Legend & Lore: Balancing Wizards in D&D


Stating that the wizard "casts spells" is basically a 30-year old mission statement. We got that figured out. What I want to know is how, and I would preferably like that how to make sense from a narrative perspective.

In 2nd Edition wizards had to study their spellbooks to "memorize" their spells. When they cast it, the spell was wiped from their minds and they had to go through the whole process again, and again, and again, because no matter how many times they memorized a spell they could never actually remember it. There was also the bit about not being able to wear armor for vague reasons that ranged from the metal content (which ignored non-metal armors) to it disrupting hand motions (whether or not the spell even had somatic components).

3rd Edition wizards still had to study their spellbooks, but this was rationalized that the wizard had to prepare her magic, casting all but the very last part of the spell ahead of time. So spells were basically stored in the wizard's head, waiting for the last word and gesture to wrap it up. They even provided a feat, Spell Mastery, as an option for players that wanted to represent wizards who knew how to prepare a spell from memory.  Given that the number of spells was low and everyone was pretty much feat-starved, it was considered a pretty crappy feat. At least they were not illogically hampered by armor; each suit of armor had a spell failure percentage that only affected spells with somatic components.

4th Edition wizards largely did not need their spellbooks for their day-to-day magic: at-will spells could be cast as often as they pleased, and encounter spells recharged automatically. I think even daily ones did, too. The only reason you even had a spellbook was to swap out daily magic and to cast rituals. Unfortunately there was really not enough flavor material to explain how this all worked. Did encounter spells recharge because a wizard gathered up magical energies to unleash it again? If so, why could a wizard not just continue to gather up energy for the same encounter spell? Why could a wizard not prepare multiple daily spells of the same thing?

Basically each edition had problems, some more than most.

Currently 5th Edition wizards will continue to have at-will spells, which will be called cantrips, but unlike traditional cantrips will be a "bit more powerful". So...basically 4th Edition at-wills by another name. I have heard at least one cry of "oh noes everyone will be awesome all the time", but given that they will not be explicitly called at-wills and Paizo copied it already, I wonder if it will be better accepted this time around.

They are also looking at keeping spells under control, with the example being how wonky skill bonuses, Difficulty Classes, and scaling can really screw up your game. I had a similar problem when running Age of Worms, where 12th-level characters had Will saves ranged from +5 to +15. Initially I felt that this disparity seemed absurd, until they came across a trap that required a DC 30 Will save to avoid being instantly killed by.

Then it became extremely absurd.

As for reducing spell slots, I am curious as to what edition is being used for their barometer. Over a lengthy period of time 3rd Edition wizards got quite a bit, and while 4th Edition had very few daily spells they had at-will and encounter spells, and rituals to top it off. I am guessing that we will see something like 4th Edition wizards sans encounter spells, which I am totally fine with.

We already knew that spells will have better effects depending on what level you slot them. I really like this, because it helps avoid having spells that are just higher level variations of the same thing, which 3rd Edition literally did with the orb series of spells: you had least, standard, and greater, and one of each energy type. So that is like, what, 15 different spells that all did largely the same thing? 4th Edition practiced this model already with powers that scaled depending on what level you chose them at, which was better than having a bunch of multi-leveled whirlwind/trip/knockback exploits (though to be fair, it also had a bunch of multi-leveled whirlwind/trip/knockback exploits).

Unpredictable magic can be a tricky thing, and I would hope that they would provide several different optional mechanics for us to work with. Personally I would like to see disrupted spells doing something random instead of just not working, with the option to try again later. Kind of makes it feel less dangerous and more unreliable. They could better mirror past editions by giving spells with a casting time of longer than one action, and/or the option to spend multiple rounds charging up the spell; it would add in a more controlled risk, similar to weapon breakage in Dark Sun.

I really do not like the current idea for scrolls. You write a spell down, and then expend another spell to make the scroll work? I could see it if the spell had to belong to the same school or something (perhaps allowing a wizard to be able to convert a variety of spell schools instead of just anything at all), but the idea of dropping any spell to charge up a scroll just seems odd. Ultimately it is a nice investment that avoids wizards drastically cranking up the number of spells they get, but it does not make much sense to me.

