Rants on Vance

Gamer Bling remains busy trying to launch an actual paying business, hence no review this week.

Instead, Gamer Bling will rail against 3e and 3.5e, not only writing woefully late in the promised day of Wednesday updates, but also being woefully late to the party of bile-slinging 3e/4e partisan judgmentalism, which is American politics meets hobby RPG rules lawyers and self-proclaimed brand watchdogs. So GB is very late, but still full of insight. Or at least vague attempts at humor.

Underlying all this is the fact that Gamer Bling has a thing for playing arcane spellcasters. The Good Lord only knows why Gamer Bling is such a masochist. Nonetheless, Gamer Bling believes wholeheartedly in Hope and Change, that being that he hopes that someday his arcane spellcasters will change into viable PCs.

This hasn’t happened yet. Typically either Gamer Bling’s wizard or the campaign implodes before the wizard gets to a decent level.

In a curious little bit of synchronicity, one of Gamer Bling’s favorite online comics today posted a strip that had this quote regarding a wizard: “What would happen if we turned the magic off? … You cease to be a mighty wizard and become a fragile pointy-eared monkey.”

This is, of course, true. And therein lies the problem. 

The source of the Nile in this case is Jack Vance, who wrote  a series of books collectively called The Dying Earth, which postulated a peculiar form of magic. Magic spells acted like living entities, and as a wizard flipped through his book of spells, they tried to get off the page and crawl into his brain. They actively wanted to be memorized. They carried their own power. Then he’d cast them and their power would be spent.

You can see how this formed the basis of magic for D&D. A wizard could only hold so many spells in his brain without losing his grip on them, and once cast, they were gone.

So how does such a cool magic concept become a problem for a role-playing game? Because wizards are continually turning their own magic off.

Think about it: Every spell shot is one less option the wizard has. Every spell cast is another 30-degree turn in the dimmer switch of magical power inevitably leading to the wizard turning his own magic off.

As the PHB says, “A few unintelligible words and fleeting gestures carry more power than a battleaxe.” Sadly, the accent is on fleeting. Don’t believe your humble reviewer? Let’s compare.

Under 3e, how long can a fighter swing his axe? All day long. Each chop takes nothing away from the fighter’s potential until the DM fiats an endurance check.

Under 3e, how long can a wizard practice magic? For a stock 16-Int 1st-level specialist wizard casting combat spells, this can be as short as 42 seconds.

Yeah, that’s right. 42 seconds and the wizard has shot his bolt. 42 seconds, and the wizard has gone from someone with Ultimate Cosmic Power to someone who can’t give the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. And over half of that time is spent casting cantrips! Cantrips!

42 seconds. Hmph. Rabbits last longer than that.

Okay, they don’t; Gamer Bling knows this because he used to raise them, but still, his point is made.

According to the 3.5 PHB, page 55, “The wizard’s strength is her spells. Everything else is secondary.” This includes attack bonus, armor class, hit points, fortitude saves, skill points, and survivability in a toe-to-toe confrontation.

Gamer Bling knows.

Gleek died because he was—thanks to a few levels of wimpy d4 hit dice—just a few hit points shy of surviving a trap. He needed those points because he had blown his save, thanks in part to a few levels of negligible reflex save pumps. If Gamer Bling had been smart and kept Gleek a pure rogue, the psychotic little kobold would still be alive today.

In last week’s installment, Gamer Bling’s halfling wizard had shot his bolt of magic and was thereafter useless. Yes, as a dextrous halfling, he had a good chance to hit, but his damage was a mere d3 with a sling, and the extraplanar creature had 5 points of damage reduction. So on a confirmed critical and a double 3 damage, Gamer Bling’s mighty wizard would inflict a plinky 1 damage, which would get regenerated away without so much as an “Oh, bother.”

So, while the PHB says on page 21 that a wizard is “A potent spellcaster schooled in the arcane arts,” we’ve all misread this statement for a long time. What is means is this: Wizards get schooled for having practiced arcane arts.

More to come. In the meantime, give Gamer Bling your worst pathetic-arcane-spellcaster-getting-killed-or-otherwise-tooled sob story. Let others share in your grief. You’ll be glad you did.

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~ by Gamer Bling on 28 January 2009.

