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Balancing Wizards in D&D
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

O ver the past few weeks, I've talked about the design goals for the core classes in D&D. 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. 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. 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.

First of all, the concept of caster dominance is something that we must approach carefully. Many gaming groups simply don't see the problem. 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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

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.

Wands would no longer accept just any spell. Instead, we would provide a specific list of spells that can be added to wands. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.
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