Setting: Mythic Heresy?

One of the topics that cycles regularly over the years is doing an Ars Magics game without player character wizards. Magi (and covenants) are a huge focus of the game, so removing that element really starts to become – what are you seeking play? 

The setting material as quasi-historic, perhaps a long precursor game to the introduction of wizards, or a feel for life around the Order of Hermes but not within it. It could be interesting and there are certainly other games about which do similar things. 

It reminds me of the Fantasy Flight Games for Death Watch when compared to playing “normal people”. The Space Marines are so pivotal in their fluff stories and so overpowered compared to regular humans that there is no real middle ground. And yet FFG have a darn successful set of RPGs set specifically at various power levels. Sure the player characters are not space marines, but they might be inquisitors, rogue traders, or darn tough mercenaries. 

So why can’t Ars Magica do this too?

Setting: Mythic Heresy – a tip of the hat to the Dark Heresy rpg where the players are members of an inquisition investigation team seeking to uncover the truth of various mythic legends and stories. 

Some quick thoughts:

  • Finding magic, or any other supernatural force might be a discovery in the setting. Or magic could all be gumpf, or all the work of the devil. 
  • It could get dark quickly. Especially if real work horrors are used as inspiration. i.e. The Cathars.  
  • Playing along side the magi or having to confront a magi should be the ultimate story event if it’s going to happen. Much like finally seeing an eldritch horror in a Call of Cthulhu game. If fact CoC probably has some delights to offer which are readily transportable. 
  • Not having magic might make players design diverse characters?
  • Should the players build a team of investigators or mix it up?


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) 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

A preference for House Mercere

Thinking about the Recaps and their relationship to House Mercere and magi of other houses today. I’m torn.

On the one hand I really like the mixed politics that come from having non-gifted redcaps as equals to magi. It adds a turbulence to the lives of wizards, which is a good potential hook. It also enables players to have a more options in the setting for companions (which is mostly how non-gifted redcaps are played).

On the other hand I dislike that what is essentially a mundane being treated as a magus. They’re not, everyone knows this, and it’s only an old in-setting tradition that keeps it so. Given the other social castes of the era I think most magi would attempt to treat them as equals in name only. A redcap is not even close to a gifted magus.

My preference is to remove the Magus status from redcap character. Sure, they can be messengers protected by House Mercere and still have all the boons, but remove the pretense. This would be an upset to the Ars Magica setting, but one which I think would streamline the setting.

The Voiceless Chambers hook and map, with Ars Magica mechanics

The Voiceless Chambers by  demonstrates why he is a favourite blogger and mapper for me. Each week a new map is sketched and shared (for free online, and via a Pateron account for supporters). The Voiceless Chambers has a fantastic introduction, and this post is about some of the magics involved created as Ars Magica spells and magic items. All kudos and high praise for the story hook and map by Dyson.

The hook begins:

When the Sorceress Queen Nemorlienne finally died, some efforts were made to keep her that way. While her rule was generally good for the state of the nation, those closest to the halls of power found her ways destructive and maniacal and her magically-augmented temper shortened many an advisor’s lifespan.

Like the other deceased queens, she was first burned to ashes and then those ashes converted into a gem using dark alchemies. However, unlike those before her, her tomb was sealed completely and magically, and in addition to the usual magical guards and wards over the tomb, the whole place was made magically and perpetually silent so no one could seek her counsel even in death.

But someone has broken the outer seals of the crypt, …

(read more)

This is how these implied effects might be written up for the Ars Magica RPG…

In terms of naming style Ars often has thematic and descriptive names for spells and effects, however as this is a non-standard setting I thought it would be fun to go for a more cultish feel. As if all parts of the process have to be ceremonial.

First effect to silence the chambers is performed by enchanting one of the last stones placed within the interior walls of the chambers has been enchanted to nullify all sound within.

A Hidden Stone Which Brings Silence To All, Lest She Be Disturbed (PeIm 29, Lesser Device), a fist sized cube of high quality marble, carved with deliberately creepy and dangerous looking sigils. It is buried deep within one of the interior walls of the chambers.

Quiet Loose Tounges Within the Crypt

Perdo Imagonem 20, R: Touch, D: Diameter, T: Structure

All sound within the targeted structure is destroyed for the duration, rendering it deathly silent.

(Base 3, +1 Touch, +1 Diameter, +3 Structure)

(As device: +1 mag for extra duration, +4 levels for adjusting to Constant effect, Ars p.99)

The Voiceless Chambers, you feel the Ars Magica and high magical & mystical flavour all through the description.

Then, creating a normal gem with magical aura as a distraction from the real gem is a great fantasy theme.

A False Majesty Unworthy of Her Presence, Lest They Call Her (CrVi 59, Lesser device), a beautiful and valuable gemstone by normal standards which has been enchanted to appear invested to resist magical inspection. The gem has also been fixed as an Arcane Connection to a non-enchanted twin, so that recovery by the high priests is far easier. Investing the effect creates a legitimate magical presence, and then the protective effect ensures the investigation will be troublesome which completes the deception.

Invested Shell of Simple Obfuscation

Creo Vim 45, R: Personal, D: Momentary, T: Individual

The shell resists attempts to divine any invested effects if they are level 50 or below. Investigation spells therefore must be rituals.

(Base 45, to resist investigation effects upon itself up to level 50 effects) 

(As device: +2 mags, +4 levels for Constant effect modification)

See Shell of False Determinations (Ars p.157 for a similar effect) which seemingly can be cast upon objects to perform a similar outcome although it is unclear to me how that spell is effective in the long term with a Momentary duration; odd.

Then, the enchantments on the true jewel of Queen Nemorlienne are very important, as they setup significant restrictions for use of the gem.

