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In my groups next campaign I am hoping to be a PC instead of the DM and I want to play a character who is like Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. I began looking at options; he would probably be a bard, but what race would he be? I want him to be proficient with a sword, and he should have lots of knowledge skills, etc.

I am looking to model him from the Gandalf from the actual books, I'm not overtly worried about his power level.

So I am wondering basically how would I recreate Gandalf in D&D 3.5 terms?

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I'm pretty sure Gandalf is not mechanically a wizard, actually; he's got the Knowledge skills but no spellbook, no evidence of memorizing spells, and the spells he casts are few and far between. And as you point out, he's not inept with a sword. He does fireworks, both mundane and magical, tells stories, sings songs, knows the most random things, and spends most of his time getting other people to do things for him: Gandalf's a bard. (Not an answer because I can't offer any specific advice re: Gandalf the Bard's build.) –  BESW Mar 19 '13 at 20:29
Another point for being a bard is this description of him by Tolkein: "Warm and eager was his spirit... opposing the fire that devours and wastes with the fire that kindles, and succours in wanhope and distress" –  starwed Mar 19 '13 at 20:36
Actually, Gandalf's a Maiar. He's an outsider with a few minor spell-like abilities, a lot of knowledge skills, and probably a racial Lore ability. The same applies to all of the "Wizards" in Tolkien's stuff, and similar situations apply to pretty much anyone else who can do any magic without even very tiny effects being a very big deal to achieve. In D&D terms, Sauron is an archfiend; Morgoth is an evil god; Manwe Sulimo, Ulmo, Aule, etc. are good gods, and Eru Iluvatar is an overgod, analogous to FR's Ao (though good aligned, in contrast to Ao's true neutral). –  Matthew Najmon Oct 31 '13 at 18:06
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5 Answers

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Build him by feel

SevenSidedDie has an excellent answer about why there's no definitive Gandalf build, but I think we can talk constructively about how to go creating a Gandalf build.

You want to "recreate Gandalf from the books" "in D&D3.5 terms." You can't, not precisely. D&D isn't a good fit at all for actually recreating LotR scenarios or characters: it has a different mythos, a different philosophy toward magic, and is built with mechanical considerations that Tolkien didn't have to worry about.

But we can create D&D characters who are like LotR characters. This is going to require choosing what to keep or emphasize, and what isn't as important so it can be left behind or diminished. We won't be making a character who can accomplish exactly what Gandalf could accomplish --no more, no less-- in the novels. We'll be making a Gandalf who is Gandalf in essence rather than in detail.

What defines Gandalf to you?

Because of the limitations of D&D build options, you'll have to focus on one particular "kind" of Gandalf. Deciding what kind of Gandalf you want to design needs to be deliberate and purposeful, and you'll need to own that decision.

If you were asked to describe Gandalf in a phrase of five words or less, what would you say? If he's an "ancient, angelic guardian of hope," you're going to build him differently than if he's a "crafty and manipulative magical hobo." Both are absolutely true descriptions of him, but each emphasize a different element of his character.

What does this say about race and/or templates?

Gandalf could be a human, an aasimar, a half-celestial, or a number of other choices depending on what kind of Gandalf you've chosen to make. Don't be concerned about whether it's an accurate representation of a Maia clothed in mortal flesh; get the race or template that best reflects the phrase that describes your personal Gandalf.

What does this say about how he gets things done?

What are your Gandalf's goals and how does he accomplish them? Does he ride a white horse at dawn to bring hope to the hopeless, or does he throw flaming pinecones at wolves? Is he a self-sacrificial hero or a guy who pranks his friends by throwing a party at their house without telling them?

The answers to this question will tell you a lot about his class and build. I think of Gandalf as a guy who gets other people to do things, but can handle himself in a pinch, so I consider him a bard.

Don't be afraid to go off canon

If your Gandalf is a powerful spellcaster, forget trying to map his powers in the books to D&D spells. Make him a powerful spellcaster by D&D standards, so he is deserving of the proper eldritch respect.

This is the essence of my advice: Don't try to recreate what Gandalf can do. Recreate the essence of who he is and what he means. At the end of the day we don't remember him as the level 5 human wizard who cast shatter on a bridge; we remember him as the man who sacrificed himself to a terrible monster so his friends could get away.

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Nice answer! "Gandalf in essence rather than in detail" is perfect. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 20 '13 at 0:51
+1 for the awesome answer and " crafty and manipulative magical hobo" Thank you for the great answer. –  Jonn_Underwood Mar 20 '13 at 12:55
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On a day in 1974, D&D was published in three little books. I'm equally certain that later that week someone asked what Gandalf's character sheet would look like, and it's been debated ever since in Dragon Magazine's articles (most notably Gandalf was a Fifth-Level Magic User by Bill Seligman published in The Dragon, which became Dragon magazine, in issue #5, March 1977) and Letters to the Editor, early Usenet arguments, later web forums like RPG.net and Dragonsfoot, and around tables across the world without satisfactory resolution. It's such an old debate that it's now a joke.

The problem is that Gandalf is not a D&D character. He has abilities that cannot be adequately described by any set of classes, feats, spells, non-weapon proficiencies, prestige classes, kits, hybrids, skills, or magic items in any edition of D&D, let alone whichever is currently being considered. Many people have tried, and for every proposed Gandalf character put forth, there have been a dozen other people who disagree with its details.

The answer to this question is "However the tales of Gandalf inspire you to make a character," which will necessarily be different for each person. This is, inherently, an unanswerable question beyond that simple answer.

