Whatever Happened to Wizard’s Guilds?

Whatever happened to wizard’s guilds? In the Good Old Days, every town or city seemed to have one, but these days—like wandering monsters, comprehensive rumour tables and “pointless” empty areas in dungeons—they seem to have disappeared from many adventures and supplements.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)
By William McAusland (Outland Arts)


This sucks.

I suppose—to a certain extent—wizard’s guilds in Pathfinder and 3.0/5 got replaced by prestige classes, but I still—now I’ve noticed—keenly feel their loss. Wizard’s guilds were one of those things that added depth and verisimilitude to the game world. PCs could belong to them, and gain the privileges and responsibilities thereof, or at least engage members to carry out research or craft items on their behalf. Hell—almost every apprentice wizard or magic-user used to belong to a guild. After all, how else did they learn their burgeoning skills?

Now, it seems virtually no one belongs to a wizard guild (or for that matter a thieves’ guild).

I guess part of this change is down to the way later editions of the game handle levelling. In the Good Old Days, a PC ready to level had to find a teacher and pay hefty fees to learn the requisite skills. Guilds were a great place to find such teachers. Now, when a PC gains enough XP to level, he simply rests overnight and the new knowledge solidifies/appears/manifests in his mind.

Similarly, today magic item creation is little more than a bookkeeping exercise (don’t get me started on why this sucks) and so wizards and the like have no need to consult learned folk about the correct way to craft a wand of fireballs (for example). Similarly, such arcane objects of power can now be crafted from the mundane objects and component parts found in virtually any settlement meaning there is no need for a “crafter’s marketplace” of rare or esoteric objects required to make items of power. In older editions, the crafter might need a laboratory, quiet work space or library as well as specialised materials. Hell, before he started he needed to learn the unique procedure for making the item in question. No more.

And—of course—with the rise of Knowledge skills (a good thing) PC wizards have fewer reasons to visit a guild house and its no doubt impressive library to do research.

So with these mechanical developments, players have fewer reasons to actually visit a wizard’s guild, let alone join it.

It follows—then—that if wizard’s guilds actually do less in the campaign for the PCs, they’ll get less love from GMs and designers. And, of course, as they get less design time, they drop from sight in many campaigns. It’s a vicious circle. The only way out of it—assuming you want to find a way out—is to change some of the rules that have led to the wizard’s guild’s demise. For me, chief amongst these rules are those governing magic item creation. The more I think of it, the more I want to tinker with Pathfinder’s magic item creation rules. I want to make magic items wondrous again and not generic placeholders that do little more than bestow a bonus or ability.

More—perhaps—in a future post.

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Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

24 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Wizard’s Guilds?”

  1. In our own time line guilds were a closed shop. If you weren’t a member , you could not practise.

    A thieves’ or wizards’ guild would be particularly ‘persuasive’ about this.
    Magic, especially to Muggles, is dark , mysterious and dangerous. Which city would allow unlicenced wizards to roam unfettered? Licence (and tax) ’em I say.

    1. Which only works well if you stay in the same geographic location – but can be awfully fun for the GM having the party chased out of various states for non-payment of fees. 🙂

  2. The wider question here is should mechanics be explicitly setting determining?
    I’d argue not.

    Setting aside the awfulness of 3E/PF magic creation (opinion commenter’s own) – there is nothing about those mechanics that explicitly rule out the existence of organised guilds of magicians. While training and apprenticing were certainly one aspect of medieval trade’s guilds, regulation, cooperation, prestige, recognition by the powers-that-be, collective bargaining, and projection of power were also important features.

    Arguably, the kind of individualist, auto-didactic magic that vanilla 3E/PF’s leveling mechanics seem to portray would provide even more incentive for regulation – either self-regulation in the form of a guild, or external regulation in forms like letters patent from the rulers, or (more unpleasantly) inquisitions and/or lynch-mobs. If magic can pop up like mushrooms anywhere, you can be sure that if it can be regulated (by a sufficiently powerful ruler), it will be.

    That said – the core game mechanics, I think, should not explicitly determine that (or do that as little as possible, unless it’s a core thematic feature of the type of game you’re playing, for example, “in this world, magic is a dark corrupting force, therefore there are core rules for magical corruption”).

