Wizardry: Spell Critique

The series is called Wizardry for good reason: magic is what wins battles, and learning how to use your magical resources effectively is essential to progress. Knowing when to use a single high-level damage spell to wipe out an entire encounter and when it’s more urgent to use multiple low-level disabling spells to increase the odds that the enemy doesn’t get any attacks off. This is how I’ve been steadily becoming more effective as I grind my way through dungeon level 5, even as experience level increases become rarer.

And yet, i’ve always found the magic system to be something of a disappointment. There’s just so much redundancy! It inflates the spell list without giving us spells that are meaningfully different. Of the 21 mage spells, fully a third are direct-damage spells at various strengths, and another three are spells that either kill their targets outright or do nothing to them. (Other CRPGs have taught us to expect that instant-death spells of this sort basically never work, but they’re actually pretty effective here.) That’s nearly half the spell list devoted to just hurting and killing stuff. Priests get 29 spells, including 6 that heal or resurrect, and 8 that do the opposite, hurting or killing outright — again, nearly half the spell list, and you almost never use the offensive ones, because you don’t want to waste spell slots on doing something a mage can do better when you could be saving them for healing.

Mages, too, get some useless spells. There are two mage spells that just improve the caster’s armor class, which is generally pointless on a mage, because you don’t put your mages in melee range, and even if they wind up in the front row because the fighters have been killed or disabled, they won’t improve the mage’s AC enough to make much of a difference. I could imagine it being used by a front-row caster, a samurai or a mage-to-fighter convert, but they’re usually better off killing stuff.

A few spells simply cost too much to be worthwhile, including two high-level mage spells that ask the gods for a random boon at the cost of an entire experience level. Another, LOKTOFEIT, teleports you back to town at the considerable cost of all your stuff and most of your gold. This could have solved some problems for me earlier, if any of my priests had learned it; as it is, by the time I had it, I also had a mage who could teleport for free.

And that’s another pattern: spells that become obsolete. Once you have LOMILWA (permanent light), you never use MILWA (temporary light). HALITO, the weakest damage spell, fades into insignificance quickly. I don’t think I’ve ever used KALKI (improve party’s AC by 1) at all — at low levels, you need to save your level-1 spell slots for healing, and by the time you have better healing spells, you also have MATU (improve party’s AC by 2).

D&D has the idea of casting spells at a higher level to make them more effective in some way, adding power or targets or both. It didn’t have this when Wizardry was made, but it did have the notion of spells that simply became more powerful as the caster gains experience levels. If Wizardry had either of these things, I think we could pare down the spell lists to this:

Mage spells:

  1. Direct damage (possibly split into Fire, Cold, and Neither for monster vulnerabilities)
  2. Instant kill
  3. Sleep
  4. Improve party’s AC
  5. Worsen enemy’s AC
  6. Reveal party’s location
  7. Teleport

Priest spells:

  1. Heal
  2. Resurrect
  3. Direct damage
  4. Cure status conditions
  5. Sleep
  6. Silence enemy casters
  7. Improve party’s AC
  8. Light
  9. Identify trap
  10. Identify monsters

That’s actually more diverse than I was expecting. I guess it’s easy to get an impression that the few spells you cast a lot dominate the spell lists more than they do. But it still doesn’t have a lot of utility spells, or a lot of genuinely different effects in combat.

One absence I find particularly notable: Although there are spells to do damage to an entire group, or even to all groups in an encounter, and although these spells can be cast by enemies on the entire party, there are no corresponding group heal spells.


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