What's the thoughtline on Ars?

I've been over on Robin Laws's blog, trying to hone my craft a bit. I mean, he's the only guy who has made hi living writing games for a decade, he must know his stuff to some degree.

So, his game design thesis boild down to caring about two elements: thoughtline and core mechanic.

The thoughtline is the "what this game does" thing. D&D's thoughtline is "Kill monsters and take their stuff", for example.

Now, when asked what Ars is about, what I generally say is "It's a game about wizards in a medieval Europe where all the folktales are true." but I'm not sure that's actually a thoughtline, because there's no active word there, other than "being".

Reading his blog, I have come to a sort of epiphany about the game - that it changed it thoughtline sometime around 4th edition. See if you follow me on this:

Ars was, mechanically, originally a game about killing monsters and taking their stuff. It had cool mechanics about swapping storytellers and all, and multiple character play, but there's a reason the monsters are literally made out of treasure. It's to tell you as a player that killing the monsters is a good thing. You gathered vis and fought monsters on the way, or you just went monster hunting, but killing monsters is an important sort of thing to the game economy in 2nd edition.

Then, 2nd Edition Covenants comes along and says "No, really, you are all playing a thing called the Covenant - the Covenant is the main character." The covenant gets -really huge- vis sources compared to the old combat related ones and the thoughtline changes, but the core mechanics don't change. The basic Ars mechanics are still spells and skills (combat being a really major one of these).

Can anyone give me a sussinct thoughtline for the game? One that really encapuslates the unique play experience and accounts for the core mechanics?

I'm kind of thinking "Once you are a powerful magician, what do you do with your free time?"

my goal has usually been to try and achieve a sense of versimilitue in a genre I enjoy. ArM5 achieves this illusion via its rich and complex setting and rules that get you to feel like a magus. Mind you, some of the tyranny of ...
ah, never mind.

In a board sense, most ArsM sagas I've been in have the thoughtline: "Become a (more) powerful wizard."

Our sagas have mostly been about magi growing and expanding their power... whether that be magical power, political power, combat power, or however you measure your power. I think the strong and flexible lab and advancement rules support that.

With Great Power Comes Great Research

It lends itself to quite a variety of taglines.

That said, I would say the one that stands out for me is:

Create a magical legacy

The game itself can feel very soap-opera. A wide cast of characters, lots of stories, but ultimately it comes back to the magi and their attempts to build some kind of legacy - be it reputation, apprentices, original research, safety and security, supreme cosmic power or whatever. Most of the stories I've seen come back to that in one way or another - and it's what ultimately makes the covenant step forward as a key character.

Even short sagas (less than 10 years) tend to have this as a underlying 'feel' to them.

A thoughtline is not a tagline. A tagline is an advert - a thoughtline is an attempt to distill precisely what the ganmer experience is about so that as you add things to the sytem, you can spot unnecessary complexities and subsystems.

"Powerful wizards (and their minions) living together, increasing and using their magical power".

I'd say that the core things/mechanics which led from this are:

  • spell casting rules
  • rules distinction between minions (grogs and companions) and magi
  • some of the fluff about covenants, houses, Tribunal politics, the Order, etc
  • "lab work" (familiars, items/talismans, inventing spells, book writing/reading)
  • long-term events (aging/longevity, warping)

I'd go for:

Explore mythic europe and create a magical legacy.

They are two very different things, but I think that they are both equally important to what Ars Magica tries to be. This is reflected in the "one magus, one companion" mechanic.

Create a magical legacy works fine as a thoughtline as well, for pretty much the exact reasons I outlined above.

With a thoughtline you're not just distilling the direction of the game from the perspective of the developer, but the perspective that the players take the game as well. If there's a disconnect, the game either won't fly or it'll fly in a direction the developer didn't expect. So while a tagline can be a throwaway piece of marketing, a good tagline should be aligned with the thoughtline of the product too (assuming the product actually has merit and we're not talking about marketing garbage).

