Triple Solutions for Quadratic Wizards

One of the charges typically leveled against the wizard class is that it’s “quadratic” whereas the fighter (the typical baseline for classes that aren’t (full) spellcasters) is “linear.” What this usually means is that the fighter’s power (e.g. his combat potential) increases in a fairly small but steady increments over time, whereas the wizard’s power grows exponentially as they gain new spells.

Personally, I don’t think very much of those arguments. Like most armchair theory-crafting, this tends to focus on mechanical issues that look bad on paper – particularly when backed up by hypothetical game situations constructed specifically to aggrandize the “problem” under discussion – but aren’t really that bad in the course of actual play. Given that most players can’t even agree on what “balance” is, let alone how to achieve it, I think that the whole issue is overblown.


Don’t even bother rolling for initiative, bitch.

That said, it is a truism that wizards are more powerful than they were in previous editions. Now, this is true for all classes (and monsters, for that matter), but in the case of wizards and other spellcasters, I’ve noticed that while there are plenty of new powers and abilities added, there’s another factor here – the loss of the weaknesses that were once part-and-parcel of spellcasting.

That may sound odd, but back in earlier editions of the game, there were some pretty exacting limitations involved with casting a spell. All have been subsequently removed or toned down, allowing spellcasters to (as the alarmists have described it) dominate the game at high levels. Given that, the answer to this problem seems simple – we don’t need to power-up the melee classes even further, but rather need to reintroduce the previous limitations on spellcasters in general and wizards in particular.

Listed below are three variant rules that help to check the limits on what wizards and other spellcasters can do. Each of these rules works independently of the others, but taken together they sharply dial back on the power that spellcasters will have in your game.

Segmented Casting Times

Notwithstanding a handful of spells that take a full round to cast, casting a spell is always completed during your action on the initiative order. It doesn’t matter how powerful or intricate the spell, it’s something you can do in an instant, and unless someone readied an action or got an attack of opportunity on you (tsk, you didn’t cast defensively?), then there’s nothing anybody can do about it.

That’s not how it used to be though. Before, casting times had a numerical modifier that altered your initiative, so if you rolled an initiative of 14, for example, and cast a spell with a casting time of “3,” then while you’d start casting it on a 14 in the initiative count, it wouldn’t take effect until the initiative got to 11…which could result in disaster if that enemy orc got to go on a 12.

So how do we reintroduce this limitation in Pathfinder? Easily: When casting a spell, its casting time takes a number of round segments equal to the level of the spell. This is true for all spellcasters.

Now, there are number of caveats that need to be addressed for this. First, this only affects spells with a casting time of 1 standard action – spells that already take 1 full round or more keep their original casting time; no more is added. Likewise, spells with a much quicker casting time (e.g. a move, swift, or immediate action) keep their original casting times as well; those spells are designed to be cast quickly.

The verbal component for Charm Person.

The verbal component for Charm Person.

Secondly, this doesn’t change the action used in the round when the spellcaster takes his action. A fifth-level spell that has a listed casting time of 1 standard action will, under these rules, take 5 segments to complete…but on the wizard’s turn, he still needs to spend a standard action to begin casting the spell; he just then keeps doing so for another five segments of the round. Also note that he’s still casting during this time, and so any disruptions he suffers during this time can also cause him to lose the spell.

Thirdly, spells affected by metamagic use their effective level to determine their casting time. So casting a maximized fireball will take 6 segments of a round.

Utilizing “round segments” introduces some unique problems into the game. What happens, for example, if a wizard rolls an initiative of 3 but is casting a spell that requires 5 segments to cast under the above rules? Does it go off at 0? Or do round segments go to into negative numbers? Or should it roll over to the beginning of the next round, and if so, when is the “beginning” of the next round? Is it at the highest rolled initiative, or are there segments above that? Problems like these are corner cases, certainly, but they will eventually come up.

The best way to handle this is to denote that each combat round has a specific, set number of segments in it. A good rule of thumb is 40 (twice the range of the d20), which should allow for a wide range of initiatives without spreading the action times too thin. So all actions in a round take place during a count from 40 down to 0, with the higher numbers going first.

In the event that multiple characters act on the same initiative, then whomever has the higher Dexterity score is considered to go first; if two or more characters have the same Dexterity score, then their actions are performed simultaneously.

