Greetings from the Domus Oublie in Tarnovgrad – the capital of 13th-century Bulgaria.
Images of, and narratives about, the European Middle Ages and wizards are part and parcel of fantasy fiction. So much so that it can be challenging to conceptualize fantasy fiction without at least one. This situation is true even in settings that are not twists on Middle Ages Europe. Such as most D&D settings – made of the tropes of Middle Ages Europe even if they are not European. And there are wizards all over the damn place. Seriously, wizards come with most fantasy settings like pigeons with cities.
So, wizards and Middle Ages European tropes are ubiquitous in fantasy settings and fantasy RPGs. The use of both is shallow for the most part. The setting is no more than set dressing. And wizards appear because Dunsany, Tolkien, and R.E. Howard told us wizards appear.
Ars Magica is different. This game thoroughly explores what it would mean to be a wizard in its carefully thought-out version of the Middle Ages. It doesn’t take anything for granted about its central premise.
Before diving into the setting, we will explore the game’s mechanical system. Then I will make some irrational social analysis of the game’s ludo-narrative elements.
Mark Ren Hagan and Jonathan Tweet developed Ars Magica in the 1980s – they would later design the White wolf Games. That is worth mentioning here because the mechanics of those later games employ a mechanic that grew out of the system Tweet and Ren Hagan developed for Ars Magica.
The basic resolution system is simple enough. A player rolls a single d10. The PC’s appropriate characteristics and ability score add to the dice roll’s results. The player compares this result to the target difficulty. This is referred to as the Ease Factor in Ars Magica. Some targets, such as “easy” at a six, are within reach. So, you roll a d10, and if you get a six or better, you succeed at an “easy” task. Some of these require bonuses in the form of characteristics and ability scores. For example, the “very hard” category requires 15, meaning the character will need five from their characteristics and ability scores even if they roll a perfect ten on the die. Players may earn experience points which they may spend to improve a character (Tweet, Rein•Hagen, & others, 1996).
It is possible to botch in this system – which is to say “interesting” things happen if the player rolls a one on the dice. Interesting in the same way a house fire is interesting. Ars Magica also provides a trait called “confidence.” Spending confidence points gives a bonus to dice rolls.
Social dynamics are as crucial to this game about wizards as is the magic. The game saddles wizards – at least most – with an aspect that makes people and animals dislike and avoid them. This same aspect means they can use magic. But the use of magic further sets magicians apart from normal society. But magicians in Ars Magica have a reputation score that will influence how people respond to the character. Maybe they are in awe, perhaps they tolerate the wizard, or maybe they immediately try to set them on fire. This is a good rule because it gives an actual mechanic that creates tension between the larger society and the sub-society of which wizards are members.
The game provides two forms of casting magic: the spontaneous and the formulaic. Spontaneous magic takes little time. But formulaic casting – which requires more time – also accomplishes more than the spontaneous.
The magic system used in Ars Magica is an RPG version of the Hermetic system. It has five techniques and ten forms. The game describes this as a “verb and noun” system. The technique is the verb, and the form is the noun. The book uses Latin terminology. For example, the technique of “creo” is “I create” and is the verb. The form “ignem” refers to light and heat and is the noun. So, “creo ignem” would be to create light. The magic system uses the basic task resolution system.
Magic in the settings exists in tension with other forces – this includes the infernal, the faery realm, and the divine. One caveat is that nothing trumps the divine – it is harder to cast spells in a church, or mosque, for example.
There are other nuances to the system. But the last central element worth exploring here is that Ars Magica is one of the first examples of the troupe system. That is where the players run multiple characters – the players run not only the wizards but the support staff that makes the wizard’s lifestyle possible; players also run companions and grogs.
Companions are to wizards as Alfred is to Batman. Grogs are skilled peasants that serve as bodyguards, craftspeople, and other staff – they would be supernumeraries and ignored in any other system. They have a chance to shine here (Tweet, Rein•Hagen, & others, 1996).
I am reviewing the 4th edition here because it is free. Atlas Games published this version in 1996 – and it shows. The book is a product of its time in terms of graphic design and art. Art comes from Dave Allsop, Neil Edwards, Josh Hoops, Eric Hotz, and Janine Johnston, among others. The editing and graphic design come from John Nephew. The art is not bad but is merely present. Some exceptions include the art on pages 21, 57, and 195. Weaker works appear on pages 162 and 179 – the latter reminds me of Rob Liefeld’s style. The graphic design is a strictly functional two-column format. The leading is widely inconsistent across the book. But this might be a product of converting the original document to a PDF. The map of Mythic Europe – the setting – is hard to read. But this might also be a product of converting the document to a PDF.
Ars Magica calls its setting Mythic Europe, a version of the early 13th century where magic exists and folklore is usually true. Umberto Eco – noted Italian, medievalist, and definer of fascism – wrote that modern society always finds a rhetorical use for the Middle Ages. He suggested at least ten different types of use, including as a source of modern national identities, Romanticism, barbarism, and occult philosophy, among others (Eco, 1973). Ars Magica is a romantic and barbaric setting soaked in pop culture occult philosophy.
