Ars Magica Mechanics

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Ronnie Sanford

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Has anyone played this? Can you describe the mechanics a bit? How crunchy is the game? Any special challenges in running it?
 

Ladybird

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I've played 4th edition. Others may differ! And this is only a summary.

Ars is a game about wizards and their wizard business, which basically consists of becoming very good at magic, and finding ways to stay alive for as long as possible (Becoming good at magic takes a very long time). It's set in a slightly mythic version of early medieval Europe, and like Pendragon, it's explicitly a campaign game.

The players are assumed to be a group of wizards all living and operating out of the same chantry; in addition to having a Wizard PC, each player also has a Companion (Who is a "powerful" mundane character, like a soldier or courtier) and the group has access to a number of Grogs (Servants and associated hangers-on). The system is quite unapologetic about the "power levels" of characters - Wizards are really "powerful", but can't deal well with the mundane world, while Companions and Grogs can't do magic but are necessary to enable the Wizards and their lifestyle - but it balances out fine in play; most things that wizards do will need some wizards and some mundanes to look after them.

Each Wizard is a member of a House - a grouping of wizards with similar outlooks and magical specialities - and each chantry is part of a Tribunal; an overarcing organisation of all the wizards in the "local" area (Local being a relative term; there is one tribunal for England and Wales, one for Scotland, etc); chantrys also have obligations towards the local mundane authorities, including landowners and the church.

The game plays out in seasons, which last three months; in that time, your wizards will spend most of their time researching, but there's time to maybe go on one quick adventure, for a week or so; dealing with local mundane politics, dealing with magical politics, hunting down rare items to help with their research, etc. The underlying game mechanic is simple; it's d10+stat+skill+modifiers vs target number, and on most rolls 10's explode upwards and 1's explode downwards. The skill list contains all the regular old favourites - combat skills, tracking, cooking, athletics, research, charm, it's all there. The combat system is a bit clunky, but it works okay.

Wizards get access to a special set of "skills"- Techniques and Forms - and these are the heart of the spellcasting system. There are five Techniques (Create, Percieve, Transform, Destroy, Control) and ten Forms (Animal,, Air, Water, Body, Plant, Fire, Image, Mind, Earth, Power), and to cast a spell of a particular type you're making a skill check using the appropriate Technique and Form. In the book, there are a set of pre-designed spells for each combination, along with the appropriate target numbers, but the real heart of the system is the freeform casting mechanic; there are guidelines for each Technique and Form combination as to what they can do, so if you need to cast a freeform spell, you tell the GM what you want and they'll come back with a target number. It's typically harder than the premade spells, but that's your tradeoff; power for flexibility.
(A side note: Ars uses latin names for these. I've translated for simplicity, and because I always forget when I'm playing.)

The real crunch with Ars comes with the researching and the lab work. Wizards need to do research to improve their abilities; the game includes comprehensive systems for writing magical books, reading magical books, creating magical items, and creating new spells. Advancement is slow as a result (Years of in-game time), so mundanes will die; one of the earliest items a Wizard should start learning to create is ways of extending their span, to give them more time to research, but that runs the risk of falling into twilight (Magical insanity). There are a lot of rules in this section, and it's sadly very necessary. One of the types of items of magical power you can collect is Vis, raw magic corresponding to a Technique or Form, and this is incredibly useful for research; one of the very first things a new chantry should do is look for, and guard, nearby Vis sources.
XP is assigned skill-by-skill; once a skill reaches (it's rank) in XP, it increases by 1 and you restart the XP. You can generally only spend 1 XP on a skill per season, but if you're a Wizard doing Research you can advance much faster than that.

If you're going to play Ars, the big challenge is; get a big block of time to play in. This is a game truly designed for the campaign and for watching your characters develop; I would say don't bother unless you've got at least ten good sessions or so, with lab work in between. It'll work with either sandbox or story-led play styles, it's also set in a world close enough to ours that you can use actual local myths and legends. Encourage players to use all of the PC's they have access to, but accept that they will have favourites and that's okay; similarly, provide a bunch of different situations and pressures, magical and mundane.

