Sunday, February 25, 2024

(Rant) Spell Categorization Complaints + The Seven Schools of Magic

I hate the schools of magic most games / settings choose for themselves. The only real reason is pedantry. I was thinking about making my own and came to a conclusion. Let's nitpick these.

Dungeons & Dragons
The schools of D&D Magic (depending on edition, world, writer, etc.) can be roughly boiled down to these;

  • Abjuration
  • Conjuration
  • Divination
  • Enchantment
  • Evocation
  • Illusion
  • Necromancy
  • Transmutation

Already, we are seeing a problem. We have this extremely nice naming scheme; abjurATION, conjurATION, divinATION, and then we get to Enchantment, Illusion, Necromancy... what the hell is this. Where's the nice naming scheme? If every type of magic or spell has its own unique naming scheme, that would be one thing, but this half measure is just infuriating. Every spell school should either end in a "-mancy" or "-urgy" or "-ation"; the title essentially being the action or verb that the magical school does or can do. "Conjuration" creates things, "Transmutation" changes things into other forms, and so on.

Secondly, the name-to-effects connection of the schools is also, in my opinion, lacking. It is difficult to directly tell what a Wizard can do or is good at based on these schools or their knowledge of them alone. Now from an in-universe perspective, it is fine- each school is named and codified based on what they do or their general group of effects that the spells of that school accomplish. The issue for me is I want the spell school to not only fit within this world-space of understandable effects, but ALSO grant some kind of worldbuilding or character-defining effects that each school could have. For example, if you were traveling in a fantasy world and heard tales of a "Mighty Conjurer" living out in a cave somewhere- you could probably assume that Wizard or Witch would be quite capable of summoning powerful creatures to attack you if you dared enter, or would perhaps be impossible to catch since they could just teleport away. Such concepts feel valuable in a game system-to-worldbuilding space; creating more texture and possible avenues for gameplay- except it doesn't work for every school. What exactly would a Transmuter be good at? Would they be good at escape or entry- given levitation or being able to open locked doors with magic? Would they be more combat focused- capable of buffing allies and cursing enemies with various spells? Are they more helpful support characters; able to transform various items into other useful items- all of these could fit under the umbrella, making it almost too broad in certain categories, but too specific in others. You can't just take the spell school's name at face value- as one could extrapolate "Magic that changes/alters stuff" could do basically fucking anything. Oh it can make you tougher- like Abjuration? Oh it can make objects that are stationery move- like Evocation's creation or control of energy? Could one extrapolate this to say that it can make people do what you want by "altering their minds"? No- this is covered by other magic schools- but you can see how trying to apply this with logic starts to get a little out of control given its vagueness.

It also would allow different Magic-User type characters to differentiate themselves in the party more; though largely unnecessary, as I don't think anyone has an issue differentiating different Wizard characters given the inherent differences in how they amass and prepare spells, or even their preference for spells if both have the same spell list, compared to say a Fighter or Rogue type class which would be almost totally identically if they shared a similar level; only have equipment, stats, or feats to really differentiate them.

I also just hate the D&D spell schools mostly for being a bit misleading as well. "Enchantment" sounds like an interesting school- something akin to weak magic spells emulating some of our favorite pop-culture Wizardry; like the Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia, or any number of the small useful "Charm" spells from Harry Potter. But no; Enchantment spells almost exclusively focus on mind-affecting and social spells- things like Sleep and Charm are Enchantment. This actually almost feels like the opposite of the above paragraph, where the designers of these schools tied themselves to the etymology of the word "Enchant" to the title of a possible character archetype or creature to encounter- being Enchanter. An Enchanter being able to control and manipulate people's minds is a very powerful and scary fantasy archetype- especially played up in recent years due to what has been a more "realistic" reaction to mind control and other forms of mental-manipulation magic as being pure horror or extremely morally questionable, if not downright always off the table. Your & my opinions on this are totally irrelevant on this topic I should mention- it is simply an observation. However, it doesn't fit that other schools of magic feel much more "invented" in their categories- Necromancy possibly being the worst, since it has nothing at all to do with divination of the dead (other then speak with dead) and instead relates to souls, life energy, and raising the dead as minions or other "death themed" spells. This further muddles the waters as Necromancy could mean a powerful offensive caster with various drain life abilities, summoning/raising minions, budget healing magic, powerful buffs in the form of undead transformations, and so on and so on- making Necromancy feel like it fits more in an Elemental magic system as the "Death" element over in this more acamedic, non-elemental, effects/use focused system like what we are discussing- which is more focused on the arcane, scholastic, non-spiritual forms of magic seen in D&D, Dying Earth, Elder Scrolls-ian style pop culture Wizardry.

