Atlas Games is a small-press publisher that has produced over 200 products since its inception in 1990, including many of the most innovative RPGs published in that period.
This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #13 on RPGnet. Its publication preceded the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 90s.
Licensed Beginnings: 1990-1992
John Nephew, the soon-to-be Atlas Games founder, got his start as an RPG professional in high school, when he began freelancing for TSR as a Dungeons & Dragons author. However it was when he got to Carleton College, in Minnesota, that he was introduced to the broader RPG world that lay beyond D&D. There he met the Lion Rampant crew, publishers of the indie RPG Ars Magica.
Nephew had already been trying to emphasize story and narrative in his own D&D modules, and Lion Rampant reflected many of the same “storytelling” ideals in their own RPG designs. Thus it was entirely natural that John Nephew joined the Lion Rampant team. Nephew variously acted as acquisitions director, editor, and (briefly) president at Lion Rampant during his tenure with them from 1988-1990. However by 1990 Nephew was finding himself too scattered. He was continuing to freelance for TSR–now as both author and editor–in order to pay for his college. The (largely unpaid) Ars Magica work on top of that was too much. He thus decided to leave Lion Rampant.
Things might have gone very differently if Nephew hadn’t bought a photocopier. It was a $1000 machine badly needed by Lion Rampant, but not really needed by Nephew at all. Thus in 1990, when Lion Rampant decided to head south to Georgia, a deal was struck to allow them to keep that photocopier. They couldn’t pay for it, so instead a licensing arrangement was made. It allowed Nephew to publish supplements for Lion Rampant’s Ars Magica game, with the price of the photocopier used as an advance on those royalties. Using that license Nephew founded Atlas Games with some help from other Lion Rampant alumni such as Nicole Lindroos and Darin “Woody” Eblom.
Nephew had definite plans for his Ars Magica license. He envisioned an Atlas Europa. Like the Tribunal books put out a few years later by White Wolf these books would detail Mythic Europe, but unlike the Tribunal books these would rove space and time. The first was to be Ship of Fools, which would detail a floating covenant on the Rhine. A book on Merovingian Gaul prior to the formation of the Order of Hermes was another idea for the line. However, Nephew still didn’t have enough time for Ars Magica, TSR, and college. Thus he would largely end up publishing other peoples’ material.
From 1990-1991 Atlas Game published five different licensed adventure books for the Ars Magica RPG. These included: Tales of the Dark Ages (1990), a set of short adventures and Atlas’ first product; Festival of the Damned (1991), a well-loved adventure by Ars Magica designer Jonathan Tweet; and South of the Sun (1991), an interesting look at Mythic Africa–which as we’ll see was not Atlas’ final take on the dark continent.
Atlas Games also used its Lion Rampant connections to produce one other early product: Blood Nativity (1991). It was the only licensed product ever created using White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade game system, written (pseudonymously) by White Wolf staff and published simultaneously with the release of Vampire itself. (White Wolf would later license Steve Jackson Games to produce GURPs versions of several of their games from 1993-1994, but nonetheless the Atlas book remained the only native Storyteller license.)
These early licenses did decently well. The Ars Magica books sold through two or three thousand units in a couple of years–until White Wolf decided not to renew Atlas’ license while preparing for the third edition of the book. Blood Nativity sold through an initial print run of two thousand or more units, and went to a reprint which sold thousands more over the next decade.
However another license that Atlas had picked up did much better: a series of adventures for R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020, beginning with The Arasaka Brainworm (1991). Nephew would later report these adventures selling better than many d20 supplements at the height of the d20 craze.
Although Atlas Games was still somewhat of a hobby in 1992, and would remain so for a couple more years, they’d nonetheless now published and sold around a dozen successful products.
Over the Edge: 1992-2001
It’s common for a small publisher to start out producing licensed supplements for someone else’s game, then begin producing game lines of their own. And, this was exactly what Atlas Games did. Their first game would be Jonathan Tweet’s Over the Edge (1992).
