Guilds are urban creatures. They cannot survive without cities. They are parasites on the fantasy body politic, reaching their spider-like legs into the deepest recesses of civic culture. Although membership is nominally voluntary everyone in town belongs to a guild: the doctors, the barbers, the bakers, the carters, the shoemakers and even the wizards. Especially the wizards.
Once enrolled one does not lightly leave.
The political powerful and wealthy Greater Guilds represent professions requiring rare and expensive educations. These powerful civic bodies wield true local power in their trade oriented Free Cities where the Masters of the Guild rule in tiny oligarchic republics without the meddling of Lords. Between them they divide and rule the Free Cities controlling war, conquest, trade, and industry. The Free Cities dance in their vice grip.
Within the Free Cities, the wealthiest of the Greater Guilds, Greater Divination Wizard Guild, is an autonomous moral and legal person. It possesses wealth in lands, houses, and money. It contracts, bargains, binds itself, and a proctor represents it in court. It built a vast University decorated with Coats-of-Arms. It has seals, banners and archives. It makes its own internal rules which supersede many local laws for its members and all members of associated, lower Guilds. Within the Free Cities’ jurisdiction, the Greater Divination Wizard Guild is self-governing. In a pyramid of city power, local lesser local craft guilds swear allegiance to the Greater Divination Wizard Guild for their own benefit and wealth: the wizard reagent reseller guild, the wizard jeweler’s guild, the wizard parchment makers guild who sell watermarked parchment for scrolls, and the wizard’s haberdasheries for highest qualities in wizarding robes and excellent wizarding hats.
Anyone with money, wealth or ambition schemes to join the guild and the easiest way is at the bottom: with apprenticeship.
A wIzard starts as a lowly guild apprentice. All entrants to guilds, greater or lower, mercantile or craft, world-spanning or local, starts with parents offering their precious children at age 10 to Masters on a contractual agreement. Some contracts result in cash, some in goods in kind, and some in promises around the care of the child. After signing, the child leaves home with precious few personal belongings and enters the world of the Master’s workshop where they learn a trade while doing the Master’s unending bidding. Some of the Masters of the Guild are kind, but most not; they have to uphold their reputation for turning children into wizards and only eight years for each child. Eight years are barely time to learn the basics of the wizard’s craft and not enough time for kindness. Long hours, constant work, uncomfortable conditions, and rote memorization is the norm. Wizard workshops are brutal places to matriculate.
Not all children have the magic spark. Some lack the talent and the mental agility. The weeding practice is merciless. Master Wizards trade children who fail to quickly display magic to Masters of the lesser craft guilds for anything: goods, money, servants, other apprentices. Society bars these failed children from the higher strata of their city’s class structure and doom them to a life of labor pressing paper in the wizard guild’s parchment mills or tailoring proper wizard cufflinks. Failure in the Master’s workshop means a life toiling in service to wizards, never quite belonging to them, knowing you could be one of them, but on the outside forever looking in. Once in as an apprentice to a Wizard Master – don’t fail.
Those who master enough “passable” cantrips may call themselves wizards and graduate from their Master’s workshop after eight years. On that day, these new wizards are full dues-paying members of their fraternity for life. While some newly minted journeyman wizards migrate to the next Free City over in search of work, few ever progress further in their mastery. Instead they find themselves in lifetime mediocre salaried service to their Greater Divination Wizard Guild in its voracious need for cheap and easy labor: writing detect magic and identify scrolls marked with the watermark of the guild for pay, tied to benches in magic item factories crafting for sale, or offering their clerical services cheaply to the city. Being a member of the vaunted Great Divination Wizard Guild does not guarantee success: many young wizards exiting the workshops of the Divination Masters find themselves bound for life to identify spell kiosks just outside popular dungeon and monster caves, identifying items and collecting data for unknown Guild Masters. If they just work harder…
But it’s good being a loyal guildsman. The journeymen who do choose to stay journeymen for life exercise a number of perks for membership in a wealthy, powerful guild. The guild is fraternity of educated men and women. It’s warm. It’s welcoming. For those who quietly toil for their brothers and sisters, the guild provides them with a salary, gives them access to lower craft guild services, throws them banquets on holidays, pays for Church help when they or any of their family are ill, buy rounds of drinks and bails them out of jail when they get into a drunken bar fight, shelters them if they are homeless, gives them a stipend when they are old and pays for their funeral at their end of life. Members can wear the coat of arms on their wizard robes. The Great Divination Wizard Guild provides. Sure, it takes a large cut of whatever the wizard makes but look what a member gets in return!
