What is the difference between a Wizard, a Warlock, a Sorcerer, and a Mage? Who gets the best fireball spell, and where did they come from?

Magic casters in RPG (role-playing games)… Why do we need so many of them? I guess it’s because in a fantasy universe, playing a reality-bending character with impossible powers is just more fun. Well, we’re back with Unca Pete’s RPG Answers to explain the difference between all these magic-casting characters.

Disclaimer: These definitions are taken loosely. We’re defining magic-casting classes by the most popular general consensus, centering on D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) and derivatives. Your particular game, movie, novel, manga, TV show, or fantasy universe may apply these labels differently. You can argue about this if you want to; everybody does. Some restrictions apply, void where prohibited.

The main fantasy RPG magic classes:


What is a Wizard?

The wizard is most popular default magic-caster. A wizard is characterized as usually a normal mundane who studied the arcane arts through scholarship until mastering them, or, more rarely, a special class of mortal who’s a bit gifted but nevertheless still has to study. The main distinguishing backstory of a wizard’s power is that they got it by cracking the books. Wizards are therefore usually old before they join the party, because it takes a near lifetime of learning before they become powerful enough to start slinging magic missiles around. Sometimes wizards have a master / apprentice system, or the wizard makes side quests to study under the tutelage of magical beings.


What is the origin of Wizards?

Wizards start with the character of Merlin in Arthurian legend, and there wizards sat without much development through centuries until Tolkien came along with Gandalf. Since then, wizards are freaking everywhere in fantasy genres of every medium. Every RPG has either a wizard class or an elemental mage as a stand-in. Wizards are always portrayed as male, and given to quiet study over tomes of ancient lore. Wizards are the geeks even within fantasy settings. See mages, later, for the common root.


What is a Sorcerer?

So what’s the difference with a sorcerer? Sorcerers are born, not made. Magical powers were already in their bloodline, and they only need to train themselves to master them. This means sorcerers still have to study and practice like wizards, but they’re younger and perhaps a bit heartier than their wizard counterpart. On the downside, sometimes their spells fail more often, or have unpredictable results. Since not everybody who was born with wild magical talent necessarily asked for it, you can’t always count on sorcerers to be gung-ho on this whole “adventuring on noble quests” thing. Sorcerers may also have to study under a parent or guardian to master their powers.


What is the origin of Sorcerers?

Historically, sorcerers and wizards haven’t been distinguished much. “Sorcerer” to this day is defined in many dictionaries as a synonym for “wizard.” Sometimes “sorcerer” is applied to indicate an evil wizard, such as in Disney works. See mages, later, for the common root.


What is a Warlock?

So now we come to warlocks, which are like wizards because they started out as mundane mortals too. The difference is that instead of studying under a lifetime of quiet, patient scholarship, they took the shortcut and made an infernal bargain with a magical being who grants them powers in return. That being might be (usually is) an imp, demon, djinn, faerie, or whatever. That being usually takes on the form of an animal whenever in polite company, and is always called a “familiar.” Warlocks paid a heavy price for their power, which is partly a curse and may even go so far as having sold their soul. Warlocks barely study at all, although, like wizards, they were driven by a desire to master magic and learn its secrets. Sometimes a warlock is akin to a priest, only they’re serving some other entity besides a deity. Also, if a warlock’s familiar comes to harm, the warlock is in deep trouble.


What is the origin of Warlocks?

The female equivalent of a warlock is a witch, which ties this class into a unique origin story. If you notice traditional Halloween decorations, a witch on a broomstick is usually shown with a pet nearby: a black cat or a bat is most common, but sometimes spiders, snakes, or owls are the preferred species. This represents the witch’s familiar in animal form. Like warlocks, witches are supposed to derive their power from wicked pacts with either the devil, demons, imps, or other spirits. Witches have one of the longest traditions in folklore, stemming from the Eastern Slavic legends of Baba Yaga, and even further back to Abrahamic religions with – wait for it! – the “Witch of Endor,” who was not a George Lucas Ewok but a character whom King Saul consulted in the book of Samuel in the Bible’s Old Testament. Of course, witch folklore is found throughout the world, especially associated with the Inquisition, the Salem witch trials, and anywhere where Puritans got their pilgrim hats in a rumpus panicking about female empowerment. Warlocks were a secondary concern, appearing much more recently.

