On Arcane Institutes

AKA More on 1st level magic users.

I’ve got some awesome responses, and it seems that some people have taken issue with my post on 1st level magic users and institutionalized magical society. Those who have disagreements have fallen into two camps: those who have cited flavor text from D&D source books regarding the amount of work and study required to reach 1st level (sometimes years!) and those who point out that if research at an arcane institute were an alternative to adventuring, it would discourage PCs from going out on adventure because going to wizard school would be a safe alternative.

I’ll briefly address the first point.  The idea that it takes ages in arcane academia for wizards to learn their first spell is, to me, stupid and boring and makes wizards in D&D feel substantially weaker than magic users a lot of fantasy settings (I think that the 3rd Ed Sorcerer class was created to address this).  It could be a personal problem that I have, since one of my favorite fantasy series was Earthsea, where magic-users are extremely powerful but judicious, as spells operate along the lines of Limited-wish.  But having to spend nearly a decade to get that first crappy level 1 spell that you can cast once because that’s what flavor text says strikes me as annoying and stupid and easily thrown out to suit the needs of your game setting.

Addressing the second point, going to wizard school should not be a safe, adventure free easy alternative to dungeon crawling.  1d30 suggested that players might think that they could just say “I go to wizard school and level up” as an alternative to going on adventures. Rather than an easy way for magic users to gain XP, it should be an opportunity for a different kind of adventure.

Arcane institutes are NOT a safe place.  In addition to lectures and libraries, there are all sorts of wild experiments, dangerous alchemical supplies, monstrous menageries and not to mention delinquent students.  Raistlin got turned gold by a dark-elf, Sparrow-hawk got kicked out for dabbling in necromancy and unleashing an ancient evil on the world, and Harry Potter had 7 books and 8 movies worth of slugging it out with a lich.  Arcane universities are not adventure free zones.

Arcane universities should be places where magic users can, on a daily basis, push the limits of their abilities to grow and develop them.  As such, they should be designed to maximize the potential of the students there.  If magic users were not able to grow and develop their skills at such a school, it would fail, so there would likely be some competition between schools to produce the best magic users and get tuition monies.

When creating your arcane institute, there are a number of things to consider.  First, what “level” is the school?  This would determine what level of spells, scrolls and material that students would have access to.  This would likely be a few levels lower than the highest level teachers at the institute.

Second, what is the character of the school?  Schools could be generalized, focused on particular schools of magic (i.e. higher level access to certain scrolls and knowledge, but with others absent or forbidden), or even hyper-specialized (Bigsby’s Helping Hands Workshop).  Additionally, the school might have certain attitudes about magic, the world, politics and such that would give it a unique characteristic.  Maybe the school has recently integrated demi-human races?  Or maybe humans are the ones who are frowned upon.

Third, a school should have facilities for magic practicum.  Any spells the school might teach, have a place where they can be put to practical use on a regular basis by many magic users.  For instance, maybe the school has a giant pit with foam pads at the bottom that wizards can jump down to practice their feather-fall spell.  Have a shooting range for ranged and missile spells.  A maze room with dozens of locked doors to practice Knock.  A “danger-room” where mages can test their mettle against a variety of golems and beasts.  Sanctioned magic practice duels.  The possibilities are endless.

Fourth, Adventure hooks. Here are a few ideas. Wizard school is very expensive; since not everyone is rich enough to pay tuition, maybe students are sent out on (level appropriate) tasks to find supplies, catch monsters, do field research as an assistant, etc.  Maybe one school is feuding with another; a group of delinquent mages wants to steal a mascot (which happens to be some sort of monstrous creature).  Maybe there’s a wizard fight-club?  The possibilities for adventure here are limitless.  Just because a wizard is in school doesn’t mean he’s not having adventures and leveling up just as fast, if not faster, than the mage who thinks that picking a fight with the orcs down the way is the path to mystical greatness.

