[Review] College of Wizardry (2e); Clowns to the left of me…

[Campaign Setting]
College of Wizardry (1997)
Bruce Cordell (TSR)

“Gee Cordell, what do you wanna do tonight?”
“The same thing we do every night Monte. Try to inject more High Fantasy tossfiddle into Dnd!”
– Monte & the Cordell, intro, ep 1. “Monte & Cordell Inject High Fantasy tossfiddle into DnD”

When I first read the premise of College of Wizardry I was intrigued. A magic school campaign setting? Like Hogwarts? The University [1]? The Glantrian School of Magic? I mean I am not fucking pumped but I’d be willing to give a magic school campaign a fucking shot at the very least.

What we get is a sadly uneven and poorly constructed campaign setting, a rarity for Cordell. Each individual element is usually decent but together they form a cobbled together mess that is unclear about what it wants to accomplish, resulting in an uneven product with a few glimmers of inspiration buried throughout it here and there.

College of Wizardry concerns the fortress of Mathghamna, home to the Arcane Order, an honest to god wizard’s guild, complete with magical principal, magical classes and magical janitors. Essentially setting neutral (meaning it can be plunked down just about anywhere), its existence does require both a Prior Age in which the mastery of magic was a thousandfold of what it is today and a magical cataclysm that complete destroyed all but a few traces of a prior age. College of Wizardry illustrates the insanity of late-decadent TSR by providing conversion notes for placing the College in the 9 FUCKING CAMPAIGN SETTINGS it was supporting at the time, omitting only Spelljammer for some reason. While I appreciate the lengths Cordell went to so you can shove a high fantasy magic school in fucking Dark Sun, the best option is probably to take the suggestions of the book and place it in either the Forgotten Realms or (even better) 2e Greyhawk, where Greyhawk’s less exhaustively codified history will allow it to mesh its background with the setting without too much of a hassle.

The book opens with a very short overview on wizard’s guilds, their formation, existence, raisons d’etre and rivalry with other power groups. The short primer does help you understand the way a society would respond to the Arcane Order specifically  but it would be more in place if the book where a generic supplement about running campaigns in a wizard’s guild. It is all the more jarring because the rest of the book pretty much IGNORES the topic of how to actually run an all wizard’s campaign joined to a Guild and instead concerns itself with the nuts and bolts of a campaign setting: Locations, hooks, new spells and a truckload of magic items.

Our first introduction to the Arcane Order is a LONG FUCKING ASS BACKSTORY that feels like it goes on for about twice as long as it needed to be. In the olden days the world was pretty spiffy and people had way more mastery of the arts of magic by virtue of their understanding of the Language Primeval, the fundamental tongue that forms the building blocks of reality. Dargeshaad, deity and asshole extraordinaire, gets kicked out of the pantheon for a crime too unspeakable to record (I like that). Polhemus, wizard and asshole extraordinaire, gets kicked out of Mathghamna for a crime too unspeakable to record (okay he just researched evil shit) and finds him. “How about I give you super awesome powers if you do as I say,” asks Dargeshaad? “Hmn,” says Polhemus. “Okay.” Thus begins the Warlock Strife that ends with the few remaining good guys in Mathghamna triggering some sort of magical apocalypse that wipes out nearly all traces of their civilization (and in fact, the world). I mean the story goes into some elaborate trick and a Witch Trinity that forces entry into the fortress but its all bullshit and none of it comes back, except for the shit I just told you.

So in the present day, a little town grown up around the ruins of Mathghamna (the villagers originally use the stones for building materials, a wonderful little detail) and
Japheth Arcane (jesus christ Cordell what bet did you lose when you named him that?) stumbles upon some stuff in its ruins. This segment is also about sixty steps longer then it needed to be, Japheth finds a map, which leads him into the Ash Plains where he finds the Lore, a repository of the Aleph or Language Primeval that was lost in ancient time. Having recovered only a fragment, Japheth founds the Arcane Order with his old adventuring buddies and here we are today!

The book continues by outlining the hierarchy, entry requirements and progression of the different ranks within the Order. Basically, the Order organizes a magic fair every 2 years where it will surreptitiously test any children attending for magical ability. If they are qualified, the Order offers them an apprenticeship. As a wizard’s apprentice, you work like a fucking dog while also studying 4 hours per day, and Cordell even provides two tables for the consequences of attempting to dodge one’s myriad chores. After that one advances to initiate, where you actually get to learn fucking magic n’ shit to Guild Wizard and (with the right political acumen) eventually to the hallowed position of Regent. I consider this vital information for running the Arcane Order and therefore the detail is of appreciable length. The option to join the Guild at a later level is left open, making it at least somewhat useful for adventuring parties, particularly since joining in this fashion involves either large sums of cash or (more likely) quests.

