Rick Stump of Harbinger Games was nice enough to send me a review copy of his Mage Guild: Wizardly Resources for OSRIC supplement. The product is billed as "45 pages packed with NPCs, spells, magic items, plot hooks, monsters, and campaign ideas" and those things are certainly all in there.
After a brief introduction as to the purpose of the supplement we jump right into the description of The Mage Guild. Notice that it says The Mage Guild and not A Mage Guild! Indeed this first chapter describes the (relatively recent!) founding of a particular mage guild by several adventuring companions and its subsequent growth into a bigger, somewhat federated organization with quite a few ambitions. The overall working of the guild is described next, as are details about the guild's bylaws and charter.
The concept of The Mage Guild is very much modeled on the medieval guild system for other trades, providing for a certain amount of "realism" as it were. One concept that's curiously absent is apprenticeship, something I would have liked to see addressed (but see below). The focus of The Mage Guild as described feels a little more like a "professional association" similar to the IEEE for example. This is neither good nor bad, it's just different from what I would have expected.
Next we're on to Mage Houses, a more "natural" organization of magic-users based on the relationship between "master" and "apprentice." This is once again not just a general description of what a Mage House is. Instead specific details about specific houses from the implied campaign setting are described. We learn, for example, that House Barr has members that are also trained as engineers and specialize in relieving sieges. Short descriptions of 17 different houses are included. The section ends with details about the names of magic-users (a big deal in the implied setting) and a discussion of "true names" and their effect on spells.
One of the problems I have is that the interests of The Mage Guild and the various Mage Houses are in conflict. Certain houses are described as having access to "unique spells" but since all magic-users have to disclose their spells when joining The Mage Guild, that knowledge cannot remain private. I am not sure if this conflict is intentional or not. If it is then it should be addressed "head on" in the supplement and a description of the kinds of problems it leads to should be added, ideally with a few historical anecdotes about how things played out.
The next 12 pages cover a number of non-player characters, most importantly the current leaders of The Mage Guild. Each is described in quite a bit of detail covering not only game statistics but also character background, appearance and personality, typical combat strategies, and notes about role-playing the character.
I found the descriptions of these characters enjoyable and there are a few neat surprises (and plot hooks) for players potentially encountering them. I am almost certain that many of these were originally player characters, which is probably why they are rather well fleshed-out. However, after all the fuss about Mage Names and how important they are, only one of the characters is actually given with his "proper" name thereby also revealing his Mage House. All the other characters are given less appropriate (in this case anyway) fantasy names. But what's worse is that, without those names, we never find out which Mage Houses they belong to (except for one more character where the house is explicitly described).
Now we get to the spells, always a favorite of mine. There are a number of Magic Missile variants, one of which is particularly cool (so I won't spoil it here). There are also variants of Find Familiar, something I cannot recall having seen before. And we get a powerful spell that applies the earlier discussion of true names in an interesting way.
I did enjoy these spells, although I have to admit that one magic-user's obsession with variants of Magic Missile seems a little over the top. However each of those variants has a nice flavor, so your mileage may vary. The spell combining "Spider Climb" and "Jump" seemed very cool at first, but then I realized that it's at the same level as "Fly" and I found myself wondering why anyone would leap from wall to wall instead of just trying to fly. However, once again, I like the flavor of this new spell much better than the relative blandness of "Fly". (Also maybe "Fly" should have been level 4 instead of level 3, but now I am messing with Gary and I really shouldn't.)
The section on magical items is very short, only one page. Sadly these are mostly variants of existing items and except for the "Weapons of Adroitness" they are not terribly flavorful. But at least they serve as a good reminder that variant items are something each DM should consider adding to their campaigns, just to keep players guessing a little.
Next we get two special creatures, both designed to go with the new variants of Find Familiar presented earlier. Arcane Servants are for good magic-users what familiars such as quasits are for evil magic-users. Elemental Spirits are "familiar-sized" elementals.
I like both of these ideas for familiars. The first "balances" the perceived advantages that evil magic-users can get out of Find Familiar, what with quasits granting their 25% magic resistance as long as they are within a mile of the wizard. The second is very flavorful (the gem form restriction is great!) and finally gives magic-users who consider themselves "elementalists" of one sort or another an appropriate familiar. Well done I say.
Finally we get one page of advice about how The Mage Guild can fit into a campaign and one page of adventure hooks. (Sadly the appendix detailing the Guild House and the sample map for Chapter Houses are not included in the version I received for this review.)
The advice given is solid, although I wish the idea of players running their own guilds would have been taken up as well, maybe from an "end game" type of angle: Fighters build baronies, clerics build churches, thieves build thieves' guilds, and magic-users, instead of just sitting in a tower somewhere, try to influence the world by setting up their own version of a mage guild. I had assumed something like that was part of the supplement, alas it is not. (However, you can conceivably "re-engineer" it from the examples given.) The adventure hooks are not exactly fascinating but certainly solid and focus on getting player characters exposed to The Mage Guild so they can start interacting with it.
Now before I summarize regarding content and value I have to get one more thing off my chest: I found the layout and design of Mage Guild severely lacking. True, the PDF clearly states that this is the "no frills" version of the supplement, but on the other hand it's quite unclear where one would obtain the "all frills included" version. I know I have ridiculously high standards when it comes to typography and presentation, but I am actually quite happy with the relatively plain style that supplements like Sine Nomine's The Crimson Pandect use. Sadly the current version of Mage Guild looks more like the author used "Print to PDF" on an HTML file. Luckily improving the layout and design should not take a lot of effort and I hope the author will release an updated version soon.
Overall I enjoyed this supplement although as I indicated above my expectations were maybe a little higher. What I like most is that this material obviously comes from an actual campaign, it wasn't put together by a game designer approaching things from an abstract angle. In terms of content I enjoyed the non-player characters and the spells (including the unique creatures) most, something I didn't quite expect. The details on the guild and the houses are nice but since they are so specific to the implied setting I cannot see myself reusing them as is. If the supplement had provided a framework for the creation of mage guilds, and maybe some tables for putting them together semi-randomly, that would have helped me more in my own campaign.
Mage Guild is currently priced at $4.00 for 45 pages. For $9.99 you can get products like The Crimson Pandect or Dyson Logos' recently released Magical Theorems & Dark Pacts. Those products clock in at 131 and 157 pages respectively, and they run circles around Mage Guild in terms of layout and design. Neither of these supplements set out to address the question of how wizards organize themselves, something certainly worthy of exploration. The Crimson Pandect offers some ideas in this direction and it provides tables to randomly determine how "Dark Cabals" and "Wizard Academies" are set up. However it doesn't provide a worked example of a mage guild.
If you are primarily looking for a general supplement on magic-users (classes, spells, etc.) then you shouldn't pick up Mage Guild but one of the competitors I mentioned. If you are looking for a home-grown, worked example of a guild however, then Mage Guild could fit the bill, especially if the author updates it to bring it closer to his competitor's offerings in terms of production values (or alternatively lowers the price).
Edit: Rick Stump has lowered the price for Mage Guild to $2.00 and also told me that he's working on revisions. Whether these revisions will go into this or a related product is not 100% clear, but he's happy to credit people who buy an updated version the price they paid for this one. Way to go! :-)