DnD Dithering: We’re Off to See the Wizard

You’ll note that this is not one of my "What I Want to See in D&D" posts. That’s because I don’t actually know if this is something I want to see. I’m theorizing and tossing out ideas to see what sticks.

As you know if you’ve paid even vague attention to the online portion of the RPG community for the past, oh, decade, one of the common issues of concern is the balance of power between spellcasters and non-spellcasters. I’ve talked about it a bit myself.

The problem, in a nutshell, is that spellcasters have–or at least potentially have–both the versatility in their magics and the power in their offensive spells to outshine any other character in the party.

Different editions have tried to address this in different ways. 1E and 2E had wizards advance more slowly than most other classes, but this is a fake fix. It staggers the progression, but it doesn’t ultimately change anything.

1E, 2E, and 3E also had various ways a spell could be disrupted. That’s reasonable in theory, but the problem is that it sucks, as a player, to have your entire turn basically wasted, or to have one of your limited spells per day lost without getting to cast it. It may be fair, but it can lead to long periods of sitting around bored in an encounter.

4E balanced by giving everyone, even the martial characters, powers of roughly equivalent strength. This was the perfect solution for a lot of people, but lots of others objected–usually based on one of two points:

A) They want realistic fighters, not wuxia/Hercules types, and a lot of the more potent abilities were pretty obviously magic of a different name.

B) A lot of people want the classes to play very differently from one another, and this similarity of structure led to a similarity of play.

The other method that all editions but 4E have used to one extent or another is limited resources. A wizard or other spellcaster only has X spells he can cast in a day. He might be able to deal out more damage at one time than the fighter, or accomplish more in one minute than the skill-monkey, but he can only do that a couple of times, so the numbers balance out over the course of play.

That’s a perfectly fine idea, except for one problem. It only works if your playstyle is similar or identical to the one around which the system is based. If you prefer one or two huge battles in a day, rather than a larger spread of smaller fights, it throws that balance out of whack. The wizard can go nuclear in every fight. Sure, occasionally it’ll come back to bite him, but for the most part, players get to know what sort of setups their DM prefers.

None of the solutions are anywhere near perfect, either. Drastically weaken and strip options from the spellcasters? You lose a lot of the feel that’s made them spellcasters over the last 38 years. You remove not only the favorite classes, but the favorite style of play, from a huge part of the audience.

Longer casting times? Easier disruption? Unreliable casting? All well and good, but again, we get back to the "standing around doing nothing worthwhile for multiple rounds" problem.

Raise the power of the non-spellcasting classes? Again, a lot of people dislike raising the martial abilities to the level of potent spells.

Can all of this be reconciled? Well, no, not perfectly. There’s no such thing as perfect balance, anyway. You could just say that "If you want mundane martial characters, don’t play past Level X, when they have to basically be supernatural to keep up," but again, that’s not going to satisfy everyone.

So, finally, we get to my point. Chew on this and let me know what you think.

Say that wizards (and other spellcasters, but I’m going to use wizards as my example, because it’s a shorter word) have X number of spells per day, as they have in most prior editions. But they also have an array of much weaker magical abilities, what in 4E would be considered "at-will" powers.

Spells require a roll to cast. The difficulty of the roll depends on both the spell level and the caster level. The precise math doesn’t matter for this discussion; let’s just assume that the highest level spell a character can cast is always really hard, but they get easier as the spell levels get lower.

Here’s the thing. If the casting roll fails…

A) You do not lose the spell. You cannot cast it, but you can try again next round.

B) If the spell fails, you can immediately change your action to casting one of your at-will/mini-spell abilities instead. And those have no chance of failure.

What, exactly, does this accomplish? Well, it limits the amount of Ultimate Cosmic Power the wizard can toss out, not only by day (X spells/day), but also by individual encounter. In some encounters, the wizard will get really lucky and get off a whole bunch of mega-spells. In other encounters, he’ll get really unlucky, and not get off a one. Most of the time, it’ll be somewhere in the middle.

The reason this matters is that now, it doesn’t matter how many encounters a DM prefers to have in a given day; the wizard still cannot constantly outshine everyone else, but still has the opportunity to sometimes steal the spotlight–as all characters should have, on occasion.

It also, unlike prior "spell check" systems, doesn’t make the player sit around chewing his cud if the roll fails. He can still throw out a mini-power which isn’t going to alter the flow of the encounter, but is at least as useful as anyone else’s basic attack. He’s gotten to contribute something. And he hasn’t wasted that one cool mega-spell without getting to cast it; he just didn’t get it off this time.

(If you’re using an optional spell-point system, something like 3E psionics, this can still work. You simply don’t waste the points if the roll fails.)

Is it a flawless idea? No, of course not. Anything that adds extra rolls to combat needs to be carefully considered, given how easy it’s been in both the most recent editions to slow combat to a crawl. But I think–especially if the mini-spells all require a minimum of rolls, and the difficulty numbers are easily accessible–that it won’t add much, and the benefits might be worth it. It adds some additional decision-making time as well, due to "Oh, crap! The spell didn’t go off! What at-will power should I use?!" But that’s easily fixed by the old "If you don’t decide quickly, you’re delaying until you make up your mind" routine.

This could work with casting times of multiple rounds, instead of requiring a roll. But that means more bookkeeping–"Are we on round 4, or round 5?"–as well as removing some of the flexibility. (Under the roll system, if the spell doesn’t go off in round 3, you can decide if you want to try it again or use something else in round 4. With casting times, you’re either stuck to what you committed to, or you have to start over.)

So, there it is. Thoughts? Comments? Modifications? Gaping holes that I apparently missed?

Edit to add: Okay, my bad. I neglected to make one point clear.

This roll is just to see if the wizard can cast the spell. He still has to make whatever attack roll, or get past whatever saving throw, the spell normally requires. Same thing with the "mini-spell." The fact that he can use it without a check doesn’t mean it automatically hits or anything.

Yes, that means that a wizard trying to cast a "real" spell (as opposed to an at-will/mini-spell) needs to make two rolls, not just one, where a fighter swinging a sword just makes one. But that’s the entire point. The idea is to make it so the wizard cannot always throw his best attacks, but can always try to do something. But the key word there is "try."