Looked at in the sense, the Order isn't populous. But compare the number of magi to the number of scholars at the first contemporary universities. Compare the number of scholars we know of who produced written works within the 13th century to the number of magi who are assumed to be scribbling frantically to amass tractatus.
Consider how much power the Order must have if even half of the 800-1200 magi work together on something and the rest stand aside. Say goodnight Genghis Khan.
And from a game perspective, consider how small your players become in the scheme of things with so many magi all around them. Unless you run a purely local saga, there's always the possibility of other magicians just over the hill to deal with, say, those rampaging mongol hordes.
The wise old hermit types and other more minor characters seem like perfect hedge wizards to me. Magi have power, at least of the NPCs are anything like the PCs.
Your point about Merlin being a lightweight (in game terms) rings true. People used to enjoy point out how weak Gandalf was compared to D&D magic users too. And the hisorical "magicians" like Albertus Magnus certainly never did anything that a garden-variety Hermetic does all the time. To me that reinforces the idea that having hundreds of Hermetic Magi running around raises power levels too much.
BUT, increase wasnt linear, and since i dont remember exactly when the population "explosion" was and my short search didnt give a specific number closer to 1200, all i can say is that its "somewhere between those numbers".
And how large part of scholars of the day do you think we know of today compared to the total number of scholars?
If i am to take a guess, i would say there are very likely more scholars(of one sort or another, its not a perfect definition at the time i think) than magi out and about. Most probably several times more.
And concerning written works, well its only very recently that archaeologists have started rethinking about how much of the written word there was historically, as more evidence of using simple plates of wood or bark to write on has been found(this also challenges the notion of how being able to read and write is counted, as the common notion of historical literacy levels may only reflect formal and scholarly literacy and not the simplified writing that seems to have existed much more commonly).
To simplify, its quite possible, even somewhat likely, that the written works we know of today is only a small fraction of what has existed, because much of it was written on materials or in ways that perish, and wasnt judged as interesting enough to get copied on to a lasting medium.
Ever read the Novgorod Tribunal book? "The Dragon and the Bear"? Mr bigshot Genghis & Co have their own magicians (facing the Mongol invasion was the big but initially hidden feature of our first big AM campaign, and we eventually had an exceptionally powerful covenant with its own mini army, magically well equipped mini army, and magi that could cast really powerful spells, and yet at the end of it(something like closer to a century after gametime start) there was barely anyone unharmed and it was just sheer random luck that kept the covenant from having 10+ of its magi killed off(ie nearly all)).
And the order wont be coming together to fight a mundane threat until it knocks on their door.
And, like has been said many times already, even single magi can usually kill armies by themself. There´s no need for the order to react as a whole if they want to stop Genghis, if all he has are soldiers. A covenant just has to dispatch a single magi with a few good spells, one of which being an effective mass-target or area effect attack spell, and the invasion dies.
But give Genghis control of as many shamans and wizards as is needed and they can always put up a serious enough fight no matter how few or many magi you bring to the party.
First of all, does that really matter? I mean the only option to guarantee players being THE big wigs is if they´re the ONLY magi around...
Also i think you´re simply wrong, because what is it that says that player magi becomes "small" because there are other magi around?
There are thousands and thousands of musicians and bands around today, does that make any single artist less "big"? Does ABBA become small because Mimikry, Roxette, Ace of Base, Aqua and Smile.dk also exist(ed)?
Sure, but WILL they deal with it? They probably have lots of stuff of their own to keep busy.
From my perspective the spiritual and intellectual pursuits of Magi is exactly what makes for an interesting AM game. But the game certainly suggests that many of the Magi in the baseline setting prefer the Pilum of Fire approach. Just look at that pyromaniacal islamophobe warrior Founder. Anyway, even a magus who doesn't actually study blatant spells like that will have the Arts to do so in time of need and probably will have access to lab texts that makes it easy.
An enormous intellectually oriented Order presents its own problems. How many breakthroughs are going to happen this century with hundreds of researchers, or are we just going to make a storytelling assumption that only PCs work on hermetic level problems?
