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Wizards Watch: Skillful Rogues, Balanced Wizards, and Countdown to the Next Playtest!

I sure hope that's a Web Spell...

I sure hope that's a Web Spell...

I think that everywhere in the D&D Community there must be the growing sense of anticipation, and possibly a little dread, as we countdown the final days to the Open Playtest of D&D Next.  On May 24th, many players will finally get to experience firsthand what has been, up until now, a shadowy storm of supposition about what the newest edition to the Dungeons & Dragons family of role-playing games will be.  Will we as a gaming community love the new edition, or absolutely hate it, or perhaps just feel indifferent to it and go on playing our favorite versions of D&D?

In less than 10 days, many of us will find out that of-so-important truth about D&D Next.

And as we count down the final days to the Open Playtest, Mike Mearls and the WotC Design Team continue to give us new ideas and concepts for what the main basic character classes will be like in the new edition, it seems the Core Rules will be very focused on making the four iconic classes – Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard – the best they can be.

Last week, Mike Mearls’ Legend & Lore articles took a look at the Rogue Design Goals as it had previously with the Fighter and Cleric classes for D&D Next.  But in an interesting shift, today’s article was entitled Balancing Wizards in D&D , suggesting that of all the classes, the iconic Wizard is the one character that deserves, if not requires, some special handling in the new edition.

And it begs the question: Can the Wizard ever really be balanced in Dungeons & Dragons?

Backstab, Back Attack, and More!

For the most part, I think what I read in Rogue Design Goals made a lot of sense to me.  Discussing how many and wide ranging in skills the Rogue character class is (Rogues are skilled), and how they are so skilled that only the most challenging of circumstances give them pause (The rogue makes the routine look trivial) were spot on.  In mythological and fantasy literature, Rogue characters are a cocky and smug bunch of chaps, very sure of their skills and cunning, as the characters from Mr. Gygax’s  inspirational reading list in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide tend to suggest.  Grey Mouser, Jhary-a-Conel, and even young Conan were some of the founding icons for the design of the early Rogue class (AD&D called it a Thief), and provided the impetus for what the Rogue class would become in successive editions.

And it’s equally important to note that while the powers of the Rogue are based upon non-magical sources (The rogue exists in a world of myth, fantasy, and legend), they can achieve a legendary status through their exploits (The rogue makes the routine look trivial), which again feels right both from a literary perspective and from the class structure of previous editions.  But must admit that I am quite curious how D&D Next plans to play that part of the class out, as described in the Legend & Lore article:

Traditionally, the mechanics of D&D have reflected better training by increasing the chance of success. That doesn’t quite capture the rogue’s level of talent. The rogue isn’t just more likely to succeed. Instead, he or she takes success for granted in most cases. It’s only when facing a real challenge that the rogue must worry about the outcome.

Are Rogues going to be so highly skilled at low levels that they can accomplish most of their abilities without worrying about failure?  Or is this a suggestion that the Rogue will only be required to roll a skill check when faced with very powerful adversaries?  Either way, it is different than preceding editions, but in keeping with literary inspirations.

However, where I did have a bit of disagreement with the vision for the Rogue class was in suggesting that they could not stand up to opponents in a fair fight:

The rogue prefers an indirect approach to a fight. A rogue thrives on tricks and misdirection. If a rogue can’t attack from behind or with some other key advantage, he or she might be better off withdrawing or remaining out of sight until the opportunity for a surprise attack presents itself.

If a rogue can surprise an opponent with an attack, that attack might be overwhelmingly powerful. If a rogue is cornered and forced to fight fair, he or she is at a huge disadvantage. In such a situation, most rogues would choose to run away rather than fight.

Most literary sources, including those which founded the class line, tend to portray the Rogue as being warriors in their own right, but with a different fighting style which includes dirty in-fighting tricks and a general lack of battling “honorably”.  When attacking from stealth, they are even more deadly than a warrior, but otherwise fantasy literature tends to make little distinction between a common mercenary, a soldier, and a rogue.  In fact, I would daresay that it is the Assassin that fits this last character concept better than a Rogue, requiring stealth and subterfuge to make their deadly attacks and being far less capable when they don’t have the advantage of surprise.

I certainly hope the Design Team does not go too far and make the Rogue too much like an Assassin.  I’d tend to want to see a Rogue much more dangerous when cornered, like the proverbial rat, for that’s when he’s liable to make his most cunning and deadly attacks!

