Wednesday, 17 October 2012

A Short History of a University of Magic

Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is probably the oldest university in the world; it is certainly the one from which we get the word 'university', although nobody knows the date the University of Oxford was founded, so that might be more ancient still.

Bologna University was apparently established by its students. In the city at that time there were groups of foreign students who were scholars of Roman law, and they banded together in mutual aid societies (usually by nation; this was apparently necessary because the city authorities exercised collective punishment on the basis of national origin) and hired people to teach them. Over time, these groups amalgamated into one "universitas".

Let's imagine a University of Magic. There is a city in which there is a relatively large number of magical practitioners. Students come from all over the world to study with them on an ad hoc basis, banding together in small groups and combining their funds to pay local mages to teach them. Over time, these different groups - and their mages - come to associate for mutual protection and profit, on a temporary basis at first, but eventually uniting into one organisation with a chancellor, different schools of magic (probably each founded by one of the different groups) and a huge library.

Hooks abound in such a setting for an "everything is mages" game. Obviously the PCs, as students, have field research to do. But there are also inter-school rivalries within the university itself, not to mention wider political conflict (the university of magic would be an institution of huge power, likely to come into conflict with other power bases in the local area). And, naturally, they need to find ways to fund their study...


  1. This is one of my favorite ways to make a campaign distinctive - I always thought the red, black, and white robes was the best part of Dragonlance. The next step is defining a collection of core texts that make the standard curriculum.

    GAZ 3 Principalities of Glantri describes a nation ruled by wizards, plagued by Machiavellian politics that would make Vance proud, with a competitive "great school of magic" where wizards send their star pupils. It was Hogwarts a decade before JK Rowling.

  2. In one of my previous campaigns there was a university of mages.
    They were more or less united under one arch mage and came into conflict with other local power bases (king, thieves guild).
    To get funds they squeezed the people in town for protection, mafia style.

    @Beedo, I also thought about Hogwarts. GAZ 3 Principalities of Glantri looks interesting.

  3. Bill Stoddart just finished his magical university book if you're interested:

    I often don't agree with him but he's one of those people who've given GURPS a reputation for well-researched supplements, so it might be worth a look.

  4. ...I kinda feel like I don't have any handle on the problem space of a magical university, myself. Pratchett pretty much said it's the college of cardinals during the Borgia papacy plus basements full of anguished failed experiments and left it at that. I think there must be cool stuff to do with it but I'm coming up a bit blank for things the players could actually get their teeth into. Lots of setting colour, but little interactivity.

  5. I am currently running a LARP with something like 20 wizards (out of a playerbase of 80-90) competing over new spells, both capturing the spellbooks of enemy wizards and researching new spells. I haven't specifically considered how I might twist this if we had instead placed it in a purely academic setting, it would probably work, and be kind of awesome.

    My advice, such as it is, takes a ton of work to accomplish. But if you can write 1-3 paragraphs of in-world flavor text for each spell, frequently referencing historical events, long-dead NPC wizards, and cosmological factoids, the players will have plenty of specific details to research and piece together in the process of rediscovering old spells or developing new ones.

    Finally - I would love to play in a tabletop game like the one you describe. Ars Magica does sort of exist to make this kind of game happen.