Let me close by saying that this is an apologia to, not an attack on, those who have had differing opinions on the matter.  I hope that, rather than starting a huge argument over system/setting magic paradigms, the take-aways from this and my previous post are some adventure ideas for solo magic users or all-magic-user groups that you can work into your setting.  If you want your characters to play 1st level wizards who go out adventuring with their friends and gain levels by fighting monsters and finding spells along the way, that’s fine!  It’s your adventure!  This is just about exploring alternatives to the norm.

(Also, thanks to 1d30 for the linkback!  P.S.: As far as level 1 as “veteran” status, I’ve always found the rationale and explanations for the differences between level 0 and level 1 presented in some source books questionable at best; I think it strange that it takes years of campaigning, training or study to get from level 0 to level 1, while killing a couple of orcs or bandits can suddenly knock you up to level 2, but that’s an entire other can of worms.)


Jorgora is a mound or ruin of indeterminate purpose and origin in an isolated northern region of the Cirsovan Empire, on the edge of the ice sheets.  It was discovered by imperial cartographers who were surveying the boundaries of Ungoza following its annexation.  It lays along the southern ice sheet, nestled in a corridor between the GreatNorthernForests and the GatlianMountains, completely isolated from the rest of Ungoza.  Though it is within the boundaries of province, it is considered inaccessible, except for the southern approach from Davou in Cirsova.  Because of its remoteness, it has not been studied extensively.

The mound takes its name from the legendary Jorgora, whose origins are extolled in a handful of surviving fragments written in the Northern tongue; whether the mound in Ungoza and the mound in the stories are the same is unknown.  Interestingly, descriptions of fabled Jorgora in late pre-contact Polaran writings closely match the geographic features of the mound and its location.

Some scholars, such as Garick Hellos of Owen, have proposed that the Tyuravelinai may have discovered the mound and attributed this mysterious outcropping with mystical properties, ascribing the legend of Jorgora to it.  The mound would have been located at the far, southern range of their civilization and in a particularly isolated region, adding to its mystery and fascination; accounts of Jorgora on the edge of the ice date back only as far as late Polaran writings.  If this is the case, legendary Jorgora and this mound could be one in the same.

The legend of Jorgora, in brief, is as follows:

The ancient Northern Folk, the Tyuravelinai, believed that powerful dreamers could manifest their dreams in the waking world as well as in the dreaming world.*  Jorgora was built both in the waking world and the dreaming world by an unnamed individual who had consumed a large quantity of Shuul.  Apparently, an undertaking as large as the construction of a palace would have required consuming an inadvisably large dose of Shuul, thereby rendering the dreamer, regardless of power, inanimate for such a period of time that severe dehydration and death could occur.  Thus, the creator died, with his dream palace becoming an eternal tomb for his mind.

Jorgora is therefore seen as an allegory for reaching for grandiose and impractical goals with poor preparation or foresight.

In addition to following the valley north from Davou, some have claimed that Jorgora may be visited by direct route by the Shuul users of Polaris, though the validity of any such account is going to be in question.  Individuals visiting the mound by this method describe Jorgora as a radically different place than the one which adventurers may find through natural means.

*: This conclusion may be inaccurate.  Shuul’s role in the Northern Civilization is not fully understood.  A growing minority of scholars also believe that the legend of Jorgora, at least as we understand it today, is uniquely Polaran, with any connection to the old Tyuravelinai tenuous at best, as no manuscripts recording this oral tale pre-date any last known inhabitation of Elefloe or any other cities of the Northern Folk, save Polaris, whose inhabitants never speak to outsiders about the fall of their civilization in the wake of the growing ice sheet.

Crown of Ice

Awhile back, I wrote a little something about Adventure Time as a setting, and got to thinking about what a powerful evil artifact the Ice King’s crown must be. It grants tremendous powers, but strips the wearer of his sanity and his past. Horrific indeed!

Here’s an idea for an evil ice crown. Feel free to borrow!

Crown of Ice:

After being in possession of the crown for 24 hours, the owner will find his or herself unnaturally reluctant to part with it (saving throw vs magic). After possessing the Crown for a week or more, the owner will be unable to resist wearing the crown at least once per day.

