It got me to thinking about wizards as low level PCs.
Mages should consider internships over adventuring if they’re serious about mastering their craft.
In any setting where magic is codified, like in D&D, where there’s kind of a set handful of spells that all mages may or may not know, magic would probably be institutionalized in some way, taught, practiced and passed down. In this case, you’d have two types of wizards in the world.
There would be those who were seriously devoted to their craft, spending their time learning under tutelage, privately in libraries or in group settings of magic learning.* I’d imagine that after several years of schooling, these wizards would know a handful of spells that they could competently cast, from which point they could continue on in higher magic learning via academia, adventuring, or in their spare time as professionals (because let’s face it: utility magic doesn’t always come in handy when fighting monsters, but would make daily life a lot easier for those who could afford the help of a wizard for labor, manufacture and construction. This is what most wizards did in the Earthsea books). These wizards would probably be around level 5 or so, meaning that they were professionally competent journeyman wizards. Not super powerful, but with a repertoire such that someone who knew them, saw them and was aware of their capabilities, they’d say “Yes, ‘es a wizard, alright!”
Then you have the 1st level adventuring wizard. I’ve always imagined that level 1 mages were not so much serious wizards as they were dudes who thought “Hey, I just learned how to cast a spell! That makes me awesome, right? Time to go fight monsters!” Why would someone who would be serious about magic go out adventuring when they were 1st level? What is a 1st level wizard mechanically? HP wise, he is someone that a punch to the face, a fall down a short hole, or brushing up against someone in a crowd would probably incapacitate if not kill. Magic wise, he knows how to read magic, and cast a single spell. Once. He’s a one-trick-pony. So, he can’t take a hit, can’t fight, and within a single 24 hour period, can cast one spell once. He’s not a very useful fellow.
So, what sort of person is 1st level adventuring wizard? He’s someone who is physically weak, but has just discovered a new power. He thinks this makes him great, and it makes him cocky. If he were serious about magic as an art, he would find tutelage or at least a good library. Instead, he takes his new-found power and feels he has something to prove. Magic can be like bringing a gun to a knife fight. The thing is, the gun this neophyte mage is bringing is a musket with one ball, wad & ounce of powder. If a 1st level wizard is any help to his party, chances are it’s going to be a matter of luck. “Hey, this one thing I know? Who’d have thought it would be useful!” Wizbob McOnespell may not be good in a fight, but at least he knew featherfall for that pit-trap, right? Let’s hope we don’t have another pit trap for at least 24 hours!
Something to think about when playing a level 1 magic user: he’s probably going to be someone arrogant & cocksure without the substance to back up his talk. But if he didn’t have something to prove, he wouldn’t be out adventuring, would he? An adventuring magic user who survives is probably going to be even more arrogant because he HAS started to prove himself and is starting to have the power to back up his feelings of superiority that magic has brought him.
How does this translate into the game world?
Adventurers – There will be a handful of 1st level wizards running around, but very few wizards of 2nd-5th level, because out in the wild, magic users just don’t survive.
Apprentice wizards – In the libraries & academies, these young wizards are serious about magic as a profession & will be between 1st and 5th level.
Professional wizards – These wizards would be 5th-7th level and be found living in towns in numbers as needed. They’d be available for contract work in which magic would be helpful. Because of the demanding nature of their work, they would build up large amounts of xp that they would not be able to “cashed in” for levels & spells unless they took some time off for study and research. Unless they needed new spells for their profession, however, they might not feel the need to take time away from helping locals to devote themselves to study.
Adventuring mages – After spending some time developing their skills, 5th level and above wizards might feel that they were strong enough to be a serious asset to adventurers and might free-lance as a wizard-for-hire. While the work would be more dangerous than strengthening ships’ sails, blessing harvests, finding lost thing, etc., it would also pay a lot better and give more ample opportunities to grow skills and knowledge.
Scholarly mages – Some mages might choose to stay in academia longer, or, after spending time in the professional world, acquiring the money and resources for greater research, come back to academia. These wizards might end up becoming teachers, scholars & devote their time to writing treatises on arcane nature, replenishing the world’s supply of magic scrolls & potions, and creating wondrous items.
Archmages – After a certain point, either scholarly or adventuring mages gain a questionable amount of power. They have learned spells that are dangerous and world-threatening. If these mages are part of academia, they might act as custodians of forbidden wisdom. Or they may go rogue and take their power somewhere that it can develop and grow further, if they are ambitious. Adventuring wizards who have continued to this point are ambitious by nature. Those wizards who choose to grow their powers in isolation or through further adventure are likely to be seen as dangers by the academic community, who may seek to intervene, lest the world be threatened by a wizard who has grown too powerful.
*In many game terms, this would mean having 0 xp, because having xp means you’ve killed things or found treasure, but I think that spending years of studying should give magic users more xp than adventuring. This isn’t practical for a gaming group a lot of times, since you don’t want to give free levels just because a magic-user’s player says “I go to wizard college until I’m level 20!” But I’d think that it could work for NPCs based on time spent and the level & spell list of their teacher. A great trick would be if a low level Magic-User’s childhood NPC friend goes off to the wizard university, and, after a few years in-game, the adventuring PC meets up and finds his friend is a higher level and knows more spells because you learn more magic by (surprise!) studying magic than fighting monsters.