    Whether or not there are Wizard’s Guilds in the game world should be up to the GM (or, by proxy, the world-builder). Equally, whether or not PCs should have to go and apprentice themselves to a master mage to learn their spells for the next level is also in the hands of the GM (with the consent of his/her players). So – while awful for other reasons, the 3E/PF magic rules arguably offer GMs more scope for home-brew adaptations than older systems that built guilds and apprenticeship into their mechanical assumptions. The first rule of GMing remains the same: it’s your game; if you don’t like something in the rules/world – change it.

    Of course – from the world-builder’s perspective, you absolutely have licence to present a variety of settings and worlds to GMs and players. The core rules should not be an impediment to this. If you want to present a 3E/PF world with influential magic guilds, I think there’s plenty of scope to do so – work with the rules, exploring some of their logical conclusions when applied to the given world or society, or more blatantly, just say this world has features based on a certain style of play. If the GM/players don’t like it, they’ll change it.

    On a different note, the classic Thieves’ Guilds never made a lot of sense. Historically, there wasn’t really a parallel of the classic D&D thieves’ guild until at least the early modern period. The thing with crime before then was that if you got to be powerful enough to be the equivalent of a classic Thieves’ Guild, you usually became the government (this probably hasn’t changed even today, mind you). The only thing that separates a criminal gang from a feudal lord and his vassals is that the criminal gang does not wield force and power legitimately in the eyes of the powers-that-be. In the real world, if you have the kind of features that your classic Thieves’ Guild has, you stopped being “Thieves” and you became nobles, or burgesses, or whatever the prestige title was. You no longer had to break the law because you made the law, and punished severely anyone who didn’t toe the line (this is not to say that the law you made was just; given your proclivities and a casual glance at history – it probably wasn’t).

    Now in pre-modern times, there certainly were outlaw gangs (often based on individual families – see blood being thicker than water is often a good antidote to there being no honor among thieves), but gangs are not quite the same thing as Thieves’ Guilds. For one, they tended to be small, ad-hoc, and rarely outlived their founders. They also rarely had the kind of regimented apprenticeship, ranks and other structures that a guild would have. It tended to be a more ad hoc on-the-job school of hard knocks (and still is).

    Of course – the stock fantasy caveat applies – if you’ve got a world with fire-breathing dragons, you can also have whatever other feature you like (season with verisimilitude to taste).

    1. Rules set the laws of physics for your setting. Therefore they determine one what institutions necessary and to what institutions are sustainable. The rules changes for Third Edition made such things both unnecessary and unstable in settings.

    2. Mr Looby! Marvellous to hear from you. I was just wondering the other day what you were up to these days.

      Thanks for the long and reasoned ponderation. Certainly, my goal–which will shock you I know–is to create a believable, deep world as a backdrop to the PCs’ adventures. I think guilds are a pretty big part of that process and I’m shocked I didn’t notice their absence from the core book before. All I have to do is resist the urge to start publishing a guild line of books and everything will be fine!

    3. I think your classic Thieves Guild needs to be more like Fagan’s gang in “Oliver Twist” than a political force. Yes you can move up through the ranks and gain skills, but it can’t be the same as trade guilds who can restrict the flow of goods to the detriment of the political elite. Well unless you are playing in Gotham City but then that is the premise for the need for Batman.

  3. Creighton: Interesting topic. It certainly ties in to a lot of prior posts of yours regarding what’s been lost from old-school adventuring (wondrous items/slow advancement path/dungeon design/sages/etc). I can only speak for myself, but I’ve love to see a RSP product that would collect and formalize many of your topics into one guide about introducing that old-school D&D roleplaying vibe to Pathfinder. To another’s commenter’s point, there’s nothing stopping a GM from doing this on his/her own. But RSP is about “making the GM’s job as simple and painless as possible,” so if you are a GM and want to have some old-school flavor in Pathfinder but don’t have time to come up with your own thing (or just want something turn-key to share with your players), here’s your guide! It wouldn’t have to be super formal. I’d see it more like a version of PF Unchained: a short collection of optional ideas or rule mods that you can pick and choose from.

