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I am starting an adventure in a custom setting that may end up as a campaign, depending on popularity. However, part of what makes the setting unique is that magic is illegal and severely punished by all governments (even the local sheriff will get a bunch of villagers to run off a suspected magic-user), due to a past mage war that left behind lots of deserts and wastelands and killed many people. I don't want to change this background, and I want to keep the flavour of magic being seen generally as evil by nearly everyone, but I don't want to limit magic-using PCs too much. A slight disadvantage is acceptable, but I don't want the class to be near-useless due to the repercussions of using magic.

How can I re-balance this?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

Most PC action takes place away from friendly NPCS

In many campaigns, most of the time you would want to use magic there are no friendly NPCs around. If the players are in a dungeon surrounded by goblins, but no friendly villagers, then they can use it with no fear of social reprecussions.

In short, as long as you are running a "dungeon crawl" this may not be a huge disadvantage to start with.

Give them a way to hide spellcasting

If they can disguise their spellcasting as something else, that would help when they are around friendly villagers. For instance, perhaps psionics is legal. Then the mage might need to role play making his effects look like psionics when he uses them.

Similarly, if you can hide verbal and flashy somatic components than a lot of buffs won't even be noticed and could be used by a mage even surrounded by the prejudiced villagers.

It just makes the mage role play hiding the fact they are a mage.

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One addendum to this answer: Give them a way to avoid or deal with the trouble that using magic brings. This might be as simple as a magic item (such as a magic carpet) that allows them to easily escape pursuit, or it may be as ethically interesting and paranoia-inducing as a spell that wipes the short-term memories of observers but leaves them aware that there's a gap in their recollections, making them worried and fearful about what might have happened in the interim, and terrified that there might be a sinister purpose behind the recent incidences of mass amnesia. –  GMJoe Jul 11 '13 at 5:23
    
Nice addition, thanks. –  TimothyAWiseman Jul 11 '13 at 15:52
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The Dark Sun setting had exactly this issue, for slightly different reasons. In 3rd edition, you'd use the skill Sleight Of Hand vs. the observers' Spot to hide the verbal and somatic components.

For 2nd edition, you could create a similar mechanic: allow the skill Sleight Of Hand to be taken by anyone. Every time a wizard tries to cast a spell subtly, roll against that skill. (Alas, I can't recall if it's in 2nd edition or not; if it isn't, make it up, as a skill based on Dex.) If you're feeling generous, allow a bonus to the check equal to the difference in levels between the observers and the caster. (So a 10th-level caster has a +10 on that check against 0th-level peasants.)

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