World Building 101: ABCs of the Arcane

Of all the existing power sources that are likely to be included in a campaign, the arcane is easily the one with the most dramatic variation in tone and flavor. Sorcerers, warlocks, wizards, artificers, and bards not only have different methods of harnessing the arcane from one another, but they have a great deal of difference possible even within each class. Determining how the arcane fits into the background of your world can therefore be an involved process, with different needs based on class and individual characters. Here are some options to get the ball rolling:

The Apprenticeship: Plenty of precedent exists for learning magic as an apprentice to an established master. From wizards in dilapidated towers to witches in isolated huts in the marshes, this is one of the more traditional methods for magic users to learn their craft. This method works well for just about any arcane tradition, as well, depending on the nature of the teacher. A wizard’s tower may not be the most suitable place for a young bard to study their craft, for example, and a swordmage would almost certainly be unable to improve their techniques studying under an old village wisewoman. This option fits in just about any campaign, but it may be especially suitable if you are seeking to create a campaign setting where magic isn’t quite as ubiquitous. Old masters are also excellent sources of story hooks, as they may call upon their students to assist with some sort of research, or even from beyond the grave if they leave their belongings to a PC, or have one last dying request. Feats or powers may include special training or techniques perfected by the particular master to suit their individual styles or research—or magical items created specifically for them or their students.

The Academy: On the other end of the spectrum, you might decide to have an academy for budding students of the arcane. Some classes fit quite handily into this mold—artificers, wizards, and bards all work quite well as learning their craft in such an environment—while others, like sorcerers and warlocks, might be less well suited to the teaching methods employed. Arcane academies can be complicated to include, however—just what kind of students are permitted to study? How much is tuition? Who is in charge of the place? How does the non-magical local population feel about the possibility of a magical mishap? What kind of political pressures exist, within and without? There may even be enough for an entire arc of your campaign to take place at one such academy, provided your players feel sufficiently interested. The inclusion of an academy tends to indicate that magic is common and at least somewhat organized in your campaign setting. Feats and powers may include specific techniques taught by the school as a whole, or arcane “styles” that are identifiable by other students of the same or rival schools.

Self-Taught: Whether by stumbling upon a hidden scroll detailing an arcane pact as a warlock, being naturally adept at harnessing arcane energy as a sorcerer, or even finding a magical tome of spells and learning the rudiments of wizard’s craft, the self-taught prodigy can be interesting to play. A self-taught arcane character has built-in reasons to adventure—to seek out new sources of knowledge and training, or to develop their own new talents. Mechanical options for the self-taught prodigy are harder to plan for; you might need to design them based on how the character is played, or in contrast to other options available in your setting.

Granted Powers: Warlocks are the obvious choice for having their powers granted by an external source, but depending on the flavor of your campaign world any of the arcane classes may fit in quite well with this option. The various warlock pacts offer some ideas for patrons that might offer power to a mortal, but there are of course many other possibilities. When a player character chooses this option, it’s important to make an effort to include their patron in the campaign, and not simply ignore them—ask the player for details on the patron, what they promised in exchange for their power, and what the patron’s expectations of them are. Mechanical options could include special powers granted by the patron specifically to their followers, or feats to indicate marks of a patron’s favor.

No matter what you decide to include or exclude from your game in terms of background options, the nature of the arcane and how the common folk of your setting view it can add a lot of flavor to your world; it behooves you to consider these things when you are designing a setting. Do people accept magic as common, or fear it as the unknown? Are spellcasters an everyday sight, or a rare occurrence? Is magic considered natural or is it a blasphemous affront to the order of the world? The more thought you give to these questions, the more readily you will be able to color the reactions your player characters receive from the common folk of your setting.

Comments (1)

Quinn (January 20th, 2010)

In my current campaign the origin of power for warlocks is about to become a central point of focus in the game. The pacts they have made with there dark masters have weekend the walls between there home realm and the realm of the rakasha who have invaded and subjugated the realm.

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