Just now, in the shower, I was thinking about Magic Missiles.
Specifically, I was thinking about how the party for my weekly Encounters game has apparently “lost” their wand of Magic Missiles. They received one for defeating an earlier foe, a necromancer whose downfall sort of took three sessions. By this I mean it took two sessions for the party to penetrate to right outside his door, at which point we had to call the game on account of time and their dwindled resources. They were missing the party healer and all of the hit points represented by the party’s heavily-armored ranger, so the fight was mostly a battle between a horde of small targets and the party’s not-ready-for-prime-time DPs and druids. Druids, at level one, don’t entirely know what kind of class they’re going to be and it definitely showed as they fought their way through these catacombs. The third night was going to be very “boss fight” in nature, with the party’s resources still low but primarily facing one high-burst, buffed target and some incidental minions.
Then my wife walked into the room, rolled a crit with her half-orc two-handed fighter, and decapitated the dude in the first round.
Anyway, they picked up the wand as well as a glowing, floaty stone, and devoted half an hour to figuring out the stone, bickering over who got the stone, and generally concerning themselves with the stone. The wand, on the other hand, seems to have been forgotten. I’m not sure who picked it up, though I’d guess that the party’s cleric (who played the party’s Con 10 “tank” monk in the previous season) snagged it as part of his self-appointed duties as quartermaster. The party’s attendance is theoretically very consistent, but there’ve been some significant gaps and schedule shakeups–plus whatever the hell was going on between the two actual siblings last week–that means items have disappeared into pockets of absent characters, or be exhaustively justified for being in the possession of other characters. The party’s dedicated arcane character has made maybe three sessions, so he probably has the wand; I can honestly say I don’t know how restrictive wand activation is in 5e because reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide alternately bores me and bums me out, so I mostly dip in to find out stats on specific items and tweak encounters.
So in my head–in my shower–I was playing out the conversation where I provided the tactical advice to the party tonight, sagely explaining that an auto-hitting attack which didn’t expend any actual resources was extremely valuable. I’ve been down on MM in this edition primarily because it’s so faithful to every previous version, which means in a world where most other first level spells are providing roughly three times the damage out of the gate, it really feels lackluster. If minions existed, I’d back the play, but as it stands I just can’t justify selecting Magic Missile as a mage spell for anyone starting at low levels.
Out of a wand, though? A free wand? Totally different story. Particularly when they were fighting an Earth Priest and an Earth Guard (party’s so big and DPS-ey now that I wanted something else in the encounter to give them a challenge). Both of their enemies had extremely high ACs that relegated a tremendous number of the party’s attacks ineffective. Being able to step past that stage and go right to the hit points would have kept a few of the characters on their feet and changed the dynamic.
But then I remembered Shield. The Earth Priest burned a huge number of his spell slots on Shield, primarily to frustrate the aforementioned Half-Orc with the greatsword; when he did, it manifested as a huge stone hand flying up from the earth and catching the blade on its extended middle finger. I suppose it’s a matter of halflings and kender to have the guy block a barrage of Magic Missiles doing comparable damage to the fighter’s swings, but I realized had I reminded the party of their wand before the fight, then done that to them, they would have been…vexed.
This led me to think about the question of whether a priest should even be able to negate a Magic Missile (which, to be fair, Shield is explicitly designed to do) when he can’t just clap his hands and be un-fireballed. Obviously, his combat training equipped him for avoiding attacks from martial weapons and skullduggery, and that skillset quite logically carried over to deflecting the giant spider the party’s druid had become. I ultimately decided that, yes, anyone preparing for a career that might involve battling the independent paramilitary and terrorist cells that are adventuring bands would be familiar with Magic Missile. The weight of that, though, struck me.
Is there any spell or ability more iconic than Magic Missile? If a bolt of fire comes out of my hand, that could be Fire Bolt. But also Scorching Ray. Maybe the beginning of Burning Hands, or Fireball. Hell, maybe that’s the style of my Eldritch Blast, or the beginning of a flaming scimitar conjuration, or even some elementally-admixtured version of Thorn Whip. In general terms, the same issue exists for ice attacks, lightning attacks (especially with how many lightning attacks are actually thunder attacks), and so forth. Granted, I’m assuming a world with some deviation in terms of personal influence on magical expressions; I unders…I recognize that some people just want whatever the book says to come out of their character’s appropriate appendage. However, even if that’s how all of the PCs work, you still have a vast world with many cultures and races and alien mindsets, and someone’s going to create an illusory dragon from whence their Fireball spews.
Magic Missile, though, is the icon. Even if it’s a series of fists, or angry red birds streaming from your beard, the idea that an arcane character is going to reach out and touch you from afar with small detonations of mystic force is so ingrained that spells exist explicitly to prevent it. Consider that the Circle of Protection spells aren’t widely countered with a 1st-level “Protective Bore” spell, taught to every wee little necromancer and dark priest, that pulps the mystic containment with a drill made out of screaming mouths. Again, in light of the many mystical and magical traditions in any game world, that’s kind of insane. Fireball’s iconic too, but the collateral damage it imposes and its theoretically high entry requirements–remember that a 1st-level character is supposed to be an exceptional member of his race and time, so a 5th level character is basically a senator–mean there are plenty of wizards who never learn it, plenty more who can’t risk casting it.