I did debate whether something about Mythic Europe needed to go in, but in the end decided no because the game works just fine without any Europe at all. Sure, Europe is nice and its a nifty selling point - but it isn't something the players need to enjoy the game. As such, it isn't a crucial part of the core experience any more than Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk are a core part of killing monsters and stealing their loot.

As an interesting aside: while garnering opinions from the target audience is a valuable part of any market research, you won't necessarily get the right results by asking - especially when trying to analyse fun. The whys and wherefores of this are quite fascinating, but Dr. Daniel Kahneman can explain those much better than I can.

Hadly surprising that Ars has ties with DnD given its origins.

Play a group of mages and their retainers, generally in a long campaign where they accumulate magical power and use it to achieve awesome stuff.

I would never describe the game as such if I had to "sell" it to new players, but this is what it is. The "it is medieval europe, but where legends are true: unicorns exist, dragons live in the mountans and faeries are in the forest. And where God and the Devil exist. In this environment you play a powerful mage, one that will be able to shape the face of the earth studying books of power, crafting mystical items and performing rituals able to reshape a mountain" tend to me more powerful as a selling mechanism.


"Living community in mythical middle ages."

"Lives of magi and those who help and serve them."

To me Ars Magica is more about playing community over extended period of time - that is what makes Ars Magica so different from most other roleplaying games I've played as it really allows you to have sensible rules for believable character development and communities. It's not perfect, but I do like how it allows both as a player and as a storyguide to play with different things - toying with what it is to be and just to pretend, what it is to be good and to be malicious. It is the world of Ars Magica that seems to give so many possibilities.

First off, I can't stop myself from using this as an excuse to tell one of the Ars writers my favorite saying: "Ars Magica is the game for the kids who never got enough homework."

Seriously, though, I think legacy has a powerful bit of truth to it. There's also something complex and subtle in the notion of "avoiding winter" that, when you try to invert the negative, becomes very vivid but also very nuanced...."fighting the corruptive urge that comes with great power," maybe?

Maybe those are just powerful campaign themes, though, that I tend to be attracted to.

If we consider just the mechanics, then what is the major difference between Ars Magica and every other game on the planet? Time. Time and scale. Ars Magica is about the long view. It's about asking, "What does your character do for the next three years?"

In the campaign I'm playing here on the forums, In the Ruins of Bibracte, we're currently playing every season between 1223 and 1227. Every season. Tell me another game that does that. Hell, the only other game that I can think of where you're not encouraged to start the game as a doe-eyed college kid is Traveller.

You need to read Things We Think About Games and Jeff Tidball's blog at Gameplaywright.

You're talking about the core minute of play, which they've talked about at Gameplaywright.

Check outhttp://gameplaywright.net/2008/12/intention/

or http://gameplaywright.net/2008/11/dsu-the-recap/#comment-4268

In that thread is a great point:

Personally, I found it to be a great discussion, even as a spectator...but yeah, it's something I've considered for a bit now.

(If you're a RDL fan, I'd also recommend Hamlet's Hit Points, which was a good read.)

These kinds of books are an interest of mine, I have a pretty good stack of them.


That looks like interesting reading - I must give it some proper time.

My pet project lately has been looking at games and entertainment - both rules/mechanics and narrative - through the lens of Bill Powers' Perceptual Control Theory. Memory plays a fairly important role, which is what got me thinking about Khaneman's work on happiness, since memory also features prominently there.

This might warrant its own thread, actually... mainly because I typed more and realised I was a) going way off topic, and b) had a rather long post. :blush:

Ars Magica: Writing collaborative stories.

