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Tabletop Game: Ars Magica

Ars Magica is a role-playing game set in Mythic Europe, a quasi-historical version of Europe around AD 1200 with added fantastical elements. It typically centers on the lives of Magi, powerful wizards belonging to the Order of Hermes, and the various mundane folk in their lives. While several details about the world change, sometimes drastically, from edition to edition, the same basic premise applies: the Order is a secret society in a world that believes in magic, founded by the apprentice of a wizard who first developed a unified magic theory and a general defense against magic, the Parma Magica. There are twelve Houses (with a missing thirteenth), each focusing on a particular area of study that the House founder excelled in originally:

Bjornaer: Shapeshifting magi who can change into form of their "Heart-Beast" (or, in the case of an inanimate, natural object, a "Heart-Shape"). They are descended from a Pomeranian Bear-witch name Birna and practice secret magical rites at their Domus Magnus Crintera every twelve years

Bonisagus: The Founder of the Order, though his apprentice Trianoma did most of the leg work. Originally wrote the Bonisagus Magic Theory, which is the magic system the book uses and that all Hermetic Magi are expected to know, if not use. Those who consider themselves Followers of Bonisagus are more interested in the study of magic; the Followers of Trianoma are more politically-minded. Either way, they have a natural prestige within the Order due to their Lineage.

Criamon: Magi who pursue The Enigma as the path to true wisdom and power, often prone to prophecy and using unusual logic to solve puzzles and riddles. Most insist that the Order is doomed on one level or another.

Diedne: Druids who were virtually wiped out during the Schism War and tend to be terminated with extreme prejudice even now; early editions simply mention the house as existing at one point, but they provide no information beyond "You cannot play a member of House Diedne" and a Flaw that means Quaesitors suspect your predecessors of being Diedne. Later editions provide rules for Diedne Magic, and detailed history regarding the causes of the Schism War itself (suspicions of human-sacrifice and devil worship, coupled with the house's insular and secretive nature, the nominally-Christian allegiance of the rest of the Order, and House Tremere pushing its own agenda against them).

Ex Miscellanea: Originally created as a "rival Order" to the Order of Hermes, but it didn't quite get there. Most of its mages only nominally practice Hermetic Magic, and is home to several "converted" hedge-wizards. Most (but not all) members do practice Hermetic Magic, albeit coloured by their earlier training, but as members of the Order they are taught the Parma Magica.

Flambeau: Battle-hungry pyromaniacs who love fire and warfare; probably the most mercenary of the Houses. Later editions have down-played the pyromania and homicidal, with mixed reaction from fans of the house. Many members of the house specialize as Hoplites (

Guernicus: Also known as House Quaesitoris; Order-keepers and judges, effectively the police. In later editions Quaesitors may come from any House, but Guernicus magi still tend to predominate due to their specialization in Intellego and Terram magics.

Jerbiton: Socially-oriented mages who love things like high society, the arts, and the Church. Most of the House's apprentices are acquired from noble houses, and sometimes even retain their mundane lives once out of apprenticeship.

Mercere: Primarily messengers and the Hermetic equivalent of the Pony Express; most of the House is comprised of mundanes. The Founder Mercere lost his Gift and took up the useful position of messenger. The Gifted members of House Merecere tend to focus on the arts of Creo and Muto and frequently possess the Mercurian Magic virtue.

Merinita: Split into two camps the same way Bonisagus is, with Followers of Merinita focusing on Nature magic, and Followers of Quendalon focusing on Faerie magic. This gives them some trouble, as molesting the Faeries is against Hermetic law. In addition to giving them access to unique RDT parameters, Merinita magi are less inconvenienced by Faerie Auras than other Magi.

Tremere: Rigidly hierarchical and focused strongly on various aspects of war, especially strategy, and notorious for moving sheer numbers across tribunals to gain the majority vote in order to block unfavorable laws from being passed. They operate under strict codes of dominance and submission, and often not considered trustworthy by the rest of the Order due to their trying to take over the Order. They are usually written as the primary instigators of the Schism War.

