Magic wands used to be packed with power in previous editions of D&D. Wands were like loaded guns waiting to go off. Finding a magic wand in a treasure trove was a big deal because if it had the right magic contained within, it could drastically change a party’s balance of power. Now in 4e D&D wands are just sticks that Wizards, Bards, Artificers and Warlocks use to focus and channel their magic through.
Wands and other consumable or limited-use items used to be a big part of D&D. These items could replicate almost every power spell-casting classes brought to the table from healing to flying, from turning someone invisible to shooting fireballs. With the right items you could often make up for an individual character’s inadequacies or an unbalanced party’s shortfalls. No one was forced to play a Cleric when you could just buy everyone a Wand of Cure Light Wounds.
In 4e D&D things changed, and although there are still consumable items they certainly don’t pack the punch we saw in previous editions. By removing the abundance and variety of throw-away items, players quickly realized that there are going to be certain things unbalanced parties simply cannot do on their own.
In previous editions of D&D, I played a lot of adventures with parties of less than five PCs. With 4e it’s practically impossible to run balanced encounters for small parties or solo adventurers. The main reason is that with the overall balance 4e brought to D&D it categorized all the classes into one of four roles and made each role dependent upon the others. A party without a leader lacks healing; a party without a striker lacks damage output. We’ve come to understand that this is how 4e works and that a party has to have all the roles represented to achieve maximum efficiency.
Making a Smaller Party Work
Recently my home gaming group’s interest in 4e has dwindled considerably. Most of my fellow gamers are experiencing burnout. There are still a few of use that are keen to keep playing 4e but we don’t have enough to run a full, balanced party. In the past when we’ve run less-than-optimized parties the results were ugly. We’ve tried adding NPCs to shore up the holes but it’s not the same. What we need is a way to keep those small parties (or solo adventurers) viable in a normal 4e D&D setting. And perhaps bringing back practical, functional, heavy-hitting limited-use items is the way to do it.
In 3.5e there was a skill called Use Magic Device. By training this skill any character could (in theory) attempt to work any magic item. This allowed you to give your one-trick-pony a new and unexpected trick. We saw things like a melee Fighter with a Wand of Fireballs, a Rogue with a Wand of Cure Light Wounds, or a Barbarian with a Wand of Invisibility. By giving the players a way to use the existing mechanics to bring additional versatility to their PC they had much less difficulty playing with smaller parties. In this case all they had to do was train a skill and spend some gold. Now the party had a way to mimic powers and abilities that other classes usually brought to the table. Sure the item wasn’t as powerful or reliable as having that class represented in the party, but it as a way to make small adventuring parties work.
The Need for Balance
In a system where magic wands are plentiful and powerful there are bound to be problems. In the previous edition the only real checks and balances were the cost of these items (which wasn’t usually that much) and the need to train a skill that you might not otherwise train. The more powerful and rich a party became the more of these limited-use items they’d eventually purchase. DMs quickly realized that there wasn’t anything he could throw at the group that they couldn’t overcome with one of their wands or scrolls or potions. So although I’m leaning towards bringing back wands and other throw-away items to my home game, I’m not crazy enough to do it without some means of keeping things balanced.
Right now in 4e D&D items that can do special things are limited to once per encounter or once per day. For consumables and rituals there is often a personal cost in the form of healing surges. This is certainly a good way to ensure that limited-use items are used sparingly, but it doesn’t make them practical enough to replace a missing PC. The only solution I see is to give items charges.
I like the idea of giving magic items charges again. Like bullets in a gun, the item is only dangerous while there are charges contained within. Now we have to figure out how the charges get in there in the first place and then how a PC uses the charges to activate the item. I’d argue that for this to work the item has to be truly expendable. It’s loaded when created, used, and then thrown away. The only way to recharge it is to make a new one.
Since we don’t have a Use Magic Device skill in 4e there’s the question of activating the item. To continue the gun metaphor is it as simple as pointing the wand and pulling the trigger or does the PC need to know how to work the item? Perhaps there’s a magic word or phrase that needs to be vocalized before the item will work? Personally this is how I’ve always worked magic wands. If a command word is needed then we can tie the powers a charged item replicates to the skill most closely associated with power source of that class.
For example, a Wand of Magic Missiles replicates a Wizard’s spell so an Arcana check would be required. A Healing Word Wand replicates a Cleric’s power so a Religion check would be required. You could go one step further and say that if you’re not trained in the appropriate skill the item cannot work in your hands. This would allow Wizards to easily use wands that imitate their own powers, but make it more difficult for them to use wands that replicate powers from another class.
Mechanically I’d require a successful skill check when the item is first discovered to unlock the means of activation. Each PC can attempt the check once per day until they’ve cracked it. Each PC must make his own check. The Wizard can’t just make all the Arcana checks and tell the other PCs the activation word. However, the Wizard can assist another character with their Arcana check. Once the password is known the PC can use the wands in combat if they make another successful check as a minor action. They only have to make this check once during combat but they have to make it again every encounter. This reinforces the need for training and doesn’t make a Fighter feel cheated because he’s taken training in Arcana.
Once we’ve determined how the magic is released we need to consider how frequently the item can be used. If a Wand of Fireballs has 10 charges in it, should a PC be able to use it 10 times in a single encounter? I think we’d all agree that the answer is no. Instead I think we need to look at the mechanics 4e monsters for direction. Powers that monsters use against the party often imitate PC powers. The more powerful the power the less likely the monster can use it all the time. The compromise is that the power is rechargeable. A Dragon can use his breath weapon many times in an encounter but not unless he rolls high enough on the d6 to recharge it. Off the top of my head I’d make charged limited-use magic items (such as wands) work the same way. Except the item would still have a finite nuber of charges contained within.
If the power the wand replicates is a daily power it might only recharge on a 6, encounter attack powers 5-6, utility powers that don’t do damage 4-6, and at will-powers 3-6. This gives the PC the option of using the wand in combat, but it’s unlikely that they can use it every round. The frequency of use is directly related to the power being expended. And once all the charges are gone the PCs is left holding a non-magical stick.
Attack Scores and Damage
Finally there’s the question of attack and damage numbers. In order to keep things as simple as possible I’d say that the item replicates the power in all regards exactly as written. If the power is normally Int vs Ref then so is the wand. If it normally does 1d8 + Wis damage then so does the wand. Remember that this is not the PCs primary area of expertise in most cases so the item isn’t supposed to be on par with their other attacks. It’s there to address some other deficiency.
The easiest way to shore up a character’s weaknesses or make up for an unbalanced party is by adding the right magic items. This is by no means a perfect solution but it can help. There are plenty of items in the game already that may work, but I have a fondness for bringing back items with charges. As a DM I found that these items could get my PCs out of a jam but not completely unbalance a long-term campaign. The items had limited uses and then when they were expended it was back to business as usual. I think this kind of change can work in 4e and I encourage more DMs to try it.
What do you think of adding items with charges back into 4e D&D? Do you think my proposed mechanics would work or would they be too complicated to be useful? What other tricks or tweaks have you used to make small parties or solo adventurers more viable in 4e D&D?
- D&D Party of One: Solo Adventuring (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3)
- Adventuring With A Sub-Optimal Party (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4)
- Playing In An Unbalanced Party