Magic is as old as human civilization. Records going back to before the rise of the Old Empire tell us that it has always played an important part in human society. In the time before the empire most magic was practiced and controlled by the cults. As the only organized groups that praised learning and literacy, they were unmatched in their ability to study and understand mana stones. They developed the first rules and techniques for using magic, although their abilities would be considered primitive today. The dogma and outlook of the cults meant they never saw magic as anything more than a convenient tool. They frequently used magic as an example of the power of the gods in order to impress peasants and build religious followings.
However, this state of affairs eventually changed. During the wars of unification throughout the ascent of the empire magic began to be used more and more during military conflicts. Countries responded by funding and organizing research of their own. These scholars soon discarded the religious trappings that the cults had attached to magic and developed a deeper understanding of how mana stones truly worked. By the time the Homelands had been completely unified the study of magic had become a secular activity. Sensing the danger of allowing magic power to proliferate, and at the urging of several of the wisest scholars in the empire, Emperor Nerius forbid the study of magic to anyone but a few hand selected scholars.
At first enforcement of this edict was carried out by the imperial army and police, but many mages survived in conquered provinces, and they refused to give up their power. This was a problem. Magic was not only dangerous as a military weapon but its improper use could lead to deadly side-effects. After years of costly hunts and failures by the army, one imperial scholar suggested inviting the provincial mages to join the imperial service. This would not only give the imperial mages access to new magics, but with most the provincial mages at their side, the imperial mages would easily be able to stamp out the remaining few mages who refused to join them. The Emperor agreed, and thus soon the number of mages in the imperial capital swelled and they became responsible for enforcing their own monopoly on magic. As a result not only was illegal magic stomped out, but the stage had been set for the rise of the guilds.
As all students of history know, the empire didn’t last forever. During the long peace of its reign, the use of magic had spread to every corner of the empire. Although every mage still had to operate with the permission of the emperor, in truth everything related to magic was handled by powerful mage organizations whose loyalty to the empire was paper thin. When the empire began to fragment and collapse several mage organizations choose to serve the rebels and separatists. This doomed the empire. With powerful war magics to call on, the rebel armies were able to go toe to toe with imperial forces.
The dissolution of imperial authority meant that no one controlled the mage organizations anymore. Several powerful kings attempted to make their country’s mages swear allegiance to them, but the local mages collaborated and resisted, forming guilds. With their power still fresh and uncertain, the upstart lords were unable to force the mage guilds to bend the knee. Instead, a compact was formed. The mages would refrain from influencing politics and offer their services to the lords in return for fair payment, and the lords would not challenge the mages’ monopoly over magic or freedom to pursue their research. Of course, across the entire vast world not all mages were united into one guild. They formed several different competing organizations, but the one thing that did unite them was their desire to remain free of control, and towards that one goal they cooperated among themselves.
Thus did the modern mage guild come to be. Supplied with luxuries such cooling stones, and with access to combat mages and war magic for their armies, the nobles were unwilling to press the guilds, lest the guilds support their enemies. In turn, any guild that gets involved in politics or shady dealings would be black-marked by the nobility, and swiftly overtaken by another competing mage guild.
-Gavighd Veragill, Royal Historian to Clement III