Tytalus: The Trickster House. Tytalus philosophy states that only conflict can inspire growth, and so they constantly test themselves (and others, whether they like it or not) in various ways, sometimes referred to as The Game. This eventually led to the House's corruption when they tried to outwit the Devil, resulting in widespread diabolism.

Verditius: Natural artificers who are inept with Formulaic magic, requiring casting tools where other magi of the Order need none; they produce most of the magic items in the Order and are the beating heart of its economy.

The Order of Hermes itself is richly political, with laws governing how Magi must conduct themselves toward each other while at court (Tribunal) and just in general, with secrecy and the right to power being primary tenets of the vow taken by mages at the completion of their apprenticeship.

It was one of the first examples of a Troupe system: early editions recommended that the players collaborate to create the campaign world and story. Each player would have an opportunity to be the Story Guide, and each player would have more than one character, so that if they felt their main character would not go on an adventure (for example, if they were busy with their research) a secondary character may be used. The game was developed by Jonathan Tweet and Mark ReinĚHagen of World of Darkness fame and if you look, you will find traces of Ars Magica in the Classic WOD - particularly the Order of Hermes mages and the Tremere vampires. The magic system of Ars Magica is generic, based on a combination of Forms and Techniques (to create fire, you'd use the form Ignem for fire and the Technique Creo for create together) and very intuitive. It's also one of few magic systems that allowed for spontaneous spellcasting, allowing the player to use magic off the top of their head to perform specific tasks, rather than limiting magical ability to a shopping list of immutable conditions and effects.

Had an unsuccessful Kickstarter towards a computer game version.

