Ask The GM: Making A Wizard Wizardy

By John Serpico on


Tim asks – I currently play a wizard in my D&D 5e campaign. Folks listen to our game so the advice I am looking for is – what are some fun things to make your wizard feel truly magical. He is incredibly talented but with a good heart so figuring out better and flashier ways to explode the bad guys doesn’t really interest him. Currently, I really like how wizards can both under complicate or over complicate a problem. Do we need to get through a door? Well misty step on through and unlock it my friend! Or create an exact replica of the guard’s daughter to distract him while creating haunting shouts of his deceased uncle who raised him in order to scare him enough to run away. Would love to hear more fun and unique wizard role-playing tips!

Tim, I’ve always believed that a wizard is the toughest class to play in D&D. Not just because of the voluminous spellbook and chunky ruleset (though that certainly contributes), but because of the storytelling and acting pressure it puts on the player.

In the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar R. Burroughs and and Robert E. Howard, all authors whose art inspired both the creators of D&D and its players, wizards have a very specific place. They are the personification of power and mystery. From Gandalf to Sarumon to Thoth-Amon to the wizards of the Wizard of Venus, we’ve seen wizards that were enigmatically powerful, inhumanly powerful, arrogantly powerful, benevolently powerful and insidiously powerful. The seminal texts that brought many of us into swords-and-sorcery fantasy role-playing give us a specific breed of wizard – mighty beyond understanding and aware of their awesome power. And while generations of authors have since given us countless variation of what a wizard is, for many of us, our default mental image is still an old man in a big hat that knows everything and can throw fireballs.

Given that, there’s a heck of a lot of pressure on a player that just rolled up a Level 1 Wizard. That player has to reconcile the fact that he or she is carrying on a century-old tradition of modern fantasy wizarding with the fact that a gnoll with a sharpened stick means certain death for the first half dozen gaming sessions. A lot of players, therefore, need to find a way to infuse power and gravitas into a character whose no more powerful from the game mechanics perspective than the barbarian that’s chewing on bison jerky or the bard that keeps whistling a mindless song about a chaste maiden. It is in that desire to reconcile “awesome wizard stuff” with “limitations of D&D sourcebooks” that can give someone playing a wizard a headache. For those early-level wizards, trying to demonstrate power within the story can result in a wizard that comes off as needlessly arrogant, frustratingly distant from his or her compatriots or overly foppish as he or she throws cantrips at every conceivable situation. That doesn’t happen every time, but there always seems to be a pull in those directions in the early going.

And even as that character grows, and more and more of the spellbook opens up to the player, that stress is still there. “Am I being wizard’y enough,” is a question that many players in Tim’s position ask themselves.

I think that in your case, Tim, you’re not doing anything wrong. Your character is a wizard, and wizards have magic, and magic can be used to solve problems. Just a thief would pick a lock; you would misty step to the other side of the lock. Just as paladin might demand a guard stand aside in the name of goodness; you would conjure something fun to distract or confuse him. So what you’re doing is just fine, but you can make fine better. So my advice is this – the best thing you can do is to tie those zany, wizard’y actions to an underlying why.

You’re not a wizard just to be a wizard. You’re a wizard for a reason. Which means everything you do is for a reason. That’s the difference between a character and a caricature. So think about the whys. If you believe that using magic to solve problems is right and virtuous because it alleviates human suffering, then anything you do is pursuant to your moral code. If you believe that every spell you cast, no matter how small, is in service to your god, then you’re a religiously upright person. If your mentor is constructing an arcane clock that is fed by the magic of her disciples, then you’re pursuing important research. Find a reason why you do what you do and all of a sudden you’re not complicating a situation just to complicate it. Because, by your rationale, you’re not complicating the situation at all.

For me, an underlying why that is simultaneously fun and a bit incongruent with the rest of the party is a wonderful way to marry the Tolkien’esque ideal of a wizard with the tactics of D&D. You may not be more powerful than everyone else, but you know something they don’t. And that knowledge leads to a worldview, and that worldview dictates your actions. Anything you do, so long as it is channeled through that conduit, becomes an exercise in character building. And that will make you more connected to your character, and will make your character really resonate with the other players and everyone listening to your group!

Happy gaming!

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One comment

  1. Good answer to a question without a correct answer.

    Looking back at 4th Edition, that was a time where dailies and encounter powers made all characters various types of Wizards. Some of that natural behavior & power variety can be recycled in to Wizard options for the future.

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