Monday, May 14, 2012

The Grumpy Dwarf Remarks on Mike Mearls' Attempt to Balance the Wizard in 5e

 Mike's doing it again.  Fixing problems that don't exists, or maybe do exist, but not to the extent that he believes.  Still, game designers must tilt windmills at times, and Mike is good at such.  Let's look at his latest, shall we?

You can read the original here.

Over the past few weeks, I've talked about the design goals for the core classes in D&D (yep, and each article has moved away from the initial design goals that were stated for D&D Doppleganger, the game that is all editions, all the time). This week, it's the wizard's turn. I'm going to do something a little different, though. The wizard's design goals are different from the other three classes (so, was it a useless poll that made the wizard the last to be looked at, or the fact that he's being treated different than the other three core classes?). The issue we see with this class isn't that it needs clarity on what it does. After all, it's fairly obvious that wizards cast arcane spells. The challenge lies in making sure that wizards don't grow too powerful as they level (this seems like an argument on par with that of Lazer Clerics.  Is it a problem with the class, or a problem with the game, or not a  problem at all?) In many campaigns, a caster can use the right combination of spells and magic items to become more powerful than the rest of the group combined. Needless to say, that's not a situation that most DMs or players enjoy (I think they doth protest too much, but we shall see.)

First of all, the concept of caster dominance is something that we must approach carefully. Many gaming groups simply don't see the problem (wow!  i'll give Mike credit for this statement). For instance, I've played in groups where the wizard took some of the most popular spells—fireball, lightning bolt, magic missile—and the character never stood out as overly powerful. Sure the wizard could blast a bunch of monsters, but he or she needed the rest of the party to keep him around. (yes, because the wizzie is all offense and little or no defense.  he goes "squish!" really easy)

Second, caster dominance shows up at high levels. In my experience, it comes to the fore when a caster has enough spells to unleash powerful combinations. For instance, I remember turning what was supposed to be a deadly fight in 3E against an iron golem into a cakewalk simply by throwing grease and glitterdust (okay, this is a bizarre pair of spells to use as an example - grease is a level 1 spell, glitterdust is a level 2 spell - so a 3rd level Wizard is high level?  Can you blind a Golem?  It has to fail 2 saves for this uber effect to take effect to happen.  Two rounds of casting.  This is over powered how?) at the thing. I've seen similar things happen in 4E. The first spell creates a zone that creatures can't escape, the second one creates another zone that damages or shuts down creatures trapped within the zone. (again, two saves need to be failed for this to happen.  each creature gets two saves.  this is not automatic.  Mike, enjoying the windmill yet?)

Any approach we take to reducing caster dominance must first start by making sure that gaming groups that don't see it as an issue aren't burdened by complex new rules, arbitrary restrictions, or seemingly pointless new systems (but hey, lets change a core concept of the game - allowing wizard's players, like other classes, to think of new uses of their powers). We don't want addressing caster dominance to have the reverse effect, with groups that didn't see it left unhappy by a host of new or changed mechanics. (and how will you accomplish this Master Mike?)

So, what are we doing? Like many things in game design, it involves both a give and take. This topic in particular will be an important focus in the playtest. The system must not only work on paper, but also it must work well at the gaming table. (well, yeah, if it doesn't work at the gaming table, it doesn't work)

Cantrips as At-Will Magic: We're hoping to keep the concept of cantrips for wizards, and expand it to include some nifty attack and utility spells (can a "nifty" at will attack be all that effective?). Wizards would be able to cast spells at will, much as they do in 4E. We think that making cantrips a bit more powerful, while also making them at-will, will go a long way toward making restrictions on prepared spells more palatable for groups that don't see caster dominance as an issue. (o-kay?  and this allows for "old school play" how exactly?  this doesn't seem to be one of the famous "modules" they've been hyping since the start, talking about modular play.  this is changing the core concept of wizards / mages / magic-users.  well, at least as far as 3x and earlier is concerned.  can't speak knowledgeably for 4e, so i won't)

We also look at at-will magic as a key tool in keeping the adventure moving forward. You can still unleash all your prepared spells in rapid succession, but that doesn't leave you powerless.  (just leaves you much less useful.  unless the prepared spells as the useless ones.  now wouldn't THAT be an interesting twist?)

