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Reviews: Ars Magica: The Mysteries
 
by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson


The Mysteries cover artThe Mysteries adds secret magic to Ars Magica - esoteric mysteries even hidden from most of Mythic Europe's magi. It describes the secret arts and the secret societies who practice them, plus a hefty dose of information on medieval worldviews and theories of magic. The Mysteries gives us a more historically accurate model of medieval magic than the core Ars Magica book does. The result is a powerful supplement; however, it is hampered by stylistic problems that make it difficult to use, and sometimes even to understand.

Systems

Most of the book is dedicated to four mysteries of magic - alchemy, astrology, magical imagination, and theurgy. Alchemy and astrology should be familiar to most readers; theurgy is the art of binding "airy spirits" to do the magus' will, and magical imagination is a somewhat confusingly named discipline of projecting the magus' mind into hidden levels of reality, producing abilities of divination and power over dreams.

Part of the joy of Ars Magica is the way it enables you to indulge your inner munchkin without guilt, and in this respect, The Mysteries delivers. Each mystery consists of a series of abilities, gained by successive initiations into the mystery's secrets. These abilities allow initiates to augment or replace their Hermetic magic with esoteric knowledge, to manufacture Hermetic automata, to travel in the world of dreams, to control spirits, and to engage in a variety of other new exploits. Besides these new frontiers of magical knowledge, the book includes many spells for initiates and non-initiates alike. It also gives lists of magical and mundane books, mystical properties of substances, and a few assorted minor mysteries. In short, the book is chock-full of good stuff. Regrettably, much of the juicy stuff is limited to higher-level initiates, meaning that much of the material may be difficult to use if you don't want to place the esoteric arts at the center of your saga.

The rules can be confusing in places - several mysteries involve Virtues and Skills with identical names, and Ars Magica's natural inclination to formulae gets a bit out of control in a couple of places - but once you puzzle them out, they're good and useful new mechanics.

Setting

The Mysteries' non-mechanical sections focus on the people who practice the mysteries, dividing their practitioners into secret societies and esoteric lineages. Secret societies are cabals of magi organized around a vision of the world's true nature, practicing and teaching the mysteries as a way to advance the society's agendas. A magus' allegiance to a secret society is separate from his allegiance to covenant or Order, and may even be at odds with those other commitments.

Esoteric lineages are magical traditions passed on from master to apprentice through the years. Though members of esoteric lineages practice the same secret arts as members of secret societies, they usually have no particular agenda or ideology.

A range of societies and lineages are discussed, and most of them are compelling organizations, complete with adventure hooks to bring them into your saga. The book also discusses roles for secret societies to play in a saga, from shadowy powers behind the throne to minor interest groups. It also devotes some useful pages to the motivations and attitudes of the initiated magus, which should come in handy to players seeking roleplaying guidance.

The book contains excellent, thorough descriptions of the worldview behind the mysteries, with frequent explanations of elements of medieval medicine, cosmology, and philosophy, as well as occasional quotes from primary sources. The book also contains a history of classical mystery cults and how their influence extends into medieval times. These sections make The Mysteries an interesting resource on medieval magic besides its value as a game supplement, and I think that substantially enhances its gaming value. Without good coverage of the concepts behind the rules, a game like Ars Magica runs the risk of devolving into pure number-crunching.

Presentation

Alas, The Mysteries' presentation is the glaring flaw in an otherwise excellent book. A number of problems have slipped through the editorial net to cause trouble.

The text is prone to bad construction. There are spelling errors and apparently missing words which grate on the nerves of pedantic reviewers. The language can be ponderous and overblown; this mostly happens in the introductory chapters, where I suspect a relatively thin portion of the subject matter had to support multiple chapters. For example, the book spends half a page explaining at length that medieval scholars regarded magic, science, and philosophy as a single subject.

More troublesome, though, at some points the text is actually difficult to understand - sometimes from obscure wording, and sometimes from excessive terseness. I have to grant some latitude here; the book does deal with source material made deliberately confusing by centuries of effort, but the opaqueness of the text crosses the line sometimes. For example, I have trouble using the astrology rules because an important section of background material is poorly explained. It's frustrating; I could build an astrologer with minimal trouble, and I could probably play one without too many problems, but I don't understand basic concepts my character should know, and which I'm almost certain are there in the book.

The book's organization is also confusing. The chapter for each of the mysteries begins with details of the relevant secret societies, which refer to abilities and rules which we haven't read yet. The book also places certain rules pertaining to the mysteries in the overview near the beginning of the book, without repeating or referring to them in the chapter dedicated to the mystery in question. All this makes the book challenging to read on the first pass, and it makes it equally challenging to use. Having read and played with it quite a bit in preparation for this review, the organization problems have started to recede for me, but it could be a daunting learning curve for someone who just wants better alchemy in their saga.

These issues don't ruin the book in any sense, but they are frustrating, and they might stop people from making the effort to use the genuinely good stuff available in The Mysteries.

Conclusion

On the whole, I think The Mysteries is a very rewarding book. Even if you aren't interested in including large-scale mysticism in your saga, the book contains enough useful background material and interesting story ideas to make it a worthwhile read. However, any buyer should be prepared to read the book more than once to be able to get the most out of it.

Folks interested in the subject may also want to check out the upcoming GURPS Cabal, which attempts to present a historically accurate treatment of Hermetic magic. Though not mechanically compatible, the two books complement each other well, each covering in detail subjects which the other skims over.
 

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