Sub Rosa #22 Review:
Generally worth noting and I'm putting it right at the top before I go article by article: There’s a lot of gorgeous stylized artwork in this thing, folks. Many of the articles are also fairly short, and my personal expounding on them may vary.
From Atlas Games: Here we get a bit of perspective on gameplay experiences from Justin Alexander, who (I assume) is the new line developer responsible for Ars Magicka at Atlas Games. This section discusses the various different kinds of gameplay experiences and relative breadth of story-types that Ars can offer. A few bits I found interesting were the obviously (almost necessary) inclusion of the D&D comparison re: level of combat emphasis, and mentions on troupe-style play. I for one, would be interested to here about what other sorts of RPGs Atlas was looking at for inspiration or comparison. I’m deviating a bit here into personal commentary, but part of the difficulty, with Ars, is that at its core it allows for such a wide exploration of themes on a conceptual level; a game focused on a Spring Swashbuckling covenant with lots of action-packed heroics (or villainy) may on a surface level bear little resemble to an Autumn covenant deeply involved in the intricate game of hermetic politics, beyond the use of some common mechanics. That said, it’s good to know that Atlas is still involved and forward-thinking about keeping the sheer breadth of gameplay options heavily in mind.
Storyguide’s Handbook, Combat Options: A brief confession before proceeding - I personally find combat in Ars to be among the least enjoyable parts from a mechanical and thematic perspective, when magi are more directly involved, at least. While this is possibly at least partially attributable to (more than one) instance of unfortunately exploding dice in the wrong-direction involving characters I was particular attached to, it is also, at least in part, that I tend to find the ‘story structure’ of violent encounters to be underwhelming. That said, I really like this piece, as it is generally designed to try and make combat a bit more cinematic, and ‘help link narrative to dice’ - a key aspect of any RPG. While this section includes some optional combat mechanics and modifiers, which I generally encourage the GM use in the player’s favor, the most important part here in my opinion is less about the pure mechanical iteration and more about making the mechanics of combat themselves more compelling from a story perspective - vividly illustrating a combat scene has always, in any RPG, enhanced the play experience for me.
Diana the Treasure Hunter: A short, and useful companion piece. However, in my personal opinion, one a bit lacking in personal identity compared to some of the earlier entries in Sub Rosa’s ‘companions’ series. Aside from ‘a desire to go treasure hunting’, I don’t get a clear sense of “who Diana is”. This would have been better, in my opinion, if they offered a few ‘tribunal variants’ with slightly different flavors to compensate for the lack of a ‘core personality’.
Treasures from Odin’s Realm: Some cool less marvel-universe-famous Scandanavian mythological items and their traits, as well as some vis sources. I really like this piece generally as an introduction to bits of folklore and items most of us haven’t heard of. The only part missing here for me would be some of these items effects more explicitly mechanically spelled out; just to make understanding the various effects they have from a magnitude-perspective a bit more concrete in some cases. All in all though, there are some fun and interesting toys here from an idea-perspective, just Storyguides be prepared from a mechanical perspective to have to add a little bit more in to get them statted for your Saga.
Novel Rewards: Aimed at SGs, this is a simple discussion about “how to give your players stuff other than vis or XP” and is done in a productive manner. It’s a short article that brings up several not-explicitly-covered-in-the-rules-but-entirely-reasonable suggestions that help allow for the construction of interesting narratives rather than simply handing out fatter stacks of already-existing rewards, which I think will be highly useful for SGs of multiple levels for idea-generation.
The Seven Swords of Wayland : While I personally generally don’t think swords when I’m thinking wizards, this is a great article giving full game statistics (and themes) for 7 different, but related magical items, all in the form of swords. Notably Wayland (per hermetic mythos) has an inherent relationship with Verditius, which can be of special interest for characters of that house.
Weapons as Extraordinary Treasure: This is similar in general context to The Seven Swords of Wayland above, but it discusses various weapons as [Realm] Things - Faeries that take the forms of Weapons, Demonic spirits bound to weapons, etc. This is a bit more general and less ‘storyline generating’; but could be of particular interest to more ‘combat heavy’ troupes.
