Scribing Books

I've been trying to make sense of how the ArM economy for magic books works in the setting, and something isn't adding up for me. As I understand it, books on magic are supposed to be rare, with magi paying vis for new tractati and perhaps only Durenmar having anything close to the complete collection of books written on magic. But what causes this rarity?

A non-gifted scribe, paid in silver, can copy a tractatus on hermetic magic twice per year, provided they've been given some basic training in magic theory. So why don't covenants hire a bunch of scribes to lots of make copies of their books, then trade them to other covenants for great profit?

I've seen some plausible seeming explanations, but they don't seem to work:

Explanation 1: Scribes have to know magic theory or the text is corrupted. But it's easy to give a scribe a point in magic theory; any magus worth his salt can Train it in a single season if they extend their parma to cover the scribe. Alternatively, if larger numbers of scribes are needed a mundane person with a few points in Teaching can be hired, Trained in magic theory once, and can then Teach it to all the scribes at once. At most, once in a generation a magus has to give up a couple of seasons and the scribes don't make anything for a year.

Explanation 2: It's impossible to hire that many scribes per covenant - there aren't too many around, and those who do exist mostly don't want to work for a bunch of creepy mages. But even if you can't find any qualified scribes, there are bound to be people who are reasonably intelligent, don't quite fit in with normal society anyway, and would be happy to work in the covenant if it meant free scribal training and a job for life. Just go through the local villages finding people like that, and hire someone to teach them the required Latin 3 and Artes Liberales 1 once they get to the covenant. It costs a little more silver up front, but nothing a reasonably prosperous covenant couldn't handle.

Explanation 3: The cow and calf rule prohibits you from copying books. But there's no reason you can't make copies of books written by a magus at your own covenant. If a covenant has a magus capable of writing a high quality tractatus, then she can write many more high quality tractati - so it would be very profitable for the covenant (or the magus) to recruit a bunch of scribes as described above and sell her books to everyone for hundreds of vis in profit.

But it's obvious that this hasn't been happening, as books are very rare, including high quality books. Why not?

This is a question about the setting, not a complaint about the option being imbalanced in terms of game mechanics. Even if the Storyguide decides they're ok with the players trying this, there have still canonically been hundreds of years during which the Order of Hermes has not exploited this technique. there an in-story reason why it hasn't happened?


Several points:

  1. Most Magi aren't very good at writing quality Tractatus.
  2. Those who can, can maybe write a few Tractatii per Art (You can only write a number of tractatus total up to 1/5 your Score in an Art, rounded up (but you need at least 5 in an Art to write one.
  3. Magi prefer reading Summa to Tractatus.
  4. Even without the Cow and calf, scribing a book of poor quality means you're not likely to find many buyers for it.
  5. In such an economy as you propose, most covenants would prefer to trade Tractatus for Tractatus, instead of paying with Vis.
  6. We have a scribe in our covenant. He's spent some of his time copying books, but he's also sent time copying lab texts we each contributed, so that maybe we can trade those away, and generally speaking, a lab text might fetch more Vis than a Tractatus.
  7. Magi in general aren't very into sharing all their secrets. And getting others up on their Arts makes it harder for you to defeat or surprise them if they become rivals.

Excellent question.

I have similar observations as yourself, myself been struggling a bit to handle this in my own long running campaign (quite entreprenurial players, session 100 next week! The full 500+ page chronicle is here: Ars Magica: The Rhineland Chronicle of Collem Leonis).

The players have taken every chance to fill out their library, beg or trade for more. They've sorted out two scribes (one is lost) and I had to "artificially" limit their successes here.
I have had to go beyond the rules to limit (and even trap) books and trade. For me, Ars Magica RAW is a bit problematic here. In the end we did have conversations on what we want the game to be and players had to agree to scale back exploitation.