Ars Magica provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parens: While no wizards apprenticeship is usually easy (9 months of virtual slavery for 3 months of teaching) the mages of House Tytalus aren't just abusive to their apprentices but are arbitrarily so. Of course they consider it justified in order to teach their apprentices to question and challenge all rules and to create the kind of resentment that an apprentice needs to initiate the conflict with his master that will mark his Gauntlet (test for full wizard status) a conflict which can continue, sporadically, until the death of one or the other if the master particularly values the former apprentice.
    • The 4th edition supplement The Wizard's Grimoire includes a list of Hermetic legal trials, one of which regards a magus who tortured and murdered his last three apprentices. The court ruled that the apprentices were his to do with as he pleased, and so he had not committed a crime.
    • The "Tormenting Master" flaw generally results in this. Once a year, your parens takes a two-week vacation, during which they devote one hundred percent of their free time to finding some way to ruin your life. Tytalus mages might as well have it tattooed across their backsides.
  • Appeal to Force: The Order of Hermes tries to restrain this, but the institutions of certamen and Wizard's War allow for magi to settle matters by force of arms if a Tribunal doesn't act.
  • Asskicking Equals Authority: The law in House Tremere. A Tremere mage, even after theoretically graduating, is still bound to their parens unless they can win their freedom through certamen.
  • Badass Grandpa: Characters advance mechanically only once every season, four times per year. Magi tend to have ways to delay or even stop ageing entirely. Wizards with grey beards are by their nature the scariest things in the whole setting.
  • Beware the Superman: Mages are well within their rights to torture Muggles to death.
    • They have one Crime for this, loosely referred to as Interfering with Mundanes. No wizardly court on the planet will convict you for less than bringing actual harm to other mages, however, and not even then if you have enough political power to stop it.
  • Blessed with Suck: People with The Gift (that is, magi) are able to cast powerful spells, but are hard-pressed in regards to communicating with non-magi and animals (doubly so for those with the Blatant Gift flaw). Averted for those with the Gentle Gift virtue.
  • Chain Letter: The malleus epistula is one that provides detailed instructions for witch-hunting; at the end of the (long) letter is a paragraph that commands the recipient to make six copies and distribute them anonymously to other Christians, or (depending on the letter) something horrible will happen. It's a demonic plot to turn good Christians into psychotic torturers.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Criamon. In later editions, they're the only ones who have access to the Enigmatic Wisdom Virtue, which gives bonuses to understand things that normal logic can't process. The classic joke?
    How many Criamon does it take to light a candle?
    Fish.
  • The Commandments: The Order of Hermes has a Code of Conduct which (among other things) forbids dealing with demons, endangering the Order, interfering with secular governments and spying on or killing other mages.
  • The Crusades: The repurcussions of the Fourth one are still being felt in Europe at the official start date of 1220 AD for the latest edition. The Fifth one is just getting started.
  • Demon Slaying: Seen as problematic by the Order. Mages are strictly forbidden from dealing with demons, but while destroying an occasional demon is considered praiseworthy, actually making a business of taking demons down is considered extremely bad form for a Hermetic mage, as it might lead to Hell turning on the Order.
  • The Dung Ages: Earlier editions tended to lean toward this trope.
  • Elemental Powers: Aquam, Auram, Herbam, Ignem and Terram spells.
    • Elementalists, as described in Hedge Magic, are another (more limited) example of this.
  • The Fair Folk: The Faerie Realm contains all manner of different things, many of them easily offended and dangerous; this is the reason why "I will not molest the faeries" is part of the Oath of Hermes.
  • Familiar: All mages, bar House Bjornaer, can bond themselves to a magical animal as a familiar. Some can bond themselves to spirits and others can bond themselves to faeries.
  • Flat Earth Atheist: The briefly included Realm of Reason was based around skepticism about the existence of the supernatural, despite there being clear evidence that it truly existed. The implication is that magic can only exist where it can be believed in, and progress into Reason eliminates that possibility: this is explicitly a world where weasels give birth through their ears and where amber is formed by bobcats urinating on rocks.
  • Functional Magic: Basically every type can be found in Mythic Europe somewhere, though the Order mainly has the Inherent Gift, Rule Magic, and Device Magic.
  • The Gadfly: Guernicus the Founder was named this in earlier editions and probably was considered one by some of his peers in the current edition, but Tytalus the Founder and members of his house more readily match this trope.
  • The Hashshashin: Presented large historically, but mixed with magic as well.
