5 Things I’ve Learnt about D&D in 2020

Like a lot of folks, I’ve turned from the unending horrors of 2020 into the comforting reprieve from real life that is Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve played a record number of hours since March and steamed through a campaign from levels 1-13, set to end in the next month or so – my chance to have revelations about the game has never been higher.

And here are five such revelations!

Wizards Are Not DPS

The classic D&D party goes something like this: Fighter, Rogue, Cleric, Wizard. You can substitute a Ranger for the Rogue, or a Barbarian for the Fighter, or Paladin for the Cleric, but generally you want a melee damage dealer, a utility/skills class that can also do some damage, a healer/tank, and a spell-caster.

However, my players who have played Wizards have ended up a little…underwhelmed. They complain of their failure to do enough damage reliably in combat, and utility spells that are numerous but highly situational can be countered by a decent saving throw. Compare this to the clockwork damage of a martial class, and the priceless high persuasion and insight of something like a Rogue or a Bard, or the encounter-changing healing and buffs of the Clerics and Paladins. Something doesn’t feel right.

Wizards, it seems, do not seem to be primarily about throwing the biggest fireball in the game (unless you take School of Evocation, but even then).

“Take this 3d6 damage halved and halved again, Fiend!”

There are other spell-casting classes such as the Sorcerer and the Warlock, who, after playing some campaigns at lower levels, just appeared to be a different flavour of mage, rather than a completely separate play-style. My opinion on this has changed now I’ve seen Wizards try to keep up in the magical arms race that is D&D. At level 10+ enemies will have quite a lot of magical and elemental resistance, not to mention buckets of health. A Wizard casting a spell every turn that has 75%+ chance to fail is going to be miserable and, frankly, bored. Without good meta knowledge of the Monster Manual you won’t know that monster has a high Wisdom save until you try, and it’s then trial and error until something works or you get lucky.

Compare to the Sorcerer, who has Sorcerer Points that can give disadvantage on saving throws (thus cancelling out the advantage at worst) against the biggest threats, and many other ways to improve spells to edge out in a fight. If that wasn’t enough, both the Sorcerer and the Warlock use Charisma as their main stat; their out-of-combat usefulness is incredibly high too.

So what can the Wizard do? Well, they can accept that they are highly intelligent, bookish types that loves to learn a wide breadth of spells, and must consciously decide to focus on Evocation if they want to deal more damage, instead of any other kind of magic they’d be interested in. They can take War Caster feats; multi-class into something to improve your spell-casting; do what a highly intelligent character would do and note down what works against what monster, and remember for next time; develop your theory that more elite Fiends have Magical Resistance and, therefore, focus on Ranged Attack spells during that combat, perhaps with a type of damage you know has worked well against them, such as Force or Necrotic.

TL:DR If you want to blow up shit with spells consider Warlock or Sorcerer instead of Wizard.

Don’t Set Your Character Traits In Stone

When you create a character for a D&D campaign, you are prompted to come up with beliefs and flaws. An easy and memorable belief is one that is absolute: “I hate Gnomes”, “I have to save everyone I can”, “Whatever I do I must earn payment for it”. This is great for your first few levels and as you start to play your character; a ram rod up the jacket of your role-playing to prop you up when you ask yourself, ‘what would my character do?’.

“Look guys its been 13 levels you know my character doesn’t do stuff in the day time.”

However, what works for your character during levels 1-5 may be getting restrictive and, probably a bit boring when you’re really getting into the thick of a campaign during levels 6-10+. After a not insignificant amount of adventuring, has your character not had to challenge their beliefs at all? Has offending NPCs and causing rifts in your party through demanding payment for every action not given your PC pause to reflect? If your GM is worth their salt, have they not forced you to work with a Gnome yet (open goal, that is)?

All good characters in stories develop and grow over time – whether they improve, or whether its a descent into something else, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they change, and that’s interesting and dramatic and cool.

When you make your character, if you want to deal in absolutes from the get-go, fair enough. That can be your characters belief at that point. It certainly would be for religious and lawful types who have known no difference. But keep in the back of your mind the possibility of change and growth. Maybe think “Yeah, my Wizard wants to learn all the spells they can ‘Ash Ketchum’ style, but I can imagine they’d probably get over that once they see the destructive and manipulative nature of magic in the real world, or maybe they learn to tailor their magic to protect others rather than treat it as a purely academic exercise…?”

Things will happen in the narrative where opportunities like this could trigger and make for a great character moment that everyone will enjoy – you don’t want to shut it out in the name of sticking to your five word belief that you made before session 1 even started. The parts of D&D you remember are the awesome bits that happen in combat, yes, but also in the story too. And guess who’s influencing that story big time, Mr Gnome-Hater?

TL:DR Don’t set your character’s personality in stone, build in some ways to change.