Over the Edge got its start in the Alarums & Excursions APAzine. Jonanthan Tweet had been running the game, which he then called “Al Amarja”, for his local Rock Island, Illinois group, but he’d also been publishing some details on it in A&E. John Nephew saw Tweet’s A&E articles, and he followed a pattern that would take Atlas through the 1990s. Having seen a great looking RPG property, he figured out how to publish it. Tweet was easy to approach since the two had previously worked together. Nonetheless Tweet would later describe Over the Edge as “the roleplaying game that I tried to talk John Nephew out of publishing.”
In the process of preparing Over the Edge for publication, future star designer Robin D. Laws also came aboard. He’d talked with Tweet about the game in A&E, and he contributed to the final product as well. It would be Laws’ first notable contribution to the industry and also the first of three Atlas games that he was involved in. (A&E also led Laws to write GURPS Fantasy II that same year.)
Over the Edge is one of the earliest examples of a simple roleplaying game, cut down to the very bone. Tweet’s, former partner Mark Rein*Hagen, was then following a somewhat similar design path with Vampire: The Masquerade, but Tweet went much further.
Mechanically an Over the Edge character is described by four entirely freeform “traits”. For example, a character might have a central trait of “Private Investigator” , two side traits of “Brawling”  and “Intelligent” , plus a flaw of “Heavy Smoker”. Each of those traits is determined by a player–not drawn from a list–a pretty amazing idea for 1992, though it’s now appeared in other games, such as Atlas’ later release Unknown Armies (1999) and Laws’ own Hero Wars (2001). Other than rolling up some hit dice those four traits could be the entire basis of an Over the Edge character.
Over the Edge also falls squarely into the “storytelling” branch of RPGs. In fact, many note it as an influence for later “indie” designs, such as Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer (2001). These storytelling ideals are clearly shown in the character creation system. For example, it includes “signs” which visualize traits. A PI might have the signs “always sits with his back to a wall” (for the PI trait), “large muscles” (for brawling), “wire-frame glasses” (for intelligent), and “stinks of tobacco” (for heavy smoker). Together these signs help to present a coherent picture of a character. Motivation, a secret, important people, and a character drawing all further highlight the story of each character.
Over the Edge complements its simplistic characters with a simplistic game system. Each trait’s value represents a pool of dice. This is an additive dice pool, as found in older games like Champions (1981), and wasn’t much of an innovation in itself. However modifiers to a skill introduce “bonus” or “penalty” dice. These are extra dice you add to your pool, but you still only end up keeping the original number of dice–either the best or the worst, depending on whether they were bonus or penalties. It was a clever way to introduce subtle changes to additive pools.
The other notable and original feature of Over the Edge is its setting. It’s a “game of surreal danger”, featuring conspiracies, cultish organizations, and many secrets. From the far side of Delta Green (1996) and The X-Files (1993-2002) this all sounds more staid, but Over the Edge was a trailblazer in the genre.
Over the Edge was quite different from any of Atlas’ earlier output. It was edgy and very definitely “indie”–in a time before there really were indie games in the industry. It also did a good job of defining the path that Atlas Games would follow through the 1990s.
Atlas’ first RPG was supported with numerous supplements over the next couple of years, and then enjoyed a brief revival after a second edition (1997) of the game was published. The rules (and a few supplements) remain in print today though the last new supplement was published in 2001.
Other Interests: 1993-1996
While Atlas was kicking off its Over the Edge line, it was also starting to explore the world of board and card games. Their first release in this genre was Once Upon a Time (1993), a card game which is most notable for the fact that it has a storytelling basis: players try and use cards with faerie tale elements to each drive a shared story toward their own ending.