Another more minor issue I want to add here? The implied dynamic of the setting- at least in regards of healing or holy magic being its own separate "thing" from the list here. It's not a huge deal since it's covered by Clerics and important for the resource management side of the game. But I kind-of want to have healing magic be its own category for what I'm going for here. More on this later.

Finally- we have the redundancy. We'll get more to this later, but the redundancy of this list is probably among the worst of various spell-schools I have seen. The fact we have both "Enchantment" and "Illusion" on the same fucking list, both mind/social/perception effecting spells is a sin. Now it's important to state that I COMPLETELY understand why this is the way it is. Illusionist and Illusion-Magic are very thematically different then Enchanters and Enchantment. However, I just don't like there being two-too similar spells like this with similar cases. Even in practice they aren't that similar, but the concepts are thematically muddled enough that I don't like the crossover.

Harry Potter
This one will be brief. I don't really hate the spell schools in the HP universe due to them being, in their own words, "vague and ill-defined", but I want to touch on them momentarily.

  • Transfiguration
  • Charm
  • Jinx
  • Hex
  • Curse
  • Counter-Spell
  • Healing Spell

These spell schools are almost entirely focused on the use of a spell, over its effect or elemental bearing. Obviously, having three different schools for three levels of just "offensive spell" going from annoying to harmful to dangerous is right out- but I respect the attempt to try and fit them all in there. You can't just so easily fit them all into one category either; just calling it "Dark Magic" or something would simplify the system too much. Perhaps we could simplify the categories down to just "Dark Magic" and "Light Magic" to make it simple- with a third "Gray Magic" or perhaps unaligned spells being for purely transformative or utility-based effects on changing objects or the world. Maybe take a page out of Final Fantasy with Red Mages being a jack-of-all-trades kind of caster- thus Red/Blue/Color Magic would related to the various non-good and non-evil type of spells. This, however, transforms the system too much.

I honestly don't mind this system for two reasons. The first being that Wizards in the HP universe are more "full formed" in terms of magical abilities- they don't just cast spells but ALSO brew potions and ALSO ride brooms and ALSO do psychic combat and ALSO have other magic powers too; spells are just a small portion of the full kit, which means that specialization are far more specific then something as broad as a "type of spell". The second, and perhaps even more specific reason, is that I absolutely LOVE Charm spells as a rule. I love the idea of commodify and gamifying the mystical secondary abilities or lifestyles of various magic people in fantasy media; the self cleaning dishes, the magic clocks that wind themselves up, the unrolling chests that store way more stuff in them then they should, the little magical bubbles and lights coming from various trinkets and potions on the shelf to make a "full" magic user experience from the aesthetic and description alone. Sadly- only useful in game terms, tabletop or otherwise, for flavor- being mostly beyond flattening down into rules and pressing all the fun out of it. I just figured I should mention it; because what other blogpost am I going to be able to write this up for?

Yes, the video game. The Diablo clone for kids where you have a cat or dog that goes back to town and sells shit for you. I wanted to mention this one because, exactly as above, it's very short and simple. It also includes Charms. My weird obsession with magic "charms", or being a Wizard in a fantasy world who specializes in "Charms" magic, extended to this game where "Charms" was almost entirely based around summoning. But let's go over it all the same.

