The Newer Lands
Schools of Magic
Why Does Magic Work? Among wizards, the question of why magic functions is hotly debated. Natural philosophers and alchemists have made great headway into discovering the rules by which the undisturbed universe functions, but the reasons why this function can be so predictably disrupted by the right kind of person concentrating hard is often unclear. There are several schools of thought as to the underpinnings of thaumaturgy:
Atomism: Sometimes referred to as mechanists or fundamentalists, many wizards postulate that the entirety of the universe is composed of a single substance which is responsive to sapient thought. This substance is most popularly referred to as “quintessence,” and the atomists postulate that all phenomena encountered by sapient beings at the macro level (trees, rocks, shadows, minutes, love) are constructs of focused quintessence organized into self-perpetuating patterns. As the mind is a natural channel for quintessence, all magic really requires is that the practitioner memorize the pattern that constitutes some phenomenon (fire, say) and will enough quintessence through that pattern to cause it to spring to life.
Rituals work by freeing quintessence from patterns it’s naturally locked in and then shaping the resultant “mana” (high-energy quintessence, prime for reformatting) before it dissipates or congeals. The alchemical reagents or rare herbs that power ritual magic are simply those substances which experiment has shown yield up their stores of quintessence easily. Since quintessence can absorb and retain “resonance” (the most subtle qualities of the Pattern it occupies – harmonics or tessellations within the quintessence that can remain even when it’s been nominally released into mana), certain rituals demand quintessence of certain origin to power them. Residuum, of course, is quintessence deliberately calcified into a neutral state, easily unpacked into mana free of any lingering resonance qualities.
Wizards skilled enough to actually cast spells rather than simply work rituals are individuals who’ve developed enough focus and memory to be able to draw ambient quintessence out of the world around them and fashion it into a pattern immediately. The atomists point to sorcerers as obvious examples as quintessence theory in action – individuals who happen to act as unconscious channels of pure universal power, their spells colored by the basic resonance of the energies they’ve most commonly absorbed. Atomist wizards tend to excel at straightforward battle-magic and conjuration, and can find stranger spells more difficult to grasp. Atomism provides an excellent framework within which to produce fire or stone from nothing, but tends to produce equations of staggering complexity when put to the task of cursing someone with misfortune or reversing the flow of time.
There is much discourse within atomist conclaves of wizardry as to the precise origins and properties of quintessence, and why it responds to human will. It’s generally believed that the sapient races can affect quintessence with their thoughts because sapience is divinely-gifted and it’s in the nature of the gods to shape the world with their will, but questions as to how the gods gained that ability or where quintessence came from at all are much thornier. The atomists generally concern themselves with more practical studies into the nature of the universe, cataloging what patterns produce what phenomena, studying the ways in which quintessence patterns evolve when left undisturbed, and noting the most expedient ways by which the raw substance of reality can be gathered or stored.
Atomism is practiced in wizard academies all over the world, and is often the first kind of magical theory an apprentice learns. Atomist wizards most often revere Ioun, Melora. or Moradin above the other gods and practice magic diagrammatically and somatically.
The Imperial School: Simultaneously the most reverent and irreligious of magical theorists, wizards of the Imperial School reason that it is in the nature of the world to bend to the minds of its inhabitants. They are unlike the atomists in that they do not generally seek or require a mechanistic explanation for this behavior, and unlike the mystics of the spiral tower in that they certainly believe in a coherent reality that exists separately from its inhabitants. The meritocrats conceive of magic as a chess match or a battlefield: the laws of the universe are merely a challenge to overcome, and if a single man can overcome a hydra with nothing but gumption and a piece of sharpened metal, there’s no reason a single man couldn’t overcome gravity with gumption and a piece of polished crystal. In short, power is there for the taking because that’s simply how the universe works.
The Imperial School doesn’t dismiss scholarship, mysticism, or supernatural phenomena in general; it just sees these things as fundamentally exploitable. It’s entirely true that a certain somatic gesture produces flames when performed properly or that a certain ritual chant enables teleportation, but why a given word, symbol, or hand gesture produces a magical effect is probably nothing more than a conscious or accidental artifact of the gods’ creation of the world, and the explanation almost certainly varies from one piece of occult lore to the other. The measure of a wizard is his or her ability to grasp these disparate elements and use them to master the rest of the world. When the mages of the Imperial School entertain existential questions, they generally wonder why it is that the world is ordered in such a way that true magical power results from the exercise of heroism. Some believe that it is by divine mandate that they are empowered to conquer the world while others care not a whit. Regrettably, the arcane spellcasters most emblematic of the Imperial School are probably warlocks; as unsavory as the mystics are and as bizarre as the energies they command can be, there is no doubt that their power is the result of reaching out and seizing what others could not.
The Imperial School is a very flexible conception of magic, easily adapted to suit whatever spellcasting repertoire its adherent desires. On the other hand, its lack of an underlying metaphysical scheme more complex than the word “booya” means that it does not necessarily make for adaptable wizards. An imperial mage might specialize in conjuring fire as easily as in controlling minds, but the pyromancer would not have an easy time giving putting aside his hard-won mastery over fire to snatch mesmeric powers from the universe’s jaws instead.
