Certamen makes no real sense in the Ars setting (to me anyway)

Certamen – the method in Ars magica that two wizards decide an argument over an issue – makes about as much sense as two skilled swordsmen strongly disagreeing about who owns some spoils of battle, and deciding to play cards to see who is better (ahem)..at playing cards. In setting characters who are gamblers might decide to play cards to decide, however that is very character dependant. 

Essentially Certamen is a magical contest which is favours the powerful wizards. Higher art scores and basic skills will defeat many opponents. 

It might be legitimate as a tool to use in a story, but does it make sense in the setting’s wider themes and context, and is it plausible? I’m doubting that it does.

If I disagree with another person and I know they are “more powerful” or stand a much better chance of winning, that does not invalidate the discussion or issue at hand. Saying that a wizard would defer their logic and rights to a magical competition does not make sense, especially so if they are not likely to win. Even in contract negotiations where one side has basically all the leverage (say a buyer in an over supplied commodities market) there are negotiating tricks and player to be found. 

Basically the stakes of the issue need to be low enough that the result of a Certamen will be honored by the magi who looses, and high enough to bother with a formal duel. Which is to say not very often. Certamen comes back to character ego, a sporting activity, and a strange game mechanic, not a method for resolving disputes. Sure, edge cases are available, however I don’t see Certamen regularly used in games and certainly don’t see characters prioritizing their advancement to account for it.

So what’s the solution? Well that depends on what the players want from Certamen. The current model does use a range of skills which has a higher skill point cost, but conversely it is difficult to be great at everything. The current mechanics have done well. 

harry potter magical battle isnt certamen

10 thoughts on “Certamen makes no real sense in the Ars setting (to me anyway)

  1. I have also wondered about this. But I think your opening analogy isn’t quite right. The use of Certamen is indeed like two skilled swordsman disagreeing over the spoils of battle… and then fighting a duel to first blood or first hit or similar. This would surely be seen as a more noble way of resolving the disagreement than simply having a straight fight when one participant might be badly hurt or killed. So it’s also mutually advantageous to have the duel because then the risk is reduced for both participants. But the duel is only meaningful because a straight fight is also an option – they both have swords, they are both killers. In Ars Magica terms, Certamen is a way of resolving conflicts without resorting to Wizard’s War. And therefore, perhaps if a mage does not respect the result of Certamen, then he or she would be regarded as a fair target for Wizard’s War by the other mage. If the results of Certamen are not respected, a mage might indeed feel obliged to step up to Wizard’s War – or lose face.

  2. Two wizards using Certamen isn’t like two warriors fighting to first blood. If that were true the two wizards would fight until one beat the Parma of the other, or a similar direct use of their skills.
    I said the warriors are playing cards because I see Certamen as an abstraction of magic, and not actually casting spells. In hindsight I agree the card game isn’t the correct comparison, but fighting with padded weapons or training weapons is.
    Either way the wider point is that Certamen favours the powerful and in no way is linked to the issue at hand u der debate. As such I think it’s fine as a concept but it has become the only mechanic used to decide disputes apart from a war. That doesn’t sound like the participants are thinking logically. A debate on the ownership of a new Vis source wouldn’t need to go to Certamen as I think compromise would be very common. A tremere might try to force it but others would simply say “this can be agreed without Certamen or a war, you’re making this confrontational because you like Certamen.”

  3. Yup – I agree with this. Certamen is like two warriors fighting with padded weapons or training weapons. And I also think magi would often negotiate and find a compromise rather than resorting to Certamen where the result is never certain. However, I like the fact that despite all the rules that magi of the Order are compelled to follow (the Oath, the peripheral code, their covenant’s charter) to encourage them to work well together, alongside this there still exists the principle that might makes right, the more powerful mage (the one with the strongest arts) can assert their position over that of a weaker mage through Certamen. That seems to me quite in keeping with the medieval setting even if not sensible from our modern perspective. And reminds us that the Order is a coming together of widely varying traditions and interests rather than a highly unified, well-disciplined organisation.

  4. As you probably know, per 5e, Tremere was the least of the founders and wanted a way to hit above his weight class (yes, more power in Arts helps, but so many other factors come into play that a skilled Certamen player can make up for an overall power deficit in many ways). He and Bonisagus came up with Certamen, Bonisagus unaware or unconcerned that Tremere had an ulterior motive.

    Assuming there’s nothing official about the leverage needed to make Certamen originally tantamount to THE dispute resolution system, I would posit that all Tremere had to do was convince Bonisagus, whose opinion usually became hermetic law, that Certamen was fair and expedient. It’s that simple.

    As to how he convinced him, it’s easy to come up with explanations: Tremere was as cunning as a snake; Bonisagus was besties with Tremere (or Trianoma); Bonisagus feared Wizard’s War would be too common without a more peaceful counterbalance; the Order didn’t have the resources initially to litigate every dispute among quarrelsome magi; et cetera.

  5. Just seems that an older wizard could reasonably refuse a Certamen duel as it’s not at all a direct way to resolve a grievance or conflict. The Certamen results in a winner casting a spell and nominally “win” but nothing really changes in the participants attitude.

  6. I’d say that all of these arguments apply to the people who actually used duels to resolve differences; how and why did it work for them? The fact that I won a sword-fight with you doesn’t work as a dispute resolution mechanism any better; and nonetheless, it did?

  7. That’s the main point Archon, it is not logical for Certamen to be so dominant in the setting instead of a wide variety. Present in the setting sure, so is Bellum and many other ways of settling a dispute once logic is gone.

  8. Except that the more powerful mage isn’t guaranteed to win…he may have an advantage, but the 80 year old MuAn specialist that gets manuevered into using one of his weakest arts alongside a “kinda good” one may very well be beat by a 30 year old whose specialities are less well known.

    Knowledge of your opponent and choosing strategy is at least as important as raw power…especially when older specialists are in the mix.

    My barely out of gauntlet Tremere could have a good chance against half the published Ars characters if he went in well informed. Take away his focus, add 5 years and I think the same could apply. A good generalist can use Intrigue and Guile to beat any specialist…while the specialist will beat the pants off of a generalist if that generalist isn’t careful with his veto.

    Or you could let two mages roll for initiative and let that decide the whole thing if you want them to just cast spells at each other…assuming both have a combat spell capable of beating the other’s Parma…if one doesn’t, THAT is where you see complete imbalance of the competition.

    Certamen allows magical contests that are vastly more balanced than spell throwing duels would be…

    So you disagree with the validity of it as a means of dispute resolution? Ok…welcome to Ars Magica where most mages would probably agree with you…good thing the ones who count know better!

  9. Fair points. However a 80 year old magus will have higher ability totals than the recently gauntlet’ed scrub. Their arts might be stronger one way but you are describing an edge case that can exist and not the common occurrence.
    Older magi gather the same information as you get ones, they have better networks to help, and far better stats. The advantage is with the aged wizards.

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