Monday, May 21, 2012

Wizards and Versatility in D&D

Last week's Legends and Lore column details some design goals of the new wizard class in D&D Next, and the D&D Next chat mentions at-will magic. I like some of what I see, but I'm a little concerned about other things. These items made me rethink a few things about wizards though which are worth noting.

What slightly disturbs me about the new wizard class design goals is the at-will cantrip types of powers and the lack of oodles of spells. Now, I've surely considered reducing the number/power of wizard spells before, but I think that takes away from some of the fun of playing a wizard: Sorcerers or warlocks should be able to blast their enemies all day long. Wizards, however, should probably be relying on more of their utility spells. Because that's what wizards have: oodles of various spells.

In combat, a wizard might use his grease spell to keep the enemies in place, disarm an enemy warrior, escape from being grappled, or whatnot. Similarly, a low-level conjuration might disable an enemy via marbles or caltrops, or create enough arrows for the ranger to keep firing. A shatter spell might overcome a lock, break an enemies weapon, or bring down the house. All of these require intelligent use and, for a wizard to be successful, he needs a variety of these sorts of utility spells. This is a lot more cunning than throwing some javlin of fire constantly, which is probably functionally equivalent to taking up the crossbow in your own defense.

There is a danger here, that a well-studied wizard will always have the right spell for the right situation, particularly if he's prepared. The scry-and-die strategy is also a danger of being a game-killer, since wizards could simply gather enough information, prepare well, teleport in, slay their enemies, and leave without a trace. But that's a problem of reigning in high-level spells, not the low-level variety that I'm talking about. There's this tension between high-level awesomeness though and low level utilities that needs to be addresses. I think there are a few ways to do this.

First off, keep the concept of spell levels. Its a D&D staple and it isn't too controversial. This prevents low-level characters from learning to fly, teleporting, and the like.

Second, keep spells specific, not general. If the sorcerer or warlock can nab spells like Shadow Evocation or Polymorph Self, they have a lot of versatility with that one spell choice. Even the prestidigitation cantrip is an example of something that should perhaps be broken town. Specific spells like Wolfform, Serpentform, or Eagleform give wizards spell options and keep other classes limited.

Third, two types of spell-slots might be appropriate for wizards. They might have a small number of slots to memorize all their spells with, but they might have a second set of low-level utility spells. Perhaps these spells are 'mastered' so that a wizard can cast each cantrip once per encounter even. This second set of low-level spells would ensure that a wizard might always be able to cast cantrips like 'candle-light', later-on the first-level spell 'torch', and eventually the full-on 'daylight' spell. This type of division means you limit the number of fly, haste, or teleport spells while emphasizing a broader range of situationally useful magic effects like spider-climb, jump, light, message, and the like.

Fourth, reigning in some of the low-level spells is also crucial. As Mearls mentioned, a second-level invisibility spell which is objectively better than a rogue's ability to hide in shadows is the sort of thing that helps break encounters. If invisibility, however, basically lets the wizard sneak as well as a thief (i.e. by letting him do a sneak check based on his intelligence or some such), then we have a better low-level spell or possibly something in the cantrip range, rather than in the league of fireball and haste. Similarly light-sources, ammunition, and the like shouldn't be completely replaceable with low-level spells at low-levels. Cantrips might create candle light or a couple arrows. First level spells should create either longer-lasting torch-light or short-lasting bright light.

Fifth, avoid powerful at-will spammable powers. Warlocks might summon infernal weapons from their patrons, or sorcerers throw around fireballs all day, but wizards should probably be limited to spells on a per-encounter basic. Now, they might have a ray of frost, conjured arrow, or fling item cantrips that they can use each encounter, but they're not blasting away with the same spells constantly. This feels much more like a crafty wizard to me, though I can see how it adds a little bookkeeping complexity since a wizard might have 5 different encounter-level cantrips instead of at-will attacks.