    1. Thank you for this comment. I have been pondering such a book for some time now (particularly in regards to Gloamhold). Your comment has given me some impetus to actually get moving on it!

      Thank you!

  4. I think one should start with no downtime level ups and no training montage requirement for level ups. I’m not sure we can maintain the legitimate claim to RPGship without these

  5. For those who love PF but want to have a more wonder around magic I suggest implementing the automatic bonus progression rules from PF unchained. They’re available for free from the Paizo PRD website.(http://paizo.com/pathfinderRPG/prd/unchained/magic/automaticBonusProgression.html)
    ABP allows your player’s “math” to keep up with the expected levels in the mechanics w/o any requirement to give them a +1 sword or +3 cloak of resistance.
    I switched to this around 3rd level of our current campaign and am enjoying the ability to make finding magic items and components more of a mystery again. For example, I didn’t want the fighter to just find a magic frost brand sword, so he ended up with a frozen box which held a fang and vial inside – both from a white dragon. Those he took to a master-smith and had added to his existing sword. It created RP opportunity and since he’d been RPing that it was his father’s sword, it didn’t require him to part with that to get a 1d6 cold damage on his attack.

    I also have thief and wizard guild in the main city where the current campaign is based from. The thieves guild’s reputation is a sort of robin-hoodish. The local law enforcement doesn’t exactly like them, but they realize the guild keeps full-blown crime in check. Steal what you need, but don’t bring the heat down on everyone by going overboard. They got involved on the periphery of the current story arc because a non-guild associated gang began a mafia type protection racket. The law -and- the guild wanted the PCs to help crack these guys.
    The wizard guild is really more of a college and temple to knowledge. It contains a huge research library, PCs and NPCs can rent rooms to study or do experiments. The group has recently spent a couple days there digging through old tomes, rolls of parchment and records from a long closed temple to Pharasma building their information to make their next move. Invisible Servants deliver the tomes and put them back, so no-one has full access to the library.
    In the current campaign arc, neither are significant, but both have been touched on in a few sessions, the campaign is over 18mo long at this point.

  6. Its a shame that many of these ideas have fallen out of favour with designers and GMs alike. In a way it is fault of the system of levelling up. The assumption that you gain knowledge and skills in some sort of discrete info dump/upgrade, while in reality it is far more incremental and based on one area of study. I tried something similar to this in one of my Rolemaster campaigns where the players had to prioritise the skill to gain first and then gained the ranks based breaking down the Experience points into sublevels. The book-keeping was hellish!

    Guilds and schools of study are at least a little easier to handle and fit with education theory. Lev Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development talks about needing a mentor/teacher to support moving a learner onto the the next level of knowledge. Which makes sense as if you have ever played a sport/instrumenr/game you will know that it normally takes an outsider to suggest a small change that improves your performance. There is only so far you can go innovating and adapting through your experiences; sometimes you need a push. Which is where building in the need for a tutor within your character development would be useful.

    Having said that, doing it within the fixings of Middle Earth is quite challenging. First the population is quite sparse. Second, it is a little tricky to introduce a guild of Wizards when you have only the five Istari as an example of the brotherhood. As my cap on influence I tend to make my learning schools quite local and profession/class based. Players are expected to visit for training roughly every 5 levels (this is to be flexible enough to fit in with a campaign) to gain input to gain mastery of the next 5 levels. There is always a cost but I don’t always make it monetary, and none of it is run as playing time. It is just a year written off for all PCs in a campaign.

  7. It could be easy enough to return to, leveling up requiring one week per level gained in study under a higher level fellow would be a start. A cost associated could be major, or fairly low depending upon the monetary mechanics of your campaign.
    Guilds as a player interaction point have been written out of the game for better or worse. Requiring guild interaction (Thieves guilds, wizard guild or college, slayers or adventurers guilds) to level up characters would return the DM to a gatekeeper role which was one of the things 3.x designed out of the game.
    Thieves guilds would be as strong as the guild functions in whatever you are playing. A society with strong guilds would probably have strong thieves guilds. the local lord licenses the guild(s) to keep things low key, a source of revenue and as a source of resistance in the event the city was besieged. Cities would likely have several thieves guilds and gangs. Towns would likely have a guild and a gang of those disaffected by the dominant guild.
    A wizards guild or college would likely have a similar license to thieves guilds issued by the cities lord or lords. The resources of a kingdom may be required to keep those wizardly inclined in check. Again they (the wizard guild) functions as source of revenue, a source of magic and another powerful tool in the event the city or kingdom was besieged.

