It’s been a while since I’ve posted a character option here – more so due to coincidence than any conscious decision. Plus all that nonsense with the OGL is really not ideal. But all the same, I feel examining homebrews is an interesting way of looking deeper into the philosophy and mechanics of the game.
By examining my own homebrews, I can even ensure there won’t be any angry creators coming after me! So let’s take a look, shall we?
Today, we’ll be looking at the “Generalist Wizard” concept, which I have done before. Multiple times, in fact. None of them have ever quite worked out the way I wanted them to. But why?
Another reason I wanted to start with this one is that it has a lot in common with a previous introspective of mine, Postmortem: Shadow Magic, though – unlike with that situation – this post doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily abandon the concept behind the generalist entirely.
So… what’s wrong with the generalist? Well a few things, actually.
Back in the Old Days
First, let’s go over some of the basic concepts from the Postmortem on Shadow Magic. Both Shadow Magic and the generalist wizard originate in classic Dungeons and Dragons (though my knowledge of them is specifically from 2nd Edition). In those days, the wizard class worked quite a bit differently than it does now.
In AD&D 2e, wizards were either specialists or generalists. Specialists had several benefits and one drawback. On the positive side, specialists could cast more spells per day than a generalist. They also had a bonus to rolls to learn spells of their school, which was a huge help.
The downside was that specialists were completely barred from learning or casting (in any way) spells from their opposition school. This was more of a problem for certain schools than it was for others, of course.
Depending on what rulebooks you use, specialist wizards also got a number of other related benefits, stuff like bonuses to saves against magic of their chosen school. Those same rules supplements also usually “fixed” the most glaring issues with the school restriction system, ensuring specialists of all schools had access to the most essential wizard spells (such as detect magic or teleport).
So why be a generalist? Access to other schools of magic, primarily. A generalist can learn any spell from the wizard class with no restrictions or penalties. This, in turn, led generalists to have larger spell lists, which then could cover more situations than if their spell selection had been limited.
And that was it. There were no real drawbacks to the generalist other than lacking the bonuses of the specialist. Initially, generalist was the “default” wizard – choosing a fancy option (specialist) gave you bonuses and drawbacks. Sticking with the default didn’t do much.
While I have seen some people claim that being a generalist is always better than being a specialist, I think the reverse is closer to the truth. There are some bad specializations out there (divination comes to mind), but most are fairly powerful simply because they can cast extra spells per day. That’s worth quite a lot. This is especially true after the creation of the “universal” school of magic (which ensured things like detect magic would always be available to any wizard). While you would certainly lack tools to deal with some situations, it wouldn’t ever be truly debilitating.
Generalists, meanwhile, are kind of boring. I mean, you’re still a wizard (IE a non-cleric with actually usable spells to cast, unlike druid), but that’s it. Another issue was learning spells – while a generalist didn’t have any penalties, learning spells was hard. Those checks to learn spells were quite difficult, so the bonus to learning spells of a specialist’s own school really did matter. So much so that it wouldn’t be unthinkable for a specialist to end up with more spells known than a generalist, despite being barred from entire schools of magic, simply because they could pass the damn checks.
And now the question might be “why did I bother to try to recreate this in the first place?”
By Generalist, Of Course, I Meant…
The secret behind my generalist wizard efforts is that I was never trying to recreate the actual generalist wizard. Instead, I was trying to do two things: give a neutral option, and recapture old mechanics.
The first is fairly self explanatory. I just find it a bit odd that there are no non-school subclasses (in the PHB, I know they added more later) for someone who just wants to be “a wizard.” Not an evoker, or an illusionist, or a necromancer… just a wizard. Many other classes do have “classic” or “default” choices like that (such as the Oath of Devotion for paladin or the Thief for rogue). I felt like that concept was one with inherent value, so I wanted to allow it through the subclass system.
Recapturing old mechanics is a bit of a different case. Back in 2e, one major change with wizards was the fact that they prepared spells and slots together. In 5e, you prepare a list of spells and you have a number of slots. You then use slots to cast spells from the list in any configuration you want.
