Dear Mom & Dad: Please Send GP

Having recently become unemployed, I found myself this week back where I went to college. I’d taken a job there after I graduated, and a position was open in my old department. Being back in that environment brought back memories of the heady days when I used to stay up far too late talking on IRC, learning how to code HTML tables, and waking up not knowing if the “7:00” on the clock meant AM or PM. My college experience was somewhat unusual in that I switched majors twice, extending my stay three years. Not that I cared. I always favored playing multiclass characters in high school anyway.

All this academia got me thinking about all the fun I had at the beginning of the second half of a campaign I played in a few years back. We’d leveled to 20, and this was the first time any of us had played epic-level characters. As a reward for our past endeavors, our DM told us we had some land to do with as we might. Some of us built little villages. As I was playing a heavy metal bard, I did the only logical things, and created the Academy of Rock Justice. It served two functions. First, it was a school for new adventurers. There were departments for all the major character classes, but it was (unsurprisingly) renowned for its music department. It also served as my PC’s personal militia, its ranks filled with students and graduates. Yes, I pushed my poor DM far past where I should have in regards to the number and level of followers I should have been able to acquire. It didn’t matter. It was completely awesome.

The concept of a school for adventurers is hardly new. Many popular books and movies have utilized this device to great effect as a home base for their characters and a backdrop for the story. Let’s take a short delve into the reasons an academic setting is such fertile ground for storytelling (especially the roleplaying kind).

I’m Going To Major In Illithid Philosophy

One of my college professors once told me that conflict is the mother of a good story. It can be conflict between people, or conflict within oneself. Most college students are bombarded continuously with new experiences, new choices to make, and they’re going to be thrust out into Harsh Reality at the end of all this. There’s pressure to make smart choices, because the rest of their lives may be affected by the choices they make. (My seven-year bachelor’s degree agrees with this idea wholeheartedly.) Though it seems worlds away a decade later, I know from experience these pressures are very real. I’ll never forget watching one of my classmates break down right in front of me stressing over a final exam. To be honest, thinking about the words “final exam” made my stomach tighten a little bit.

What this gives a storyteller is a character with a perspective on the world unlike that of the average person. I can’t remember the last time I had to study for a test. There’s nothing quite like the trouble a person can get into when they’re  learning to spread their wings. A character could be driven to succeed at his or her particular field of study because they are the first in their family to be able to get an education. There are stories waiting to be told if that endeavor is going less than smoothly.

Heroes Make Passes At Classes With Classes

D&D (and other roleplaying games like it) are great for an academic setting because the player has to assign a class (read: job) to their PC. Having what basically amounts to a vocational school for adventurers makes life easier for players who aren’t very good at making backstories, and even easier for players who are.

There are a wide range of ways an academic setting can be used in a campaign. The first Fable game featured a Hero Academy that trained PCs in their chosen art, for good or for evil. It was pretty generic past that. It served mostly as a home base to come level PCs and get new quests, but had a few key plot points tied to it. Stories like those in the Harry Potter series and the Police Academy movies both tied their plots more closely to the academic setting as well as narrowed the scope of what is taught there.

A Lot Of Stuff Happens At School

With so many classes going on, especially those involving people learning to harness potentially dangerous forces, all kinds of interesting things can go wrong. There are lots of secrets to be discovered in an old school. Some of them are old and might unleash things the unwitting PCs aren’t expecting. Some are new, like the answers to a test to be pilfered from a filing cabinet in a teacher’s office in the dead of night. There are bullies to flee from (and later grow powerful enough to defeat.) There are field trips and class projects that our muggle-parents would never, ever let us take part in.

That’s Great, Where Do I Sign Up (And Is There Financial Aid Available)?

I think this kind of setting would lend itself best to the start of a campaign (or a point at which a character wants to change classes).

I’ve given several examples already of works that can be borrowed from to design your own academy. As a hub for the campaign, you can use it to present quests, introduce characters, and provide a place for the PC’s to obtain (and store) their equipment. It also provides one of the only frameworks in which it makes sense to me for a person to learn a bunch of new skills and techniques over a short period of time. I never did understand why my mage didn’t know Fireball before killing that last goblin but did afterwards.

If you’re looking for a pre-made solution, I was surprised to find there wasn’t much out there (although I’m sure our readers will inform me otherwise!). There was, however, a d20 supplement awhile back called The Redhurst Academy Of Magic which was presented as a student handbook for the academy (and is, therefore, rules-light enough to be adapted to any system).

And sure, you can get financial aid. Just not from me.

Photo Credit



  1. deadlytoque says:

    Rob Donoghue did a great post on this idea here:

  2. I loved this line “I always favored playing multiclass characters in high school anyway.” Same here.

    I’m also of the opinion that if a player wants their character to obtain any “Grandmaster” training or similar skills from the character builder, they need to seek out an academic environment (even if it comes in the form of an angry old hermit out in the wilderness).

  3. Good luck with the job hunt!

  4. Syrsuro says:


  5. In my game I’m using this idea a bit with the White Lotus Academy from Dragon magazine for 4th Edition, since it included some better feats for fighting characters in the early days of 4E the swordmage in my group took one of those feats and throughout the paragon tier I’ve been setting it up as him benig one of the founders of the new White Lotus Academy. Also in Dave’s game (which happens before my game in our timeline), a different player used rival schools and fighting styles in his backstory for a similar swordmage, so it’s another common theme we use to tie our games together.

    Sorry to hear about your job! Haven’t talked to you in a week or two, so find me online! 😛

  6. Shilling says:

    While I agree with you in general on the fun of an academic setting, I think this is also one of those areas where we tend to emulate our modern world without really thinking about it.

    Instead, why not look at historical models? Or consider how such an institution would evolve when affected by the unique forces at work in your particular fantasy world?

    On the historical side we see that European Universities arose from schools run by monasteries and cathedrals in the 11th century – teaching was considered a virtuous but low-paid and time consuming activity; priests and monks had no need to worry about either. They were partially modeled on the existing guilds, which taught apprentices and designated who was a ‘master’.

    In medieval Islam (in many ways far ahead of medieval Europe in terms of scientific understanding) the ‘madrasah’ grew out of informal post-prayer discussion clubs. Again we have the link to religion.

    Going back further we have Plato’s Akademia – which again arose from a sacred grove dedicated to Athena goddess of wisdom. It was really a meeting place where people could turn up to listen to Plato lecture and discuss matters.

    In ancient china Shang Xiang was founded by the Emperor of Yu to educate children of nobles.

    In the Ryu Kyu empire of far-eastern islands south of Japan, forerunners to karate were taught by a master to just a handful of students at a time. The students had to convince the master to teach them, who probably had better things to do.

    I would ask yourself what you want your fantasy adventurers academy to be like, what you want it to achieve in terms of story and then structure it to support that. Doing so will also make the institution much more interesting and memorable and support the mood and flavour of the whole campaign world. Don’t just go to an anachronistic modern model because that’s the first thing you think of – unless you want an element of parody.


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