Like many gamers, I started with D&D. But I was always curious about other games, and the first section of Dragon Magazine that I always read (OK, OK—2nd section, after Wormy) was the reviews. But for the most part, the games I read about and the games I played were all pretty much just variations on a theme—sure, the stats had different names, and you rolled different dice, but structurally, most RPGs in the early ‘80s were pretty much the same.
Then I read a review of Ars Magica. As soon as I had the money, I went down to my FLGS and ordered not only the core book, but 3 of the supplements. This was the first time I’d ever ordered an RPG without having seen or played it first, and the first time I’d ever bought supplements for a game before I had a chance to read the core book.
Ars Magica Was Different
You built characters with rich histories and significant capabilities right from the start, rather than young whelps first setting out. You built the world together, rather than the GM building a world and everyone else only playing their characters. You all took turns at Storyguiding. And part of Troupe-style play was that you built multiple characters and just played the one that made sense at the time. There were adventures, but right from the start you had a home to return to—and sometimes the adventures came to you. The sort of game balance that most games used was tossed out the window—wizards are more powerful, full stop.
Today, some of those differences are old hat, some are even common—but in the late ‘80s they were revolutionary. More importantly, they were for me, personally, eye-opening. This was shortly after AD&D2 came out, and at the time I thought that was ground-breaking. There may have been other games around at the time that were using some of these same innovations, but I didn’t know about them.
So a few of us from my weekly D&D game got together to play Ars Magica. It was just 4 of us, but we created characters, divvied up authorial responsibility for the world (I remember Choli was our authority for the fae, but none of the other details), created a covenant and a whole pile of grogs, and set about figuring out how Troupe-style play actually worked.
Along the way, we also figured out something I’d been moving towards but unable to grasp while constrained by D&D’s notions of game balance and earning power: how to put collaborative storytelling front and center in our roleplaying. For the first time, the rules were supporting what I’d always wanted to do, rather than being a necessary evil that I sometimes needed to work around.
Ars Magica is the game that made me the gamer I am today, and proved once and for all that story and rules can build on one another rather than having to take turns. Oh, sure, other games may have gotten that particular synergy better since then, but they weren’t my first—and to this day I’m not sure they are, in toto, better games. There’s a reason that, despite reading and playing hundreds of RPGs over the years, I still list Ars Magica as either my favorite RPG or among my top 5 (depending on my mood). IMHO, it has found the perfect balance between storytelling, world-building, and engaging mechanics, and does so with a perfect balance between being able to take authorial control and being able to slide into actor role and just be someone else. It’s almost always the game at the top of my list when someone says “what do you want to play next?”