Relevant magical shit: Guild wizards swear an oath to act in service to the Order under pain of death, backed up by a magical Geas. Every Guild wizard above apprentice is given a magical cloak, which is kind of bullshit, but Cordell injects some form of plausibility into it by linking the enchantment to a magical artifact within the Guild itself, meaning that it will lose power if it is taken from the fortress after a month, so presumably the damned things would be easier to enchant. Perks to being a member of the Arcane order involve access to its considerable library of magical spells, laboratories, protection and, if one advances far enough to learn the secret purpose behind the Order, the opportunity to learn the Aleph and gain access to the Spellcrux.  The Spellcrux is a fancy magical artifact that functions as an ersatz magical battery, allowing those attuned to it via a charm to draw the occasional spell from it. It is not as overpowered as it sounds, particularly since Wizards are expected to periodically donate spells to the Crux as well, the selection of spells within the Crux is limited and the attunement ritual costs a permanent point of Wisdom and, if it does not succeed, can mean you are improperly bound and suffer a percentile chance of failure.

Aleph itself is a fairly novel concept. You devote a total of 4 nonweapon proficiency slots to its mastery. After that a check must be made against your level – 4 (i.e fucking difficult), which can be used to increase range, reduce casting time, increase the DC of saving throws and lengthen duration. Failure means your spell is wasted (and repeated failure means the wizard will likely go permanently mute). For all but the most high level wizards, the use of Aleph is restriced to research purposes only. An interesting concept with ho-hum execution that I believe would form the foundation of the Dark Speech feat in the later 3e Book of Vile Darkness.

CoW goes into considerable detail about the NPCs running the place, describing all the major councillors. The central problem here is a lack of conflict; All the Regents are buddies of Japheth Arcane, most are old adventuring buddies and almost all of them have good and lawful alignments. This section really needed some conflicting agenda’s and people working at cross purposes to render the college itself viable as a site for adventure. As it is, while the NPCs have unique character traits and are not alltogether uninteresting, the myriad of high level wizards will just function as window dressing and quest dispensers for the PCs.
To Cordell’s credit, some hooks are strews throughout the description, so the module is not a complete loss; The sinister looking Dirganun the Conjuror (reminiscent of Sheelba of the Eyeless Face) is secretly possessed by the spirit of Polhemus to generate potential shenanigans. The Thieves Guild has got beef with the half-elf Dapern Gerth and has put out a 10.000 gp hit on him, the PCs might need to intervene! The rest usually has some minor secret to be discovered but the lack of internecine struggles means the College acts like one big happy einsatzgruppe and that means any conflict is going to have to come from an outside agency.

50. Privy. As Chancellor, Japheth rates a private privy
– The only private Privy in College of Wizardry

The NPC section would not in and of itself be a problem if the Wizard’s Guild were just to function as a springboard for adventure but CoW instead chooses to dedicate almost half of its pagecount to meticulously mapping out Mathghamna in room by room fashion, as though it were a dungeon. While there are some interesting hazards and set piece locations that could serve as an interesting place to meet NPCs, not to mention the odd secret room to be discovered in the course of adventure ah la hogwarts, most of it is going to lie fallow since, presumably, the PCs will in fact, NOT be breaking in since these are their LG employers, not a school of evil assholes. The manifold protections of the school are plotted out in exacting detail, with complete bullshit protections rendering theft of any of the works within the libraries unlikely if not entirely impossible. Cordell seems to grasp the problem by neglecting to map out some of the unused portions in the tower but still most of it is going to lie fallow, and the defences of the school did not need to be mapped out in such exacting detail unless the school itself is likely to be source of conflict.

There are some glimmers of inspired dungeon design with some pretty awesome random knick-knack [2] tables for random Guild wizard laboratory treasure contents but are you really going to be looting those? The whole section, and I will boil myself in glass if ever I am forced to utter this sentence again, needed more of a Vampire the Masquerade treatment. No Russian Novel type description, just give us a few short highlights, devote a lot of time to the NPCs and interpersonal conflict and outline the general defences. As it is, most of this section is NEVER going to be used, even if you were to base your entire campaign around the College.