13 Responses to “Rants on Vance”

  1. I think that the fragile nature of the wizard is part of it’s appeal for some. The wizard is the frail nerd who has to rely on his (or her) friends to protect them, and has to carefully plan out every detail of their day in order to be an effective combat source. Have you checked out the Pathfinder game at paizo.com? It basically upgrades & updates a lot of systems in 3.5, 2 of which are a great boon to wizards & sorcerers. First, cantrips are at-will powers. What a novel concept! For those casters who have to prepare their spells, they any cantrips they prepare for that day are cast at-will. For Sorcerers, any cantrips they KNOW are at-will. Some call this overpowered and prone to abuse. Personally, I think it’s an excellent game & rp tool, and I have recently implemented it in the 3.5 game that I run. Another useful rule is that magic item creation no longer requires XP. I’ve always wondered at this mechanic. As an avid player of arcane spellcasters, I’ve always considered scrolls to be useful backups, especially for non-combat utility spells that a wizard (or cleric for that matter) might not use often enough to keep as a prepared spell, but is specifically useful in certain situations (knock, Remove Curse, Stone to Flesh, etc). I’ve always thought it unfair that arcane & divine casters should be penalized via xp for preparing to help the group in given situations, while non-casters have no such issue. I understand that it must be regulated, but I think that the time & gp costs do so in a useful way.
    Yes, the wizard’s usefulness is limited, especially at lower levels, but with careful planning & creative spell and equipment use, it can be one of the most rewarding classes ever!

  2. I think you’re blaming/crediting Vance for something that was mostly Gygax’s and Arneson’s idea. I have a post that goes into more detail, but basically if they had been looking to emulate Vancian magic instead of just slap a rationale onto their miniatures wargame to explain why the wizard unit only got to cast X spells per day, it would have looked quite a bit different. For one thing, that spell would have instantly killed or banished that extra-planar creature, no save….and Gleek’s fate would have been quite a bit different.

  3. Gamer Bling never said that they were trying to emulate the Vance stories, merely that the stories served as an inspiration. This GB remembers from an article he read many long years ago and for which, unlike you, he has no post. Primarily because one does not exist that he is aware of.

    From inspiration, the designers expressed the concept into game terms and then play-balanced it. But what works for a miniatures game does not necessarily work for an RPG. And having a wizard’s abilities for one battle extended to cover a day’s time is not necessarily a good procedure. But that’s for another week.

  4. d3 with a sling… 5 points of damage reduction…

    Doesn’t sound like Gygax and Arneson’s game. 😉

  5. And this is why I might actually play a 4E wizard, even if in earlier editions, I wouldn’t touch one with the proverbial 10′ pole.

  6. At *very* low levels, yes the wizard is fragile and has limited power. However, I started a wizard at 5th in the last game that I played and he has proven to be an incredibly effective party member. My choice of spells usually allows me to render the opposition completely ineffective within a round or two. If I hit the enemies with some combination of nausea/blindness/restricted movement (depending on what kind of threat they pose) then my party can tear them apart with ease. I also carry nice buffs for the party – Haste wins so hard.

    You also seem to be forgetting that D&D is a *team* game. Of course any sensible wizard casts Mage Armor, Protection from Arrows and possibly Heart of Stone or some other defensive spells at the start of the day. In addition, though, he stays the hell out of the actual fight and ruins peoples’ days with spells from range. Your party’s job in return is to make sure nothing gets near you. Protection from arrows give DR 10 at low levels and casting blur/displacement/dropping a fog cloud on ranged attackers will make you very tough to hit.

    With regards to Gleek, I don’t see how you can blame arcane casters for the fact that you weakened your own character by taking levels of a class with poor synergy. If my cleric takes a handful of rogue levels, that doesn’t mean I get to complain when his spellcasting power falls behind the difficulty curve. It’s not the fault of the rogue class that my cleric suddenly lacks high-level spells.
    Regardless, if you’re disabling a trap that you feel might be tricky (and the circumstances sound like they gave this impression) then *somebody* in your party should have been capable of using ‘detect magic’ or better to glean a little information about the trap, followed by one or more of Energy Resistance, Temporary HP, Aid Another or summoning an animal to do a dummy run.

    Casters usually have high Intelligence, right? Play them that way – keeping themselves out of danger, selecting spells carefully, maximizing their potential and shoring up their weaknesses.

    I agree that Vancian Magic can be a royal pain in the arse, but a well-played caster can leave martial characters in the dust once you’re through the first couple of levels and even in those, spells like ‘sleep’ can win an entire encounter for the use of a single 1st-level spell.

    Just some food for thought…

  7. Started at 5th? “Ah, we meet at last, Signor Cheatypants, for the last time!” Gamer Bling’s opinion is that if you haven’t clawed your way to the top, then you are little more than a trust-fund sorcerer!

