A Different Take on Wands in D&D/PF

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, jumpknock, 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!)

27 thoughts on “A Different Take on Wands in D&D/PF

  1. Here’s a thought that expands on yours: what if wands and staffs were specifically designed to augment cantrips? Cantrips are cool, but beyond a certain threshold they loose their oomf. A wand might be able to allow you to add your casting stat on damage rolls with your cantrips, or 1-1/2 times your stat for staves. The enhancement bonus could augment your attack, damage, and save DCs with the cantrip.

  2. Wands (or staves, or orbs) as the equivalent of magic weapons is exactly how they worked in 4E. Spellcasting classes each had different implement types they could use, and the magic versions provided bonuses and special effects to attacks cast through them. There were also plenty of support feats for expertise and focus using implements, and equivalents like two-weapon fighting. Of course things were different in 4E as “spells” didn’t really exist in the same way – they were attack or utility powers for each class much like the martial classes got maneuver/attack powers. But the concept is well proven in 4e and continues in other games like 13th Age.

    • Cool. I suppose I should read up on 4E more (we used the “reverse-engineered” playtest material to run a couple of games, but didn’t like it, and when the book finally came out I read through the PH, but couldn’t really get into it). And I still have a signed copy of 13th Age I need to give away, but I want to read my unsigned copy first… :)

      • I love 13th Age personally – it feels like a nice mix of 3.5E/Pathfinder and 4E – which is probably what you would expect. It is not nearly as “crunchy” or “fiddly” as 3E or Pathfinder (not nearly as many options, gridless combat) and has a very strong set of story-embracing features. A bunch of the game tech can be brought over into other F20 games: the Escalation Die, Backgrounds instead of skills, Icon relationships. Magic items are also pretty different and more story-focused in a way (with intelligence, motivations and quirks which affect the player.) Certainly far fewer magic items than players would see in 4E.

        Depending on what you didn’t like about 4E, things might not be to your liking. They have an approach to class powers that it much more 4E than 3.5/Pathfinder. Classes have leveled attacks/maneuvers/spells which in my mind are much closer to 4E class powers than to spells and full round attacks you’ll find in 3.5/Pathfinder.

  3. +1. I like this, with a whole slew of weapon properties exclusive to wands. A +1 wand of cantrip enhancement (terrible name, I know) could move your damage dice from 1d3 to 1d6 or even 1d8. That’s one thing I’ve been on the fence about with the arrival of 5E was the classic cantrips being upgraded to 1d8 damage, but I think I’m slowly getting used to the fact that wizards will no longer tote crossbows at low levels.

    This would certainly have an impact on the verisimilitude of fantasy magic settings, because you really don’t read too many fantasy novels where the heroes/teams stop, pull out a wand and negate any of the danger of their injuries. Yet, it’s the most common (and wise) practice for any tabletop adventuring group where a 750gp wand can be used to stitch them up between combats. I don’t think I’ve seen a combat start where folks were injured and tentative about plowing right into a big bad monster in years.

    • Thanks, MrW, and yes, long gone are the days of “crap, we’re at half hp and only partway into the dungeon, we’d better spike the door of a side room closed and rest up until tomorrow.” :p

      • Actually, that’s pretty much a standard tactic with the folks I game with; after about 2 or 3 encounters the party is ready to stop and hole up until they have a chance to heal. I guess the lethality levels must be higher than the ‘norm’ at my table :)

    • Teams do rest often in fantasy stories.

      Resting a day replenishes almost no hitpoints and most published adventures have a time limit of some sort. So unless you have a cleric who can spend a whole day using up channels, a party has no reason to camp aside from regaining daily abilities.

  4. I love this concept. Due to start a new campaign soon and will definately push to implement this variation. It’s a great idea, and helps rogues to regain their place in a party.

  5. I’m always reminded of some of the alternate takes on magical crafting from Monte’s Arcana Unearthed/Evolved line when I see discussions on optional takes for magical crafting and implements.

    There’s just something about allowing for more variation in magical implements and items, their crafting, and their usage that seem to make the game more enjoyable. I think it adds more of a connection to your character, what they’re carrying, and why they’re carrying those things.

    Of course, that’s coming from a gear monkey who spends a lot more time than’s needed focusing on what his character has on them, where, and why.