Most of these journeyman wizards never progress past First Level. But who would ever want to leave the city or the comfort of the guild?
The Guild Masters encourage those few young journeyman wizards with strong enterprising spirit to go out into the world. Leave the Free Cities. Band with murder-hobos. Discover mystery and excitement. Gain a few levels. “And bring us back what you learn,” say the Guild Masters. Pointy hat on head, staff in hand, shocking grasp cantrip in mind, the orks will take care of these optimistic few. Dead in caves, on dungeon floors, in wilderness, and on the bitter end of jagged rotten iron hobgoblin swords, the great yearning for adventure solves the Guild Masters’ future wizard problems. The few survivors are a more manageable long term problem.
The Masters can deal with five high level wizards. They have uses for the five high level wizards. The rest is what Bugbears are for.
Because the Guild Masters desire control and the status quo. They brook no challenged. The guild has internal laws and the members must obey the laws if they wish to continue reaping perks. Shops must not sell what the Masters say they cannot sell. Wizards must not scribe spells on non-guild approved parchment. Wizards must not wear non-guild approved robes. Wizards must not use competing guild’s magic items. They cannot learn or cast non-guild approved spells. No one in the Free Cities may hire a “foreign” wizard – and “foreign” has wide connotations. The Masters maintain a complete iron monopoly grip on their domain.
To maintain control, without any forewarning, the Guild Masters sends out bands of Searchers – the Guild’s own Black Internal Affairs Squad – to Wizard workshops, mills, and storefronts to ensure complete compliance with the laws of the guild. Discovering reagents purchased from non-guild storefronts and hats made by non-guild approved milliners is grounds for censure. Spellbooks found with non-guild-approved scrolls or, worse, scab scrolls results in Searchers confiscating the workshop and member banishment from the guild. The Searchers are on the spot judge, jury and executioner. There is no appeal. And the Guild Masters always know.
Fear in the name of inner harmony, city peace, and civic brotherhood togetherness. But why worry about the Searchers if the wizard has nothing to hide? We’re all brothers and sisters.
Some wizards banished from the guild flee the Free Cities guild jurisdictions to craft their own, new spells on their own pressed parchment. Spells the world has never seen. Spells that may, if popularized, change everyone’s life. The Guild Masters cannot abide rogue wizards and spells they do not control. They are inherently ultra-conservative; change cannot permeate the membrane of their carefully designed guild fabric. If someone outside mounted a charge to their authority, the Guild Masters could lose a small sliver of power.
The Masters send out teams of witch-hunters into the black swamps or desolate, forgotten wizard towers where the apostates hide. “Find these evil wizards and bring them to justice,” the Guild Masters implore adventurers (which include one of their own), “as they are destroying our way of life. Keep the magic items in those dungeons and towers you find. For greater glory! And bring us back the secret spell the evil wizard was working on, will you? Along with his head.”
The guild promise of progression from apprenticeship to journeyman to master is a lie. Theoretically, entrance to Mastery in the Wizards Guild is a meritocracy. Purchase a workshop from years of back-breaking labor and adventuring and accept apprentices. Take a place at the table of Masters. Enjoy the money and power. The old wizard earned it.
Wizards chase this carrot on a stick their entire lives. Work hard enough, pay enough dues, play the game, show enough unwavering loyalty, do the dirty work of the guild and be admitted to the higher ranks. Claw into middle-management.