    I have training time requirements in my game as well as lingering injuries that take time to heal. This pulls that character out of the action for a week or two allowing the player to work on other characters in her stable. This lets someone who for example is usually the cleric to play a fighter, magic user or thief and allows someone else to try a cleric or wizard.

  8. I certainly do not miss the in-game time and expense to level up which only seemed to exist to make life difficult for the players. I prefer the assumed competence structure of the modern games.

    Guilds and other such organizations do add much to a world but many players seem to want to avoid being tied to anything that could restrict their options. That is possibly because membership is such organizations are usually framed in negatives (you cannot do this or that) rather than the benefits of having a support network which is considerable and often underrated by players.

    While there are certainly problems with the current PF magic item creation rules, not tying it into the wider gameword is certainly one, this should not excuse how terrible they were in AD&D which essentially came down to “beg you DM and hope you are allowed to make something after jumping through hoops”. Certainly agreed that PF items tend to be very utilitarian and not very “magical” (also discussed here: http://wp.me/pylJj-68 ).

  9. I take a different path concerning wizards. My worlds are fairly low to low-medium magic, so there aren’t tons of the fellows. The intense focus wizardry takes means the practitioners are often very single-minded. They are also powerful and a bit secretive about that power. Much was sacrificed to gain it, and pride over such achievement is usually great. Thus, in my own D&D homebrew world, many magicians keep a close eye on the ‘competition,’ but few of them gather in any organized fashion.

    I have universities akin to their medieval equivalents; many wizards have attended them, and some are members there, but their arcane interests are often frowned upon or stigmatized. Necromancy is forbidden, as well. Many wizards and non-wizards fear that magic. The cosmology of the world supports this, as necromancers frequently break and pervert the laws of life and death. There are good and evil wizards, but even some of the evil ones fear necromancy. Its costs are seldom outweighed by its rewards.

    Many also fear the concentration of power in any one place. Old wizards are rare, and their power is great. Even if they wanted to share it, magical items and books of power concentrated in one area is often a prime target for thieves and those that would abuse such power.

  10. That said, I do require my players to spend in-game time learning and finding teachers to advance themselves while leveling. I find that the tendency for wizards to be isolated or hidden makes for great adventures. Seeking power like a wizard’s is an adventure in itself. Finding the men and women that master such power is not simply a stroll down the road in town.

  11. I always enjoy adding in the different guilds as they allow the party to explore different things. I typically don’t have them in every city, such as the main city in the country has the giant wizard’s tower belonging to the guild and there are minor offshoots in some of the other larger towns. Also instead of a thieve’s guild, my players have a black market in all of the major cities.

    The wizards tower has been great for the party wizard for researching different things that the party wouldn’t otherwise have known, also he gets to flaunt it because the wizards are picky and if you are not a powerful enough wizard, you are not even allowed to enter the grounds which means he is the only one who can go there.

    The black market has also proven to be a great place to buy and sell things they wouldn’t ordinarily find in regular shops. where else would a party get rid of a evil, cursed glaive or use a bunch of gold that was stamped with the sigil of the neighboring country that their country is at war with.

    Also leads to some fun shenanigans for the party. Had a player who designed a character to be annoying because she wanted her character to be a matchmaker. When she had to stop playing with us, the party decided they dropped her off at the black market and left. When she visited, I had her jump back in for a session and she appeared in a city the party was going to. The party had no words as how she got away from being a slave was, “she talked too much and too fast and no one was willing to put up with her so they just threw her out.”

  12. As for the training aspect, it used to be PC’s were sometimes showered with too much gold (as gold recovered also counted as XP in older editions) and training was a good way to siphon that wealth off. With PC wealth by level charts determining what PC’s get, that has gone by the wayside (especially in organized play where a PC must buy certain magic bonus items by certain levels or be underpowered).

