In older editions of (A)D&D wizards have a hard time living. We all know this, and the obvious response is, “When you get to be higher level, you are really good.” This is generally true as well. This is a long climb though, wizards have the longest climb to level to level, besides elves, and that is a long time to wait to “get good” and most games never get to that high level point. I remember when I first started playing AD&D in 1989, we allowed Wizards to start at level 4, and even then they did not make it all the time. Often times they became just giant knife throwing machines, not masters of the arcane. I have read several blog posts on making Wizards (and Thieves) better in the OSR environment, and I thought I would throw my hat into the ring and give you my hot takes on Wizards.
There are two main issues I can see with this, 1) Wizards often do not make it to the level where they become “fun” and 2) Your players are playing now, and want to have fun now. Many of the newer editions of D&D, 5e in particular, have solved these problems in one way or another. I also want to make wizards a bit more magical than they are currently, and a little more in form with a classic long, beard conical hat wizard. I think that OSR players can take what they have done, learn from it, and make it our own. These are some ideas, and possible suggestions to make wizards great again, in your OSR game.
(Please note: I am coming at this from a B/X point of view, but many ideas cross editions)
My favorite wizard/scholar
I am not a fan of this spell at all. It just seems like a pure resource sink and a tax to do the ONE thing that wizards are good at doing. For even a 2nd level wizard, this eats up 50% of his spells for 10 minutes a day of being able to read the thing they spent years of their life learning to do. This seems crazy to me, and in my games I usually play that magic is genetic. If you can naturally read magic script, then you are a wizard and you go off to wizard school. This is in general keeping with the tradition in Dragonlance, and if people have ever read Guardians of the Flame series, I stole this whole cloth. Many people feel this makes it too easy for wizards to use scrolls, and find spells in other spellbooks. (I know B/X does not inherently allow wizards to learn from other spellbooks, but I do) This is where the concepts of money and time come in, that I will address below in the Adventuring section.
This also make wizards into a kind of specialist, the person who knows about magic, and can translate mystic runes and carvings. Maybe on a city that does not like magic, on the walls is scribed “No Wizards Allowed”, but in magical glyphs that only the wizards can read. In my last adventure one of the character’s concept was that he was forced to go to Wizard School as a child due to his genetics, and he had escaped because he did not want to be a wizard. You can have stories about since it is genetic, magic is an oligarchy, and genetic lines are guarded and breeding outside of regulation is bad.
What does this mean for elves? Since elves are casters too, do ALL elves have this ability? Some? None? That depends on how you want your game to go and what you want your elves to be like. If this is a trait that all elves have, they are a magical race, and this just adds to their magical nature. If only some have it, then it is really not that different from human wizards. The ones that do are trained, and those are the ones that your party is playing. Lastly, and I am more inclined for this, elves still need to use the spell. Since they split their time between fighting and magic, they still need to cast a spell to Read Magic. This makes wizards a bit more special, and tones the elf down ever so slightly. This doesn’t mean there are not elves in the world that cannot read magic without a spell, they are just not adventuring currently.
Giving wizards more ability/options with magic makes them more of what people imagine when they play wizards…magical. This is a large complaint of people who play wizards, the limited amount of spells that a wizard gets at low level. I know this is part of the challenge, but the fighter can swing their sword and unlimited amount of times. The thief can sneak an unlimited amount of times. The cleric cannot cast at first level, but they are almost as good a fighter as the fighter, their climb to level 2 is much lower, their spells are flexible, do not have to be researched, they get armor and weapons…etc, etc.
My easiest solution that we used back in the day is to give wizards extra spells for having a high wisdom. Why would we not want to play into the “Wise Old Wizard”? Wisdom is a reasonable dump stat for wizards, as Constitution and Dexterity will help keep them alive. I think this will prevent the rugged tough, or highly nimble wizards, and replace it with the wise person with a high intelligence. This also has the side benefit of making wizards have a higher spell saving throw, which is not out of form either. This also give player some tough choices, if you allow assigned stats. Do I go for a higher Wisdom, and get more spells at lower levels, or a higher Intelligence and get the bonus XP? If you use optional rules for learning spells, with percentages based on Intelligence, the choice becomes even more difficult.
Shouldn't Wisdom count for something?
Another option, that might require small tweaking, is cantrips. I was looking over the Unearthed Arcana (1985) and seeing the cantrips that are listed for Wizards and Illusionist. Gary’s interpretation is that apprentice wizards, those wizards of level -2/-1/0, have these tiny primer spells that prepare them for the mighty task of a Ventriloquism spell. He mentions that oftentimes wizards discard their apprentice spellbooks, and trade them in for their real spellbook. If they did keep it, they can trade in a 1st level slot for up to 4 cantrips. If you are familiar with later editions D&D cantrips, do not think these are the same thing. When I say they are minor effects, they are truly minor effect. You are not shooting fire, or creating minor illusions, you are adding color to a wall, or literally killing a single fly. You have the almighty power of making someone blech, or making the floor squeak. Overall, I believe there are 66 different cantrips, divided into 6 categories.