  • Healing Magic Is the Hardest: Healing someone's body requires ritual magic, or else the wounds will reopen once the spell ends.
    • More downplayed than anything else. Instant permanent healing requires a ritual, but regular spells can siginificantly increase the chance of recover during the course of the normal healing process. Recovering from fatigue on the other hand, is well nigh impossible for Hermetic magic.
  • Hermetic Magic: Played with in a couple of ways: the only Hermetic magic as-per the trope is Verditius magic, which requires casting tools and considered a flaw of House Verditius (in some editions), and Ritual spells, which require the use of crystallized magic energy called vis and a long casting time; the rest of Ars Magica's magic is closer to Vancian Magic, but it's named Hermetic Magic after the Order of Hermes.
  • Heroes R Us: The Cult of Heroes in a downplayed sense, at least as far as any campiness.
  • I Know Your True Name: Mages eventually end up with three names. Their True Name (the one given to them by their parents at birth), their apprentice name (used by their master during apprenticeship) and then the Hermetic Name (which they choose for themselves after their apprenticeship is complete). This is all because the True Name is an extremely powerful weapon in the hands of one's enemies, particularly non-Hermetic ones. Demons are especially susceptible to the use of their True Names, and invoking a Demon's true name against them usually doubles the effectiveness of whatever spell or command is being used. In 5th edition, knowing the True Name of a demon (or angel) counts as an ability and forms a powerful (x5) Arcane Connection to it. It should also be noted that, according to Realms of Power: The Divine, a character's Baptismal Name cannot be used as a Sympathetic Connection
  • Kill It with Fire: The Ignem Flambeau (fire) approach to most things that are in their way. Flambeau specializing in Perdo (destruction) just destroy.
  • Knight Templar: The Flambeau tend to be the first to shoot and the last to talk when dealing with anything that might be an enemy to the Order. They've been behind most of the conflicts with non-Hermetic magi, and enthusiastically supported the Schism War.
  • Large Ham: one of the advantages of playing a 'grog' as opposed to a major character, according to the 5th edition rulebook, is that it's acceptable to chew on the scenery a little.
  • Language of Magic: Latin, for the Order of Hermes, or other ancient languages for other magic wielders both in and out of the Order although they usually need the Gift if they want to play with power. Other languages used based on magical tradition include Gothic for House Bjornaer and Pictish for the Gruagachan. Classic Greek, as opposed to Romaic Greek, is used by members of the Order of Hermes in the Tribunal of Thebes. In very few cases is the language itself actually magical, but when all of the Order's books and spells are written in Latin, you'd best know the language.
  • Long Lived: Magi can easily live longer due to magical longevity rituals. Certain other people, as well as supernatural beings, can also achieve this.
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory:Magi have laboratories that are modified over time to give the characters bonuses. Laboratories filled with lightning bolts, exotic creatures or enchanted devices that automatically sweep and organize are common. Laboratories that are underwater or located on clouds are not unheard of.
  • Magi Babble: In spades. There are arts, mystery cult initiations, exotically named spells, different types of vis, and a dozen or more exotic traditions to speak about in character. The magic rules are so closely linked to the in-setting magic concepts that it becomes difficult not to talk in magi babble.
  • Magic A Is Magic A: There are several known laws of Hermetic Magic that cannot be broken by any spell. Well, by any Hermetic spell. There's several mystery cults that can and do ignore the limitations of Bonisagus' theory.
  • Magical Society: The Order of Hermes is the main one in the game, including the most powerful and numerous of magic users in Mythic Europe. Within the order itself are several more distinct magtical societies, including the houses of the Order (listed above), mystery cults (four of which are also houses), leagues, and various individual magical traditions. There are still societies of magical traditions that exist outside the Order as well, some in Mythic Europe and some without. Likely the largest of these is the Order of Suleiman in the Mythic Middle East. Some magical societies have members both within and without of the Order of Hermes, but these tend to be relatively small groups.* Magnificent Bastard: Tytalus the Founder. Especially in the minds of the members of his House.
  • Master-Apprentice Chain: Going back many generations, and with longevity potions, an old master may have five or six levels of descendants.
  • Medieval European Fantasy, The game is actually a fantastic medieval Europe, with the typical campaign starting spring A.D. 1200 but oddly it more subverts this trope that supports it, due to the level of detail and 'reality' the various campaign source books looking at medieval politics and society. The supplement books that don't focus on the Order and its magic are about as accurate and informative as any regular general-history book, 4th edition's Ordo Nobilis in particular.