Similarly, characters that get extreme initiative rolls act on segment 40 (if they got an initiative result of 40+) or 0 (if they got an initiative result of 0 or less). In case multiple characters get results at such extremes, they all still act on that count, but the characters with the higher results go first (e.g. as though they got a tied initiative result, and the characters with the higher scores had a higher Dexterity).

So for example, if Dirk the Rogue rolled a modified 41 for his initiative score, and Dudley the Paladin rolled a modified 47 (both are point-whoring munchkins), both characters go on segment 40 of the round (the earliest it’s possible to go) but Dudley goes first, since he rolled a higher score. Likewise, if Boris the Bumbler rolled a modified -2 for his initiative, and Natasha the Nincompoop rolled a modified -4 for her initiative, then both would go on segment 0, but Boris would act first, since he had the better roll. Only if two or more characters’ modified initiative rolls are the same would they need to check who had the higher Dexterity.

So what happens in the case of casting spells that require more segments than are left in the round – such as the aforementioned wizard whose initiative is a 3 and is casting a spell with 5 initiative segments’ casting time? In such an instance, the casting time “rolls over” to the next round, and its remaining casting time is subtracted from the subsequent initiative count. In this case, that wizard would cast his spell on the next round at 39 in the initiative count. Note that this would not change the wizard’s order in the initiative, nor use up any of his actions on that subsequent round – it just takes the spell he cast last round that long to be completed.

One issue that needs to be dealt with using this rules variant is how magic items and spell-like abilities are treated.

For magic items – regardless of whether they’re spell trigger, spell completion, or command word-activated – it’s recommended that any magic item that requires activation be subject to the above casting times. So utilizing a wand of fireballs would have a segment modifier of 3, regardless of whether you were a wizard using it or a rogue activating it via Use Magic Device.

The reason for this is that removing the “casting time” from magic items makes them eclipse spellcasters, particularly at higher levels. Scrolls, wands, and staves become the weapons of choice for high-level spellcasters, with actual spellcasting being a disadvantageous fall-back option. Subjecting magic items to this restriction keeps them on par with spellcasting abilities.

It’s possible that you may find that having “casting times” for magic items to break verisimilitude. After all, when’s the last time you heard of someone leveling a wand at their enemy, speaking an eldritch command word…and then waiting awkwardly for a little bit until it unleashed its magic at them? This problem, however, is easier to solve than it appears. Remember that this is taking place during a six-second round. Dividing a period of six seconds into forty segments means that each segment is slightly less than one-sixth of a second. In that case, if your wand of fireballs needs 3 segments to activate once you’ve spoken the command word, it’s taking just under half-a-second to activate…is that really so long?

By contrast, for spell-like abilities, it’s recommended that you take the opposite tact; spell-like abilities shouldn’t require a casting time measured in round segments, instead requiring only the usual standard action (unless otherwise noted) to activate.

Why allow that? Mostly for metagame reasons – spell-like abilities are the province of monsters far and away more than they are for characters. Most monsters have a set “screen time” before they’re hacked apart by the PCs and are gone forever. Given that, it’s best that the monsters – especially “boss monsters” that appear by themselves as challenges for the entire party – be able to maximize their potential by using their powers successfully, rather than having canny PCs set things up to disrupt them with held actions (true, PCs will try to use this on enemy spellcasters too, but those NPCs shouldn’t be solo foes, making it much more fair game).

Again, there’s also a narrative reason for having spell-like abilities take effect much quicker than spellcasting. Spell-like abilities represent a direct connection to magic, a natural ability to tap into mystical power. Spellcasting, by contrast, is an unnatural ability to tap that same power; utilizing a set of verbal, somatic, and material components to kludge together the same power – of course it’s not going to work quite as well, hence the longer casting time.

Finally, remember that both of the above are just recommendations. If you want magic items that don’t require longer times to activate, or spell-like abilities that do require round segments to active, make them work that way in your game.

Disrupted Casting

Being hit while you’re attempting to cast a spell is bad, but if you can make your concentration check, it’s not a fatal problem; you’ve still gotten your spell off.

Prepare to taste eldritch doom and please don't hit me!

Prepare to taste eldritch doom and please don’t hit me!

That’s far and away more generous than how it used to be. Back in the day, if you took damage while casting a spell, that was it – kiss your spell goodbye.

Reintroducing this limitation for Pathfinder is simple: All concentration checks are considered to automatically fail. In other words, if your PC ends up in a situation where you’d have to make a concentration check because something happened, you instantly lose the spell – there’s no check or roll, it’s just gone. This may sound harsh, and it is, but there’s one offshoot to this particular variant that makes it slightly easier to swallow: casting a spell does not provoke an attack of opportunity.

