Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month July 2024: Ars Magica, Umbra Quercus Saga

“Gather your grogs and call upon the covenant of Umbra Quercus, our new Campaign of the Month winner! At the helm, the madirishman and his mystical magi, who have collaborated for several years to produce a fascinating fable steeped in deep lore, strange sorceries, and a setting and story that reads like a great adventure novel. Wander onward to gain a glimpse of this admirable Ars Magica campaign.”

You’ve worked professionally with Atlas Games so you probably have a better understanding of Ars Magica than most. For those who don’t know the game, can you briefly describe the system and setting?

Hoo boy, you’re really in danger of putting me in full proselytize mode when asking about Ars (ArM is the semi-official shorthand I guess, but we always just call it “Ars”). I discovered the game in the mid-90s or so when it was Third Edition and immediately fell in love. It’s my favorite setting/system and our current saga is the sixth I’ve played in.

My initial draw was undoubtedly the magic system, which has rightfully been much acclaimed. It’s incredibly flexible and after five editions, remarkably internally consistent. Spells are generally in the form of “verb + direct object”: a Technique and a Form, and your magus character will have varying scores in the Techniques and Forms depending on what you choose to specialize in. Because of the setting, these are in Latin, but once you get past that, it’s remarkably easy to design spells that are consistent in power relative to one another. Your standard Fireball (more prosaically named Ball of Abysmal Flame in Ars) would be a type of Creo Ignem (‘I create fire’) spell, but if your score is high in Creo you might also use it to effectively Creo Corpus (‘I create body’) to heal someone. (Note there is no resurrection in this game, but magi typically live many years beyond those of normal men through longevity rituals.) Likewise, laboratory activities are well defined and tell you how to make new spells, magic items, etc. While you gain experience points like in other games to advance your skills, it is generally these lab activities that increase your power. Over years of game time you pursue these to achieve truly epic magical abilities.

Secondly I am a bit of a Medieval history buff and while you could use the rules to play in, say, Middle Earth, the default setting is “Mythic Europe” of 1220 AD: basically our historical Europe, but the things people believed then are literally true. Magic exists, demons corrupt the unwary, faeries perplex travelers, you encounter angels and dragons, etc. I particularly love trying to reinterpret actual history through the lens of this setting. Sure, the Mongols sacked all of Medieval Rus but spared the great city of Novgorod. Was it because the Russian ground became too swampy for them to attack the city? Did Novgorod avoid destruction by paying tribute to the invaders? Or maybe magic was used to influence the general’s mind and convinced him to spare it?

Yet slapped onto this quasi-historical Europe is a completely ahistorical political entity. All the magi are members of the secretive Order of Hermes, which governs how magi may interact with not only each other but the “Mundanes,” as people without the Gift are known. (Beats “Muggles,” IMO.) So you can also milk a lot of great stories out of these interactions, even though in our current game we decided to set our saga in the Hermetic boonies specifically to tone down this particular dimension of the game.

What is the main story, so far?

Our characters are magi fresh out of apprenticeship who have stepped into a mystery. Instead of founding their own covenant, they were invited to join an existing one founded by a trio of powerful magi. Yet not only have these founders disappeared, the wizard who recruited them was likewise nowhere to be found when they arrived at their new home.

Their covenant home is a small island on a remote lake with impressive fortifications in Livonia (modern-day Latvia), where German crusaders are fighting against native tribes to Christianize the last pagan part of Europe. The players have learned that the covenant has some connection to a prophecy about the destruction of the Order of Hermes, and the founding magi apparently were there to investigate. So finding their predecessors has taken on a new urgency.

Just recently they have unearthed the remains of one of the founding magus’ apprentices. Speaking to her shade, they have gained new insight into the last known appearance of two of the three founders. She was seemingly sacrificed by their as yet unknown enemies; what is less clear is the nature of the involvement of one of those founding wizards.