  • Attack Spells
  • Defense Spells
  • Charm Spells

I actually really like this system. In the game, magic effects you wouldn't think are typecast into each category based on how its used and general playstyle. For example, Attack Spells cover both direct offensive attacks AND curses or debuffs inflicted on enemies. You can cast fire or lightning from Attack Spells but so too can you cast slow or weakness. (As a side note; I find such concepts odd- as you'd think a character specializing in Attack Spells would want to use damaging spells. This pretty much invalidates the concept of playing a curse-heavy mage that kills foes with weapons or summons- but given the realtively low investment in each school to use its spells, with most scaling being either damage (useful) or duration (almost pointless) then I suppose it makes sense). Defensive Magic also includes healing, buffs, and general defense- especially in regards to the elements. Finally, Charm magic as stated above is almost totally used for summons- with higher levels giving you stronger creatures, longer-lasting creatures, and higher numbers of creatures depending on the spell itself. Interestingly, Charms stays true to its name as being a useful category of utility magic as with very little investment you can get the "Identify" spell, acting as a Scroll of Identify with unlimited uses, no inventory space taken up, and a low mana cost. Charms also encompasses the few other utility spells the game has; like identifying items or opening up a town portal, so it gets some points.

Given my strange penchant for playing games in the most obtuse way possible- such as wanting to play a Warrior who uses magic to weaken foes instead of just putting all my points into strength, or playing a Melee fighter character who doesn't use armor and relies on magic or evasion; this system doesn't work very well save for Charms, which does make you feel like a cool Summoner and magic-item master.

However, it doesn't fit the arcane fantasy magical universe sort of vibe I'm going for; the D&D list is better despite its faults; yet the FATE system is perfect for the medium it is going for- a simple dungeon crawling video game. Still, it strains my immersion a little too much for a more "fully realized" setting- maybe a world where magic is incredibly new, only capable of being used in a single specific dungeon or place- with the three colors or flavors of magic seeming to be the three general categories of spell people can specialize or get better in. Still, I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

The Quest
This is little-known Indie Game I got on Steam during a previous sale. I actually quite like this game; it feels very much like a scaled down version of something like Daggerfall or Morrowind- an open world with several quests and viable character playstyles. Also, not realizing it, but the game was originally made for mobile and has a TON of expansions not even ported to PC. The artstyle is probably my favorite part, having some very nice hand-drawn graphics, but the gameplay got a bit repetitive. Why am I mentioned it here? Because it has a big list of skills with many types of magic. How does this game split up its magic spells into schools?

  • Attack Magic
  • Environment Magic
  • Healing Magic
  • Mind Magic
  • Protection Magic
  • Undead Magic

Yeah, no. Fuck you. Next.

Elemental Systems
Instead of listing a single game, TTRPG, or source for this- I'm just going to go off on Elemental Systems entirely. I've talked about this one a lot.

Not every Elemental System is the same, so I can't give a universal list. Obviously pretty much all of them are going to have the big four of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air- unless it's a Chinese inspired elemental system instead with Wood and Metal making the list. I think elemental magic spell/differentiation systems are very strong thematically for obvious reasons. I think my idealized system would be something like;

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Earth
  • Air
  • Life (Creation)
  • Death (Destruction)
  • (Arcane/Void/Purple/Other?)

This grants the full spectrum of possible elemental configurations without getting into annoying redundancies and ultra-specific use cases of spells. The text in paranthesis indicates alternate names or possibly interpretations of these elements. As stated above, I think elemental systems are VERY strong thematically. You could easily imagine a character specializing in one or more elements- a Fire Wizard having all sorts of useful offensive powers, or an Air-Bender being good at travel and evasion. Life Magic can also be strongly coded as holy or good-guy magic; being able to heal wounds or damage the undead, as well as summoning animals or plants ala nature or drudic magic found in other games or universe. Death magic is also nice; once again it follows the same problems as with "Necromancy" but I feel its more appropriate given the elemental and thematic width of each school of magic in this system.