This may draw some complaints that it’s too easy to lock spellcasters down – that grappling them or entangling them, or even ensuring that they’re caught in harsh weather or are subject to “vigorous motion” is enough to make them useless, let alone being damaged in combat. The answer to this is that that’s intentional – spellcasters gain great power, eventually, but the trade-off for that power is that it’s difficult to utilize, and causes them to rely on their more martial allies to protect and aid them so that they can get their spells cast.

One particular complaint regarding this particular variant is that the easiest way to lock down a spellcaster is to have an enemy (most likely a ranged attacker) simply ready an action to attack whenever the spellcaster starts to cast a spell. This works by PCs attacking enemy spellcasters just as much as it does having NPCs target PC spellcasters.

This is not an insubstantial complaint. A dedicated ranged attacker can quickly make life difficult for a spellcaster. Ideally, a spellcaster will have things like a high AC (likely from a combination of spells and magic items), cover and/or concealment, and allies harassing the attacker to throw off such opposition.

Such things may still be lopsided in the attacker’s favor, however, in which case the following changed is recommended: soft cover stacks with itself. To put it another way, for every creature between you and a ranged attacker, you gain soft cover. So if there are three creatures between a wizard and an archer, the wizard will have triple soft cover (a +12 bonus to AC!) against the archer’s attacks. This encourages a much greater degree of tactical thinking – as well as meat-shield-style protect-the-mage tactics – in targeting enemy spellcasters. It also makes mooks good for a bit more than mere cannon-fodder.

Note that this rule holds true for spell-like abilities as well; utilizing such things may be a silent act of will, but still requires the same concentration as actual spellcasting, and so is equally vulnerable to disruption.

In regards to magic items, this variant rule applies only to spell trigger magic items (which is usually just scrolls). Using a spell trigger magic item is essentially spellcasting, with the energies contained in the scroll rather than within yourself, and so can be disrupted (and the scroll lost). Other kinds of magic items, by contrast, are simply having their imbued energies directed, rather than carefully constructed the way a spellcaster does.

Limited Learning

One of the wizard’s greatest powers is that the number of spells they can learn has no limit. True, only so many can be prepared at a time, but they can potentially learn every arcane spell out there – giving them access to potentially unlimited power, and allowing them the right tools to master virtually any situation. That has always been the real power of the wizard class.

Of course, by “always” we mean “since Third Edition.”

Believe it or not, back in earlier editions, there were caps on the number of spells that wizards could learn per spell level, based on their Intelligence. Maybe everyone conveniently “forgot” that rule, or perhaps it was simply discarded outright, but it’s notable for how potent a limit this is on a wizard’s power.

Originally, the exact limits on spells per level as determined by Intelligence was its own table, but for the reintroduction of this rule in Pathfinder, we can set a more general limit: spellcasters that must record the number of spells they learn – e.g. wizards and magi – can only learn a number of spells per spell level equal to their one-half their casting stat (rounded down). So in other words, a wizard with an Intelligence of 18 could learn nine 1st-level spells, nine 2nd-level spells, nine 3rd-level spells, etc.

A distinction needs to be made, in this case, between “spells learned” and “spells recorded in their spellbook.” While it may seem superfluous to do so, wizards and magi that want to prepare spells in their spellbook without learning them – either because they’ve already hit their limit, because they want to collect spells ahead of time and then figure out which ones to learn, or because their limit might go up later (e.g. gaining more points of Intelligence) – can do so using the standard rules for deciphering and copying magic writings (e.g. scrolls, borrowed spellbooks, etc.).

The spells that a wizard actually learns, however, should be recorded separately on the PC’s character sheet. There’s no need to institute a check for a PC to learn a spell, though if you decide to call for one a Spellcraft check (DC 15 + 1 per spell level) is a good baseline, with one check allowed per spell per day.

If using this rule in your game, you may also want to include an option that every so often (such as at 4th level and every even level thereafter) the wizard can permanently “forget” one spell that he’s learned, and replace it with another of the same level.

Note that, using this variant rule, you’ll need to decide what to do regarding wizards and magic items. With a limit on the spells they can prepare each day, most wizard and magus PCs will look to scrolls, wands, and staves to expand their repertoire. There are two ways to adjudicate this.