    Additionally, I always liked the concept of a wizard treating a staff or wand like a weapon that they’re proficient with. The item was stronger than it normally would be, due to its usage in eldritch practices, thus a wizard was never truly unarmed. I think, in part, I can blame a little bit of Fin Raziel versus Bavmorda for a little bit of that, and then later the on screen tussle of Gandalf and Saruman.

  6. You are expanding upon the existing rods, which cover the detection effect, specific attack effects or are just weird, e.g. Rod of Metal and Mineral Detection, Rod of Ice or Rod of Cancellation. This expansion goes along the lines of the existing Conduit Rod or metamagic rods. All these examples are also described in Ultimate Equipment.

    • Hmm, I’m not “expanding” anything… what I describe in Part 1 is how wands used to work in D&D before 3rd edition. Also, I’m quite familiar with Ultimate Equipment… I was one of the developers on it. :)

      • hmm, i have the impression that wands shall get the design space of rods by this take on wands in OGL. The description of wands before 3rd edition is correct and undisputed. UE was mentioned as a reference.

      • @afbeer:
        That just means that wands would reclaim their pre-3E design space (which overlapped a LOT with rods before 3E), so that’s okay. It looks like the 3E intent was to give wands and rods different characteristics (“wands hold a known spell, rods do things that don’t emulate spells”), which was a blurry line anyway, as the game has since added spells that perform the functions of several rods, meaning those rods should technically be reclassified as wands… :)

  7. Very interesting idea. If there were a worked out balanced add-on / supplement with rules for this in it, I’d definitely buy it and give it a read. I like things that expand / alter magic to make it more interesting.

  8. Prior to tabletop RPGs, I always envisioned wands as a tool, like you said, or something like a metamagic rod that only affects certain types of spells. Such wands could have all sorts of fun reskinning and reflavoring depending on the setting, like spellguns.

    One could possibly mitigate the healing issue by making potions cheaper. Potions have many inherit limitations to them to keep them in check. They can only target the imbiber, so that rules out many utility spells like knock. The action economy limitations makes clerics have to use their healing spells more often in battle. Storage and encumbrance becomes an issue if the PCs stockpile too many potions. It would encourage PCs to buy better cures rather than buy 10 CLW wands. Perhaps one could also say that a potion equates to one cup of liquid. I’m fairly certain someone would not feel well after spending a full minute drinking nearly a gallon of potions. So if you’re in a hurry, a couple of cure moderates from the cleric is better than risk getting sick from chugging a quart of CLW in 24 seconds.

  9. How about Wands/Staves/Rods/Orbs of Metamagic? Or am I missing something here and that’s already covered?

    Like scullcaps for each school of magic. Wands, etc., could be custom/personal items that would help a Wizard with his area of interest.

    Or they could focus on Domains. Or they could aid in Ritual casting.

    And of course, like a Lich’s Phylactery, they could be actually anything but more likely to be some things as the more precious/hard to craft the base item is the more it can be magically enhanced. One Wizard’s Ring is a Wand for another.

    Maybe the items are custom too in the sense of bonded with the wielder. Like the Wands in the Potter Universe or not like that but through some ritual bonded to the Wizard. With un-bonding/re-bonding Rituals a (somewhat) expensive option – you can’t slight-of-hand the wand away from the Wizard and use it or sell it to another Wizard.

    Yes, lots and lots of ideas. Good Blog-post!!

  10. After nearly four decades of playing all manner of D&D, I have seen the following ‘versions’ of Wands:
    1-early ones that had but one effect and could not be made or recharged.
    2-the 3.0 single spell that really opened things up
    3-a spell point version where the wand held a single spell and the caster provided the magic. I think the cost was the same…
    4-a Potter-esque game where casting with a wand allowed you to add the wand’s enhancement to the DC. Progression was limited by the character’s casting mod. Cost was way too cheap for the power. I thought it was over-powered, but…
    5-a crappy game I was in also had the ‘weapon enhancement’ wand, with the same cost and BOTH bonuses to hit and to DC (Bad. Very, very bad)

    • Another option would be to add effective caster level, to the named spell, or spells of the same school/domain.
      E.g. +1 wand of fireball, or a more expensive +1 wand of evocation, or an even more expensive +1 wand [of everything].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s