Saturday, November 29, 2014

Gaming Options: Wizard Academy

The new edition of Dungeons and Dragons (5e) offers some attractive options for character development, or rather requires them depending upon your point of view.  Fighters select a martial path to follow at level three, rogues do the same with the their class, rangers select a path focus, and so on.  At sophomore year wizards must declare a major.
In previous editions wizards could specialize in one of the schools of magic to gain faster advancement at the expense of a broader choice of spells, usually by loosing access to one (or maybe even two) opposing school of magic.  The unwritten motto of D&D 5e could be summed up as "A penalty is not having a bonus".  Thus in this new edition the wizard class must, at second level, choose one of the schools of magic (e.g. necromancy, divination, transmutation) and specialize in it.  He will not lose access to the other schools at all nor will he get more spells, but rather he will gain special abilities to enhance his magic of that school at points along the career.  It's all gravy.

This opens up an interesting possibility for a campaign that I call Wizard Academy.  This would be a campaign where all the players are wizards attending some sort of academy, which probably sounds a bit like Harry Potter and I'll be honest it might be.  A more traditional RPG campaign features a party, sometimes properly balanced, where each party member leverages the unique talents of their class to overcome threats to the party as a whole.  The class establishes a role, a metaclass if you will, within the party structure and the successful execution of the duties of that role leads to group success.  The fighter melees and holds of the monsters from the weaker party members.  The cleric buffs and heals.  The rogue can piss off.  That sort of thing.
Wizard Academy would require that the DM and the players look at the game a little bit differently.  Despite the fact that all the classes would be the wizard, there is room for much variation.  At present we have stark differentiation between classes thanks to armor, weapon and abilities.  With a bunch of wizards the variation comes in more subtle ways:
1) Race-the players should be allowed to pick any of the playable races.  The natural abilities of each race offer variation even when the classes are the same.  The classic gnome illusionist can go to the same academy as the groundbreaking half-orc enchanter!
2) School Choice-each school carries with it further abilities that mimic roles to a degree, such as the high damage output of the Evoker or the Enchanter's abilities to enslave minions.  
3) Background-rather than stick with the Sage background for a wizard branch out.  Use the background tables to show what the academy student was doing before matriculating.  Was the half orc a soldier?  Was the elven necromancer a noble?  How about a rustic peasant with a keen mind that becomes an evoker?  There are logical choices (guild artisan-alchemist that studies transmutation) and not so logical choices, but no matter what background is chosen in provides bonus skills, tools and abilities to further differentiate one wizard from another.
4) Spells/Equipment-from the start the spells each player chooses will provide further variation.  Believe or not, not everyone learns magic missile first.  As play continues the spells learned and loot found will continue to provide variation in the party despite the fact that all of its members are the same class.
5) Skills-while the Wizard class shares access to the same set of skills, the backgrounds offer different bonuses and the choices of the players will provide variety.  This is a minor bit of variety but again it is subtle.  Sometimes the ability to intimidate is quite a useful way to avoid conflict, as is the ability to beguile.  Nobody brought a spell for making food?  The survival skill is a good mundane way to achieve results.
6) The personal touches-never forget that the players have great control over their characters in many ways.  Physical appearance, alignment, and personalities are all the province of the players' personal choices.  Something as simple as choosing an arcane focus adds a layer of personality to the characters and gives the DM something to work with.  Any two wizards might seem the same when viewed in a macro sense where a campaign looks at them as fulfilling a role in the party, but when the party is made up entirely of wizards then we look at it with the micro view and see the subtle personal touches much clearer.

In order to play a Wizard Academy campaign a few things need to be considered:
1) The Academy itself.  I recommend a university setting.  Let the players be adults, essentially.  Playing as a grade school or high school is fine but requires more modifications to allow for young characters and makes the backgrounds seem out of place.
2) Start the players off at 2nd level.  At 2nd level wizards are a bit more survivable without a fighter around and they get to pick their magic school specialty.  This is necessary to provide the variation we discussed above and indeed is part of the charm of the concept.
3) Quests should be about school matters at first, but after school shenanigans also make for a good night's session.  Maybe the necromancy fraternity wants to initiate a new member and things get out of hand.  There are nearly endless possibilities here.
4) Consider the combat threats carefully.  Wizards aren't as resilient in melee combat as other characters.  Thus the game should be challenging but tailored for the type of party.  That should always be done, to be honest, but I mean more along that lines of not relying solely on the wandering monster table.
5) Use the optional Feats rules.  The Feats will allow even more variation in the characters.  By sacrificing an ability upgrade to gain a feat the players will be able to access some abilities that are normally denied to them by class, such as expanded weapon choices and even armor.  That will allow the players to feel their characters are not just cookie cuter products and all the DM to vary the threat.
6) When it comes to loot you will need to be a little more in control.  Wizards are likely to squabble over scrolls to enlarge their repertoires.  Magic swords are of little use, except to sell, if no character in the party can use them (see Feats above).  Meanwhile a deadly duel might break out over a magical quarterstaff.  You don't have to be Santa Claus and give every whining brat what they want, but don't be heavy handed either or rely solely on random loot rolls.  The players may become frustrated and stop playing.
7) Get comfortable with the idea of NPC henchmen and hirelings.  Wizards can be a bit squishy, so bringing along some muscle/protection is not a bad idea.

What of other classes, you ask?  That's a reasonable question.  Avoid them, if possible.  The idea behind a Wizard Academy campaign is the variations and similarities in the WIZARD class.  Is there room for other classes?  No, I don't think so.
Of all the classes in the 5e PHB only 2 of them are not spellcasters of some kind: Barbarian and Monk.  Even the Fighter and Rogue have Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster paths at third level, respectively.  The Paladin and Ranger gain their spells at 2nd level with the remaining classes have magic spells and powers from level 1.  Yet to allow all of these a place in Wizard Academy changes the nature of the campaign back to regular D&D.  Might as well call it Adventurer Academy, which is really a silly concept and fine for a lighthearted romp.  This is a different idea.
You could, if you liked, expand it to include Sorcerers but not Warlocks.  I could even see a stretch to allow Bards and Sorcerers, although I personally would not do it.  If a player is just dead set on not being a wizard there is a role for the Fighter at the Wizard Academy as a member of the faculty.  A player could, if they just won't get on board with the Wizard concept, be a guard at the Academy that accompanies the students on "assignments".  This spoilsport Fighter will simply have to get used to the idea that he or she will not be the "hero" very often and is likely to have less to do, being primarily a bodyguard, but if that is what the player wants, I'm sure they will find a way to screw up the DM's plans.  They always do.

So there you have it, an option for 5th edition play made possible by the variety of little choices.  Enjoy.

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