The first option is to allow these characters to still utilize all magic items as they would normally. A PC magus, for example, could use a scroll or a wand with an arcane spell on the magus spell list, even if it’s not one of the spells that particular PC has learned. The limiting factors here aren’t game mechanics, but rather are the GM taking care to control what magic items are available (as opposed to having anything the PCs want be available for the standard prices at “magic marts” in every town).

The other option is to play it much more strictly regarding magic items – specifically, spell completion and spell trigger magic items. In this case, the spells learned act as the PC’s entire class spell list, meaning that any spells not learned can’t be automatically utilized in corresponding magic items. In this instance, a magus PC that hasn’t learned a fireball spell won’t have any greater ability to utilize a wand of fireballs or a scroll of fireball any better than, say, the fighter would. Note that in this scenario, Use Magic Device becomes a much more sought-after skill.

Wizardly Woes

As mentioned above, each of these three variant rules can be used separately, or altogether. While individually they each introduce a sharp check on the power of spellcasting characters, altogether they can seem unreasonably harsh – particularly to wizards.

What’s key to remember is that these restrictions are meant to be the answer for spellcasters, particularly full-progression arcane spellcasters, from dominating the game at higher levels. If that’s not (anticipated to be) a problem in your game, then you won’t need many (or perhaps any) of these restrictions. On the other hand, if you think that wizards and other spellcasters are so powerful as to utterly overshadow fighters and their ilk at higher levels, then these can be very helpful indeed.

The zeitgeist of game design is that if one class or set of classes is better than another, you need to give the weaker class(es) new abilities to bump them up. With the variant rules introduced – or rather, reintroduced – here, you can instead bust the so-called “stronger” classes back down.

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5 Responses to “Triple Solutions for Quadratic Wizards”

  1. My Frankenstein « Stuffed Crocodile Says:

    […] Triple Solutions for Quadratic Wizards from Intelligence Check ( […]

  2. Danel Says:

    I know this is a while later but I had a question for you about the initiative tick idea.

    How would you handle Touch spells? In pathfinder, generally speaking a touch attack and be cast then move and touch. This keeps clerics from loosing their heal spells and tempts the occasional wizard to get into reach of something.

    Would you set it so the caster would have to delay the rest of their turn to use the rest of the spell? What other options do you see?

    • alzrius Says:

      The basic idea for how touch spells normally work is that touching a character is part of the action of casting the spell; the “move” part of the cast-move-touch routine that you described is essentially an instance of the game rules allowing the spellcaster to split the proverbial difference – that they can take their move action in between the two parts (the casting and the touch) of the standard action.

      Given that that’s something of a hidden benefit – a sort of “spell Spring Attack” – I’d handle it by disallowing that you can move in between the casting and the touch.

      To put it another way, when you use the segmented casting times rule, the spellcaster takes all of their actions in that round. So they can move as a move action and then spend a standard action to begin casting a spell (which will take effect a few segments later), or vice versa (spending a standard action to cast and then take a move action, still with the spell finishing when the necessary segments have passed).

      It’s at that point, after the requisite number of segments have passed, that they can make the touch attack that goes along with the spell. That’s still part of the act of spellcasting (it just comes at the very end), and doesn’t take up part of their turn; it happens immediately after the last segment ends.

      Of course, this requires that the spellcaster already be adjacent (or otherwise already in a position to reach) the creature they’re going to touch, which likely means that they’ll be wide open to being hit if the creature in question gets to act between when they begin casting and when their segments are up, but that’s sort of the point of this alternate rule – it tones down the spellcaster’s power by making spellcasting a lengthier, and thus riskier, proposition.

      It should be noted that if the spellcaster doesn’t, or can’t, make the touch attack as soon as the necessary segments pass, then they’re considered to be “holding the charge” on their touch spell, and can use it on their next turn as per the normal rules (though, if I recall correctly, that means it will require an action to touch a creature at that point).

      • Danel Says:

        Thanks! I love the idea, especially as my group gets up to 11th+ level and the gap starts to grow. But I am leery of using it on my casters. I guess I will sit down and talk with them about it. This one I at least think I can get away with. I think I may be murdered for trying the latter two.

  3. Thoth Says:

    I’d meant to add a few details to this long ago, and had forgotten – but happening to run across the article again (I remembered that I never had gotten to the third part of Old School Eclipse) has reminded me, so here we go!

    Segmented casting times were really even worse than you’ve described: since a round only had ten segments if you tried to cast a fifth level spell it took up half the round – and so about half the opponents usually got a shot at stopping you. Worse, if you started late in the round, you wouldn’t be done until well into the next round. To really reproduce that under a “40 maximum” system… you’d need to have casting normal spells take up four counts per level.