As for wands, I preferred 4th Edition's implements. Makes more sense and better captures the feel of magic that I am used to. I do not mind if they can store spells, but I do not want them to go back to fire-and-forget devices. I would be okay with implements having an affinity for various types of magic.

Finally, it is good to see that buff spells will not allow classes to outperform another class at what it is supposed to be good at.

After reading up on even more RPGs and talking it over with my group, my ideal wizard goalposts have been moved to include the following:

  • Wizards pick several schools that they know how to use. Specialists would instead pick one, or sacrifice one to be better in another.
  • Wizards start out knowing cantrips. They can cast these at-will.
  • Daily spells instead represent a wizard's growing aptitude with their at-will magic. As they level up, they get to choose how to improve their magic (improving damage, targets, area of effect, effects, etc). A good comparison would be how skills improve in Mass Effect 3.
  • When you cast a spell, you can choose to focus energy and cast an improved version of it. This takes time, and the spell can be countered (disrupted the spell or delaying you) or interrupted (potentially causing a mishap).
  • After casting a spell, it takes awhile before you can start casting another spell (kind of like the recharge mechanic from 3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana). You can choose to do so anyway, becoming fatigued for a number of rounds equal to the amount you were supposed to wait. If you cast a spell again, you instead become exhausted and can barely do anything at all. Wizards might also be able to suffer hit point damage by exerting themselves too much.
For example, a pyromancer might know firebolt. Lets say that it deals 1d6 fire damage to one target within 30 feet. At level 2 she can choose to improve its damage (say, up to 2d6), its range (increasing to 50 feet), its area of effect (hitting two targets, or making it a close blast 3), or something else (say, dealing Int fire damage to creatures next to the primary target).

So she can cast firebolt as a standard action, or spend the entire round casting the level 2 version of it, lumping on the benefit that she chose. Alternatively, spells might just have their own levels. So firebolt level 1 might do one thing, while firebolt level 2 might do more damage, and firebolt level 3 might hit multiple targets. This, I think, helps emphasize in the game's narrative that the wizard is studying an improving her magic.

If the pyromancer is trying to cast a level 3 version, which has, say, a casting time of 3 rounds, and she gets hit, the spell might explode (dealing Int fire damage to herself and nearby targets). Another wizard that knows evocation might try to disrupt her spell, making an Arcana check or something to extend the casting time by another round.

This helps make counterspelling something viable (you do not need to ready an action and have a specific spell), while also adding tension when the necromancer is gathering dark energies to conjure up a bunch of wraiths.

Rituals would remain, possibly costing healing surges or hit points or the like, as well as specific components. Implements would also stick around as they were.


  1. I like any idea that helps the story, so things like improving your spells in various ways (which also, over time, makes the same spell different in a different magic-user's hands) and misfires that have a certain effect would both be part of my ideal.

    Truth be told, I find the concept of spell slots so deliterious to story telling (players always learn the same old spells, but never things they only MIGHT need, especially at low levels) and illogical, that every D&D game I've run in the past 15 years has done away with them in favor of a Mana point system. That way, study refills your energy, and you can cast from anything you've ever learned, so long as you have the points stored for it. It was a simple translation: 1 pt for 1st level spells, 2 for 2nd etc., with the Mage having a Mana pool equal to the total number of spell levels he or she could actually cast. This made magic-users more versatile, especially at low levels, which was all the fix I ever needed.

  2. I don't mind most of the proposed changes (and would welcome a few of them, such as fewer spell slots), as long as they still allow low-level resource management play for those that desire such.

    For example, there should not be a default light cantrip, because that completely removes concern for the light resource. Or, at least several options should be discussed explaining why some groups might want to play one way and other groups another way.

  3. Good point. If Light and Read Magic (for example) are going to be a dull must for dungeon delvers anyway, why not just give it away. It would allow adventurers to get on with it without boring impediments.