Swords Versus Sorcery

Solving the Fighter-Linear-Wizard-Quadratic equation has only ever been done successfully once – in Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition.  The AEUD template which nearly all classes were built on – before Essentials and Psionics came out anyways – ensured an even playing field for all core 4E classes.  While playing through all the previous editions of the game, I can’t begin to count the number of times I witnessed how the Wizard grew from a nearly useless weakling to become comicbook-esque superhero, outshining nearly every other member of his or her adventuring party.  They might not be Gandalf or Merlin, but they sure as heck made the rest of the characters in their party second-class adventurers compared to them.

I’ll admit I chuckled out loud a little bit when Mr. Mearls claimed in the opening of the Balancing Wizards in D&D article that “many gaming groups simply don’t see the problem”.  My immediate thought in response was “that’s because those groups are turning a blind eye to the issue.”  The problem was always there, inherent to how all editions prior to 4E handled increasing numbers of spell slots and the relentless growth in power for all spells, regardless of the spell’s level.  No matter how you want to look at it, a 10th level Wizard under any old edition delivered a 3rd Level fireball or a lightning bolt spell with an average of 35 hit points to a whole pack of monsters, automatically hitting, and instantly killing any of 4 Hit Dice or less, and even those monsters of 5 to 8 Hit Dice – if they fail their save!  All that while the fighter and rogue hack away at a single monster during a round, possibly missing with their swings and doing a mere fraction of the damage.  Just think, if the melee classes are lucky, they just might kill a critter once in a while!

I’m sorry, but to me that’s always going to be a major balance problem between classes in any game system, even if there are some D&D players and Dungeon Masters that want to pretend it’s not.

But I have to say that some of the ideas Mr. Mearls puts out there for balancing the Wizard in D&D Next really do intrigue me.  Keeping spell slots low while offering at-will cantrips with both utility and attack capabilities seems like the start of a decent solution (Cantrips as At-Will Magic / Reducing Total Spell Slots), as well as making sure that low level spells don’t become overwhelming engines of destruction (Spells Don’t Automatically Scale).  And making it possible for spells to be interrupted by attacks (Spellcasting Is Dangerous) again, and offers another reason for a Wizard to respectfully request combat aide from the melee classes to ensure their powerful spells can be cast – something that 3rd/3.5 Edition removed from old D&D play with the Concentration Skill and 4E by making spells instantaneous.

Of course, all these changes to create balance might just earn the ire of the die-hard D&D Wizard fans, who have seen the class grow more and more omnipotent from OD&D through 3.5 edition.  D&D 4E designers came under major criticism from some fans for balancing the Wizard with AEUD and limiting spell options, and for changing the class role from the battlefield devastator, as it was previously, to a battlefield tactician (ie. Controller).  Making many of the Wizard utility spells into Rituals didn’t help, particularly when those spells used to be castable at any time and in one round or less.

One has to wonder if weaving all these balance-centric class features into the core class isn’t courting the same reaction 4E received from these older edition D&D Wizard fans!

Only a short 10 days remain before the nature of the new D&D Next Wizard is finally revealed, as well as all the other core classes.  I look forward to seeing the Open Playtest materials myself, and seeing if all this build-up of anticipation is worth the wait – or if it’s merely been hype for selling a new edition to a gaming community with plenty of version of D&D already available to play to their hearts’ content.

So until next blog… I wish you Happy Gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


5 Responses to “Wizards Watch: Skillful Rogues, Balanced Wizards, and Countdown to the Next Playtest!

  1. Arbanax says:

    Michael I am so pleased to see you return to your comments this week as I always find your comments and analysis helpful and balanced. In this weeks article I can’t help but feel I agree, (I don’t always ;-) and like you I am wondering if the move from 4e to 5e will be a positive one or not, depending wholly on what is presented. I find that one of 4e huge drawbacks is that magic is so mundane being reduced as it is largely to combat. And so one of the things I loved the most, in the Wizards article, was the creative use of spells outside of combat. The Grease spell to help a Rogue escape etc! I think as regards to those who don’t think the overpowered wizard is a problem, must either be happy with what they bring at lower levels to feel its worth it, or are interested more in ‘winning’ by any means and don’t mind being reduced to spell caddies in combat – perhaps because at higher levels Role Playing and Exploration are even more important and for that the Wizard is also essential. I’ve never understood what the appeal of being outshone so convincingly is, so it will be interesting to know what others think.