The game’s creators and later writers did an admirable job of marrying the magic and fantasy elements with a more grounded approach to 13th-century Europe. Ars Magica uses a variation of the Hermetic system – which is somewhat anachronistic.
Most modern and pop culture ideas about Hermeticism are a long-range product of how it reappeared during the Renaissance. Hermeticism first developed as a philosophical system that grew from the purported teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. These supposed Hermetic writings span centuries but start around 300 BCE (Bull, 2018). Hermetism emerged parallel with early Christianity, Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, the Chaldaean Oracles, and Pythagorean literature in Late Antiquity (Hanegraaff, 2012). It fell out of favor and only re-emerged in the 1460s when Italian merchants hired people to bring lost texts and wisdom to them (Institute, 2022). The original Hermetic texts covered a lot of subjects because they represented a philosophical system. But Renaissance scholars focused on alchemy. The alchemy is why Hermetic traditions interested those Italian merchants – everyone wanted to know how to turn things into gold, such as lead, straw, and business rivals (Hoeller, 1996).
Hermetic magic gave way to science and technology. But charlatans like Alistar Crowley adapted Hermetic trappings and terminology. That, and the theatrics of stage magicians, did more to create the pop culture ideas of magicians than the actual original Hermetic scholars and alchemists.
Ars Magica uses Hermeticism in a Crowlian way – to evoke a mood and as set dressing for the game world.
The Hermetic texts were scattered but not lost to Europe in the Ars Magica setting. And notably, magic works. Mages were often sociopathic and solitary after the Western Roman Empire’s collapse but before the setting’s time. However, some mages developed protective magics and created a social network called the Order of Hermes. They usually remain sociopathic, but now they at least have mailing lists and drinking buddies.
Flippancy aside, the magical gift mages possess usually isolated them from society and previously isolated them from each other. However, the Order of Hermes provides a social framework and legal network for mages to interact without automatically falling into lethal bloodshed. But the Order is home to – and even tacitly encourages – scheming, backbiting political vendettas, exploiting legal loopholes, cruelty, and above all, the isolation of the mages from the social world around them. This is not only the strength of the game but the core of its ludo-narrative.
Within the Order of Hermes are polities called Houses. Each House practices a particular form of magic. The Order prohibits infernalism, and holy “magic” is the province of priests, rabbis, and imams. Interestingly none of the houses pursue necromancy. That said, the types of magics practiced match temperaments. For example, combative personalities will best match the truculent magicians among the Flambeau, would-be furries will fit with the Bjornaer, and miserable scheming assholes that no one likes and who never get invited to parties will find a home among the Tremere.
The Order has divided its rule of Mythic Europe into regional governments it calls tribunals. Houses may dominate tribunals. But none rule over the entire Order. Each of the Houses must publicly share territory and recognize the legal rights of the other Houses even where they dominate. Promotion for wizards inside the Order require service to the House, tribunal, and the Order itself. The goals of these elements are sometimes at odds. But this tension creates narrative possibilities. Growth in a mage’s personal power requires time, resources, and research – unless a mage can steal that from another mage. A lot of the politics of the order involve its members and Houses metaphorically cannibalizing each other. That is where the scheming and backbiting politics comes in.
A central part of the Order of Hermes is the Code of Hermes. This starts with an oath to which mages characters must swear and includes more extensive tangled legal code. The book needed to explore this more comprehensive system of mage laws. Ars Magica falls short of providing details even if it did not need to explore the laws comprehensively. In any case, part of the oath states that mages will not become involved in the affairs of “mundanes” or those who cannot use magic. Another portion reads mages must take enemies of the Order as their enemies. Lastly, the terminology of the oath is vague enough to catch almost anyone in a snare of lethal phrasing. An Ars Magica campaign will involve vituperative political tanging with other members at least as much as any other element. Again, this is a strength of the system and setting. It is surprising that the Order does not mandate celibacy or endogamy of its members.
Mages dwell in Mythic Europe but cannot participate in society because of their custom and nature. They dwell in Europe but do not abide by its laws or customs but only by their own. They do not answer to kings or popes but to their own hierarchy. They are by design, isolated politically, culturally, and socially.
The Order of Hermes serves as an unusual status group. Max Weber – noted German, sociologist, and jurist – developed the term “status group.” A status group is a community strongly associated with a particular social status. A status group possesses internal beliefs and customs about prestige, privilege, and honor (Gerth & Mills, 1946). It is also a strictly enforced dominance hierarchy where social structure and submission are enforced – often violently – by those at the top of the pecking order (Cheng, 2020). Order of Hermes members also have an odd combination of ascribed status and achieved status. Ascribed status, a sociological term, refers to the social status of a person assigned to them at birth. This is the situation for everyone in Mythic Europe. Someone born a peasant will die a peasant, for example. By comparison, achieved status is the term for the social position that a person can acquire based on merit – rising through the ranks of the Order of Hermes is possible. Their achieved status also puts mages at odds with the society around them (Linton, 1936).