    That was what made Power Words so valuable. They weren’t usually very powerful spells for their levels, but they were FAST.

    As you’ve noted, Spell Disruption was always terribly easy. A bucket of water, toss flaming oil into the area, hit the ground hard enough to shake up the spellcaster… Getting a powerful spell off was a cooperative effort. In combination with segmented casting times a magic-user couldn’t toss around high level spells without a lot of help.

    There was another major limitation on spells known. For example, with Int 16 (which was pretty good in the classical 3d6 six times system) you had a 65% chance to learn a spell, were only guaranteed to understand 7 (with a maximum of 11) of each spell level – and you only got one check per spell. Ever. If you didn’t get a successful check for “Magic Missile” or “Fireball” you could never learn those spells unless you researched your own version. The only exception was if your intelligence went up or down at least semi-permanently – in which case you had to check again (this was rarely literally enforced when intelligence went up, since if it was you could readily lose access to some of your favorite spells by increasing your intelligence).

    One major factor that wasn’t mentioned was Preparation Time. Back in the old days it took fifteen minutes per level of the spell to memorize each spell. If you threw a fourth level spell… it would take you an hour to prepare it again – and it had to be just after you’d rested for eight hours. The spell tables weren’t “spells per day”. They were “Maximum number of spells that you could have prepared”. Were you a tenth level magic-user with a capacity of 4 first, 4 second, 3 third, 3 fourth, and 2 fifth level spells? That was 43 levels of spells – requiring ten hours and forty-five minutes to prepare.

    Were you level twenty, with four spells of each level? That was forty-five hours worth of preparation time. If you blew through all your spells on an adventure… It would be four or five days worth of doing nothing but studying your spellbook before you could get them all prepared again. There were specific warnings about EVER allowing yourself to be rendered helpless that way.

    If you were on a long adventure, you’d need eight hours of sleep, about six hours worth of preparing spells, two hours worth of eating and minor tasks… a magic-user could only afford to cast twenty to thirty levels of spells each day. A major confrontation blew through a lot of your spells? You needed days to recover. Bring scrolls? Making scrolls required special magical inks with ingredients particular to each spell. Not an easy option.

    That was one reason why every magic-user needed items – most often a Wand or two. A hundred charges, rechargable between adventures, and multiple functions. A classical Wand of Fire could perform Burning Hands or Pyrotechnics for one charge and Fireball (6d6, counting 1’s as 2’s) or Wall of Fire for two. It might be your magic users go-to attack for a long time.

    This was why “getting a magic user” was for mid-level parties. For an example, one party tried to bring in a magic-user when they were level five – but that character didn’t make it for very long; they didn’t have enough magic-user equipment to give him or the ability to protect him. They tried again at level eight, when the party had accumulated a selection of magic user scrolls, a set of “Bracers of Force” that let a magic user throw up protective shields in response to attacks, and a few other items to give him. Being seven levels behind… the doubling experience point tables let him pick up a level each session until he was only a level or two behind (which was expected of a magic-user, since they had a tougher experience point table and was neatly made up for by being handed a lot of free treasure). For the first few sessions the magic-user explored his ever-expanding spell list, used devices, and developed his tactics – while the rest of the party explored tactics that enabled their magic user to get off a spell in critical situations and got the maximum effect out of those spells. With the aid and support of the other characters said magic user swiftly grew into an important member of the party, and remained so for another six hundred odd sessions.

    Incidentally, this also meant that multiclassed demihuman mages remained surprisingly effective at higher levels even with level caps; they were tougher, they weren’t obvious targets, and they could often get off the lower-level spells they were using without assistance. Their targets saves had nothing to do with the power of the caster, they could use all the magic-user-only items, and – while the higher-level casters probably (depending on intelligence) had access to higher level spells, preparation time meant that the casters focusing on lower-level spells often actually got to do more casting. Not surprisingly, in actual play… most lower-level spellcasters were either clerics, or multiclass demihuman magic-users, or both.

    At least to most of the groups I played in, looking at the rules seemed to make it pretty obvious. Dedicated human magic users were luxury items meant for experienced parties and players. You weren’t really meant to try and play one through the massive casualties of the early levels. Magic-users got all kinds of utility effects, and gave the party all kinds of new options – but we found that the fighters continued to dominate actual combat until very high levels indeed.

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