The Imperial School is common both in the Realms and in the Newer Lands, though it tends to take on different flavors in each locale – it is an outgrowth of the practically inborn will to power in the former but more a manifestation of scrappy, can-do pragmatism and tenaciousness in the latter. Mages of the Imperial School tend to worship Avandra, Erathis, and Kord if they worship any gods at all. Their magic is loud, vibrant, and flashy, replete with bold gestures and thunderous incantations.
The Spiral Tower: The dreamers of the Spiral Tower claim that magic works because the world as we know it is a story, and stories can be rewritten by the canny. Ostensibly an even more comprehensive hypothesis than atomism, the Spiral Tower holds not that all objects and ideas are manifestations of some fundamental force but that mythic elements themselves are the basic building blocks of reality. A person is an actor, a fire is a prop, and what looks like causality and determinism is merely the script of the play. Those who observe the Spiral Tower from without tend to assume that its adherents are merely profligate users of metaphor, but soon learn that the opposite is true; the greater a mage’s absorption into the Spiral Tower, the less that mage sees the world and the more that mage sees the Dream.
Spiral wizards see arcane spellcasting as an activity fundamentally divorced from ritual magic or any other sort of supernatural power. To cast a ritual or evoke a primal spirit is to accept the reality of the Dream; alchemical formulae and even the power of spirits or demons s part of the Dream, and the Dream unfolding as it naturally does is nothing of real consequence. To cast a spell, though, to reach out and reweave the universe into accordance with one’s desires through the medium of one’s cunning, is something more. Most of the world’s denizens are sleepers, passively bobbing along in the currents of the universal narrative, but wizards and other arcane spellcasters are lucid dreamers, aware of the fundamental unreality of the world they inhabit and so able to reweave it. The actual minutiae of wizardry – wands and spellbooks, chants and gestures – are essentially props and ornamentation to the wizards of the Spiral Tower, who generally cultivate the ability to shape the dream around them with nothing more than silent, graceful will. Bards are perhaps the clearest example of the Spiral Tower philosophy in action – scholarship or iron focus often have no part in their magical workings, yet the power of their magic is undeniable. Wizards of the Spiral Tower hold that the power of the bards is the power of stories; the Dream reshapes itself around the songs of the bards because they show it how to become more beautiful.
Who, exactly, is the dreamer of the Dream? What would it mean to “wake up”? Is it desirable, or even possible? Though they don’t claim this loudly and tend to expect their students to absorb the notion through osmosis more so than instruction, most wizards of the Spiral Tower believe even the gods to be nothing more than subjects of the Dream, merely elements in a winding, quasi-real story whose genesis or ultimate conclusion is beyond any participant’s comprehension. Unlike most philosophies of of magic, the Spiral Tower teaches a relaxed, philosophical acceptance of the vicissitudes of reality; its spellcasting is an intuitive activity almost wholly alien to the rigid calculations of the atomists or the fierce invocations of the imperialists. To Shape the Dream is not exploit or roughly countermand the workings of the world, but to subsume one’s self within them and so become an active participant in their unfolding.
The Spiral Tower’s philosophy is difficult to get one’s head around and even more difficult to completely internalize; wizards are adept at understanding esoteric concepts, but rarely so proficient at fully absorbing and [i]believing[/i] them. Nevertheless, there are clear benefits to the Spiral Tower path – its walkers it cast spells with a fluid, effortless grace that is often completely baffling to wizards whose magic involves hours of tedious study or exhausting feats of concentration. An atomist might write pages and pages of equations to describe the exact patterns that magical energy must flow through to finally coalesce into a horselike creature… but a mage of the Spiral Tower simply dreams up A Horse, and that’s the end of it.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of mages on the Spiral Tower path are Eladrin, though wizards of all species have subscribed to this school. Esoteric and ineffable as the Spiral Tower philosophy is, it has never been popular, and tends to either manifest in tight-knit cabals hidden away within more mainstream centers of magical study or in secret enclaves removed completely from the majority of the magical world. Adherents of the Spiral Tower most often revere Corellon and Sehanine, and work magic so subtly that they often seem to not be casting spells at all; the world simply reshapes itself around them.
Relations Between Schools: The philosophies described here represent prevailing attitudes more so than bodies of law, and it’s not uncommon for eclectic wizards to borrow elements from more than one in their personal mental models of the workings of magic. Clearly, atomists and dreamers are capable of casting the exact same spells with equal effectiveness, so at some level they are doing the same thing… but which one has truly gotten to the heart of magic and which one can’t see the forest for the trees is very hard to discern, and an imperialist doesn’t care. Particularly dogmatic adherents of one school or another will generally claim that a mage trained in a different tradition is [i]really[/i] doing magic in the dogmatist’s way and simply obfuscating his methods, even from himself. More generous students of the Art assume that even the most wildly divergent theories are both accurate ways of looking at the same thing, or incomplete descriptions of some greater truth as yet undiscovered.