What is Ars Magica?
Ars Magica is a tabletop RPG system about the medieval period. Unlike many RPGs, it is not set in a fantasy world - no Golarion, no Faerun. The setting of Ars Magica is Earth, 1220 AD. That is a fantasy world. You see, in Ars Magica, the world operates broadly in the way that people of the medieval period think it did. Kings rule by literal divine right, and have protection from God, who provably exists. Faeries stalk the liminal areas of the world, and can be kept away by traditional wards. Demons tempt humanity to sin.
Ars Magica is also fairly unique among RPGs in that each player typically plays more than one character. Every player has a Magus, an extremely powerful but usually socially awkward wizard. They also have a Companion, a less potent but often much more flexible character that hangs out with and helps the party. A Companion might be a knight, a priest, an alchemist or something weirder, depending on how complex you want to get (Incidentally, the best for just being a terrifying master of war will always be a knight, because a big, skilled person in full armor is more dangerous, pound for pound, than anything in the game short of a very combat-focused magical creature.) The party also shares control over a pool of lesser characters, called Grogs, who are servants of the covenant (read: awesome wizard team with a super cool wizard house) that the party runs and can range from bodyguards to cooks to blacksmiths.
What isn’t historic?
The core thing, besides ‘magic is real, Aristotle was right’ is the addition of the Order of Hermes. The Order of Hermes is an organization of wizards, come together to ensure that they are able to do the things that wizards like to do. Wizards like to gain magical power, study strange things and, occasionally, get involved in politics. (They aren’t supposed to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t.) There are other ahistorical elements, all of which are called out in the text, at least for Fourth and Fifth Edition Ars Magica. Earlier editions were much more ahistorical.
How historical is historical?
They had to add a disclaimer during the latest edition asking you not to use these books as a medieval history textbook. This is because there was a very famous event in the Ars Magica community where a guy aced a college history class using his Fourth Edition books to study. The books extensively rely on historical sources for their material, because this is a game for hardcore medievalists who like historical accuracy.
But let’s remember what historical accuracy isn’t. Ars Magica does. Historical accuracy doesn’t mean that women can’t do things. There are obstacles for women in the patriarchal world of the middle ages, but Ars Magica goes out of its way to demonstrate how women could and did become master crafters, warriors, leaders and more. Even priests, if they were willing to disguise their gender. Historical accuracy also doesn’t mean that non-white people didn’t exist. There was a remarkable amount of social exchange between Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, and Ars Magica does reflect this in its characters. Race and prejudice existed, but in a very different way than the modern era; they were primarily based on religion and local rivalries.
Ars Magica is a game about the past, and some parts of the past were ugly - but it is a modern game, written for a modern audience, and it tries to be as welcoming as possible even as it doesn’t gloss over the problems that you might run into. The Order of Hermes, notably, is extremely egalitarian, because the ability to hurl fireballs by chanting in Latin recognizes neither gender nor race.
This sounds super cool!
It totally is. I am going to admit flat out, this game is mechanically complex in a very frontloaded way. Character creation involves assigning massive piles of XP and picking from huge lists of spells, and it can be quite difficult. Play post-chargen is much simpler, but there are still a lot of complex subsystems that can trip you up. Despite that, I cannot recommend the game enough. Putting in the work gets you a game that is educational, interesting and extremely fun.
I mean, in one game of it I run, one of the players accidentally created Gargamel.