Keep Spells Under Control: This is an obvious first step, but we need to make sure that spells are of the appropriate power level and that they don't abuse the system in some way. For instance, the 3E grease spell required a DC 10 Balance check to avoid some of its effects. That seems reasonable, until you realize that grease was a 1st-level spell and that a 15th-level NPC cleric might have a total Balance check modifier of –8. We need to make sure that spells don't create an effect that is too powerful or include loopholes that make them overwhelmingly powerful for their level.  (you will not close every loophole, but it is a nice thought.  the grease issues should have been caught in playtesting, but i assume their playest sample was small in the creating of 3e)

Reducing Total Spell Slots: Since wizards now have at-will magic, they need fewer spell slots. The current design places a cap on the total number of spells you can prepare, and it caps the maximum number of spells you can prepare of each level. The reduction of spell slots pushes more reliance on cantrips, and it makes combinations harder to repeat.  (so, the chance for wizard characters to shine, to do something different from the next wizard is going to shrink drastically, as cantrips are now going to be the wizard's core power base?  wow - color me not impressed.)

Spells Don't Automatically Scale: We're thinking that wizard spells scale only if they are prepared with higher-level slots. That would mean that a wizard's spells don't all become more powerful as he or she levels up. The wizard would gain some new, more powerful spells. The wizard would not gain those spells while also making the rest of the spell list more powerful.  (this means we can remove a crapload of spells from the initial list for wizards, as they won't be needed.  which also allows us to keep a tight rein on the wizards power level.  and allow us to playtest the game with less of a chance of innovative players finding a combination that may break the system.  cantrips for the win.  sigh.  this is very far from being anything like any of the previous editions of wizards.  i don't think you can play this wizard as an older edition styled magic-user.   at least we now know they are throwing out much of the idea of modularity, which was an albatross around the neck of the New Edition with it's conflicting goals.  not saying I like the changes, but if this is a sign they are moving away from the One Game To Rule Them All concept, there might be something salvageable)

Spellcasting Is Dangerous: This point ventures into the theoretical, since we still aren't 100% certain how we want to pursue it (so it's just the kind of thing that we want to gather feedback on in the playtest). The current proposal is that a wizard who takes damage has a chance to miscast his or her next spell. (wait?  so, we are removing a bunch of spell slots from the wizards casting ability AND we are thinking about bringing back the idea of spell failure when taking damage.  so, are we going to do the same now for the other classes?  if they take damage, their abilities might fail?  because the other classes - except for the neutered cleric, seem to have been empowered.  shit, i thought the cleric was fucked with until I read today's article) A wizard can always instead choose to do something else or use a cantrip without risk of failure. In addition, a miscast spell is never lost. The wizard can try again next round.

The idea here is to capture the feel of earlier editions, where wizards needed some amount of protection to unleash their most powerful abilities. In play, it means that a wizard has to be careful in a fight, lean on defensive magic, or otherwise stay out of harm's way. (since we removed much of your spell casting ability, just stick with the cantrips we are giving you.  it should be exciting, no?)

Keep Magic Items Under Control: There's a good chance that magic item creation will be a rules module that DMs can opt into. At the very least, items such as scrolls and wands will likely change in the following ways.

Scrolls would require a caster to expend a prepared spell to use them. Thus, scrolls would make wizards more versatile but they do not increase the number of spells they can cast each day. (Yes!  lets remove even more power from the casters!)

Wands would no longer accept just any spell. Instead, we would provide a specific list of spells that can be added to wands. (this makes sense.)  The idea here is to keep things under control so that casting fly on everyone in the party is a real investment by a wizard.  (this makes no sense when paired to the previous sentence - something is missing from the explanation)

Keep Buff Spells Under Control: We want to make sure that spells such as haste and invisibility are useful without making other classes' key abilities redundant. An invisible creature that makes noise or otherwise gives away its location might not get much of a defensive benefit. Instead, an invisible creature is best off if it has a rogue's excellent bonuses to stealth. In this case, invisibility works as a spell that makes a scout or sneaky character much harder to find. It does not become a huge defensive buff. (see, we've cut back on your available spell slots, we won't allow spells to scale and now we are going to remove much of the usefulness of the buff spells.)

