The Gassy Gnoll: Making Magic Missile Mine

The Gassy Gnoll is not a huge fan of magic users. Fireball sounds great in theory until you smell all that singed hair. But *his* alter ego has always enjoyed playing wizards ever since starting to play D&D back in 1982. [Shudder.] And though I may be a bit gray at the muzzle, but that doesn’t stop me from slinging a few spells here and there. I’m even playing a fey pact warlock in one of the two 4e campaigns our gaming group has going on right now.

So believe me when I say that the laundry list of spells that’s been present in D&D for as long as I’ve been playing will always hold a place in my heart. And though I haven’t had a chance to playtest D&D Next yet, I have been trying to follow some of the details in the packets and online. So Mike Mearls latest “Legends and Lore” article was… interesting this week. I want to see *more* ideas in action like with the Sorcerer and Warlock classes and it sounds like they’re moving those choices away from the player and into the DM‘s area.

I guess I get that decision to a point. As Mearls says – “A player who wants to use a specific system could just ask the DM, in much the same way a player might ask to play a lizardfolk wizard or a warforged character in the Greyhawk setting.” Sure. So all of that moves to the Dungeon Master’s Guide or some magic-specific book that folks can hash out the whole idea of spell-lists, points, or slots in various contexts. It *may* give enough flexibility for most folks to be happy and still have wiggle room to play around with.

Magic in D&D is a tool. A means to an end. The Rogue has thieves’ tools. Wizards have magic. The Fighter has a sword. And Clerics have their faith (I’ll get to their spells in a minute). Ultimately whether your magic is divine or arcane, it boils down to a spell having a unique effect on a target (whether the target is self, others, an area, or whatever).

In 4e, everything boils down to feats and powers, which are mostly interchangeable. Sure, each class has some unique abilities, as do individual races, but for non-magical effects it boils down to a character finds/steals/borrows/buys an implement (sword, mace, dagger, bow, etc.) and then finds cool things to do with them. A fighter buys a shield and then learns to use it more effectively in combat with the Shield Push feat. A character with a bow takes the Far Shot feat to increase their range. A character with a light blade learns to use it more effectively in combat with the Nimble Blade feat to gain a bonus to hit.

Powers then take things a bit further, adding cool abilities like the Steal Serpent Strike, which slows an opponent and prevents them from shifting momentarily while at the same time giving them a good thwack of damage. Or powers that involve movement and grant combat advantage like a Rogue’s Ambush Trick power, which can really mess up a crowd of enemies nicely.

Wizards and such in 4e have powers, but they all correspond to individual spells. I get that. It really simplifies the character sheet greatly and makes it easy to glance at a character, pick a power, and run with it.

But my question is this… (And keep in mind I’m not a great system guy, so just offering food for thought here.)

What if you build power trees for magical abilities? Take good old Magic Missile for example. Perhaps we change it up a bit. A wizard takes Magic Missile. And sure, they gain additional missiles later on. But why not offer the chance to change it slightly? (BTW, it used to be that you got multiple missiles,
not just one. Why did that change in 4e?) Perhaps you gain a power Split Missile that enables you to split one missile into two, targeting different opponents, but it requires Magic Missile to work. Or you add damage to your missiles. Or you add abilities to missiles – change them from Force bolts to Radiant or Psychic.

A wizard could really become very specialized at the cost of other abilities or powers, but if they want to become the King or Queen of the Magic Missile arsenal, why stop them? It’s yet another choice. Like a Fighter focusing entirely on offense and ignoring defense. Or a cleric focusing entirely on combat and not on healing.

I’m sure that other powers have dependencies and trees you can use to beef up certain abilities even further. Why not do the same with magical abilities? I suspect I can’t be the only person who’s had this thought. Has it been covered in a Dragon magazine somewhere? When I search the DDI Compendium online I don’t get a whole lot of entries when I try “Magic Missile” under Powers.

What do you think? Is this possible today in 4e? Should it be possible in 5e? Am I just blowing smoke? Let me know below!

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3 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Making Magic Missile Mine

  • “A player who wants to use a specific system could just ask the DM, in much the same way a player might ask to play a lizardfolk wizard or a warforged character in the Greyhawk setting.”

    Or the way they might ask to play Savage Worlds, or Shadowrun, or WoD, or…

    This is my main complaint about the direction for D&DN: it’s essentially incoherent. You can’t say “we’re playing a 5E game” the way you can say “we’re playing a 3E game” or “we’re playing a 4E game.” Saying you’re playing D&DN doesn’t give you any real information about what game you’re *actually* playing, because everything’s optional or variable. Are you using Opportunity attacks? What’s your spell system? To grid or not to grid? Is it a high-lethality game? What other switches have you turned on or off? It’s not *quite* as bad as saying “we’re playing a GURPS game,” but it’s really close.

    I think this will make it *harder* to find D&D games, and more likely that players and DMs come to the table with vastly different expectations. That’s a recipe for disappointment, and disapponitment doesn’t foster longevity for the game.

    • Fitz

      @Jack – The only big difference between 5e and other editions is that WotC is trying to hide the complexity behind the DM. How would this be any different than the whole “house rules” movement that’s afoot with different individual overrides or modules that’s been around since the beginning? I can’t imagine that more than 10% of the rules will be flexible like this in 5e, but it could definitely lead to similar modular issues that GURPS and other RPGs have now. I would say the scenario you describe is more like playing HERO than GURPS, but they’re very similar in all the bells and whistles you have to set. Going from table to table becomes a bit of an adventure (though the main bits of the system don’t change much, the extras such as classes/skills/weapons do as I recall).

      That said, so long as the modular/customizable aspects are kept to a minimum I’m not any more worried about 5e than 4e or 3e (been playing since 2e, so everything gets compared to my memories of it).

      I think one of the main design goals of 5e is to be the “one system to rule them all” meaning you can play D&D *YOUR* way, whatever that is. If that movement
      gets overly complex, they’re going to suffer for it. But if it stays relatively sane I think they’ll be ok.

      I *HOPE* they’ll be ok.

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