Along the way, the young magi have encountered menacing packs of wolves, a mysterious bird woman, and a faerie living in their bathhouse. They have chased an escaped pig, parlayed with mudmen, and encountered a mystical site that seems to produce doppelgängers of people under certain circumstances…

Umbra Quercus involves a good deal of collaboration, shared tasks, and organization with your gaming group, where Obsidian Portal is only one tool among many. Could you explain how your group typically uses OP, the campaign forums, Discord, Dropbox, email, and any other tools and tricks to help you play the game and coordinate all those wonderful tales that we get to read in your adventure logs?

OP has been critical for our many and varied campaigns. We’re big on Troupe play and there’s a lot of collaborative world-building. We also seem to favor somewhat Byzantine plots. :^)  OP gives us a centralized place to store character stats, discuss rules or logistics by thread, keep track of when our next game session is, and more. Considering those Byzantine plots, I think the Adventure Log is among the most useful for keeping track of just what the heck happened last week or three months ago,

We started as a face-to-face group but like many others, COVID-19 forced us to move to Discord for actual game play; we’ve only met a few times in person since. Discord, however, has its advantages: it’s easy to share maps, links to web pages, and other resources in the middle of a game session.  Like OP, there’s a paper trail as well; you can look back at the chat log and remind yourself of important details. I won’t dwell on my failed attempt to use voice modification software to simulate speaking to the dead…

Ars can get kind of complicated and so we have used numerous aids like Excel spreadsheets and files for (the now-defunct) Metacreator. Dropbox and Google Drive are great ways to let us share those files as well as PDFs for rules or character sheets. 

Google Maps has also been huge in allowing us to share a map with all of the important sites of the campaign: other covenants of the Order, towns and fortresses, mystical sites, and so forth. Useful for translating those real-world sites into saga locations, and even ballparking travel distances. Take a look at our Map of Fortifications and Mystical Sites of the Region.

What moments during the campaign stand out to you and your group as real highlights?

In “The Crossroads,” the magi and their grogs avenge a young boy and rescue a local girl from the clutches of a corrupt Sword Brother by slaying him, only to encounter him limping down the road towards them only a few hours later.

In “The Evil Medieval Weevil Upheaval” (Beta Storyguide Ted has all the best names), the magi encounter a demonic centipede with a human face that casts a dire influence upon the innocent men and women of the local village with its ugly glare.

In “Puerulus Amissa,” the magi and their grogs, using earth, fire, mental manipulation, and induced hallucinations, protect a young Russian boy with the Gift from a group of soldiers determined to take him back to his harsh uncle.

In “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” a covenant guard is suddenly and mysteriously overcome with admiration for a piglet belonging to some German soldiers, and runs away with it, to the chagrin of his companions and causing all sorts of legal problems. If your game doesn’t feature a pig chase, you’re doing something wrong!

What are the advantages and disadvantages (if any) to having more than one Storyguide in an Ars Magica campaign?

The Troupe style of play was baked into Ars from its early days, and this was something of a revelation for me. Due to time constraints imposed by schoolwork, I was used to the idea of rotating DMs all the way back to playing AD&D 2e in college, but Ars was the first game I encountered that was really pretty much designed to have people play different characters depending on the needs of the story. In fact, the characters’ covenant (where they live together and practice their magical arts, be it a castle, sailing ship, or traveling caravan) is really the central character of any saga. Instead of having to have everyone meet in a tavern and then get hired to rescue the princess, the covenant concept is a natural impetus for driving all manner of stories, and the covenant itself evolves just like the player characters do.

Each player has a Magus—the most powerful characters in the game—and a Companion: a character of note who has some reason for affiliation with the magi. (These you might think of as the other “character classes”: a knight errant, a traveling troubadour, a curious monk, etc.) If it makes more sense for your companion to participate in a story, you might play them instead of your magus. Then there are the Grogs: background characters that may be swapped between players when they’re not playing either of the above. Think foot soldiers, the blacksmith, or that book merchant who occasionally visits.

