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Magic is one of the most potent tools in a fantasy setting, and it comes in many forms. A gift from the gods, a product of long study, an accident of birth, unlocking the mystical potential of music, or a bargain with an eldritch being are all viable paths to power. The thing many of us forget, though, is that these magic users come from even more diverse backgrounds, and they use their spells in a variety of different ways.
If you've been looking for some unusual places for your spellcasters to have their start, then this list is a fine beginning. You may also want to check out 10 Backgrounds For Your Scoundrels, as well as the original list of 10 Backgrounds For Your Martial Characters. Lastly, if you'd like more gaming content just like this, don't forget to check out my gaming blog Improved Initiative, as well as my Vocal archive!
#1: The Scholar
The white-haired sage is, perhaps, seen as the most common kind of spellcaster. Whether it's a wizard who has spent her life mastering the arcane arts, or a cleric that's spent years with holy tomes, and ancient texts, a scholarly origin is far from unusual.
There are many kinds of scholars, though.
As an example, a sorcerer who was brought to an arcane college when their bloodline first manifested itself would need to become an expert on their arcane nature in order to gain control of (or to grow) their own, in-born powers. A concept I call The Academic Sorcerer. Alternatively, someone who lacked the raw force of intellect to master the arcane arts as a wizard could have used their encyclopedic knowledge of legends and lore to forge a pact with an outer patron, becoming a witch or a warlock. Perhaps, while your bard is best known for their swashbuckling adventures and tomb raiding, they also keep office hours, and attempt to impart their knowledge and skills to the next generation who will go out into the field after they retire.
There is a lot of flexibility with this background, and you should feel free to give your scholars different areas of expertise and focus. One may have a mastery of dead languages and ancient kings, but know next to nothing about what events happened in the last five years. Perhaps the enchanter had a double major in necromancy during a dark period of their youth. A little knowledge can go a very long way!
#2: The Warrior
To some, magic is a tool. To others, it is a potent weapon. Whether it's used to win wars, or to maintain peace, that weapon must be wielded by someone. Which is where these arcane and divine warriors come in.
While there are those with great martial prowess who supplement their physical skills with magic (rangers, paladins, eldritch knights, and other partial casters), the idea here is to mold a full caster into a weapon of war.
Whether it's a wizard whose talent was recognized by the army early on, like you see with The Military-Grade Evoker, a war-drumming bard whose songs lend strength to the entire company, a druid who can summon hordes of terrifying predators to turn the tide of battle, or a sorcerer known for stepping into the ring to duel any and all comers, the idea is that you simply have a different kind of warrior on your hands. One whose weapon of choice happens to be both more ephemeral, and far more destructive, than mere steel.
Such warriors could fight on their own, but they might also be part of companies of like-minded (and skilled) individuals. Spell-casting mercenary companies like the Acolytes of Arannis (found in 100 Random Mercenary Companies), are a force to be reckoned with, as well as an ideal origin for a warrior spellcaster.
#3: The Self-Taught
Most spellcasters receive some kind of teaching and training in order to hone their skills. Wizards seek out a master, or attend an arcane college. Clerics and paladins often join a church, and receive instructions in the rituals and prayers of their faith. Even bards and druids often undergo an apprenticeship in order to learn the skills of their trade.
But what happens when someone doesn't have access to those resources? Well, sometimes you end up with self-taught spellcasters.
Self-taught spellcasters don't often conform to traditional dogma, and their formulas are often strange and uniquely personal. Some of them use outmoded and outdated methods they found in dusty, abandoned grimoires, or engraved on the walls of tombs. Others may isolate themselves from people, attempting to better tune themselves into the heartbeat of the natural world, or to try to form a bond with the divine. They tend to bear a lot of scars as well, from constant experimentation and attempts to unlock the mysteries of magic without a guiding hand. However, they often have unique approaches to the use and application of magic, much like artists who never received any formal training.
Magic is difficult to learn, and nearly impossible to master. However, those with the raw skill, grit, and determination to unlock it can often do the impossible, because it never occurred to them that they couldn't.