Shortly thereafter Atlas Games got into the CCG business as one of the earlier companies to follow Wizards of the Coast into the breach. Together John Nephew and Jonathan Tweet designed On the Edge (1994), a CCG based on Tweet’s RPG. However, Atlas didn’t have the finances to publish the game. Thus they partnered with Jerry Corrick and Bob Brynildson of The Source Comics & Games, a Twin Cities game store, and formed a new corporation called Trident, Inc. to publish the game. Eventually Atlas would be subsumed into Trident, and Bob, Jerry, and The Source would continue to support Atlas with their business experience and perspective over the next decade.
The initial release of On the Edge was a huge success. It changed Atlas Games from a sideline to a real company. A few friends and freelancers–including Robin Jenkins, C. Brent Ferguson, Paul Nurnberger, and Woody Eblom–became full-time employees. Atlas rented a real office and warehouse (having previously worked out of an apartment and storage unit), bought computers, and even set up a health plan.
Atlas supported On the Edge through the next year, but by mid-1995 it was obvious to Nephew that the CCG bubble was ready to burst. Atlas started shifting toward other projects. The experience with On the Edge gave them the expertise to produce more card games, including a new edition of Once Upon a Time (1995) and a new game called Lunch Money (1996), one of their most successful and lauded card games, primarily because of the darkly disturbing art that accompanied this game of schoolyard fighting. (If Atlas was trying to make a name for themselves as a publisher of modern surrealism, they were succeeding.)
When the CCG scene imploded in 1996, Atlas was sort of ready–which is to say it didn’t kill them. However it took them many years for Atlas to pay their final printing bills and the staff was all let go other than John Nephew and Jeff Tidball. If not for Once Upon a Time and Lunch Money, Nephew believes that Atlas might have gone under. Instead they’d learned a hard lesson in faddish booms and busts that would serve them well a few years down the line when the d20 fad appeared.
Meanwhile, as a result of the financial hardships, Atlas Games’ existing RPG lines were slowing down. They published their last licenses in 1996, including books for Cyberpunk and Champions. Over the Edge was shut down too, until the new edition was release in the next year.
Jeff Tidball, meanwhile, would soon be tasked with preparing Atlas’ next RPG for market.
Ars Magica Fourth Edition: 1996-2004
In 1995 Wizards of the Coast was shutting down their RPG lines too, but for the opposite reason. Their CCGs were so successful that they couldn’t be bothered with RPGs any more. So, Wizards put their existing game lines up for bid. Atlas Games made a bid to take over two of these lines: Everway and Ars Magica.
Everway was another Jonathan Tweet game of innovative storytelling. It thus seemed like a natural fit for Over the Edge. Ars Magica, meanwhile, was the game that had gotten Atlas Games its start. Since Nephew had left Lion Rampant, the game had passed on to White Wolf and then (thanks to a former Lion Rampant employee) to Wizards of the Coast. Now it needed a new home once more.
On February 12 1996, Nephew withdrew his bid for Everway saying “it is unlikely that we would be able to absorb both the Everway and the Ars Magica product lines into our publishing plans this year”. (That game would pass on to Pagan Publishing, who would hold the game for less than a month before they decided that they couldn’t publish it either.) On March 6, Wizards announced that Ars Magica had been acquired by Atlas Games.
Much as with Over the Edge Nephew had seen a great game that he wanted to publish and had figured out how to. However this time Nephew had also done a bit of what he calls “bargain shopping”. Under Wizards the fourth edition of Ars Magica was already well in process and thus start-up costs for the new line were considerably reduced.
(Atlas would receive complete rules for their next two games as well, and it would be another reason for their ability to succeed as a small business.)
Later that year Atlas published the fourth edition Ars Magica (1996) rules. They didn’t differ too much from the earlier versions, though they received new polish, new tweaks, and new updates. The layout was somewhat austere compared to the previous White Wolf edition, but it was nonetheless a solid new release of a now-classic game that would serve Atlas for the next eight years.
From 1996-2004 Ars Magica would remain Atlas’ best supported RPG. Most dramatically Atlas continue to expand the background of Ars Magica‘s Mythic Europe, from the Novgorod Tribunal (1999) to the Greater Alpine Tribunal (2003). There were also splatbooks on hedge magic (1997), Judaism (1998), and Hermetic mysteries (2000), a scant few adventures, and several other background books. It was, in other words, a fairly typical game line for the time period.
