Casting Conflict: Fighting It Out Over Arcane Traditions

The default assumption of many fantasy game settings is that the magical study wizards devote themselves to is rewarded by the slow – but constant – accumulation of knowledge and power. The fact that this knowledge takes the form of spells that may come from various different ancient masters, widespread cultures, or deep secrets of the universe doesn’t seem to matter very much in the grand scheme of things.

But what if the mental disciplines and understandings necessary to use certain Schools of Magic didn’t just translate over to all of the others? What if those secrets were closely guarded, or required guidance from someone who has already mastered them?

What if unlocking that knowledge was something a character had to fight for?

For some games it may be a layer of complication that no one wants to deal with, and other settings wouldn’t mesh with such a strong thematic division, but for those looking to build on those ideas? There are a number of unique options that will add flavor to a Wizard’s life, a feeling of accomplishment to the gathering of new knowledge, and a number of hooks for DMs to hang various new threats or plots on.

There are four parts to this post, each covering a different way to present learning schools of magic as an achievement rather than a given, linked to below:

  • 8 Masters – Learning from wise, but often demanding elders.
  • Academy Wars – Wizard college means politics, business, and petty rivalries.
  • Closed Traditions – Some groups would kill to protect their secrets.
  • Autodidacts – Teaching yourself, even when it can get you killed.

The last there is a post on being self-taught in worlds where that might be otherwise unheard of (and very dangerous).

Starting Presumptions: Wizard characters are created as normal, selecting initial 1st level spells from any school, and at 2nd level are able to select one of the eight schools of magic to be their Arcane Tradition. This selection represents the completion of their initial training, and – if you are using these background options – it implies the character has chosen to be associated with one of these groups or individuals.

After selecting their 1st level spells, however, they cannot use any further spells that are from a school of magic they have not unlocked.

The 8 Masters

The road to becoming a great Wizard is a long one, and becoming a Master is an even greater journey. It requires long study, often dangerous trials in which one has their skills tested repeatedly in life-or-death scenarios, and a particular interest in one Arcane Tradition above all others.

Still, there are perks. You see, only Masters can provide the instruction necessary to unlock the school of magic that represents the focus of their work, and this gives them quite a bit of leverage over young or ambitious will-workers. Some abuse this, some just find it helps them find time to keep at their work, and others have long-term plans that eager parties of adventurers fit into quite nicely.

Some potential hooks related to Masters, and getting their help, could be:

  • The Side-Quest – There is a deed that the reticent Master needs completed, and is either unable or unwilling to undertake on their own. Sometimes this is actually a test of the character’s skill or character, but punishing someone for getting it “wrong” might be going to far. (Examples: Fetching an old sword from the heart of the haunted wood, providing a rare ore that should be near the party’s eventual destination, killing her wicked twin in an identical tower just two days journey away)
  • The Personal Matter – The Master has some personal need that presents a great distraction to them or that they just demand be settled on their behalf before they will begin instruction. These can be humorous in their banal nature at times, or played entirely serious. (Examples: Convincing a spurned lover to take her back, bring a complaint before the local lord on his behalf, assist in helping the Master quit a highly addictive drug)
  • The Chore – A classic trope, and one which needs little explanation, is the Master requiring that a new student do a series of menial, boring, or exhausting chores before they will begin the proper training. If this approach is used, and the tasks can be reasonably tied to the lessons at hand, a DM should consider adding 5 to the Arcana Check Result when looking at the chart below.
  • The Defensive Position – The Master is in desperate need of assistance, and is either unwilling or unable to provide instruction until the matter is settled. (Examples: Convincing the nearby villagers to stop trying to burn the tower down before someone gets hurt, killing a terrible beast that constantly stalks the Master, preventing assassins sent by her “good” twin who lives in a tower just two days journey away)
  • The Student is Now the Master – In a reversal, if at one point the character’s reputation grows to the point where he is considered a Master they will find themselves sought out by various students of magic. Some will be eager young Wizards, a few might be annoyingly persistent, while it’s possible a number are more powerful sorts who are looking to complete their collection and won’t take no for an answer.

And any of these could involve the characters accidentally getting themselves bound up in events that will come back to bite them, or provide opportunities for great renown, later on.

In a world working under the 8 Masters structure it is up to the DM to decide what a Master looks like mechanically, as they could just be incredibly dedicated low-level casters or might be required to have advanced beyond 10th level, but in play they are specialists who Wizard characters will need to interact with if they wish to broaden their knowledge of magic.

