Eclipse and Magical Schools Part I: Historical Notions

And for today, it’s trying to catch up on questions.

Looking over your (excellent) series of articles about how d20 magic would shape the nature and growth of cities, I’m moved to ask: what would “wizard schools” look like if you applied the same logic to such a concept?

I ask because the idea of magic colleges is a popular one, ranging from the Scholomance to Hogwarts (to, as we saw in the recent write-up for Trixie, Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns), and yet d20 doesn’t really seem to support the concept, or at least not incentivize it; the only downside or difficulty to being a spellcaster is the advanced “starting age” tables for spellcasters, and the idea that a wizard’s starting spellbook must have been paid for by someone else. Other than that, anyone with the requisite mental ability score of 10+ (to cast cantrips) has no problems learning magic just as easily on their own as they do in a scholastic setting. Especially if you’re using Eclipse.

To what extent do magical colleges make sense in a d20 setting?

-Alzrius

Schools which teach magic are quite popular in fiction. That’s not too surprising; they’re quite popular in reality where they don’t even work. After all, there are few more direct wish-fulfillment fantasies than getting magical powers – and “training” is how you acquired most of your more complicated skills. Ergo, “a school that teaches you how to use magic” seems at least superficially plausible – and you can find plenty of them on the internet to give your money to.

But where did that notion come from? What, underneath the various fictions, are people actually expecting from a school of magic?

The first “schools of magic” were probably shamanic traditions, being passed down in individual small tribes – informal affairs where the tribal shaman taught each generation of kids how to not anger the spirit world (most likely a mixture of practical advice intermixed with tribal myths). Judging by the cave paintings, this sort of “school” probably goes back to the origin of the species, if not to some of our ancestral species. So we’re starting off with “teach the kids how to get along in the world”.

Moving on, Martial Arts traditions date back at least five thousand years (and likely much further, but that’s when our earliest hard evidence dates to). Given a certain lack of understanding as to how things work, magical beliefs and practices were a part of almost any form of organized training at that point – and what tales we have from that period do portray their heroes with a variety of mystical powers derived from their great skill. Thus the notion of “Kung Fu” – “a discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice”.

The first formal classes, with locations, multiple teachers, and groups of unrelated students drawn from a larger population, turned up after cities (and large, formal, permanent, organizations and structures) developed. They taught priests and record-keepers – a suddenly vital profession given the new need for organization, taxation, and keeping tabs on the population.

And those scribes DID have mysterious powers. They could “hear” the voices of the dead by examining strange talismans covered with equally strange symbols, they could remember more than any man, they could organize the construction of fabulous palaces and temples, they produced incredible remedies (often based to some extent on things that had worked, rather than on the placebo effect), they could know what was happening far away based on the delivery of a few bits of junk from that location… they were mighty wizards, who knew the powers of the hidden words. They could say and write down words which observably made impressive things happen. As far as the general population was concerned… that was magic. Observable, repeatable, WORKING magic.

Yet as the notion of writing spread, and it’s actual effects became more familiar and less impressive and mysterious… the tales of magic didn’t just vanish. Stories of mysterious and powerful secrets and knowledge never do; just ask the “Ancient Aliens” guy. Instead, those stories just pushed the mysterious powers back from general literacy to the “secret stuff” that only very select students got to learn. Hidden and powerful arts!

Not too surprisingly, that’s what “Occult” means. It’s simply a word for “hidden”.

But secret and powerful arts inevitably raise suspicions. Why are they hiding? (“because they don’t exist” has never satisfied anyone except for serious skeptics, and they’re pretty rare). Who is doing the teaching? What secret powers are there? What are they doing to you that they don’t want you to know about? What is their secret agenda?

And so scholarship became suspicious. Anti-intellectualism and the notion that knowledge was somehow unwholesome became popular. Why should another persons opinion be considered better than yours just because they knew more?

This has gotten worse now that there ARE secret (by virtue of being very difficult and time consuming to master) and powerful arts such as “Engineering” and “Medicine”. Just look at all the “they are hiding the simple answers to curing diabetes/ getting free energy / obtaining wealth / becoming more intelligent” from us!” scams on the internet. If those didn’t get a lot of money from people who believe that they’re being exploited by massive conspiracies there wouldn’t be so many of them. This is also why “Harry Potter” produced so much of a frenzy; quite a lot of people believe that that sort of thing is real.

Individual scholars gained reputations as sorcerers and mystics and tales of secret schools or “covens” spread. As education – “schooling” – started to become a normal and necessary part of life, classes grew, multiple instructors and specialized series of courses became the norm – and so the speculative secret schools reflected reality; they became institutions with physical buildings and established locations, rather than secret societies.

For practical reasons most of the literary examples (where things need a lot more logic and justification to satisfy the readers than rumors or popular myths have to have) for youngsters were boarding schools or – as in The Wall Around The World (1953) – were physically isolated. Even most conspiracy theorists have a hard time believing that a bunch of practicing magical kids would be able to keep everything secret without a LOT of help. And if it’s NOT a secret… the world is going to be a lot different than what we see.

Examples of the idea which didn’t keep it secret – such as The Wizard of Earthsea (1968), Operation Chaos (1971), or the Riddle Master Trilogy (1976) – are generally set in alternate worlds for just that reason.

And that pretty well establishes the “secret or alternate reality magical boarding school for kids” notion. The place is going to be filled with wonders and magical stuff simply because no one has ever actually seen such a thing, and therefore their imaginations run wild.

Given that this is for games where few passersby would blink at a kid practicing their magic, “secrecy” probably isn’t a big concern – but at least we’ve established a lot of the expectations and underlying assumptions.

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