By 2001, however, things were getting a little tight. The d20 craze had hit by then–as we’ll see–and like many other companies Atlas Games was giving this new trend a lot of attention. However, d20 was also causing a contraction of the rest of the industry. Just one Ars Magica book appeared that year, The Medieval Bestiary (2001). But then Nephew determined a new way to help keep a third-tier RPG line profitable: he moved publication to hardcovers. The sales price of books increased, and along with it revenues, but in turn Nephew also was able to give readers a little bit more so that the Ars Magica books didn’t look expensive without reason. The first book to follow this new pattern was Blood & Sand (2002).
Around the corner Nephew had even bigger ideas for how to revitalize the line, which we’ll return to.
Unknown Armies: 1999-2003
Following the acquisition of Ars Magica Atlas Games’ next new project was Unknown Armies (1999), a new RPG by John Tynes–of Pagan Publishing fame–and Greg Stolze. Ironically the two had met when working together on Wildest Dreams (1993), an early supplement for Over the Edge.
Unknown Armies–originally titled The New Inquisition–had first come to Tynes back in 1994. After a night of drinking he’d come up with an idea of occult-related coincidences forming the basis of a game. He’d written some fiction about it in 1995 and had scripted a comic book in 1996, but in 1997 he decided to finally try and design the RPG he’d originally considered. Being a background guy, Tynes needed a mechanics guy to help him write the game, and that was ultimately Greg Stolze.
Atlas Games had expressed some early interest in Unknown Armies but Tynes decided to instead go with Archon Games–then publishers of the Noir RPG–based mainly on their promises to market Unknown Armies in a big way.
By Gen Con 1998 Unknown Armies was ready to go, as were the first couple of supplements, but Archon founder Lisa Manns had abruptly disappeared. Some preview copies of the game were displayed at the convention, but afterward Tynes and Stolze learned that Manns was shutting down Archon. She paid off the Unknown Armies artists, but then returned the rights to Tynes and Stolze, who went out seeking new publishers. They approached Dream Pod 9, Hogshead Games … and Atlas. With Unknown Armies now ready for press, Atlas Games was quite happy to publish it, which they did in January 1999.
Unknown Armies owes a lot to Call of Cthulhu. The setting, which is much of what makes the game successful, is modern-day conspiratorial horror, entirely original, but still reminiscent of Tynes’ own work on Delta Green (1996).
Likewise Unknown Armies‘ game system, which centers on percentage-based skills, is reminiscent of the Chaosium house system, BRP. However, it’s sleeker and cleaner and it also introduces a few innovations. One is to overload die rolls: for example combat die rolls show both whether something hit and how much damage the blow did–an idea used infrequently in other games like TSR’s Top Secret/S.I. (1987). The game also introduces some opportunities to “flip-flop” rolls (changing the one and ten digits of a roll) and gives bonuses for rolling doubles. It generally adds nice color to the fairly staid percentile-system conventions.
Unknown Armies also introduces some of the most exhaustive mental-based rules in the industry. Passions provide each player with specific stimuli that can trigger fear, rage, or nobility. Madness meters, meanwhile, codify how players react to stressors of violence, the supernatural, helplessness, isolation, and threats to self image. They allow players to either harden themselves to these stressors or crumble before them. Similar ideas had been included in Pendragon (1985), which included simple passions, and Call of Cthulhu (1981), which included simple insanity. However Unknown Armies takes a much more systematic, complex, and psychological approach to these ideas.
Generally Unknown Armies has been the best acclaimed of all of Atlas’ games, which says a lot when almost all of their games are very highly regarded designs. John Tynes was officially brought on as a line editor for Unknown Armies in 1999. It was thereafter supported with a couple of supplements each year up to 2003, including a second edition of the game in 2002.