Now then:

What is the difference between a Wizard and a Warlock?

A wizard studied for their magical talent. A warlock made a pact with a supernatural being to be granted talent.

What is the difference between a Wizard and a Sorcerer?

A wizard is born a normal person and devoted a lifetime to study of the arcane arts to master magic. A sorcerer is just born with it in his blood, and only has to master their innate talent.

What is the difference between a Sorcerer and a Warlock?

A sorcerer is a special class of mortal who inherited their magical talent at birth. A warlock has to rely on a pact with a supernatural entity to maintain their power.

The rest of the magic classes:

In not just D&D, but pretty much all fantasy RPG games, there’s a host of other spell-casting, magic-slinging characters. Some of them mix-and-match attributes from the main caster classes, and some are their own unique specialty.


What is an Elemental Mage?

The elemental mage is the second-most popular general magic character in most RPG games. A mage is a stand-in for either a wizard or sorcerer (depending on whether they studied or were born special), who narrows their specialties down to one field of splashy damage spells associated with one of the elements. The classical elements are earth, air, fire, and water, but elemental mages in RPGs tend to favor fire, ice, and lightning, sometimes branching out to earth or wind. The chief difference is in what color bolt she zaps you with. Any game with elemental mages will have ice monsters against whom the fire mage is strong, or vice versa. They’re also the character class most likely to swig blue bottles of mana.


What is the origins of Mages?

Mages are actually the foundation for wizards and sorcerers. They’re also the root word from which we get the word “magician,” as in Penn & Teller. “Mage” comes from the Latin word “magus,” later pronounced “magi,” which originally meant simply a wise man. Those three “wise men” bearing gifts at the scene of every Christian nativity? Magi! Deep study has traditionally been associated with power in myth and legend. Remember this the next time your office IT staff sends over the “Unix wizard” (an official job title in office culture) from his office festooned with shelves of computer manuals, come to fix your printer. Early sysadmins who typed commands into text terminals had heavy association with fantasy magic-users.


What is a Bard?

A bard in most fantasy RPGs is a specialized kind of magic caster who uses music, story-telling, poetry, or other performance art to cast area affect spells. The bard’s spells don’t do direct damage, but do either enhance the other party members or weaken the enemy, or cast some other effect such as speeding up or slowing down time, pacifying the enemy, healing the party, or whatever. Never a solo adventurer, they’re a support member of a larger party kept in the back next to the cleric.


What is the origin of Bards?

Bards extend deep into European culture, coming from the Celtic term for a poet, minstrel, or story-teller. Early authors were even deemed bards, such as the ancient Greek poet Homer or the playwright Shakespeare. From time to time, public intellectuals, men of letters, philosophers, and even bloggers (hey, that’s me!) have fit the description of bards. The notion of a bard in these functions encapsulates the idea of a tribal elder in the oral tradition – in other words, a historian. The bard in every village was the old man who knows all the stories. Bards didn’t really get heavily associated with playing music and singing until D&D and other RPGs came along, but minstrels were a close equivalent.


What is a Druid?

A druid is another kind of magic caster whose magic is specialized into being in tune with nature. Their spells always revolve around flora and fauna, sometimes evoking the odd element too, though usually that’s one of earth, air, or water. Druids are either nomads who lived in the mountains their whole lives mastering the secrets of nature, or else they tend to be from a fantasy race. Sometimes their powers include lycanthropy, being able to shape-shift into a wolf or bear. They’re almost always able to summon animals to aid in battle, and might have powers over venom, poisons, and toxins as natural weapons or defenses, or be able to heal others through familiarity with medicinal herbs. Really, any damn thing goes with druids. Nature is a big place, you know.


What is the origin of Druids?

Notice how much of this stuff has Celtic roots? Druids were religious leaders in ancient religions well older than Christianity, with some association with Pagan beliefs. Through a series of cultural mistranslations, Druids were also thought to be the architects of Stonehenge, the world’s first perpetual calendar. Through that and confusion about the connections between Paganism, Wicca, mythology, and more elements tossed into a cultural sausage grinder, druids ended up being the tree-hugging hippies of fantasy RPG classes. Just go with it.


