by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson
The 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.