The real change for the dust and gem in the introduction is the alchemical change from the remains of the sorcereress into the gem. In Ars Magica that could be as simple as creating a fixed arcane connection, which runs contradictory to the lore in the introduction but also perhaps hints that the priests wish to retain access to Her after her death. Cool and creepy. It has two effects within it and is also set as a permanent arcane connection, the first effect prohibits using the gem an a connection, and the second makes the gem appear flawed.

A True Key Against Those Who Call Beyond the Grave, Lest She Hear Their Call (PeVi 37, MuIm 12, Greater device) an even more beautiful gemstone than the distraction above, this gem is striking and lovely to behold and obviously extremely valuable. The best magi from the realms worked years to craft and enchant this gem, to protect their realm and the ghost of the dead Queen Nemorlienne.

Impede the Meddling Scryers and Fools

Perdo Vim, R: Personal, D: Sun, T: Individual

This spell limits the target so it cancels any other spell attempting to use the target as an Arcane connection for the purposes of scrying, unless it is greater than the (level of this spell +10 + stress dice (no botch)).

(Base Gen, +2 Sun)

(+4 to raise to constant effect, +3 to affect everyone except the current Priesthood)

With a more general version which might be more useful as a Duration: Ring and Target: Circle, which can be used outside an enchanted item.

Impede the Meddling Scryers and Seekers

Perdo Vim, R: Touch, D: Ring, T: Circle

This spell limits the target so it cancels any other spell attempting to use the target as an Arcane connection for the purposes of scrying, unless it is greater than the (level of this spell +5 + stress dice (no botch)).

(Base Gen, +1 Touch, +2 Sun)

And an effect to reduce glamour of the gem, to make it appear inconsequential. Note that the effect could be slightly lower, however I’ve used a target touch as I intend the effect to be listed as a normal spell, not just for investment in an enchanted device.

Lacklustre Sheen to a Perfect Vessel

Muto Imagonem 5, R: Touch, D: Sun, T: Individual

The item touched is made to look and feel far less valuable or ornate. It remains true to its basic type, however it will appear ordinary, scratched, tarnished, rough, dishevelled or poorly formed.

(Base 2, +1 Touch, +2 Sun)

(+4 to raise to constant effect, +3 to affect everyone except the current Priesthood)

Then, as almost every chamber is decorated with artworks, tributes and prizes, the priests have used these as animated defences for the chambers, as tomb guardians.

A Wooden Puzzle of Horrible Death, Revealed to those who Seek Her Glory, (ReHe 42, Lesser device), an item which animates wooden decorations in the room to become weapons. The rooms are deliberately stocked with edged weapons, arrows, laminated spurs, large spars, and solid blocks. Many such items are sequestered within the chambers.

Animate Her Treasures of Wood as Weapons of Woe

Rego Herbam 35, R: Touch, D: Sun, T: Room

The all wooden items in the targeted room rise and attack any creatures within it, crushing, slicing, and pummelling the occupants. The objects strike with an Initiative +5, and Attack +7 and inflict +10 damage each round.

(Base 10, +1 Touch, +2 Sun, +2 Room)

(+4 to raise to constant effect, +3 to affect everyone except the current Priesthood)

Then, several rooms within the chambers has been enchanted to protect against intrusion.

The effects are designed as a warding device which can act to protect a room or also act an a prison if need be (as a reworking of Ward Against the Curious Scullion (ReCo30), Covenants p.104).

A Constant Guard Against Trespassers, Interlopers, and Thieves, (ReCo 44, Lesser device), a small sphere of polished gold, inscribed with runes and sigils denoting terror and disease to any who trespass. The sphere as been buried within an internal wall of the central crypts away from the entry point so that is difficult to access even if it can be detected. Several of these warding globes were crafted and installed in the chambers.

Solar Impervious to Curious Scullions

Rego Corpus 40, R: Touch, D: Sun, T: Room

Humans find it impossible to enter or leave the targeted room.

(Base 15, +1 Touch, +2 Sun, +2 Room)

(+3 Environmental trigger, +1 for 2 uses per day)

A final aside – if you like this please have a look at the material which Dyson Logos create, and also at the large arrange of other Ars Magica material written over the many here’s on this blog. Spells, Magical Items, Npcs, and many stranger things for the Ars roleplaying game.


I need a Rifts and Spelljammer Anonymous group

There I said it, I need a Rifts (by Palladium) and Spelljammer Anonymous group. Why? Because despite these two settings and systems being hated and joked about by almost all the RPG community – I like them both. They’re not perfect, but any experienced RPG player can knock holes in almost any highly system-centric RPG.

(aside – somebody needs to be taken to task for how cliche the RIFTS Australia World book is. Seriously, it’s almost a crime. Even in 1990 we knew far better than this tripe)

Like many I’ve bashed Rifts and Spelljammer for the sake of a laugh, and sometimes more seriously as examples of what didn’t seem to work well in game. However the more I think about these games the more I think that the settings had huge potential. It appears that it was the mechanics and the players ourselves who didn’t realise what me might have had.

Over on Star Gazers’ World is a post about RIFTS which I think is worth a read. Sunglar’s talking about character he loved and experienced in the setting, and it is an entertaining read for a long-in-the-tooth gamer like me. I commented:

I loved RIFTS. The setting has a huge potential to tell very deep and evocative stories, and while the mechanics in the RAW are questionable, I don’t think they are any worse than may other systems. It is a product of the thinking at the time about game systems. If it was written now I think the political setting wouldn’t change too much, but the mechanics would be far more graceful.

So there it is. The basics of a brief writing challenge, or at the very least the thoughts in this blog post. Firstly the game still needs a compelling story beyond “this is cool”, as the cool of both SJ and Rifts gets tarnished very quickly when the players get into the world and events start going sideways. Using pre-written games is a great idea for starting players. Continue reading