This is a transcript of the most recent episode of the podcast.

Travel magic doesn’t work very well in Ars Magica, at least in the core rules. As the line has progressed many of the authors, me included, have found ways to sabotage that and allow your party to get whatever they want to go, without participating in on-the-road adventures.

This perhaps expresses a difference in philosophy of game design. Very early Ars Magica might have been influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, where the idea of the wandering monster – a randomly-appearing creature that causes combat for no particular reason – was very popular. In Ars injuries are more difficult to heal than in Dungeons and Dragons. One big combat encounter can have the party laid up for months and therefore, dramatically, during the story random encounters are at best a distraction.

There may be other reasons for trying to keep young magicians in their pen. One of them was that in earlier versions of Ars Magica, magicians were destroying the magical landscape around them. If your magicians were able to move further, it would be difficult to explain why the small, magical things that appeared in your characters area had not already been clear-felled by the magi from a from a powerful covenant.

The current edition gets around this somewhat by having geographical features generate their own magical spirits, which are in some sense persistent. Even if the spirit of a mountain is destroyed, because the mountain is there, eventually a spirit will be generated instead, or the mountain will fall down. Something else will take its place, like a spirit of the plain. Fairies are mobile and have the ability to re-emerge from Arcadia even if destroyed or harvested – well perhaps. It deliberately doesn’t say how they work, so that magicians don’t just destroy the fae forest around them increasingly broad concentric circles, making the land mundane.

Another reason why travel magic doesn’t work terribly well in Ars Magica is because it’s not nearly as necessary as we think. I’m Australian, an there are a surprising number of Australian authors in Ars Magica. A lot of other authors for Ars Magica are from the United States.  It is very difficult for us to conceive of precisely how tiny Mythic Europe is.

Before I played a lot of Ars Magica I was fascinated by Pendragon and by Arthuriana. Allow me to consider one case from that: that kingdom of Cornwall. Cornwall is a  kingdom that also contains a duchy. The king of Cornwall is one of the core rivals of King Arthur, indeed eventually he sacks Camelot. (Spoilers). It takes people an enormous amount of time to ride from his court to Camelot even though there is an excellent road. Now we might take from this that Cornwall is massive: but it is tiny. It is slightly smaller than Long Island in the United States. For Australians, it is about twice the size of Fraser Island.

Similarly the entire of Great Britain (that is the island on which England and Scotland are found) is actually tiny. If you are an Australian that entire island is about 10% smaller than Victoria. If you are American it’s harder to find something to compare it to so let’s just divide it into bits. Scotland is slightly smaller than Kansas and England is slightly smaller than Colorado.

Also it’s not particularly difficult to get around provided that you’re willing to sail. This was the preferred method of transit for many people in Europe, simply because it was far faster. We tend to think of the seas as barriers, particularly if you come from the Australian literary tradition, where the point of sending people to Australia was that the entire place was surrounded by sea which was controlled by the British navy, so we would never get off. There is, I believe, a similar tradition in America that the country is defended by the Atlantic and Pacific. This isn’t how medieval Europeans saw the sea, with the exception of the English Channel which was mythically rough. Indeed in the time of the Roman invasion was thought to be mystically rough: you couldn’t land unless the king asked you to come, which the Romans managed by trickery.

So Cornwall is tiny. It doesn’t seem tiny to us have because we have a lot of sources, which means that the amount of folkloristic material which we can find for quite large cities in other places (like Hungary) is the same as the amount of folkloristic material we can find for quite small villages in areas whose populations are English speaking,  or have been superseded by English-speaking people. This makes Cornwall seems larger simply because we have more material to write about.

Cornwall is the obvious absence in Heirs to Merlin. It is the place where you would park a covenant if you wanted to use the material with the least fiction with currently described covenants. To supplement this, some of us wrote a “vanilla covenant” free web supplement, which encouraged you to investigate Cornwall. In looking at it I found the travelling across Cornwall, without magic, in a single day, is perfectly doable. It has always seemed strange to me that the redcaps best skilled at using travel magic to teleport are the ones based in the Mercer House in London, in what is one of the tiniest of the tribunals.

Personally I like the supposition that the reason that they have teleporting cavalrymen in Stonehenge Tribunal is because it has been separated from the Roman road network, which House Mercere somehow uses to facilitate their work in the rest of Europe and North Africa. There are Roman roads in Britain (well, there were, most of them have been robbed out). There is a Mercer House in London, at the place one would be wanted if it acted as a mystical connection to the rest of Europe. To claim, however, that the Roman road network in Britain runs all the way to the golden stele in the Agora of Rome seems a stretch, unless there’s some sort of invisible bridge or secret tunnel. These are awesome campaign ideas, but let’s imagine they don’t have them..

Here we strike the solution to one of the tiny, niggling questions in ancestral spell design: why is Seven League Stride only seven leagues? Folkloristically we know seven leagues, or 21 miles, was the distance a man was expected to march during a day. Who would develop a spell that has a teleportation distance of 21 miles. Presumably originally they had shorter spells and stopped at that point. What could they have been attempting to do?

My answer is this. If you look at the strait between France and England, the narrowest point is 20.3 miles. 21 miles seems to me a perfect spell to allow House Mercere’s representatives to hop the Channel. Other than it being the product of some sort of dedicated project like this I can’t see why it has that limitation: why it isn’t just Arcane Connection range so you can teleport anywhere Mythic Europe.

So to summarise: players outside of Europe: one of the reasons that you might feel that your character needs travel magic is because you don’t understand precisely how small Mythic Europe actually is.

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/en/king-artus-metal-sculpture-1507392/

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4 replies on “Mythic Europe is tiny

  1. Mythic Europe really is tiny, though as it happens, the Rhine (and probably Normandy) tribunals are huge when you travel on foot.

    And you mention (but don’t really detail) that while the oceans are barrieres, seas are connectors.
    This is one of the main reasons why we think (and talk) of ‘southern europe’ and ‘northern europe’.
    Southern europe has the mediterrain seabinding them together and giving them a shared history, and similarly the northern germany, scandinavia and the british isles are connected by the baltic sea and the north sea. But to go from the north of europe to the south of europe (by ship), you have to enter the atlantic ocean, even if you hug the coast all along the Bay of Biscany. Not impossible, but much harder and more dangerous.

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    1. That’s something I knew about intellectually, but didn’t really hit me emotionally until I read your comment. I knew the mountain passes were really important for this reason, and that this is one of the reasons Charlemange tried to link the Rhine and the Danube with a canal, but it didin’t really click for me in the way your comment has made it click. Thanks.

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  2. One thing that travel magic does is eliminate the challenge of travel. A large proportion of DNA of RPG’s comes from Tolkien. Yes we’ve mutated it over the years, but the epic journeys of his books still have resonance. In our setting people took pilgrimages. Marco Polo and Umberto Echo’s Baudalino are both popular stores that aren’t too far from the game’s setting or the minds of my players. The Crusades were quite the hike for the Europeans who did them.

    Characters taking an epic journey is a story with resonance. “I popped over to Jerusalem, Kiev, and Barcelona to pick up ingredients for tonight’s feast because we have arcane connections and I know both leap of homecoming and some really good markets.” is a story that has somewhat less resonance. Yes, that example is a bit strawmanish but I’ve been disappointed in games where my epic journey became less taxing than a simple jaunt the to the store.

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    1. That’s a great point, Erik. At the same time, I like to think that the Jerbitons probably do push for easy ways to get around the circuit of the great cities. For example, who would want to be Primus if it really meant being stuck in a valley in Switzerland for your whole life?

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