#4: The Accident
Sometimes magic comes to someone through deliberate choices they made. They studied, they prayed, they bargained, or they were simply born with the inherent ability. However, some people do not seek out magic. Rather, magic is something they find forced onto them unexpectedly.
These accidental spellcasters come in all kinds of forms. Perhaps the most common is The Mutant Sorcerer; someone exposed to a particular magical event, which instills them with the power of a bloodline. A soldier who survived a battle with a dragon might find that the creature's blood now flows through her veins, for instance, or a woodsman who was nearby when a wizard's tower exploded may find that wild magic surges through him due to the fallout of the failed spell.
Sorcerers aren't the only kind of magic users that can show up by accident, though. Someone who had no concept of the higher understanding of magic might suddenly wake up after a traumatic injury, or after receiving a hefty shock, and find that spells now make total sense to them in a way they never did before; a concept I call The Sudden Wizard. Someone who was chosen by a divinity, and gifted with spells, because they lived the right kind of life might be utterly terrified by their own abilities, especially if they were never trained by a clergy, or even thought of themselves as particularly devout. You might even end up with a Reluctant Cleric, in this instance. Someone who unknowingly pledged themselves to an arch fey by helping a small sprite in the woods, or who recited what they thought of as a childhood rhyme while in the presence of a potent ritual site, might find themselves tied to a patron they didn't even believe in until their bargain was struck.
Sometimes you just find yourself in unexpected circumstances, and you have to do the best you can with what you've got.
#5: The Scoundrel
Spellcasters are often thought of as beyond the petty needs and gripes of the merely mortal. But wizards, warlocks, clerics, and bards all still need to eat. That means they need to find a profitable way to use their magic, and while there is often a legitimate market for their skills, sometimes the illegitimate market offers a lot more reward for the risks they're taking.
How much of a cut would a gang of burglars give to a diviner who could see into a target location, casing it from afar, and then casting the bones to determine how dangerous a particular night would be to hit the warehouse? What kind of wealth could a sorcerer acting as muscle for the local gang lord accrue, using the threat of their power to solidify his boss's place in the local scene? Why would a cleric act as the sawbones on a pirate ship? How many con games could an enchanter run before they got caught?
There are all kinds of renegades, rebels, rogues, scallywags, bandits, brigands, thieves, killers, and cutthroats out there. Some of them would leap at the chance to have a spellcaster among their number... and some might even combine their resources to send one of their own off to school just so they could help the gang with their newly acquired talents. In either case, you might find the following supplements a handy place to look for contacts, background ties, or engaging flavor:
#6: The Entertainer
Stage magic is often thought of as nothing more than smoke and mirrors... but what if you had the ability to perform true magic in front of an audience? It might seem like the cheapest possible use for such great power, but, on the other hand, it would solidify your reputation as a mage of skill, or to win people over to the cause of your faith. People believe what they can see, feel, and touch, after all.
Is your spellcaster the main act? That's common enough for storytelling bards, but what about a literal stage illusionist? Or a cleric that tells the myths and legends of their faith with aid from their magic? Someone who can combine power and spectacle in order to draw crowds from miles around when they come to perform?
Alternatively, is your spellcaster the equivalent of a technician, or a special effects person for the party? Do you provide the dancing lights, the booming sound, the roaring monsters, and the ground fog while everyone else re-enacts their glorious battles in the throne room of the king? Does your magic user keep a slew of items on-hand for sudden changes to the plan, ensuring they can roll with whatever the set list demands of them? And do they use the same skills and abilities when they're in a life-or-death situation, turning the tricks and illusions they use to entertain into improvised weapons that allow them to turn the tide of battle, or to awe monsters into fleeing them?
