What features do you regard as central to Ars Magica? What keeps you playing?
The Order of Hermes; with all it's history, houses, and culture. This includes Mythic Europe.
Systematic process and procedure; the magic system, the Arts, CharGen,
The Virtues & Flaws
Variable ranges of power and play
I think you could play Ars with a different chargen. Mark. I was at a con yesterday and we had pregens.
The most important aspect for me is the rulewonder: Other roleplaying games I´m able to see through rather fast. I know what I can do with them and if the system is able to give me pleasure. In my eyes Ars Magica represents a vast and awesome bulk of rules I am far from looking through. But every time I take another step deeper in this game-mystery, I detect previously unknown possibilities. And almost always I´m doing this, I´m more satisfied.
I´ve been a roleplayer for 30 years. I know Ars Magica for 20 years. With the fifth edition I began to focus my roleplaying activities on Ars Magica and now, for 3 years I´m playing almost exclusively Ars Magica. It seems to me that this is all I need.
I like the central conceit of a mythical version of history, but not specifically either Europe or 1220 (in fact, I'd rather like a series of books applying Ars' core mechanic (Characteristic+Ability+Stress die) to different places and historical junctures.
Likewise, while I do like the magic system and think it works well most of the time, I also also have a strong affinity for the various hedge magic systems which tend to strike me as frequently more evocative than the sometimes generic-seeming Hermetic model.
Unfortunately, this reduces my input to a rather bland "wizard-game set in an alternate-history version of (place) in (year), but with magic and stuff". Still, if nothing else, this suggests I'll be fairly happy with Ars' next incarnation whatever it ends up looking like.
I think you could run Ars Magica quite well without:
The Order of Hermes
Not that I am advocating removing these.
Mythic Europe could be a completely different setting. It could be an alternate history, or an European based setting, or a much more fanciful fantasy setting. You could completely pitch the history or just the medieval element. Ars Magica could be set in the Roman Empire or in a very different 15th Century.
The Order of Hermes is flatly not required. Nor are covenants as a social structure.
If you keep many of these elements, you could run an entirely non-Hermetic game with no Order of Hermes anywhere in the setting.
Even magi are not needed. You can run a companion level game. Companions are also not needed. You could run games involving fairly ordinary people from mundane life interacting with the various denizens of the setting.
The rules are not strictly necessary. The magic system is not either (let me assure you I think the magic system is generally amazing). You can have a society of magicians with highly varying, non-synchronized magics.
But if you get rid of many of these things, the house of cards collapses. Ars Magica is a structure of many elements.
You know, this is a really interesting question. To a great extent, TimOB is absolutely right. You could remove individual pieces of the puzzle known as Ars Magica and put in a few different pieces that fit and you'll get a coherent picture that, ignoring gross violations, is still Ars Magica. You don't need the Order, you don't need Hermetic magic, you don't need Mythic Europe.
All things considered, given Ars Magica's entire premise, I personally think Ars Magica needs the Supernatural in some capacity, simply because I feel like without any Supernatural influence (and, importantly, the ability for players to use such power) the game becomes either a "nice in many ways, but sluggish for its purpose" medieval narrativist game, and while reading the rules would awaken me quickly I probably wouldn't recognize it while watching people play. That's just me, though, it's hardly a universally accepted necessity of Ars Magica.
The real problem isn't that Ars Magica is a deck of cards waiting to fall apart, so it's okay for certain people to alter things. It's more like the things people connect with in Ars Magica are so numerous and variable. As such, an encompassing answer is nearly impossible, and even the answer I'm about to give has been contradicted to my face on exactly one occasion, so I know it's not an almighty truth.
I believe, however, that even as you change things out of Ars Magica and replace them with other things, the replacements need something to stay Ars Magica. The incoming rules need to reflect this, in my eyes, for the game's essential quality not to be violated. This essential thing that makes Ars Magica the game that it is, the one thing that in most games is merely one possible and difficult-to-handle stylistic choices but has the words and rules built around it in Ars Magica, is...
Every action, however minuscule it might seem to be in the heat of the moment, has very real and far-reaching consequences.
