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Ars Magica Retrospective

For the last 20 months, I've been running an Ars Magica 5th edition game known as the Midnight Saga. Ars Magica is a richly detailed setting, with one of the best set of magic rules out there, and is one of my favourite game systems. However, it's not perfect, and there's a few things about it which really came to annoy me. Now that the campaign is over (the players managed to avert complete Armageddon), I've collected together a review of some of the problems I ran into whilst running the game.

The biggest issue is probably the organisation of the rules themselves. Even after playing it for ~100 sessions, we still had difficulty finding basic things in the core rulebook, let alone trying to find anything in one of the ~30 supplements. The spell guidelines are probably the worst offender - there really needs to be an online PDF that collects together all the spells from all the supplements, which is updated when a next supplement comes out.

The Tribunal source books have a similar problem with covenants. When I need to refer to a Tribunal source book, 90% of the time it's because the players are interacting with a covenant in that Tribunal. In 3rd and 4th edition, the source books had the covenants all collected together into one chapter, which made finding them easily. For some reason, 5th edition has taken to hiding the covenant descriptions throughout the Tribunal book. It may make sense if you're reading the book cover to cover, but as a reference during the game, it really slow things down.

From a rules perspective, one of the issues right from the start was players coming up with perfectly sensible ideas that would radically change the way the Order worked. Instance communication by having an arcane connection to a blackboard for example, which would really put the Redcaps out of business. A lot of these issues are covered in the Transforming Mythic Europe book (which turned up in time for our penultimate session), but it was necessary to ignore what should be possible with simple spells (communication, teleportation and book duplication being the big ones) pretty much from day one.

The Midnight Saga was somewhat more fantastic that a typical Mythic Europe saga (God is gone, demons are overrunning the world), so another feature of the magic system which became quite apparent was how easy it is to kill anything with Might with the use of Perdo Vim, compared to how hard it is to kill the same creature with Corpus, Animal or Terram spells. It did seem to make Perdo Vim unbalanced in this regard, especially since Corpus and Animal become useless if the target is slightly bigger than normal, but Vim spells are unaffected by target size.

It did lead to me changing the way in which Might work (so that creatures don't die when their Might reaches zero), justified in-game by the fact that Hell was encroaching on the world.

The new spell system in 5th is a lot more rationalised than it was in 4th, and especially compared to 3rd (which was my first introduction to Ars Magica), but having played all three, I think I prefer 3rd. The strict guidelines of 4th led to some strange results and a lot of min-maxing on spell creation. There was far less of that in 3rd edition, so even though 3rd edition spells were much less consistent than their 5th edition counterparts I think they worked better from a game perspective.

One thing I do like about 5th is that it does seem to be much better supported - far more books for me to spend my money on (I don't have a problem with this, and if I could set up a standing order to just buy whatever is released, I would), and hence a lot more detail. The Houses are better fleshed out, and there's a lot more to do with each House, but it does have the downside that things are now a lot more complex.

I'm aware that we didn't use most of the features of the various Houses, which is a shame, but it was too much detail for me to be able to fit it all in, giving the amount of plotting going on for the basic storyline.

I also never felt that I ran a successful Tribunal meeting. These are one aspect of Ars Magica that I've never 'got', and still haven't figured out how to actually run one properly. The whole idea of PCs taking on running the various NPCs doesn't work in any Saga where the NPCs actually have their own plots which are affecting the story (i.e., pretty much any game I run), and I haven't found an alternative that works.

We also once again failed to properly use troupe style play. Many players aren't really interested in playing more than one character, and most 'adventures' consisted of all the magi plus a couple of NPC grogs. This isn't really a problem, just a different way of playing the game.

Overall, I still think Ars Magica is a great system, and it's definitely worth giving the game a try if you haven't before (or even just reading the rules, for an idea of how a complete magic system can work). There's just a few niggles which required some working around or blatant ignoring over the course of the saga.

blog/20140202_ars_magica_retrospective.txt · Last modified: 2014/02/02 12:19 by sam