especially since I will be recruiting new players and don't know how they will react. I decided it was better to stay away from the America's at least until I get to know the new players. I am planning to have some background about history beginning to diverge because of magic being present. It seems very likely that having a magical solution to disease would at least be sufficient to keep key leaders alive in the Aztecs and Incas. And having those leaders survive would make the resistance far more effective, even if the number of people able to use magic is small enough that it doesn't cause a significant difference in the total number of deaths from disease.


In the 4th edition Hedge Magic book is a tradition called the Ascetics. While it is from a different edition and would require some work, it would serve as a useful base for several of the traditions you are interested in creating.

In a game I played in a long time ago, it was used as the basis for a wandering Buddhist Monk we encountered while on an adventure along the silk road.

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