Silly of me to say, right? "Akriloth, you moron, all actions in any game have consequences! And even though they're usually short-term to avoid bogging down the wider plot, anybody can choose to run their given game that way!" And yes, it's true that you can scrape together something to make actions have realistic and long-standing consequences, but it's almost always a forced insertion.
Ars Magica is what it is for a very large part because every action having realistic, far-reaching consequences that actually mean something was built into the very foundation of the rules and backstory of Ars Magica. Rather than being an idea tacked on at the last second to accommodate the occasional gamer who prefers their gaming to be like that, the entirety of Ars Magica's rules were woven (usually elegantly) around the idea that, for better and for worse, your actions have consequences that reach further than the here and now.
Get injured in most games? Move yourself with no real added difficulty to a safe place, and boom, a healing spell or maybe a couple of days of bedrest later, you're all better and nobody's even really inconvenienced. Injury from a careless fight in Ars Magica can and will result in you being unable to move yourself to safety, and once that hurdle is cleared, you can't do anything useful for a season or more, and/or you waste lots of precious vis healing yourself, and the result is a net decrease in power throughout the rest of your life.
I could go on and on with examples, involving things like the Botch system and how many activities have options for increasing the power behind your actions with more meaningful and affecting drawbacks than personal penalties like HP or stat damage, and about how not just the rules but the setting were founded on this idea, but I think the point has been made. Ars Magica is Ars Magica, to me and to many other people, because despite being a world of boundless opportunities to take action and explore possibilities, often literally magical, that you never could in real life, your feet are always kept firmly on the ground by consequences, which stretch deeper, longer, and very much more realistically than any other game I've seen. You're affecting the world, often in ways you can't even foresee, in ways that are and feel amazingly real given the genre, and many people feel their hearts grow near to this world which is simultaneously totally foreign and mystical yet simultaneously totally relatable due to the ingraining of consequences in the rules.
(Plus, people who use the game for "what would actually happen if..." scenarios get a result that's much less distorted by the world existing for entertainment purposes than in most games, so there's that.)
So, yeah. To summarize: Ars Magica is Ars Magica because under all the fantasy and badass spells and being a lab wizard instead of the usual PCs who visit those wizards, there's a very real feeling that your actions have consequences, both good and bad, that extend on and in much as they do in real life rather than simply disappearing for convenience or to make room for the "real" action. Ars Magica's own rules do a wonderful job of making you feel like every decision you make truly affects everything beyond that point, in ways that can blindside you much as in real life but ultimately lead to you feeling satisfied that things just wouldn't be the same in the world without you.
Essential elements for me:
The characters are a community of magicians.
Beyond that, I'm kind of easy. I've had medieval magi time travel and soften up the Nazis before the D-Day landings, I've had them resist landing Martian cylinders in medieval Cornwall. I've had them secretly control the Papacy. I've had them do Spanish Main stuff. I've had them do ancient Egyptian stuff.
The community is at the core of it. It's Stars Hollow for people with super-powers.
I find the Forms and Techniques, and the Verb + Noun combo, integral to the game.
When I introduce Ars Magica to new people, this is how I do it, almost verbatim:
"Ars has the best magic system ever made for an RPG. You have nouns -- like 'Fire' or 'Mind' -- and you have verbs like ''Create' and 'Control.' So if you say, 'I want to make a waterfall of fire appear over that guy's head,' well, that's Create Fire. So add up your Create and Fire and roll a die. And if you get high enough, you do it."
I realize this is grossly simplified, but the Tech + Form combo is the hook I use. That doesn't mean I'm married to the current die roll mechanics; if I had a new system that changed how I rolled dice or whatever, but it kept the Verb + Noun combo, that would still be Ars to me.
Ars also has a distinctive niche as historical fantasy. I realize not everyone plays it that way, of course. But if I get the chance to say a SECOND sentence to new people, it's usually some variation of, "It's historical fantasy, in a medieval Europe where myths and legends are true."
Ars Magica is:
- Troupe play. You don't always play the same character each session, you are not always your most powerful character, and you can swap the characters you play as the story needs. In so many games you worry about game balance and what will happen if everyone doesn't feel that their character is equally powered - not in Ars. You have magi, companions and grogs working together, the plot can focus on very different matters and you can interchange who plays what grog. Deciding which character you'll be this week is a big part of my Ars experience, and what makes it different from many others.
