Magazine Review: Sub Rosa, Issue 10, June 2012

Many moons ago I picked up a copy of a role-playing game from White Wolf called Ars Magica. It had undergone a few editions by the time I picked it up, but I was already knee deep in Vampire: The Masquerade and looking at Mage: The Ascension at the time… It appears it’s been through two more iterations and seems to be holding at 5th with the version from Atlas Games.

Unfortunately, though I found it quite enthralling to read through, I have not had the opportunity to play (either Ars Magica or Mage: The Ascension) since finding the game in the mid-1990s. And quite honestly I hadn’t heard anything about it for quite a while when Ben McFarland, one of the folks behind the Ars Magica magazine Sub Rosa, dropped me a line recently. I was more than happy to dive back into the world of medieval magic.

Sub Rosa -

What is Sub Rosa? It appears to be a quarterly magazine of fan-driven content for Ars Magica 5th edition. I started my journey into the mystic arts with issue 10, which was out last month.

At 60 pages, I have to say I was impressed. Each issue is $4.50 (or a quarterly subscription for $16), or you can subscribe and get copies for everyone in your troupe (ArM5 term for a gaming group that’s more like a “Fellowship” in Cubicle 7’s The One Ring or the tightly-bound group of a FATE game than a traditional Dungeons & Dragons gaming group) for a reasonable rate. This is the first time I’ve seen a magazine use a “group rate” approach for subscriptions and I have to wonder if other periodical-type companies do the same.

Each page appears with a background image to make the page look as though it were torn parchment out of a medieval tome. One corner of the image is darker than the rest and makes it difficult to read the text in that corner (black print on a brown/beige like in the top left corner of page 8), but I appreciate the approach. And after re-reading some of the ArM3 book, I suspect that each of the images on the page may have some significance in the world of “Mystic Europe” that the game inhabits. There is a front and back cover and 5 full-page ads for ArM-related content or events, leaving 53 8.5 x 11 pages of content with a standard three-column
format and clear headings. I would have liked the table of contents to be linked for easy access to the articles, or for the articles/main pages to be bookmarked in the PDF.

Content-wise there are 8 distinct articles or sections, including a page at the end called “Mappa Mundi” which offers a page of links to ArM content around the web to medieval history research and resources you can use in your campaign. Seems quite a bit like my Friday articles linking around the ‘net for gaming news and food for thought! (It strikes me odd that they chose to link to the articles on the Internet, but not to provide inter-document links.)

Not really knowing ArM all that well, there were still two articles that really caught my attention. “The Storyguide’s Handbook: The Dramatic Journey” by Gerald Wylie, and “The Cult of Silvanus” by David Stavely. Each could easily be reused for games other than ArM to offer interesting world crunch or adventure/campaign design ideas.

“The Storyguide’s Handbook” dives into different story structures for campaigns. The author suggests drawing out “a simple grid with characters and stories down the side and time across the top” to keep threads straight and attempt to not get things too tangled. I would have liked to have seen an example of this method in action, perhaps even working through a few plot threads from his own campaign. Beyond that, he talks about using similar techniques to what’s used in TV and comic books – seasonal arcs to help keep things together, yet offer plenty of adventures along the way. And the last thing I took from the article was the suggestion to design a season around certain key events like certain comic books do (Civil War from Marvel or Blackest Night from DC for example). Perhaps the campaign will end with the eruption of a major volcano or other natural disaster. He also offers plenty of suggestions on how to apply these techniques to an ArM campaign – making sure all the characters are involved, and so on.

Meanwhile, “The Cult of Silvanus” is more of a bit of world crunch to insert into a new or ongoing campaign. Here we have a whole cult to insert with pre-defined rituals, initiation rites, and a purpose all their own. The pagan god Silvanus was more of a deity of the woods and the wild, but had some influence on cultivated places. The cult helped farming communities prior to the arrival of Christianity, but suffered afterwards and went underground. Their secret ways protected them and they still hold sway… I couldn’t help but wonder about such cults even in the modern world or a Steampunk or Victorian-era setting… Who would they influence and how would they go about it? Hmmm…

So whether you’re a player of Ars Magica or simply a GM looking for some interesting ideas for your own campaign, I’d encourage you to pick up an issue or two of Sub Rosa. I suspect you’ll find some great nuggets of imagination in every issue!

For more, check out the Sub Rosa website. The only way to get the issues is by contacting the Sub Rosa folks directly and the details are on the “Subscribe” page.

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