Don your pointy hats and ostentatious robes, get your character sheets and start picking out your most useful and overpowered spells, folks! This post has arrived, neither early nor late, but precisely when I meant to show it!
Masters of magic. Sorcerers supreme. Wizards of Waverly Palace…! …Oh, sorcerers are actually a different thing? Oh, OK then. So yeah, what ARE wizards?
Last week, I made a reference to Green Lantern as the comics equivalent of a D&D Wizard. And although I explained that comparison with the rough idea of the Wizard, the fact that this is my monthly post about the tabletop is a good opportunity to follow up.
So let’s refresh. Let’s consider it’s the game. And in the game, magic is a weapon. Magic is steel.
But steel is nothing without the hand that wields it. And few are as skilled as the Wizard.
Do You Believe In Magic?
So, a bit of preamble about the idea of magic. Everyone knows about magic casters in fantasy. Magic and magic-like abilities are a staple of fiction, and a surefire way to make a setting fun to watch, as well as a challenge to puzzle out (e.g. how common is it, has it changed society, etc.).
Even before then, magic was a big deal in fairy tales and legends, being a big source of and solution to problems…much like alcohol and emotionally stunted individuals. If any character had magic powers or magic items, you can bet they were potent and usually too powerful to slum it with the more mundane characters who had to use swords and fists. For you see, the scope and limits of magic were “Whatever the storyteller needs to tell a compelling story.” And if that includes suspiciously specific nationwide curses with suspiciously specific conditions to meet, so be it.
But while your average nerd might lump all magic wielders into only the “hurt”, “heal”, or “other” categories (especially if you’re talking videogames), D&D has held onto not one but at least six categories of caster, each with their own traits and variations.
And the one closest to our everyday image of a magic user (as in, the squishy mage able to do EXTRAORDINARY and often IMPOSSIBLE things), the one with the distinction of being one of the most powerful classes when played efficiently, the one infamous for taking the fun and challenge out of it for everyone else…is the Wizard.
A Conjurer Of Expensive Tricks
Alright, now to the meat of it: The Wizard in D&D! And, by extension, various other franchises. So, WHAT makes a Wizard? Or at the very least, the archetype started by D&D’s Wizard?
So, the Wizard is a caster, obviously. But the main thing that DEFINES a Wizard is that they master magic through rigorous study of magic books, scrolls, and other knowledge sources. In other words, they WORKED for that diploma and expertise, as opposed to being born with it or gifted it by outside forces. It is up to the setting whether mastering these powers needs innate sensitivity (like the Force in Star Wars) or if it’s possible just from knowing and understanding the magic words (like any number of fairy tales).
From a storytelling perspective, this sounds like the dullest way to get power. After all, that’s how we do it in the REAL world, and it’s how mentors earned their skills. And “Oh, you worked really hard drilling the knowledge into your mind and body for five years” sounds less exciting than “your dad was a dragon and your mum had strange tastes in men”. Plus, “nerdy discipline and effort” sounds like it gives fewer bragging rights than “natural born talent”.
However, I would like to point out two things:
- A LOT can happen in even one year of study, let alone five.
- That usually means they KNOW what they’re doing. Not necessarily how to apply it if they’re new, but at least they know what they COULD do.
So, in the first place, the accusation of “it’s a boring way to get powers” doesn’t have to apply. I mean, just look at everything the students of Hogwarts go through on an annual basis; even ‘REGULAR’ lives can be full of rich storytelling opportunities. And in the second place, having these sorts of qualifications make Wizards desirable as party members because of a simple factor: They’re reliably efficient. No hidden powers activating out of nowhere, no mysterious power source to be revealed as a huge monster, just the books, the lessons, and where you got them from.
Your typical Wizard is studious (because high Intelligence gives them useful caster bonuses), making them more likely to know things about the setting beyond their own studies. Just as Hermione is the smartest witch in a bunch of wizards, the Wizard is likely going to end up the Hermione of their group with an “I told you so” never far from their lips. Going by stereotype, they might be physically or socially stunted to compensate for that. But again, this is just based on the idea of the Wizard isolating themselves to study lost, hidden texts. It’s just as likely that they’re trained by an organisation and that they have several important people in their lives.