Yet, the licenses for Mastery in any of the Wizarding Guilds are few and jealously guarded behind a web of examinations, payments, and complex secret mystical rituals. The Guild Masters goad potential would-be Masters to throw them another grand banquet, kill another guild apostate, and give another vast donation. The Masters promise to place the candidate’s name into the bag for possible election to the Masters when an Old Master dies. Pinky swear. And when an Old Master does die, the Guild Masters confers their one available master license to their own progeny to perpetuate hereditary line of families controlling the Guild. Bloodlines, they argue, are the best proof of future mastery over the difficult, higher-level Magickal Arts and the difficulties of navigating city politics. Who else to bring into the top ranks of Mastery than those who were born and raised into it? Fair? No. What is fair? Surely there’s another adventure to go on, another dragon to slay, another Plane to map, instead of getting dragged into the mundanity of politics of civil city life? This is a place for diplomats, not battle-hardened soldiers.
Hiding behind the Guild Masters of the Great Divination Wizard Guild, protected by this hereditary cult of Guild Masters, perpetuated by carefully cultivated nepotism, coils a layer of black secrets.
The Secret Masters of Divination are masters of information. They know all, see all, understand all. In times forgotten they built their guild on a core of wizard-based sensors armed with divination spells – information gatherers. They run the Searchers. They choose who to hunted and who to ignore. They declare wizards apostate who climb too high into their ranks. They sit on masses of data, sift through it and divine who to promote and who to destroy. Some whisper the Secret Masters of Divination are an Arch Lich, a Mind Flayer and a Beholder who steer the Great Diviniation Wizard Guild toward acts of unspeakable evil. Others claim the Secret Masters are seven 20th level gnome wizards bent on Gnomish World Domination.
In the bowels of the Free Cities, under the streets and deep in wealth-bedecked guildhalls, protected behind layers of mundane journeymen wizards and their legions of servants, the Secret Masters run a massive intelligence operation: a Black Chamber. Within, the Secret Masters filter all the information gleaned for their member’s spells, they read mail, they crack the most powerful codes, and they know all about Lords, the Kings, opposing Wizards, and Great Families. They run a world-spanning operation and sell their information only to the highest bidders when it suits their purposes. The entire guild operation – the city government, the greater guilds, the lesser guilds, the mills, the scrolls, the magic item factories, the workers, the apprenticeships – are designed to fund this massive, expensive secret operation. For whom? No one knows.
The Secret Masters employ special wizard agents in the Black Chamber to analyze the data and concoct new advanced ways to spy on the enemies of the Free Cities. They recruit from within the guild: promising journeymen wizards matriculating from the best Master’s workshops are “encouraged” to go on adventure and, if they live, come to work for the Secret Masters. Here, they perfect their Divination spells and ascend to the highest levels of wizard mastery. Beyond the control of the Guild Master front, these black agents move among their guild mates and perform the hands-on bidding of the Secret Masters – information collection, murder, mayhem, ant-spy deflection, whatever actions the data dictates. Outside the Black Chamber, these agents look just like another journeyman wizard.
Anyone might be black agent of the Secret Masters. Anyone.
Or say those who can’t climb into the ranks of the Masters. Who knows? It’s probably all a crazy rumor. Guild membership and mastery might just be about temporal City-wide power, money, monopolies, trade, wars and control. Maybe the Guild Masters are a front for run of the mill every day evil. Funny thing about Masters of Divination – they are also masters of countering divination spells.
I had this idea in my head for the Diviners running a sort of horrible Medieval post-WWI intelligence agency – the forerunner of modern intelligence operations. The Divination spells in D&D5e strongly correlate to information collection, data mining, and sifting. Then I came across the “Cabinet noir.” And found other references to other Black Chambers, including the American Black Chamber.
The free city is Bruges.
Most of this comes from “Guilds in the Middle Ages” by Georges Renard, 1918.
The Black Chamber is from “The Code Book” by Simon Singh
Anything else is from “Medieval Guilds” on EH.net on the article by Gary Richardson
Picture made in Inkscape.