How Masters Unlock Schools – A Master of a school must agree to train a character in that flavor of magic, the player must make an Arcana check, and the character must spend an amount of downtime with the Master equal to the results of a roll on the chart below.

Arcana Check Result Time Training With Master
9 or Lower 1 Month
10-14 2 Weeks
15-19 1 Week
20+ 4 Days

Lastly, consider how Wizards might show the number of schools they’ve mastered. Is it a number of metal bands, each made from a different material, worn on the arms? Is it certain colors on their robes? Do they tattoo an arcane symbol somewhere on their body for each? Maybe it changes from region to region.

Or maybe a character prefers to keep that sort of thing to themselves.

The Academy Wars

The idea of a Wizard Academy was old before Harry Potter, but it still has life because there is a good deal of dramatic fodder to be found there (even outside the love lives or secret wars of adolescent spell-casters). The social politics of high-school type environments is one way to exploit this, with school of magic standing in for social cliques, but that is not the angle I’m presenting here.

Imagine that you are part of an academic society. Your group has special dispensation from the authorities, either because of their own political concerns or your influence, to practice your craft and to determine who else is qualified to do so. If the setting you are in is anything like many actual historical societies there may be a high-blooded noble that holds exclusive rights to the reproduction of your works, appoints the head of your society, and watches over things for the crown.

Now imagine that there are 7 other such organizations, likely all under the same noble or a small council of them, and when it comes to training practitioners you all must work together under the same roof.

It’s a powder-keg, potentially combining the worst parts of academia and the business world. Everyone wants the best for their side, their group, because it adds prestige and membership dues to the coffers and first rights on new discoveries or published works. But they also need to work together to some degree, because it’s required by those in power and is the only way to keep grudges from turning into open warfare.

It’s from this environment that Wizards emerge.

Note: The presumption is that Wizards in this scenario graduate with all of the schools unlocked, but having paid for that privilege by letting more than enough trouble into their lives.

Get Yourself Sorted

A world like this changes the selection of an Arcane Tradition from a preference to a declaration of allegiance, because the schools of magic are here represented by distinct Factions/Organizations (DMG, p21-23) that a character is at least loosely associated with. Being a Wizard is a regulated “learned profession,” in the original sense.

There are two ways to approach the setting, as DM, from this point:

  1. The chosen Arcane Tradition is the specialized guild that represents the interests – expecting service & support in return – of individual Wizard practitioners (which is the approach assumed here).
  2. The Arcane Traditions are officially merely the academic groups that are responsible for teaching certain styles of magic, but post-graduation function as secret societies in the style of fraternal orders.

Either way, the main barrier to unlocking new schools of magic is going to come down to which groups see eachother as allies and which as enemies.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to create all the dramatically arbitrary long-term grudges or old school allies.

Always Hated You

Determining which Arcane Traditions are mostly antagonistic or most friendly in a setting can either be done thematically – putting Abjuration opposite Conjuration for example – or by arbitrary (and suitably petty) selection using the chart below.

d8 School of Magic
1 Abjuration
2 Conjuration
3 Divination
4 Enchantment
5 Evocation
6 Illusion
7 Necromancy
8 Transmutation

Roll twice for Rivals, the 1st result being the strongest animosity and the second 2nd being general dislike or distrust.

Then twice for Allies, the 1st result being the strongest bonds and 2nd being general agreement or trust.

Crossed or doubled results – including rolling your own School – might be re-rolled as necessary, but they could also be kept to signify different branches or factions within the larger groups.

Each school selected in this way should probably be represented by an NPC who is either an individual your character has a personal relationship with, or who officially speaks for the group as a whole. It helps to put a face on old friends and powerful enemies.

How Academies Unlock Schools – In a some settings a Wizard’s allegiance to a particular Arcane Tradition in the academy means they only have that school of magic unlocked, but the political structure is such that even hated enemies cannot outright refuse to teach one another. This means that frequently there are high fees, required favors, excruciating delays, or intense negotiations required by characters who are dealing with Rival schools.

DMs in such cases should look for inspiration in the potential requests made by the Masters, in the section above. On the upside, the nature of such a setting implies a level of educational or professional materials such that a Wizard can be assumed to unlock the school on their own once they have been given access (unless a distrusting Organization requires they do so on the premises).

