The chances are that if you’re checking out the Sub Rosa site then you must have heard of the brand new Kickstarter project for the video game Ars Magica: Years of Conquest. This project will bring the Ars Magica gameplay that we love to the computer screen for the very first time. Not only that, but as the game is set during the Schism War and the century that follows, we get the first in-canon view of the Diedne and the first fully-described setting outside of the default 1220 time frame. So much excitement and so many questions, so we spoke to Larry Sawh, the president and CEO of Black Chicken Studios, the company behind the game.
So, read on to find out more about the team (genuine Ars Magica fans) and the game, including an exclusive announcement.
Sub Rosa: Larry, thanks for taking time out to talk to Sub Rosa. For the Ars Magica fanbase who might not already know, can you give us a quick introduction to the team and a bit of background to Black Chicken Studios?
Larry Sawh: Black Chicken Studios was founded in 2007 with the goal of creating unique and unusual games for markets abandoned by the larger developers. As games have become more and more expensive to produce, entire genres have dropped out of favor, and now virtually exist only in our memory. Ars Magica is a great example of this: for magic, role-playing and history, it’s like nothing in the marketplace…but no AAA developer would ever look at doing this game, because it can’t be reduced neatly to a MOBA/FPS/MMO. It’s beyond the ability of their marketing teams to understand, let alone classify.
Our core team numbers 10, but during the 6 years we’ve been developing games, we’ve had the pleasure to work with well over three hundred artists, writers and programmers. We’re strongly in favor of communicating and working with fans and new artists, too – our DLC always includes the work of budding writers, who’d like to contribute to the game. In our opinion, a diversity of voices lead to more interesting perspectives, which lead to more engaged players. This is how we built Academagia and Scheherazade, and this is how we plan to build Ars Magica, too. Post-funding, we’ll be organizing a fan auxilia on our forums for this purpose.
SR: We understand that you have a bit of an Ars Magica background (at least, those were genuine Ars Magica supplements making a cameo in your video). Where does that background come from?
LS: Just a bit of a background: I’ve been playing since 2nd Edition, and we’ve all played 5th. Leaving aside the rest of this amazing game, the magic system is what always called to me – a “scientific” way to view magic was engaging, after years of D&D. My favorite character was a Mercere, non-Gifted, and my favorite spell was a wandering curse which did not kill, but stole memories to be experienced. We don’t have an active saga right now (our tabletop game for October is always Cthulhu), but we have one paused, set in Novgorod. Quick anecdote: you can’t see it in the video, but what we’re all doing is creating baby Characters for Ars Magica, using Apprentices. I don’t know who created those specific rules, but thank you for an enjoyable morning.
SR: How did the concept for this game come about?
LS: It happened almost 100% like what’s shown in the video. The reasons for being unable to play are pretty much verbatim, too.
Of course, behind that is decades of play, daydreams and the fact that the Covenant portion of the game lends itself to a video game to begin with.
SR: How long have you guys been working on this project?
LS: Just about 6 months now, dating from the time we began planning to approach Atlas.
SR: At what point did you approach Atlas-Games?
LS: We came to them with the high-level proposal in June, just before the San Diego Comic Con- we thought we might pitch it to them there, if they planned to attend. We ended up teleconferencing, though.
SR: And did you need to overcome any scepticism or did they embraced this project from the outset?
LS: Fortunately not- they instantly grasped the fundamentals of the design, and were very excited. As a GM and a fan, I can’t tell you how thrilling that was.
SR: How has the process of working with Atlas been?
LS: Honestly, we could not imagine a better partner – they are informative, supportive and enthusiastic. It’s not really a surprise, of course, that is their reputation – but in every respect they won our universal admiration. And they have the best Ars Magica stories. Perhaps that’s not a surprise either.
SR: So, the game itself. As if the prospect of a video game version of Ars Magica wasn’t exciting enough, you’re doing Diedne and the Schism War. That’s never been covered before. How pleased are you that you are the guys that get to define that critical era?
LS: There was a great deal of fist-pumping the day that was approved. Of course, we’re not defining it ourselves – we’re working with David Chart, the Line Editor, and his team to craft the canon, and they have the leadership role. The speculative history and discussions are…a dream come true to read.
SR: And you’re setting this in Stonehenge in the 11th Century. Why there and, beyond the Schism War, why that span of 100 years?
LS: [Redacted, as we say on the Black Chicken Forums]
SR: It may be too early to reveal all the Diedne secrets, but are you able to tease us with maybe a one or two-word clue about which way you’re going with them?
LS: I want to, oh, I want to. However, my lips are sealed!
SR: Are we going to learn of their motives or is that going to be left ambiguous?
LS: I believe I can say that you will learn something of their motivations. You can, after all, play a Diedne.
SR: I think mention has been made that you want to work with some of the existing line authors as the project matures. How important is it to you to bring that experience on board and what does that do for the game?
LS: Above all, it ensures a continuity for the game’s canon. This is the most important thing to us, as we are fans as well. It’s true that we have a little wiggle room, as we’re set two centuries before the official setting, but we’d still like to have hints about how things got from point A to point B.
