I'm preparing for my next game. For a while, I've had an interest in the mechanics of Ars Magica's casting system, and I'm hoping to run a game with a similar texture. The problem is that my group isn't unanimous in wanting to play caster-types — and I don't think the companion aspect could really sustain interest. Is there an RPG that has a similar system of magic to Ars Magica, even if weaker, but with a more robust melee focus?
This is a perfect application for GURPS. You want:
- A magic system similar to Ars Magica
- A more robust combat system
GURPS delivers on both fronts.
GURPS has had options for flexible, improvisational magical systems since 2nd edition. I don't have my books with me at the moment, so I can't tell you if the Ars-like system is in the core Magic book or not. But I know that between Magic and Thaumatology, you'll have everything you need to keep your casters happy and engaged.
GURPS has had a tactical combat focus since its earliest incarnations. The advanced combat option is practically a tactical combat boardgame on its own. But it also supports abstract, theater-of-the-mind style combat. You can add complexities and options to your own taste anywhere in between.
GURPS has always been setting-agnostic. You can continue to use the Mythic Europe setting of Ars or the Yrth setting from GURPS Fantasy or neither or mix them up, or choose another entirely. GURPS was designed from the ground up to support your game and your setting, empowering the kind of play you want...as long as it's at least kinda simulationist.
Time to break out the pot still...
There is a very simple home brew solution to this, actually. A few years back, White Wolf bribed/convinced/invited Monte Cook to write a D20 version of the World of Darkness. The product, unoriginally, was called "Monte Cook's World of Darkness". Why you should care about this, though, is in the history of the World of Darkness.
Long ago in a magazine far far away
Before Vampire the Masquerade, White Wolf was just a magazine. It did not produce games. At about the same time, pre-world of darkness, there was a company named Lion Rampart. They produced the game Ars Magica. Over time the two companies merged and created, important for this conversation, Mage - the Ascension using a slightly modified casting system from ARS.
About a decade ago, Monte Cook made his game, pretty much rewriting the World of Darkness into D20/D&D3.5 Modern. In this rewrite, he created rules for ARS/Mage style casting for D20.
...Pitch the yeast into the wash, and let ferment for 3 weeks
I have successfully ripped the 30 or so pages from Monte Cook's world of darkness and used it with D&D3.5 to give D&D ARS style magic. I do not have the document for how i had to tweak WoD Mages to work in D&D, but it was minor - under a page. Basically, you need the Mage class description (2 pages if my memory serves) and the magic rules (which is a stand alone chapter).
I think it can easily be said that D&D has a martial combat focus.
At the risk of this coming across as a sales pitch... The Contested Isle: The Hibernian Tribunal sourcebook includes a new set of virtues that are essentially combat-oriented feats based on old Irish legends.
They were designed to support a mythic hero archetype and they do a great job of giving companion characters some extraordinary capabilities.
Personally, I like the Ars combat system but I can see that at times it does feel like it needs support for actions other than just "take a swing". If you can spring for the Contested Isle, these "clesrada" (and the monstrous battle transformations you can also find there) can be taken across to any tribunal you want to play in.