Party Balance and Magic Items

Magic items are another aspect of D&D that needs some thought and can go in two extreme ways. You can give too little, meaning the party is under-powered for their level and don’t really gain any decent reward for their troubles, or you can give too much – over-saturating the party with items that will then be forgotten about and will make the combats too easy. Then there’s the aspect of it marrying with party balance.

Say you have a player who is a Barbarian and is dealing way more damage than the other characters in the party. Not only that, but against the enemies they face, only the Barbarian is dealing reliable damage against their defenses. Is this because of the skill of the Barbarian player, the happenstance of gaining good magical gear, or just the class itself proving effective in that environment?

“3 went to the Elves, for they were only level 8.”

To me, it doesn’t really matter the ‘why’. If your party feels imbalanced, it should be addressed, and magic items are a good way to do it. If the other characters can’t increase their effectiveness through better playing, they should get a boost with a new item. Is this safety net unfair to the players who try hard to optimise their characters? Not really. You can have an interesting and optimised character but its unlikely that every player can predict the challenges facing them in the next year of play, unless you make it part of session 0 (although if you’re playing ‘Descent Into Avernus’, they shouldn’t need three guesses on the main enemy types).

I also believe that one magic item that means something to a PC is worth more than five that don’t. A strong magic item is a great way to signify a change in class, a narrative cornerstone, or the reward of a specific effort to gain more power. If a character is feeling under-powered, let the adventure give them a boost, not their DM.

TL:DR Use magic items sparingly and to help balance the party throughout the adventure.

Damage Types and Spell Costs

Slashing, bludgeoning, piercing, fire, cold, lightning, necrotic, psychic, force, radiant…there’s a lot of types of damage in D&D, and there’s more to it than just visual effects, it turns out. The first three are what players will start with and the ones that monsters will be most quick to gain resistance against. Skeletons and Oozes are low level monsters that already do. Then you’ve got fire, cold and lightning, the common magic elements that beginner Wizards and Warlocks will be using, and magical enemies like Fiends will be resistant to these quickly. Necrotic and radiant are for undead and angelic beings respectively and will be resistant to those, some creatures have no minds and are therefore are immune to psychic…

“The Tiefling used Fire Bolt! It wasn’t very effective…”

There’s a lot to learn here and as mentioned before in the Wizard section it would take a studious player or someone with access to the Monsters Manual to know it all. However it is somewhat gratifying to know that the old staple ‘Fireball’ decreases in effectiveness as enemies level up, and that stronger, stranger spells are needed to overcome enemies as efficiently. Sure whack it out for the low level chaff but against that CR 13 creature? Time for a new challenge, buddy.

The same goes for spell component costs. Unlike low level spells, the most powerful ones in the game require more components than just what you can buy at the magical corner shop. To resurrect someone, for instance, players need a diamond worth 1000GP. Why? Who knows. But also, because the challenge of mid to high level D&D is not just standard combat tactics and avoiding traps, its using your head and putting in extra effort to reach god-like levels of power, and getting to the point where you can defeat god-like powers.

I’m glad that this meta game exists for magic users and creates a bigger challenge for more experienced players. Having one good spell at level 5 that you use forever would be dull. What’s more, maximising damage as a Fighter or Rogue is still a challenge in its own right, if much more straight forward, but even they will also want to start addressing the damage vulnerabilities and resistances of their enemies.

TL:DR Damage types are a complex mini-game and spell component costs are good actually.

Action Economy

This is a fairly straight forward one, and that is the much-talked-about Action Economy of D&D. What does this mean? It means that the more Actions you have, the more effective you are. This counts both on an individual character basis as well as a group or party. An example is a party of 4 players vs 15 rats, and 4 players vs 1 ogre. The ogre has the chance to smoosh a PC in one or two hits for sure, but the rats cannot. However, 4 PCs focused on one target means 4 Actions vs 1 every round. Some of those Actions can be used to stop the ogre from using their Action entirely, whilst the others can focus on damage or healing.

Now look to the rats. Perhaps there is 1 Action from the party that can target multiple rats, meanwhile they have 15 to bring to bear. Some will miss, but the law of averages means at least some will hit, and that’s what counts. Overcoming AC is the most important part of D&D, and more Actions means more things get through, as well as more Action-taking bodies, thus effectiveness is increased.

“Its over mortals, I have the Action Economy!”

The same goes for players. There are ways in which characters can increase the amount of attacks they make, and also ways to bolt on extra damage and even more attacks. Think of Great Weapon Mastery, Monks, or Rangers. No matter what you face, swinging at something 3 or 4 times a turn over the course of the combat is more effective than just one Action. Having more Actions help against hordes as well as strong single targets – dishing out damage on separate bodies or increasing your chances to get past that high AC. It also, crucially, makes the player feel like they’re doing something.

TL:DR Whether its bonus attacks, reactions, multi-attack or bringing another creature to bear, more Actions than your enemy will give you the upper hand.

These things may be perfectly obvious to many, but to experience them first-hand has been a great learning curve for me, and I feel better prepared to empower my players. And no it will not be to tell them ‘Don’t play a Wizard’.

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