Monday, April 30, 2018

No One Wins When You Build A Stupid Wizard

We've all read those books where the protagonist just isn't really very good at what they're ostensibly here for. You know, like how the guy who's supposed to become this great warrior is a weakling who just can't seem to pick up any of the lessons his teacher is beating him with. Or the wizard's apprentice who botches every single spell she tries to cast. We watch these character's struggle, and we watch them try (and repeatedly fail) to live up to the standards they're supposed to be fulfilling. Then, at an unexpected moment, they come through. They sink an unexpected blow into a villain, or manage to cast an ancient spell, and in so doing they finally get a chance to shine.

I get that, as players, we want our PCs to have to overcome adversity. And there's something appealing about the bumbling character who finally gets it right. But this isn't a novel, where you can script your character's break-out moment. This is a game, which means you have to play by the same rules as everyone else at the table. And if your PC's numbers aren't up to snuff, then they're going to get their teeth kicked-in. Worse, they're going to be a drain on the rest of the team while that happens. As such, you need to make sure your PCs are bringing their A-game when they step out on the path to adventure.

No Strength, no Dexterity, no Constitution... boy, what kinda fighter are you playing at?

There Is No Advantage In Shooting Yourself In The Foot

"How do I make a wizard with a low-Int, but not be a burden on the rest of the party?"

If you've ever asked this question, the short answer is that you don't. And you don't for the simple reason that wizards need a high Intelligence in order to function. That attribute determines the power of their magic, and it plays a big role in how effective their spells are. The higher your Intelligence, the more potent you are. Also, if you think it's a fun roleplaying experiment to assemble a wizard who puts their 18 in Strength, and their 11 in Intelligence, there is one question you need to answer. Just one.

Why did anyone pick you for the team?

"You take Johnny!" "No way, Johnny is useless, YOU take him!"
It doesn't matter which class you use for this example, whether it's the wheezing, low-Strength barbarian, the ugly sorcerer with a tanked Charisma, or the fighter whose biggest stat is Intelligence while his physical stats are far and away in the rear. If the class you chose requires certain attributes in order to be effective, and you purposefully put small numbers in those abilities, then your character is taking a serious hit in how effective they are. And if you're there to do a job with the rest of your co-adventurers, you need to know what role you're supposed to be fulfilling.

And if you can't fulfill it, then the next question everyone else is going to ask is if they can leave you behind at the tavern. Especially if the numbers you're rocking are less helpful than your average NPC hireling.

You Can Still Be Unusual (Just Think Outside The Box)

With all of that said, it's entirely possible to make any of the concepts I listed as examples work. All you have to do is change the character's actual class so the stats they have allow them to be effective.

I'm not sure I'm following you here...
Let's take the example of the stupid wizard. Maybe he's been in school for a while, and he's trying his best to apply the formula and knowledge from his lessons, but it just won't work. He doesn't have the raw force of brain to get the results he wants. Well, what does he do at that point? Well, if he has a high Charisma, you could make him a natural sorcerer who has more luck with intuition and raw power. Alternatively, maybe he is just smart enough to strike a bargain with an eldritch being, giving him the powers of a warlock. All the magic he could ever want, even though there might be a price to pay for taking a "shortcut" to get it.

You can apply this same logic to the other examples, too. If you have someone who was never strong, or fast, then perhaps they had the mental acuity to master tactics, and wizardry. So while this character is still a soldier, and likely an officer, they fight with spells instead of steel (like The Military-Grade Evoker). The physically weak "barbarian" might be smaller and skinnier than other members of his tribe, but he makes up for it in speed and brutality since he's mechanically a rogue. While he can't out-drink anyone, and he'll lose any arm wrestling competition, no one will ever doubt that he is a capable and deadly warrior.

And so on, and so forth.

As I said back in What's In A Name? How Your Character's Class Is Limiting Your Creativity, your class isn't your job. You can be a tribal hunter as a rogue, just as surely as you could be a holy warrior as a sorcerer. What's even better is that by pairing unusual imagery, iconography, or character traits with an unexpected class, you get that same fish-out-of-water style character development, but you don't have the rest of the table taking a vote to abandon your PC the next time you break camp.

Your PC has to have a strength that helps the rest of the group. But that strength doesn't have to come in the form, or shape, that people expect. So stretch your creativity, and ask if your "wizard" is stupid, well, what other qualities does he bring to the table?

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also want to check out You Don't Get Brownie Points For Building Ineffective Characters.