Haste might grant extra attacks, but at a penalty that makes the fighter's ability to attack multiple times come out ahead. The cleric in the group fights much better with haste, but she still can't match the fighter's martial skill.  On the other hand, casting haste on a fighter is a great idea. It augments the fighter's already deadly weapon skill.  (keep on neutering those spells)

Spells such as stoneskin, shield, and blur are great for wizards because they make casting less hazardous and help counter the class's low AC and hit points. A wizard might throw such spells on the rest of the party, giving up some of his or her own defensive options to help the rest of the party thrive.  (he might as well, as he has little left to offer the bprty that isnt a cantrip)

Creativity, Not Dominance: Finally, on a personal level, I'd love it if creative use of a spell focused more on improvisation rather than number crunching. A web spell entangles the bandit chief's horse, cutting off his best chance to escape. Grease allows a rogue caught in a giant crab's claw to wriggle free with ease. If we build good, clear descriptions into the spells that bring them to life and combine these descriptions with a robust set of DM tools for improvisation, spells become tools that characters can use in creative ways rather than strictly defined special abilities. Hopefully, reining in some of the mechanical challenges that D&D has faced in the past makes it easier to encourage creative use of spells in a compelling, immersive way  (wait!  this requires DM Fiat to work.  and all the number crunching has already removed much of the spell casting ability of the wizard.  i'm really fucking confused by the current goals for D&D Next.  Is it still modular?  Because all I see here is a dumbing down of the wizard class.  Not simplifying but damn near neutering.)

I think we are seeing the balance of 4e returning in 5e, under a whole set of new tweaks to a 3e base.  I'm more confused now then at any point in the past about the direction that 5e is going in. 


  1. I'll remember this particular L&L column as the one where I pretty much lost all hope for 5e. :)

  2. Some of this sounds like, wow we've been hearing a lot of positive comments about the DCCRPGs take on wizards and we want to add it to 5e.

    Otherwise it just sounds like a lot of crap. I'm not familiar with 3.x and up, but what Mearls has been saying sounds nothing like a system even remotely compatably with 1e or even 2e.

    Bah! I say. Where are the Undersea Cities I was promised. The Moon Colonies! The Rocket Cars! The Solid Gold Dancers! The All Editions sitting around a gaming table! Okay, this rant has run out of steam, just like my interest in 5e.

  3. The only good thing I liked about this: Spellcasting Is Dangerous

    Dangerous (or at least unpredictable) magic has long been something I desired in D&D. I like magic with a little bit, like in Mage, WFRP2, and some games from Eden Studios. However, if you're going to give the wizard a chance the spell will blow up in his face, there should exist the chance that it will blow up extra hard in the enemy's face. (Something akin to 2nd ed Wild Magic, maybe?)

  4. I'm confused, since he's saying he doesn't want wizards to outshine the other party members, but they want to neuter buff spells that help the party as a whole?

  5. Hmm, in 4th the Fighter got all these abilities that made him look like the wizard. Now in 5th the wizard looses all his abilities and he almost looks like a Fighter.

    Also it seems WotC had a good long look at Pathfinder RPG. The idea of Cantrips as "at will" Spells for example is a feature of PFRPG.

    Lastly the Issue with Grease and Glitterdust and the Iron Golem has nothing to do with the wizard Class but with the wording and rules of the spells. The wording is unclear and the raw make them very powerful. IMHO the best idea would be to change the rules and wording of the spells (as I did in my 3.0 then 3.5 campaign).
    No need to buy a new car when the tyres are flat.

  6. A minor point, but...

    Clever player: "I use grease on the floor under the iron golem so it will fall down, just like last time."

    Clever DM: "OK, it fails its balance check, and its momentum sends it sliding all the way across the floor straight into you. That's [rolls lots of cice] 38 damage, make a reflex save for half.

    I don't see the problem with the spell as written...

  7. um, that should be "rolls lots of dice" not "rolls lots of cice" ;)

  8. I have to agree to Lord Gwydion. My first thought was: "If the NPC-Cleric really has a balance check of -8 then kudos to the wizard player for using that for his benefit." And, yes, it shouldn't and wouldn't work everytime anyway, so...

  9. I think a lot of this is coloured by the fact that Mike is mostly talking about issues from 3E.

    It sounds a lot more old school if you look at it from the other side.


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