Musings on Game Design and Revisiting AD&D 1st Edition: The Feel of a School of Magic in D&D @SlyFlourish #DnD #RPG #ADnD

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Introduction to Each Post in This Series

On Friday (July 23, 2021), I mentioned that I was relearning AD&D 1st Edition (“1e“) with the intention of running it. As I read through the Player’s Handbook (“PHB“), certain mechanics or text will strike me as odd or surprising, but in either case worthy of discussion. In fact, the most surprising thing I’m experiencing is that I’m finding a lot more great ideas in 1e that we’ve since abandoned. I find myself asking, “Why?” As a result, I’ll be writing several posts over the next few weeks. I’m sure everything I’m thinking has been discussed before — sometimes be me — so perhaps my questions have been answered, and my concerns resolved, years ago. My experience with RPGs is relatively limited in scope, having played a small number of games, so I’m sure a lot of what I’m going to say has been incorporated into games I’ve never even heard of. (Some have certainly been addressed by future editions of D&D themselves.) Nevertheless, bringing this directed conversation to the public is new to me, so here it goes.

Posts in this series: | My Playlist | Campaign Settings and Pantheons | Languages | Level | “Dead Levels” | Division of Labor, Distance, and Time | Initiative | Combat Subsystems | Armor Class Ratings | Alignment and Reputation | The Feel of a School of Magic | Boring Magic Items | Ability Score Bonuses and Skill Rolls | The Problem with Democracies | Hitting More Frequently | Encounter Balance and Shooting Yourselves in the Feet |

My Last Experience with a Wizard

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A friend and I have been designing our own RPG. We’re so busy with ordinary life that I doubt we’ll finish it, so don’t expect it to see the commercial light if day. Still, I enjoy the process so much that I love working on it when we can. One thing that was on my mind during design was my attempt to make a non-violent wizard (“NVW”). I wanted to create a pacifist that could still contribute to the combat but do so without ever directly causing damage. My attempt at a NVW was Ymitraa Warwager, a CG moon elf abjuration wizard under D&D 5th Edition (“5e“). To start, her combat-useful spells were Blade Ward, Minor Illusion, Shocking Grasp (only because I ran out of non-violent spells), Color Spray (considered non-violent because the blinding was only temporary), Shield, and Sleep. It didn’t work because the only aggressive but non-violent spell that I’d always have available (cantrip) was Minor Illusion, and that worked only because the DM (Sly Flourish) allowed me to cheat with it. As I progressed, I saw very few useful spells available, and I wasn’t interested in rewriting the game, let alone having Mike approve each rewrite.

NVW Don’t Work Because of a Lack of Flavor

My conclusion was that 5e failed in this regard, and when my review of 1e brought this memory back to the surface, I started writing a piece on how modern games have lost that focus on flavor. More to the point, prior editions (as well as other games) never made me feel that my enchanter was actually enchanting, or my illusionist was creating illusory things. They all felt like their magic was reskinned evocation, focusing on damage and just saying something like, “You cause this damage by scaring the guy, so even though the damage is the same in value, it’s toooootallly different from Fireball. Honest.” The loss of focus on flavor meant that the schools all resembled each other, and that always resulted in (largely) non-violent schools being reskinned evokers. This is why I rarely play wizards.

I believe that in order for certain schools of magic to work, the caster needs to play a different role than wizards from other schools. In 4th Edition D&D terms, a wizard was a “controller,” which was often interpreted to mean that damage dealing spells hit multiple targets, but there’s more than one way to interpret “control.” In fact, Another (better?) way to define it has nothing to do with doing damage. As a “leader” would move its allies into better positions, a controller would move its enemies into worse positions. Ergo, an illusionist should sacrifice damage done for a greater ability to trick enemies to go where they shouldn’t. An enchanter should likewise sacrifice damage done for greater ability to pacify or scare off enemies. Not every enemy has to die or even be captured in order for you to win.

1e was from a different time where flavor played a greater role. 1st level enchantments included Charm Person, Friends, and Sleep, none of which did damage but all of which provide a tactical advantage. At second level, you have Forget, Ray of Enfeeblement, Scare; at third level you have Hold Person and Suggestion; at fourth level Charm Monster, Confusion, Fire Charm, and Fumble; and so on, all of which do no damage but provide a tactical advantage (though Ray of Enfeeblement could use some slight flavor tweaks). They obviously did this correctly.

But we can’t even address that problem in modern games because the rules don’t give us the framework to do so. Going back to my stat block posts, I created a database containing all 457 spells contained in all the 5e spells. This proved quite convenient to make my point as long as I used 5e as the example of how to get it wrong. Well, that experiment failed. 5e gets it right just as well as 1e did.