Back in 2e, though, the slot and spell were linked. Say you had three spell slots – you had to choose which spell from your spellbook would go into each slot. And, once prepared, that slot could only cast the spell it was prepared with. Thus if you wanted to cast a spell twice, you had to prepare it in two separate slots.
There’s nothing inherently right or wrong with either approach. The current 5e system is more flexible, while the older 2e system is more rigid. However, the old 2e system also helped reduce choice paralysis (the phenomenon wherein a new wizard player is immobilized with indecision because they simply have too many choices at any one time). The 2e system also had a nice strategic feeling to it – you prepared for what you thought you would need. If your guesses were correct, it felt good; if they were wrong, you felt bad.
I made the generalist wizard homebrews to emphasize these two things. I wanted something which, narratively speaking, was a solid middle-ground. A default option, much like the Champion fighter or the College of Lore bard. I also wanted something that would make you feel your character’s intelligence – something that allowed for planning and strategy.
And, all things considered, I think most of the versions of the generalist did accomplish these goals. But they had issues too, which ultimately made them unsatisfactory to me.
A General Shift in Scope
Game philosophy changes over time. For instance, back in the day it was considered quite smart to make your system open and easy to use, while now the irresistible lure of hypothetical cold hard cash has changed that. Even further back and you have the schoolyard bully forcing everyone else out of the sandbox only to weep with loneliness when he realizes what he’s done. I will continue to be upset about this.
But the point here is that 5e is not the same as 2e. Anyone can see that. But some of those changes in the intervening years go a little bit deeper than just removing THAC0 and getting rid of silly names like “magic-user” or “fighting man.” There are changes in design philosophy that make the generalist wizard of my plans fundamentally unsuited to the modern game.
The first change comes in how the game treats the schools of magic. In 2e, the schools of magic are not expressly a foundational building block of reality, but they are intrinsic (for the most part). Necromancy and evocation aren’t just two different results of a spell being cast – they are fundamentally separate representations of magical power.
It’s difficult to pull out a single example of this. One good option is just to point out the whole opposition school concept – this is a world in which learning the intricacies of evocation magic makes you literally unable to cast enchantment or conjuration spells. Sure that’s primarily a game mechanics decision (specialists have to have some weakness after all) but the decision still bled out into the game in general.
Another example would be cure wounds. Is it a necromancy spell or an evocation spell? In 2e, it was a necromancy spell. This was because it affected life and death, which were the province of necromancy. There was definitely an acknowledgement of how weird this was at the time, but the rules remained firm – a necromancy spell is defined by its interaction with the forces of life and death. And since cure light wounds affected those forces, it was a necromancy spell.
But now look at 5e. The schools of magic are definitely still present, but they aren’t as important. We have cure wounds in evocation because it “evokes” healing/positive energy, and necromancy spells have now been associated primarily with undeath, disease, and occasionally shadow. There’s more of a separation between different sources of magic than there is between the different schools. The primal nature magic of the druids is fundamentally different from both the arcane magic of wizards and sorcerers, and the divinely granted magic of clerics. Even that distinction is disappearing over time.
What this means for the generalist wizard is simple… there is no such thing as a generalist.
In the days of 2e, wizards were like doctors – you had general practitioners and specialists. A general doctor could easily diagnose and treat many ailments of nearly any bodily system. But if you had a severe illness of a particular kind, it was always better to see a specialist in that area. That specialist, in turn, would be wholly unable to answer any questions outside their area of expertise except to the most basic degree. A mage (generalist wizard) could handle things involving abjuration, conjuration, and illusion to an equal degree. But if invasions from another plane are a specific problem, you probably want an abjurer or conjuror – just don’t expect either to know anything about illusions.