Taking the Initiative: A discussion of alternative initiative / action economy systems in Ars. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t feel like I had the personal expertise or experience with the combat system to really come to any sort of judgement on the suggestions or alternatives presented here, but players heavily interested in combat-heavy adventuring should give it a look and see if this might be a system (perhaps in conjunction with Combat Options earlier) they prefer.
The Elk of Lough Neagh: A faerie for use in stories. I’m going to admit, without spoiling too much, that I got excited for the idea of the use of it (as its set in the Hibernian Tribunal) as a potential Cathach for a Spring covenant, but parts of the core concept of the item don’t make that work, and could still be used to generate interesting stories in a Spring game for a covenant seeking a proper Cathach if handled properly!
Treasures from the East: A discussion of potential Silk-Road related activities, treasures, income sources, etc. There’s an interesting sidebar on Marco Polo and where he fits in historically with Mythic Europe. The story seed sidebars and other references here are of particular use to story guides or more experienced players looking to do an ‘atyptical’ campaign.
In the Laboratory: The Crucible: At its crux, this article talks about using the rules from the Covenants supplement to create some useful enchanted effects for the improvement of laboratories using the rules discussed in that supplement and the interactions between enchanted items and laboratory rules. Beyond the article in and of itself, this seems to me like it could be the beginning of a feature-series that’s a bit more broad with regards to improving the efficacy of hermetic laboratory work.
The Treasure in the Wash : Discusses the lost baggage train of King John of England (which has been mentioned in official Ars supplements before). The only thing missing from this one, in my opinion, are a wider variety of explicitly designed Story Seeds to ‘pull the characters in’ to this one.
De Anima: One of the larger (page-count) bits in this issue of Sub Rosa, it is designed as a follow-up to adventures previously published in issues 20/21. It is largely designed as an adventure set at ‘a university’ in Mythic Europe however, and various names, places, etc could be changed to repurpose it to other settings or in isolation, although this would in my opinion, require a fairly significant bit of reworking - the love, care, and attention to detail is very apparent in simply reading through this adventure. I have not actually played through this adventure, though I have read it through rather thoroughly as part of this review, and it opens up a wide range of options for the players, which I appreciate.
The True Rings of Verditius: The title on this one is slightly misleading, as it ends up “feeling” like a partial investigation of the likely stats and history of Verditius the Founder as well as some of his most famous enchanted items. Basically Faerie, rather than Magical powers, get used as the models for several of these effects, which to me served primarily to illustrate that there nearly as many Magic-Realm-Aligned cool “crafting options” outside of Hermetic magic. I think it’s an interesting take on Verditius, if not inherently one I would personally jump to canonize; and I liked the reminder that many of the Founders of the order, for all their quasi-mythological strength, likely would not match the magi of today.
The Sword of Mars: A one page statblock for a canonical ( Against the Dark) and famous historical weapon, with some minor story hooks attached.
Curses for the Virtuous Magus: Protecting One’s Property: I really like this little piece here from a purely theoretical standpoint, and am only disappointed it didn’t go a bit further into detail on the Hermetic effects magi use to protect their sanctums/precious valuables! A relatively high percentage of this article is devoted to what I would generally consider more 'fringe options' - say, bound infernal spirits, or divine curses, rather than more common or effective magical protections.
Magnomia, the RPG of Renaissance Wizardry: Alright, so, I not only read this article, which was fairly short, but I also actually downloaded some of the free Alpha materials for the RPG in question, which uses the FATE RPG mechanics. Basically this is a brief introduction from some of the developers of Magnomia about the game they’re developing and it’s core themes. I have to say because I’m personally a big fan of the time period they’re setting it in, I’m likely to end up taking a look when it’s a finished product, especially as one of their inspirations (listed in the alpha copy of the Magnomia PDF, not this article), is one of my favorite “magic” novels of all time, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell.
Mappa Mundi: Some quick bits on the constructions of Arms and Armor in Medieval Europe!
Overall: There were a lot of individual sections here, many of them fairly short, that I felt could have been slightly expanded on - in the cases of some, adding some additional plot hooks or alternative explorations to enable a wider range of ways to easily introduce them to games, in the cases of others more explicit statblocks or models. However, especially for players interested in the classic ‘combat and gear’ sections of RPG mechanics, there is a lot of content here, and models for Storyguides to base their initial conceptions and expand on. Also, again, props for the general quality of artwork, maps, etc interspersed throughout.