You’re Probably Playing D&D Wrong: Jack Vance Hates You. (3/3)

Part One is here, a general introduction to my Strong Opinions.

Part Two is here, about hit points and healing.

Part Three is about magic. People tend to have very strident thoughts on the D&D magic system: they love it or they hate it without much in between. It’s almost as divisive as psionics or Weaboo Fightan Magick (that would be Tome of Battle). As someone who detests how D&D does magic and spellcasting (damn you, Jack Vance!), I’m going to bite my tongue off and discuss why Vancian spellcasting works.

Returning to a point that I’ve belabored, D&D is a game about dungeon delving, treasure hunting, and resource managing. Spells are a resource available to characters just like healing potions and hit points. Notice here that I say resource management, not risk management. Risk management in D&D is relegated to the dungeon, its monstrous inhabitants, and traps. Unlike in the universe of Warhammer 40,000, there aren’t potential demonic infestations and catastrophic psychic manifestations as the wizard channels the Warp. No, D&D magic is simple and sweet: you prepare the spell, you waggle your fingers a bit, and everything goes off without a hitch. Someone might get a saving throw in there or you might have to overcome spell resistance, but the spell otherwise functions as written. No nasty side effects (that aren’t included in the spell description).

This whole thing offends some people. Why do I forget a spell once I’ve cast it? Why do I have to prepare the same spell twice to cast it twice? This magic doesn’t even feel like magic, it feels like a vending machine of special effects!

I agree wholeheartedly. But D&D magic works the way it does because it’s all about those resources. Spells like spider climb and floating disk seems pretty useless in comparison to fireball and cloudkill, at least until you consider that the intended environment for their use: navigating a gloomy warren of twisting passageways with a load of statues, jewelry, coins, and magical items. The ability to walk on the ceiling might save your bacon more than 5d6 fire damage, and loading up the floating disk with treasure lets you keep your hands free and your movement unencumbered.

One common complaint about Vancian magic is the fifteen minute adventuring day, where the dumb wizard or cleric blows all his spells in the first encounter and then the party stops whatever they’re doing to rest up. The fifteen minute adventuring is a problem with bad GMing, not bad mechanics. (Again, this is coming from someone who loathes Vancian spellcasting.) Spells, as resources, are precious. They’re to be conserved, along with hit points, because wasting a spell slot means you bring less treasure back to town. Enjoy not leveling up and letting the orcs regroup and set more traps. In addition to this, it’s terrible roleplaying, and it’s something that always infuriated me with groups when I suffered under 3e. Okay, we blew all our spells in fifteen minutes, now we’re going to rest for eight hours. I think not. Can you imagine actually wasting that much time? Waking up, leaving your home, then returning to twiddle your thumbs for eight hours? Nonsense, absolute nonsense. That’s a bad showing all around.

Speaking of magic items, let’s talk about them for a moment. Every other day there’s some GM who wants to run a “low magic campaign.” No. Stop. D&D is not designed around “low magic.” If D&D were created for the purpose of running “low magic” campaigns, it wouldn’t have wizards firing off magic missiles and clerics raising the dead and druids conjuring pillars of fire. Nor would it have wands, scrolls, staffs, potions, and other magical items sprinkled throughout the game. If D&D were meant for “low magic,” it would not hand out +1 swords and ioun stones. D&D is designed with the assumption that you are entering dungeons and hauling out magical items as part of your loot. Want to know how I know this? Because without magic items, the fighter is doing the same damage at twentieth level that he is at first level. 1d8+1 damage, maybe 1d8+3 if he hits that fabled 18/00 Strength. More likely than not, his damage is topping out at 3d8+3 damage against a single target. Not very impressive when a maximum level fighter barely kills a horse.

This creates a conundrum for us. I present to you the following options:

1. Fighters are supposed to get less effective as they level up (because fighters don’t get nice things). I don’t think this is the case. Although weapons are not intended to perform one-hit kills at higher levels, I am highly skeptical that fighter damage is supposed to drop off that much.

2. The game designers (Gygax, Arneson) did not understand how their own game worked, so they accidentally made fighters do 1d8 damage against creatures with ten times that many hit points. Unlikely. The two of them likely played a lot more D&D in their lives than I have, so I assume they had considerable grasp of the mechanics (that they designed).

3. There exists a compensatory mechanism for mediocre fighter abilities within the game, but it is not intended to be used. “We put magic swords in the game but you’re not supposed to use them” doesn’t sit quite right.

4. There exists a compensatory mechanism for mediocre fighter abilities within the game, and it is intended to be used. This seems the most likely, doesn’t it? Fighters are supposed to have magical swords and gauntlets of ogre power to help them keep up.

That was a bit longwinded, but I’m presenting it specifically because “low magic” games tend to punish people without spells (like fighters), and I’m intent on telling you, with a straight face, that trying to play a low magic campaign of D&D is playing the game improperly. The game is structured around magic items and spells, and it is intended to be played with them. (Look at the size of the spells section in the game. If D&D is supposed to be “low magic,” the designers sure included a lot of, uh, magic.)

No, it’s not like Lord of the Rings or Conan or any other fantasy literature. D&D is not designed to emulate literature. D&D has similarities to fantasy literature, which is why you get evil sorcerers and dwarves and dragons, but D&D is not created to emulate fantasy literature. It is a game–a game, not a book–that does resource management and dungeon crawling. Its mechanics are designed to do just that. Divorcing those mechanics and forcing it to bend to genre expectations like “low magic” is like expecting D&D to do Wheel of Time’s magic system with weaves and knots. (Nope.)