When you decide your world has magic, you have many more decisions to make. One immediate and tangible choice is where and how magic is learned, which is at the core of the magic-wielding character. As with any other education, good mentorship is incredibly valuable, while bad mentorship can be outright damaging.
If your world includes organized colleges of magic, meaning dedicated places of learning where mentors and pupils meet, it opens up new stories. For fantasy worldbuilders, this is something we must give some thought to. Magic academia is a significant faction.
For the purposes of this post, we’ll cast a wide net regarding kinds of magic, including arcane, divine, nature, space, and superpowers. Types of magic is a topic for another day, the point here is the actual college and the setting and story possibilities a college of magic provides. For simplicity, I’m gonna talk about wizards, but the terminology does not really matter for this post.
Are you ready for the prom? I know I am.
There are many examples from fantasy when we think about it: Hogwarts of Harry Potter, the Jedi Temple of Coruscant, the Little Palace of Shadow and Bone, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters from the X-men comics and movies, the Circle of Magi of Dragon Age, perhaps the Bene Gesserit of Dune and the White Council of the Dresden Files, Aretuza in The Witcher stories, Sunnydale High in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, Oxford as portrayed in A Discovery of Witches, the Unseen University of Discworld, the Miskatonic University of H.P. Lovecraft, and so on.
In a way, the magic itself is irrelevant. This is about power struggles and conspiracies set in and around schools and colleges.
Recently I discovered that dark academia is a literary genre and aesthetic. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992) or Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980) are among my all-time favorites, and with discovering and enjoying Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (2012), Ninth House (2019) is rising fast on my to-read list.
The point is, there is more to this than just Hogwarts.
Education is perhaps the best investment anyone can make. The problem is, those who benefit may not be the ones paying for the education, and perhaps those with the greatest potential may lack the fund to pay for the education, just like in the real world.
There are several options, and combinations are possible:
- The colleges require fees and sponsorships to pay for the tuition. This means wealthy families are more likely to have trained wizards, and potential is lost as some of the best students cannot pay for education.
- The colleges are self-funded by selling services to the public, and the pupils may be required to participate. This also means the college will favor magic that generates revenue, not necessarily what society wants or needs. This also means the economic foundation of the college may be unknown or serve an ulterior agenda.
- The college is an independent non-profit foundation funded by the interest of an initial grant, gift, or last will. This means there are conditions and terms, clearly stated or otherwise, for how this money is used. What was the original reason for this great gift?
- The college is privately funded. This should raise the question of why the colleges are funded. Some do charity out of a sense of duty, gratitude for their own tuition, altruistic reasons. All valid reasons. More sinister reasons would be the colleges being recruiting grounds for conflicting agendas, conspiracies, corporations, or outright criminals. For all its mystique, it is money to make and power to claim here, so who pays for the tuition of wizards?
- The college is publicly funded. The government pays for the tuition of wizards. Safe and sensible training for extraordinary and potentially dangerous students should be a top priority for any government. Further, the government needs to monitor its wizard population and very likely recruit wizards to public service, government research, the military, espionage, etc.
Buildings and Areas at the College of Magic
Looking at campus maps online should give some ideas to bring the magic college to life. Halls are named after sponsors, famous alumni, royalty, or religious figures. You find faculties, libraries, and laboratories. Add specialty buildings like a necromancers’ morgue, invokers’ shooting range, the alchemy labs, a few shrines, sports teams, and at least three taverns for the college staff and the students, and the place begins to come to life.
However, the real questions are where are the secret library, the artifact vault, and the experimental labs for the research staff? How is the security? Who monitors the college grounds?
The College Staff
The College Board of Directors or Advisory Board may advise and oversee the college activities on behalf of the owner or according to the terms of the college’s foundation. Most visibly, the board appoints the headmaster.
The Headmaster of a magic college is an important and respected figure in wizard society. The value of access to people and magic resources is unmeasurable, making the headmaster key in any immediate and long-term conflict.
Faculty leaders manage departments teaching specific and related subjects. The obvious way to organize the study would be what the magic actually does, like divination or necromancy. An alternative would be dividing the students into groups of personal qualifications, say intellect, the force of will, the strength of the soul, or other esoteric qualities.
Lower-grade education is typically broader everyday subjects and becomes more specific for older and advanced students.
Smaller colleges may skip the faculty level if the headmaster has time and resources to deal with the teachers directly, or the fields of study do not require more than a handful of people.
Teachers are the heart of the college. The beginning classes should be broad categories that prepare the students for everyday life, for instance, elemental alchemy, magic history, magic creatures, and safe spellcasting. A college’s primary function is to prepare the students for life after college and focus on utility. More advanced or esoteric classes, like dark arts, portals, shape-changing, necromancy, elemental magic, and so on, maybe more exciting and even necessary and raise questions regarding the purpose of the college. I mean, defense against the dark arts is pure theory, right? Is there any reason for dark arts to be practical?
Researchers are the other key members of academia. Without research, there is no new knowledge or progress. A selling point for recruiting college teachers is access to research facilities and funding. Besides the education and safety for young wizards, a key motivator to fund a college is access to this research. So what is being researched, and why?