Perhaps it's my whole view of the importance of the game contract (whether implicit or explicit), but there has to be much more collaboration between players and SGs than in any other system. Ars Magica is unbalanced, magi have all the power. With great power comes great responsibility. Simply, there has to be an agreement to tell interesting stories. As a player, you present me with a character that has some virtues and flaws, if those are story flaws, it's your way of telling me what kinds of stories you're most interested in (and really can't say no to as a player). You might be interested in other stories, due to your personality flaws, too, but you have more discretion in those stories. Further, your character may change over time and become involved in other stories. Now extend that to all the other players. Repeat for all the magi, for all the companions, and then for all the interesting grogs (excluding the story flaws, but not forgetting about personality).
Companions and magi almost always have a backstory. Grogs can, too, but that's not necessarily the focus for that character. Magi have a master, and that relationship is a powerful and compelling one, if the player wants it to be. Further, that adds a lot of story seeds beyond just the standard story flaws. That master had a covenant, and there were other magi there, what did they do, and how did the interact with the PC magus when he was a discipulus? The companion had/has relationships to others, what are they and how do they fit. As an SG, I tend to give players a lot of leeway in backstory, but might suggest edits/modifications to make things fit better to the overall saga, or head off potential messy complications that the player might want to avoid.
In the end, it's all about story.

Work powerful magic, and have ite mean something.
The meaning is what you make of it, but it most always involves magic. Create a magical legacy, influence Hermetic (or mundane) politics, defend the weak, terrorize the weak, seek the cause of justice, resolve your own personal stories, have memorable adventures to tell tales of.
The depth and intricacies of the game simulate this connection between magic and meaning. All the many characters great and small, a magic system with an arcane complexity that makes you think like a wizard, the inexorable march of time that prevents you from being a static ageless comic book character, the passage of generations to pass tales on to, the back history of previous wizards and their tales to inspire you, and the use of the real historic planet earth as a game world.
This last one, Mythic Europe, is the most important. And the least. Using ME invokes a greater sense of empathy than a fantasy otherworld. And it allows you to draw upon more source material than any ten game publishers could provide.
But the two can be divorced. I originally came upon ArM as source material for my AD&D game. Then I used ArM4 to run a Hyborian age fantasy game.
But once I combined the two, I have been involved in campaigns (sagas) that have lasted several years.

So that's the "thoughtline". Magic that has meaning.


If motivation consists of a few components, then thought line perhaps corresponds to the action taken in the world. Most of us play games to "have fun,"but the action taken in the world that fulfills the passive motivation might be something like "build a massive civilization"or "crush my opponents" or double quote do something very clever with the rules and we in in a surprising way.

I have conflated actions in the real world with actions in the game world, and I think that is fair. Because, if we limit ourselves to the real world, then nearly every role-playing game had a thought line of write up character sheets and roll dice while eating crap that's going to kill you in a few years! I suppose it's fair to say that a good core mechanic is one that is either fun in it self, for whatever reason, or nicely mirrors the actions taken in the game world, or is extremely unobtrusive.

"but we are talking about" thought lines. (Whoa, Dragon did something interesting to this line!)

I think that the general popularity of the game goes hand-in-hand with the simplicity of its thought line. Dungeons & Dragons is easy. Kill things, take their stuff, become more powerful, rinse and repeat, and be applauded for this. Vampire is also easy, though not quite: be cooler than you are! Kill your enemies! Feed on your inferiors, and take their stuff (unless you are too cool for that)! Wallow in angst! lay low when the herd of inferior beings who cannot possibly appreciate your awesomenessis too big to handle, or is too powerful in a totally uncool way!

Then there are games like Nobilis. Most people don't know what to do with this. The "you are" part is easy, character creation is also easy, but now what ? Ars Magica is not quite that difficult, but I don't think there is a slot line to the game. Or rather, there are many, depending on the saga, depending on the player. Do you want to track a medieval village in Excel? Do you want to bend the rules into a pretzel (me! Me!)? Do you want to participate in real medieval history (well, sort of)? Do you want to kill monsters and take their stuff? Do you want to meditate upon the ultimate loneliness as you decay into twilight or death or something? you can even have something like remake Europe according to your whim, the only thing stopping you are the other players. many games are essentially social games: design cool spells! Create things in the world! Get the other players to accept your stuff!

