Schools Of Magic

This page is about the subdivision of magic, as in D&D, not about a literal school. For the location or educational system, see Wizarding School.

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Basic Information

In the second and third editions of Dungeons & Dragons, magic was subdivided not only by source, but by School. That is to say, while a Wizard or Cleric might have different methods and sources of their magical power, either might cast a spell that could be classified as a Transmutation or Divination. School of Magic refers to that subdivision of magical effect, regardless of source or Magical Tradition. It's a very scientific approach to magic, creating it's own jargon and technobabble. It also does a great job of carving out niches for spell-casters, so that a party can have two specialist mages without a lot of overlap that would make them feel redundant.

A big deal in the consideration of 'schools of magic' is whether there is any in-universe distinction between them: are they just academic collections of spells with a common theme or are there real and practical consequences to which school a spell is in. Does studying one school preclude the study of another, and if so, why?1 Can a spell belong to multiple schools? How are schools built - by arranging all the spells necessary for a given type of work, or by collecting those with similar effects? Possibly a specific "school" is a discreet thread of thaumatological understanding based on a related set of tools - applying these tools to varying degrees results in specific spells, which may be picked up organically during study or may be learned independently, requiring a certain level of proficiency in their school to acquire. Greater proficiency may mean more potent spell results (or not in more Vancian systems). Some spells - especially more complicated ones - may require skill in multiple schools to learn and apply (perhaps illusion and charm are required together for those images that rely on a suggestion to the target's mind whilst illusion and conjuration or evocation are needed for semi-real things of "hard light" or "congealed shadow").

Going by the "traditional" effects based grouping, likely schools/fields of magic include:

See Also:

NOTE: this entire concept tends to require that the magic of a setting be at least semi-Vancian. Freeform magic, where the caster either improvises from a menu of magical effects to build his own working, proxy or channelling magic (like shamanistic magic and other kinds of theurgy) or magics that simply involve the direct application of the caster's will to bending reality will all tend to resist the concept of there being specific "spells", let alone neat administrative groupings of them. Also, as befits its source, it's a very gamist way of arranging spells - a more organic system modelling real world traditions might instead have "schools" that represent the spells that are necessary for a specific job role - for example a tribal spellcaster might know a mixed bag of spells from a range of "schools" that cover his combine role of healer, fortune teller, blesser of crops and hunts, clergyman and combat support without going into the sort of depth in any one field that a more urbanised academic caster might. Even then there may be spells that could arguably belong in different schools depending on how an effect is achieved or the exact interpretation of the end result - the rules system may fiat them into a specific school, allow them to practitioners of either or even require that a caster be "cross trained" to perform them (so for the classic "quasi-real" creatures often associated with advanced illusion magic, they might be hard ruled into illusion "because we say so", listed under both conjuration and illusion or require a conjurer-illusionist or generalist wizard).

This also assumes that any given user knows enough spells to constitute a recognisable school - in settings where a typical worker only knows one or two different operations, a very different feel will result.

The other possible distinction is between black and white (and maybe grey) magic - if these are assumed to exist - or the more real world distinction (roughly) between "left hand path" magic2 and the rest.


1. RPG: Dungeons and Dragons, specifically 2nd Ed AD&D and 3.X D&D, from TSR, Wizards of the Coast, and Hasbro

Game and Story Use

  • Man, I had big plans for this page, to sub-divide magic into all sorts of varieties. Then I realized, the term "Schools of Magic" is probably part of the Intellectual Property and Product Identity of D&D. That means (or so I believe - I'm not a lawyer) that this page should probably remain in it's current short review-like form, where it just comments on how cool that idea from D&D was. My hat's off to those 2nd Ed D&D writers.
    • Luckily, D&D didn't invent magic, and history is full of magical traditions, so the cool germ of the idea can still probably be used outside the D&D context. There are (in history / anthropology / occultism) different types of magic, which have some things in common and other things they make them different. Nothing wrong with that.
    • In the unlikely event that they have managed to hijack "Schools of Magic" (and to be fair, the droppings of the ass that is the law have included stranger things), the fact that the header line says 'as in D&D' would surely make it fair use by way of description.
    • The inherent Vancian nature of the concept is probably what (appears to) tie(s) it so closely to "that RPG" (although Vance himself didn't come up with anything similar that I recall so "post-Vancian" might be better) - as noted above, non-Vancian concepts of magic tend to dismantle the whole edifice quite swiftly.
  • Back to game applications… One way to justify something like this would be that each school is a different discipline with a different focus of study and different (and possibly incompatible) unifying principles. Apportation, for instance, might rely on the setting's equivalent of relativity with more advanced spells coming from a deeper theoretical understanding of alien geometries, while necromancy relies more on applied theology.
  • Even where there is no strict delineation, in-universe thaumatologists may enjoy assigning categories to specific types of magic (it's certainly typical behaviour for the sort of person stereotyped as a typical fantasy wizard) - for example the Dresdenverse is decidedly non-Vancian but the White Council cheerfully flings "-mancy" classifications about, especially for people who have a talent only for a very narrow field of magic3.
  • Although it's not the normal form of the trope, it should also be possible to run this in a "school of kung fu" style: "Your Fulgin Veil Necromancy will never overcome my Singing Winds battle magic!" <lips continue to move for several seconds>. This would probably count as a "thematic" school and would allow - for example - a Necromancer to fling magic bolts and what have you about without needing to cross-train as an evoker.
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