Every time the owner puts on the crown, he or she must make a saving throw vs magic, with a -1 penalty for each month the crown has been in the character’s possession. Each failed saving throw will shift the character’s alignment one towards chaos/evil. A chaotic/evil character need not make this saving throw. Chaotic/evil character in possession of the crown will be unwilling to part with it except via force or magical means and will wear the crown whenever possible. Chaotic/evil characters in possession of the crown will, over the course of 4d12 months, lose all but trace memories of their former life. Additionally, characters in possession of the Crown of Ice must make a save vs magic or permanently lose 1 point of charisma each year they have the crown.

The Crown of Ice grants its wearers the following powers:
-Unlimited Flight(as a free action). Standard movement rates apply.
-Ice Armor(once per day). The wearer is encapsulated with a thick cast of ice. Wearer moves at half normal rate. Ice Armor grants the wearer 20 additional HP; when this HP is lost, the Armor is considered shattered. Fire attacks deal 2x damage while Ice Armor is in effect. While Ice Armor is in effect, the wearer cannot cast spells or use normal weapons, however the Armor’s fists do 2d12 damage.
-Rays of Snow (unlimited). Shoots a light blue bolt with a range of 30 ft. deals 1d3 cold damage to any targets in its path. Additionally, snow will fall on or from any targets struck for 1d4 rounds.
-Ice Beam (8 per day) – Shoots a dark blue bolt with a range of 20 ft. deals 2d6 cold damage. 2-7 damage, targets must save vs Paralysis or be partially trapped in ice. 8-12 damage, targets must save vs Paralysis or be completely encased in ice.

Anyway, Happy Gaming and Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving

“All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advice of the chiefest amongst them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go on in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of their number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.

The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God. For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense. The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them. And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it. Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them. And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”

– Memoirs of William Bradford, Governor, Plymouth Colony.

Dracula is a Dick

Playing Castlevania: Circle of the Moon not only inspired me to rant on sensible dungeon design, it also inspired me to re-read Dracula.

I love those opening chapters where Jonathan Harker is Dracula’s ‘guest’. The building tension and sense of impending doom is tangible. But it also reminds me, Dracula is a dick. While at first seemingly affable, he is incredibly and unnecessarily evil. Harker is being used as a tool by Dracula to get himself established in London. But why does he need to imprison him, torture him psychologically and (unsuccessfully) try to do away with him? Dracula could’ve just gotten his business done with Jonathan, got all the deeds and contracts signed, had arrangements made for the transfer of goods to Carfax, Harker could’ve gone home to his wife and Dracula could’ve got his evil on once he got to England. Instead, Dracula keeps Harker a prisoner for months.

Same with the Demeter. Might have made more sense for Dracula to NOT kill the entire crew of the ship taking him and his stuff to England, but ever the chessmaster, Drac has planned it so that he can kill everyone AND make sure his stuff ends up at his new pad on time. What a dick!

Compare with Varney, one of the other famous classic vampire villains. Varney needs money because comfortable immortality is expensive, but his scheme is about as well thought out as a Scooby-do villain’s (menace & scare away the family living in the mansion where he knows his old friend’s treasure might be hidden) and about as successful (his castle gets burned down by an angry mob, and he has to apologize to the family he’s harassing, since they’re the only people nice enough to save him from the pitchforks).

Varney’s selfish and petty, but hospitable (“Yes, I am the vampire harassing you; now who want’s wine and food?”) and not overly cruel. Once he realises he overplayed his hand, he knows there’s no reason to keep the girl’s fiance imprisoned or kill him, so he free’s him. Drac would just kill him out of spite.

So, I guess I’m wondering, what sort of undead villains occupy your campaigns? How cruel are they? Are they relatable and redeemable, or are they just evil for evil’s sake?


The Agalla Bypass

The Agalla Bypass was supposed to save Agalla, and all of southern Ungoza, from falling into isolation, in hopes of drawing trade and travel from Gatlia into the province by a more direct route.  However, most Gatlian merchants are more apt to send their goods south into the Cirsovan heartlands; the Marshfolk prefer their own traditional foods to the fare grown in Gatlia, and Galbarrow has local fishers who more than sustain it.  The Bypass is often so desolate that even bandits avoid it, ironically making it one of the safest imperial roads in the far north.