The Closed Traditions

A mystic order that has slowly, over the generations, unlocked the secrets of instantaneous travel… even reaching across the boundaries between life and death.

A powerful cabal in a shining red tower, who only choose the greatest minds to master the very matter of the world and play with elements.

An old tradition passed to those initiated among the villagers, spoken aloud only by those who’ve bound themselves in blood to the people, allowing the Wise to see the future and ward against evil.

This option is the one that is going to require the most work by the DM, because it is entirely dependent on the setting of the game, and is also the most potentially limiting of the three major approaches discussed in this series. Why? Because the default assumption of these groups is that membership is required, and secrets don’t ever get out.

Serious Businesses

While not every closed tradition has a religious flavor, it’s not a stretch to see the similarities between the secretive cabal of alchemists and a shadowy cult. Similarly, the ancient methods of folk-magic which keep the peasants or free people on the borders alive may look similar to druidic circles, even if their power comes from long study of manipulating the laws of reality rather than the will of the earth.

What all of these traditions have in common is that they were developed by a distinct group, for a distinct purpose, and their resulting power or knowledge has been deemed so important that even the idea of sharing with outsiders would be seen as betrayal.

Because of this the Closed Traditions – even more than the Academies – must be represented by Factions or Organizations (DMG, p21-23), and there should only be 1 or 2 at most in any given culture or kingdom.

Each of the traditions should also only have access to 2 or 3 of the Arcane Traditions, meaning that a member can choose any of those as their preferred Arcane Tradition once they reach 2nd level – and can learn any spells of the bundled schools normally – but cannot learn any spells from different schools.

Example: The Smokemen of Naray have access to the Conjuration and Enchantment schools of magic. A Wizard from this tradition could choose Conjuration as their Arcane Tradition at 2nd level, and after that could cast any spells from the Conjuration or Enchantment schools without extra effort, but any other spells would require the Wizard to unlock additional schools.

But what about a bullheaded character who is more ambitious, bullheaded, or curious than that? What are their options?

One is trying to learn it the hard way, as described in the Autodidact section below, knowing that it’s more dangerous than ever. The other is essentially a long-term quest of its own.

Let the Right One In

A major reason that it is so important to describe these groups as Organizations or Factions, as described in the DMG, is that the only legitimate method available to someone not already part of these traditions is to earn their trust.

And that’s easily measured by Renown.

Now it is possible that some of the traditions have no possible way to earn that much trust, or they require an almost impossible amount of Renown before they will open their secrets to even the most beloved of outsiders, but it is better than nothing.

The recommended minimum level of Renown that must be met for a tradition to unlock its schools of magic to a character is 25, though a DM could easily set it higher or lower than that depending on the circumstances or history of the groups involved. As long as it’s clear to everyone involved what an enormous honor it is to be so entrusted with this knowledge.

Plot-Twist: Of course, if a Wizard was already part of an existing secretive order manages to win so much favor with another that it opens deep secrets to them, one of two things might happen very shortly after:

  1. Their original secretive order becomes suspicious of their loyalty, or outright decides that there is a Player Character Wizard-sized leak in their organization which must immediately be plugged, or
  2. Their original secretive order assumes that it will now be let in on the secrets the Wizard character is now privvy to, moving from hints to demands to point #1 very quickly if the character isn’t careful.

The Autodidact

Able to fit into any of the above scenarios, with a level of risk that adjusts to each one, is the idea of the wizard who refuses to – or is unable to – follow the traditional route to knowledge. Such a person finds scrolls, ancient texts, and snippets of wisdom from those in the know to be invaluable. They may even be willing to steal for it.

If others are trying to keep these ideas secret, or have the exclusive legal right to such materials, those taking this path could face imprisonment or death.

To unlock a particular school of magic without assistance from an instructor requires the collection of 10 Research Points, which can be gained in the following manner:

Points Resource
+1 Private personal study. DC 20 Arcana Check, 1/session
+2 Study of a Scroll with a spell from the appropriate School, 1/scroll
+3 Study of scholarly text on appropriate School. DC 15 Arcana Check, 1/text
+5 Study practitioner of the appropriate School’s spellbook, 1/spellbook

The notation after each indicates how often that particular learning method may be attempted, so that “1/scroll” means that a Wizard may only get Research Points the first time they study any particular scroll.

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