Of course, it bears mentioning that these are merely stereotypes reinforced by game mechanics. It’s entirely possible to personalise your wizard into something…else…
The Right Tools For The Right Jobs
So that covers what Wizards ARE: Spellcasters who get their powers through study of knowledge. The smart, disciplined guys, at least where their own studies are concerned. But what does that mean when you’re PLAYING them? What do Wizards DO?
First off, when you’re starting out, the Wizard will seem underwhelming. You are far less capable of equipping impressive weapons, you are much easier to kill, and your early spells seem pathetic. It’s why most beginners go with martial classes for hack and slash action.
Much like a videogame caster, you’ll be limited to only a couple of choices for offensive abilities and utility abilities, two of the most common ones being Magic Missile and Feather Fall. And when you start out with only a few tricks, the first things you’ll notice are:
- You will latch onto the flashiest, strongest attack spell you have and SPAM IT in fights. Just so that you can feel like you’re doing something.
- Your utility spells have weak and/or absurdly specific effects. Like, seriously. When are you EVER going to need to FALL SLOWLY AND SAFELY?
However, as you go on in your adventures, and if your GM is any good at planning it so that you get to participate, you will notice a couple of things about those first reactions:
- Some attack spells are more useful in certain situations, so you learn to try and predict which ones will be most useful.
- You’re STUCK with those utility spells, so you might as well memorise what they do. And EVENTUALLY, you will come across a situation made JUST for that spell.
- Following up those two, as you face things with your party, you will learn to plan your spells based not on what YOU want to cast, but what THEY need. For example, that slot you spent on Magic Missile was useless against that enemy, but Protection From Energy would have REALLY helped the tank.
Through that, the Wizard gains their most useful soft skills: Foresight for future encounters, and knowledge of what they can do. Early level is when they first get a feel for it, and the more used to it they grow, the more easily they can do it later on.
As they level up, casters gain their two most important assets: More spells, and more spell slots. And the moment you get Level 3 spells, most of you will have access to the most iconic offensive abilities such as Fireball or Lightning Bolt. The higher up you climb, the more OBVIOUSLY useful and powerful they become.
As a Wizard progresses into mid-level strength, they will start to feel like a Pokemon: Sure, at first your spell slots FEEL limited and restrictive. But as you get flashier and flashier moves, you get more things to do than just Tackle and Tail Whip. And unlike Pokemon, they get to SWITCH their moves at the start of each day.
And it is when they start to amass a small library of spells in their utility belt that they get the most defining feature of Wizards: They could potentially solve any problem.
To be sure, creativity and versatility belong to every player, limited only by their imaginations and the GM’s rulings. You can get martial classes figuring out how to fight their way out of problems, or Bards learning how to use illusions more subtly to distract a patrol. You could even get people exploiting a portal to an elemental plane to get infinite resources.
But while each class is defined by what they can do by themselves and usually only have THAT to rely on, the Wizard is the opposite: They can’t do anything by themselves, but they have spells which can handle everything else.
Problems persuading or interrogating an NPC? Learn hypnotic and mind controlling magic. Problems crossing hazardous terrain? Learn spells of protection from the elements or to walk on water. Problems navigating a dungeon? Learn spells to unlock doors, disarm traps, or reshape walls. ALL OF THIS in the simple package of a single spellbook carried by a nerd.
There are limits to this, of course. There is the limit of what the Wizard ACTUALLY knows; they are limited to what spells they can get their hands on, and in some cases, by certain schools of magic. Earlier editions gave Wizards categories to choose from to specialise in, at the cost of being unable to cast from others, though that has been patched out in the latest version. There’s also the limit of whether they CAN cast it; Wizards will have to do a fair bit of leveling before they reach the hallowed halls of Level 9 spells, and some spells are useless without the right movements, words, or materials. Wanna cast Fireball? Well, I hope you brought plenty of bat guano.
But EVEN THEN, their strength lies in the fact that they CAN learn these different things. Even when they are restricted to whatever spells they uncover or buy, they can STILL build a versatile spell list. And when it comes to restrictions, they can either cast spells to help with that (like being invisible so they can’t be interrupted), or rely on their party members to help protect them. And even if they can only cast these spells once or twice a day, that’s usually all that’s needed.
