A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



Fear of Birds

DISCLAIMER: The below talks a lot about the mechanics in D&D 3.5e. I, as I say below, am not as familiar with 3.5e as most of you so I'm sure I' probably making several errors and incorrect assumptions. I'd really like to know what I'm doing wrong.

Recently I had the opportunity to play in a Dungeons and Dragons v3.5 play-by-post running of A Dark and Stormy Knight (level 1). We have a few other players that were relative newcomers, so I chose to fall back on what could be considered the harder of all the classes to play: the wizard.

First, two things about me:

  1. I have not played D&D 3.5e in decades years, so I'm a bit rusty.
  2. I don't ever play mages. My specialty is rogues, with rangers being a close second.

So I went through the motions of creating my first level character, a half-elf named Zedric with a neurotic raven familiar named Quoth. Due to personal time constraints I didn't have much the opportunity to flesh out a back story, so I tried to focus on the character sheet.

After creating my character, I came to a somewhat shocking conclusion: if you're a 3.5e wizard and survived long enough to make it to level two, it must be a bloody miracle. Wizards must be dropping like flies everywhere.

I'd heard jokes about how mages can be killed by house cats, but I never had the math to back it up because I never bothered to stat up a wizard and have him go toe to toe with a cat. Now that I have the opportunity, I decided to crunch the numbers and analyze something... What if Zedric the wizard had to fight his own raven?

Logically, it might seem like no contest; the wizard could incinerate the bird in a flash with any number of spells. But let's assume he's already fired off his six spells for the day (three at level 0, three at level 1), so all he has is his trusty quarterstaff to bash the bird's brains in.

Let's analyze our two competitors:

Zedric: AC 11 (AC 10 flat footed), 5 HP, Quarterstaff attack is at a -1 attack bonus for 1d6-1 damage (minimum 1).

Quoth: AC 14 (AC 12 flat footed), 2 HP, Claw attack is +4 for 1d2-5 damage (minimum 1).

So let's look at the two attacks. In order to knock the bird out, Zedric has roughly a 30% chance of hitting (-1 atk vs AC 14, needs a 15 or higher). And if he does hit has a 67% chance of causing enough damage (3 or higher on the d6) to drop it to zero. 33% of the time, it'll require two hits.

On the other hand, the bird hits the wizard 70% of the time (+4 atk vs AC 11, needs a 7 or higher) and does 1 point of damage, so he has to hit him 5 times.

I'm genuinely afraid of my bird turning on me. This thing can eviscerate me!!!

A cat is similar - same AC, same hit points, same attack modifier - but gets two claw attacks as a full round action, so he can drop the wizard in 3 turns. OK, so cats *are* much more dangerous. Who knew?

All the above assumes the wizard runs out of spells and has to resort to his actual weapon. Although a 1st level wizard's spell repertoire would be enough to deal with a stupid bird, anything larger than that and you may have to resort to running like hell. Let's look at the spells I chose:

Level 0:

Ray of Frost: 1d3 cold damage in a 25' range. It's a ranged touch attack, so I'd be a +1 attack aiming at the bird's AC 14.

Flare: Ooooooo...

Presitidigitation: The single most unappreciated cantrip in D&D 4e. How is this not an at will?

Light: Hey, I gotta see where I'm going.

Level 1:

Burning Hands: 15' cone, which isn't very big (similar to a Close Blast 3; let the record show that Burning Hands in 4E is a Close Blast 5). 1d4 fire damage, DC 15 Reflex save (raven gets a +4 to Reflex save, so he has a 45% chance of saving) for half damage, which might still beĀ  enough to drop it 25% of the time.

Magic Missile: Automatic 1d4+1 damage. Bird doesn't stand a chance.

Mage Armor: A wizard's only decent protection against birds and cats; grants +4 to AC, so the bird's hit chance drops from 70% to 50%.

That's it. That's all I got. Seven spells, with 3-4 of them specificlly for combat. Given enough enemies and bad rolls from the rest of the party, I could conceivably burn them all in one combat and be forced to whacking things with a stick soon.

So unless the party takes extended rests every encounter or two, the wizard is going to get annoyingly useless right quick.

Am I missing something here? Is there some design aspect I've missed that makes wizards more durable and not such paper tigers?


I'm very familiar with D&D 4th Edition, and this scenario is unthinkable; wizards are comparatively beefy and have on average 25 or so hit points. It is highly unlikely for a standard monster to "one shot kill" any PC (in player-versus-player situations, it's definitely possible... See Fourthcore Deathmatch). In 3.5e I have to stand near, and preferably behind, one or more "meat shields" to avoid getting dusted by even the slightest threat... but in 4E I can go crazy and not worry about the occasional hit. In 4E I can fall head first in to a 10' pit and not even get bloodied, but in 3.5e I'd be leaving quite an impressive blood red stain on the pit's bottom.

I've heard many say that that's by design, that a wizard is such a weakling at low levels to compensate for being an arcane god of destruction at higher levels. Really? That's balance? What good is the hope of being an uber-wizard if you're going to get killed by the first pack of rats you come across?

As people discuss the upcoming D&D "Next" (DDN, as I call it), there's been talk about bringing back the Vancian magic system, which is arguably the direct cause of the above problem. But apparently they are considering at-will options so the mage doesn't have to humiliate himself beating at rats with a stick.

Filed under: 3.5e, 5E, DnD, RPG Comments Off
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  1. I carry… a lot of baggage from the 3.x days. Pretty much every single little tiny piece of the system that changed from 3.x to 4e made me very happy.

    That said, I’m here to make your comparison between the HP totals even more polarized! Simply by rephrasing “Hit Point total” to “damage soaked before death”!

    The 3.5e wizard has 5 HP, but can take 15 damage. The 4e wizard has 25 HP, but (under slightly contrived circumstances) can take a whopping 84 damage before dying.

  2. Spoiler alert – the next room is FILLED with angry housecats. Better stay behind those half-orcs.

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