4e is available here for free - genuinely free! - and it's a very complete corebook. 5e is generally regarded as a better game by the community though - I couldn't answer that, as we play 4e because it's what we have and what our campaign is in.
 

noman

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Ladybird, I've been curious about AM for a while, and this is the best summery I've yet found. Thank you.
 

Ronnie Sanford

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Ladybird that was awesome! I will take a look at 4e! Thank you so much!
 

Leon ap Hywel

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What a great summation. Ars Magica is an interesting game but unfortunately never suited my groups play style.
 

Baulderstone

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If you can find it, Second Edition has simpler lab rules. It makes a big difference as Ars Magica is a game where every player needs to fully understand and use the lab rules. The rules bloat after second edition, while nicely done, made it much harder to actually get a group on board to play. I played it with multiple groups using second edition, but any attempts with 4th edition never got off the ground. The combat system has some issues in 4th Edition, although they patched it in the book on knights (Ordo Nobilis?).

I prefered the flavor is 2E as well. It was more fun, and I felt the supplements supported actual play more. By 3E and 4E, you had books with either more mechanics or lots of background fluff.
 

The Butcher

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I love the idea of AM —the setting exudes fantastic Medieval awesomeness; troupe play sounds fun; ditto the "syntactic" magic system; love the idea of Wizards doing research and being civil douches to each other — but it sounds very demanding in terms of commitment. I run for a fairly casual crowd and I'm kind of a lazy bum myself when it comes to crunch.
 

Baulderstone

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I love the idea of AM —the setting exudes fantastic Medieval awesomeness; troupe play sounds fun; ditto the "syntactic" magic system; love the idea of Wizards doing research and being civil douches to each other — but it sounds very demanding in terms of commitment. I run for a fairly casual crowd and I'm kind of a lazy bum myself when it comes to crunch.

It is. This is why I felt the whole gameline went astray after second edition, focusing on supplements that added more complexity to the system rather than on supplements that simply provided nice sandbox material for the GM that use the existing mechanics.

They really began to muddy the game up during third edition. Ars Magica was hailed for having such a clever and versatile magic system, but that wasn't enough. We started getting all these damn alternate magic systems: a magic system for diabolists, one for Christian mages, one for shamans, one for Kabbalists, one for natural philosophers, etc.

Tweet and Rein-Hagan made this great system that players could use to engage in magical creativity. The second they left the line, the new developers, rather than thinking of cool ways to use this system just start piling inferior systems onto an already meaty game.

I'm really happy to hear that people like Ladybird are still playing this fantastic game. It just felt like the game was poised for greater popularity in the early '90s, and the developers took it the other way.

Near the end of second edition, there was an upcoming supplement that never came out. It was going to be a new setting for the game, placing it in a fantasy world dominated by magi. While I really like the historical setting, those kind of settings are very intimidating to a lot of players. AM had the double obstacle of a complex system and a historical setting. An alternate version of the game with a fantasy setting seemed a great idea to widen the fanbase. I hope someone does it some day.

I hope I am not coming off as too negative. The fact that the game has survived so long means the developers are doing something right even if it isn't what I wanted.
 

Ladybird

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I'm really happy to hear that people like Ladybird are still playing this fantastic game. It just felt like the game was poised for greater popularity in the early '90s, and the developers took it the other way.

Yeah... but on the other hand, it lacked the cultural zeitgeistiness of Vampire, or the brand recognition of D&D, and it's demanding; even without the lab rules, I still think running one-offs would be difficult because players wouldn't fully understand when and how to go for freeform magic. Get to the late 90's, and it can't do Harry Potter, so that's another opportunity gone. You could probably sell people on freeform magic now - I see a lot of games which borrow the Technique Form magic concept - but then you've got the lab work problem, and that's a type of crunch most people don't like nowadays.

I definitely agree it's a shame it's not more popular, but I can see why that's the case.

Near the end of second edition, there was an upcoming supplement that never came out. It was going to be a new setting for the game, placing it in a fantasy world dominated by magi. While I really like the historical setting, those kind of settings are very intimidating to a lot of players. AM had the double obstacle of a complex system and a historical setting. An alternate version of the game with a fantasy setting seemed a great idea to widen the fanbase. I hope someone does it some day.

