Covenants vs Alliances

ArM5 Alliances (French, link to Ludo Games)

So there’s a French version of Ars Magica 5th edition and it has very beautiful cover-art (see the Covenants equivalent to the right).

I’ve been thinking about this since Timothy posted the announcement over on his blog, and since I haven’t quite worked out the whole “reblog” kung-fu, I’ll just post some comments here…

Sure, although I like the moody art, I think there’s something more here, perhaps just a trick of translation or emphasis but I’ve noticed that over time, particularly on the various forums, the concept of a covenant has become solidified for the vast majority of the community into a physical home for the magi, the whole “castle-on-the-hill-in-the-faerie-wood” trope alluded to in ArM5 Covenants.

Most of the canonical ArM5 covenants are described in terms of places, sites and locations, with some notable exceptions such as the Transylvanian examples.

But to me the place magi live is not actually what a covenant truly is.

To me a “covenant” is the collection of magi, bound together by an agreement of mutual support and purpose, holding resources in common. This is a broader concept and one that I think allows for telling more interesting stories.

Surely this is crazy talk?

Project Redcap gives the following definition:

covenant is a group of allied magi. The word “covenant” refers to the oath of cooperation and/or brotherhood they take together, but also (more commonly) to the group itself. In most covenants, the magi live together and share a magical library[1]. Most covenants also have guards (called grogs) and servants (covenfolk). ArM5, p. 13, “Covenants”

This definition makes little mention of structure, physical location or geography –  sure a library is usually a physical structure and part of a building or complex but not necessarily (think the ghosts of the Cave of Twisting Shadows or other “living libraries”). I’d note the definition refers to the oath and the group of magi specifically and is therefore meant to be much more of an “alliance” in the English sense of the word (which is similar to the standard meaning of the word “covenant” as an agreement or pact), hence my attraction to the emphasis placed by using the French term. Sure it’s easier to conceive of a starting covenant as a location that a group of new magi inhabit ie. the place where their shared library is located, but the ArM5 rules actually allow for much more options that this, something I think we should perhaps explore more.

Let’s stick to examining canon for a moment though. The geographic concept seems to have been introduced and then explored to great depth in ArM5 Covenants:

Firstly, and most straightforwardly, the covenant is the home of the characters, the place where they live. It is the place they defend most fiercely, because it is where they keep those things they love the most. The covenant is where the characters feel most secure, so it is where they express their desires most openly. The covenant is more than a place for the characters to resupply between journeys to dangerous places. The covenant is the reason that the journeys seem worthwhile. The covenant is thus at the heart of the saga’s stories.

So by the time of this supplement’s release a covenant has now become a place in itself, and more importantly a shared character (perhaps the most important character in some Sagas). It’s difficult for intangible concepts such as oaths to have a character in any sense, but extension of character to a place or building complex is reasonable.

But is this the only way? I think not.

One of the variant Hermetic concepts introduced in ArM5 Against the Dark is its presentation of the five Transylvanian covenants as “social classes” or distinct groups with shared responsibilities within the Transylvanian Tribunal, whereas the actual physical sites inhabited by the magi are referred to as oppida (Latin: “towns”) and can contain a mixture of magi from the various “covenants”. In many ways this approach to the concept of a “covenant” as an alliance, pact or grouping of like-minded (or at least sometimes agreeing) magi makes more sense to me, although its wider applicability outside the Tremere enforced structure of Transylvania is perhaps harder to envisage given the presentation of covenant-as-site/structure that has predominated in the line to date. Compare Tytalus-controlled Normandy for instance with it’s feudal and raider dominated culture seems to be more appropriate to be based around castles and physical locations (with the notable exception of Atsingani, the mobile covenant of brigands in the southeast) or the tradition-bound Rhine Tribunal with its 3 Domus Magnae but also its own exception, the ship-borne piratical covenant of Waddenzee.

In an upcoming supplement I had an opportunity to explore the concept of a covenant-as-alliance further with hopefully interesting results. Sure, the covenant still has sites, vis sources and covenfolk but it’s focus is more on a shared philosophy than a shared geographical space. I can’t detail anything further here yet, but hopefully it provides a model for an alternative to the castle-on-the-hill-in-the-faerie-woods approach.




2 thoughts on “Covenants vs Alliances”

  1. Reblogged this on Le coin coin d'Imrryran and commented:
    Un convent (ou Alliances… bwah je n’aime pas cette traduction-là !) de Ars Magica n’est pas qu’un simple lieu, c’est avant tout l’ensemble des magi rassemblés autour d’un but ou d’un idéal commun. En lisant cet article je me dis qu’on pourrait avoir des convents intéressants rompant avec le lieu fixe et unique..

    Une poignée de magi échangent des lettres à travers l’Europe. Ils semblent bien inoffensifs, mais un quaesitor têtu pourrait s’apercevoir que leurs laboratoires dessinent un pentacle à l’échelle du continent.

    Dans un ensemble de grottes, perdu sur une montagne dans le Sahara, vivent des ermites. Ils semblent doctes et sages mais effrayés par le contact humain. La nuit ils se rejoignant dans leurs rêves pour chasser les importuns et tenir conseil.

    Une caravane de gitans va de ville en ville, charmant les femmes et les enfants, vendant quelques tours plus ou moins pendable, plus ou moins magiques. Leur cheminement dessine à travers le pays comme une longue phrase.

    Une famille de Mercere, redcaps et magi mêlés, ne semblent jamais se poser nulle part. Une fois tous les trois ans, pour l’anniversaire du patriarche maintenu magiquement en vie ralentie, ils se retrouvent et discutent de la direction que l’Ordre d’Hermès devrait suivre pour les trois prochaines années. Puis ils repartent faire leur travail.

  2. Thanks to Google Chrome Translate (for those who can’t read French), Imrryran’s comment:

    “A convent (or Alliance Bwah … I do not like this translation there!) Ars Magica is not just a place, it is primarily all magi gathered around a goal or a common ideal. By reading this article I think we could have interesting convents breaking with fixed and unique ..

    A handful of magi exchange letters throughout Europe. They seem harmless, but a stubborn Quaesitor could see that their laboratories draw a pentacle across the continent.

    In a series of caves, lost on a mountain in the Sahara live hermits. They seem learned and wise but frightened by human contact. At night they are joining in their dreams to chase intruders and take counsel.

    A caravan of gypsies going from town to town, charming women and children, selling a few more or less, hanging matter, more or less magical. Draws their journey across the country as a long sentence.

    A family of Mercere, redcaps and magi involved, never seem to put anywhere. Once every three years on the anniversary of Patriarch kept alive magically slowed, they meet and discuss the direction the Order of Hermes should follow for the next three years. Then they go back to their work.”

    All great ideas and exactly the kind of wider definition of covenant I was talking about.

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