Clem is stirring the Suggestion Pot with this query:
“It occurs to me that nobody has said much about ethical screening and training of mages. Consider: If you are going to enable someone to throw fireballs and petrify people and screw around with the weather, wouldn’t you want to be pretty sure they won’t run amok with the ability?”
Judging from how some players have their wizards sling spells, often heedless of the consequences to the others around them, it’s pretty clear such training is lacking in the implied world of D&D.
Of course, more than a few mages might feel they’re above such societal constraints. When you command powers beyond those of mortal men, why saddle yourself with their little rules?
What little we’ve seen of fantasy worlds, even those where magical instruction is institutionalized, as Clem suggests, ethical training isn’t a priority.
- Consider Harry Potter’s world. Hogwarts’ main purpose seems to be to sort out the good wizards from the bad and the indifferent, then prepare those students for the next wizard war — which seems to happen every 15 years or so.
- Morgrave University in Eberron’s city of Sharn is hardly the most reputable house of higher learning. If any ethics are taught in its elevated walls, they’re situational in nature, to be sure. Like, if you see treasure, you grab it.
- The druids of Terry Brooks’ Shannara seem little better. Assembling those with the talent in one location, Paranor, only seems to encourage their scheming and backstabbing.
- The Adepts of the Blue Star from the Thieves’ World anthologies at least take a pledge to stand on the side of Law against forces of Chaos in the final battle, but until that time, are free to do what they want in the wide world. So much for high-minded ideals, there.
And on it goes …
While I’m sure there are examples of the sort Clem suggests, I can only think of two that feature ethics in any significant way: The Tower of High Sorcery from Dragonlance and the White Tower from The Wheel of Time. The Tower robes its wizards by outlook (white for good, red for neutral, black for bad), while the Aes Sedai of Tar Valon must take an oath not to use their powers to harm nor to speak untruths. Both put their students through a series of tests, culminating in a potentially deadly encounter to prove they are worthy of weilding magic in the world at large.
So what does this mean for your game world?
Clearly it is an opportunity for a DM to impose a little order — or at least make the players stop and think about the consequences of their actions — by having wizard training of the sort Clem suggests. By making it a part of the game world — and explaining it to spellcasters at the outset — then they know they must behave according to a sort of code.
Whether this code is strict as a paladin’s code — where a mage’s magical powers depend on adhering to proper behavior — would depend on a lot of things. (Certainly, magic users with an evil bent would need a loophole, otherwise there would be no villains). But perhaps an oath binds the players, requiring them not to stray from the light else they risk losing the ability to cast as many spells or the most powerful ones.
The alignment system is supposed to be a sort of check in this direction. But there’s a reason Boccob is the main diety for spellcasters under the Third Edition rules, for example — he’s neutral in outlook. Wizards want the freedom to act.
Expecting discipline of the sort Clem suggests could easily be a part of the flavor of a homebrew world. But it’s difficult to achieve. Mages are no different than fighters, rogues and clerics. Some are good. Some are bad.
And some are taking point in your party’s marching order.