…let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be… 🎶
Well it’s mostly good things, let’s be honest, especially if you are full caster. Spells are freaky powerful in Dungeons & Dragons, and once you hit 5th level you basically never run out of slots to cast them with. At least that’s my experience.
Indeed 5th level is a watermark moment in the game. Extra Attack comes online to almost double martial classes’ potential damage output, but conversely it’s also when spellcasters (arcane ones at least) start to accelerate out of sight of martials in terms of dealing damage, leaving fighters et al. firmly in their rear view mirror.
It’s a bit frustrating, because there’s genuine parity between martial classes, including rogues at this stage. Fighters (battlemasters) can attack twice a round and can add a 1d8 superiority die damage per attack for a limited time; rangers get a fairly reliable additional d8 once per turn from their colossus slayer feature (I feel like the hunter was intended as the default ranger), while a 5th level barbarian will deal an extra 4 damage from raging, assuming they hit with both attacks. Fifth level paladins overperform somewhat by being able to add 2d8 or 3d8 per attack via the rather broken Divine Smite feature, but it’s for a very limited time at least. Meanwhile, rogues are doing 1d6 plus 3d6 sneak attack damage once a round, and a monk can do the same, or even a little more, by spending a ki point and unleashing 4 x 1d6 attacks (and getting their modifier on each die).
This is a massively simplistic breakdown obviously, but none of these classes are grossly outperforming one another at this stage.
Unfortunately, in waltzes the wizard and incinerates this balance with a single, well-placed fireball. Suddenly, one class is doing 8d8 damage a round to multiple foes, very likely exceeding 100 hp of damage per round (200 hp is well within the range of realism… a fireball covers 52 squares on a grid and might easily wipe out 10 gnolls with 22 hp each).
In a classic dungeon-crawl style adventure, where you might reasonably expect to have the six encounters a day which the DMG suggests, being able to settle two of those encounters with fireball is overpowered, but arguably not game-breaking. DMs can plan for it, and, by blasting through two fights, it might actually leave you time to play those other four encounters. My guess is that the original design intentions for 5e went along those lines.
(Note: I’ve seen a number of comments recently, around various corners of the Internet, hitting back at the notion that 5e class design was balanced around the 6 encounters a day that the Dungeon Master’s Guide famously says the party can handle. Sure, the DMG doesn’t explicitly say the party should face 6 encounters a day, but that’s literally the one thing it does say on the matter. In the absence of any stronger or clearer statement I personally take it as read that 5th edition was in fact designed along those parameters).
Unfortunately for lovers of balanced play, D&D keeps moving further and further away from this rapid succession of encounters style of play, as people prefer to play more narrative, character-based adventures over dungeon or wilderness crawls. Additionally, 5th edition’s unintentionally bulky combat system means it just ain’t practical to play more than one or two combats in an adventuring day anyhow, unless you are willing for the story to drag along at a snail’s pace.
This means that instead of playing, say, 18-24 rounds of combat in an adventuring day, as I believe the designers had intended/predicted, a group of PCs is likely to face just 3-4 rounds of combat between long rests, if they have one encounter a day, or perhaps 6-8, if they have two. Even if we get to a third encounter, that’s still half as many as was perhaps originally predicted in the 2014 rules.
My supposition is that a 5th level wizard was supposed to be able cast fireball in around 10% of combat rounds they were engaged in; but the 5e reality of 2023 means they are more likely to be casting it in around 33% of combat rounds. Attacking with a humble longsword seems very sidekicky by comparison.
This issue is becoming more and more prevalent in my Waterdeep campaign, which I’m running as a kind of ‘West Marches‘ series of one shots. The characters are only 3rd or 4th level, but the full spellcasters amongst them already have enough slots to cast a spell in pretty much every round of combat, allowing them to considerably outshine martials (even before fireball has come online!). Because each session is a one shot, characters always start the adventure with a full complement of slots and there’s only ever time for one large combat, or two short ones, before the adventure comes to its conclusion.
“Ah, well that’s your fault Duncan… it’s the way you’re playing D&D that’s the problem, not the mechanics of the game! If you played a regular ongoing campaign like everyone else, players would often be starting sessions without all their resources, or would hold back some of their firepower.”
But hang on…. isn’t the D&D Adventurers League exactly the same format? You turn up, with a fully charged character sheet, and play the module, knowing that you may as well give everything you’ve got. Meanwhile, players that have to manage their resources across two sessions inevitably fail to do their bookkeeping anyhow, and more often than not the DM just has to take their word for it that they only used cantrips and that one first level slot last session.
While my current game table style is no doubt exacerbating the issue of full spellcasters having too many slots, as a player in my friend’s ongoing, combat-heavy, campaign I can’t remember the last time my 7th level bard ran out of spell slots – even with 2-3 encounters a day played out over several sessions. I currently have 11 spell slots, and since after 2 rounds of combat the battle is usually decided and I can probably already conserve slots by switching to cantrips. Moreover, my solution to dropping concentration on conjure animals, or too many bad guys passing their saving throw on hypnotic pattern is just to cast my overpowered spell again (note: we actually play with Hipster Remixes of both spells… but they are still sick!).
It’s all a far cry from my memories of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons when you’d desperately cling on to your one chance to cast sleep once a day, and spend the rest of the adventure tossing darts at kobolds! (I’m not actually at all nostalgic for that btw!).
New Spell Slots Table
Anyway, the TLDR takeaway from this post is that I’ve re-done the spell slots table for full casters. I feel like one additional slot per level is easily generous enough, and I don’t think there’s any need to give 5th level casters two fireballs the moment they level up (nor 3rd casters, two 2nd level slots). This party piece spell, whether fireball, lightning bolt or hypnotic pattern, should be a wow moment, not a ‘have a second go’ moment.
Anyhow, it’s very much an experimental table and I’d be interested to hear what others think in the comments…
New Spell Fuel System
My own thoughts on my new table (after mulling it over for a few days) are that it is actually still way too generous. And so now I’m thinking of replacing spell slot tables with a daily ration of ‘spell juice / nuggets / fuel’. Let’s call it ‘mana’ for now, since I’ve seen that term used in other RPGs in the past.
I think full casters should get their level x 2 of ‘mana’, from which they can fashion slots in any combination they wish, at a rate of 1 mana per level of spell slot.
So a 5th level wizard gets 10 mana, which they could use to cast one 3rd level spell (3 mana), two 2nd level spells (4 mana) and three 1st level spells (3 mana), or any other combination of spells up to the level they know. In some ways I’ve made the situation worse, because now they could potentially cast fireball three times a day (at 3 mana each), but then they’ve only got 1 mana for shield or some utility spells. Currently there’s no trade off for wizards, because they’ve just got too many resources!
This system would work up to 10th level I think, after which I would say your level plus 10, so a 15th level wizard gets 25 mana… and a 20th level 30 mana.
Thinking about it some more, you could still refer back to the Player’s Handbook tables in order to put a top limit on how many high level spells characters can cast… maybe a 5th level wizard gets 10 mana but is still bound by a max. of 2 third level slots, as indicated in the PH.
Half casters would get their level of mana, per long rest, which is a little mean, but maybe once per day they can get their Proficiency bonus of mana back after a short rest.
I’ve had another thought as well, about how to put more strain on the resources of full spellcasters, but hey, enough wacky ruminations for one post!
As always, let me know your thoughts, and whether you’ve tackled the same issue in your home games. I’d love to know your own solutions!
Unrelated Post Script: I’m releasing a new heist adventure soon, my very own Key From The Golden Vault… if anyone would like a complimentary review copy, please send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org , I’d love to send you one.