  4. They proposed a spell point system in 3rd Edition's Unearthed Arcana. I liked this idea, especially when coupled with the exhaustion rules (you become fatigued at half your points or less, and then exhausted at 0).

    But, I was also a fan of the recharge mechanic and spells taking more than one round to cast, so that they could be interrupted or countered. My ideal magic system would not be the daily system at all, and more inline with more recent trends.

    Personally, I like the idea of wizards getting base cantrips and being able to improve them. Makes more sense to use the spellbook as a place to make notes, record research, and store complex spells--ie, rituals--for reference.

  5. I really don't like spell slots. I prefer point systems where you can cast any spell you know as long as you have enough points left. This is easy to justify plausibly; casting spells fatigues the spell caster so he eventually has to rest before casting more spells. It resembles how magic works in most stories much better than Vancian magic does. It's more fun for the player.

    The idea of a spell taking time to cast is an interesting possibility. The chances of interruption are raised. If a spell works by channeling energy from, say, the positive and negative material planes, then the question is what happens to the energy when a spell is interrupted. It could simply be lost (never made it into our plane), released suddenly (damaging the spellcaster), or slip out of control and produce a random effect, much like a wand of wonder. A die roll or two could resolve this, with potentially amusing results.

  6. I'm fine with Vancian magic. I think it helps RP by emphasizing information gathering prior to a mission. What types of foes will the group face, possible traps, environmental factors all play into spell selection.

    As far as casting when I DM'd in 2e, all spells had a casting time which I had the players add to their initiative roll. If the caster was hit prior to their initiative, it disrupted the spell and it was lost.

    This required 2 things which can slow down combat: 1. Each player must announce their action prior to initiative and 2. Everyone rolled initiative every round.

    Despite the extra work, it was fun and allowed some chaos into combat because casters never knew if they were going to get their spells off for sure.

  7. @EricV216

    That sounds like a fun system. Did you add weapon speed factors too?

  8. @Eric: How does pseudo-Vancian magic help role-play any more than--or even as much as--something more free-form, like what you see in Dresden Files and A Name of the Wind? In my experience it is essentially impossible for a group, especially a low-level one, to glean a meaningful measure of information as to what they are going to face and plan accordingly. Even IF they are able to get an accurate measure of what is going on, they may not even have access to the spells that they need, and even IF they do they might not have time to memorize those.

    Basically there are just too many factors operating against them.

    In the first adventure in Age of Worms, the party has no idea of knowing that they will run into wolves, beetle swarms, a water elemental, ghouls, a ghost, a grell, and so on and so forth (there is even an owlbear and a necromancer's lair). Oddly enough if they figure out that the tomb is for an ancient race of air-elemental-types and somehow prepare magic for that (I have no idea what magic would be best-suited), then their preparation will be rewarded with at the VERY end when they fight two flying suits of armor.

    Ultimately I want wizards to move away from a pseudo-Vancian system towards something that makes more sense. The whole learn, memorize, and forget VERY specific spells is clunky and difficult to explain narratively. I get that it is traditional, but that is not sufficient reason to keep it around in light of other magic systems.

  9. Well, there are two major benefits to using vancian magic. The first is flavor, and is admittedly subjective. However, check this:


    I don't think this is narratively less easy to explain than any other system I have seen.

    Second is resource management. Some people hate this, but like it. I want to worry about whether I should blow my lightning bolt now or save it for later. Without this bit of friction, wizards start to feel like laser guns, blasting every round. Harry Potter does it that way, but I like wizards to feel a bit more deliberative.

    Finding new spells is also a great motivation to go adventuring.

  10. @Brendan: While subjective that bit of description does admittedly sounds pretty cool (certainly better than how it is explained in 2nd Edition's Player's Handbook).

    As for resource management...eh. I prefer wizards exhausting themselves physically and mentally, or having to spend time gathering up energy, focusing their will, or whatever, as opposed to fire-and-forget.