SR: And are you looking forward to troupes using this game to pitch their own sagas back to the world of AD1000?
LS: We haven’t announced it yet, but as a little spoiler for you all: any time during the game you can convert your Covenant and Characters to Ars Magica character sheets, for printing and/or use on the tabletop game.
SR: That’s very cool. Thank you for sharing that. I love the idea that it extends to the covenant too.
Looking to the gameplay a little more, we can see from the project page that this is a single player experience, playing out across the century, but what more can you say about the kinds of activities open to the players?
LS: Firstly, if it’s in the 5E rulebook, it’s a mechanic in the game, one way or another. All the long term events and laboratory mechanics will be in, as well as training, teaching, crafting, and so on. On top of that, though, there are new mechanics for Covenant Resources, Personalities (and especially their conflicts) and a Covenant Destiny mechanic, which follows you through the course of the game. Each Character has their own plotted storyline, and you will be able to follow a person’s career from birth to death, and fulfill their destinies along the way. Actually, which destiny you choose for a character to fulfill is the interesting part- there’s going to be a lot agonizing decisions for your favorite characters.
SR: The magus is the star of the show, but how important is the covenant to the game? How far is the covenant just a base or is it something that you see growing across the century?
LS: The Covenant grows, if you want it to grow – this game is not a true sandbox, but it’s pretty open-ended. That includes your mages, too – what you have them do, which adventures you send them on, what judgments they make…it all affects the overall progression of the story in various ways.
SR: To what degree do grogs and/or companions figure in this too?
LS: They play as important a role in the game as mages – they just are less generally useful, as with the tabletop game. Then again, if you want to spend all your time tricking out a companion or a grog, you can do that, too. It’s really going to be up to the individual player, and what they feel is important in their Chronicle.
SR: The Kickstarter page has been updated with a description of spells and magic, which looks interesting, so we know that the magic that we’re used to is going to be there. Why was it important to capture that subtlety?
LS: I alluded to this earlier, but every fantasy game has spells, and 90% of them are variants of “I do X damage to you with Y damage type.” Ars Magica, on the other hand, is entirely the opposite. If we were to make a dungeon-crawling game with nothing but lightning bolts and fireballs, we could dress it with Bjornaer and Criamon, and so on…but it would not be Ars Magica. In our opinion, to be an authentic Ars Magica game, you absolutely must allow magic to pervade the Player’s experience, all the way from making a room’s air stuffy and stale to causing a tree to experience autumn upon a mage’s whim.
SR: Should we also be looking out for certamen, Tribunals, familiars, and talismans?
LS: Yes to all of these, but there is a caveat on Familiars. We would like Familiars to be truly important Characters in the Covenant, but to do so (and offer interesting choices), we have to leave that as a Stretch Goal. For the base game, you’ll have mechanic-only Familiars, which in my opinion are useful…but not as great as they ought to be.
LS: KickStarter is the most well-known of the crowd-funding sites. It allows artists and creators to set up a project, and provides a common forum for patrons to pledge to the funding of projects which interest them. As a way to source funding, it’s probably the best: you can work directly with your fans and players to create something from an idea.
SR: What does Kickstarter give you that more conventional funding models can’t?
LS: The ability to create something unique- something that wouldn’t be funded by conventional means. Ars Magica is a great example of this, as it is a marketing nightmare: the (video game) brand is untested, the market size is unknown, and it cannot be classified into common gaming types. But on KickStarter, you can bypass these risks and take the pitch directly to the people you’re making it for. It’s really a renaissance for indie gaming.
SR: Where do we sign up and how do we get involved?
LS: You can find the KickStarter page here:
…and you can speak to us, directly, about the game on our forums, here:
SR: Beyond the update on spells, what should we look out for next on the Kickstarter page?
LS: Why, this interview, of course! But beyond that we have a discussion on Covenants, and a Dialogue screenshot mock-up in the next week or so.
SR: Assuming you hit your funding target, when does work start and what kind of release date are you looking for?
LS: We’d begin the low-level design immediately upon funding, with a release date of Q2 2014.
SR: And let’s assume that we’re close to release and we’re gearing up to play the game. Are we also looking at expansion packs after this?
LS: We’ll undoubtedly do a set of free DLC, but we’d be much more focused on a sequel, rather than an expansion pack. However, much will depend on the fans, and what they’d like to see.
You can purchase both from our website:
…be sure to vist our forums for the latest Patches, though, especially for Academagia: the 15th free DLC was just released over the weekend.
SR: Larry, thanks again for taking time out to talk to us.
So there we have it. We didn’t manage to prise any Diedne secrets out of him (no surprises there), but it looks increasingly like this game is going to do everything it can to complement your tabletop experience, from working within and extending the established canon, to leveraging the experience of the line authors, and even allowing you to take your characters from the game to the table.
One thing we didn’t cover above is the extensive range of patron rewards available through Kickstarter. This is a project that deserves to the see the light of day, so please head over to the Kickstarter page, take a look at those rewards, and become a patron for this very exciting and unique interpretation of the Ars Magica world.