Friday, September 19, 2014

Chop! Magic Wands

[this is "Part 2" in a series of getting rid of saving throws in my new fantasy heartbreaker. You can look at the formative thoughts on this weird concept here and here. Part 1 can be found here]

Nothing says "old school fantasy" like a bearded wizard with a pointy hat and magic wand. It's iconic...and not just because it used to be TSR's logo. Well, maybe because of that. But look at all the wand-waving illustrations you find in those old books. Pointy hats and magic wands have the highest ratio of pix-to-page count in Holmes, but Moldvay's not far behind (it just seems like more in Holmes because there are so few illustrations in general). And the DMG has plenty, too.

I really dislike magic wands.

And I'm not just talking about their depiction in film and fiction. Apologies to all the folks who grew up loving Harry Potter: while I've read the books and seen the films I've never been terribly impressed by Rowling's work. And I intensely dislike most of the depictions of the "magical world;" it's like the worst of Glantri, where magic becomes so common that there's little "magical" about it. If we're talking about "wands" in the Harry Potter sense, I'd have to say I hate magic wands.

But in D&D, I've never been a big fan of the magic wand. What is it, but a gun that shoots spells (a gun with no trigger)? A quiver with up to 100 magic arrows (at least in AD&D)? Just another resource to keep track of, except that it's on the DM to track it because the PC isn't supposed to know how many charges are in it.

My experience with wands back in "the ol' days" is that by the time a wand was found, identified, and its activation words discovered, the magic-user was so powerful that he (or, rarely, she) would often forget to even use the thing, instead relying on his own spells. Just an extra piece of encumbrance. The only wand that saw much use was the wand of wonder, because it was fun to see what random weirdness would spring from its end. But even that was usually left holstered during any real combat or crisis.

Perhaps if wands were more like, I don't know, historic or mythological wands...more magical, as opposed to a 10-shot roman candle. Rare items, like Circe's wand (that turns folks to animals - no charges) or even the White Witch of Narnia's wand (that turns folks to stone - no charges). Dangerous things; things of power. Things not to be trifled with.

Traditionally, wands are part of ritual magic, representative of the life principle or the initiation of action. The wand of the magician is a symbol of the magician's authority over the scepter of a king (though like the magician's magic itself, one easily concealed from the eyes of the mundane). Ars Magica uses wands (and staffs) as an extension of the wizard's own magic power...literally (touching someone with your wand is the same as touching someone with your hand). But the wand itself isn't inherently magical, unless the magician transforms it into a talisman.

Anyway, I'm not a fan of the D&D wand. In fact, I'm tempted to axe them completely from the fantasy heartbreaker unless I can think of a way to make them more interesting. Five Ancient Kingdoms doesn't include wands like what you find in D&D...but then, 5AK doesn't restrict wizards'  magic in the same way as D&D. Part of the reason wands work the way they do in D&D (I assume) is to act as extra spell repositories for magic-users whose magic is limited. If you have a wand of light, you don't need to carry a light spell. If you have a wand of fireballs, it frees you up to carry other 3rd level spells (like water breathing and fly).

But, hey...this is a post about the Magic Wands saving throw, right? Sure it's easy to *CHOP* such a save if you remove wands from the game, but I'm not certain that I'm going to do that...yet. And while I may remove them as the mechanic they are in D&D, that doesn't mean they won't make some other appearance, right? And then the question of a saving throw comes up again. So let's talk about it.

Why the hell is there a separate saving throw for magic wands?

Chainmail, from which it appears D&D draws its saving throw concept, doesn't have "magic wands" (unless you want to say that's what wizards' auto-cast fireballs and lightning bolts represent). OD&D is the first place you see a the Wands saving throw ("All Wands - Including Polymorph or Paralyzation" is the title of the save). OD&D includes the following magic wands in Book 2:

  • Metal Detection
  • Enemy Detection
  • Magic Detection
  • Secret Doors & Trap Detection
  • Illusion
  • Fear **
  • Cold **
  • Paralization [sic] **
  • Fire Balls **
  • Lightning Bolts **
  • Polymorph **
  • Negation

Only the wands listed with an "**" would appear to receive saving throws, all of which would seem to be those that generate a cone or ray or target a single victim (polymorph). I can only assume that the reason for the saving throw versus wands (as opposed to using a more general "save versus magic") is that the saving throw represents the PC executing some sort of dodge maneuver against the wielder of the wand.

In other words, the wand is like a laser gun and YOU, Flash Gordon, must some how duck-n-roll for cover.

"A La Peanut Butter Sandwiches!"
Not only is this ridiculously cartoony (in the Saturday Morning Cartoon sense)...even if this IS the kind of cartoony action you want to model in your game (which is, of course, your prerogative), than Why O Why is it limited to magic wands? Why can't your action heroes dodge arrows and thrown spears and giants' boulders...all those other missiles that PRESUMABLY approach a character slower than a *ZAP* ray from your magic ray gun?

Don't tell me it's easier to dodge a flash of lightning than a hurled dagger. And don't tell me you're "dodging the wand, not the ray" (that's what my old Palladium folks used to use as a justification for dodging a laser: "you're dodging the gun")...fine, then, why can't you dodge the crossbow?

What it feels like (to me, anyway) is that the designers said: 'Well, shooting a, someone with a wand should require some sort of attack roll.' 'But how protective against a blast of cold is plate mail (since the alternative combat system of OD&D determines target number by armor worn)?' 'Oh, yeah, not very. Ummm...let's add an ALTERNATE alternate system where the target is automatically hit, but can reduce or eliminate the effect with a successful dodge roll.' 'Yeah! Save versus wand!'

Something like that.

Regardless of whether or not I include magic wands in my new game, they are certainly not going to be magic ray-guns packing a battery pack. If they have a magical effect that needs to be resisted...well, we'll deal with that in a later post. Otherwise, there's no more need to have a "dodge" roll for wands than I need to have a "dodge" roll for the longbow. We already have a combat system that determines effectiveness of attacks.



  1. This may be simplistic, but rather than having in-game wands acting as a charged storage device, use them as a focus device, similar to the cleric's holy symbol.

    So, the harry potter universe (to use a pop culture example) the wizard's wands act as conduits. So a magic user, as part of their training, must gain or craft a wand of some cost or material... Perhaps they need to of a certain level (3-5?) to 'earn' their wand, but upon gaining it, spell failure chances are decreased, or effects/durations are increased...

    Not familiar enough with alternate systems, maybe someone already uses this .

    1. @ Leicester:

      That's not a bad idea, especially if DMs want to ape a particular "style" -- you could do the same thing with staves for a more LotR type flavor.
      : )

    2. Thanks - I'm not knowledgeable enough on the various game systems and history - is the 'charged' wands a D&D-specific thing, or was there an inspiration from some Appendix N source? Maybe Zenopus knows.