Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class.
Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.
Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons.
As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.
As classic as they come
The original Dungeons & Dragons game published in 1974 established wizards as the preeminent wielders of magic. Then called the magic-user, they are noted as potentially the most powerful characters in D&D, with a caveat – the road to power is long and arduous. Survival was questionable.
The spell list did not include the now-iconic magic missile spell. Instead, 1st and 2nd level spells focused on crowd control and utility, most notably charm person and sleep to dramatically affect an encounter. A wizard was a nerdy bookworm along for the ride primarily to reveal information until their big moment casting one spell to turn the tide.
Rules for crafting magical items are included with the magic-user description. Creating magical items is an aspect of D&D that’s gone through vast changes. In fifth edition D&D any spellcaster can craft magic items given enough time, gold, resources and knowledge. If you’re a 17th level spellcaster with half a million gold and 55 years on your hands, how about crafting your own legendary magic item?
A magic-user’s situation changed very little when Basic D&D came out. They were still frail, armed only with a dagger and explicitly advised not to adventure alone or engage with monsters. Magic missile, floating disc and ventriloquism showed up on the spell list, giving them a way to deal some 1st level damage with spells and adding more utility.
Along came Advanced Dungeons & Dragons! The magic-user was still frail and with no business getting anywhere near a monster. Well-known wizard spells originate here, like named spells (Bigby, Mordenkainen) and classics like feather fall and burning hands.
AD&D also introduced the first magic-user subclass, the illusionist.
In second edition AD&D the magic-user becomes the wizard at last! Under this umbrella we find the mage – a generalist arcane spellcaster – and specialists. The illusionist is folded into this category, joined by the other schools of magic. Necromancers, abjurers, diviners and the like all have an opportunity to zero in on a particular kind of magic at the cost of being unable to use opposing schools.
Guess what shows up for second edition wizards? In Player’s Options: Spells & Magic we get the first iteration of the artificer, complete with the ability to imbue items with spells and create temporary magic items.
There’s also a dimensionalist in there, which sounds really cool. Just sayin’.
Solidly known as the wizard in third edition D&D, arcane spellcasters got direct competition from the new class on the block – the sorcerer. Wizards got their edge through the versatility of their spellbook and through feats. A wizard got metamagic, item creation or spell mastery bonus feats. This edition also introduced 0-level spells, including damaging options like acid splash and ray of frost. These gave wizards a chance to use magic more often, lessening the need to cower behind fighters before and after throwing out a single sleep spell.
Once we got to fourth edition D&D, wizards received a huge bump. Much more magical, a wizard could participate in combat consistently through at-will spells. Cloud of daggers, magic missile, ray of frost, scorching burst and thunderwave gave wizards the ability to toss around magic all day long. Encounter powers let wizards pull out a bigger magical gun in every individual combat plus heavy hitting once each day through a daily power.
Outside of combat ghost sound, light, mage hand and prestidigitation provided limitless wizardly flair. This is an enormous boost, even from third edition’s 0-level spells.
Finally, we come to fifth edition D&D where wizards occupy a strange space. Many classes in 5E have spellcasting options. Bards, sorcerers and warlocks challenge wizards for player popularity and ability to utilize arcane magic. What puts wizards above these other dabblers is the breadth of options.
There’s two aspects of the wizard defining their place in 5E: their spellbook and arcane tradition. The former gives ultimate versatility over other arcane spellcasters, able to tailor a daily loadout of prepared spells from a much larger list of options. The latter gives wizards unique powers and mastery over a chosen school of magic. Enchanters can mesmerize a target, necromancers can siphon life energy and so on.
Because wizards have evolved so much throughout the history of D&D, this retrospective section is much longer than the usual Playing D&D with Class series. But it helps to illustrate how far wizards have come while staying true to their original goal. Wizards in fifth edition D&D have more magical power at their disposal, and competition from other casters, but their strength still lies in knowing when, how and what magic to use.
Brains over brawn…?
No matter how you slice it, wizards rely on Intelligence above all else. But that doesn’t mean every wizard has to be a robed genius perpetually leaning on a staff and thumbing through musty tomes.
At the bare minimum, a wizard’s Intelligence affects how many spells they can prepare following a long rest. With careful spell selection, a low Intelligence score can be mitigated by choosing spells that don’t require a saving throw or spell attack role.
Many buff spells fall into this category, so a wizard with lower Intelligence who enjoys bolstering allies with magic can get by and perhaps thrive. Enemies are more likely to target the one throwing fireballs than one creating flame arrows and casting haste on the fighter. You might not get the killing blow on the fearsome troll yourself, but you can pat yourself on the back knowing it was your magic that gave companions the edge.
Granted, choices fitting this criteria are severely limited. But it is still possible to play a less-than-brilliant wizard successfully, especially if you’re okay with lesser success rates on landing spells for the sake of interesting roleplaying opportunities and flavor.