It’s not even something that really carries over to other classes, either. Clerics and Druids and Paladins and Bards and Rangers, at a minimum, all have access to some amount of healing; the Bards only go back to 3rd with that, but still. Wearing armor or no, my touching you or yelling at you and watching your hurties melt away doesn’t say much about me, or even about which spell I used. Druids have wild shape, and it’s gated far lower in 5th than it’s been anywhere except that special player’s option (which I loved) in the 3.5 Player’s Handbook 2. 4e had its own version of the entire wild shape concept, and I liked that implementation too, but more so than the others it helped identify the problem with calling a druid’s wild shape “Iconic:” if you’re running around as a feral sabertoothed squirrel or a white, three-eyed raven, you are probably not casting spells. You are probably not wielding a scimitar or an enchanted staff. You’re deriving very limited benefits from your mystical equipment unless the whole deal with that equipment is using it during wild shape. So there are druids who don’t wild shape often, or at all.
The 5e character paths even acknowledge this, giving an option for druids who just want to get better at spells; that’s an option that is always around, and the core issues with wild shape are a big part of why. Now, 5e’s implementation seems to strike a fairly effective balance in that wild shape is basically “Gain superior unarmed attacks and +X temporary hit points,” which essentially makes it an old school Barbarian Rage. This relationship seems even clearer when one considers the gating of movement powers that’s a part of wild shape now; you can, eventually, start skimming through the water or flying. Just not right at the start. If you take the wild shape-focused version of the druid, you enjoy a much more powerful wild shape, but it comes with the presumption (due to the extant limitations on shapes-between-rests and the insane base rest length of 5e) that you’ll be spending most of your time in those shapes. You can become much more powerful creatures because you’re markedly less likely to have access to powerful first-level spells when you need them. Thus far, at least in the current dungeon, wild shape’s proved to be a bit destabilizing, with the druids going from directionless characters with low DPS to superior tanks and DPS that function as full-on roadblocks. However, since the party is largely comprised of melee characters outside of the druids, they’ll just start suffering for their inferior ACs as they are demonstrably the biggest threats to any encounter.
Good as it is, though, that kind of wild shaping’s not iconic to a 5e druid, because someone out there is playing the other circle. They’re running around causing earth eruptions and hitting people with fire swords. Similarly, the ranger’s new 1st level mark spell (essentially giving them Quarry from 4e) is great, and the implementation is incredibly generous in that it allows a player to shift it to new targets on her turn. This means you have up to double movement to get to a position where you have a new markable target before the spell fizzles. Still, that ability’s a spell and not a class power, and the whole concept’s relatively new enough to the ranger that it’s not something I’d consider iconic to the core of the class. Paladins don’t seem to know what they want to do with and about their spells from edition to edition, and in 5e they occupy a sort of liminal space between a ranger’s definition-by-special-spells and a cleric’s domain-focused nature.
Bards? Hah. I like bards, I really do. Giving them access to the quick and easy heal is a nice way to retain some of their 4e functionality, though the action economy in 5e still feels incredibly constrictive. Monks have their flurry of blows, but in the current state of things what weapons they can even use is left almost wholly in the hands of the DM, so what that ability looks like from campaign to campaign will be completely different. I find the new rage implementation for Barbarian interesting, but the focus on Str-checks seems to suggest an expectation that players will just be ragin’ it up to climb walls and such, which is silly to picture and not a super likely use of the resource. I really appreciated how Pathfinder employed Rage in rounds, letting a player dole them out in short bursts that felt more natural and realistic. Barbarians also have the excellent Reckless Attack, but at least at my tables I’ve seen a marked reticence from players to actually employ it; this probably ties into their fear of using rage itself, since the two abilities work exceedingly well in concert.
A rogues sneak attack might be considered iconic (even though it used to be backstab) but I’ve spent a lot of time explaining to players how–at least at low levels–a rogue hitting for 2d6+3 with a shortsword and sneak is mechanically indistinct from a fighter hitting for 2d6+3 with a greatsword. The party’s rogue–built on an avian chassis that hasn’t served her super well in all these dungeon delves–spends a lot of time complaining that the party has blocked her sight lines for sneak, not understanding that it’s the rogue’s job to get in where she fits in with those jabs. Plus, extra damage from being stabbed isn’t something that the arcane schools of the world are devoting a ton of energy to preventing, save incidentally through undeath and the like. It’s a sufficiently niche case to fall into being addressed by the things that address all types of stabbing and bashing; abjuration has your answers, but they’ll serve as well against the finesse-less ogre as the sneaky halfling.
Magic Missiles rule everything around me, is essentially the point.