Feng Shui: 1999-2004
By now Atlas had picked up three different RPGs from three different sources, and thus it was no surprise when they announced a fourth, Feng Shui, on March 22, 1999. Feng Shui is a game of “Hong Kong Action Cinema” that was originally published by Daedelus Games in a beautiful full-color rulebook. It was written by Robin Laws and edited by John Tynes–both now members of the Atlas family.
Daedelus had also been the publishers of the Shadowfist CCG which shared a background with Feng Shui, and as we’ve already seen CCGs can be dangerous to a company’s financial stability. Indeed, Daedelus had imploded a few years previously due to some combination of CCG dependency and financial mismanagement. John Nephew told Robin Laws that he’d be happy to bring Feng Shui back into print, and so when Laws was able to free up the rights, he brought it to Atlas.
The game system behind Feng Shui–which was shared with Daedelus game Nexus: The Infinite City (1994)–is simple, but otherwise not notable. It features templates (classes) and schticks (feats) as well as a simple skill-rolling mechanism where a positive and negative die are added together with a skill to get a result (which, on average, is the skill itself).
Feng Shui really distinguishes itself in its clever writing and great theming, which together evoke the ideals of Hong Kong Action Cinema. Players are encouraged to be creative and crazy in describing their fights, and the background cleverly highlights all of the interesting eras of Hong Kong cinema by imagining a secret war fought throughout time, with major stops in a magic China of 69AD, a Victorian 1850, a modern 1996, and a futuristic 2056.
Greg Stolze was brought on as the line editor for Feng Shui. After Atlas released a new black-and-white version of the rules (1999) they heavily supported the game in 2000, but then backed off to one or two supplements a year through 2004.
Furry Pirates: 1999
1999 was a busy year for Atlas. Besides their big-name tickets, Unknown Armies and Feng Shui, they also released a third RPG. It was called Furry Pirates and was indeed a simple game combining anthropomorphism with piracy. It befuddled some fans of the company and amused others. Even developer Jeff Tidball wasn’t entirely sure how they came to publish the game.
Unlike all of Atlas’ other RPGs, it was entirely unsupported, though it sold through its print run, producing a profit.
Atlas’ most recent RPG line, Rune, is the only game designed entirely by and for Atlas. Nonetheless the generative idea for the game again came from outside the company.
Tim Gerritsen, Business Development Manager at Human Head Studios, was interested in creating a wider world for their Rune computer game. To do so he conceived of licensing a Rune RPG, which could in turn generate IP to be used by later releases in the computer franchise.
After scouting out possible licensees at Gen Con 1999, Gerritsen settled on Atlas Games. He wanted a small company, who would give more attention to the design of the game–rather than just churning out another product–and he liked Atlas’ connections with star designers like Laws, Tweet, Stolze, and Tynes.
John Nephew was originally skeptical about producing a licensed game, but Atlas Creative Director Jeff Tidball convinced him to give it a try. They eventually contracted Robin Laws to write the game, which was published in 2001. Tidball had by this time left for film school, so the editing and development was done by Atlas’ newest employee, John’s wife, Michelle Nephew.
Rune is loosely based on Ars Magica (and in fact was imagined as a way to ease people into Atlas’ more extensive gameline). The two games use similar characteristics, skill mechanisms, and die rolling mechanics. However Rune varies widely in how the game is played. It’s in fact the only truly competitive RPG in existence.
There’s no single gamemaster in Rune. Instead the players take turns presenting encounters, each of which is built used a point-based system. The encounters are organized into standard plot structure with set-up, development, and climax encounters; at the end the player with the most victory points is the winner.
Rune hasn’t had the critical acclaim of Atlas Games’ other RPG lines. It was originally intended to be unsupported, but three supplements would eventually be printed through 2003. Despite the lack of acclaim or attention, Rune was probably Atlas’ most innovative game, changing the whole idea of how RPGs are played and also moving dramatically away from the storyteller games that both Robin Laws and Atlas Games were best known for. Instead it went back to the industry’s roots, when RPGs had evolved from war games.