It maybe helps that I'm from the UK, so we can draw on that history (I've actually been to the hill our chantry is on, IRL) and it's relatively easy to find local myths and legends to throw wizards at, and I think you'd lose that with a fantasy setting... but if you're not european, you don't have that anyway, and I agree that historical settings can feel very daunting.

Have you seen Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk, Arion Games' arabian Ars-like? It looks good.

I hope I am not coming off as too negative.

Not at all!
 

Ladybird

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If anyone's interested, there are two Ars Magica 5e bundles up at Bundle of Holding - one for the corebook and supplements about the various groups within the Order of Hermes, another for even more supplements about the nature of magic and other caster traditions.

Again, I haven't played it, so I can't tell you anything about it, other than there being a lot of it here.
 

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Second edition is also my favourite, though I have to admit I've never tried the current 5th ed.It's hard to imagine what another edition could do to improve on the 2nd.
 

noman

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For those interested there are two new offers on Bundle of Holding for Ar5

Ars Magica
Wizards & Power

I'm sorely tempted by these. Ars Magica isn't on my carefully planed list of RPGs' to buy, but I may have to break from that plan in this case. I'll never run it. But, damn it looks like some good stuff. Not sure.

Uncertain noman is uncertain.
 

Leon ap Hywel

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Yeah I was sorely tempted but I've got enough to plan and read without adding to the distraction.
 

noman

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Serious question:

If I've got ACKS, what value would I gain from the addition of Ars Magica? I can emulate wizards in towers working to perfect their magic while simultaneously managing their domain using ACKS and a few related games. If I can do this already, why invest time (learning, planning, creating with a new system) into Ars Magica?

I'm not being snarky or harshing on AM. I'm seriously asking.
 

The Butcher

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Serious question:

If I've got ACKS, what value would I gain from the addition of Ars Magica? I can emulate wizards in towers working to perfect their magic while simultaneously managing their domain using ACKS and a few related games. If I can do this already, why invest time (learning, planning, creating with a new system) into Ars Magica?

I'm not being snarky or harshing on AM. I'm seriously asking.

Ho boy. That is not a comparison you want to make...

...mainly because ACKS mages build dungeons for monsters to lair in, so they can farm them for body parts; and there's an actual chance that a NPC party will show up to loot it.

Which is to say, ACKS > Ars Magica. :grin:
 

noman

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Ho boy. That is not a comparison you want to make...

...mainly because ACKS mages build dungeons for monsters to lair in, so they can farm them for body parts; and there's an actual chance that a NPC party will show up to loot it.

Which is to say, ACKS > Ars Magica. :grin:

Thanks for the response, Butcher.

If I understand correctly, you're saying that ACKS can do the whole Mage in the Tower shtick (perhaps not as well as AM) and make dungeons on top of that?
 

Ladybird

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Serious question:

If I've got ACKS, what value would I gain from the addition of Ars Magica? I can emulate wizards in towers working to perfect their magic while simultaneously managing their domain using ACKS and a few related games. If I can do this already, why invest time (learning, planning, creating with a new system) into Ars Magica?

I'm not being snarky or harshing on AM. I'm seriously asking.

TLDR : Magi aren't Adventurers, Conquerors or Kings.

Ars is pretty firmly in the "simulationist" point of the GNS triangle (Yeah, I know, but it's useful for high-level descriptions of games); it's a game about living life in the world, and everything in the rules reflects that. The magic system works the way it does because those are the rules the setting follows; it's an objective truth that magic works that way. It's not a game where you can make your fortune by going on adventures; you'll die, and characters barely get any more resilient. You don't want "stuff", you want knowledge.

ACKS has a heavy "sim" element to it too, but it's also got a lot of "game"; at least at low levels, the game is about adventuring and getting stuff, and the various systems act to make that possible; everything else flows from that, including advancement. The custom magic side of it isn't really designed for low-level characters, and because you're stuck with a fixed spell list, the creativity is about using the wrong spell in an interesting way, unlike Ars which is about making the right spell at the right time; the spell creation rules are a late-game goal, and even then not as versatile (You need to plan more in advance, you don't have spontaneous casting).

