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  • Writer's pictureAaron K

Rethinking Wizards

Hey Reader!

Welcome back to the Zurn blog! This post is designed to serve two purposes: to help players think through how to make their wizards less cliché and boring, but also as a soft critique of the "archetype" of "wizards" that is common in most fantasy roleplay games on the market today.

What you tend to see in most games is a "studious" magic user who "learned their magic through schooling" rather than another source (divine, innate, etc.). Beyond that a lot of fantasy games and fiction vary on what a "wizard" is, so we thought we'd take a moment to look at what wizards across mythology have accomplished, what magic systems they worked in (as that will determine how you should treat wizards in your game/universe), and a few ways to make your gameplay with/as a wizard more interesting.

I. What Is a Wizard?

If I had to take a guess, the three most well-known wizards across all of mythology and fantasy are Merlin (from the Arthurian Legend), Gandalf (from Lord of the Rings), and a more recent addition, Albus Dumbledore (because fandoms grow a lot faster now than they used to - blame modern technology and "fad fandoms" if you don't like his placement on the list).

Now while I think there is a clear hierarchy among the most well-known wizards of all time (I think Merlin and Gandalf stand above the rest across all mythologies everywhere), all of them are influencing the concept of a "wizard" when a gamer sits down at your table. So we will look at all of these and more as we examine what it means to be a wizard (or witch, if your mythos uses different terms to distinguish the gender of the practitioner).

When we look at Merlin, we find a seer and sorcerer capable of shapeshifting into various forms, which is not commonly found in wizard archetypes for games. Yes, you get access to the Polymorph ability often enough, but not true shapeshifting. That's the realm of the "druid" spellcaster, and not surprisingly named as some tie the inspiration for Merlin to the druids of Britain.

Druidic magic, though, goes far beyond what we see in games: "nature control" and shapeshifting are both good and true to the mythos, but they are far more than that. The druids in mythology had the ability to create green mists to hide and heal their allies, move rocks, and change forms (which you often see in games), but they could also raise the dead and read people's thoughts and memories, rarely abilities you see as spell options for "druids." So keep in mind that a "wizard" classically had these kinds of abilities in addition to the "arcane" magic often ascribed to them.

In Greek mythology we also see Medea and Circe, two witches who had power to see the future/other places, could enchant people with their magic, and held secrets that the heroes needed to complete their quests. Again, polymorphing is present, but this is not their true power: their power lies in the mysterious, the esoteric, and the unexplained. The wizard should not be some dry collector of spells: there's a mystery behind what they know and how they know it, one that leaves others with questions every time of how they came by it, and how long they've had it.

As we look at Norse mythology we have illusory magic used by witches, wizards, and gods alike, as well as very practical magic: empowerment, prophecy, and curses. The last of these you don't tend to see as much, but it's totally there, and makes the wizard far more interesting and dangerous (especially if you portend as well, as you can practically bring about the doom you foresee for another).

As we look at fantasy and fiction, Tolkien gives us many versions of wizards in his writing. It's worth noting that the D&D and Pathfinder conception of a "wizard" is not commonly seen in Tolkien's works: almost all wizards receive their magical gifts through their innate nature as maiar (closer to a sorcerer than a wizard in most game systems), and while they do train under a specific valar, their power stems from their maiar nature and is then refined and perfected through training.

Gandalf uses nature magic combined with illusions and conjurations, making smoke rings change colors and dance about, while also turning invisible and causing a pine cone to burn with flame. Elven magic is similar, with few limitations on what it can do beyond the flavor of the culture. This is reminiscent of fairy tale witches, who can curse items (or people), change forms, cause deep sleeps - all that stuff that makes for a good challenge to the protagonists - but isn't fully nailed down. One might also lump Glenda and the Wicked Witches of Oz into this list, as Oz also has loose rules for what a wizard/witch can and cannot do.

One case where we have relatively distinct rules for magic is Harry Potter, and that brings us to Dumbledore. This magic system is simultaneously one of the simplest magic systems to understand and one of the most frustrating, as it has relatively consistent rules, but the rules don't always make sense. What we do know, though, is how Dumbledore does his magic: he studies spells, learns the right motions and words, and even makes his own spells. And this is why he has that "grand master" feel that makes him an interesting character.

And you can begin to see here why wizards in fantasy and mythology are so different from the wizards at your gaming table: each magical world has its own rules (or at least should have its own rules), and that is going to affect what you can run at your table. But inasmuch as it's possible, here's a few ideas that may help you to take your wizard to the next level.

II. Rethinking Wizards

We should give a disclaimer upfront regarding Tolkien: Lord of the Rings has more of a soft magic system than most games allow. There is more freedom for Gandalf than there is for other wizards, but the end goal for us is the same regardless of powers used: you want the mystery element. You're not really sure what he can and cannot do with his magic, because he does so many different things. So don't be a "one-trick pony" with magic: use a variety of spells, and keep your allies guessing as to what you can and cannot do.