(For whatever reason, Atlas’ readers weren’t particularly interested in this development.)
The d20 Explosion: 2000-2005
By 2000 Atlas Games had three active game lines in Ars Magica, Unknown Armies, and Feng Shui, each of which was receiving some support every year. Rune had already been announced on March 16, and the game was in development. Atlas had also been continuing to express some light interest in the board and card game market with releases like Jeff Tidball’s Cthulhu-influenced Cults Across America (1998) and the early Eurogame Corruption (1999).
Then Wizards of the Coast changed everything with the release of their d20 license. Suddenly any game company could create supplements for the newest edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game.
It might have seemed odd for Atlas Games–who had made their reputation on unique indie games–to get involved in d20, but then President John Nephew had gotten his start freelancing for TSR, and thus d20 was in some ways a return home. Besides, Atlas felt like they could produce high-quality products that would shine amidst the many d20 offerings.
Michelle Nephew became Atlas’ d20 line editor, and this may have been another benefit to the line because she was new to D&D (despite experience with Shadowrun, Vampire, and other RPGs), and thus brought a new perspective to the genre. She’d recently completed her PhD in English and Atlas’ d20 books would be her first major project. She was soon joined by d20 art director Scott Reeves.
Atlas named their original d20 brand “Penumbra” and it got a very early start. Atlas’ Three Days to Kill (2000) adventure was the first print d20 product ever offered for sale. It was a rush to get it out in time because everyone had been waiting to see whether the d20 license was actually going to happen or not. When Atlas got the word, they immediately printed up a cover for their book, though they were still laying out the interior. The interior was then printed at a local Kinko’s and collated by hand. Three Days to Kill went on sale at The Source a week before Gen Con 2000, and was then the first d20 book available at the convention as well.
Later Penumbra books included Beyond the Veil (2001), an adventure by D&D designer Monte Cook, and many other adventures and sourcebooks. Atlas’ second d20 line, Nyambe (2002-2003), got even more positive acclaim as a short-lived line of African themed fantasy adventures.
Atlas’ d20 lines sold well. It slowly made retailers aware of Atlas’ other RPGs and also increased the speed with which they reordered Atlas merchandise. Unlike many other d20 publishers, Atlas worked to spread that d20 success to their own core lines. A new d20 series called Coriolis thus began publishing dual-statted books, each of which provided game info for both d20 and one of Atlas’ existing games. These included The Ascension of the Magdalene (2002) for Unknown Armies, The Black Monks of Glastonbury (2002) for Ars Magica, Burning Shaolin (2001) for Feng Shui, and Last Hero In Scandinavia (2003) for Rune.
By 2003 Atlas could see the d20 market weakening and because of their experience with CCGs they knew how to react to this. They were one of the few publishers to get out before the crash and thus avoid some of the results of the downturn that followed. A few final products were published in 2004, but then Atlas canceled the rest of their d20 line. There was one exception, Northern Crown (2005), an American fantasy setting which Atlas published the next year. Atlas knew the d20 bubble had already burst, but they were excited enough about the product that they wanted to publish it even if it was only break-even. It was the same attitude that Atlas had taken with many of its RPG lines, starting with Over the Edge way back in 1992.
Though Atlas got out in time, the d20 boom and bust had done major, perhaps permanent, damage to the overall RPG industry. Distributors and retailers alike were developing a more frontlist attitude and becoming less interested in carrying high-quality books that were slower movers. All of this worked against Atlas’ strengths. As we’ve already seen Atlas’ various lines slowly ended production over the years of d20. Over the Edge ended in 2001 (though it had really finished up a few years earlier as Atlas turned its attention to newer lines), Rune in 2002, Unknown Armies in 2003, and Feng Shui in 2004. The rulebooks for these games have been reprinted as needed, but nothing new has been produced.
Only Ars Magica remained active of Atlas’ RPG lines, but in 2004 the venerable fourth edition was tailing off too.