- Stories over years or decades. Pendragon does this as well, but I like fantasy games where it feels like you are developing over time, and your big projects require dedication and years of work.
- Use of history - I love history books and reading about history, so like historical games where real-world history can come into it.
- Faerie stories that are fantastical and horrific enough to resemble actual folk tales and not some cutesy disneyfied version.
As for the magic system - I like the structure of it, but I also love Mage - I like flexible magic systems but am aware that highly flexible ones like Mage require the GM to set down a ton of house rules to stop it going crazy, so the structure of Ars often works better. Ars still frequently needs house interpretations of things (as a quick look at these boards will attest). Things with pre-determined slots like D&D drive me crazy. Things with power points and things you can cast are OK, but I like a bit more flexibility. (Also why I rarely play Mercurian magi in Ars, because I like being able to spontaneously cast). Actually, adapting Ars to Heroquest (another game I play with CJ) could prove entertaining as you could use Forms as Keywords and have specific spells or types of effect coming from them.
- The verb + noun magic system.
- The seasonal advancement / lab work, with its massive effect on working out the "background" life of the characters.
- Mythic Europe - a pseudo-medieval setting actually set in Europe, but with lots of magic.
- The Order of Hermes
You can cut off most of these and still have something like ArM, but these are the major things setting the flavor of ArM as it stands, to me.
The scale-- it moves in seasons, day-by-day is the exception.
I think the magic system is integral.
Likewise, I think the covenant, the community aspect, is integral.
I could get by without the Order in its current form, but I'd want an Order of some kind.
I like Mythic Europe quite a bit, as it makes the whole history section my supplement shelf, but I've toyed with converting other fantasy settings to the Ars system, simply as an experiment.
Essentially it is the setting. Mythic Europe and the Order of Hermes. I could take those concepts and apply them to just about any rules system like D&D or GURPS. On the other hand, to lift the Ars rules from its concept and apply a different setting turns Ars into Gurps. Whic can be fun, but it would be a different game altogether.
It's a tough thing to quantify, but I think you've made some good points. It's not just one thing but take any one of them away and the whole is pretty quickly diminished.
But the core for me is:
Mythic Europe (including the take on the supernatural)
The Magic System (including the seasonal activities)
I could happily take a different Order, a different relationship with the mundane world, and different relationships between the Houses (should they even survive).
Tribunals are an interesting thing. I think they're actually pretty important in terms of offering different play styles and the opening up of stories. If they went I'd like to see some kind of analogue in their place.
As to specific game mechanics, I could do a different dice mechanic (2D6 seems to be worth some consideration) but I think I'd miss Characteristic + Ability + Roll.
1.) Historical Fantasy Setting - I can play a wizard, a noble, a nun, priest, knight, peasant etc.
2.) An Order of Wizards with many houses and various philosophies, interests and flavors of magic. It does not have to be called "Order of Hermes" and House Tremere does not have to be used. Heck, even flip the script "Order of Mercury derived from the Cult of Hermes."
3.) Seasonal Play - that adventuring is not the only source of learning
4.) Covenants as characters - very cool.
5.) The Magic system
6.) Integration of Companions and Grogs with a narrative role as well as Magi solves the Linear Fighters, Quadratic Wizards problem that D&D 2E/3.X and Pathfinder have.
7.) Brutal effects for Injury and Fatigue
8.) Simple base rule system, but with lots of extended sub systems that can be used or discarded as needed.
For me, Ars Magica is:
- Mythic Europe.
- Troupe style play (part of which is the "covenant").
- Earth-shakingly powerful wizards as playable characters.
- Character advancement through an elaborate palette of seasonal activities, with "adventures" being interruptions that most characters (rather than players) would be better off without.
Note that the first two points, and to a lesser extent the third, were originally introduced to the rpg scene by Ars Magica, and have been tremendously influential. I'm also really really fond of the fourth.
Ars Magica is also, unfortunately:
5. A totally unmedieval system of magic. The various alternate traditions introduced in 4th and particularly 5th edition, as well as the mysteries, ameliorate the situation - but vanilla Hermetic magic remains out of place in Mythic Europe.
