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.)

4 responses to “On Arcane Institutes

  1. I’m with you in that I’ve always thought of institutes for the study of magic to be scary places full of adventure. Without even going too serious, Discworld novels often touch on the dangers to students and staff alike at the Unseen Academy, not to mention to the world as a whole if something goes wrong. All this is actually making me think of plot hooks for a future game.

    Excellent post…

  2. Totally agree on magical university being exciting – it’s a cool idea. But if it’s as dangerous as a dungeon how do the students survive? I’d say in HP you’ve got students who muck around with stuff and ones who hang around and just study. The ones who muck about get in danger and might die, but go up in level faster. Again, you’ve got the dungeon vs. town choices. It’s like putting your town inside a dungeon, or the dungeon inside the town, or otherwise mixing them up.

    I like to think Level 1 is a great achievement but you can’t do more without going out and adventuring in the Great Unknown, or the Mythic Underworld, or Other Planes, or Wildspace, or whatever. Black belt is first level, and higher ranks just mean you have experience teaching, know more kata, and have refined technique.

    But I can see someone reasoning differently, that 1st level is the farmer’s kid and you get better in various ways, including just joining the militia and drilling to hit level 2. In that way of looking at things, someone could buy training manuals and get sparring partners and go up in level. You could, for example, go to various schools and learn stunt work and be like Jackie Chan, who I’d consider more capable than some black belt.

    Then again, who knows? Maybe Mr. Chan saved Mars or something and he’s not telling.

    Anyway, good post.

    • Thanks! I think one of the problems is the experience scale and the gap between level 0 and level 1. How much xp does it take to get from level 0 to level 1? How much adventuring, studying, training, etc.? It just strikes me as odd that two or three encounters at level 1 gets you to level 2, doubling your power in many regards, while, by some accounts, it takes ages of hard work and dedication for very small incremental improvement that level 1 gives you over a commoner. Compared to that first level, advancement is astronomical in proportion to the amount of effort involved. The way I look at it, level 1 means you’ve met the most basic requirements of your chosen career/class path, and the only way forward is up. A 1st level fighter has learned to wear armor and wield a weapon. A 1st level cleric has learned how prayers to his god can manifest themselves in magical ways. A 1st level magic user has learned to read magic and cast a spell. They have the bare minimum skills of the class, 0 XP and anything else they learn, having met that bare minimum, goes towards further levels.

      That moment when a character reaches their first level, could be a great character development/roleplay opportunity, if you have time for it. I know that white wolf games encourage it (heroic mortal prior to exhaltation, mortal before turned to vampire, etc). That farm-boy is level 0, until something happens to him. If he picks up his pitchfork to defend his home, and does so, let’s say Level 1 Warrior. Or an old veteran shows him how to use his old armor and a sword, and he defends his home that way, level 1 fighter. Or he sneaks into a bandit camp and steals a map of the villagers’ comings and goings. Or a wizard shows him how to cast a spell. I think that these defining moments are where level 0 hits level 1, rather than some nebulous past that assumes years of dedicated toil. I leave that for groups who are starting at level 4 or 5.

  3. Pingback: [Labyrinth Lord] Spellslot System « Stuffed Crocodile

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