That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday PSA. Hopefully some folks out there found it helpful, as I know a LOT of players out there who want to try this kind of self-mutilation as a way to avoid playing "typical" characters. If you'd like to see more content from yours truly, check out my Vocal archive, or head over to the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you'd like to help keep Improved Initiative up-and-running, consider heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page, or just Buying Me A Ko-Fi. Either way, I'd be happy to send you both my gratitude, and some sweet gaming swag!


  1. I think part of this issue comes from how some protagonist characters are portrayed in fiction.

    D&D and Pathfinder ironically don't present the progression from incompetence to competence very well. At level 1, you're already pretty good at your job.

    Some players I think want to start off as like, Presto from the old D&D cartoon, bumbling around and misfiring spells, before they grow into mastery and competence.

    And this might be what leads to the misapprehended belief in 'the low int' wizard or the poor wisdom cleric.

  2. I stumbled across cross-classing to make a weak wizard who is a strong character. In my Paizo Iron Gods campaign (see 17-year-old Val Baine had been studying wizardry under her wizard father Khonnir Baine. She had learned how to cast two cantrips.

    When her father disappeared, she joined the party that would search for him. Since two cantrip were not enough against the dangers they could face, she also wore her smithing leathers as armor and picked up a sharp ax. She was of Kellid heritage and knew how to fight.

    On the adventure, she learned more cantrips quickly, but not as amazingly quickly as her spellcasting companions learned higher-level spells. She also attained barbarian rage, which was more useful in combat, but not the rage powers.

    The secret was that Val was not an apprentice wizard as she believed. In trying to master wizardry, she had instead awoken her hidden bloodline. When she studied her spellbook every morning, it had no effect. When she learned a new spell by copying it into her spellbook, she had really learned to shape her bloodline magic into that spell. She was a bloodrager with an archetype that gave her cantrips. Since cantrips can be recast after preparation, she had no indication that she cast spontaneously until she learned 1st-level spells at 4th level.

    And Val had Intelligence 12, so she was not dumb and could have learned low-level wizardry. Her starting stats were Str 14, Dex 14, Con 13, Int 12, Wis 10, Cha 16.

    Spooky said, "D&D and Pathfinder ironically don't present the progression from incompetence to competence very well. At level 1, you're already pretty good at your job."

    Um, when the magus in that party rolled a few numbers from 5 to 10 on his attack rolls and kept missing, he remarked out of character, "Oh yeah, we're first level." First level characters are rank beginners. That is better than incompetent, but it is not good at the job.

    1. As a min-maxing, number crunching point whore, I have built characters who can succeed on their chosen task at level 1 with a roll of 5. I will admit that you have to focus your resources on achieving that level of mastery, but it can be done.

      So, while it's true that your average 1st-level character is above commoners, it's still entirely possible to be a master from a commoner's perspective. Taken to the extreme, this is the kind of character who will be able to perform feats that legends will be written about, if they survive the campaign.

  3. One idea for growth of a bumbling wizard: Focus on their lack of non-wizardly skills. "Sure, I know how to cross the Desert of Death. I read a book on desert survival."

  4. A big part of the issue here seems to be that there are games that penalize the low intelligence wizard. In OD&D (without Greyhawk), B/X D&D, BECMI D&D, and Rules Cyclopedia the only penalty is a reduction in earned XP. Stick to games that don't significantly penalize these decisions, and the decisions aren't a problem.

    1. The assumption one should make from the context, though, is we aren't talking about those games, but rather games like 5e and PF where you are significantly penalized for this decision. Otherwise none of the statements in the post apply, so why dedicate word count to situations where this decision affects nothing?

  5. In 5e a "dumb wizard" is a pretty legit build

    10 Int / 18 Str wizard can be a better and more bursty build than say a 10 Int / 18 Str fighter that picked up Eldritch Knight. Having full spell slots means you can cast Haste at level 5 instead of level 13.

    I can imagine scenarios where in an even fight an optimized level 5 fighter is bested in a round of combat by an optimized level 5 wizard that has 10 int.

  6. I remember the days before point buy min maxing and character optimization fondly. You rolled crappy INT? you learned how to compensate. A Fighter with a medium to low STR? Get you a bow. The point buy bonanza introduced an entirely new era of gaming the system. To each their own.
    Basically, let people enjoy their game, don't tell people how to have fun.

    1. I am amused that you come to a person's blog to tell them not to tell people how to have fun. Reading a blog is the most opt-in method of information delivery I can think of. He's giving advice so that someone isn't a burden on the other players at the table, he's not going to come around to anyone's house and force them to build competent characters.