So - What's Ars Magica?
Ars Magica is a game background set in the middle ages of Europe, north Africa and the near east. It is set in a world very close to our own, with the same nation states, kings and historical events.
Ars Magica assumes that all of the stories, myths and legends of medieval Europe - faeries, monsters, demons, ghosts and spirits, heroes and giants - had truth to them, and that living secretly among the people of the time was a society of magicians, largely (though not exclusively) descended in philosophy from the priests of the cult of Mercury in the Roman Empire.
This secret society - the Order of Hermes - numbered at its peak in the late 1100s perhaps a thousand magicians, scattered from the British Isles to Kievan Rus, and from the coast of the Baltic to North Africa. It was divided into thirteen Houses, each with a specific tradition of magic tracing back to a "founder" - one of the thirteen magicians who agreed to form the society in 767AD - and into thirteen "Tribunals" - geopolitical areas of administration.
Some Tribunals were loose associations of covenants (groups) of magi that met infrequently to share gossip and trade; others were highly formal and structured affairs with officers, positions of honour and duty, and structured meetings. Great bodies of peripheral lore accumulated about how things were to be done, which were often not recognised from one tribunal to another.
The members of the Order - who style themselves "Magi" - modelled their lives on the monastic model popular in the early middle ages; they gathered in communities called "covenants" after the oaths of friendship they swore to one another, and in place of a monastic rule, they lived by "The Code" - a set of principles and undertakings to which every magus swore before being accounted a member of the Order.
The most important precepts of the Code by which magi lived were that conflict between fellows was carefully regulated; that meddling with demons was forbidden; and perhaps most tellingly that no magus should act in a way to bring ruin on their fellows, a rule which, more than any other, brought the Order increasingly into contact with, and often conflict with, the mundane world and the Church.
The magic of the Order of Hermes is very formal and latinised - there are theoretical rules and limits as to what can and cannot be done with magic. This all comes from the original theory of magic outlined by Bonisagus, one of the founders, which synthesised many of the different magical traditions of his time. Bonisagus' work was nearly six hundred years ago though, and the limits of his theory are now in very sharp relief.
Our game is set at the very end of the lifespan of the Order - in the mid-fourteenth century, just before the birth of the Renaissance. The Order has six hundred years of history and accumulated grudges and conflicts. The Middle Ages are gasping their last, and a great shadow will fall over Europe in the next few years which will leave it changed beyond recognition.
Those familiar with the Ars Magica background should make no assumptions - we have made significant changes to align with this time period.