Why is Ars Magica so obscure?

As far as RPGs go, AM is a tough one to find players for. My opinion is that it encourages longer term advancement, rather than a short term goal. It's very easy to find players for D&D 4e or pathfinder, but in comparison, very difficult to find AM players. I'd like to just discuss each of our experiences trying to sell this game to others, when, clearly we all find it to be exceptional. I'm disheartened when I search for AM online and the top searches are Minecraft related. In one instance, I am tickled that Minecraft has adopted AM as one of the most popular mods, and in the other, RPG snob version of myself, I am disappointed that minecraft might be the only exposure that some people have to an amazingly in depth game.

In conclusion, what are your favorite things that set AM a part from other RPGs, and what are the ways you describe those differences to people who have never played it?



Ars Magica is low on instant gratification. You start off powerful compared to the common man, but you're still a peon compared to the old magi and improvement is the long game. The game has social constraints that allow you to be clever enough to interact with the power players on civil terms, but also forces you to interact with the common man on civil terms as well (or at least be smart about abusing peasantry). Gold doesn't buy you power, and the truly valuable stuff (vis and time) is carefully rationed rather than showing up in windfalls. There is (almost!) no resurrection if you screw up, and the lack of enforced character balance makes screwing up very easy.

IOW - it turns everything about D&D on its head. There are no 'level ups' in Ars Magica - heck, new virtues almost always show up with new flaws, and gaining power is a slow, gradual crawl of one stat at a time getting incrementally better.

Ars Magica appeals to planners and schemers and rewards them in the way that Pathfinder/D&D doesn't. Not only do you get to develop your character, but your character's laboratory, home covenant, minions, apprentices and hermetic house. It encourages you to create your own spells and magical devices. No wonder it's so foreign to most players.


Depends on what you're converting them from, really.

On the one hand, Ars Magica is a little complex for people new to roleplaying; it's the sort of game where you pretty much need to read the rulebook cover-to-cover to get the full experience. That's a decent investment of time and energy all by itself for something you don't even have the experience to evaluate whether you'll enjoy it or not. And Ars Magica takes things to a grand scale compared to what most people think of with fantasy. Magi are extremely powerful and diverse at all stages of life, yet even without considering that the game tracks time in seasons and years rather than adventuring days, advancement to different levels of power is a fairly slow process.

Coming from D&D, the above post explains the problems well; no instant gratification, lots of planning, and perhaps most importantly, a shift in character role. Almost hilariously, Ars Magica PC magi have a lot in common with D&D NPC wizards. People accustomed to D&D expect to be doing things like collecting ingredients for the NPC wizard, questing to find the legendary NPC wizard who can make an item strong enough to fight the Big Bad with, standing in on that one wizard order's meeting while addressing them about something of great import, stopping the eldritch abomination that the NPC wizard accidentally let loose during an experiment, or slashing their way through the Big Bad wizard's tower to get to the ritual in time to stop him from going through with his evil plans. In Ars Magica? You're (one of) the wizard(s) doing the things the NPCs were doing. Holing yourself up in a dark tower, or attending meetings and debating about the magical nature of things in ways nobody untrained in Magic Theory/Lore could understand, and in some cases providing items or knowledge beyond some heroes' wildest dreams so they can succeed in their quest.

Other games often have similar issues, with players being used to being the people in the middle of the action while others deal with all the politics and non-combat functions. Probably the most common misconception I've heard about Ars Magica is actually that quite a few people think it's all about playing the support characters for some other heroes...

An extreme interpretation of Ars Magica is that you are playing the life of a "castle" and that magi, companions and grogs are secondary characters that come and go. It's easier to be enamoured by your gnome rogue-illusionist than by a plethora of persona.

A lot of my friends are roleplayers but only a few of them like Ars, even though most have tried it. Now this might be my sucky GMing, but one thing most of them don't like is the homework. They like to turn up, play the session, then go home and do something else. Myself and the other ars fans I know turn up, play the session, then go home and plot out our lab seasons, write up new mystery cults and create characters for fun. My wife jokes that Ars mixes spreadsheets and roleplaying. I do indeed have lots of spreadsheets for my current campaign. I see this as sensible use of tools to plan my saga, but some people find this prep and study dull.

Different strokes for different folks.

No ready-to-play adventures. There are some adventures, but most require tailoring, especially given the large differences between PCs and especially for advanced PCs. If you want to run a D&D game, you can purchase a "campaign in a box" or string together a few bought adventures and you're basically done. If you want to run an Ars Magica game, you pretty much have to invent it by yourself. Which leads to....

Difficult to design adventures to. If you want to design a D&D adventure, you just look over the Monster Manual, build up a strong of encounters, and embellish with stories. The CR-rating and encounter design rules pretty much write the adventure for you, with the monster manual serving as inspiration and creativity pump for putting the plot together. If you want to design an Ars Magica adventure, you're pretty much on your own. There is no system in place to help you put one together, and to pump your creativity as you're doing it.

Lots of book-keeping off-screen. Ars Magica is built for players that like to tinker with their characters off-screen, advancing them and making magical items and so on. Lots of players don't want that - they want to play the character in-game, not to mess with baroque mechanics out-of-game.

Lack of tactical game. You don't get to play the tactical mini-game like you do in D&D. Combat is more abstract and often more monotonic, and tends to involve the environment far less as magi are just too powerful to care about it and as there are no rules or tropes for incorporating it. Add to that character vulnerability (often in an immune/dead dichotomy), and you get very brief and intense combats but ultimately ones far less rewarding and dramatic than the more slowly escalating HP-chiseling and the movement/ position / environment dependent combat in other games.

