Man, these guys. Whoa. Faceless clockwork figures with wands imbedded in their chests allowing them to cast spells from a single school of magic? Awesome.
Not only are clockwork mages just evocative and creepy, period—any fan of Dr. Who or Hellboy can tell you that—but they are also inevitably a comment on—and occasionally a mockery of—the real thing. Clockwork mages are an insurance policy for flesh-and-blood mages not sure if their own magic is up to snuff. They are a symbol of the vanity of the mage who thinks the only worthy servants are the ones he creates himself. Or they’re a sign of the ill temper or madness that drives another mage’s living servants away, until clockwork creations are his only companions.
Then again, living mages are a troublesome lot. If you’re a ruler with power and gold enough, why not do away with wizards altogether? Just be sure not to tell them the clockwork mages you’ve commissioned them to craft are meant to replace them until after the deed is done.
Blackhenge Keep vanishes for a fortnight, leaving nothing behind but bare foundations. When the wizards’ guildhall returns, the local lord forbids all but experienced adventurers to investigate. The caution is merited: The school at first appears empty, but soon a clockwork facsimile of the guild’s majordomo appears in the atrium. The figure is silent but seems to indicate that intruders should leave. Any attempt to brush past him is met with a stinking cloud.
Chasing his Gesamtkunstwerk, a half-elven composer begins to replace perceived obstacles to his success with machines. It starts innocently enough—mechanisms to raise and lower the curtains automatically, enchanted lamps timed to musical cues, and finally a clockwork mage to produce colored lights and illusions. Soon he is replacing stagehands, ushers, his librettist—and finally the actors themselves. Or rather, “abducting” is the better word, as the composer is finding new inspiration in the terror of his former colleagues, particularly now that clockwork mage-cast spells of reduce person, touch of idiocy, and scare have made his captives so pliable.
In Cognomon, clockwork mages are the one of the more ominous signs of the World-City’s will. Clockwork transmuters move as spies through humanoid communities, shrouded by alter self. Clockwork abjurers spell vital portals from intrusion and break the enchantments of the living. Clockwork conjurers travel the underrealms on strange missions, aided by their spells and summoned creatures. And clockwork evokers are instruments of swift, cold, uncaring justice and vengeance…at least as the Clockwork Mind understands such things.
—Pathfinder Bestiary 4 32
As a player I’m a generalist—my eldritch knight hates to be caught without just the right spell (one reason I always opt for a bonded object). But as a worldbuilder, I love the schools of magic. By giving a structure to magic, they make the worlds of Pathfinder (and D&D) feel more real, more solid, more grounded. And they second you have those rules, you of course are going to go about tweaking and breaking them, which is where stories come from (not to mention more worldbuilding). Create a wizard’s academy but leave out one school of magic—why? Suddenly there’s a mystery for players to ask about, and an entire cadre of ticked-off wizards who might take action. What happens when the High Abjurer refuses to ward the Necromancers’ Wing? What if elves don’t use the schools of magic? Where do sorcerers fit (or not) in all this? (Corollary: And just what do wizards do to people who don’t fit in?)
Just look at what happened when early issues of Pathfinder took the world’s oldest role-playing game’s schools of magic and associated them with the seven deadly sins. We got not just one, but two entire Adventure Paths—twelve adventures—from that single brainstorm alone.
All of which is to say, imagine what you could get out of a clockwork mage or two.