If a Mage Guild is composed of powerful, educated individuals, you would think it would be better-managed. What is the purpose of such a powerful organization? How does it stay funded when a small fraction of the population uses its prohibitively expensive services? Why hasn't it become more important than every other oganization in the world?
In this article, I will set forth some views on how a Mage Guild should be run in a fantasy setting by storytellers, GMs, and video game writers. I will also cover some important questions (like "why haven't wizards taken over the world?") and give suggestions on what makes sense when a Mage Guild is absent in a high fantasy setting.
Why A Guild Is Necessary
Magic (in most fantasy settings,) is generally hard to understand, difficult to control, and potentially dangerous to everyone around it. If magic is sentient, benevolent, and safe, then a Mage Guild is merely a type of college or university to teach people how to use magic. That's easy to do, most people know how a university works. But if magic is a wild, raw force, then the Mage's guild needs to be a very special, different organization to account for that.
Magic needs to be regulated because it is dangerous. People who can't really use magic could sell snake oil, claiming that their useless wares can cure diseases and solve peoples' problems. Careless or indifferent mages could level entire city blocks, or worse. Mages could use hexes and curses to manipulate and torture people in ways that are impossible for a normal person to trace. And, of course, a mage who gets delusions of grandeur could decide to try taking over the world.
The Mage Guild exists to handle all of those scenarios. It actually has to do so out of necessity. If the general populace is afraid of magic being used for harm, then an enterprising hedge wizard cannot sell his wares. In fact, he's likely to be burned at the stake. However, the existence of a Mage Guild to protect the public from dangerous magic keeps people feeling safe, and also keeps the wizards comfortable. The Mage Guild's first purpose is to maintain the reputation of practitioners in the public eye, and it does this by working to regulate dangerous magic-users.
With this purpose in mind, it is clear why the Mage Guild doesn't take over the government. It would be bad for the Guild's profits if they appear to be domineering politicians or conquerers. Mages make money by selling their services to people, placing them in the same category as modern wealthy businessmen. Rich people don't work in the government because there is no need for them to, they profit most from their business, and only care about government to the extent that it doesn't interfere with their business. (Bribes and lobbying notwithstanding.) In fact, mages don't compete with the government, they compete with other mages.
Mage Guild Influence
If a spellcaster of any type is reported to be committing crimes, the Mage Guild has to take care of the problem. If they don't, they risk the general population becoming suspicious of magic, which means less people will buy magic items and spellcasting services, and mages will be more likely to be prosecuted harshly by the government (read, "burned at the stake.")
Consider how the game system you're using affects the tactics used. For example, in Dungeons & Dragons, a dozen apprentices with wands of dispel magic and scrolls of summon monster have even odds of taking down a 10th-level wizard. The same group with a few experienced wizards as backup is almost certain to succeed. In fact, only an madman would want to fight against such odds. The majority of rogue mages would rather flee than fight a proper inquisition.
This can lead to some very exciting, dramatic criminal investigation. However, that's not the primary influence of the Mage Guild. The guild is composed of educated people who sell very expensive services. If the Mage Guild requires just a small percent of their profit as guild dues, it will have a huge income to work with. Of course, the income is used primarily to fund expensive inquisitions to hunt down rogue mages, but it starts to become obvious that any good Mage Guild is a powerful economic organization, and it wields great influence over spellcasters in a region.
The Mage Guild has to keep itself in a strong position politically, or else most wizards will just refuse to join and pay dues. There are several ways the Guild could do this. The easiest is branding, making a "Guild Seal of Approval" that only members of the guild are allowed to put on their products and places of business. With good standards, the Guild can develop a reputation for quality, and a garauntee that you're not being sold snake oil or untested magic. Any fortune teller, potion brewer, charm maker, or crafter operating without the seal would be extremely suspect.
The more sinister side of guild approval isn't pretty. A malicious Mage Guild could refuse to license mages who set competitive prices, or require a very high percentage of the profits. The Guild could even lobby a local government to make any unlicensed magic illegal, to "protect the public," of course. A Mage Guild could easily create a monopoly, and anyone trying to operate outside of the Guild will have a very hard time.