In 5e, wizards are more similar to academic researchers. While you can have someone with a degree in “chemistry” or “sociology,” you generally would not have a doctorate-level individual without at least some further level of specificity. As far as I’m aware (as the science-averse humanities major I am), if you ask a researcher what their field of study is, they only answer “chemistry” if they have determined you wouldn’t recognize what their actual specialty is. And even then it’s not certain – they could easily say “biochemist” or some other commonly known sub-branch.
Essentially, “generalist” wizards are an anachronism. The schools of magic aren’t so foreign to one another anymore as to require completely different knowledge-sets. In 2e, your school specialization reflects the nature of your learning and the scope of your knowledge. In 5e, your school specialization reflects your character’s general interests and talents – you have the ability to cast anything, but all you really care about is your school.
Making Some Generalizations
The second major problem with many of my generalist attempts was that they weren’t, fundamentally speaking, proper wizard subclasses.
Each class’s subclasses do something different for the base class. Druid subclasses determine what part of the druid toolkit you use most – spells (Land) or wild shape (Moon). Cleric subclasses basically define your entire character, from armor to weapons, skills and spells, everything. Wizard subclasses, meanwhile, usually augment whatever you expect to do with your selected spells.
Let’s talk a bit more about what that means. Say you’re playing a wizard with no subclass – we’ll call it the N/A wizard. Without a specialization, what your N/A wizard does during the game would instead be defined by what spells you choose. So let’s say you choose minor illusion and disguise self as starting spells. Your N/A wizard would likely expect to engage most in social encounters, rather than direct combat.
Now let’s make a second N/A wizard. Their starting spells are fire bolt and burning hands. That N/A wizard could expect to engage most during combat, while not really interacting with social encounters.
Ah, but wizards get far more than just one cantrip and one spell to start with! So let’s say this second N/A wizard has fire bolt, minor illusion, burning hands, and disguise self. Now that they have the same starting spells you do, they are instantly just as good at them as you are. You, likewise, could add fire bolt and burning hands to your own spell list and become just as good at combat as they are.
This then extends into later levels. Say your N/A wizard can’t take fire bolt and burning hands at 1st level for whatever reason. So that other N/A wizard, the one who does know fire bolt and burning hands, will be infinitely better than you at combat. Until you both hit 2nd level, at which point you can pick up fire bolt and burning hands and immediately become equally good at combat.
Without subclasses, wizards have essentially no permanent customization (from their class, at least). You can always switch out or learn a new cantrip or spell – even if the number of times you can do this per level is limited. You can also just add new spells to your spellbook as you wish. This has logical consequences – no matter how experienced your character should be at a certain task (whether through backstory or in-game experience), any other wizard can immediately equal your ability just by copying down the same spells as you.
In essence, your N/A wizard has no uniqueness.
What a wizard subclass does, then, is augment your spell choice and thus reinforce your role in-game. Let’s give our example N/A wizards some subclasses. Your own wizard becomes an Illusion specialist, while the other N/A wizard becomes an Evocation specialist. Both of you know the spells minor illusion, fire bolt, burning hands, and disguise self. And yet, thanks to your subclasses, you are not equal.
Your own wizard, the Illusionist, is better at illusions. Your 2nd-level feature allows you to create both auditory and visual illusions with a single cast of minor illusion. Thus you can make a realistic clock – complete with regular ticking – where the Evoker cannot. At higher levels, you even get the ability to change your illusions without re-casting the spell, thus allowing you to change your appearance multiple times with a single casting of disguise self. The Evoker is stuck with their original disguise unless they want to spend another spell slot on it.
The Evoker, meanwhile, will always be better in combat than your Illusionist (in terms of damage dealt, at least). This is because even though you both have burning hands, you have to aim your spells away from the party fighter and thus miss hitting whatever is directly in front of her. The Evoker, meanwhile, can simply shape their spell around the fighter, thus hitting an extra creature. At later levels, they’ll also starting adding their Intelligence modifier to damage dealt with fire bolt and other spells, which you cannot do.
