Who goes first? Alternative Ars Magica Initiative

Initiative is fiddly to get right in tabletop roleplaying games, as there are always special circumstances to consider. So beyond a boiler-plate statement about Initiative in my games being subject to the story, more than the story is subject to the mechanics, here is how I see Initiative being resolved in the Ars Magica 5th ed roleplaying game. And yup, this is probably different from the Ars Magica cannon, because the rules as written are not explicit for the same reason as mine – they prefer the story too.

The game rounds in the rules take anywhere between 3-5 seconds each, and that seems a very reasonable time period. In each round there in an unlimited amount of initiative based actions, according to how many people are participating. This means that in simple one on one combat you’d expect to be able to see each deliberate action, and they would probably not overlap too much, but in fact it does not matter so much. In a wild melee the Initiative order of participants is maintained, and this means many actions will be happening per second; probably appearing to be simultaneous. The actual time within the combat round is irrelevant, it is all based upon a strike order. We track the number of rounds for the purposes of actions occurring outside the combat, such as Diameter spell durations, folks sprinting toward the combat area, and all sorts of other factors.

Initiative is resolved by using a Attribute + Ability (stat + skill) with modifiers for the action attempted, which is typical for Ars Magica. The resolution path is what is important, and in this post I’m suggesting a few guidelines that mirror much of the 4th edition rules, and might be different (see the bottom) from the 5th edition rules. I am almost positive that these rules are different from the core rules, and am very much looking forward to testing them on live player characters.

First everyone declares what they intend to do, without too much pondering of other actions, and rolls the appropriate Initiative dice roll. Remember a quick choice is better as we’re only talking about a handful of seconds. Players and NPCs that take too long miss an action. Initiative is re-rolled fresh each combat round. This is to ensure that virtues and flaws that alter initiative have the most value possible (more rolls means more opportunity for the virtue or flaw, stat choice, or whatever to apply).

The actions taken are resolved in turn, highest to lowest. The order of initiative is kept consistent for the rest of that combat, and only selective delay or special circumstances will modify the initiative order.


A character may delay their action until a specific event or circumstance (the door opens, the Magus begins casting, etc). The delay does not begin until their original Initiative is reached, and continues until after the action they have declared, or until they wish to wait no longer. This means a character can stand and wait round upon round if they wish.

A few caveats for delayed initiative are:

  • The character who delays must in response to something they declare, so they act after that action. They cannot wait until another combatant is swinging their sword, and then decide to attack first. To do that they would have to declare that they were swinging.
  • If the character delays and then their new action is on the same combat sub-turn as other combatants, then they act after all those combatants.
  • The delayed character can exit waiting, but that ends their turn. They waited, but their action never arrived.
  • It is fine for a character to delay (thus forfeit) their action in one turn to become the highest initiative number in the next turn. If two combatants do this then they resolve the conflict using the Quickness stat + d + any special modifiers. In effect the two combatants roll Initiative against each other only for lead of the next round.

Surprise Actions

Surprise actions are used only when some of the combatants can act without the others knowing. An ambush, a sniper, or some other split second action where it is not plausible for anyone to act grants surprise actions.

e.g. A sniper using a crossbow at close range, where the target is unaware would be surprised. A swordsman charging from the treeline toward another soldier might get surprise, but would certainly not get surprise against a Magus, who can fast cast a spell with a second of concentration (the GM would rule on this, see some options below). The best guide is to use common sense for surprise actions, and have it based upon plausibly having awareness of the threat.

A surprise action should not be something that takes a long while to do either. It has to be quick and resolved. You can’t “surprise” reload a crossbow. You may only fire one missile (pre-loaded), and a surprise round should be considered the “quickest” of rounds. After surprise the combat initiative is resolved as a fresh round; in effect the surprise is a free round of action.

As a guide the character should get a reaction if they are prepared and ready, and could perceive the threat and possibly react. A Magus who is day dreaming, or conducting some intense activity should have no chance to react. Perception + Awareness tests are very handy for this type of thing, where the activity should be a modifier to the difficulty against the basic ease factor. If nobody sees it, then the surprise is in play.

There are also scenarios where the characters might hear the attack, but not react in time. That charging soldier from the tree line screams as he charges 10 paces, and its not unreasonable to give everyone a Quickness test to see if they can react (Quickness + d10 vs a tough difficulty factor) which represents the time the character has to react. As a guide anything over 3-4+ seconds is really not surprise at all, 2 seconds or less might be difficulty 9-ish roll, and one second or less is surprise.