So I think you could definitely do a Wizard Business game with ACKS, and have a good time, but the feel would be completely different, and as GM you'd need to be wary of areas of the game where it doesn't expect an all-caster group to be a thing. I'd probably make a set of custom classes to represent different wizard archetypes, and definitely make spell creation a quite early ability so players can get into it.

I think the only real use you'd get from the books is the setting, but ACKS is a system that assumes powerful PC's go and get shit done in the world, whereas a powerful Ars PC would probably rather write a long and complex lecture about water and then go to bed. The setting wouldn't stay like the books for long if they were ACKS wizards instead.
 
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The Butcher

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What Ladybird said, of course. I was being facetious (mostly; I do find D&Desque means-to-an-end wizardry easier to buy in than AM's purportedly-just-metaphysical-curiosity wizardry). They are very distinct experiences.
 

Baulderstone

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Ho boy. That is not a comparison you want to make...

...mainly because ACKS mages build dungeons for monsters to lair in, so they can farm them for body parts; and there's an actual chance that a NPC party will show up to loot it.

Which is to say, ACKS > Ars Magica. :grin:

I realize you are mostly joking, but let me point out that is close to an Ars Magica cliche, at least back in the free-wheeling 2nd Edition days. Magi in Ars Magica need to harvest Vis. Vis is found in mystical sites and magical creatures, so magi typically try and claim regions where they can harvest them. I standard plot in Ars Magica is "Local noble decides to make use of the area where you harvest your vis". Alternately, you can have a Seelie Lord come through from Arcadia and protect the faerie forest you have been using as your vis farm.

While there is something to the idea that most Ars Magica magi would rather just stay home and research, there are entire House that are all about adventure. House Tytalus is about achieving power by testing themselves in outside conflicts. House Flambeau magi are always looking for an excuse to set someone on fire. While achieving power as a magus does require a fair amount of downtime, it is mainly to create reasons for large time gaps between adventures. Domain play is more interesting on the scale of decades than on weeks.

Nothing is really keeping you tied to the Mythic Europe setting either. If you want to dump the Dominion and the Order of Hermes and have a world where wizards can just run amok, the system still works.

Of ACKS is a lot of fun too even if it offers more limited magical research. My feeling is that if you have a group where everybody wants to play a magi and get into magical research, you are definitely better off with Ars Magica. If you have one guy would would really like to play Ars Magica and the rest of the group just wants to play D&D, then ACKS would be a nice compromise. I leave the grey areas in between for you to decide which way to go.
 

dr_mitch

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Ars Magica wizards are powerful, even from the start. They can rise to be incredibly powerful. They're also cloistered academics; the cliche of an Ars Magica wizard is one who would rather stay away from the outside world and get on with their real work. Most wizards even have an aura which disturbs the mundanes. But they need things from outside, and the outside sometimes comes knocking at their door. Then there's both mundane and wizardly politics.

There's more people at a wizard's covenant than wizards. There are companions who are more like regular adventurers, and grogs, who are low level guards and retainers.

There are two distinguishing features of Ars Magica play apart from the wizards. One is that it's a long term thing with time between adventures. A campaign will take decades of time in the world.

The other is troupe play. Each player has a wizard and a companion. There are a bunch of shared grogs. On an adventure, a player will choose which character they take; a companion or grog might be more suitable than their wizard. A fire wizard might be great at combating mythical creatures but have an aura which completely freaks out mundane people, for example.

Anyway, it's very different to any D&Dish game.
 
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daniel_ream

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If you can find it, Second Edition has simpler lab rules. It makes a big difference as Ars Magica is a game where every player needs to fully understand and use the lab rules. The rules bloat after second edition, while nicely done, made it much harder to actually get a group on board to play.

This. Holy balls, this. I bought 5th ed to have a go with my group, having very fond memories of 2nd ed back in college, and 5th ed went back on the shelf almost as fast as it came off. I do not have time to learn a game that mechanically heavy any more, let alone teach it to my players.
 