    I like how they are trying to balance the characters, esp the Wizard and do hope that a) play testers realise these are a base set of rules that need to be torn down in order to be built up again and that common ground as to what is core and what isn’t can be found so the goal of unification can be achieved. b) that WOTC don’t shoot themselves in the foot, by promising to be open in principle but closed in practice, either by being protective of rules or concepts that play testers disagree on or appearing not to take onboard play tester feedback. It will be interesting to see how information is aggregated and then used and lets hope wise heads prevail.


  2. Philo Pharynx says:

    Look at rogues (or thieves) in most other editions of D&D. They could fight, but they are at a disadvantage if they are up against a fighter type of equal level in a straight fight. The amount varies with editions, but using tricks always helps. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge disadvantage, but it’s there. After all the fighter write up said that they are the best at straight up fighting, which implies that the rogue has to be less good. Also, part the fun of playing a rogue is coming up with cool tricks in fights.

    The only issue with the revised wizard is the pressure to use their limited spell slots just for attack spells. Not all utilities should be low level at-wills. Heck, if we aren’t going to have AEDU, how about ADU? By having dedicated Vancian slots for utilities will encourage wizards to get creative with them without making them combat powerhouses.

  3. @Philo – I’d agree with you with regards to Old D&D and AD&D, but by 2nd Edition onward, especially after Skills & Powers came out and Unearthed Arcana, Rogues started being more on par with Fighters, even in a stand-up fight. By 3rd Edition and 3.5, I saw Rogues created that could make a Fighter give serious thoughts about retiring rather than crossing swords with him. And 4th Edition Rogues are more than solid, and one of the top 3 all-time DPR classes, and still able to take a beating in combat. I think that the Rogue class definitely has evolved more toward the fantasy literature style character with every edition after AD&D, and I’d hate to see it devolve back to the old weaker class that has to argue with the DM every time he wants to do a sneak attack/back attack/backstab and feel like he’s effective in combat.

    As far as your idea for ADU, I agree that a Vancian magic system can work in a 4E system, but honestly from a DM perspective I hate Daily slots and once a day spell slots. Heck I even hate X per day powers, too, because of the book work it forces on the players from session to session. If I had my druthers, I’d have just AEU, and the utilities would either be at-wills or encounter powers. Tracking Dailies in a big dungeon crawl or long cross country trek is a real pain to me, particularly if you have a campaign that plays every other week. It’s not that I feel my players are cheating, but many Daily powers seem only about 20% more potent than an Encounter power, so why make all the extra work?

  4. TheDragonturtle says:

    I feel like it wasn’t the balancing of the wizard that most players who chose earlier editions over 4e objected to. In fact, you can see conversations in many places by current 3.5 or PF players who are looking to find ways of balancing wizards.

    I think the issue was more to do with the means employed to balance the wizard, and what 5e appears to be doing is quite different as far as that goes.

    One last thing: wizards, clerics, druids and other spell casting classes are capable of being ridiculously powerful, it’s true, but when actually played in games they are very often played as a lower caliber than they are capable of. In fact, a wizard played as you suggest (who emphasizes lightning bolt, fireball, MM, etc) is not really the problem that a lot of people have. Sure, he’s powerful, but he doesn’t have the game breaking qualities that a wizard who emphasizes spells like grease, silent image, invisibility, alter self, etc, as well as those who emphasize scrolls and wands. Wizards who take damage dealing spells are easy to cope with: putting in fewer, more powerful monsters makes a wizard substantially less overwhelming compared to a fighter or rogue. The players who haven’t seen a big problem are likely either groups with a very high level of system mastery like mine (we deal with the Wizard by using gameworld rules and restrictions, or on a metagame level) or a relatively low level -thus preventing the wizard from reaching the problematic heights it is capable of

  5. @TheDragonturtle – I agree, and I was using the damage spells as an example of just one facet of how the Wizard outshines melee – sheer killing power. Once you get a Wizard or Sorcerer that starts chaining effects together, and has feats to bolster his Spell Save DCs, the melee classes start looking like fumbling toddlers by comparison. In the last game before I switched to 4E, the player with Wizard had that “system mastery” edge as you call it (I called it min-maxing, personally). The character was nigh untouchable, and could drop or incapacitate piles of monsters before the melee could unsheathe their swords.

    Since I posted this blog, its occurred to me that the problem with 4E Wizards, and many other things which some D&D gamers found objectionable, was not one of system “crunch” but of canon “fluff”. The more I think about it, 4E pushed aside far too much of the old D&D canon, changed too many monsters abilities, and altered settings far too much to suit many in the community. Which is sad, because had the designers had respected the canon more, and included it wherever they could in 4E, it would have been a true D&D revolution, instead of a casus belli for the community members.

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