However, once again, elemental systems suffer from two main problems. The first is the rather limited lack of scope outside of elements. Now- a CREATIVE DM or writer could adapt to this easily; increasing the scope of each magic school to encompass or build out to various other things that aren't simply the element. For example; you may find elemental systems limiting because you can't do things like fate or luck related curses or spells if you had a full elemental system of just the four main elements; but this could be subverted and combined into the other schools. Fire grants luck at the cost of burning you later as a cost. Fire can not only create and conjure fire, but also give people boiling hot fevers or increasing their passion by putting their hearts ablaze- the thematic connections between the possible uses or targets of magic in the world and the elements themselves become a part of the magic, and in a way work better then a more academic or "nonelemental' spell-school system, as the elements themselves are made mystic and all-encompassing. The above system is also great as it basically shits inspiration and worldbuilding resources for writing plots, characters, or mystic underpinnings of the universe. Places of great natural importance are tied to one or more elements, granting mystic powers to those who reach them on a pilgrimage of sorcery. Elemental Wizards have personalities fitting their elements. Each elemental magic can be cancelled or weakened by the presence of their opposite- Air magic being incredibly weak underground and Fire magic being weak in the rain and so on. This is pretty much perfect for a fantasy world- but once again isn't exactly what I'm looking for in trying to make a sort of non-elemental, non-spiritual based magic system for spell categorization.

Also talked about on this blog at least a few times, the Dominions series is a group of high-fantasy strategy video games where you play as a Pretender-God trying to kill all the others and ascend to glory. The game has a very thematically strong magic system of various elemental and sorcerous paths. While it is somewhat specific to its setting, it is broad enough to be widely applicable to multiple fantasy settings and I have stolen these elements/paths for my own games before.

  • Fire
  • Air
  • Water
  • Earth
  • Astral
  • Death
  • Nature
  • Blood

This system I really like; as it encompasses the mythology and magical underpinnings of an Elemental magic system BUT also covering everything else you may need- not only magic in terms of what characters could do but also the setting or cosmology itself. You can also imagine what each mage who specializes in each type of magic might look like- Nature mages being witches and druids. Blood mages being evil cultists and summoners. Death mages get to be necromancers- Astral mages being the theurges or soothesayers- controllers of fate and the stars- also tied strongly to themes of having the "fifth element" or element above the other elements in some way. Even more appropriate given Astral Magic's use in communions. Not unheard of outside of Dominions; but extremely fun and setting defining once it is introduced. Crosspath magic allows for yet more versatility and explains many things and how this relatively simple and small list of Paths could be used to encompass almost any magical effect you can think of- the game even has a nice in-game and universe categorization of Magic User based on their paths; with the first four paths of the basic elements being what Wizards use, and the latter four paths being what Sorcerors use.

It's also important to note that Dominions doesn't have quite the same scope or scale as the other games or universes on this list; most are focused on single characters (such as a TTRPG character or video game protagonist), where as Dominions is much more focused on mass combat and grand enchantments- meaning that Dominions Mages are very powerful and appropriately so.

...Of course that was all true, until the Illwinter development team introduced Glamour as a new magic path and fucked all this up! The newest Dominions game just came out as of the time of this writing- creating an Illusion, dream, and mind-based school of magic. While I haven't actually played with it yet to see how it works or how fun it is- I simply detest this inclusion into the above list of magic schools. While it wasn't perfect before, Illusion was moreso a subcategory of magic that fit into other schools- like how most Illusion spells were Air Magic related. I actually really liked this, as it created connections and concepts in setting that any nation with access to Air-Magic had the capacity to cast various illusion and trickery spells- and indeed most of the nations who did have high level Air Magic had the capacity for it. I mean, if any school of magic should be split up, it should have been water- thematically speaking at least. Because water was basically the number one most important school of magic for all underwater nations (go figure) AND because it was also used for all cold or ice related magic spells as well; leading to the strange in-setting weirdness of the Nifelheim Ice-Giants also being really good at invading water provinces and casting whirlpool spells. Makes sense in terms of the path, less in universe and less in gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred illusion magic remain a sub-category- just letting the various Elvish nations having unique spells related to it- much like how Man had a very unique set of spells relating to Nature magic- spell songs- allowing for cheap and safe communions at the cost of their power and casting speed. Perfect for a bunch of half-fae wise women descended from the Tir'na'nog, less so for the druids or wild beastmen blood sorcerers- hence why it was specific to that nation. Oh well. I've never even won a multiplayer game of Dominions, so what do I know?