A malicious guild could also cause trouble for adventurers. Any non-Guild magic items entering a city might require "inspection" and "certification" to make sure they are safe, which would have to be paid at the owner's expense.
However, whether a Mage Guild is good or evil (or anywhere in between) is up to the GM. This should be carefully considered, and any player who might be affected by it should be informed beforehand.
What Needs To Happen When There Is No Guild
I'm going to take a moment to go the other way on this topic. If there are not enough mages in an area to form a guild, then what happens?
Small towns in the wilderness are usually terrorized by dangerous monsters, savage orc and goblin tribes, and the usual assortment of things that go bump in the night. Evil witches and sorcerers are just one more thing on the list, and they are especially dangerous. Usually adventurers handle this sort of thing, but adventurers can be hard to find. Other organizations will have to step in and regulate magic.
There are two organizations that have the power to fill the regulatory role of the Mage Guild: local governments, and local religious organizations. The archetype of a vampire hunter comes to mind, but such hunters often have to deal with mortals who use arcane power too. Hunters will have to be brutal to survive long against mages. Being sympathetic or waiting to check for hostile intent can be lethal when dealing with a rogue mage.
Without a Mage Guild to regulate magic, organizations will either have extremely strict punishment for witchcraft, or make arcana prohibitively restricted. If you run a campaign where these organizations are prominent, you should let players know about it before they decide what characters they are making.
If a player's character is going to be a mage, let him know what the laws regarding magic are, and you may want to avoid making magic illegal outright because that can be perceived as punishing players for something they haven't done. "As a mage, you can be burned at the stake if you commit a crime with magic," is much more acceptable to players than, "as a mage, you will be burned at the stake if anyone finds out that you can use magic". Also, make sure you consider the difference between "white magic" and "black magic". The Dungeons & Dragons system, for example, only makes a distinction between divine and arcane magic, but they are NOT black and white. Both of them have equal potential for evil, and it doesn't make sense for a government to outlaw arcane magic when divine magic is perfectly capable of laying hexes and raising the dead.
"The Mage Guild" Is An Uninspired Name
Seriously. Nobody is going to call it that in a conversation. It demonstrates a supreme lack of preparation and thought on the matter, magic is supposed to be important in high fantasy. They may refer to it as "The Guild" if it's obvious in context, but otherwise, a Mage Guild should really have a proper name.
Here is a quick list of possible names that could be used in any setting:
- The Red Cloister
- Students of Perfection
- The Mighty Oak
- Neus's Academy
- Disciples of Fach
- The party comes into a small village that is currently under investigation because of several murders performed with magic (the bodies were stabbed with icicles in the middle of summer.) The only suspect is a local apothecary, who wants to hire the PCs to prove his innocence before the Guild takes action and arrests him.
- A seller of magical wares has continued using the Guild's seal without paying dues. In retaliation, members of the Guild have been putting illusory graffiti on his storefront. The city watch refuses to get involved in the matter, so he hires the PCs to protect his shop from fantastic vandalism.
- A wealthy town has outlawed magic within its boundaries, driving the Mage Guild out. The Guild decides that the best course of action is to "prove their worth", so they decide to hire a competent mage to cause some property damage for a few days. The Guild will then approach the town, offer to "arrest" the Mage, thereby convince the town to allow the Guild to operate there.
- One of the party's valuable items is confiscated during an inspection because it was registered and commissioned by a noble. The noble was murdered under suspicious circumstances, and the PCs are tasked with proving their own innocence by backtracking and figuring out how the item came to them.
- A newly founded Guild is trying to compete with a well-established one in a large city. After a horrific incident where a rogue mage lets hundreds of undead monsters loose in the streets, the larger Guild decides to withdraw and let the new one deal with it. The new Guild doesn't have the resources to deal with the problem, and starts hiring adventurers to help it enforce order and track down the necromancer responsible.