This means even the GM gets to play every once in a while, and while there’s always the dangers inherent in design by committee, I’ve found that if you have multiple creative and knowledgeable people working to build the game world, it’s often more detailed and interesting than anything one could come up with on one’s own. It’s certainly more satisfying for the players to have a voice in the bigger story. It also helps when you have a group of busy professionals that no one person is on the hook all the time for creating stories! To avoid any problems, the Storyguides typically have ownership of their own story arcs, and any story abutting one of these arcs is talked through in advance. This also keeps spoilers to a minimum.

Ars Magica has what some players consider the best (or at least the most interesting) magic system in table-top roleplaying. Would you agree with that idea and why?

It’s definitely the most flexible simulationist system I’ve run across, as I think becomes clear when you think about my description above. In fact, it gets kind of hard to give it up if you go back to another system (A brief primer worth mentioning). We played a group of wizards in our last (non-Ars) game and while it was a lot of fun, we kept saying in many situations, “well, if this were Ars, we could…” While your characters will have a set list of spells they can cast relatively effortlessly, the system allows you to spontaneously “invent” spells at a cost of Fatigue. Ars Magica Fifth Edition has a robust set of guidelines that allow you to be creative with magic in any situation, yet also tell you what your limits are. Want to dig a hole magically? You look at your Perdo (I destroy) Terram (earth) scores. Want to dig it in stone? Well, the rules tell you that’s harder. Similarly for parameters like how big the hole is or how long an illusion spell lasts. It allows players to be very imaginative in coming up with magical solutions. (“Well, I don’t think I have the scores to fling my jailer across the room, but I might be able to levitate those keys off the hook on the wall…”)

Sounds like magi can do anything, right? Well, with the right scores, they can. But they bleed just like everyone else.

Also, Ars Magica’s best days may yet be ahead: Atlas has announced the Ars Magica Definitive Edition for this fall, which will revise and consolidate the current Fifth Edition rules, but perhaps most importantly, inaugurate an open license which will allow for a host of new materials.

By way of your Obsidian Portal profile page, we discovered that you’ve done a great deal of wonderful character sheet design work over the last quarter-century or so (http://www.mad-irishman.net) and generously shared them with the gaming world. What elements make up a very good character sheet, in your opinion? Or, to put it another way, what common problems do you find on some standard character sheets that often need to be fixed?

It’s gratifying that people have found my stuff useful…and my site afforded me an appearance in Dragon magazine with a picture of me dressed as an Andorian, so there’s that. 

Designing character sheets is a bit like designing user interfaces for web pages.  You want to have the information you need at your fingertips. Typically, sheets focus on information that is unique to your character, but sometimes there are frequently-accessed rules that everyone needs to hand.

Character sheets for RPGs used to be almost an afterthought. Typically I could open an RPG book, flip to the last page, and see something that was like the last thing anyone worked on and seemingly created by someone who hadn’t actually played the game. Having desktop publishing software at hand, at first I was just using it to create copies of existing sheets that I could print rather than photocopy, but it was only natural I started making sheets for how I played the game and what information I thought I needed to record.

But people have different needs, one size does not fit all, and games have certain options players may choose to adopt or ignore. This is why some of my later sheets utilize PDF layers: by toggling these layers on or off, the same space on the page can be used for different blocks of information, or at least different styles.

As someone with gaming industry experience in writing, layout, font design, and even a bit of cartography — what do you love most about the creative process with regard to games?

I guess the problem with answering that is I love all of it. There are many games and gaming products I adore, and some of them may have had, say, a great story, but looked like they were produced on a 1940s typewriter and then Xeroxed. But when I think of some of my favorite products, many of them feature multiple impressive design dimensions.