    Any foe worth their tactical salt attacks spellcasters right away. You can’t stay out of a fight. Especially when said foe has perfect flight, invisibility, and lives in a large, open cavern.

    If a sensible wizard casts Mage Armor, Protection from Arrows and some other defensive spell at the start of the day, he’s done. He’s become an underarmored, low-hp, ineffective fighter. Also called “commoner,” except that he can cast caltrops, which is a fancy spell to duplicate a cheap piece of equipment. Or ice bolt, which is one-shot magic version of a sling.

    As for poor Gleek, you need to read about his death. Gamer Bling still can’t talk about it… the wound is too raw… (sniff)

    But none of your tactical observations changes the fact that the wizard daily reduces his own effectvieness to nil. Yes, wizards and sorcerers are powerful… until their top level or two of spells is exhausted. Then they’re nigh useless.

    And still Gamer Bling loves playing them. Sigh.

  8. 1) We all started at 5th because we all wanted to play ‘Red Hand of Doom’. Given that we live a long way apart and can only game every few months, levelling to 5th to be able to play the adventure would probably take us a year or so… The DM told us to roll up 5th level characters so we could play the game we all wanted to play. I fail to see how this has anything to do with cheating die rolls. At all. Frankly you come off as somewhat rude.

    2) I *did* read about Gleek’s death. You claim that those levels of spellcaster contributed to his death because of reduced Hit Dice and reduced reflex saves. However, you multiclassed from rogue to sorcerer, reducing your Hit Die from d6 to d4. The average roll on a d6 is 3.5 as against a d4 at 2.5, which means you gain *1* less hit point per level on average. One. If you die by the 2 hit points it cost you, then what the hell makes you think that it’s down to caster levels? One of the damage dice landing differently can make more difference than your class choice in those circumstances. *THEN* you mention right there that you ROLLED A ‘1’ ON YOUR SAVE. You rolled a 1 dude, a 1. That’s a fail, which means it doesn’t matter one bit that your caster levels had poor reflex progression. Way to nullify your own argument.

    3) Since when is the worth of a class measured entirely on its effectiveness in the first two or three levels? D&D goes up to 20 and even beyond. I could invert your logic and complain that martial characters are underpowered because without a friendly wizard around, there’s no ‘Death Ward’ to protect them from that ‘save or die’ which reduces their axe-swinging endurance to a pile of bones at high level.

    4) Yes, it often makes sense to attack the caster first. There are two things I want to say about this. First – if EVERY MONSTER YOU FIGHT has perfect flight, invsibility and a large arena to fight in, then you have way bigger problems than your class choice. Your DM is a gigantic jackass, that’s your main problem. In the majority of situations, you can and should depend on your party to keep the heat off of you, as well as employing the tactics in my first post. Second – enemies with those kinds of abilites are not the ones you fight at levels 1-3, which means you’re already arguing outside of your intended scope. If you’re not, then see the part about jackass DMs. However, if you *are* fighting bad guys with those kinds of abilities then you’re at the level where you can do more than sit on your sorry butt and wait to be annhilated. You have options including turning invsibible yourself, dropping glitterdust on the area (2nd level spell!) to totally ruin his invisiblity, casting see invisiblity, using a solid fog spell to make him drop out of the sky (if winged), etc. etc. etc. At those levels you have spells to burn (trust me, I’ve played at those levels and you apparently haven’t).

    5) I *DO* agree that Vancian magic does mean you’re burning out your reserves (I do, I only argue because you’re using it to claim wizard and sorcerers suck when they *really* don’t). Yes, this can be tricky at low levels, I will grant you that. Honestly, though, smart play *will* keep you alive just fine through those levels. I’ve GM’d for a Sorcerer (who started at first, thank you very much) who did just fine, even with my penchant for preferring challenging encounters over CR-appropriate ones. Your claim that a caster is only useful whilst their top two tiers of spells are intact is definitely wrong. Completely wrong, again this is my favourite class, I’ve been there.
    My wizard is currently level 11, right? I have access to 6th level spells and in the last 2 levels the following spells have won encounters
    – Sculpted Web Spell (2nd) effectively ensaring 3 wyverns before they managed to leap from their perches, allowing our ranger to murderize them whilst they were unable to engage us.
    – Cloud of Bewilderment (2nd) nauseating a Large Blue Dragon for 3 rounds, rendering it unable to attack, followed up by a solid fog (4th) to render it unable to maintain forward flight and become a sitting duck for our Barbarian and Duskblade.
    – One word – Haste. This 3rd level spell turns our party into an unstoppable caffeine-laden strikeforce.