What is a Cleric?

A cleric is the religious counterpart to a warlock, but aligned with a deity. Typically their magic is limited to healing the rest of the party members. If they have damage spells, they usually only work against unholy enemies, the undead, ghosts, demons, vampires, wraiths, etc. In games where they play stand-alone, they may also be called “priests” and have to play by their deity’s rules of combat, i.e. “no sharp weapons.” Sometimes they’re not considered a magic class at all, but rather pray for a smiting bolt from their deity instead of casting one themselves.


What is the origin of Clerics?

Back when we wrote a whole silly post about Paladins, we tied them in with the legends around Knights Templar, the Holy Crusades, and other aspects of the Catholic church and its role in European government. Clerics come from the same place, within the ranks of the church. During the Spanish Inquisition, the ground-rules for torture were strictly laid out to forbid any activity that could “maim, mutilate, draw blood or cause any sort of permanent damage.” The “draw blood” part is why priest and cleric classes (sometimes paladins too) in RPGs are only allowed to use blunt weapons, although bashing in somebody’s brains with a mace tends to violate the rest of the rules anyway. The rest is derived from associations with other Catholic tropes, including the belief in exorcism extending to special powers against the undead.


What is a Necromancer?

The most underused and underrated magic class in fantasy RPGs, necromancers are derived from wizards / sorcerers / warlocks, but their magic deals strictly with the dead. Specifically, raising them, in skeleton, ghost, or zombie form, to do his bidding. Necromancers summon an army from a graveyard and then sit and sip tea while the skeleton army fights for them. Necromancers may have other spells related to morbid powers involving poison, bones, vampirism, zombies, or the like.


What is the origin of Necromancers?

Historically speaking, necromancers are the most modern invention in fantasy folklore. There are some links between necro lore and to commuting with the dead, going far back in mythology and superstition, even back to Homer’s Odyssey, and with zombies originating from Haitian mythology. Jesus might even be called “the first necromancer,” via Lazarus. But when you’re talking about not just having a séance to talk to ghosts, but raising a real stinking dead body from the grave to walk around again, you can’t bank worse than the birth of gothic horror with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The difference here is that spiritualists are looking to talk to the soul of the dead with their Ouija boards; necromancers discard the soul and animate the bones and meat of the corpse itself as an empty shell sans its original personality.


What is an Alchemist?

An alchemist is also a rarely seen class, but they’re a science-oriented counterpart to wizards. They always have chemistry as a specialty, being able to mix potions, transmute materials, and sometimes create explosives, gunpowder, or general pyrotechnics. As a fantasy class, alchemists can get nearly as powerful as wizards, but they’re casting fireballs with good old butane instead of muttering incantations. Alchemist magic also sometimes involves “equivalent exchange” powers, being able to zap rocks into bread or defeating an enemy by turning their armor into cotton candy. With alchemists, something always has to go in before something goes out, so if they run out of materials, they’re defenseless.


What is the origin of Alchemists?

That, my fine readers, is a post in itself for a later date, just like the paladins! Don’t just take Wikipedia’s word on this one; the story of alchemy is ingrained into every aspect of modern culture all around you. We’ll link that post on alchemists later when we get around to writing it someday.

Aren’t all these mixed up everywhere in different games and stories anyway?

Hell yes they are! We can’t even begin to count the ways! Listen, if you can see how a current news story gets scrambled into an unrecognizable mess of fake news and conspiracy theories on social media on the exact same day the story breaks, what chance do thousand-year-old legends have? We especially see the mish-mosh of blended culture in the way Americans import mythology and legend from Old Europe and ancient Rome and Greece. That’s actually why there’s so much confusion, and why “witches and warlocks” were portrayed as sorcerers in the classic sitcom Bewitched, while a lineage of sorcerers are called “wizards” in Harry Potter. We tend to mix this stuff around freely, especially when we slap together yet another fantasy RPG on the Steam conveyor belt.


About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.