5E Wizards

Mike Mearls has a design column up talking about Wizards. There are a few interesting things here, and also a few possibilities that I don’t think would suit the kinds of games I like to run. But before I talk about those things, let me observe that there seem to be an awfully large number of things that are still up in the air considering that the first public play test is in just over a week.

The aspect that is potentially most problematic from an old school point of view is the treatment of cantrips (basically, at-will powers by another name). This is because having unlimited uses is fundamentally at odds with the resource management that is core to low-level traditional D&D. It is possible to make this work, but the cantrip powers have to be chosen very carefully. For example, there can be no light cantrip. I’m not 100% opposed to something like an at-will attack power (for example, see this post about cantrip scrolls) but an at-will attack does fight against the perception magic as strange and special. This ultimately comes down to a setting question: high magic or low magic?

Traditionally, D&D magic is reliable (with the possible exception of spell interruption). Dangerous magic (spell fumbles, insanity systems, etc) is flavorful and fits much fantasy literature and mythology, but can be hard to model for a game about problem solving. I think both of these styles can work well, but I’m not sure how they can coexist. It seems like a decision needs to be made here. Maybe dangerous magic should be saved for another class such as the warlock?

There are a few points that I am fully on board with. For example, I have never much liked enhancement spells (stoneskin, haste, etc) because in my experience they lead to excessive preparation before any possible conflict. The casting of such spells does not represent interesting strategic or tactical planning. It’s just finding a way to stack bonuses. Once these bonus spells start to feel mandatory, something is wrong.

I like what Mr. Mearls has to say about the creative use of spells (for example, using grease to help a rogue escape). This comes back to the idea of associated or disassociated mechanics and fluff as crunch. That is, in the design process does the effect of the spell come first or the meaning of the spell come first? (Tangentially, I usually hate the terms fluff and crunch, but that roles/rules post also implicitly shows why those words can be so harmful to game design.)

The other possibility that I like is a decrease in the number of spell slots, especially for higher level wizards. Just in terms of practicality, tracking all those spells and deciding which to prepare per adventure is a lot of work. A smaller number of slots makes consumable magic items more valuable as well. Also, having too many slots doesn’t fit either Vancian or mythological literature very well; magic is more often portrayed as more limited. Having many spell slots also doesn’t fit much recent fantasy (like the One Power of The Wheel of Time or the Force in Star Wars). Those types of magic would probably be better served by a mana point system (which I have no problem with as a supplemental class, just not for the core wizard).

9 thoughts on “5E Wizards

  1. LS

    Here’s an idea: A Wizard starts with 4 spell slots, and at each level, gains 2 more. So a level 1 wizard will have 4 spell slots, a level 2 wizard will have 6, and a level 20 wizard will have 44.

    Memorizing a spell in the morning requires a number of slots equal to its spell level. So a level 9 spell will require 9 of the wizard’s daily slots.

    So if a level 20 wizard wanted, he could memorize 44 level 1 spells. Or four level 9 spells and one level 8 spell.

    I’m really liking this idea, actually. I may need to write a Pathfinder house rule for it. =P

    1. LS

      Wow, that’s more than a little bit similar. It’s basically the same concept, applied to a 3.X Sorcerer, rather than a 3.X Wizard.

      I’m tempted to say something trite about great minds, but I’ll resist.

      I don’t know if it would take longer to plan your spells for the day. A normal wizard in PF is able to prepare 4 spells for each of the 9 spell levels it has. By level 20, the Wizard can prepare 36 spells ranging the levels. But since most wizards are unlikely to focus their casting for the day on low levels, they’d probably prepare mostly mid-level spells, with one or two high level spells.

    2. Brendan

      I was just now reading the Principalities of Glantri Gazetteer for basic D&D and came across this (page 59):

      Spell Combination: This technique allows the student to mix his spell levels in any combination, so long as the total spell levels memorized do not exceed his capacity. For example: a level 4 magic-user normally casts two 1st level spells, and two 2nd levels (for a total of 6 spell levels). With this technique, he can choose to memorize six first level spells, or three second levels, or any other appropriate combination.

      (Techniques can be learned one per level at the Glantri magic school.)

      How’s that for crazy coincidence?

      Glantri is the “wizard’s kingdom” nation of Mystara.


  2. Hedgehobbit

    I never did understand the need for at-will powers separate from regular spells. If you create a spell with a long duration (say 1 day), that allows the wizard to create Eldritch Blast type attacks, you don’t need to change the rules at all. Plus, you give both the DM and players the power to use or not use them. So an at-will multiple use attack power cost you a more powerful single use spell.

    1. Brendan

      That’s true. Such a spell probably wouldn’t be available at first level though. For example, magic missile (while not totally counteracted due to it unerring property) would seem a bit pale compared to a spell which provided unlimited eldritch blasts for the next day. Many people do commonly forget about spell durations though; that’s a good point. For example, detect magic (IIRC) is active for one hour per caster level.

    2. Hedgehobbit

      That’s true, but magic missile is a fairly underpowered spell at first level. It doesn’t really get good until the caster gets the extra missiles.

      Mine is second level and requires a to-hit roll and does normal, non magical, damage of 1d4. Making the damage magical would significantly upgrade the spell.

      OTOH, Mearls is talking about just giving magic-users a free magical attack for nothing in return. So making it cost him even a first level spell slot would still be an improvement.

  3. 1d30

    I agree about the resource management aspect of low-level play being important. Spells are still important resources at high levels too.

    I agree that any at-will powers that affect low-level resources are a serious threat to that style of play: illumination, food, water, orienteering, encumbrance, levitation, communication. But if you leave those out, not much is left. Admittedly, an at-will cantrip that gave enough light to read by but not enough to see an opponent 5′ from you feels just right.

    As for the buff spell complaint, I like the Shadowrun 2 system of stacked spells. A single caster can have multiple spells running at once, but having a spell running makes casting another spell more difficult. So you could cast Haste but then trying to cast Prayer would be much harder, and getting off a third spell could be impossible. It’s also a tradeoff in that the caster can have spells running OR cast combat spells easily, but if he tries to cast combat spells while he has a Strength going he’s probably not going to succeed.

    This way, Haste can be kept running all day (probably just on one person) but it sort of neutralizes that caster in exchange. Trying to pump everyone up with 5 or 6 area-effect spells before a fight is just impossible even for a character that’s been worked up for thousands of game sessions.

    Instead of managing your resources on a daily basis you’re managing them constantly. While there is possible Drain from casting powerful spells you don’t really see a predictable 10-minute adventuring day. The caster could go all day doing minor magic and not get stressed out, or a couple minor spells could leave him knocked out for several hours. It’s all in the dice.

    In all, it’s less predictable in when your resources will run out, but more predictable in the diversity of magic a caster can put out. None of this “I didn’t memorize magic missile today”.

    1. Brendan

      Mobility, manipulation, and minor illusion cantrips are mostly unproblematic, I think. Minor telekinesis, for example, can lead to creative problem solving without disrupting any of the resources. Making your eyes glow when angry can be fun and add to a roleplaying encounter.

      That Shadowrun system sounds really interesting. I played one session of Shadowrun once and hated it, but the problem could have been the referee. The rules seemed to really reward system mastery also, which I wasn’t really interested in. I was also playing a fighter-type character, so I didn’t really get to interact with the magic system. Maybe I should take a look at it again. Is there a particular edition that you would recommend?


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