#7: The High Born
Noble families exist in most fantasy settings, and they provide one of the best origins for a variety of spellcasters. For examples, learning arcane spells the old-fashioned way takes time, dedication, and a great deal of costly material components. Such things could be provided much more easily to scions of noble families than to commoners looking to do the same thing. Noble families may offer their younger sons and daughters to the clergy, as well, and if there is any truth to the belief in divine right it is more likely that such individuals would be favored by divine powers (or by eldritch patrons, if that was the source of the family's rulership). One could even make the case that the strange beasts, and old legends of a noble family are embodied in a sorcerous bloodline, making the children more likely to exhibit the powers of their forebears.
Playing noble characters is a lot of work, and it's one reason I put together the guide 5 Tips For Playing Better Noble Characters in the not-too-distant past. However, there are also a lot of questions you'll have to ask as a noble magic user. Such as whether your position and lifestyle clash with the tenets of your patron, or whether your bloodline marks you out as the descendant of a particular house? Is spell casting something your family is known for, or are you unique among them in that regard? Are you carrying on a tradition, learning from your parents and grandparents' grimoires and spellbooks, or are you forging your own path, or even using a kind of magic they don't approve of? Did your birth into this family line seal you into a pact, like the Blackbriar clan found in A Baker's Dozen of Noble Families?
There are a lot of options, here, and they can all be fun to explore! If you're looking for unusual siblings, cousins, family lines, or just general inspiration, then you might also want to take a look at 100 Nobles to Encounter!
#8: The Heretic
Magic is often thought of as a solidified system. Spells must conform to certain structures, and prayers must be offered according to ritual. Certain aspects form the foundation of magic, and its use, and those who deny or defy those aspects are branded as heretics.
That doesn't mean their magic suddenly stops working, though.
The most common version of this background applies to clerics, druids, and others of a divine bent, as I covered some time ago in a specific post titled The Heretic. However, you can stretch beyond faith and religion, and include any kind of magic. A heretic wizard might be seen as a mad scientist by their brethren; brilliant, broken, and dangerous. A heretic warlock may bend their powers back against their own master, while still towing the line of the pact they made, locked in a struggle of wills. Using the powers of an arch fiend to safeguard people, and to slay demons, for example. Even a heretic bard might embrace the properties of discord and atonality, twisting the very fabric of their music until it screams to try wringing every drop of power from it.
Heretics are often treated as outsiders, shunned, and ostracized by those who consider their ideas and behaviors dangerous. If a heretic's ideas are proven right, though, they may be legitimized, and heralded as brilliant when once they were simply thought of as mad.
#9: The Artist
Magic is an art form, and for some practitioners it is the highest form of art there could ever be; raw power, refined into beautiful, terrible action. While some magic users are just workaday practitioners, able to follow the format and create the proper results, others are more experimental. More than that, they're driven by a need for innovation, for discovery, and for accomplishment.
These are the artists.
If magic is paint, then the world of the adventurer's the canvas. Constant experimentation and refinement, using different spells together to create blended effects, or to execute particular results gets the caster one step closer to their magnum opus. Alternatively, many of them will seek the work of the old masters to try and understand how the ancient practitioners wielded such might, and gained such control. In a very real sense, for an artist, magic is not the means to the end... it is the end, in and of itself.
#10: The Natural
For some, magic is something that takes years of hellish effort, and fervent prayer to even comprehend. For the natural, though, magic comes as easily as breathing. Magic is not something that they do... magic is something that they are.
One of the easiest ways to bring this concept across is to have a caster who has been steeped in magic from a very young age. Someone who comes from a non-human lineage with spell-like abilities, uncanny resistances, and who experiences the world in different ways is ideal, but not required. Tieflings, aasimar, and gnomes are some of the easiest races to work with.
For a natural magic user, casting a spell is a natural extension of themselves. Cantrips should be constantly in effect, and maintaining them should take no more effort than humming a tune while you clean. More to the point, though, natural casters often forget that magic is something that's hard for others, and that many people can't do at all. They often feel strange and alien, but they simply have a view that is wildly different from the general population they often find themselves among. Playing that up can often lead to interesting scenarios with a great deal of roleplay potential!