Ars Magica Fifth Edition: 2004-Present
On March 17, 2003 Atlas Games did something entirely unprecedented: they made their Ars Magica Fourth Edition rulebook available for free as a PDF download. Rulebooks tend to be the best “evergreen” sellers for any gameline, and in fact Atlas had sold 12,000 copies of the rules since they’d picked up the line just seven years before. But now anyone could get a free copy.
In a press release John Nephew called it a “gift to the fans” but it was also a marketing experiment: Nephew wanted to see if making the rulebook available for free could increase sales of supplements–which were otherwise falling in this era of d20. Since a new fifth edition of the rules was now on the way, the potential damage seemed limited if he was wrong.
Shortly thereafter sales of the print edition of the fourth edition of the rules plummeted, though that may also have been due to the announcement of an upcoming fifth edition of the rules. However the experiment may have paid off with the release of those fifth edition rules in 2005. Sales were considerably stronger than expected, and have stayed strong through the supplements released since.
The fifth edition rules themselves (2005), overseen by line editor David Chart, represented the biggest change to Ars Magica since its 1987 release. Once more many core game systems were clarified, polished, and, in some cases, outright changed. Changes to the background were more notable. It wasn’t quite rebooted–as White Wolf was even then doing with Mark Rein*Hagen’s other game, Vampire–but Atlas took a free hand in revising and sometimes rewriting twenty years worth of background material to create a more comprehensive and interesting whole.
The rulebook was also printed in two colors–red and black–a trick that Atlas had learned when producing some of their Penumbra books. The idea of two color printing dates back to at least Journal of the Travellers’ Aid #1 (1979), which was also red and black. TSR had used two-color printing extensively in the late 1980s, but generally the trend hasn’t caught on with the RPG industry as a whole, where most books are one-color or four-color, with nothing in between. Combined with the hardcover binding that Atlas continued to use, the two-color printing gave the new Ars Magica rules a highly professional look.
Since the release of the new rulebook Atlas has released approximately a dozen supplements for the game. One of these was The Fallen Fane (2004), an Ars Magica LARP–and an idea that Lion Rampant had been thinking about back in the late 1980s but had never gotten around too. Atlas also separated the old singular Ars Magica splatbook, The Order of Hermes (1989), into three different books (2005-2007), each of which gave considerable background on four of the magi organizations. Other ongoing series included the yearly “Realms of Power” (2005-2008?), which deatiled the various powers of Mythic Europe, and one fifth edition Tribunal book, again detailing the European landscape. Both of these latter series continued or revised series originally begun by White Wolf in the early 1990s–highlighting White Wolf’s success in creating interesting and viable source book lines.
Though Atlas’ other RPG lines have stopped, Ars Magica remains quite lively.
Toward Strategy: 2003-Present
Unfortunately, Ars Magica is the only RPG line which Atlas is still supporting with new releases. In the last few years, since the decline of d20 and the RPG industry in general, Atlas has turned increasingly toward board and card games.
- Dungeoneer (2003) which is an RPG dungeon crawl given strategic life. It’s their most prolific line. Half-a-dozen different sets have been published in the last few years.
- Gloom (2005) which is a well-themed gothic game that uses unique see-through cards. Atlas helped to innovate the use of the material. Since publication the game has done quite well for them, going through three printings. Nephew believes that it may eventually unseat Lunch Money as their best seller.
- Grand Tribunal (2006), which is an Ars Magica card game with heavy Eurogame influences;.
- Pieces of Eight (2006) a coin-based game designed by Jeff Tidball.
In the 1970s many board game publishers jumped into the RPG market because it was more profitable than the board game industry. Now, with the rise of family and Eurogames and the simultaneous decline of RPGs, some publishers are moving in the opposite direction. Whether this is a long-term trend or just a cycle remains to be seen.
Thanks to John and Michelle Nephew for extensive help on this article. Other information came from various press releases and interviews found online, plus Atlas’ own corpus of books.