So you see, the strength of the Wizard is not, as we might INITIALLY think, learning the Super Powerful Meteo spell which takes up half our mana to deal max damage to all enemies.
No, the strength of the Wizard is in casting Slow on the enemies and Haste on their allies, letting your melee allies land 8 attacks a round. Or in using Dominate Person to convert all the boss’s weaker minions in order to gang up on him. Or in casting Protection From Fire at such a high level that the Balrog you’re fighting is essentially tickling you. Or in trivialising the incredibly elaborate death trap by casting Teleport or Plane Shift to get your party out of there with your loot. Or using Invisibility on the Rogue to grant them infinite Sneak Attacks for the duration.
Like Green Lanterns, Wizards can do A LOT of different things to solve problems. Yes, they may be limited to what the SPELLS can do, and much like Green Lantern’s energy levels, they are limited by their slots. But the better they know their spells, the better they can deploy them. And the better they can deploy them, the fewer spells they have to use.
Sounds too good to be true, right? If that’s the case, doesn’t that mean everyone will just play a Wizard so that they can have the ability to solve any problem, even with their limitations?
Well…Yes and no.
Weaknesses and Annoyances
To be sure, the Wizard has the weaknesses you would expect.
- Their spells can keep them out of trouble, but they are still weak-bodied and easily killed on their own.
- They are limited by their slots: They can’t fit in ALL their solutions.
- They can only try to use their solutions a limited number of times. A spell of unlocking is fine, but it can only work 3 times while the Rogue can make as many lockpicking attempts as they want.
- Once they decide their spells, they are STUCK with them until after an 8-hour or full-day rest. So if they leave out a spell, tough luck if they need it. Against what they didn’t plan for, they’re useless. Yeah, when the party falls to their doom off a trapped bridge, bet you feel REAL stupid for not taking Feather Fall, huh? Fifth Edition gave them some flexibility in casting, but the point still stands: You need to have the spell prepared in the first place, and if you didn’t think of it, too bad.
- Once they run out of magic, they’re often the least useful party member in a fight.
Even so, even with all of these INTENTIONAL weaknesses, the Wizard is, as I mentioned, likely STILL useful enough that you can reliably ask for his help. The Wizard will STILL learn many different spells for many different situations. And even if they don’t have an EXACT solution, they can still offer the next best thing.
There are, however, a couple of UNWRITTEN problems with being a mage:
- If you plan everything too well, if you dominate and only want to show off how good you are at planning…the others will NOT have fun. You’re all here because you want to have fun TOGETHER at the table. But if you decide to be a Munchkin, only caring about being THE most powerful? Nobody will want to play with you if you never give them a chance and they can only watch.
- If you trivialise your encounters as simple puzzles to predict and solve…then what about roleplaying? What about discovering the plots, the twists, the struggles? I can appreciate playing on Easy Mode so that you can enjoy the feeling of power. But if you can end fights and encounters with a single spell, then…well, it’s like you’re playing a single player action RPG, but you’re skipping all the dialogue and ending fights without having to use the fun combat system. Missing the point entirely.
These, then, are the true costs of being a Wizard. Just like the cost of writing Batman badly (namely with the perfect solution prepared for everything and with no need for allies) is that he comes off as a depressing, antisocial control freak loser who is as boring as Superman, the cost of playing a Wizard with the goal of BEATING EVERYTHING THE BEST WAY is this: You’re the only one playing that game.
And as many GMs worth their salt will tell you: RPGs are a GROUP activity. The GM is there to give you all a good time, and you are all there to have a good time TOGETHER. Therefore, everyone should be mindful of what everyone else likes to do, and try to give everyone a fair shot. Otherwise, problem players just become obstacles to avoid or work around: Give them what they want so that the spoiled baby doesn’t throw a tantrum and make things worse.
It’s not even wrong to play your Wizard as a magical Swiss army knife. That is not bad in itself. Just like it’s not bad in itself for Batman or Green Lantern to have solutions for everything.
The important thing, though, is that you’re on the same page as everyone else. That even with all that preparation, you can still be someone who doesn’t have all the answers. And more importantly, you can still be a supportive person who’s fun to be around.