The training apprentices go through serve as indoctrination to the Order’s ideology into the superiority of its members and ways and the relative irrelevant and unclean status of everyone else. This will reinforce the chauvinism of the mages and their unreasonable belief in their moral superiority and glory (American Heritage Dictionary, 2022). Members will see any exterior attempt to bridge this gap as an attack. It is illegal, even treacherous, for a member to make the same effort (Nickerson, 1998). Any such attempt would violate the Order’s ethos and threaten the members’ cliquish self-identity (Tajfel, 1970).
What is the ethical system for people who are isolated from the society around them, who can command frightening powers and answer to only themselves? They are insular in their normative ethics, and their tangled trap of a Hermetic Code mandates their applied ethics (Philosophy, 2022). So, what then prevents every member of the Order from becoming a petulant amoral monster? The magicians have the power to become a monster, both childish and terrifying. Further, the nature of the Order of Hermes encourages such behavior.
So, why should a mage not murder and replace their human staff with golems or magically enhanced animals? Why not permit a zombie apocalypse to be a problem for the mud-people mundanes? (Why not a zombie horde happen if it won’t pose many issues for a group of wizards?) Why not engage in eugenics? Why not dine on the souls of the mundane?
The troupe system reigns in these excesses.
Social dynamics will – or at least should – shape the characters’ behavior because of their environment and their normative indoctrination. But these same forces also shape the players at a table and what they will attempt and abide. One character runs a mage in one session, and another is running a companion. Those roles change soon. A player will only sometimes have the most potent character active in a game. Even if one player wants their character to wallow their magical crapulence the other players do not have to tolerate this behavior. This is part of the troupe system and how the players switch out mages, companions, and grog roles. The troupe system is arguably the most exciting part of Ars Magica (Tweet, Rein•Hagen, & others, 1996).
Past editions encouraged switching out who served as the story guide – or the game master – as a campaign progressed. The fifth edition moved this to a possibility rather than a suggestion. This is disappointing but understandable – running a game requires more effort and time than being a player.
The latest edition of the game is the fifth. Atlas Games published that version in 2004 – or almost 20 years ago. And 2016 saw the last official product from the publisher for the game line. But fans of Ars Magica remain active. The fans have entire sites dedicated to the game and forums on the Atlas site and Reddit. Further, much of the Ars Magica material released over the last decades is fan-generated, indicating fan interest even if the material is not official.
One arguable issue with Ars Magica is that it is not suited for short-term play or one-shot sessions. It needs entire campaigns by its nature – which requires a significant investment of time and energy from the participants. This can hold it back and limit its appeal.
Another issue is how the game isolates the characters from the political environment of 13th-century Europe. This limits storytelling. Better would be if characters could participate in local politics with approval from their House and the local tribunal. Even better is if tribunals and Houses assigned this work to characters. The characters would have to find a way out of this service, or at least a way to survive, if Hermetic leadership assigned them to serve in the armies of Holy Roman Emperor Frederic II, for example.
Ars Magica is a simulation game. It does not emulate any specific piece of fiction and goes its way in terms of depicting the fantasy genre. It is also complicated. The game’s basic mechanics are simple enough. But the nuances of the setting, the game’s social system, and the commitment required of the participants are complicated.
But is it art?
This podcast and critical review series attempts to formulate a theory of RPGs as an art form, and that theory depends on group engagement. The use of RPGs by fans, players, and story guides to elicit aesthetic experiences makes them art. Ars Magica should be considered art in that sense – the fans have a more significant commitment to it than publisher Atlas Games at this point.
American Heritage Dictionary. (2022, November 29). Chauvinism. Retrieved from American Heritage Dictionary: https://www.ahdictionary.com
Bull, C. H. (2018). The tradition of Hermes Trismegistus . Boston: Brill Academic Publishers Inc.
Cheng, J. (2020, June). Dominance, prestige, and the role of leveling in human social hierarchy and equality. Current Opinion in Psychology, 33, 238–244.
Eco, U. (1973). Dreaming of the middle ages. In U. Eco, Travels in hyperreality (pp. 71-72). London: Harvest Books.
Gerth, H., & Mills, C. (1946). Class, status, party. In M. Weber, Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 180–195). New York: Oxford University.
Hanegraaff, W. (2012). Esotericism and the academy: Rejected knowledge in western culture . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hoeller, S. A. (1996). On the trail of the winged god: Hermes and hermeticism throughout the ages. Gnosis: A journal of western inner traditions, 40, 1-14.
Institute, R. R. (2022, November 20). Embassy of the Freemind. Retrieved from Embassy of the Freemind: https://embassyofthefreemind.com
Linton, R. (1936). The study of man: An introduction. London: Appleton-Century.
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology, 2(2), 175–220.
Philosophy, I. E. (2022, November 15). Bertrand Russell: Ethics. . Retrieved from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://iep.utm.edu/russ-eth/
Tajfel, H. (1970, November 1). Experiments in intergroup discrimination. Scientific American, pp. 96-102.
Tweet, J., Rein•Hagen, M., & others. (1996). Ars Magica: The art of magic 4th edition. Roseville: Atlas Games.
The Magical Moral Magic of the Middle Ages
Greetings from the Domus Oublie in Tarnovgrad – the capital of 13th-century Bulgaria.