A couple of things or house rules I have been pondering:

  • Always require (both scribes and magi) to actually have magic theory enough to cover the magnitude involved (or half of it, depending..). Toying with this idea for another campaign to limit spell level you can even learn/use.
  • Perhaps allow them to copy with a MT that's not enough, but add a "corruption" type function to works. Perhaps you can copy the latin right, but figures, diagrams, and trickier special notation is just more difficult (could require Artes Liberales at certain level as well).
  • Simply limit to one scribe for the covenant.
  • Scale back desire to share and learn - especially by the Bonisagi (I have in my campaign)

I guess one could just rule out scribes and require magi - but I'd prefer to put a better limit on them.

What I have done in the campaign though is that generally everything in core rulebook and a couple of the supplements is readily available and tradable. That's kinda where modern House Bonisagus are at. Anything else, magi essentially guard as trade secrets. Also the elder Bonisagi "hold" their stuff for years/decades before fully shared (but they like to style it at Tribunals).
This in effect means that market for core book spells, all summae for arts (to level 15-ish) and many abilities up to level 5 are basically saturated market. i.e. can't really make money to sell, but does cost to buy or get copies of.
Nobody is really interested in lower level tractatus or most usual spells either.

My current problem though is I have some specialists among my players including a Creo Corpus "healer" who can basically get 100+ lab totals now (damn virtues). There's a hilarious account of him dominating the spell competition at the tribunal in I believe session #97 with a level 50 healing spell, including demonstrating charged item effects penetrating Durenmars aegis (level 60) just to show off. And now he's selling those for vis... (argh, but kinda fun). As well as leveraging trading and selling the spell book (in the end we agreed it was better to give it for prestige, as he wants to become a magister).

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That still means you can write plenty of Tractati - any magus who's advanced enough to take an apprentice will be able to write at least 15 Tractati. Which is easily enough to make this scheme worthwhile.

Do they? Young magi do, of course, but once you get above the level of your covenant's summa you don't really have a choice - it's a Tractatus, vis or exposure.

Not even if you offer it for a lower price? Any magus who has maxed out his covenant's summa in an art and read all the library's tractati will find it useful, as the only other way to increase his art is by spending vis (which risks botching) or by exposure (which is slower, unless the book is really bad quality). In any case, the book doesn't end up any lower quality just because you're using mundane scribes to make it, so at best this explains why poor quality tractati don't spread around.

Quite possibly. The covenant doing the copying would also probably prefer to get a Tractatus in return for their copy. A single copied Tractatus could then be swapped for dozens of books! Whether they're receiving vis or books, they still have an incentive to sell copies of the text to as many covenants as possible.

Surely the same principle about making lots of copies applies to lab texts too, if they're something magi will pay for? If they sell for more vis than tractati in the saga, then that's even more reason for a covenant to get lots of scribes so they can copy the lab texts as well as the tractati.

Perhaps, in general, magi are secretive about what they know. But if a magus writes a book, he obviously doesn't mind people knowing whatever secrets he's written in that book.

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Pretty much sums up my headache. In a longer campaign, many or even most players will very easily be good enough to easily break the RAW here.

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The central issue is this- in the middle ages literacy was down. Some books were copied in monasteries, and in the later middle ages writing new books was begun again, but it was something for the elite and anyone educated enough to make copies was likely doing other things with their education.
In the order, however, literacy is phenomenally high, In order to maintain the idea that Mythic Europe is historically the same as Medieval Europe literacy, and hence copying of books, must be similarly rare. Without that you get an early enlightenment, possibly an early protestant reformation, and so on.
So my suggestion would be to borrow from the history- the nearby village won't be able to spare that many potential scholars before the price of food starts to rise drastically, the covenant will be looked upon as somehow infernal that it has all those educated young commoners reaching above their station, etc. The primary limitation on scribes is not RAW, it's social. After all in theory the same principle could have been applied to medieval Europe in general- more people copying more books would have led to better education and better infrastructure. That was not, however, how the people at the time saw the situation

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Game balance is the logical answer.

One can try to put up societal blocks, and options such as cow and calf, however, I consider those excuses don't hold up well.

