Monday, July 1, 2013

Wizards Get Wood

Amongst the many phallic implements popularly employed by those of a magical bent we often find the staff. The wizard's staff is ubiquitous in fantasy gaming and as such has come to be one of the markers by which we identify a wizard in the wild.  A Wizard's Staff is not any common stick or even a traditional quarterstaff.  Indeed no, the Wizard's Staff is typically an understated ornamental affair often topped by some powerful charm, such as a crystal, or perhaps carved into a cunning design, like the head of a fantastic monster.  If said wizard is a sculpture being sold by the Franklin Mint, you can take it to the bank that a cut-glass crystal is going to be on that staff somewhere.

Have we ever stopped to ask ourselves why?  Why a staff?  Why is this particularly wizardy?

A warrior has his weapons and armor.  A cleric has his holy symbol.  A wizard too has accouterments with which he is associated.  A quick informal poll will reveal charms, symbols, cauldrons, crystal balls, pointy hats, and of course wands and staves.  Indeed the staff is part of the graduated three phase stick accouterments commonly called wand-rod-staff.  Think of each stick on the list as more powerful and useful than the stick before it.  We can call them all foci if we like.  
My boy at the bottom always eschews a staff and even a dagger but has been known to carry a sword.
Wands are commonly associated with stage magicians and sometimes witches and ever since J.K. Rowling, wizards as well.  In the Potterverse wizards and witches practically require a wand to do magic.  Well, mostly.  As with so many things the exceptions seem to outnumber the rules.  In gaming wands are usually put into one of the following categories: 1) spell storage device, 2) arcane focus, 3) power point booster.  Wands should never be used as a melee weapon save in the most desperate of situations and in such cases assume the wand will be destroyed in the process.  A broken wand is useless save for humorous situations.

Rods are larger than wands, thicker and stronger and suitable as light melee weapons.  Rods tend to work like wands but either hold more spells or provide more focus and power.  You don't see these very often.

Staves are stout sticks suitable for long hikes through the forest, smacking errant summoned minions and are often either the Swiss Army Knife of wizard weapons or supreme foci.  In a system that uses staves and wands as power point storage devices the staff is usually a major pool of power, perhaps even a regenerating force.  In at least one game of my experience it even functions like a shield providing defense.  What can't a staff do?
I'm honestly not sure what this guy is up to, but he brought some massive wood with even has a little head on it. These raunchy puns are free, ladies and gentlemen, so don't complain about the quality.
We have yet to answer the initial question of why.  Looking at our historical literary antecedents we have Merlin, who may or may not carry a staff depending upon the interpretation.  Nicole Williamson's Merlin from Boorman's Excalibur carried a staff which he never used as a weapon but did use for some nice pyrotechnics.  Gandalf, of course, is one of the great models for the fantasy wizard.  Gandalf, when he first appears in The Hobbit, carries a staff.  He soon gains his famous sword Glamdring, but in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy we see Gandalf fight with sword, staff, and both at the same time.  As Gandalf's initial image was based upon Odin, who enjoyed wandering Midgard as a mysterious traveler with his sacred spear, Gungnir, disguised as a walking staff, it is likely that it is Gandalf the wanderer that inspired this concept in gaming.  The image of the wizard with a staff is as evocative as the barbarian with a sword.  Is this why?
Gandalf clearly has something to say about this whole "staff" thing.

Well partly.  To get the answer we must delve deeper.  We must return to those thrilling days of 1974 in Battlecreek, Michigan.  We must return to Dungeons and Dragons, the Original version.  OD&D was a very simple game by modern standards.  In order to play it properly one needed to be familiar with tabletop wargaming and specifically Chainmail, TSR's first big product.  Chainmail was meant to simulate medieval warfare and as such it had a variety of weapons in its charts but not a quarterstaff.  This is logical in the quarterstaff just doesn't seem to show up in the army lists of history, despite its common use since the dark ages.  In the initial release of DnD the wizard class was limited to a single weapon, the dagger.  There were magical staves however, and these were not so much weapons as weaponized magical items for wizards only.  Usually they contained charges and multiple spells and bonus powers and such.  The wizard and his staff were a force with which to be reckoned.

