The Loneliness of the Strider of the Paths of Magic

How to Integrate a Mage with a Mundane Group

“I speak the secret language.
I know the meaning of numbers.
I perceive more subtle truths than your unsophisticated mind can fathom.”

(Mage: the Ascension, Order of Hermes Maxim)

Whether they are slender and weak, sword swinging heroes or even buffoons that pull zucchinis out of their hats instead of bunnies, wizards have always been and will probably always be keystones of the fantasy genre. Whatever the campaign setting’s cosmology may be, and whatever the wizard’s place within it may be, it’s easy to define a common characteristic to all of them – like the quote that opens this article states, wizards are, in the simplest terms, people who have gained access to powers beyond the reach and comprehension of the normal mortal man.
So where’s the problem? Fantasy was created to cater to such heroes – fabulous, omnipotent, the stuff legends are made of. Roleplaying games, however, weren’t necessarily designed for such heroes.
Roleplaying games were designed for groups of characters, each one bringing his own special abilities to the table. In such situations, the classical fantasy wizard could not only be out of his element, but would also damage the delicate group dynamics the GM and the other players have worked so hard to create.
In this article I will try to present some solutions for incorporating such a wizard in your group. Just one more disclaimer before I start – I use the term wizard as a general term for a spell-casting character, without giving thought to its exact use in any set of game mechanics. Feel free to substitute it with the terms sorcerer, mage, druid, shaman, medicine man, conjuror or pineapple flavored gum.

Solution I – Affirmative Action

As I’ve illustrated in my article Bring the Magic Back to Your Magic, the wizards in some systems simply don’t seem like true fantasy wizards. In these systems, magic is no more than a few abilities and disadvantages bundled up together.
In such systems, there really is no problem – a wizard is merely a character that can cast three lightening bolts and four fireballs per day, just like another member of his group can pick locks and climb walls. Personally, I view this solution to be inherently flawed. True, it is very easy to implement in the game mechanics, but the result is magic which isn’t really magic, but a bunch of attributes and abilities, more suitable for an old computer game than for a roleplaying game.

Solution II – Homogeneity

Another solution for this problem which is especially common in the systems which emphasize magic like Ars Magica or Mage: the Ascension is to balance things out in a much higher level – making the entire group wizards of some sort. In these systems the distinction isn’t between wizards and mere mortals, but between different types of wizards and different styles of magic. These systems usually do preserve the right feel of magic, but come up short in a different aspect – magic, in order to be truly magical, must be rare. Even if the campaign portrays wizards as unique individuals in a mundane world (like the two systems I mentioned earlier), the group will still be made up mostly (if not exclusively) of wizards. The sense of uniqueness a player portraying a wizard should feel must come from his group members, not from the masses of nameless, faceless, NPCs.

Solution III – A Group is a Collection of Individuals

The third solution, and my personal favorite, is to try and imitate what is done in epic fantasy literature, and enjoy the best of both worlds – wizards who are truly wizards in the fullest meaning of the word on the one hand, but also an integral part of the group on the other. So how is this done?

Before we start, we need to make sure that our wizards are actually characters that can be incorporated in a mundane group.

Step One – limit the users of magic, not the magic itself. In order to make sure your characters are balanced, they must be limited somehow, but make sure to limit them and not the magic of your campaign setting. Limit their use of weapons, limit their use of other skills, attach social disadvantages to the use of magic – do what you will, but don’t confine the magic of your campaign system to rigid artificial constraints.

Step Two – limit the use of magic, not the magic itself. Are your wizards still too powerful after the first step? Limit their use of magic. Allow them to use magic only up to a certain level or only from a certain aspect. Define that the use of magic takes its toll on the wizard’s health, both mentally and physically. Make your wizards utter incantations, perform gestures or sacrifice sacrifices in order to perform their spells.

Step Three – limit the effects of magic, not the magic itself. Depending on your campaign’s cosmology, you are certainly allowed to limit, conceptually, what magic can or cannot do. For example, in Quitara, my Fantasy HERO campaign, I have decided that magic originates from a form of energy called Mana, and every object emits its own field of Mana. Moreover, wizards can augment their power by transmuting their life energy, Vis, to Mana. However, the opposite procedure is impossible. Thus, with a relatively simple decision and without bending the system beyond recognition, I’ve thrown all the healing and resurrection spells out of the window and achieved some of the balance I was looking for.

Having followed those three simple steps, we have ourselves wizards who can be incorporated into our mundane groups of characters. So how do we achieve that? Like anything else in this article, this solution is also divided into three steps.

First, remember that even though the wizard is a character who wields magic, he is still first and foremost a character. A wizard should be defined by his personality, his past, his knowledge, his hobbies and his interests. The wizard’s part in the game should not be limited to casting spells and brewing potions. Just as the fighter lives on his sword but is not defined by it, and just like the rogue is more than a collection of lock picks, a wizard should be more than the sum of his spell books and scrolls. Make him use his full variety of mundane abilities too.

Second, let the other members of the group into the wizard’s mystical world. Let them, either by explaining it to them directly out of play, or indirectly by having a conversation with a wizard in play, understand how magic works, what is the toll it takes from the wizard who rides alongside them, what it can achieve and what it cannot. Clue them in on the intrigues of wizardly politics. Leave the wizard as the only character who can bend magic to his will, but let the other characters understand his actions.

Third, and this may be the most important piece of advice in this article – allow the wizard his opportunity to shine. Fantasy literature is full of epic battles where the wizard stands alone against insurmountable odds – Gandalf battling the Balrog, Raistlin standing alone against Takhisis, Ged struggling to close the door to the realms of the dead – the examples are infinite. And even so, many GMs are hesitant to include scenes like these in their campaigns, claiming that in these scenes the wizard becomes the only character, and the rest of the group is left to be bystanders. Well, they are right. But contemplate this for a moment – does the fighter not get the spotlight in the fight scenes? Does the rouge’s quick tongue not turn every scene where the group is caught where it isn’t supposed to be to his own one man show?
As long as you remember that the group has other characters besides the wizard, and you give each one it’s five minutes of fame, there’s nothing wrong in giving the wizard his scenes too.

In conclusion, I may have written about wizards in this article, but it could be easily generalized for every type of character in any genre who’s abilities make her stand apart form the other characters – be it the telepathics of your science fiction campaign, the hackers in your cyberpunk campaign, and so on.

This article first appeared in issue #11 of The Orc.