My favorite character to play, Mesmogdu the Magnificent, is an enchanter with higher Charisma than Intelligence (and abysmal Wisdom score of 6). Delightful spells like color spray and sleep can impact combat tremendously, and neither requires an attack roll or saving throw. Fog cloud, darkness, various wall spells – none of them rely on Intelligence.
At the same time, being a wizard means taking a scholarly perspective. No character becomes a wizard on accident or through circumstances the way a fighter might emerge from training, a rogue through experience or a barbarian through primal fury. Wizards make a choice to dedicate time and energy to study and experimentation. They seek to not only use magic, but understand everything about arcane power.
This isn’t to say other classes don’t require serious focus to mastering skills and powers. But compared to other classes – and other spellcasters especially – wizards are like scientists. They don’t pick up a smattering of magic here and there like a bard, they’re not born with raw power like a sorcerer, given magic through a deal like warlocks or bestowed power through faith like a cleric. Wizards seek not only power, but understanding of the structure and behavior of arcane energy.
A wizard’s approach to magic is what makes them unique among D&D spellcasters. Using intellect gives them an advantage perhaps not in raw magical might, but in adaptability and versatility. Carrying this concept to other aspects of a D&D wizard character can help inform more about their personality and adventuring style.
Looking for inspiration
As a hallmark of fantasy, finding a great representation of a wizard is easy. Merlin (although closer to druid), Gandalf, Elminster, Harry Potter and Doctor Strange are all well-known wizards of distinction. They are wielders of magic who study signs and symbols, experimenting to achieve control over arcane energy.
But what about looking beyond fantasy and more traditional takes on magic?
Characters and concepts from science fiction can inspire wizard characters, too. In the Mass Effect series of video games, biotic individuals study and train to manipulate fundamental universal forces. Creating protective barriers, holding enemies in place, dominating or moving creatures around the battlefield. Perhaps your wizard trained in a similar manner, using special substances and learning techniques to align their internal energy with the arcane energy all around them.
What about The Doctor? You could certainly do worse than getting inspiration for a wizard from the central character of the Doctor Who universe. Hyper intelligent, The Doctor travels time, space and other dimensions using smarts to solve problems. The Time Lord might not be lob lightning bolts around but there’s plenty of spells to simulate The Doctor’s amazing feats. You can even get a clone ready for your next regeneration.
Any character who relies on knowledge to solve problems can inspire a wizard. You could even play a wizard with high Strength and Constitution to match your Intelligence, whose interest and study of physiology leads them to hone their muscles and stamina, further enhancing themselves with spells like enlarge, jump, haste and similar spells.
Roles not rolls
As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as characters built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.
D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.
Wizards are planners. Intelligence might not be your highest ability score, but it is nonetheless the one that matters the most. A wizard’s wheelhouse is application of knowledge and skills to whatever situation arises. This is as true for a wizard fresh from graduation at a college of magic as it is for a tribal wizard who studies the natural world and learns to manipulate magic from elders who pass on what they’ve learned.
Whatever a wizard’s background, the most crucial resource is their spellbook. Within the pages of the vital tome, wizard’s record and notate everything they learn about magic. A spellbook could be an exquisite, leather bound and gilded manual filled with complex equations and formulae, or a series of cured hides with runes and astrological symbols inscribed on them.
An illusionist might doodle in their spellbook, making sketches of unusual things they see to inspire the next major image. Necromancers could clinically record the manner of death out of professional curiosity. Diviners may jot down significant moments they are witness to, seeking to connect the dots between past, present and future. The muscle wizard (probably a transmuter) mentioned above might have a spellbook more like a training and exercise manual.
Thinking ahead is a wizard’s strength, giving them the ability to tailor their prepared spells for whatever might come next. To take advantage of this versatility, a wizard tends to be inquisitive. The scholarly perspective guiding a character to become a wizard in the first place puts them in the perfect spot to advocate planning for the party. Working with allies to get a better idea of what lies ahead gives the wizard better opportunities to aid their companions.
Taking your wizard’s race, background and arcane tradition into account, imagine the sorts of subjects that might interest them. A triton evocation wizard with a sailor background could find the power of storm and sea captivating, pausing to admire the crack of thunder while the party trudges through a rain-drenched forest. A firbolg transmuter with a sage background might be fascinated with biology, cataloguing different varieties of creature types in the pages of their spellbook. And a drow enchanter with a charlatan background definitely keeps a running list of various false identities cross-referenced with colorful stories of where they’ve been used and who he swindled – or tried to – with each of them.
The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, experiment with a wizard. At their core, wizards are scholarly and adaptable, with means to manipulate magical energy for limitless results. No matter what tradition they follow, a wizard will consider what lies ahead and prepare a strategy in advance. Wizards are colorful and as different from each other as they are from paladins, rangers or monks. Consider the kinds of spells in your spellbook and those you’d like to acquire, and what they might tell you about your wizard.
Beyond that, think about what role your wizard will play, not just in combat or in the party dynamic, but in the world and story you’re creating with your fellow players. Wizards seek understanding and enjoy solving problems with their minds and just the right spell for the occasion. Like any character, your wizard is a unique individual with their own story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be scribed.