The Best of Both Worlds: Mixing Ars Magica with Dying Earth

I like games about wizards, nothing new to anyone that knows me. I like the imagery of a dark laboratory, filled with books, ancient scrolls, bubbling beakers and cauldrons, with roots, skulls, and assorted bric-a-brac hanging from the ceiling. I like old wizards studying books, crones brewing potions, and adventurous sorcerers prowling forgotten ruins in search of arcane lore.

Ars Magica Fifth Edition (ArM5) is a natural for me. It hits every aspect of a wizard’s life, from apprenticeship to young adulthood and into maturity and old age. Dying Earth Role-playing Game (DERPG) does the same thing, without the emphasis on aging that ArM5 has. An Ars character can start at any age, and an older wizard is naturally more powerful than a younger wizard. A DERPG character can start as a Dabbler, someone who knows a few spells, a proper Magician, and an Arch-Magician, with the latter much more powerful than the former. Since wizards don’t really exist – really, they don’t – both games have fabricated a reality to include them in the game world. An Ars Magica wizard lives somewhere in Europe in 1220 and is part of the Order of Hermes, a union of wizards who have developed rules for themselves to live along side society. A Dying Earth Arch-Magician lives under a dying sun, a giant red orb that is always ready to wink into nothingness, and is part of the Conclave, the social group that imposes rules upon themselves so that they don’t kill each other.

Having played Ars Magica for many years, I’m very familiar with the Order of Hermes.  It is communal, wizards live in groups that form a covenant, which is both a legal term and a physical residence, usually a tower tucked in the forgotten edges of a forest or swamp. Wizards swear an Oath of Hermes, a legal contract that prevents them from killing each other and installs judges and imposes punishments for wrongdoers. It is structured, a wizard takes an apprentice and teaches him the secret of magic over 15 years, at which point the apprentice becomes a wizard. This instruction is very formal, not requiring a coat and tie but specific amounts of time spend doing different wizardly things. One trained, a wizard can cast unlimited spells, both formal spells that he has painstakingly memorized over a period of time and spontaneous spells, magical effects summoned on the spot. Finally, to resist the effects of magic creatures, a wizard has a parma magica, Latin for “magic shield” that can prevent spells from affecting him. It is all very rigid, really.

The Dying Earth Role-Playing Game is based on the four-book series by Jack Vance. Magicians in the Dying Earth behave in almost the opposite manner than the stiff-backed wizards of the mock-thirteenth century. They are individualistic, preferring to live alone in elaborate and beautiful “manses” rather than share the rent. The Conclave is a social club, and the rules that suggest proper behavior are not enforced. They are proposed  ways of staying in the good graces of one another, so that a magician’s fellows don’t plunder his manse while he is occupied with magicy adventures. A “do unto others” mores that is only broken by those with the magical muscles to break it and face possible retribution. Becoming a magician follows an unstructured pattern. Magicians can enter into an apprenticeship, but they can also find and study an arcane book on their own, which also contributes to a loose system of instruction. The rules don’t detail how long it takes to become a Magician. Once trained – however long it takes – the Magician can cast limited spells, making each much more dear and much more important in a story. Secondly, a Magician can’t repeat a spell in the current assortment he has mentally stored. Only one Fireball at a time, sir. While he can do smaller magic, called cantrips, at will, they have limited effects. A Magician protects himself from magic by binding an otherworldy creature to him. Called a sandestin, these alien creatures keep magical effects from their masters.

Very different, the two. Covenants and legally-bound wizards remind me of medieval universities and early guilds, and fit their 13th century world. Manses and social conclaves fit Vance’s fictional reality, where everyone waits for the sun to extinguish and hoards their treasures as they seek more. Everything that can be found has been, and indeed lies in someone else’s workshop. I’ve always found the Code of Hermes and the goodie-two-shoes legal structure of Ars Magica restrictive. I want wizards who don’t steal from each other because they don’t think they can get away with it, not because they promised not to.  But if you are not looking, maybe while you are busy building that mechanical clockwork servant you’ve always wanted, one of your supposed friends just might teleport inside your shop and filch that pair of leviathan-skin boots you just enchanted.

If I had a group, I’d suggest we change the nature of the game just a bit, and put Jack Vance’s conniving, petty, malcontents in the middle of mock-medieval Europe. I wonder how that game would play.

Research leads to Fiction

The fantasy world of Ars Magica mirrors the factual world of medieval Europe, specifically the early thirteenth century. The points that initially pulled me to the game were two: wizards never forgot their spells and the game uses real history as its setting background. All of my early role-playing game experience stems from Dungeons & Dragons and my battered collection of The Players Handbook, the Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Masters Guide. In that game, copied from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, wizards knew a limited number of spells, and once cast had to re-memorize spells to cast them again. This worked well in the books because the spells were powerful, and while spells can be powerful in D&D wizards early in their careers don’t know those spells. They know weak spells, and once cast are reduced to mapping the dungeon, triggering traps, and throwing darts at monsters. One-shot wonders.

In Ars Magica, using a different system for spells and magic, wizards don’t forget spells. A wizard can cast a known spell until the cows come home. Does this make them powerful? Yes. It makes playing a wizard a lot more fun.

The second half of my love for the game was its adherence to real history. Nothing is weirder, funnier, and more fulfilling than real life. You might think that Aragon’s world is fantastic, that Conan treads a realistic primordial world, and that Elric carves his way through a believable reality, and while those are all grand they pale in comparison to some of the antics of our forefathers.  During the papal conclave of 1241, the mayor of Rome sequestered the cardinals in an dilapidated building and refused to release them until they picked the new pope. To encourage their decision the guards stationed on the leaky roof peed on it. That’s gross. It is also very real and sets quite an image. Knights raided their neighbors with regularity. Abbots and monks defended the abbey swords in hands. Academics argued the finer points of theology during the day and drunk themselves into a stupor at night. Dragons and giants roamed just out of sight, saints’ interventions and devils’ temptations were a daily event. The depth of detail is incredible, once the digging begins.

Writing for a project generally means researching the hell out of it first. I’m lucky that I work at a university with a world-class library system, making research enjoyable and easy. I found wages for medieval craftsmen when writing City &Guild, explained neo-Platonism in Art & Academe, and described the city of Constantinople after the siege of 1204 in The Sundered Eagle: The Theban Tribunal. I like the research stage.

I also like the creation stage, when I take the found facts of the past and pull them apart to stick game mechanics and story ideas in the cracks. It is all aimed at the game, so far, but sometimes I go a step farther. Sometimes I take the facts and pull a narrative out if it, writing a short piece of fiction that no one ever sees. Until now. For better or worse, I’ll post some of my unedited fiction here.

I mean, it’s not like anyone is going to see it here.