Ars Magica
Another huge inspiration. Ars Magica straddles the line between elemental & arcane distinctions for spell schools, in this game called "Arts", but has the knock-on effect of working really well for my purposes here. I feel as though I don't need to list all of the forms in their latin names, but just know there are ten of them comprising everything from the classic elements, to the human form, to magic itself. But how those forms are used is by the techniques, meaning how they are manipulated.

  • Creo (Create, Restore, Repair, Replenish, etc.)
  • Intellego (Understand, See, Divination, etc.)
  • Muto (Transform, Change)
  • Perdo (Destroy, Lessen, Weaken)
  • Rego (Control, Move)

The useful thing here is, by simply taking this list of techniques and removing the forms, we now have a general purpose list of magic spell schools or verbs we could use to serve as our spell schools! However, it isn't perfect for me for two reasons. One, the latin names, while fitting for a medievalish historical setting, don't exactly fit for a fantasy world and two, in regards to the spell effects or categories fit within each; some of them are ill-defined or extremely narrow in application. Rego is a good example, seeming almost useless for certain forms (just look at the example spells for Rego Imaginem), where as other techniques (Creo) are so broad they basically encompass anything you can do with the magical arts. With that being said- it's a really good list and will serve as the backbone for my magic schools I'll share in a bit- that and one other less obscure property.

Elder Scrolls
Here's the other big one. Besides D&D, Elder Scrolls has one of the strongest spell-school categorizations out there. Once again- it is quite fitting for its own genre and what it's trying to do- but there have been lots of bumps in the road. This is further complicated by the fact that each game in the series changes, removes, or moves around the various spells and effects from school to school! For this, we'll go with Oblivion/Morrowinds schools.

  • Conjuration
  • Illusion
  • Destruction
  • Restoration
  • Alteration
  • Mysticism

These Schools are also pretty evocative. I especially like the implementation of "Restoration" as an actual school of magic- a very fitting word and usage for magical healing. I especially like it over "healing magic" or "life magic" because it fits not only healing but also restoring other attributes and curing diseases without it being as broad as "Creo" from above. My only issue is the term being used as "Restoration" but this spell school also includes increasing, empowering, buffing, etc. various attributes or stats as well, which is not implied by the name. (Also, in Oblivion, Restoration is where the drain attribute spells go, and not even in the criminally underused Mysticism. What the fuck were they thinking?) I don't think this is that bad of a trade off of clarity since the school would be too focused otherwise, but it is still a slight imperfection.

However; the names, once again, are flawed. Same issue as D&D, though to a lesser extent. And we have a traitor in our midst. "Destruction" fits the naming scheme, but is extremely divorced to the actual effect or "magical tool" used by the spells within this school. It does destroy things; but by conjuring elemental forces. Earlier games in the series (Morrowind) did a better job of this, since some Destruction spells could also do simpler things like damaging attributes or equipment- but I dislike this vagueness. To me, a "Destruction" school would be focused totally on magic effects that just damage things- not elemental blasts or manipulation of energy. Mysticism is of course right out- but I think if you had a list of magic schools and had just ONE that violated the naming/type conventions, Mysticism would be the best choice for that. It's the "other" school, with weird and freaky powers and meta-magic that other schools of magic don't have. Also- if ANY school on this list should be able to trap Souls, Mysticism would fit. It's sad it was axed for Skyrim but, in a way, I've grown to like it. I feel that using Conjuration for the spell was less interesting then making Soul-Trapping its own mechanic- relying on rare weapons or maybe forcing the player to kill a target with a magic staff (actually giving them a reason to use them?) to trap souls- but not giving players a way to farm souls would probably be bad form and not helpful to the gameplay experience. It makes sense to stick it here if you don't have Mysticism. But to the negatives again- we run into Illusion magic here a second time- somehow even worse given it directly changes targets minds for a large number of the spells instead of just actually creating illusions. Better for a video game where type and effects are combined- worse for a fantasy world's wizarding etymology.