Specialists may be required to run the college or assist the teachers with specific topics. Maintenance, ground keepers, librarians, dungeon keepers, alchemy storage specialists, the morgue and the soul jar attendants, energy gem engineers, exorcists, clockwork and golem mechanics, doctors and nurses, and so on — all dedicated staff members in addition to the teachers and student assistants. This introduces an array of new people to the college, some with vague job descriptions and others with rare skills. Getting and keeping these specialists may be a full-time job for college administrators, and sometimes the qualifications of the potential employees may be questionable.
Any fictional college should have a long and intricate history linked with historical events.
Who were the college’s founders, the guiding principles, and who paid for the founding? Have the initial agenda changed over time? Has the college been involved with other factions, like the government, the churches, the nobility, or the guilds?
How has the college been integrated with society? Does the general society know about the college?
What is the relation to other magic colleges, if any?
How has changing governments, past wars, new technology, and society’s religious and moral outlook changed the college?
Once you have the general history of your world, even if it is just catchy names to time eras, you can begin to map out the history of your magic college. Looking back on who’s paying for the college and their goals, you have an easier time figuring out its place in history.
In a way, everything comes back to who paid and why.
Conflicting Agendas and Conspiracies
Anywhere power, secrets, and money is involved, there are conflicting agendas. A quick glance at possible funding tells us politics is at the heart of most pop culture franchises, whether the fandom likes it or not.
This is a good thing.
Politics and conflict are part of the human condition and thus a natural part of stories about magic colleges.
- A radical group of wizards seeks to overthrow the government to create a better society. They are motivated by a deep sense of justice, imagined or not, and potentially very dangerous. More so if they can blend in with normal society.
- The college is deeply infiltrated by corporations and government agents fighting to define the college and the role of wizards in society. Vendettas, past murders, and betrayals cast long shadows, breeding paranoia and tit-for-tat rivalries that go far beyond booking faculty grounds for extracurricular activities, faculty budgets, and sports teams.
- The college was not founded to educate the students but rather to protect society from them. The students are closely monitored by the government and otherwise kept as far from society as possible. This protects everyone involved but also deepens existing conflicts with resentment and fear. This may be unknown to the wizards and society. The government may also be recruiting.
- A group of students have formed a pact for mutual gain and may even be responsible for mundane crimes or dark magic. A mutual code of silence is likely between the members, which is not something the college or society is willing to admit.
- The college is no longer loyal to its founding principles and seeks to extend its influence. The reasons are numerous and likely a closely guarded secret. The thought of a magic college out of control is as scary as any dragon and will send other factions scrambling.
Students and college staff are encouraged to balance work and leisure for better results and a better life.
For some, the relative freedom of academia may be challenging to handle, and the work suffers:
- A student or teacher is missing and is eventually found murdered. The college is feverish with rumors of missing books, student rivalries, and miscast dark spells.
- An old basement has collapsed, spurred renovation, leading to part of a building being off-limits. This is followed by talk of strange shadows moving against the light, thefts, and — actually — the appearance of dead people. Talk of unsanctioned summonings or experimental necromancy has excited the dining halls and dorm common rooms. The college leadership disapproves.
- A few students cultivating a “dark and broody” image have been accused of dark arts to appear dangerous in addition to playing in a band, and in return, they sneer at the athletes and aspiring battle wizards. This rivalry has twisted with rumors of a relationship between two students across the groups and a possible love triangle.
- Some are not capable of keeping secrets. For some, knowing a secret means joining a club not understanding the stakes, and the joy or resentment of the secret becomes snide remarks and indiscretion, and finally, a problem for others. The consequences may be regrettable and dire.
- Many students experience similar dreams of someone relaying fragmented messages. Who is sending these dreams, and what do they mean? Can the dream be trusted?
Academia is not for everyone.The College Vaults and Archives
Perhaps the most tangible part of a college’s rich history is its vaults. Unpublished research notes, collected artifacts, rare books and specimens, the college’s own publications, and related works may hold secrets far beyond anyone can imagine or the college itself is aware of.
Anyone digging deep in the vaults may learn unwanted secrets, things no one has yet to understand, or man simply is not meant to know. This secret may be something the college does not want but is best qualified to handle. Or the secret is forgotten by the college staff after long years of secrecy.
- The tools, clothing, weapons, jewelry, research, spell books, and foci objects of the college founders.
- Heretical religious texts dealing with magic forbidden by the tenets of the god.
- Pre-historic foci objects — like strange statues and tablets, runes, orbs, and crystals, or primitive weapons — no one has been able to utilize properly.
- The circles for ritual castings. Specially prepared areas for great rituals to enhance the power of one or more casters. These can simply be used for training to ensure safe practices or be part of the college’s agenda and secret factions.
- Secret journals and historical records. The public may believe they know the truth. They do not. The truth, or at least a version of it, is stored in the arcane college archives.
- The secret portal. You can only gather so much power on a location before other worlds begin to interfere. Maybe demonic or angelic influences seep in the cracks of reality? Perhaps college staff or students hope to explore other worlds? One or more secret portal is hidden on the college grounds. Anyone who knows is either a player or a victim in a greater game – depending on skill and ambition.
What Do You Think?
What does your magic college look like? Got any reading or viewing tips? Feel free to share below.