Most of the warrior magi probably don't live long lives - hunting dragons can do nasty things to you...
And those that do, often find that the most intresting prey are other magi...
Many magi spend a lot of time studying non magical things - like intrigue and manipulation, knowledges and the like.
In many cases there are no books for this, so they need to do it by practice...
Any non-bonisagus breakthrough would probably not be shared with the order at large - Tytalus espesially desires to have as many secret weapons as they can...
Most research never results in anything useful.
Oh, and have you considered the possibility that the Lord smites any magus that breaks any of the divine limits?
If I say that Tremere have a tradition of necromancy, how many Tremere are part of that tradition? Ten? If there are 100 Tremere in the Order, 10 necromancers is 10%. If I say there are 40 Tremere in the Order, ten necromancers is 25%. 10% is only four necromancers. Can we describe a trend in a house if it is only true about four people?
Given the level of detail in each house description, I don’t see how you keep that level of detail, reduce the size of the house by 50% and not have the descriptions given in the houses make up a much greater percentage of the house than I would consider them now to be. Which people may or may not be OK with, but should realize this before they make the switch.
I wasn't being entirely serious about Flambeau. Even in the old editions he wasn't that extreme. It is still the stereotype people have for for the House though anyway, despite the rewrite. The point was there's lots of support for flashy fireball and lightning bolt magic within the game.
You have a good point but I find that for me more Magi lead to more stereotyped houses because I end up with hordes of faceless Magi that I don't have the time or the interest to personalize. Abrusio says above that he can customize 50 Magi per tribunal but not 100. Even getting to 50 seems pretty impressive to me.
Stats? No way. Some kind of basic background sketch to a majority of them would be nice though, if you expect to do any politicing. In practice though the descriptions seldom end up being more than "Tremere Necromancer".
For the 50 magi of the tribunal of Normandy in 1018 (there was a Tribunal this year) I had :
a name, a house
for most I had some idea of their favourite Arts, and specialization (in their house or in a mystery)
some guidelines to roleplay them, their major points of interest and interactions with other NPCs
but no detailed stats, even for the main characters. I find that most of the time, it is a waste of time to create detailed NPCs in ars magica...
During the 2 tribunal sessions, the players interacted with almost all of the 50 mages, so it worked quite well, I will go as far as to say that the second session was one of the best game in our entire saga.
I could have had more mages, but there would have been more "faceless" mages, because I had trouble to get new ideas (and pictures) after 50 and there would have been little point for the players to meet every one of them. But I also felt that more mages would mean less weight for the players votes and decisions, and they would have had the feeling to be anonymous in the crowd. I explained the fact there was only 50 mages because the game was after the schism war, so many wizards died recently and had not been replaced yet. Now, I feel that 50 is the good number for a tribunal : 5-6 players votes can tip a statu quo, and there are still enough mages to provide ample roleplaying and story opportunities, but the players still feel special and members of a very selective club.
For mages, I really needed some generic templates I can use (arts and common spells for each age category). Magi of hermes is a great source of examples and ideas for this.
That's very detailed compared to what we do. De do a list of covenants with a little detail as to geography, physical setting and important conditions (like in a Regio or in a tame nobleman's castle). Plus what role it plays; Mercer House, leading ovenant of the tribunal, etc. We list the number of magi and sometimes general composition if there is an overall theme (mostly Bonisagi doing research, a mix of Quaesitors and Flambeau Hoplites). Any magi defined by name and house are listed, along with few notes of specialities, age or achievements. Every time a magus is mentioned as NPC we add them to the list. We rarely have problems with any being too stereotypical, because we almost never define anyone not used in stories or by reference, so they are defined from their role and what we need them to be.
IMS most tribunals are not that massive. Each covenant sends 1 or 2 guys as envoys. That means around 15-20 guys in tribunal most of the time. 50 is cool to flesh out covenants, but most of those will not have direct contact with the PCs. it is nice to have them lurking around, though, so that the PCs do not feel "lonely" in the setting