6. A totally unrealistic Order of Houses with caricatural traits. Again, I'd say 5th edition ameliorates this to some extent - but you can't really fix it without changing the nature of the game.
7. Goofy latin. It was gramatically incorrect latin until 4th edition. Now it's just goofy. Hermetic magic has goofy names. I mean, it's a game where players say "My wizard casts an "I understand grass" spell"; it's just that a few of those words are in English (or whatever language you play in) and a few in Latin. But that pales against the goofines of the wizard names! I know absolutely no other game in which the charming, honest-looking backstabbing antagonist is named "Liar". And that's just one of the many examples!
The year by year structure of the game. Watching your toons grow and change like a high-powered version of The Sims is really satisfying.
Having a strong, central location, and tons of advancement mechanics that hook the players into the world. It leads to self-motivated players.
The historical setting. I love historical games in particular, so this is a huge draw. There's a ton of rich inspirations to draw from, it's great!
Magic. It gives the players power, and agency. It's a double edged sword but still compelling.
The troupe system. Even if you don't go full fluid new-GM-every-session, the game encouraging somebody else to pick up the mantle if the primary GM can't show up leads to stable games, and being able to come up with grogs as a player gives you a measure of influence over the world. This links into the year-by-year structure too, because you can watch your little bundles of worldbuilding grow too.
Mythical Europe - you have 1000s of sourcebooks
Saga - you will play 100 years with lots of downtime to prepare
Troupe - everyone is involved in developping the universe.
There's lots of interesting mechanics, but it's the meta that tops it all.
I think what sets Ars Magica apart is the descriptiveness of its mechanics; where the mechanical description is, and how it is put there with the advancement rules.
When my character casts Sense the Feet that Tread the Earth it deals with entities that are in the game not just numbers on a sheet: It relies on his intellego score which he augmented by reading an invisible tractatus, it deals with his terram score which he raised by analyzing the remains of an earth elemental, it takes into account the magical aura of the area, it depends upon the season he spent using the lab text which for which he acquired by trading 3 pawns of herbam vis (obtained by climbing a 400 foot tall tree), it takes on the characters wizard's sigil. This is what ars magica does better than any other game.
It does it by having a magic system that gives many many times more options than any character could hope to use your magi characters are potent but they only have a tiny fraction of the possible competencies. I don't recall any player who ever disliked their magus/maga all of them were cool (there were some players who were intimidated by the magic rules but they still loved their magi) the greenest newbies made characters that were competent in ways that the tasteless minmaxers characters weren't every always had something that they could do better than others becasue magic is split up so very much.
It does it by having a magic system with very little abstraction, characters deal with magnitudes, parma , the forms, vis, might, sympathetic connections, auras, regios, and arcane connections. Players deal with more or less the same list of things. When player discus rules they can do it as PC's talking in character. Other games don't do this.
It does it ("it", to refresh your memory, in this case is descriptive mechanics) by not every having an xp pool. Players never spend their accumulated xp to buy up a skill or raise a level the characters advance by in game study and activities. This does tons for characterization. More than in any other game I've seen my Ars Magica characters feel like they've earned their abilities. more than any other game I've played the characters feel like their history is woven in to the story.
Ars does a lot of other things well but but I feel that this exceptionally tight linking of the mechanics to the setting is one thing that other games have not yet duplicated.
I like the setting but I don't see it as essential. I started before the houses were a thing and, though I've grown fond of them in time, I disliked them when they were introduced and I'd be just as pleased without them. I've run the game in a fantasy setting and found it worked just fine.
This is very perceptive, in the sense that I have deliberately been trying to enhance this aspect since ArM4. I think it is an approach that is consciously different from most other games. It's also the reason why Ars Magica has incredibly complex rules and a different system for almost every form of non-Hermetic magic, so it's not a cost-free choice, and I can understand that some people might be perfectly happy if it were changed.
On the other hand, I wouldn't say that this was essential to Ars Magica, in particular. If I worked on another game, it might well have the same feature, but it would definitely not be Ars Magica. (It is set in contemporary Japan, for one thing.)