By the time AD&D 1st edition came out the quarterstaff was a weapon on the charts and was one of the few weapons a wizard could wield along with his trusty dagger and darts.  Yes, wizards spend plenty of time in pubs and are all fiends for a good game of darts.  Dungeons and Dragons was the first, but once it took off plenty of games began to hit the market.  Not every game treated the staff in the same manner as DnD had done.  Games of the more generic variety, like GURPS, treated staves as power batteries, storing power for the use of the wizard.  Indeed if a game uses power points wands, rods, and staves are more likely to be power batteries than spell storage devices.  Sometimes they are both.  Now if you are starting a 1st level character and you get to pick one weapon to know how to use from a very small list what are you going to choose?  Tiny knife that requires you to get in close and personal or 6 odd foot of oak?  Yeah, it's like a shotgun; very psychologically comforting.  Unfortunately due to the logic of gaming if you sharpen one end of it into a point it suddenly becomes a spear and just as suddenly your wizard cannot fathom how to use it in combat.  Seriously.  You have been warned. 

A good example of the staff at its best, in my opinion, is in the old Games Workshop dungeon crawler Warhammer Quest.  Ah the wizard of WHQ.  The model that came with the box set has a sword and a staff but the player starts with only a sword.  Now I've made clear how much I like a wizard with a sword in the past but how to achieve full Gandalf Event Horizon?  

WIZARD'S STAFF Only the Wizard may buy a Wizard's Staff, for a cost of 500 gold. To determine if there is one available when the Wizard visits the Guild roll 1D6. On a score of 4, 5 or 6 there is one for sale. A Wizard may only ever have one Wizard's Staff.
The Wizard may use the staff in hand-to-hand combat at -1 on his to hit roll. It causes (1D6+the Wizard's Strength) Wounds on the target. It can also be wielded defensively, giving the Wizard +1 Toughness while he carries it.
The Wizard's staff is inherently magical, and once per adventure you can use it in the Power Phase to re-roll the Wizard's Power (and perhaps avoid an Unexpected Event!).
A Wizard's Staff comes with 1D6 points of Power already stored in it, which the Wizard can use in the same way as his Power tokens. To recharge it he must visit the Font of Power.
Ah yes, the WHQ wizard!  Sword, Staff, bag of cool shit, and such a HAT!  We have to discuss hats soon...
Now that's quite a staff.  The wizard can use his staff as an off-hand weapon for a point of armor while still using his sword and he can use it to reroll power AND it carries a power charge for him.  Gandalf enough for ya?

So if we look at all of this I think it comes down to that old idea of balance.  The wizard doesn't get armor.  He barely gets weapons and when it comes to creating melee combat power tables and rolls the wizard will ALWAYS be on the lowest end.  It is the gaming dichotomy of FIGHTER on the powerful end of hit points, melee skills, weapons and WIZARD on the powerful end of brains and blowing things up with the power of his magic words.  To this end the wizard wears a dress and carries a stick.  Unassuming, to be sure, but anybody who watched Gandalf lighting pine cones with his staff to chuck firebombs at wargs in the recent Hobbit film can certainly see the value.  Oh and when you are deep in a dark dungeon with not a torch in sight, a glowing gem on a stick is worth a hundred magic swords.  Period. 
What would a wizard article be without a reference to one of my favorite wizards of all time, our old buddy Skeletor.  Skeletor's Havok Staff is a prime example of wizard staff badassery and let us not forget that old skullface carries one half of the Power Sword to boot.  That is quite a staff, ladies and gentlemen.
"Here is your stick.  Try not to get into any fights for a while."


"No buts, boy, do you want to summon demons and force them to get you lemonade and cookies and destroy entire towers with the power of your snark or not?"


No comments:

Post a Comment