We’ve heard the call up; my brother is hosting a D&D game at his place this weekend. The family is exhilarated and our living room is filled with discussions about race and class, as are the living rooms of both my brothers (I checked in with them last night). Gnome is a popular choice, Brother Roll wants to be a gnome bard and Son Aug wants to be gnome illusionist, as is elf, both Girlfriend KC and Nephew Evan want to be elf rogues, and I’ll play an elf something or other. Funny thing: no one wants to play a wizard.
Why not? Because in D&D, beginning wizard characters only get one spell, maybe two, and are then nigh useless. In the old days, when we played Advanced D&D, after casting his sole Magic Missile spell the wizard would map the dungeon and throw darts. I always thought this funny. How does he practice his adventuring craft? Spends his days studying dusty tomes of arcane lore and his nights at the pub throwing darts with his mates. I wonder if the pints are tax deductible. This became such a common event that I’d elect to have my character throw rocks instead of darts, defaulting to the time-honored missile of choice of protesters, rabble, and malcontents. I carried this augmented trope with me, and in the few Ars Magica games I played in which I had a character, my wizard would cast a few spells and then throw rocks at opponents. I still remember Mario busting a gut the first time I said, “My wizard throws a rock.” I think we were fighting a troll or something.
Boy, can I get off the subject. No one wants to play a wizard because in D&D they can’t do much. D&D has always had this idea that characters start out wimpy and grow stronger as they gain experience, “level up” we say. A wizard starts with few, weak spells. In Ars Magica, the rpg game I have the most experience playing, wizards start with more powerful spells and can cast them as much as they want. They get many, powerful spells. In my opinion, this quickly breaks the game. The concept of leveling up still exists, so as the Ars Magica wizard gets more experience he casts many, even more powerful spells, and eventually he’s capable of world-changing enchantments. Many players like this high-fantasy approach. Ars Magica is set in the medieval period of Europe, with history running as it did in the real past up to the point of the players beginning the game, which is 1220 if you use the current rule set. But that proposes a problem. If wizards can do these fantastic, world-changing spells, why haven’t they? The wizards of Ars Magica started practicing in the late ninth century, according to the game fiction, so why has 300-some years of history happened in which these powerful wizards did nothing? The game concocts an explanation – the wizards took an oath not to meddle with the neighbors – but it too stresses the fiction of the setting to be believable, I think. High fantasy works, of course, but it’s difficult to put high fantasy in a low technology, historical setting.
So, D&D wizards (few, weak spells) aren’t appealing, nor are Ars Magica wizards (many, powerful spells). Is there a compromise? Every game has a sweet spot. In D&D, I think the sweet spot for wizards is 7th to 9th level, a point where the character has a choice of spells, can cast ten or so during an encounter (scene), with the spells being powerful enough to affect the situation if not change the constructs of the world. Is there a game that just starts at this point? I thought back to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, the novel (collection of short stories, really) that originated (arguably) the idea of a wizard casting a limited number of spells in a story (collection of scenes). My memory is often faulty, but I recall that the few spells that Turjan of Miir could cast were fairly powerful. A teleport spell. An invisibility spell. He had few, powerful spells. Does the Dying Earth Role-Playing Game follow suit?
Well, maybe. Reading The Dying Earth Revivification Folio while frying cheeseburgers for dinner, author Robin Laws offers an overly simple free form magic style that is meant for on-the-spot gaming, when a few friends form for an evenings entertainment an no one is vested in a long-running campaign using the same characters. Players get a few spell cards – oh, here we go – one or two that they can cast during the game. Are the few spells powerful? Many are. The “Charm of Forlorn Encystment” permanently traps a human target 45 miles below ground, and “Edan’s Thaumaturgic Poultice” cures a character from all his wounds. Sounds good. Should I be playing Dying Earth RPG? Two problems, the first tonal the second mechanical.
The Dying Earth Role-Playing Game, either the original (also written my Mr. Laws) or the revamped version are written in a very playful tone, reminiscent of the picaresque fix-ups of Vance’s later Dying Earth novels, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga, rather than the grimmer tone of the more deadly first book, The Dying Earth. The rules place a greater emphasis on ne’er-do-well rogues or petty arch-magicians than adventuring wizards. The rule book’s prose is slightly sarcastic, baroque, and highfalutin, which acknowledges Vance’s work and pleasantly challenges the author’s pen (he succeeds, for the most part), but lends itself to reading rather than playing. A good rule book should be enjoyable, yes, but it should more importantly be clear and concise, and DERPG isn’t. The mechanical system to determine success lends itself to these types of stories, and it works well for a bunch of competitive rogues trying to one-up each other. I don’t know if it works for combat because the few DERPG games I’ve played have all defaulted to silliness. I’ve heard DERPG called “the unplayable rpg”, and scanning Internet gaming forums I see many comments from posters who own the game and like it, but have never played it. Perhaps that is indicative of gamers; we like to buy and read games that we never play. DERPG seems to have, unfortunately, a high rate of “like it but don’t play comments”.
So what do I want? Well, ultimately, I want a game with an easy, lethal combat system, set in a fantasy setting (although I’d actually prefer a historical setting because I enjoy historic fiction over fantasy, with historical fantasy being the winning choice) that includes wizards, and I’d like these wizards to be powerful enough to affect their lives without changing the rules of society. I want wizards who can cast a few, powerful spells right at character generation. (Insert thinking noise.)