You have a lot of options here, if you want to add something like this into your game. I personally would not make a wizard discard a precious spell slot to have 4 cantrips, I just allow a wizard to have 4 cantrips a day, beyond their normal spell selections. You can have the wizard know all of them, some, or maybe only certain categories like personal or legerdemain? You could have the wizard memorize them at the beginning of the day like normal spells, or since they are minor magic tricks, they have some flexibility and can just do whichever one they want with a little mental energy. This adds some new options, of a magical nature, that a wizard can try and problem solve with.
Cantrips: Impress People at Cocktail Parties
I see wizards as academics, because by their nature they need to study to do their craft. I work in academia, and oftentimes imagine my colleagues in the roles of these type characters, for better or worse. These people have put in the time and mental elbow grease to master something that has a level of difficulty involved with it. This is why I do not like later editions with sorcerers. All spellcasters whether Cleric, Wizard, or even a Psionic character have a certain amount of sacrifice/discipline attached to the character. Clerics require a sense of devotion and the ability to follow a set of guiding principles. Wizards must study and put forth time and effort to master their craft. Psionic characters need to master themselves with meditation and introspection. Then sorcerers came along and they can just do magic without any effort put into it. I can imagine wizards being very spiteful knowing they spent decades of their life in study so that Pete the Sorcerer can do the same effects as him because he is just “gifted”. (I know there is a slight hypocrisy in that I like genetic magic for read magic, but that is for one spell, not all spells!)
This leads to the question, why would an Academic go into a filthy cave and fight monsters? The answer is something that many in USA can relate to, tuition is expensive. Magic in general should be expensive, because it is the “high technology” of the fantasy world. Training people in the high technology of any generation is expensive. In my games wizards need to garner money to help them evolve as a magic user. My general view is that a wizard researching a spell on their own will cost 1,000 gp per level of the spell, and will take 2 weeks per level of the spell to complete. You can pay a mentor to help you, this doubles the cost, but halves the time needed to learn. You can also adventure and find scrolls which half the time, and the cost of the spell. These can also be combined, have a scroll and a mentor? That will cut the time by quite a bit. This gives wizards a reason to socialize, they need to find a mentor, and a reason to adventure, they need money and scrolls/books to learn. If magic is not expensive, then I think most wizards would stay comfy in their rooms with a good book and a warm beverage.
Another good rule that you can port in from AD&D is the percent to learn a spell. This makes Intelligence more important, and you can add bonuses for having a mentor or a scroll. This encourages exploration, and also makes magic even more expensive. Learning a spell, even in the best of conditions, still has a chance of failure, and all the money was for not. You can also give bonuses to learn for other expenditures. Have a library, that’s a bonus. Have a tower, that’s a bonus. Have a laboratory, that’s a bonus.
Getting magic items is fun, not being able to use them is a huge bummer. I have had a battle with the Identify spell, or lack thereof, in B/X. I do not see the fun in making items so difficult in identifying. I do not think it should be as easy as 5e with the Attunement rules, but the amount of time, effort, energy, and money involved in learning about a +1 Longsword that is +2 vs Werecreatures is kind of crazy. I can understand doing this for Artifacts, with a large scope of powers. Having to go on long quests to find people with specific knowledge/powers to comprehend such an item, but a dagger +1?
In most cases, the Bard class, is not an option or at least a realistic option is OSR games. This means that I am not stealing their thunder by allowing wizards a chance to identify an item just based on their years of study. I have not play tested this yet, but I see little issue in allowing a wizard to discern the nature of a magical creation with a roll equal to 5% per level. This is not a huge percent, but at least there is a chance. You could also use this stat as knowledge of esoteric, magical information.
I can make fun because they don't exist.
B/X D&D does not have the spells Identify or Legend Lore, so they are not an issue for what I am talking about in general, but what if your edition does? It changes nothing. If the Wizard’s roll fails, you still have both of these to fall back on to attempt to identify the item. You can still pay the high cost involved with Identify spells, regardless of edition, for the pittance of information you get.
Stay in school kids!
All of these make the wizard feel more magical, and push the player along to engage with the setting. In general player engagement is what I am looking for in my game. I also do not want to have new players come to my table, and want to play a wizard and hear from the veterans, “Do not play one, it is super hard for a new player, and you’ll die.” Then to only have them sit there with their one spell, that was randomly rolled as Comprehend Languages, with very little to do except throw daggers. That is not why they decided to play a wizard, they wanted something magical.
EDIT: This article proved to be very popular. I went ahead and created a Facebook group for the blog, if you are interested the link is here.