Pondering a House Rule for labs in Ars Magica

In Ars Magica the wizards typically spend a lot of time in their laboratories, doing a variety of wizardly things. One of the key aspects of a wizard is what and where that lab is, and what it might say about them. Labs can be enhanced through time, money, and magical devices to become specialised and/or less dangerous. The rule for such things start in the Ars Magica core rules and then greatly expand in the Covenants source book.

When a covenant is “set-up” it starts with a number of labs at the basic +0 level for each magus who lives at the covenant. A bonus to the lab is a very big deal to a lab-rat style character, and still significant to a typical character.

With that focus in mind the game provides the time elapsed for the various activities for improving or altering labs; but now that I’m in a game where the passage of time passes very slowly and the labs are pivotal to my character I’m finding the time required to alter a lab to be ridiculous.

For example in RAW*:

  • Setting up a lab takes 2 seasons, with the first giving a basic skeleton capable of a -3 modifier, then the second finalising on a +0 modifier.
  • Moving a lab from one location to another takes 3 seasons.
  • Improving a lab is a season-on-season activity, where points build up to gain advantages or specialisations. This can be a huge investment of time and money in the games.

Essentially it takes a wizard 6 months to establish a functional place to work with magic, and 9 months to move an existing lab from one place to another. So it takes 3 months longer to move a +0 lab than to set one up?

Apologies to the writers of Ars (as I’m a fan) but this is absurd. Even if this time included the effort and activity in buying the materials, haggling with suppliers, carting the gear, and adjusting the layout to suit some sort of astrological and metaphysical schema, it is a bloody long time.

Consider that a wizard may wish to alter where their lab is for in-game reasons, the time spend in a mundane task is prohibitive. The game lore has references to labs in exotic locations and involving strange and wonderful components, but frankly I think only an NPC would bother.

Do real characters really desire to spend this much time suspended in time?

These times should be reduced by something like an order of magnitude, and even then they’d be long. Converting Months to Weeks is perhaps too far, but 6 months of dead character time just to have a working +0 lab? Nope, makes no sense to me.

I understand why the rules are written this way, a lot of activity is measured in seasons for Ars Magica, and (I think) the times are provided as a way to make labs feel heavier in the mindset of the players. The heavy investment of time adds a certain gravity or presence to a lab; and conversely it means that a character spends half a year doing almost nothing of value. In an RPG sense six months of game time can be an eternity, and the wizard just got the benches and flasks all set-up.

This is my current thoughts as an alternative house rule for lab setup:

  • Establishing a lab takes a season. This is a working +0 laboratory area.
  • Lab establishment can suffer from the same rules as interruptions to activities, and if a legitimate interruption occurs then the lab suffers a -3 modifier.
  • That -3 penalty can be removed as a distraction to study in a subsequent season of legitimate lab activity.
  • This means it might take a few seasons to get a lab working if the wizard is also doing other things, but generally they can get up and working in a season of dedicated activity.
  • Moving a lab also takes a season, however when established it cannot have a bonus of higher than +0 modifier regardless of it’s actual quality. All negatives still apply, but the positive values are capped at +0.
  • After a move, a lab distraction each season improves the qualities back to their previous levels by one step each season. Thus a +1 lab is able to work at +0 in one season, and back to normal after two seasons. This also means that the lab can be used in the second season at +0 and it is restored at the end.
  • After a move, a wizard may dedicate a full season of time to setting the lab up again properly. If this is done without interruption the lab gains a max of a +3 shift per season spent.

Given the house rules above a high quality lab should return to normal operation quickly enough after a move, and a basic lab can be setup or shifted without too much worry. Likewise a powerful lab can still be shifted but it’s qualities do not return straight away, and the rate at which that power returns can be chosen by the wizard themselves instead of an arbitrary block of 9 months.

My perspective as a player is what is driving this post. When I was a GM in Ars Magica I was less worried about the loss of time for the players, and I think that is a telling factor in how time can be handled. As a player I want value from the elapsed time, and it wasn’t until playing in a game where I was affected by the shift in labs that it became clear just how time intensive the basic rules are.

I’ve not covered the rules for the advancement of labs from the Core rules or the Covenants book – and probably won’t until I get a chance to see this alteration in play first. Perhaps it is really too fast, I won’t know that until I get a feel for how it plays out.

* RAW – meaning the Rules as Written.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s