Each character gets one action per round. It might be odd to non-ArM players, but typically a Magus can fast cast, and then make a normal casting. I dislike that as I think it can be abused. If Magi wish to multi-cast, then they will need to Master the spell. It makes Mastery a solid and powerful choice.

The one action does not count defensive actions, which the player can make as they wish.

The Initiative Score

To determine the Initiative value, look up the type of action the character is taking.

  • Surprise actions, as ruled by the GM = first, in order of their own Initiative.
  • Fast Casting Speed = Qui + Finesse + d10 (-6 for every other spell over the first).
  • Weapons (both melee and range) = Qui + Wpn Mod – Enc + d10.
  • Normal formulaic spells and spontaneous = Quickness – Enc + d10.
  • Movement = Quickness – Enc + d10.


Resolution is easy, just prioritise the actions in this way:

  • Resolve any surprise actions, if you have them.
  • Fast Cast Spells are next, with the faster initiative between them being resolved first. A fast cast spell is assumed to be a second or less in cast time; as its literally a short phrase and a gesture.  This is why it can plausibly block a melee strike from a skilled combatant in melee. Any slower and you’d be in trouble.
  • It is possible for a Magus to change from a normal spell or weapon action to a fast cast action if the combat changes and they have not acted. The Magus must be aware of the attack
  • Weapons, Normal spells and Movement are then resolved together according to Initiative. This means that most normal spells will happen after a melee of range strike, which is consistent with normal spell casting needing 2-3 seconds to do. A step or two of movement is built into the action for Weapons and Normal spells, so allow a few steps for the sake of combat shuffling.
  • Movement begins on the characters Initiative score, and ends when either the combat round ends, or the character reaches their destination. The actual distance traveled is not so important, but it is important to note that movement means the combatant is moving more than a few steps, and tying to get elsewhere. It is assumed that a small amount of movement is “built in” to combat, and combatants know how to adjust for a backward step, a small change. There is no move and attack action in melee, you are either within a step or so, or completely out of melee combat range.
  • The rules for disengaging from combat from the core rules still apply to those who wish to flee from melee.

Discussion Notes

Using this order you’ll see some effects in the combat come to light. Range weapons for example are basically slower than melee weapons, which means you’d be mad to stand in front of sword wielder and fire one unless you really had to. Also as movement happens with range, normal spells, and melee; the combatant using the missile weapon will always fire amongst all the targets in combat. This way missiles have an advantage at range as the target must close the distance, but are threatened when in melee.

Reach weapons and quick weapons tend to have higher Initiative bonuses, and that reflects the disadvantage of closing, and the speed of the weapons abstractly. Unlike other combat systems Ars Magica is deliberately abstract, so many of the specialised combat moves that rely on hex and grid based combat do not apply.

Sometimes a Magus might be able to cast a normal speed spell before a combatant wielding an especially slow weapon, or if they are just lucky. Most of the time though the Magus will want to fast cast in order to avoid (somehow) being hit with a weapon.

Spell casters have a special option, which allows them to change their normal spell casting action, and instead fast cast a spell before a melee or range attacks. Against melee or range the fast cast spell is always quicker, and resolved first. Fast casting is also always faster than normal speed spell casting, and may be used to block or interrupt the normal speed spell.

Spell Mastery can also grant bonuses to Initiative (the mastery score if fast-casting has been chosen for a specialisation), and these should be applied to both the normal and fast cast speeds, thereby providing the appropriate bonus due to the Magi’s expertise.

The mechanics get interesting when either two magi both fast cast, or magi normal cast, and then switch to fast casting based upon seeing the other act too. This is allowed, and it is where the speed of the Magi really come into play. When this happens the Magi keeps their initial initiative roll, and adds their finesse score to generate their new fast cast initiative score.

The fast casting initiative speeds are compared to find who attempts to resolve their spells first.

Remember that if a Magus wishes to fast cast a defensive spell in response to another spell, they must perceive the magic type of the attacking spell, or just guess and construct a suitable defense. Not too hard to guess what a pyromaniac Flambeau Magus will cast, but very difficult when fighting savvy opponents.

If the Magus is not aware of the attack until it takes affect then they cannot fast cast a defense against the attack.

Whats Different?

  • You cannot fast cast, a fast cast, against a fast cast, etc – which I think is in the spirit of the rules.
  • Typically players only get a limited amount of defensive actions per round. I’d prefer to allow parries as needed, and not have those parries affect initiative.

References from the Ars Magica – Atlas Games Forum

1 thought on “Who goes first? Alternative Ars Magica Initiative

  1. Pingback: Fast casting against another wizard in Ars Magica | The Iron-Bound Tome

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