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True, there are a few games that have big teachability issues. Even if everyone is willing to dig in to a lot of source material and willing to play politics with a whole troupe of characters, it's a hard "onboarding" experience. I feel the same about "regular" fantasy campaigns in highly detailed worlds with a modicum of consistency (i.e. not D&D). Getting people who are totally foreign to it into Harn, Aventuria or Tekumel sounds like assigning homework to them.

There's really no way out of this, and I do actually believe that it's worth it, but I appreciate any setting that makes it easy to take the first steps into a "bigger world". That might be a decent "this is our world" section in the basic rulebook or maybe even some special documents (Glorantha had some of this), maybe even fiction.

Not sure if an easy way into AM is even possible. Apprenticeship flashback episodes?

Compared to that, I dont even have a big issue with AM5 mechanics. I chew through rules pretty rapidly and have a few players who'd have no issue with that, but who would have more problems memorizing all the factions, and in some cases getting up to speed with real world history of that period…
 

Baulderstone

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Compared to that, I dont even have a big issue with AM5 mechanics. I chew through rules pretty rapidly and have a few players who'd have no issue with that, but who would have more problems memorizing all the factions, and in some cases getting up to speed with real world history of that period…

Those are purely optional problems that crept into the game later. First Edition didn't even have Houses. Those came with Second Edition, and it wasn't until even later that you started getting even finer political distinctions. The politics is all optional setting material that you can use or not use. Even if you use it all players don't need to know it at the start. They can pick it up as they go.

As for history, I don't know why they need to do that. Second Edition mainly concentrated on small fictional areas. You have your covenant, a local lord, some towns, some magical sites for adventuring and vis harvesting, and a neighboring covenant or two. The players don't need to know history any more than a player needs to know the history of Oerth to play through The Keep on the Borderlands.
 

Ladybird

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Compared to that, I dont even have a big issue with AM5 mechanics. I chew through rules pretty rapidly and have a few players who'd have no issue with that, but who would have more problems memorizing all the factions, and in some cases getting up to speed with real world history of that period…

As a player, you don't need to worry too much about real-world history; understanding the basic headlines is enough, because your character probably won't interact with it, and while magi are learned people, they also have their own local goings-on to deal with. If there's a war going on in France, and your game is set in Yorkshire... you're probably not going to have heard that much about the war itself, but you'll be dealing with the consequences of many good workers having been sent to France.
 

Baulderstone

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As a player, you don't need to worry too much about real-world history; understanding the basic headlines is enough, because your character probably won't interact with it, and while magi are learned people, they also have their own local goings-on to deal with. If there's a war going on in France, and your game is set in Yorkshire... you're probably not going to have heard that much about the war itself, but you'll be dealing with the consequences of many good workers having been sent to France.
On top that, if there is a war happening where your covenant is set, you hear about it in play. You don't need to read a book about the war and its outcome before playing.

Magi are also forbidden to get involved in mundane affairs anyway. First and Second edition are mostly about players having weird adventures on the magical fringes of Mythic Europe. There was a more mythic/legendary/fairy tale feel to the game. I think adding too much real history to the game weakens it. The original intent of the game is to play in Medieval European mythology, not the real Middle Ages.
 

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I was just going to say that you can trim out the history stuff without much difficulty, since just about everyone can glom on to "nasty, dull, brutish and short" plus "You've all seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail". That the current editions of the game focus on it so much is the barrier, I think.

Increasingly I'm thinking the 2nd edition is the way to go.
 

Sosthenes

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As a player, you don't need to worry too much about real-world history; understanding the basic headlines is enough, because your character probably won't interact with it, and while magi are learned people, they also have their own local goings-on to deal with. If there's a war going on in France, and your game is set in Yorkshire... you're probably not going to have heard that much about the war itself, but you'll be dealing with the consequences of many good workers having been sent to France.
It seems we've got different approaches to immersion here, or are just talking about different levels of knowledge. For me, and for at least half my players, knowing the basic details of day-to-day life in a game setting is usually quite important -- and fantasy actually makes it easier to handwave things. So for a historic setting, where I play someone rather well educated (the mage or a scholarly/noble character in the troupe), I'd want to know a few of the "basics". How the money and power flows in a state, the rough tech level and art (i.e. mostly what isn't there yet), a few relevant details of the law and an outline of current events (heresies, wars, plagues).