To its credit, College of Wizardy does provide a boatload of new magical items and spells, most of them very good. Enchanted Candles, bizarre flying eyes, spectacles that create an empathic bond, a cowl that lets you see in darkness and conjure forth creatures from the demi-plane of shadow at the cost of rendering you blind to any form of light, artifact level Halbeards devoted to either desperate last stands or avenging falling comrades…the works! The items are really strong, although some will be in the hands of the LG NPCs and are thus unlikely to see any in-game use unless the GM is feeling particularly ambitious.

The spell section is pretty solid too. Several new wizard spells seem as though they should have been in the game all along. A spell that allows you to erase spell slots from another wizard’s mind, a spell that forces a creature to answer a single question, a spell that forces someone to run until they die from exhaustion (originally discovered whilst searching for a means of magical locomotion), time skipping spells and so on. It introduces about 20 new spells and nearly all of them are novel, interesting and have some sort of conceivable use. This is probably the best section of the Book.

The last section involves 4 short adventures (always less then 5 pages) for College of Wizardry, but given the format it would probably be more accurate to call them adventure outlines. They generally begin with a hook, some travel, an encounter or two (always combat) and then a resolution. Verdict in order:

Apprentices Abroad (0th level): The PCs are apprentices in the Order and one of their asshole friends the GM has saddled them with has crept into the tombs underneath the academy, fell down a pit and broke his leg. If the PCs call the councilor their friend will get expelled. By far the most Harry Potterish of the short adventures, I appreciate the combination of fast talking, boldness and hiding that is needed to get through the adventure and if the PCs are stupid the adventure gets harder. You don’t really see 0th level adventures all that much but this one is not terrible, and for once, the lack of a map is not a problem since you already have a fully functional map of the place. This one is okay.

Drake’s Legacy (3-6); Cordell ties the adventure to his super Return of the Tomb of Horrors by mentioning the Necromancer Drake as once having been part of the Order. Apprentices start dissapearing, but it’s not that much of a big deal since a bunch of 3-6 level initiates are appointed as a task force to deal with the problem. Uh-huh. I hope you like: Wights. Wight Sorcerers. Teleporting into a room and getting hit by a darkness spell followed by more Wights. At least has some treasure. Blegh.

The Summoning Gone Bad (4-8); A devil was summoned and has taken control of its summoner by using Dominate person, a very strange thing considering Dominate person is not actually a special ability the osyluth possesses! The PCs must destroyenate an Osyluth and its summoned minions while also contending with the dominated wizard and his apprentices, who should not be killed. Not a terrible idea for a straight up combat but that is all it is. Probably enough to get a session out of it.

Return to Uscavalon (8-11); Sort of the crowning piece of the adventure section, the PCs accompany the possessed Dirganun into the Ash Waste to investigate some ancient ruins. What we get are a series of…say it with me, linear combat encounters! First you beat the shit out of a dragon, then you fight everyone’s favorite level draining undead (fucking spectres) followed by a confrontation that is at least a bit more cinematic (Dirganun doing some mumbling and everyone entering an ancient tomb and confronting its Death Knight guardian wielding the chosen weapon of Dargeshaad itself! Straight up combat followed by a betrayal and more straight up combat, the but the aftermath is sure to generate some interesting gameplay. The Bright Barrier of the God King Dargeshaad is an artifact shield of hideous potency, delivering bone-crunching shield slams as well as level-draining the shit out of any non-lawful creatures around. As a minor drawback, repeated use not only ages the wielder but also means he gets possessed by the Spirit of Dargeshaad, back for round 2 with a vengeance! My suggestion is you lift the last encounter and make yourself a better adventure.

Pros: New magic spells and items for wizards!

Cons: Schizophrenic design philosophy and russian-novel room descriptions pad out most of the book. For all its source material, CoW doesn’t actually discuss HOW to run a campaign within its walls all that well.

College of Wizardry illustrates that even a talented writer with good ideas can write a bad campaign setting. CoW is pedantically focused on the contents whilst ignoring the context wherein we must interpret this boatload of stats and room descriptions entirely. Nowhere does it properly outline an interesting way of sustaining a long campaign in the environs of Mathghamna. What CoW really needed was a concerted group of enemies working against the Order, some internal strife and for god’s sake an entire chapter on running an Arcane Order campaign. As it is, beyond the magic item/spell section and the general rules, CoW is unfocused and just unsuitable for what I think it is meant for. 4 out of 10.

[1] From Patrick Rothfuss’s decent if horrifically snowflake Kingkiller Chronicles
[2] In Cook and Cordell’s later Numenera game, these would be called Oddities, magical items without any numerical or in-game advantage, but just stuff that looks cool. If you want any examples from fiction, the majority of the magical treasure in Vance’s Dying Earth novels tends to conform to this description.


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