Mechanically, how would this work? How can the wizard be mechanically distinct from the sorcerer or warlock? Let's assume first and foremost that sorcererers, warlocks, and wizards all use the same pool of spells, so any additional to arcane magic could be taken up by each of the arcane casters and no class is just neglected. Let's further assume that the sorcerer has a small number of spells, possibly linked to a thematic bloodline and that sorcerers can cast one free spell per encounter, meaning they'll never run completely dry but might come close. A sorcerer might have one encounter-based cantrip or two or even an at-will cantrip too. The warlock is probably similar, but has lower-level fixed at-will powers (to take a page from 3.5), particularly an at-will attack option (eldritch blast or an eldritch weapon). A wizard probably has a particular number of spell slots, like many editions of D&D and fills each of those slots each day.

One way to distinguish the wizard from this sorcerer would be to let more spells be counted as cantrips eventually, and use cantrip slots differently than normal spell slots. Maybe wizards have a similar number of spells as sorcerers, but can add new cantrips to his book at each level from the list of first (and eventually second) level spells he has. In this way, a wizard isn't quite prepared for any situation, as he couldn't spontaneously cast any spell from his book, just what he's mastered (and perhaps memorized that day) as cantrips. A wizard could still have, say, only 10 or 20 spell slots at 20th level, he'd just also have 10 cantrip slots perhaps and 10 or 20 of his cantrip options would be first and second level spells. Spells mastered as cantrips might only be cast at the lowest level of ability though, so a cantrip magic missile would never scale, but could be used each encounter. Cantrips could even be rememorized after a short rest of some kind (15 minutes maybe?) so that a wizard can always have a full complement of cantrips.

Another way for wizards to have a variety of utility spells is to let a wizard just spontaneously recall a needed spell from his book. This means he'll often have the right spell for the right situation, so it might need a daily limit instead of a per-encounter one. But its quite simple: Once per day a wizard might remember a spell just as its needed. He can instantly memorize any one spell in his spell book can cast it. You could even make it random by forcing a difficult intelligence check to remember it, though you might be able to keep trying for the same spell or try for a different one each round you tried to remember a spell.

Alternately, a wizard might be able to spontaneously add a spell to his list via his own spellbook or implement. The wizard probably spends time flipping pages in combat, identifies a low-level spell he needs, and then casts it on the fly (probably sacrificing a different prepared spell in the process). This might take an intelligence check and have some chance of failure, but it means the wizard will have the right spell in many situations though it might take a few tries to get it off.

Other editions had some rules for diversity of spell selection as well, though they weren't highlighted in the wizard class description. Second edition even had rules in the Spells and Magic book for leaving spell slots free so that it could cast any available spell from the wizard's book. Third edition even let some wizards leave a spell slot unprepared. If a 15 minute rest was available later in the day, a needed spell could be prepared in that slot. Fourth edition, too, occasionally lets wizards swap out prepared spells during short or extended rests.

Now, in third edition and earlier, wizards still had a stupidly high number of choices to fill, and I'm sure I ended up writing down 'magic missile x5' far more times than I should have because I couldn't be bothered to try to decide which of these low-level spells I needed regularly. Part of that problem came from the third edition system of scroll creation: wizards were best off wasting a bit of XP on all those low-level utility scrolls and saving their high-level spells for the most useful (often times combat) spells.

Some of the ideas I outlined above might help prevent the 'magic missile x5' problem, particularly in limiting a wizard to a smaller number of high-level spells and a number of low-level ones. The wizard is likely to prepare the same low-level ones regularly, but has the option of switching things up as needed.

I'm not specifically getting into a debate of vancian spellcasting here. Personally, I might prefer a system where a wizard prepares spells for the day but then has a number of daily slots to cast with. Something needs to limit the wizard to a certain set of magic effects regularly, because if they constantly have access to everything in their books all the time, that breaks the game eventually. The wizard is truly a case of knowledge being power, and creative players who can cast spells all day long will just come up with any number of combination of spells to slay their foes.

At any rate, I think the ideas presented here capture the fact that versatility is a cornerstone of the wizard class in D&D (rather than some video game where wizards just magic-missile each round ad infinitum or blast away with fireballs till they're out of mana). Because this is the sort of wizard I'd want to play. I'll leave the constant blasting to the sorcerers or warlocks, just let my wizard pull out that situational spell that helps save the day once in a while.

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