    If a wizard can discharge a minor bolt of electricity after a moment of gathering the energy, but require two or more rounds in order to unleash a more powerful bolt of lightning then that helps side-step the whole "gattling-gun" wizard, especially if you find a way to compound this with a recharge time, exhaustion mechanic, etc.

    Wizards could still adventure to discover new arcane formula, too.

  11. @David: It's too easy for wizards to steal the show if they have the full arsenal of spells in their spellbook all the time. Fell off a cliff, no problem - bam, featherfall. Need to swim through underwater caves to escape, no problem - bam, waterbreathing. Up against a mage, no problem - glove of invulnerability.

    I want mages to make tough choices when the wake up. I don't want them strolling through the encounters knowing they have everything covered and don't even need the rest of the party.

    You will probably respond that you can restrict what spells the mage gets. That's true, but I don't want to artificially restrict a mage from learning feather fall if they want to. But if I use your system, once he learns it, he always has it available. That is just too powerful IMHO.

  12. @Brendan: Yes, weapon speed factors also were added to the initiative roll.

  13. @David

    The "gathering energy" system you describe sounds like it might be fun, especially if the gathering time was something like: 1 minute, minor effect; 1 hour medium effect; 1 day major effect; 1 month ... etc. I think it might be hard to craft the effect guidelines though. In 4E terms, it would kind of be like turning at-will powers into encounter powers.


    I've been playing around with a system where multiple related D&D spells are merged into disciplines, and you can try for any level effect, but you need to succeed in a saving throw versus magic to get it off, and if you fail you don't get to cast any more spells from that discipline until you have had a long rest and study time. And if you fumble, bad stuff happens. It's a bit more complicated than that, but I'm sure you get the idea. It's pretty cool because:

    A) you don't need to learn any new rules (traditional spell effects + saving throws)
    B) it means that first level wizards often get more than one spell
    C) the number of spells is uncertain, so there is always interest in the casting
    D) there is both creativity and resource management

    Some more details here if you are curious:


  14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  15. I never said that a wizard would have her full arsenal, at least not always immediately at the ready. What I mean is that a sufficiently rested wizard with enough time could cast most any spell in her repetoire.

    A spell like magic missile might be exceedingly simple to cast; the wizard only needs to focus her mind for a bit to unleash a bolt of force. She has cast this spell so many times that it is almost a reflex, ingrained into her muscle memory. Such a spell would be like an “at-will” spell in D&D (or a cantrip in Next, or a rote in Dresden Files).

    However if she takes the time to gather and shape more energy/focus her will for say, a round (or two, or three, or more), she can unleash a more powerful blast of force. It might manifest as a wave (affect a cone), or be more akin to a battering ram (inflicting more damage and possibly knocking a creature back). She could even unleash multiple missiles against different targets. Doing this takes time and is therefore risky in combat, but it could also be tasking.

    Hit points, healing surges/Hit Dice, conditions, etc. There could a recharge time that prevents you from focusing, or penalize you further if you try before the time has elapsed. For example, casting a complex spell might fatigue you for 1d4 rounds (which could be a speed/attack/defense penalty, or something like dazed in 4E). If you try to cast another while you are recharging, you are instead exhausted (and even bigger penalty liked stunned in 4E) for a variable number of rounds. Either/or situations might drain hit points or healing surges.

    The upside is that it reinforces that magic can be unpredictable and dangerous, while still giving the character more control instead of accidentally blowing herself up or otherwise inflicting permanent harm. It is also taxing, which is something you see and read a lot of, but never happens in D&D (high level wizards could cast all of their spells and not be adversely affected at all).

    With lengthy casting times, you could be interrupted while casting a complex spell. Losing that spell could have consequences ranging from inconvenient to disastrous. You could go the route of Dungeon Crawl Classics (and other games) and require some kind of spellcasting check to see how well it works (which could be modified by factors such as weather, riding on a horse, climbing a cliff, being in a place of arcane power or a tower you built).


Powered by Blogger.