  • The Middle Ages: The official start dates for all versions of the game are well within The High Middle Ages. The history of the Order itself starts in Dark Age Europe and carries on through The Low Middle Ages.
  • Mutant Draft Board: Back and forth. Originally, the Order ran on the principle of "Join or Die," and in theory they still do. In practice, however, the Order only drafts Gifted wizards who know the Parma Magica or some equivalent form of Anti-Magic, and avoids harassing hedge wizards who don't make trouble. There's only one way to leave the Order, though.
  • Mystical Plague: The spell "Curse of the Unportended Plague" starts a plague in a city over a period of 6-12 months.
  • No Eye in Magic: Some spells have the range "Eye", which means the mage must make eye contact with the target for the spell to take effect.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: They're a form of fairy who take the form of the deceased, for one...
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different: Includes were-bears and were-lynxes.
  • Perilous Power Source : Magic, if powerful or long lasting, warps its targets. This eventually mutates the targets or in the case of magi removes them from the world entirely.
  • Planet of Hats: The Houses, though a rather downplayed variant. Each House has its own traditions, and most have some unique magic of their own, but two members of the same House (especially Ex Miscellanea, whose hat is not having a hat) may have completely different magic, attitudes, or both.
  • Point Build System
  • Rapid Aging
    • The Perdo Corporem spell instantly ages the victim 5-15 years.
    • 3rd Edition adventure Twelth Night. After the Burial Shroud of Christ is warped by Hermetic magic it gains the special power Circle of Decay, which affects all creatures within a half mile. Any creature less than 35 years old will age at a rate of 1 year per minute. Any creature 35 or more years old ages at a rate of 1 year every ten seconds.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Lion of the North. The gruagachan Brude Deathless's eyes turn red when he's angry.
  • Religion is Magic: Some magic draws upon the Divine, though most forms of divine magic are rather limited compared to the Hermetic Arts (which are descended from pagan religious magic, but don't call on any higher being). However, divine magic is pretty rare, and none of the three great Divine religions trains their priests (in general) in divine magic; the largest religion whose rites are intimately bound up in their magic are the Zoroastrians.
  • Robe and Wizard Hat: House Mercere, commonly called Redcaps because they wear silly-looking red pointy hats. The robe is optional, but common, since most major places know not to mess with the guys in the doofy red stooge cap— those guys have friends.
    • House Jerbiton, in its self-appointed role as 'envoy to the mundanes', tries to spread the idea that this is 'proper wizard attire' so that a) Wizards can be identified as such if they want to be (and are wiling to dress up in a silly outfit) and b) wizards can disguise themselves as mundanes by not wearing said silly outfit. Jerbiton also spreads other false (and true) information which they feel it would be beneficial to the Order for the mundanes to believe.
  • Shapeshifter Mode Lock: Mages who remain in animal form too long can have their human personality replaced with the animal's.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: The Curse of Venus flaw, which makes the character very attractive to people he or she does not WANT to attract, and who won't take no for an answer, and causing you to fall for those who have no interest in you.
    • Envied Beauty story flaw from the Jerbiton section of 'House of Hermes: Societies' which is exactly what it sounds like (your beauty causes (sometimes murderous) envy in others)
  • Soul Jar: Lion of the North. The "External Soul" gruagach virtue and the famhairan a'falach "remove heart" ability.
  • Spontaneous Weapon Creation: The spell "Tooth of the Staff" can create a spear with a polished flint head. Several such spells exist, and magi can invent new ones, or make them on the fly.
  • Star Power: The various forms of astrology. Low-level astrology is used in nearly every Hermetic ritual to empower the effect, but those Hermetic wizards who specialize in it can draw up horoscopes for doing lab work, cause spells to take effect or end exactly when they need them to, empower their magic by casting spells at the correct time, and a number of other effects. The Zoroastrian priests of Persia can also use astrology to enhance their holy magic.
  • Summon Magic: The specialty of the Order of Suleiman, the dominant magical order of the Islamic world. All of their magic involves summoning jinn (or sometimes other spirits) to power their effects.
  • Sympathetic Magic: Specifically referred to as the Law of Sympathy.
  • The Red Mage: At it's heart, Bonisagus' magic theory theoretically gives all Hermetic magi the potential to become this. However, in Ars Magica, magic is not a science, but an art, different individuals have different ways of working magic. The game strongly suggests that all magi characters have at least some form of Hermetic flaw, to represent imperfect understanding. Nevertheless, one of the strengths of Hermetic magic is that it is that it is that is very broad in what can be learned, though the greatest heights can still be reached by specializing. In some ways, Bonisagus' theory [Up to Eleven takes the Red Mage up tom eleven]. Although certain non-hermetic traditions can break certain rules of Hermetic Magic, they do so at the cost of extreme specialization, usually also requiring a disproportionate amount of time of study to be able to create such effects.