And therein lies the problem with the generalist wizard. You cannot have a subclass simply make a character better at everything, and yet to be a true “generalist” subclass that’s exactly what you’d have to do. I tried various methods to get around this.
One was to focus the generalist on tactics by allowing them greater latitude when preparing spells for the day. Wizards, as prepared casters, have a degree of tactical thought to them. But making the generalist better at this in turn takes away agency from the player themselves. Of course it’s easier to guess what spells will be necessary when you can prepare more spells than anyone else. This also led to a focus on “spell memorization” as the “theme” of the subclass, which just… isn’t the most interesting.
Then there was the maneuver system. After all, nothing says “tactical” like having a dozen additional options to choose from! But this one didn’t feel very unique. It was, in the end, just a wizard with the battlemaster system bolted on. I actually liked the various magical maneuvers, but they bloated the class too much. Fighters don’t have many choices to make anyway, so battlemaster can be a nice change. Wizard, though? It may be one of the least choice-bloated spellcasters (warlock alone has four separate choices to make right from the start), but it also has the biggest spell list. There are already choices a-plenty for the wizard.
A hypothetical third option would be to make the generalist wizard slightly better at everything a wizard does. This generalist would be better at dealing damage than our previous example Illusionist, but simultaneously not as good at it as our example Evoker. Likewise the generalist would be better at illusions than the Evoker, but worse than the Illusionist. Balancing this would be a nightmare, and all you’d get in return is a fairly boring subclass that is “almost” something else. You’d also likely never use the benefits for at least some schools.
All things considered, the generalist as I had been thinking of it is a balance nightmare with no payout. I could definitely put in enough effort to get it mostly balance – it just still wouldn’t be interesting.
Unlike with the postmortem on Shadow Magic, I’m not ready to give up on the generalist just yet. It still strikes me as odd that the wizard has no “plain” option. There are other classes which lack a default choice too, with cleric being the obvious example. Spellcasters in general tend to not have clear “defaults” like many non-spellcasters.
But the wizard isn’t like most spellcasters – the wizard is the only full spellcaster where choice plays a main role in their narrative. Sorcerers are born and don’t choose to be sorcerers. Clerics choose their deities, but this is theoretically more related to the character’s narrative backstory than it is to the mechanical meta-benefits of each domain (or at least it should be). Warlocks choose their Patrons, but from a limited list – and once that Patron is chosen, there’s nothing the warlock can do to change that choice.
So rather than a “generalist,” I think what I’m looking for is a non-school, non-method option. That is, a wizard with no particular school association, and no differentiated spellcasting/fighting technique (IE bladesinger doesn’t count). Right now, it seems the best candidate for that would be something focusing on the ritual casting system. Magical rituals are a classic part of the wizard identity, and yet nowadays it seems rituals are primarily for 1) untrained Magic Adepts, or 2) book nerd warlocks.
Perhaps something allowing the wizard to learn certain spells as rituals that don’t normally have the ritual tag? Or a system whereby certain spells gain additional effects when cast as rituals? I’m not sure yet, but I feel like there’s something there worth finding.
Or maybe I’ll just take the plunge and switch to Pathfinder. I’m currently engaged in an effort to “get” Pathfinder in the same way I get D&D, so we’ll have to see how that goes. They seem to have recently added rudimentary tooltips to their website, which is a huge step forward since I no longer have to repeatedly open up various conditions in new tabs to remember what they do. Just… I’m sorry, but I really wish some of these conditions were more self-explanatory. But that hope, as they say, is doomed 1. Or whatever.
To wrap things up, I still feel the generalist wizard is a concept worth exploring. It’s just more complex than I originally realized, and more tied to underlying game design philosophy than it might seem.
Look forward to more of these reviews coming soon! I’m hoping a few will even come with updated versions of the homebrew in question. And don’t expect any of these to be the “final word” on any concept – I’m much more aware now of my tendency to spontaneously come up with new “solutions” to things weeks after dismissing them.
Who knows, maybe even Shadow Magic will make a reappearance!
And as always, let me know what you think!