AD&D’s Desert of Desolation series? An evocative setting replete with Jim Holloway artwork. Woodcuts by Eric Hotz define Ars Magica and Hârn. Similarly, where would the World of Greyhawk be without Darlene’s cartography? And nothing says “Gamma World” to me like that Shatter font, or anything Middle Earth and an uncial font (thanks, MERP and Ralph Bakshi).

When Victory Games’ James Bond 007 RPG came out, I was struck by the loving *design* of the products: prop handouts replete with the “For Your Eyes Only” folders, eye-catching layout, and a splash of color in the text itself…which in the mid-80s, was quite the change. This was all *on top of* innovative rules like ease factor bidding and chase scenes.

All of these areas of design are great fun as far as I’m concerned. Perhaps a more extreme example of me having that kind of fun (also outing my compulsion to compile information I guess) is my Ars Magica “Master Grimoire” that I have been compiling for the last 20 years. It contains all of the spells and spell guidelines from the official Ars Fifth Edition products, but also those from earlier editions, fanzines, web sites, and so on. Invaluable for our game play. But of course I also had to lay it out exactly like an official Atlas Games product and mimic their trade dress. It currently weighs in at 455 pages! It’s pretty awesome, if I do say so myself…I just wish I could share it with everyone, but unfortunately it uses like a million different people’s intellectual property.

Anyway, I guess this is why I’m master of none of these areas but have dabbled in them all. :^)

This question is for those among us looking for new RPGs to play and hidden gems outside of the mainstream. Out of all the RPGs that you have played or own (and I know there’s a lot), what are some of the lesser-known game systems or supplements that you might recommend and why?

Man, another toughie, where I’ll want to go on and on. You can look at my other OP campaigns or the list of games I own (over at my Mad Irishman page) and get some feel for a few of them. I do have a ridiculously large RPG collection that includes many unplayed games to go with all those unpainted miniatures. <eyeroll>

Another setting I love—maybe my second favorite—is that of Space: 1889. Victorian adventure with scientific romance elements. Like Ars, it’s great for taking real-world history and giving it a twist, just sci-fi this time. The Great Game played out on the surface of Mars, with native cloudships dueling with Earth flying gunboats. You can also probably find it in a rule system you like: it’s been through its own GDW system, Savage Worlds, Ubiquity, and most recently, the Empyrean system.

While we’ve played that, one that’s still on my bucket list is Lace & Steel by Kitsune Press. Swashbuckling fantasy a la The Three Musketeers, but in a more fantastic world with centaurs (sorry, half-horses), ogres, and pixies. I love the mechanic for conflict: there are card decks to simulate fencing, sorcery, and that most dangerous of duels, verbal repartee! 

If you like the idea of playing wizards in a quasi-historical setting, but like your rules lite, take a look at Magonomia: Renaissance wizards using the FATE system.

2300AD. Pendragon. Iron Heroes. I still want to play a straight Western game that doesn’t have steampunk, magic, or zombies. Many great games out there to try. The World of Synnibar is not on this list.

As is tradition, Obsidian Portal always loves to ask if you have any tips or sage advice to share for those of us who want to create and run games like this one?

There’s already tons of great gaming advice out there, so I’ll start with a focus on Ars and other “quasi-historical” games.

Real world history is your friend. You don’t have to be beholden to it, but it’s great to mine for ideas, since you don’t have to go to the library anymore to find out everything about Hungarian mythology or Venetian history. You can pluck many great story ideas straight from Internet resources on these topics and others. Then just think about how things might play out a little differently if magic or sci-if tech were involved…

I’d also put in a pitch for collaborative world building. If your players are game, you’ll get more buy-in from them if they’re all involved to some extent in setting the story. Lean on each player’s strengths and interests, and outsource some of that design and bookkeeping.

Pax, and may your Stress dice roll lots of ones!

Thank you to the community for making this campaign of the month possible! That’s all for now, join us on our next adventure August 1st, and don’t forget to nominate your favorite campaigns for our next Campaign of the Month!

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