    But in homebrews it really depends on how much work a GM wants to put into their world. Guilds/gangs/clans/etc can be very useful in setting up story arcs or just general adventuring. They can provide for political intrigue and conflict resolution. In cities multiple guilds might be in conflict, territorial disputes or secretly allied. Which guild a PC joins can determine leads, allies, enemies and attention from prominent NPC’s.

    Imagine if the party wizard went to the Wizards Guild for help finding an ancient tome of magic knowledge. The guild agrees to help if the PC returns the Tome to the Guild for research and safe keeping. The local Thieves Guild however wants any rogues in the party to steal the Tome so they can auction it to the highest bidder on the black market. At the same time the party clerics temple has dispatched a team of Paladins to locate and destroy the Tome because some of the knowledge it contains is evil. And the Warriors Guild wants to help the Wizards Guild in order to repay a debt.

    Oh yes, how does the parties actions and choices affect their later interactions with the local temple when they need a member raised? Or the towns mayor who fears magic? And that mysterious cloaked stranger who knows far too much about the Tome and the parties actions? And how about the Druids of the Wood now that the Tomes presence nearby weakened the dimensional barrier with the Fairy Realm……….

    Your right Creighton, we need more of this.

  13. I still require the “rare component” which must be quested for, at least for permanent items. I am a bit more flexible with wands and scrolls. But even scroll require special inks, often found only at a guild. I have continued to run it that way and have butted heads with a few new school gamers who insist that “the rules aren’t written that way. Of course the rules always say that the GM is the final arbiter of how the game is played and how the world works, so the good players shrug and work with it.
    This article really hit home with me though. Keep writing, I will be reading and sharing.

    1. This is pretty much exactly as I have done it, the idea that you can just assemble a wand with stuff you found at the local Hamlet’s market is not okay to me.

  14. Indeed, the place of guilds has definitely declined since 2nd edition. Although thieves guilds still have a place as a source of covert information gathering, place to buy illicit goods & poison, or have someone assassinated, no guilds have made themselves essential to the everyday lives of Pcs. While I agree that having to return to a guild in order to level up and pay out the nose to do so is a real pain, I do think it would make sense to require all classes to have either a tome, spellbook, prayerbook, or rune stones to meditate with as a means by which to “study or contemplate” the advanced skills of their chosen profession. Leveling meaning that they completed their studies or achieve enlightenment from having done so over the course of their adventures. Destruction or loss of said items resulting in their experience point acquisition being halved and inability to level until reacquiring or replacing said item. That’s where guilds could become important again as a means by which to either reacquiring said items and or as a place to purchase, make or gain new items and quests.

  15. This is a case of phenomenal timing. I am working on a sea port/city adventure (45,000 residents) for Sunday and decided last night decided the various guilds (adventurers, thieves, mages, etc) were requirements for the party to check in with, and not just a cool option…..

  16. I started with them in 1E, and have them in Pathfinder to this day. There’s competing guilds, a couple of “international” guilds, and some that segregate by magic type (Oh, we don’t let /illUSionists/ in here. This is for Thaumaturgists /only/).

    They aren’t as popular as they used to be, but I hold that any style of magic that requires prepared casters has to have at least clubhouses where they can gather.

  17. (Looks at dates of last posts)

    “Ah,the timeless nature of the internet, in ways it is like finding notes floating in bottles or more appropriately, sages carrying on one sided conversations with the future which when itself becomes the present listens to the past and speaks to the future of itself …”

    On Topic:
    One of the major contributing factors to the loss of Wizard’s Guilds is much as what has edged out other elements of the classic game:

    The latter generations to pick up the game have mostly never read any of the books from Appendix N of the 1E AD&D DMG, and likely have not read any of the books that would be contemporary or have similar narrative and world building conventions.

    That would include Guilds of almost any sort.

    This is further compounded by the (pragmatic) shifting of focus and style of the game and genre in general towards greater individual autonomy and independence from authority (except as an already elite member of X & Y order, etc).

    Personally, for my AD&D games, regardless of age (unless really young) a player has to be able to say that they have read at least on AppN book or equivalent; not out of a sense of elitism but rather to ensure at least some common ground.

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