1st-Level Wizardry

Tuesday, August 7th, 2018

I’ve recently gotten back into regular gaming after a years-long hiatus, and am playing with a group almost entirely new to gaming in general. We’re running an OSR mash-up of the Elmore Red Box and 5th Edition, starting at 1st level, and having a darn good time of it. But even experienced gamers forget how things work when they haven’t played a particular game for thirty-some years.

One of the things I had only vaguely remembered, in an intellectual way, is that in the basic game, 1st-level wizards are one-hit wonders. To be fair, they are powerful one-hit wonders. But it leaves wizard characters with very little to do once they’ve fired off their single spell — besides running, hiding, and waiting for the fighters to mop up.

This was proving to be a frustration for our wizard players.

Wizards are supposed to be wizards, masters of the magical arts, feared sorcerers who display and can call upon strange powers, one would imagine, more than once per day — yes, even at 1st-level. More spells at 1st-level would mess with the nature of play and power-scaling of wizards far too much in comparison to other characters (all of whom are, at 1st-level, incredibly squishy, given that a single fight with just a couple monsters can result in multiple character deaths).

Now, one element of our rules hack are Tools, which led me to an interesting idea on how to give the wizard players a bit more they could do.

Tools are items that help a character accomplish particular tasks, providing the user a +2 bonus to their roll. For example, a healer kit grants this bonus in attempts to stabilize a wounded character or neutralize the poison from a venomous bite (etc), a set of locksmith’s tools grants this bonus for attempts to open locked doors or chests (etc), while climbing gear grants this bonus when the character attempts to scale a wall or cliff. And so on.

Wizards have tools like a spellbook or alchemy set or wand or amulets and such that can help in various intellectual or mystical tasks, such as getting an edge during a conversation with a spirit or identifying an arcane magical effect on an item or area.

But these are hardly helpful during the combat situations most adventuring parties face as a core part of D&D scenarios.

  • Enter cantrips.
  • The idea of cantrips has a long and varied history in D&D, but in our game it refers to any minor mystical effects a wizard can call upon to help with basic, mundane tasks, or for entertainment.

    They are not a spell per se, and there are no limitations on the number of times cantrips can be used per day. They’re minor supernatural or magical powers. However, they can not produce any strongly magical effect on any creature, object, or character that is similar to any leveled spell; nor — but only as a loose rule — can they do anything the wizard would be unable to accomplish without magic.

    Some examples of the power and limitations of their use would be the wizard attempting to: light a pipe with a tiny flame created by a snap of their fingers, create a simple illusory image of a coin or small figurine, telekinetically make a handkerchief levitate and dance by waving their arms and and fingers like an orchestral conductor, stir a teaspoon or flip the pages of a book without touching it, create a soft burst of sparkling light in the air, make smoke or pale flames dance around their head, make a playing card briefly appear to vanish, cause their voice or a simple sound to issue from somewhere nearby, even briefly hypnotize a willing subject to cluck like a chicken, correctly guess the name of a stranger with whom they are speaking, clean a stain from a tablecloth with a touch, remove dust from a surface with a sweep of their hand, or improve the taste of a soured beer. And so on.

  • Cantrips are considered a Tool for the wizard.
  • Among other possible uses, they could help with creating distractions, attempting to impress someone, or trying to momentarily conceal something, granting a bonus to such an attempt just as flash powder or a disguise or a writ of nobility would.

    For example, in our recent campaign, the 1st-level wizard used her cantrips to create a couple of blinking, flashing lights among the marsh reeds in an attempt to distract a lizardman who had grabbed one of the party’s retainers. This was a Charisma check, using the Tool bonus, and handled just as if the character had attempted to distract the lizardman by yelling and waving their arms. Just with a bit more supernatural flavor. (It didn’t work, by-the-by. The lizardman was having none of it and dragged the retainer deeper into the marsh before one of the other party members chased it down and rescued the hostage.)

  • Another addition geared towards spell-casters are rituals.
  • Rituals allow a spell-caster (whether wizard or cleric) to cast any spell known to them by spending an hour or two (at least) preparing and performing a ritual involving curious objects and alchemies, complex mystical chants read from their spellbook, and carefully drawn magic circles inscribed with runes and sigils (Or for clerics, presentation of their holy symbol during lengthy chanted prayers, ritualistic motions and holy rites, within a purified or dedicated space containing an altar).

    Rituals obviously don’t help wizards during the brief and brutal chaos of combat and are really only useful for casting, usually, various divinatory, enchanting, or transmutative spells, during a time wherein the wizard can be assured they will not be interrupted by monster attacks or superstitious mobs. But they can be useful for the “Why would I memorize this for an adventure?” spells like Read Magic, that a character might want to cast during their next long rest, after having discovered a magical scroll mid-adventure.

    Finally, given how rough it can be for low-level wizards, I’ve been thinking they should, as a regular occurrence, find one-use spell scrolls, or magic wands or rings containing a couple of charges. This gives wizards just a couple more options during battle, or in preparation for battle, increasing their survival chances with one-or-two use protective magics, or in being able to produce some useful effect such as magically sealing a door behind a retreating party.

    All this adds a bit more versatility (and depth) to the low-level wizard, and has been a hit with the wizard players in our game.

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