    6) You may forget that the D&D game is structured around a rough number of encoutners (~4 per day). Again, I will grant you it becomes dicey at low levels (except when Sleep, which you can rattle of a couple times/day ends the encounter outright, to which very few low level beasties are resistant). However, near the end of Red Hand of Doom, we were forced to fight battle after battle after battle, I’m talking a clash with giants, followed by multiple waves of increasing challenges followed by a dragon, followed by even more ridiculous crap. Most of these got nowhere near us thanks to me dropping clouds of death on chokepoints. I was neutralizing giants by knocking out their feet with grease. First level spell. No save. Win. Didn’t run out of spells. Had about 10 left and that’s going way above the average number of recommended encounters/day. My main point here is that with careful choices (i.e. long-lasting clouds rather than firing off a new fireball every round), you can make spells easily spread out over the normal quotient of encounters.

    7) A note about your melee characters going all day. Yes, then can do that, but what happens when they take a few hits? Who heals them up? The spellcasters. I’ll grant you that it’s divine, not arcane, spellcasters who do this, but they use the Vancian system just the same. Without healing flowing into them, those fighters can’t keep swinging all day. They’ll swing until they take enough hits and go down in a bloody gory mess. They can last as long as the healing magic lasts. Unless they just happen to find healing potions after every encounter, but then that’s just throwing the status quo out of the window anyway. Or you could compare those healing potions to spells – finite resources. The fighter is reducing his survivability with every potion he drinks! He’ll run out and be unable to heal! See where I’m going?

    I still think you’ve a long way to go to prove arcane caster are really as bad as you say they are.

    TL:DR – I rebut your rebuttal.

  9. *edit to say I noticed a couple typos and also I didn’t mean ‘no save’ for grease, I meant ‘no spell resistance’ and the fact that giants have *dire* reflex saves*

    My bad on that error.

  10. Having taken a few ranks in ‘Knowledge, Gamer Bling,’ I can say that without a high Sense Motive, the infamous ‘vague attempts at humor’ might come off unintended.

    But have no fear Constant Reader, Gamer Bling is rarely serious, never rude, & often amusing. Occasionally even on purpose.

  11. Well, the Cardinals lost, so Gamer Bling is depressed. They fought hard. If only they could tackle…

    Anyway, Gamer Bling is depressed enough to discuss some sordid details about the late, great Gleek of Karrnath.

    See, Gamer Bling was working towards the Arcane Trickster prestige class (3.5 DMG, p. 177 but without the braids and with wings, which are cooler, because everything Gamer Bling does is cooler, unless you’re the Gamer Bling Official Companion, who is asleep at this moment and cannot interject with her opinion).

    Of course, Gamer Bling being a consummate role-player, chose sorcerer for his arcane class instead of wizard. The image of Gleek reading a book just didn’t fit the character’s image; he’d douse it in spoiled ranch dressing and eat it without a fork before he’d sit down and study.

    Gleek had, in fact, accrued five levels of sorcerer towards his ultimate goal. He was there. And at this point Gamer Bling will point out that this means Gleek’s path of dooooom averages out to five hit points less than if he’d remained a pure rogue.

    And when the trap went off, Gleek was knocked to -12 hit points, as noted in the notes, which meant that if he’d had those extra five hit points, he’d still have been alive, even if in a terrible position.

    So the takeaway lesson for all of you is this: don’t try to play a prestige class. It’s inherently dangerous. Those D&D designers are >trained professionals<; trying to recreate their tricks at home can lead to injury or death or a guest shot in the next Jackass movie.

    Gamer Bling knows.

  12. Ominus-Dominus, Gleek was a straight rogue.
    He gets some extra HP!
    GB still rolls a 1, causing a Megadeth concert in 2 secconds.
    So Gleek doesn’t die!
    But he does fall unconscious, THEN falls to his doom.

    Congrats!

  13. Sigh.

    CLEARLY Gleek wouldn’t have rolled a 1 as a pure rogue. As proof, I submit the followuing actual in-game data:

    Qty of 1s rolled to disarm traps as a pure rogue: 0
    Qty of 1s rolled to disarm traps as a hybrid rogue: 1

    Proof, I tell you—PROOF!—that prestige classes are actually cleverly disguised deathtraps! Those sinister designers…

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