Ars Magica is Latin for "The Magical Art." It's also the name of a roleplaying game with a long history, a rich background set in a world based on actual myth and legend, and one of my favorites to boot. For those who are interested in actually downloading an introductory copy of the game, visit the Atlas Games website listed at the bottom of this writeup.
As the previous write-ups indicate, Ars Magica does indeed have a bit of history behind it. The first edition (by Lion Rampant) was a slim book, which covered mainly the basics of character generation, magic, the idea of the troupe and convenant. The second edition (still by Lion Rampant) improved the game, and was considered by many to be the "One True Edition." The third edition (by White Wolf) was highly altered by White Wolf, and started to fit into White Wolf's World of Darkness setting. (They released it after their success with Vampire: the Masquerade and attempted to use that to sell Ars Magica, as well.) Finally, there were two "Fourth Editions." The first was merely a reprint of the third edition, but put out by Wizards of the Coast. (They even managed to leave the text "third edition" in some of the book. Poor editing on their part.) Finally, the newest edition by Atlas Games is once again highly altered (finally fixing some Latin grammatical mistakes and cleaning up the system in general.)
Ars Magica's character generation system is point-based, with some elements of a class-based system. When you start up a game you typically create at least two "primary" characters. One of which is your "companion" and the other is your "magus." The focus of the game is on magic, thus the name, but your companion is a "normal human" and Magi have difficulty with dealing with "mundanes." (They use that word similar to Harry Potter's world uses the word muggle.)
One of the difficult thing to try to convince new players to the game of is that your character isn't the magi that you're playing, but the covenant. The building, the people in it. Ars Magica focuses more on cooperative playing that any roleplaying game I've played before. They have creation rules for covenant creation. Adding things like "Excellent Library" or "Poor Defense" as virtues/flaws for your covenant reinforces that idea.
Since Magi learn primarily from studying books, researching using magical equipment, and many other things that wouldn't lend itself for exciting roleplaying, your companion gives you an oppurtunity to enjoy yourself in those moments of "down time." It also gives you the chance to play the brave knight, pious monk, or charismatic bard. You know when you're playing this character that should a magi decide you need to be squashed, you may as well squash yourself to make things easier. Magi are clearly that much more powerful. (For a comparison in Dungeons and Dragons terms, a starting Magi is typically nearly a tenth level wizard in power, whereas a companion is closer to a third to fifth level character.) In addition, everyone shares the role of playing the "grogs," the warriors, cooks, stablehands, and other "everymen" that populate the small keep that is the covenant. (It's often fun to play these as comic relief.) This relieves the game master from the burden of having to roleplay them, as other systems would present these characters as NPCs.
In addition, it proposes that players and the game master take turns at running the game. For instance, one person could be in charge of the politics between covenants, one person could be in charge of the situation in one province, another could cover the relations with the church, and so on. They call this the "Troupe Style" of play.
As much as I talk about the system, I feel that I should spend at least a small portion of time discussing the background of the system. While the system does have many radically different concepts, the games real value is still in the background for me.
The Order of Hermes (for those familiar with Mage: the Ascension, this is the same group) have devised a nearly scientific system of magic. They have researched a universal system of magic based on "Arts" and Techniques," which you can think of as a noun and a verb. The Latin verbs are "Perdo" (I destroy), "Rego" (I control), "Creo" (I create), "Muto" (I change), and "Intelego" (I know). The nouns are "Aurum" (Air), "Aquam" (Water), "Ignem" (Fire), "Terram" (Earth), "Vim" (Magic), "Corpus" (Body), "Animal" (Animal), "Mentem" (Mind), "Herbam" (Plant), and "Imaginem" (Image). You would put these two words together, with a rank, to determine the effect of a spell. For instance, Ars Magica's "Ball of Abyssmal Flame" (A much better name than "Fireball") is a Creo Ignem Rank 35. (Most of the time, these go in multiples of 5. So, this would be a 7th Rank power.)
Since the system is very scientific, research oriented, it gains a very academic atmosphere. Politics are rampant, with the researching scholar gaining much esteem, but sometimes being manipulated by the political schemer. Since the magi are not afraid of singular mortals they do not have to answer to the mortal's laws. However, they are afraid of what would happen would humanity group together against them. So, they have a strict set of laws regarding the association of magi with mortals. (You may not be a court wizard, you may not sell magical items beyond a certain power to humans, you may not consort with demons lest you bring the Church on a crusade against us, etc.) Non-lethal magical duels are typically used to settle disputes (certeman).
Since obviously not all legends mention this academic form of magic being the basis of all the wonderful things that happen, there are rooms for other wonders in the background of Ars Magica. The reason that the Order has managed to survive attacks from these other wizards, using other systems, is that they have discovered an ability called "Parma Magica" (magical shield) which protects them from other hostile magics. But, these other magicians still exist in the world, and despite a provision in the Order of Hermes laws which requires alternate magi to either join the Order or die, there are those that they were unable to coerce. (Including the Kabbalists, which the Order of Hermes is terribly concerned about.) Fantastical beasts and wonderous beings like the Faerie, Demons, Angels, Dragons, Manticores, and such all also exist.
Within the Order of Hermes there exist different houses. House Bonisagus are the scholars and intellectuals, following in the traditions of the founder of the Order of Hermes itself. House Bjornaer are the shapechanging animal mages. House Criamon are the enigmatic tattooed mystics and philosophers. House Flambeau are the distinctly unsubtle fire-mages (or their slightly "subtler" cousins, the Perdo-destruction mages). House Jerbiton are the diplomats and patrons of the arts, who argue for relaxed rules regarding the interaction with mortals. House Mercere follow in the tradition of their founder, who lost his magical talents but continued to serve as a neutral messenger for the other magi. (Not many of thise house are actual mages, but all are given the respect of a full mage.) House Merinita focus on the magic of the faerie and all things related to the fae. (There is some suspicion that one of the early leaders of this house, who was originally just a normal nature magician, was later replaced by a faerie, causing the shift in focus.) House Guernicus (their actual name) or Quaesitor (the title of a OoH judge, of which they make up the majority of) are the judges and detectives, who interpret the laws of the Order of Hermes and who investigate accused infractions. House Tremere (which would be familiar to those who play Vampire), are a well-organized house who believes firmly in the power of hierarchy. House Tytalus (who might be familiar to those who read obscure passages in the old Sabbat books, heh) believe in the philosophy of what does not kill them makes them stronger, and so they search out conflict. House Verditius are focused on the creation and utilization of magic items, most of which have lost their ability to cast magic without some form of secondary item. Finally, House Ex Miscellanea is filled with those mages who have joined the Order of Hermes, either forcefully or willingly, but who never managed to fully adapt their form of magic into the methods of the Order of Hermes.
As you can tell, I could give you a tremendous amount of information about the game, but let me state that the game will appeal to those who enjoy reading factual entries in E2. The game has a focus on research, it plays with the question of whether or not the universe is completely knowable, and does it all within the context of our own legends.
Some websites which will help you in your quest for more knowledge about Ars Magica:
- Project Redcap: http://redcap.org (now maintained by a member of the Atlas Games Staff)
- Atlas Games: http://www.atlas-games.com
- Free downloads: http://www.atlas-games.com/arm_resources.html (There are two free quickstart adventures: Promises, Promises and Nigrasaxa