Now, admittedly, before we get too deep into this, we also need to caveat all of this by saying that I will be recommending wholesale changes to class features, limitations, and abilities in this post. So brace yourself if you're not a person who likes tinkering with "the rules as written" when looking for ways to rethink a literary trope.

But in truth, I don't see any reason why there should be any "sacred cows" in a game system if the game system is providing a boring, monotonous, or discordant view of a wizard, especially if it's a magical setting where magic is common and wizards are common. So with this in mind, let's look at a few ways to make wizards smarter and more interesting to our player characters.

First and foremost, give them armor. Why don't wizards get proficiency with armor in most games? If you're rich enough to have a massive library of books (which were not cheap in medieval times), why aren't you rich enough to have a servant trained to put a shirt of chainmail over your body and lace it up tight (if you even have a lacing version of chainmail, as not all of them were laced)? If a wizard know how to put on a coat, why doesn't she know how to put on a coat of plates (aka Splint Mail, which is put on and strapped up the exact same way), let alone a gambeson which even easier to put on?

We talked about this extensively in our post on armor, so we won't go any further into this here. But if you want to make your game different, bring out a wizened, shrewd, cunning wizard in plate mail, and watch your game grow more interesting overnight.

And before someone says, "mutli-classing is a thing," 1) it's an optional rule, so it may not be a thing, and 2) a wizard with any level of intelligence would know to wear armor instead of casting a spell (Mage Armor) three times a day, spending a spell slot each time, to get "armor" that is not as good as the armor he could buy in a store for cheap. He doesn't need to train as a fighter or be divinely appointed as a cleric or paladin to suddenly learn how to wear chain mail effectively. We're talking about the smartest people in the world: they can figure out how to put a shirt over their heads that fits them correctly. Rant over.

Second, divination should be common. This is the most common magic spell shared by wizards, and for good reason: it's what elevates them in society. Here's a person who through reading the stars, deciphering texts, or using a magical object like a pensieve or crystal ball, can see the future. And in most games there's a lot of useful things you can do with prophecy and portending, so use these spells in your games.

Third, illusion is your friend. Remember: we're trying to recreate mystery around the wizard, and that means that there is a special place for illusion. Whether you are turning yourself or the party invisible, or changing your appearance, or disguising sounds, or whatever, illusion will help to restore the awe and respect for wizards.

Fourth, if your system allows it (and if not, maybe they should), take some nature magic to accompany your arcane abilities. Control over nature has a semblance of power even if the ability is relatively mediocre, as it does things that physical ability often cannot do. So being able to quickly make a fire, move a tree branch, use a vine to raise you up or lower you, walk on water, part water, walk on lava - whatever it may be - will renew that sense of wonder as the party watches you.

Fifth, consider whether wizards can craft spells. Part of what makes wizards unique and interesting is their spell suite, and having something unique to them helps you immensely with remaining distinct and unique. But some game masters (for good reason) don't feel comfortable with players crafting new spells, so talk this one over with your game master first. But if it's possible, consider doing this as a "downtime activity" to keep the magic and immersion of learning magic through study real and impactful on the game.

And finally, elongate your sounds. This has nothing to do with mechanics, and it may strike you as odd because surely a lot of players do this, right? Surely when they play a wizard they take on an old, more weighty sounding voice, right? That's not what we are talking about here (though you'd also be surprised how many people don't do this either).

What we want is to elongate the sound, not just impact the sound. An example is useful here. Have you noticed how Gandalf speaks in Peter Jackson's movies (as Sir Ian McKellen does a great job with this)? He says things like, "I supPOOOSE you think that was TERRRibly clever?" Do you see how he elongates specific words? He doesn't always impact those words, but he elongates them.

This adds an interesting gravitas that doesn't just sound like a person who thinks they are so cool for having been in school for so long. Instead what it does is it builds an anticipation for what you say. So elongate your words: don't just talk in a deep, portending voice.


Now it's worth noting that there is another popular wizard that we did not address here as it fits into a category all its own, and that is the Jedi. A lot of people will look at a Jedi and say, "well, they're not really a wizard," but I'd point to the Jedi and say, "this is a wizard done right: they feel different and cool and interesting because they are not stereotypical." So think about wizards like this: how can I vary them from the standard trope while still embodying the things that make them interesting and cool? If you think like this, you're doing it right.

Wizards should be one of the coolest things in any world, whether magic is common or rare. Across the ages the wizard has been viewed as a powerful person not so much because of raw power - Gandalf hardly kills anyone, even Dumbledore rarely uses his power - but because of social standing, so incorporate this into how you play a wizard in your world, be they a player character or an NPC.

Until next time,

Aaron K


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