Part 1: The History of Wands in the Game
Wands and staves in Basic, Expert, 1E AD&D, and 2E AD&D were pretty similar: there were a few with detection effects (like a wand of enemy detection, magic detection, or metal detection), a few that were specific attack effects (fire, frost, or magic missiles), a few that were just weird (negation, wonder). In Basic they had 1d10 charges, in Expert they had 2d10, 1E AD&D they had 101–d20, and in 2E they had 1d20+80.
In 3rd edition D&D (and Pathfinder), wands have 50 charges when fully charged, and they can hold any spell up to level 4. Which is a huge change:
1) No longer are wands limited to a small set of specific abilities, they could hold any useful spell.
2) Wands are the most efficient way to purchase charges (a potion of cure light wounds is 50 gp for 1 charge, a scroll of cure light wounds is 25 gp for 1 charge, but a wand of cure light wounds is 750 gp for 50 charges, which is 15 gp per charge).
3) Players can craft wands, so they can decide what spells they want in wand form instead of being limited to a specific set determined by the game designer.
Because wand DCs are generally pretty poor, they’re not optimal for attack spells that require DCs (such as fireball), but they’re still great for attack spells that don’t have DCs (such as magic missile), as well as non-attack utility skill-emulating spells such as find traps, invisibility, jump, knock, and spider climb.
Easy access to those skill-emulating spells means it’s pretty easy for the PCs to buy or create a few wands that negate the need to have a rogue in the party. When these spells were in short supply (back when clerics and magic-users had to use their scarce daily spell slots for them instead of just getting a wand of them), the spells didn’t replace the rogue because no spellcaster would want to load up entirely on those spells–you might have one knock prepared (or on a scroll, if you were lucky) just in case the rogue was unconscious, but you wouldn’t have 10 or 20 of that spell in your back pocket. With easy access to skill-emulating wands, the primary non-combat function of the rogue class (unlimited use of skills) is greatly devalued.
A wand of cure light wounds also provides buckets full of cheap and easy healing in between combats. This is good and bad. On one hand, the cheap healing wand is good because it allows clerics to use their spells for other fun things (like attacks and buffs) and extends the “15 minute adventuring day” by allowing the PCs to heal up in between fights and be fresh for the next combat. On the other hand, the cheap healing wand is bad because it gives the cleric more opportunities to use attack and buff spells instead of having to use spells for healing–adding power to a class that is already really powerful (the cleric arguably one of the most powerful classes in the game).
Part 2: Wands in Fiction and Myth
Wands in fiction usually aren’t things that store their own spells, they’re tools for focusing the user’s power. Wands were an implement for magic, not a source of magic. Modern fiction gives us Gandalf (who uses his staff as a wand-like implement, and in Old Norse his name actually means “Wand-Elf”), Harry Potter (who uses a wand as a tool for casting his spells, but the wand itself doesn’t contain a pre-set spell), and so on.
There are some possible exceptions to this generalization: the White Witch in the Narnia books had a wand that turned enemies to stone, but because nobody else in the stories ever used the wand we don’t know if the wand was an implement for her stoning spell or if it actually was the source of the power and she was merely unlocking it. Circe in Greek mythology turned people into animals using a wand, but she also required them to drink a potion from her enchanted cup, so again we don’t know if the power is in the wand or if it is an implement for an ability she had.
There probably are stories and myths where the wand is the source of the magic, but the most obvious sources I can think of don’t work like that. How D&D wands work (by storing a spell with charges) is its own thing–but, as I pointed out in the previous section, the details of that thing changed in 3E.
Part 3: A Different Way of Using Wands
Instead of storing a spell, what if a wand was the spellcaster equivalent of a magic weapon for a martial character? What if it provided a bonus to attack and/or damage when used as a focus for casting spells?
You could have a simple +X wand that adds +X to the spell’s attack roll and damage.
You could have wands that are only +X for certain types of spell damage, like cold or fire (like how bane weapons only get their extra bonus against one type of creature).
That would also open up a slew of new wand-specific feats that are the equivalent of Weapon Focus, Weapon Specialization, Two-Weapon Fighting, and so on, which would be fun.
The game could still have some wands that have a particular spell built into it, and rather than the wand having charges that you expend, you could use it as a focus for spontaneously casting the spell stored in it (like how clerics can spontaneously cast cure or inflict spells). Frex, a +1 wand of magic missiles is a +1 wand, and if magic missile is on your spell list, you can expend a 1st-level spell slot to cast magic missile through the wand. But that sort of wand would be unusual and more expensive than a standard +1 wand.
All of the above ideas would work for magic staves, too. Maybe a staff has the potential for higher enhancement bonuses (maybe because it requires you to use two hands to cast with it), or has a higher likelihood of having a spell or spells stored in it.
Part 4: Some Consequences of This Change
You’d have to work out what’s an appropriate cost for these newfangled wands at each bonus level.
Wands that hold skill-emulating spells would be very rare, and the caster would still have to expend spell slots on them, so the wands would no longer negate the need to have a rogue in the party.
Wands would no longer be the go-to for cheap costs-per-charge.
Players could still craft wands, but they’d be more like crafting magic weapons instead of the rogue-in-a-stick solution they are now.
It would also get rid of the wand of cure up the entire party in between combats. Which would undo the cure wand’s effect on the “15 minute adventuring day” (bad?) but would also take away how it added power to the cleric class (good!).
(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)