Badly written rules. Fifth Edition is great, but even that edition suffers from serious vague language and unclear rules; the rules are simply not written with an eye for technical writing. In many places the editing falters too, placing important rules in weird places, unemphasized in the middle of the text (quick - what's the key mechanical advantage of many powers invested in a familiar bond, which isn't mentioned in the familiar section?). The magic system is very flexible but not at all defined enough in many ways, so that in practice there are no guidelines for a lot of what players will want to do and that will create lots of arguments. This one really hurt my last game, as the players grew very frustrated with vauge and undefined rules.

Unbalanced game. Ars Magica characters are so diverse and non-standardarized that often one will be very effective and everyone else not. This breeds boredom and frustration as everyone wants to be effective. And yes, of course perfect balance cannot be achieved - yet still, in practice a D&D group will have a balanced party where everyone meaningfully functions in combat and has its own clearly-defined role to play in it and in the roleplaying leading up to it, and the game will be about combat; whereas an Ars Magica party will more often have one or two characters that really dish it out in combat, with the others just trying to survive or, at best, give them cover, and the game will often not be about combat (which, for some players, is a minus) and PCs will be so diverse and personalized that they won't have very defined roles in or out of combat.

Amul (user here on the forum) once said that Ars Magica is the game for people who liked or couldn't get enough homework in HS.

Best description of Ars I've heard yet.

I don't get it. I don't like planning, reading, or homework. I play Ars Magica because it's simultaneously the most authentic-feeling and most fun depiction of what I imagine being a wizard in a magical society would be like. Not to mention the great magic system and original setting (though at least original settings can often happen in other games). Sure, mundanes with weapons coming to blows feels pretty similar every time due to Ars Magica abstracting the tactical portion of it, but battles between wizards and other wizards or supernatural creatures (or even just any non-mundane versus mundane, really) are both interesting and unique from one another. And that's given a system where combat rules only even exist just in case; the developers probably wouldn't find anything unusual about a whole saga where the combat rules were never used.

Honestly, the only reason I've ever gotten for people disliking Ars is "why are wizards stronger than everybody else? I feel like a munchkin whenever I play the wizard on an adventure in this game. Let's go back to D&D." Then again, I've only tried it with two newbies before.

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Yet there are thirty of us here tonight, after a good meal, excited about a weekend of one shot Ars games at the Ars convention. :slight_smile: So clearly there is a) a pretty fanatical fan base - while David Chart is all the way from Japan, I'm guessing he had other business in the UK, but we have Norwegians, and folks from Spain, France, Germany, Denmark and probably other places who have come to England for the convention -- and b) while it is a long term game (I often meet people at conventions who are 15 to 20 years real time in to a campaign) you can have fun in a 3 hour convention slot with it? :slight_smile:

cj x

I think it's more about liking 'tinkering' than anything else. Where you go: "I have this, and this, and if I do this, I can make this, then that." Also, it's for people who liked history class.

Or like running campaigns and thus don't mind the extra work between sessions anyway.

Ars is more DS9 than TNG.

It's like Pendragon, with wizards.

Coming to Ars from Pendragon and Amber, the rules in this system are almost fractally complex, and it never nails its colours to the mast on if it wants to simulate a world, or create narrative experiences for the player characters.

I've tried to experiment with making it simpler for cons and things, using something like the Nobilis Miracle Menu to allow people to work out what they can do with spont spells, but it doesn't work.

So, the problem is basically first mover advantage: people wanting to roleplay can either play D&D which they know and which will give them a guaranteed experience, or they can take a few hours to learn Ars and hope its good.

Some people hearing there is a new restaurant in town go out of their way to check it out. Some will never go there. A lot will just wait until people they trust tell them it is worth their time. Ars has never really got into urbanspoon territory in the roleplaying press, because it is not Indie (a recent fixation) and it's not so large that it generates a heap of its own material and easy play experiences.

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Pretty much this. Also that the game really relies on GM interpretation moreso than other RPGs for how certain powers are applied.

Here's a thread in a forum that while they like RPGs, are very critical of most systems.


Also, " (quick - what's the key mechanical advantage of many powers invested in a familiar bond, which isn't mentioned in the familiar section?)" What is the answer to this? Great point.

Oh, oh, I know! Isn't it that effects invested in the Familiar bond never cause Warping, regardless of effect level? And possibly also regardless of how long during the year you have them active? (I don't remember that rule perfectly)

Well, the fact that investing a power in the bond results in a slight sharing of features between the familiar and the magus is interesting.

The fact neither needs to overcome the other's magic resistance is really useful.

Well, I thought the familiar activated any Personal powers for the magus and vice versa. So doesn't that just fall under the same category as Personal-range spells not needing to Penetrate?

The biggest advanage of effects enchanted into the Bond is that they do not warp the magus. So all those constant personal enhancement spells a magus might want to always have active? Put them in the bond and keep it up, always.

Yeah, I meant the warping thing. It's a really important advantage, that's hidden from players reading up on familiars. Bad editing.

Another example - where is the rule for the penetration of Supernatural Abilities? If you are a new player and want to use your Enchantment against the faerie, so you open up the book and start browsing it to see how to calculate your Penetration - do you think that's where you'll naturally go to? I don't.

Well, at the very least, the first Supernatural Ability in alphabetical order in the Abilities chapter that needs to Penetrate (Enchanting Music) does tell you the page number for that rule. It's not much, but it was an effort.

EDIT: Actually, Sense Holiness and Unholiness has that too. So every Penetrating Ability in Core except Entrancement references it, and Entrancement is literally right below Enchanting Music. If you look at your skill (which seems like a logical place to look) you'll find where to go.