Some Sour Before the Sweet

At first, a spell selected entirely at random and one I had never read before, confirmed my original thesis. I grabbed Mind Spike from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

Mind Spike does 3d8 psychic damage and allows the caster to know the target’s location until the spell ends (concentration up to an hour), preventing the target from hiding in any way from the caster (even through invisibility). At higher levels, the spell does and extra d6 of damage.

Does this feel like a diviner to you? A diviner is about gathering information, but how useful is the information gained beyond combat (which will end a bit quicker because it’s doing scaled damage)? Why is the spell’s higher-level benefit an increase in damage rather than information? To me, this seems to play out the way an evocation spell would, just not as well. It does damage, then gives you tactical information about the target so that the caster can kill it even faster (and certainly faster than the spell’s duration). How about instead doing less (or no) damage, but being able to translate that information to one or more party members so they can tear him apart (all of that scaling with spell level). If this turns people off to diviners, then those people really don’t want to play diviners.

Next, I randomly grabbed Power Word: Pain.

Power Word: Pain targets a single creature. If it has less than 100 hit points and isn’t immune to charm, its speed can’t be greater than 10′, it has disadvantage on attack, ability, an saving rolls (other than Con saves), and it has trouble casting spells (Con save to succeed).

Placing someone in crippling pain doesn’t seem like the kind of thing an “enchanter” would do. I want the target intimidated, convinced, or fooled into acting or not acting, or maybe just losing their marbles, but not doubling over in pain. It’s hard to ignore that flavor when the name of the spell screams it out. Nevertheless, in the end the net effect on the target is exactly what should be the result of an enchantment spell. Though it seemed that Wizards of the Coast (“WotC“) is snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on this one, after only two spells my thesis was falling apart.

My last random selection was Illusory Dragon.

Illusory Dragon creates a huge, illusory dragon that occupies a space and frightens enemies for 1 minute if they fail a Wisdom save. The save can be repeated if the enemy ends its turn without line of sight to the dragon, but the dragon can be moved. The dragon can use a breath weapon to do damage.

Although Illusory Dragon does a lot of damage even to someone that’s pierced the illusion, at 8th level, that makes sense. The phrase “scared to death” has some basis in truth; people can be scared into, for example, secreting fatal amounts of adrenaline, and 8th level is pretty damn high. But you all know how cognitive dissonance science works. I had data and needed to determine what it was trying to tell me. I assumed that Xanthanar’s was just WotC correcting an earlier mistake from the 5e PHB. All I needed was to tweak my thesis: Game designers, at least initially, build all their wizards towards blowing up things.

The 5e PHB

Focusing only on the 5e PHB, I came to the same conclusion. Again, I thought I found a couple of stinkers. For example, the point of Hex is clearly damage.

But even though it’s an enchantment, it’s a spell for warlocks. Everyone expects all warlock spells to blow up things. That’s actually the correct flavor for that enchantment spell. Oops. At this point, I had to really press hard to find a screw up in how 5e designed these spells, and despite that Herculean effort, I still failed. All of their divinations, enchantments, and illusions are written to play exactly as they should.

Even better, this puts Mind Spike in a completely different light. It’s not the rule, but rather an exception. Whenever a wizard uses a spell in the wizard’s chosen school of magic, there’s an added bonus of some sort. This allows an enchanter to enjoy that bonus at a relatively low level even in the event that odd circumstances dictate a different approach. That adaptation to circumstance doesn’t in any way take away from the player’s ability to play an enchanter the way the player wants.

Something good did come of this wasted effort. I found an error in my data entry. Prayer of Healing was designated an enchantment. Fixed!

My New Thesis

So now I’m forced to adopt a new thesis: WotC has completely failed in 5e to produce a balanced, tactically useful cantrip that doesn’t do damage. It’s very specific, and not exactly a “failure,” but that’s all I I’ve got. Should WotC get on this and make it happen? Maybe, but if they don’t, the only thing we lose is a NVW, which is a character quirk. On the much larger issue of having necromancers feel like necromancers, illusionists feel like illusionists, etc., they’ve already got that 100% right on the spells (as far as I’ve observed). If I had played wizards more often, or was a little more patient with this one, maybe I’d have seen that in the class abilities as well. In the meantime, here are my suggestions. Please keep in mind that I don’t have a good sense on how to balance 5e spells, so these may require some tweaking.

Divination

Enchantment

Illusion

These spell cards were created care of Dungeon Master Assistant.

Very well then. Carry on, WotC.

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Dungeons & Dragons is a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, LLC, who neither contributed to nor endorsed the contents of this post. (Okay, jackasses?)