Now- Alteration. I know I complained about "Transmutation" for D&D spells up above for being too broad and ill-fitting, but I actually think Alteration works much better for the School of Transmutation. While there is no "Alterationist" mage you can use in the same way "Transmuter" rolls off the tongue, the school of Alteration just fits better for that sort of all-encompassing "changing" things magic that fits the school. In the games, Alteration is basically the catch-all school for weird utility and helpful effects not directly used in combat; besides Mage Armor; most of it is doing things like unlocking locks, walking on water, flight, and so on.

Finally- Illusion. Illusion actually works great in this system; due to the relative low power level of TES mages compared to other media and due to the fact, in the context of a video game, Illusions can comfortably encompass everything you can do to manipulate NPCs- make them calm or fight each other, make them not notice you, improve disposition. Skyrim also grants some new interesting effects, like the "Muffle" spell that just reduces sound- fitting for mage-thieves. It also bafflingly includes Clairvoyance into Illusion, which is obviously a cut effect for Mysticism. While I quite like it from a mechanics perspective- it honestly doesn't fit the name. Most of the effects of "Illusion" are just directly mind-effecting magic- Enchantment works better as a name here. But once again, both names break our naming convention. We're getting close though.

Homebrew- Seven Schools of Magic
When the ancient mages first decided to categorize magic into various schools- the more scholastic and less religious methodology of magical convention was born. Divorced from the concept of the natural forces and elements of the world- these schools became the general grouping of magical skills of which different mages often specialize or study in their pursuits. There were seven distinct schools, which are-

  1. Alteration
  2. Conjuration
  3. Restoration
  4. Evocation
  5. Divination
  6. Abjuration
  7. Domination

These schools are based on the techniques of Ars Magica divided into a few more schools to provide more specificity and round out the list. Creo is split into Conjuration, Restoration, and Evocation as its application is too broad in a more traditional fantasy game with specific wizard schools. Conjuration makes new things or summons creatures, restoration heals or replenishes, and evocation conjures up energy or power in specific- ie; blaster magic.

Abjuration is another special note. Abjuration in D&D terms is mostly defensive spells and anti-magic- and while it certainly can do this here- Abjuration is being more used as a general term and as a replacement school for the Perdo effects. Abjuration lessens, weakens, rebukes, cancels, snuffs out, or otherwise reviles in all cases. It is everything Destruction does except summoning up elemental blasts, which is Evocation instead. Alteration lets you turn invisible and makes things lighter so they can float or fly- Evocation can maybe let you fly but only if you're summoning wind and you have a kite like you're Aang or whatever.

Finally- the most original school here is Domination. Domination is a perfect fit for our Necromancy, Mind-Control, Enchantment, and otherwise bad-guy school of magic. It's name both fits our naming convention, has a negative and evil connotation, and describes exactly what the school does. Domination is how a Wizard bends lesser minds, controls emotions, animates objects, or creates curses and unbreakable vows and things of that nature.

And yes, that's right, there is no Illusion magic. I know, I know. For some, that's a dealbreaker. Fair enough- but we all know Illusion magic sucks anyway. Most "illusions" could just be fit under Conjuration (for false images and sounds) or Alteration (for glamours) if you really needed to come down to it. Domination could already be used to control minds or bodies- meaning we have little need for the extra school. I get it's a staple of fantasy and all- but Illusion magic sucks anyway.


  1. I quite like the 8 Colour Winds of Magic from Warhammer Fantasy, myself. (There’s other “schools” of magic in Warhammer Fantasy, too, but the 8 Winds are the big ones.)

  2. A rebuttal, if you will:

  3. "Every spell school should either end in a "-mancy" or "-urgy" or "-ation"; the title essentially being the action or verb that the magical school does or can do."
    Why? Or rather, I'm cherry-picking this sentence as illustrative. Why, given your clearly reasonably wide experience and amount of thought given to the subject, do you feel precise categorisation and symmetry to be important? And, not necessarily related, why do you think magic should be categorised based on its effects, whereas for example a poison may be a biological, chemical, or radioactive agent?