Unlearning the Schools of Magic

In the late eighties or early nineties my friend introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. Back then it was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Second Edition. Besides introducing me to tabletop roleplaying games and the collaborative storytelling they entail, that book had a singular and profound effect on my imagination: the schools of magic available to the Wizard class defined the way I approached magic for decades to come.

Abjuration, the protection magic. Conjuration, the summoning magic. Divination, the seeing magic. Enchantment, the mind magic. Evocation, the I Cast Fireball! magic. Illusion, the deception magic. Necromancy, the magic of life and death. Transmutation, the transformative magic.

For years I couldn’t think of any definitions of magic beyond these categories. Obviously divination and necromancy had the biggest effects on me, as I built a comics career off wizards dedicated to the ideas of those schools of magic. But when I came back to this comic after some years away, I wondered if I needed to break away from those old categorizations. I had a lot of trouble thinking outside of those boxes, but luckily I began to receive some help.

The first inspiration to move away came from Ursula K. LeGuin’s masterpiece Earthsea series, namely the Nine Masters of Roke and the magical traditions they taught: Windkey, Hand, Herbal, Chanter, Changer, Summoner, Namer, Patterner, and Doorkeeper. They “clicked” in my brain in a way I hadn’t felt since I first saw the AD&D 2E schools. But she didn’t stay with just those. As the Earthsea books continue on there are more approaches to magic outside those of the Nine Masters, hinting at greater magics and mysteries yet undiscovered or forgotten.

The second inspiration came, unsurprisingly, from another tabletop roleplaying game. I’d moved away from Dungeons & Dragons years ago in favor of Pathfinder, which I still play faithfully to this day. When they boldly moved away from the Open Gaming License to create the Open RPG Creative (or ORC as I absolutely adore) they needed to move away from D&D’s magic schools to create their own. At first I was shocked. I’d defined wizards for tabletop games with those schools for decades! How were they going to change them? Was it going to work? The answer, for me, was satisfying and creative. Pathfinder’s Remastered Second Edition curriculum schools for wizards still provide that “specialist” flavor but add a flexibility I’m quite enjoying as a current student of Ars Grammatica.

So what does this mean for my world here, with its magic forever changed 200 years ago? The answers are coming slowly but surely, as there are no more seers and visions, and magic no longer includes “I Cast Fireball!” levels of weaponized arcana. There are no more necromancers as we knew them, and Jacob Deegan has been navigating these changes. The lore details are coming, but the broad answer is that I’m moving away from strict categorizations and leaning more towards mystery, discovery, and flexibility.

The problem with being inspired by a game’s definition of magic is that I fell into the trap of turning magic into a system. Magic became less magical and more like a set of rules laid out upon a spreadsheet for balancing purposes and such. When I was a younger creator I thought I needed a well-defined “magic system” and while consistency in the narrative remains important to me, having a “system” feels limiting. Magic for me needs to feel like a fresh set of paints or new inks, and the world upon which to cast those spells is the canvas or the sketchbook. I want to create in broad strokes that makes me feel wonder, not hampered by categories and strict definitions.

And if that’s considered lazy storytelling or world-building, then so be it. Right now it’s making me happy, and that’s the most important thing for a creator in any medium.