Beginning magi love the Level 6 Quality 21 "Magic for dummies" Summae. Anyone with an apprentice wants a selection of those books to fill the gaps, so they don't give their apprentice a deficiency. They are one season use though, for themselves and likely their apprentice, so can be loaned out to be copied, quite easily. A level 9 quality 15 summae can also fill that gap, but with 3 seasons of potential use. On the lifespan of a magi, 3 seasons is still short, so these would also be easily loaned out, copied, etc. 15 or 21 XP in just 1 season is amazing.

Those books can be written by reasonably experienced magi, not just optimised book writers. Due to the ease of creation and their usefulness, there should be a lot of them .
The level 20 Quality 12 books at the top end are clearly more treasured and require a more specialised character to make, however, the order is over 300 years old. There should be a fair few of them written and copied.

In regards to cow and calf slowing the spread of those high end books. Cow and calf ignores vanity. The best Summae will be by old magi. Do we really think many magi want the summary of their life's work, where they've expertly written their knowledge, to be hidden away?; or Do we think the magi want their book to be widely read, spreading their name once they are passed?

At high levels, XP is slow. Any magi who can read a quality 8 tractatii is doubling the practice XP. Two magi with Communication +2 could both agree to write a tractatii for each other. 1st season 2 XP for writing the tractatus, 2nd season 8 XP from studying the book. 2 more total XP and a tractatus each. Communication +2 isn't incredibly common, however, the order is over 300 years old. There would be a lot of Tractatus.

Societal constraints just aren't strong enough to slow down magi. Nearly any covenant can use magic to make a lot of money if they need it, so mundane costs aren't much of a limit. If the local village losing an educated person is a problem, travel to London, Paris, Byzantium, wherever, and ship the scribe back home. Give the mundane guy a longevity potion. If it means he lives long enough to copy an extra 60 seasons worth of books, the 7 vis cost is nothing.

I find it's just best to hand wave the lack of books or choose to have lots of books in your saga. It's hard to look at how the game mechanics work, and the history of the order, and come to a conclusion books are rare in the world.


It's true the economics don't add up, because making copies of a tractatus costs neither vis nor a magus's time.

So, if tractatus are expensive enough in vis that PCs are deterred from buying themselves a massive library of XP, they're expensive enough in vis that having an on-site mundane scribe to copy them for sale is quite lucrative. And if tractatus are cheap enough in vis that it isn't worth the effort for the PCs to set up the business (or author the occasional tractatus to keep it going), they're cheap enough that the PCs will buy themselves a massive library of XP.

The actual solution to the economics would be to require either vis or a magus's time to make a copy of a tractatus.

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The first point to note is that stories are not supposed to be probable. They should be plausible. Hence an argument about what is most likely is counter-productive. The goal has to be to select, among the various plausible assumptions, which ones make the best story.

In particular, while sufficient supply of productive and mundane scribes may be likely, there are many plausible explanations why you do not get as many as you want. Two scribes does not suffice. Once you have a big library, you need scribes to repair and copy decaying books as well. Once you have a large staff, it has to be managed, and the magi need good relations with the manager. If the magi do not sacrifice seasons to manage them, they might end up scribing Aristotle instead, or spend their time in the drunken philosophers' club. People are people, and not the machines that the rules mechanic make them out to be.

There are separate issues to consider separately.

  1. How many titles exist?
  2. What qualities are those titles?
  3. How many copies are available of each title?
  4. How easy is it to copy your own library?

I think #2 is the first one to sort out. If you ask a player, Q11 is mediocre, but the average magus (Com 0) makes Q6. I am sure there are many titles at Q6, but I am not sure they are in that great demand. It is plausible enough to say that only one magus per generation has been able to write Q11+. That quickly limits available titles worth getting, and those who have the titles may, as @Red-Shadow-Claws suggested, only want to trade them for books of similar value.

So @Fishy is right that the answer is game balance, but once you have found your balance, you can find plausible assumptions to support it.


Take a look at TME p.101ff The Superb Scrinium for the Hermetic means of real industrial book production by a single operator with high Finesse Ability. TME p.104ff shows possible responses to it in Mythic Europe.
Just running a simple scriptorium of well supervised captive scribes, each with Magic Theory 1, is sooo 1220!