  • Unequal Rites: The Order of Hermes looks down on mages who don't practice Bonisagus-standard Hermetic magery. There's plenty of odd magic around Mythic Europe, and by and large the Order wants nothing to do with it.
    • It also tends to lend itself to some really fantastic comedic moments. The Order tends to think very highly of itself and its very sophisticated magic, to the point that some Order mages are downright snooty when it comes to non-Hermetics and their weird, uncivilized pagan nonsense...and then a Criamon wanders by, up to his eyeballs in Wizard's Twilight and not wearing pants.
    • Even within the Order, some Houses' magic is seen as inferior to others'. Verditius gets a bad rap because they require tools to use their magic, Merinita is distrusted because their magic is linked to The Fair Folk, and having Diedne magic in your legacy is still grounds for having a Wizard's March called against you.
    • The Order of Suleiman in the Islamic world tries to avert this. To be a member, a sahir has to prove that they can summon a spirit and be willing to help out the Order. That's it; while most sahirs do use Solomonic summoning, the yatus of Persia, the Kurdish Mulhidun infernalists, and other weirder wizards all have places within the Order. They're at war with the Order of Hermes, but that's because the Hermetic magi (though not the Oo H itself) have become involved in the Crusades.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Most Hermetic magi can do this with spells, and there are other ways to chang shape that those inside and outside of the Order of Hermescan use, but members of House Bjornaer have their own particular style that lets them more truly change into one animal. Unlike other shapeshifting, no form of magic can discern their human shape when in animal form. Also, if some other power changes their shape, they may continually try to change back into their own human or animal shape.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Arguably what makes the Tremere as dangerous as they are; they are ALL Well Done Son Guys, out to please no one but their parens (the mage who trained them), who wants to please their parens, who wants to please their parens...
    • Also carries over into the Tremere clan of Vampire: The Masquerade. There's no official link between the World of Darkness and Mythic Europe, but it's fairly obvious where to connect the dots. Ceoris, the center of Clan Tremere's politics, is not a happy place. Of course, Clan Tremere's origin is canonically House Tremere of the Order of Hermes... whom the clan exterminated to the last during the Middle Ages.
  • When the Clock Strikes Twelve
    • 3rd Edition adventure "The Pact of Pasaquine". The night the PCs arrive at Pasaquine they hear wolf howls in the woods. At midnight there is a sudden silence in the village and the Faerie wolf Hrulgar and thirteen other faerie wolves pad into town to confront the villagers.
    • 4th Edition adventure "The Fallen Angel". The demon Crom Vruach falls to Earth in meteorite form at midnight on the winter solstice. Six months later, at midnight on the summer solstice he hatches out in his new Nigh Invulnerable iron body and summons two more demons.
    • Mythic Perspectives fanzine #9 (Autumn 1999)
      • "Draugadrottin, The Norse Necromancer". A necromancer begins her ritual to raise a dead body as a draug (powerful zombie) at midnight.
      • "More on Exceptional Abilities". In an example, a woman has Second Sight (the ability to see the supernatural) because she was born at midnight on All Hallows Eve, and thus stands between the worlds of tha living and the dead.
  • Witch Hunt: The reason the Order of Hermes keeps a low profile. While most people in Mythic Europe don't think too hard about the occasional wise woman who lives in the woods or weird magician in a tower, the idea of open conflict between the Church and the Order is a headache no one wants to deal with.
    • The Church is cognizant of the Order and prefers to leave it alone. It's not so much a secret as it is something that isn't widely bandied about. The Church know that the mages can wipe them out if angered enough, so they ignore them. The Order know that God can wipe them out if angered, so they leave the Church alone. It's a beautiful balance of power.
    • The Order of Hermes also enforces its own "Join or Die" policy with regards to other magical traditions; though admittedly this is rarely invoked unless the other tradition has somehow learned the secret of the Parma Magica or some similar means of Magic Resistance...
  • Wrong Context Magic: In Ars Magica, all rules apply at all times, except the times that they don't. Even within Hermetic magic, the Limits of Magic and the verb/object rules only apply until someone comes up with a breakthrough or a Mystery that changes how the rules work. Outside of Hermetic magic, nearly anything goes.

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alternative title(s): Ars Magica
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