The first brainchild of Over the Edge's Jonathan "I make the cool
games" Tweet and Vampire: The Masquerade's Mark "I got a stupid dot in
my name" Rein*Hagen was Ars Magica, a brilliant role playing game of
Mythic Europe that they unveiled in 1987. It revolutionized game
playing with troupe-style playing, sensible character types, the use
of real medieval history as a setting and what is still the most
richly detailed and well-designed magic system in an RPG today.
Twelve years later the game is still miraculously alive. A lot of
this is due to a dedicated and intelligent fan-base: if Ars Magica has
a flaw, its people's mistaken belief that you need to know Latin to
play. Well, that's just not true -but it is one of the few games that
attracts historians, philosophers and non-hacknslashers out of the
woodwork in droves.
Ars Magica has seen four different publishers - Lion Rampant,
White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast and now Atlas Games, who ironically
used to be most of Lion Rampant. Now that the battle-weary game has
come home after a couple of near-cancellations, occasional lows and
White Wolf's obsession with making the game a precursor to their World
of Darkness, new fans can discover Mythic Europe for themselves. It
has been worth the wait.
"The Dragon and The Bear" describes the Novgorod Tribunal, which is
13th century Poland and Russia. Unlike most RPGs, Ars Magica
researchers know their subjects - Simeon Shoul has done a fantastic job
of covering the area, complete with beautiful maps, a complete lineage
for the royalty of Poland and Russia and a comprehensive index.
For those who think 'real' history is lame, they have another thing
coming: the Mongols. Yes, the basis for so many faceless photocopied
barbarians in so many bad RPG worlds are here in stunning, vivid
bloody glory, and it is the eminent arrival of these ghastly hordes
which gives this supplement its real punch. Past tribunal books have
posited plots and historical events, but never with such breadth and
depth. No matter where your saga takes place, the Mongols will
affect them, and now all the details are in one place.
Also featured are full rules for Volkhv characters, including the
entirely new system of magic used by pagan characters that resurrects
the old shaman rules from the 3rd edition and makes them shine. I was
especially fascinated by the treatment of faerie in the game, which
receives an exhaustive treatment - the differing natures of Slavic
faeries are discussed, as are Arcadia and the Pagan Gods that live
Atlas Games has really scored with their first tribunal book. They
have expertly woven Slavic myth and reality together into an excellent
sourcebook that will delight any Ars Magica player. "The Dragon and
The Bear" is a true cut above the standard locale books in the RPG
industry, and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in medieval Eastern
Europe. If you have never tried Ars Magica before, now is a perfect
time - Atlas has a wide range of great materials ready for you to use,
and you simply won't find a better medieval roleplaying game.