Revisiting the Past: Squishy Wizards

Apparently my last post struck a nerve with some folks. I had a great conversation on Facebook with a bunch of folks with comments like:

  • “It’s a different world. The sooner you come to grips with that, the easier it’ll get for you.” (Rob)
  • “But can be used to cause damage. Like to light a web or grease from the spell on fire.” (Rob)
  • “Had this exact conversation when friends were getting me to try 5e over this past year.” (Tim)

And then there was this exchange with Bill Pfaff about 3e. He’d already designed a way to use damaging cantrips in a 3e campaign:

“They were feats that were based on the number of spell slots you had used. Some were based on having reserves available and some were based on being “tapped out” and having no spell slots available. I always hated the idea that the fighter could just keep ripping 1d8 (longsword in most editions) + strength every round but it was just too difficult for the wizard to deliver a little electric jolt or flamefinger type spell each turn. WOTC ended up publishing my design nearly verbatim (which freaked me out, although Bill Moran can tell you it’s not the first time it happened). I am strongly on the other side of the fence on this one.”

It brought me back to the problem or appearance of a problem… Essentially wizards are squishy. They need some way to be more helpful in combat at lower levels. I disagree, but see the point. 🙂

So I’m going to approach this from a different angle.

“Old School” wizards to me should obey the laws of Vancian Magic (thank you Jack Vance and the Dying Earth for influencing early D&D). According to the great summary at TVTropes, Vancian magic ultimately has three basic rules:

  1. Magical effects are packaged into distinct spells, each with a fixed purpose.
  2. Spells must be prepared ahead of time and can only be used once before having to be prepared again.
  3. Wizards have a finite capacity for prepared spells and must rest to “reload” their capabilities when they run out of them.

Sounds like a good old OD&D wizard to me. There’s a cost to controlling powers beyond normal mortal men.

The side effect of this particular set of rules for wizards is that at low levels, wizards are not all that useful or effective. Their spell-based “ammunition” runs out quickly, making them great targets in combat. As a result, they must have friends to act as bodyguards so they can survive long enough to get more powerful. But they are never “all powerful” even if they can eventually control powerful magic and lay waste to an entire group of enemies (with Fireball, for example).

Playing a low-level wizard was never easy as I recall. You were in constant fear for your life with your puny d4 hit dice and lack of ability to wear armor.

That said, I definitely see a problem with it as far as the “fun” factor goes. 5e wizards are more effective at lower levels (as I already pointed out). And as Bill Pfaff pointed out, there is a strange dichotomy with the inability of a wizard to hang with a fighter.

But to me, that’s the way things should be. The Magic-User class in Mazes & Perils is definitely a Vancian wizard in this way.

As a GM, there are some possible ways to fix this…

  • easier access to scrolls as fire and forget magic
  • easier access to low-level magic items like wands of magic missiles
  • modify the class to add more spells at lower levels

Let’s start with the first one.

Ready access to magic depends strongly on the amount of magic available in the setting. If you make scrolls available to everyone… um. That’s a bit overpowering. If the farmer Bob suddenly can sell his crops at market and buy a scroll of Fireball to defend his farm against invasion from orcs, that changes the balance of power quite a bit.

For instance, I don’t see magic stores suddenly showing up in the Lost Age Adventures series for Mazes & Perils. The world is too primitive to have more than a few of these lying around in forgotten, dangerous places. And I wouldn’t want to blow it out of the water by suddenly saying “oh yeah, there’s a vendor with a bunch of scrolls under his trenchcoat.”

Now let’s move to the last one.

Power comes at a cost. A Magic-User in M&P has a single spell at 1st level. That’s it. One measly spell. And they have to work for it.

I can see perhaps giving them some cantrips from the older Unearthed Arcana tradition, but they would have to be very very minor and be of specific uses as I’ve already talked about.

Or perhaps instead of (or in addition to) the languages a character with a high Intelligence score gets, we could add a bonus spell at each level. So maybe a higher intellect grants them the ability to control a bit more magical energy than a character with average intellect. That’s a possibility for an optional rule.

And finally… the middle one. This is the one I think I could see throwing into a campaign.

I can definitely see having a Wand of Magic Missiles in an early adventure and roll a d100 to get a random number of charges. That gives the starting wizard a bit more firepower, but it’s finite. When it runs out, hopefully they are a high enough level that they can hold their own in a battle a bit better.

But I’m still against giving out cantrips with offensive capabilities (though as Rob points out, some of them can be used in attacking ways), but I might see ways to add some additional lower-level spells at some point. They wouldn’t be unlimited, but perhaps a wizard could pick one at each level to have in their back pocket as a utility power.

(Again, let me qualify this. I love 5e as written and will continue to play it. It’s awesome. But it’s not 100% Old School and could be tweaked some to be moreso.)

What do you think?

8 Responses to “Revisiting the Past: Squishy Wizards”

  1. I agree with this post. Magic users should be squishy at lower levels. I liked cantrips (and orisons) being lower level than 1st level spells and unable to obviously do damage. That was the intent when they came out with them and it should have stayed that way.

    That was one of the few things I disagree with the design in 5E. I really like the 5E design in general.

  2. They have been a nice set of posts. However, I have never gotten why Jack Vance’s vision of magic should be the only way that using magic is defined in a Fantasy setting. Even as a kid playing first edition D&D, I never quite got that vision of magic working that way in a Fantasy world.

    To me, Jack Vance’s system isn’t about Old School Rules or not … it is just simply one way to build up a magic system for a Fantasy world. If you are using a low-magic world (which D&D is not by default), it makes a lot more sense.

    • MoebiusAdventures

      It isn’t the ONLY way. It’s just the way that I grew up playing D&D and will forever associate with classic Old School gaming. I totally get what you’re saying though.

  3. Steven D Warble

    I have always argued that the best way to balance the wizard with the other classes is to give them something to do besides cast spells. If a wizard’s arcane knowledge actually mattered during the course of an adventure, then it would be less of a drag that you only had 1 spell to cast.

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