I also note that there is a class of game – of which are as Magica might be the progenitor – in which the "thought line"is severely reined in. For example, whereas, in Dungeons & Dragons, you are totally encouraged to accumulate power and use it, in ours Magica, increasingly, there are restrictions on how power can be used and how powerful it really is. If you use your power against other wizards, you die. If you try to use your power against Angels, you die. If you even look at other wizards with your great power, you die. Your magic won't let you noticedemons, which is too bad, because you'd really like to. you can live for a very long time, but probably not too much longer than people live today. And so on.oh, and if you try to do something to cool, role botched nice.

The most successful game of this kind is vampire, in which your awesome powers don't start off very awesome at all, and in which if you use your powers and call attention to yourselves, you get squished. People understand this viscerally, because everyone knows that vampires get hunted by vampire hunters. But the other games in this series come up with similar restrictions, both from human society and from the specific supernatural society and from the designated enemies. Mage is the most obvious about this: you have awesome power in theory, but if you actually use it you will get squished by Paradox and the technocracy. The exalted series, to some extent. Even Nobilis.

In a sense, the thought line for these games has to be more complicated, because the awesome power is deliberately crippled. this is not necessarily a bad thing, but I believe it is a true thing about these games.



The consequences of power are very much a running theme in the various Storyteller games, and Ars Magica's canon setting too. This extends very readily into consequences of action, regardless of the power - such as the wife of Hugh Bigod picking the blue dress instead of the green, and thus causing great offense to the wife of... you know how this goes. :smiley:

From what I've observed of my own RPG groups, this tends to be an evolution as the group ages: stories less about the teenage fantasy of being AWESOME!!1 and more about community, consequence, etc. This may simply be part of growing up, though the optimist in me likes to think it's a maturing of the entertainment form too. Or I'm just not looking at the games I used to.

What is interesting is watching other media evolve along similar lines. Film and TV are seeing a more mature approach to consequence seeping into the mainstream. While I would love to say that Storyteller games are partly to blame for this (and Ars Magica as the Storyteller grand-daddy), I'm sure the truth is more complex and an indicator of changes at a larger social level. Four-colour heroes are fantastic for nationalism, but nationalism has lost its shiny lustre of late. Shooting orcs with towels on their heads and bringing democracy to the oppressed elven nations (whether they want it or not) is so 70s. Dodging the enforcers of the corrupt (infernally tainted) totalitarian regime is so 90s. Now we're struggling with the notion that all that bad stuff might not be our fault (but it probably is), yet its still our mess to deal with. :smiley:

So yes: exploring the consequences of power is definitely a theme enough that it could form a thoughtline. But, like Ken says, there's more going on there. In some ways this is almost the cross Ars Magica bears: it tries to be many different things. Which I guess is why Mr. Ferguson is asking the question in the first place. :smiley:

