The Gassy Gnoll: The Smell of Magic in 5e

Even as this Gassy Gnoll gets excited about diving headlong into the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, I struggle mightily with the balance between low level wizards and damage capability that I’ve seen even with the Starter Set and online PDF of the 5e rules. And I’m not a system guy, so bear with me.

DnD 5e Players Handbook coverIf I am playing a 1st level wizard and get a collection of three cantrips and six 1st level spells of my choice. There are 10 cantrips and 12 1st level spells to choose from. But I can cast as many of my cantrips as I want, but I can only cast 2 of my selected 1st level spells per day.

If I’m going to be a combat wizard, I will choose all the damaging spells I can get. Acid Splash, Fire Bolt, and Ray of Frost work well for cantrips and Burning Hands and Magic Missile works well for my first level selections to have something for up close and personal battles as well as at a distance.

Let’s look at the relative capabilities of these spells:

  • Acid Splash – 60 foot range. One or two targets within range (if multiple targets, they have to be close together). Targets must succeed on a Dexterity save or take 1d6 acid damage.
  • Burning Hands – 15 foot cone with the point centered on the caster. Any creature in that cone must make a Dexterity save or take 3d6 fire damage. Take half the damage on a successful save. And anything flammable in the spell area (not worn or carried) catches on fire.
  • Fire Bolt – 120 foot range. One target. Caster makes a ranged spell attack and on a hit, the target takes 1d10 fire damage. And anything flammable hit by the spell (if not worn or carried) ignites.
  • Magic Missile – 120 foot range. Three “glowing darts” hit a visible target of the caster’s choice. Each dart does 1d4 + 1 force damage. Unerring hit.
  • Ray of Frost – 60 foot range. A frozen beam streaks at a target. Caster makes a ranged spell attack. If hit, the target takes 1d8 cold damage and its speed is reduced by 10 feet until the start of the caster’s next turn.

Beyond the fact that 1st level wizards now seem to be killing machines and I think these spells are way overpowered for first level… If I’m using the sample character from the Starter Set (an Elf with an Arcana proficiency at 5), each of my damage-causing spells requiring an attack roll is at a +5. And the character’s DC for spell effects is a 13.

If I’m attacking a Cultist (looking at the Hoard of the Dragon King free supplement, which includes some 5e monster descriptions), it has an AC of 12 and a Dex of 12 (+1 to Dex checks). It has 9 HP and one melee attack doing 2-7 (average 4) points of damage.

The following possibilities exist:

  • Acid Splash – Wizard casts. Cultist rolls a d20+1. So the GM has to roll a 12 or better to not get hit. That’s better than even odds that the Cultist is going to take 1-6 points of damage.
  • Burning Hands – In this case, the wizard has to be pretty close to the target. Wizard casts. Cultist rolls a d20+1. A 12 or better succeeds. Again, that’s better than even odds that the Cultist is going to take full damage. Cultist is going to take anywhere from 1-9 or 3-18 points of damage. Ouch.
  • Fire Bolt – Wizard casts and has to make a ranged attack vs. the AC of the Cultist. d20+5 and the caster needs a 12 or better to hit. That requires a roll of 7 or higher. The Wizard has a 65% chance of hitting the target for 1-10 points of damage.
  • Magic Missile – If the Cultist is in range and visible, he’s going to be hit for 6-15 points of damage.
  • Ray of Frost – Like with Fire Bolt, the wizard has to make a ranged attack vs. AC. 65% or better to hit and do 1-8 damage and slow them for a round.

Honestly if I’m a 1st level wizard, I’m betting on rolling a 7 or better. Fire Bolt and Ray of Frost are my friends. Each cultist only has 9 hit points. One Fire Bolt can take the evildoer down. Keep out of melee range and cast cantrips every battle. 2/3 of the time, the wizard is going to hit the target.

The wizard is balanced out a little by the fact that he only has 8 hit points to start (which is twice as much as a 1st edition wizard had!), but how can they fail? If the party is balanced at all, the wizard will tilt things to the PCs favor quickly.

Is anybody else upset by this unbalanced approach? Cantrips are great and all, but maybe we should tone them down a bit power-wise?

Acid Splash seems about right – so I’d drop Fire Bolt and Ray of Frost to d6 right off the bat. I don’t mind them being at-will powers, but as a GM I would have each goblin horde have one or two wizards to even the odds. Strategy then shifts to protecting the spellcaster at all costs, making the use of cover and defense that much more important.

Beginning characters need to struggle to survive. Without the initial struggle these characters become super heroes off the bat, which is bogus in my worlds.

Gassy out.

3 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: The Smell of Magic in 5e

  • Have you tried running the adventure? From most of the accounts I’ve seen, a lot of the groups come very close to being TPKs and a bunch of the party members come close to dying fairly often. I would say try it and then ask your questions again.

    • Game Knight

      @callin – I have run only the first part of the adventure with my girls. We didn’t get too far, nor did we get far enough to really try any bigger battles in detail. I’m hoping to be able to do that soon but time has not been on my side (both girls play soccer and every weekend from now to November is pretty much spoken for). Hope springs eternal.

  • forged

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) How does this stack with what a 1st level fighter can do in melee combat? In a balanced system all classes should contribute significantly to an encounter and not feel like an after-thought so that the stud class can shine.

    2) If combats are turning out to be out of balance, you can always beef up the opposition.

    3) My concern with what you mentioned is slightly different than #2 though … it is, are the cantrips more powerful than 1st level spells? If it is, then you might as well take non-combat spells in first level and use cantrips for the battles.

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