I don't like playing in paper mache scenery.
 

Imperator

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I love the idea of AM —the setting exudes fantastic Medieval awesomeness; troupe play sounds fun; ditto the "syntactic" magic system; love the idea of Wizards doing research and being civil douches to each other — but it sounds very demanding in terms of commitment. I run for a fairly casual crowd and I'm kind of a lazy bum myself when it comes to crunch.
I've had the same problems, even with the 3rd edition, which is the one that got translated here in the 90s.
 

Ladybird

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It seems we've got different approaches to immersion here, or are just talking about different levels of knowledge. For me, and for at least half my players, knowing the basic details of day-to-day life in a game setting is usually quite important -- and fantasy actually makes it easier to handwave things. So for a historic setting, where I play someone rather well educated (the mage or a scholarly/noble character in the troupe), I'd want to know a few of the "basics". How the money and power flows in a state, the rough tech level and art (i.e. mostly what isn't there yet), a few relevant details of the law and an outline of current events (heresies, wars, plagues).

No, I think we're pretty much actually in agreement actually - the PC's will interact with the day-to-day nature of the setting, and so as players that's that's an important thing to know about.

It's the "big picture" that's not quite so relevant - unless your character is specifically a scholar in world events, getting hold of that information in the time period is hard because information travels slowly; and if they are that sort of scholar, then they'd be better based in Oxford, London, or any of the other big cities, and wouldn't really fit that well into an Ars troupe.
 

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Finally got back to this.

Hope everybody (if you're here in the States) had a great holiday.

So, I picked up both bundles and read through much of it during the weekend. As I did so, I kept thinking, "How did I miss this?"

It's awesome stuff.

I now understand the difference between AM and ACKS. Similar but different, representing two very different styles of play.

It's a heavy system. Heavier than anything else I've got (except maybe EABA). Lots of crunchy bits and a whole hella lot of lore. This stuff would keep be busy for years.

I may, may, be able to actually get a few players to play it, for a long-term campaign. Fingers crossed.

If you were like me and you were on the fence, I suggest picking it up. The bundles are a steal for what you're getting and there's a few days left before they expire.

Finally, a big thanks to everybody who replied to this thread. You were super-helpful. :smile:
 
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daniel_ream

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someone rather well educated (the mage or a scholarly/noble character in the troupe), I'd want to know a few of the "basics". How the money and power flows in a state, the rough tech level and art (i.e. mostly what isn't there yet), a few relevant details of the law and an outline of current events (heresies, wars, plagues).

As has been pointed out, in the Middle Ages "someone rather well educated" would have no or at best a very thin grasp of those subjects. Someone rather well educated in 1220 is a clergyman and their education is entirely theological. Magi spend their time studying magic exclusively; the social ineptitude of magi in Ars Magica due to this has been part of the setting since the beginning.

Nobles would be a bit different, being part of the ruling power structure. But even then they're going to know what's going on in their own neighbourhood and that's about it.
 

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Magi spend their time studying magic exclusively; the social ineptitude of magi in Ars Magica due to this has been part of the setting since the beginning

My character has bonked (Or tried to bonk) quite a few characters in our campaign. It's got us accidentally got caught up in demon summoning once, he's had his nose broken (And this was from another magi, who he tried to woo!), and another player's knight has threatened to feed him to her (Carnivorous, fae) horse if he so much as looks at her funny.

He's an utterly insufferable twat. I genuinely dislike him as a person, but he's fun to play.
 

noman

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I would love to play Fifth Edition, but I can't imagine ever running it without losing my mind. Or losing my job and my marriage!

Luckily for me, I've already lost what passed for my mind, so I'm down for some AM5.

Followed by some Exalted 3rd. Because I don't just want to embrace the madness; I want to french kiss it.
 

Baulderstone

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Luckily for me, I've already lost what passed for my mind, so I'm down for some AM5.

Followed by some Exalted 3rd. Because I don't just want to embrace the madness; I want to french kiss it.
I think I might have my Aria books packed away somewhere if you want to get to second base.
 
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