I have come to the sincere and honest conclusion that all of us, myself included more than most, are inflating our egos with pseudo intelectualization and an inflated sense of importance.
I just pissed eveyone off :slight_smile:
okay, so now that i got everyone's attention...
All these things we say Ars Magica can do' or that this-or-that game can do. All the same was/is possible with D&D (or AD&D, the version I preferred). In our games we raised families, had generations, built legends and legacys, played love stories, explored sociological issues at the comfortable distance a fantasy world provides, played politics' and more. And we played sessions of Ars Magica that consisted of "kill monsters, take vis".
Whatever we did' it was because it was fun.
Lots of fun :slight_smile:
We did lots of fancy role playing with ars also, but we learned this skill and developed a taste for it with D&D, and have carried it over to many other games.
So perhaps it is a matter of preference. What flavor of rules you like.
I am a wordy pseudointellectual, so I will tell you a story of my gaming evolution.
I invented Ars Magica.
Not really. But I invented something like it. Several actually. My homebrew phase.
See, I had this really cool 2nd ed D&D game that had carried on for years. In fact, parts of it streatched back to 1st ed, when it was cool to invent your own fantasy world instead of buying pregenerated campaign worlds.
But there came a day when I started loosing player time.
"We"ll play next week. We wanna play Vampire at Bobo"s house"
wtf? Vampires?
They got off on being the bad guys for a change, and the whole cult of storyteller-ism stoked their egos, because it praised the style of roleplaying we were already doing.
I didn't like Vampire or werewolf. I tries adding Ravenloft components to my game to win back players, which did work for a bit, but the darkness corrupted everything.
I know Ars came first, but I had not yet heard of it. Along comes Mage, and my friends found a way to hook me into their WW games. I liked Mage, found a natural affinity for the Order of Hermes. So I played Mage and even ran some games, then we mixed all the WW games haphazzardly.
But I still wanted to play D&D. Swords and kings and heros and etceteras. WoD was depressing.
So I tried to retrofit Mage magic to D&D. Several times. Some of it worked. We had fun.
But I had heard tales of this mysterious game called Ars Magica, and knew of the WW link. I was tired of modern rpgs, and also tired of generic fantasy worlds. And I wanted powerful versitile magic.
I praise D&D because it was the first and holds a special place in my heart. But the magic sucked and so did the skills system. It is/was one of the best combat systems though.
I found a copy of Mythic Europe at a comic book store, and mainly bought it for use in a D&D game. Then I found a copy of ArM4, and it was all over.
This was it! I found what I had been trying to invent! But it was better!
And I have not played much of anything else since.

The purpose of gaming is enjoyment. This is the flavor I like, historic middle ages but with magic. Lots of magic.
As I said, you can play the range from hack & slash to artsy fartsy with almost any game. This one encourages character and story. Not so much in setting or mechanics, but actual encouragement by the authors in and amonst their material. This carries over to the troupe, where this encouragement influences the group consensus on the style of game they prefer.
And it has lots of wonderful crunch. It feeds my appitite for creativity.
And the sad fact is that gamers don't always have someone to game with. But you can spend countless enjoyable hours creating or contemplating or preparing for an eventual game.

So, all that just to explain that the only true thoughtline I have is enjoyment' and to explain why this game is what I enjoy.


Leaving politics aside, and what constitutes a mess, whether there is one, and whether that is bad, I am suggesting that are smacking the does not really have a thought line, and that for better or worse, this makes the game less accessible than something like Dungeons & Dragons, is in fact the measure of its accessibility is the extent to which it does have a thought line, and that this makes approaching Ars Magica a more complex matter. This complexity does not make the game better, or necessarily more mature.

A model UN advertises, or implies the offering of, a straightforward set of actions available to a player.I wouldn't call that a primitive game. I might call a dinner mystery game simplistic, but because the scope is limited rather than the explicit offering of actions. Football isn't a role-playing game at all, and like most sports, it also offers explicit actions to anyone who chooses to take it up. (And I suppose this is as good a place as any to differentiate the internal aspect of motivation from this series of intended actions it generates, once again.) Bridge is considered a complex game, as is playing the market.…

Returning to Ars Magica, I believe that the core mechanic does not lend itself well to Dungeons & Dragons style games, because of botches, and to a lesser extent because of rolling up. Games like role master or Warhammer fantasy, are not as good at D&D fantasy as D&D is, but fans of these games like rolling on fumble and crit tables. Everyone is a grog here! Die horribly! Is part of what the game offers.

Whether Ars Magica should have a coherent thought line, or whether there is value in a sign the building and rule tweaking book to achieve various faultlines is another question.

As for what happens when a wizard becomes very powerful, I would like to suggest that one reason people find this less interesting is that the rules don't support it well. Another reason is that this kind of power is alien to our experience – yet I don't him this one is as important, because superhero games offer obvious actions and are relatively popular. That said, there is a reason why Wolverine is the most popular X-Men, and Dr. strange is not likely to be made into a movie anytime soon.