Ars Magica Fifth Edition, Atlas Games, 2004 , Price : £26.99
Originally created decades ago, Ars Magica is not some enfant terrible. Published by Atlas Games (Over the Edge, Unknown Armies, and Feng Shui), Ars Magica has been around for years. The fifth edition is the most current version of the game, and will be the sole focus of this review.
The game reads as if it were written from a position of experience, and that’s a good thing. Rules are elaborated upon, but notes are occasionally added suggesting how things may function at the table. This nuanced approach assists with understanding how the game is going to play, and the attention to detail is the same with regards to the organization. There is a glossary, useful tables placed where they are most needed, a conversion guide for the previous edition, as well as a section in the Appendices dedicated to how to roll for all kinds of things in the game. This edition didn’t win an award for “Best Rules” by accident.
Finesse and consistency of the mechanics complement the book’s organization. Every aspect of the game functions with a simple formula (Roll this + that, and add or subtract modifiers as needed), and the game can be played with essentially nothing more than a single d10. In addition, the game incorporates downtime as something characters are supposed to be doing, and lays out a fairly elaborate, but clear set of rules on incorporating downtime into game sessions.
Character progression is another aspect of the game that stands out as being innovative. The reward system in Ars Magica is parcelled out for individual accomplishment, i.e. defeating a demon or saving a princess, but also takes into account characters aging. Simply staying alive in this game allows your character to progress, which might prove tricky since combat extremely deadly. In fact, combat is so deadly the writers added a note warning against rushing into melee because PCs are powerful, but can be killed easily. Staying alive is a better option.
Unfortunately, for all its precision, the writing is dry. The book reads with a tone reminiscent of an academic textbook, rather than the beating heart of a fantasy role-playing game. A bit of fiction, excerpts of poetry, or another form of writing suitable to the game’s setting might have helped with the matter-of-fact tone.
While the book is the core book, sometimes the information felt a bit lacking. For example, the Bestiary isn’t very thorough, although there are rules for creating enemies. It would have been nice if there were maybe a few modifiable archetypes to help save time.
Ars Magica is unique and has endured, and the fifth edition carries on the quality tradition that has kept the game going all these years. The lasting appeal isn’t mere circumstance, and Ars Magica offers an attitude and an approach other fantasy role-playing games don’t have.