"I'm sorry," Tara said, her tongue touching her bottom lip. "Did you just say you didn't attend an academy?"
"You heard me correctly," the tall, young man said, leaning on his ash wood walking staff. Tara put on her best polite smile, but it was strained around the edges.
"I'm afraid you may have been misled in your journey," she said. "Lord Archaeon is very particular when it comes to the staff he seeks. And while I do not wish to disparage your skills and abilities, he was very specific that any mage who approaches him must have completed the most rigorous of formal training."
"You may rest assured that I have done just that, madam," the man said. The smile was gone from his face and voice alike, and there was a thunderhead building in his eyes. Tara felt a shift in the air, and realized that she may have misjudged the figure who stood before her.
"I come to you in good faith, with my open hand outstretched, and you intimate that I am a mere hedge witch or border sorcerer," he said. His voice was not loud, but it seemed to reverberate inside Tara's head, gaining in power as it echoed inside her skull. his next question rumbled in her ears, with all the power of far-off thunder. "Do you know the name Karavon Demastis?"
"The... the Master of Fireheart Mountain?" Tara said, her voice a strained whisper. His smile was gentle, but it did not reach his gaze.
"I called him master for ten years of my education," he said. As he spoke, veins of fire ran through his staff lit and burned, as if it would erupt with volcanic force. "Now, please inform your lord that I have come a long way to hear what he seeks, and my patience is growing short."
There Are Many Roads
When it comes to magic in our TTRPGs, we so often think of our casters as learning in very specific ways. This has only been exacerbated by trends in our fiction (and in our settings) that focus on magical schools, summer camps, and academies. While there's nothing wrong with using this kind of setup for your spellcasting characters, it's also important to step back, and to ask how many other paths to power there are in your game, and what a given character's journey may have looked like up to this point.
On the one hand, the "traditional college" role of learning magic might very well be an option. Perhaps there are arcane institutions, or even clerical programs that formally instruct students on the ins and outs of magical theory, ritual, and spellcraft. And while some of these individuals may be spellcasters, it's equally possible that they just don't have the knack of magic, even if they learn all about it. Those individuals might become arcane-themed rogues, archaeologists, or even scholars whose knowledge may be just as powerful as fireballs and lightning bolts. These institutions might be open to any who can pay for the right to attend, or to those with some kind of talent, but they could also be an extension of a guild, such as you'd see with the Blood mentioned in Guilds of Sundara (for both Pathfinder and DND 5E)
That isn't the only option, though. Some spellcasters might have a series of tutors, working with them over time to help refine their skills. Others might become apprentices to established magic users, who must evaluate their skills before allowing them to become journeymen, where they then take their magical abilities out into the world to hone and refine them. Perhaps your caster is self-taught, reading the tomes and grimoires left behind by long-dead practitioners of the art and following in their footsteps, or merely experimenting with their own, in-born power and finding what works for them.
And when you start adding in the weird, wild, and fantastical elements of a fantasy setting to these different methods, you can get yourself quite an unusual background for your character!
For example, someone who has become an apprentice to a great fey creature, or to an efreet, may learn secrets that are far beyond the knowledge of mortal teachers, and they might learn far faster than would otherwise be possible. Someone with a natural talent for necromancy, who is willing to do the necessary digging, might be able to use ancient tomes to summon the ghosts of long-dead wizards, obliging them to act as tutors in the magical arts. You could have had a dragon as a professor, sharing centuries of understanding, and providing a perspective no other living being could. You could commune with ancient, holy forests, learn from angels and devils directly, and a thousand other things.
And, of course, you could always take multiple paths throughout your learning. So you might start as an apprentice, enroll in a university, recover lost relics in order to teach yourself things no one living knows the answers to, and through this combination develop a unique spellcasting style that no one has ever truly seen before.
Fantasy should be fantastical... so embrace it!
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