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Indeed, and TME illustrates another point. Every game system (or abstract model in general) is going to break down if you play it long enough. Arguing about how and whether the model can be made playable in perpetuity is just futile. Let's happily play the saga until it breaks, and then try something different.

I don't rhink you need an explanation for why it hasn't happened before, but if your players want to do this, I say let them. It's easy to create stories out of this - including, presumably, a plummetting in the value of tractatus (like others, I doubt a vis-for-tractatus economy could survive this new business model!) and rivals trying to immitate and compete with you, bribing your scribes away from you, etc.

Perhaps this system makes it easier for an infernalist to spread their corruption, by sneaking in a corrupted text into the pile of mass-produced tractatus. Perhaps monasteries and centres of learning will want to hire you to copy books for them - do your magi refuse, perhaps causing resentment, or expand to a for-hire copying house? And wealth of all kinds comes with interesting story hooks.

Basically, if it creates stories it's not a "problem". And economic effects will tend to balance themselves (or at least it's sufficiently plausible, that your players won't complain if they do).

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Another story idea could be to limit the access to the book by themself. Just let the library burn (get rid fo some books), but some books are strangely not destroyed - written by one of the scribes. Soon they find out: the scribe is a demon/work for one/is corrupted. The books also? Did a mage read a diabollic influenced book? My apprentice? Is he affected, who is affected ... which book can ever be trusted again? How many corrupted books i sold, shall i rebuy them? Why a quaesitor bought so many of the books ...


I'm not a huge fan of destroying resources the players have put a lot of (in universe and irl) time into, because there should be some parity between them and abilities the players have raised in play (which can't be taken away so easily). But destroying some of the copies they were due to send out ia probably ok, as the players have cheesed the system a bit to get them anyway.

I agree that this being a new development can lead to interesting stories. But the trouble is this shouldn't be a new development, unless there's some reason why it was impossible until recently. Which implies that the entire Order of Hermes missed this rather obvious money-making possibility for hundreds of years. I find that strains credulity to breaking point in an otherwise pretty well-realised setting.

If you find it breaks credulity, I'd get rid of tractatus altogether. Personally I don't find it shocking. Magi have many things they might rather do with their time and resources than set up shop selling low quality books. If your players think differently, they may well be the first ones! But ysmv

Maybe nobody want to invest private time for others? i also always wonder, why humanity is destroying earth, its so obvious we doing it ...

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I'd disagree on that point. A lack of books, means practice to get better at 4 XP a season, or study with Vis. Using Vis has it's own problems that most people like to avoid. Quality 6 is not bad, if there isn't a better option.

Anything achieving 8XP over 2 seasons is an improvement. Even the Com +0 magi, making a quality 6 tractatus is ahead. 2 XP when writing the tractatus. 6 XP when the Magi reads the Tractatus that was traded. The magi is now ahead, as same XP, and a Tractatus they can swap.
It's not unreasonable to think at least 25% of the order can do a Quality 7 or better, and there is a rare person who is making the incredibly good Q11 or better.

At the moment a large volume of books doesn't exist, Magi start making it. Even if we say the schism war resulted in wide scale book destruction, there's been enough time for the Order's book collection to have grown.

Also note that practice isn't even possible for arts.

Why should it have been impossible? It should suffice that it was not necessary. At any point in history, there are many plausible continuation, but the story only follows one of them.

And it is a general feature that RPG is about exceptional characters. It takes minmaxed PCs to make a lot of Q14 books. It may take minmaxing players to make the effort to make libraries at a grand scale.

Existing libraries are likely to be either very old and rich, either with little incentive to grow or rich enough to exploit its monopoly like Durenmar, or very small, yet to grow. The majority of mid-level libraries are likely to have been at covenants that have folded before Autumn. Just this will limit the market's ability to grow.

We should also keep in mind that the Order has only been what it now is for 200 years, not 500. It was more secretive and less cooperative before the Schism, which also destroyed a lot of promising libraries. This also limits the number of available titles.