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The "what level is Gandalf" question mostly comes back to D&D not just being a world with magic, but a world drowning in silly huge amounts of magic. Even worlds we think of as highly magical, such as Middle-Earth, are indistiguishable from the real world in this respect, on any scale includes D&D. Even with the various deities worshipped by real-world religions, usually the only thing they have that a D&D PC can't get by lvl5 is Raise Dead, which they tend to use quite rarely. Heck, some of them have nothing intrinsic at all, and are basically a lvl1 commoner with an artifact (Thor, for one) –  Matthew Najmon Oct 31 '13 at 18:28
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LOTR is an inherently low magic setting vs D&D's high magic setting. In D&D nobody bats an eye at magic users throwing out all kinds of crazy powers (magic missile, burning hands, frost cone), but in the books (and even in PJ's LOTR movies) you very rarely see any magic and when you do it's always very subtle (Gandalf's staff as a light in Moria, Galadrial's phial, and of course the rings like the One Ring). In my opinion most of the magic is interwoven into places (Lothlorien, Rivendell, Minal Morgal) or things (the rings, sting, the staff, the horn of Gondor) versus being something characters manipulate and use like a tool. Also Gandalf is very handy with conventional weapons (his sword; Glamdring) and fighting despite being an old man & a wizard. Gandalf should be primarily a melee class with only a few levels in a magic class and possibly a vow if you RP him not wearing armor.

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Please note that due of the nature of his mission, Gandalf never openly reveal all his power. The Istari were supposed not to act directly, but instead of that, influence Middle Earth people to win their battles. So, Gandalf's magic is sure more powerful than summoning some light or burning some orcs (like he did in the Hobbit). But you are right, he was very skilled with the sword (he also had a very powerful blade). It's not surprising, since Istari are good at whatever they try, even smoking. –  Flamma Mar 20 '13 at 0:00
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Gandalf is a Maia, that is, a divine spirit helper to the Valar, the Tolkien's "gods". In his nature, he is similar to Sauron, except that Sauron was corrupted by the evil "god" Melkor.

Upon arriving Middle Earth, Gandalf and his companion (Saruman, Radagast, and the two Blue Mages) took human appearance, even human traits (good and bad traits).

So, I'd make the character human, since this is the flesh that the Istari adquired. Also, because in the two mentioned fictions, Gandalf seems human, so I think that way is closer to what you are looking to mimic.

I'd think about choosing the Sorcerer class, as Magic is innate in Gandalf, and not based on knowledge.

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Yeah, explicitly his power is limited by the human form he is in... though Gandalf the White would probably have an additional "angelic" template of some sort, since it is described as his flame being "unveiled". –  starwed Mar 19 '13 at 20:37
@starwed I thought of human because two things. 1) I'm not very familiar with the "exotic" D&D races, so I couldn't suggest something appropriate. 2) OP wants a character like the Gandalf of LOTR and the Hobbit. In those works, the divine nature of Gandalf is barely hinted, so for a reader of only those two books, Gandalf could be an extremely powerful human mage. –  Flamma Mar 19 '13 at 23:55
Strongly disagree about Sorcerer. When outside the Doors of Moria (p. 400 Fellowship of the Ring): "I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs, that was ever used for such a purpose. I can still remember ten score of them without searching in my mind." Wizard is a drastically better fit thematically. –  Ichoran Mar 20 '13 at 8:24
@Ichoran I understand that statement in a different way. Gandalf is not referring to the spells he can cast as Mage, but to the spell that protects Moria's door. In Wikipedia spell is defined as "a spoken or written pronouncement intended to bring about a specific effect". I think Gandalf is just saying that he used to know all passwords. –  Flamma Mar 20 '13 at 8:34
@Flamma - Yes, which is why "Wizard is a drastically better fit thematically." Sorcerers don't have longsword proficiency, but Gandalf does; choosing bard to get longsword makes more sense than choosing sorcerer because magic is intrinsic (since all magic in Middle Earth is intrinsic that doesn't really narrow it down much). –  Ichoran Mar 20 '13 at 8:44
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My build for Gandulf Stormcrow is as follows:

  • Wizard 1
  • Druid 3
  • Divine Oracle 8
  • Lore Master 6
  • Eldritch Knight 2

He is a 9th level wizard, 7th level druid with a CR 21. His animal companion is a white light horse named Shadowfax.

I gave him the template of an Outsider for dark vision and martial weapon proficiency. Otherwise, he just looks like a human of venerable age.

His items are as follows:

  • Ring of sustenance
  • Ring of protection +4
  • Amulet of natural armor +4
  • Cloak of resistance +5
  • Head band of intellect +6
  • Boots of speed
  • Bracers of armor +8
  • Belt of Giants strength +6
  • The Robes of useful items
  • Glamdring Foe-Hammer (legacy weapon)
  • His wizard staff

For his wizard staff, I used the Dragon Magazine wizard staff that levels with the caster like a familiar.

With this build he was able to go toe to toe with a Balor and kill it, but just barely. He can perform any feats seen in the movies and written in the books.

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Thank you Jonathan Hobbs I am horrible at displaying text on any format professionally. –  Pro756 May 10 '13 at 2:45
You're welcome. :) Also if you say @JonathanHobbs I'll get a notification about your reply. –  Jonathan Hobbs May 10 '13 at 5:45
@Pro756 Awesome build! I've yet to build the character due to unwilling players that won't DM. But I will be certain to reference this post when I eventually do! –  Jonn_Underwood May 11 '13 at 12:58
I like how the staff levels with the character. –  Jonn_Underwood May 11 '13 at 13:00
@Jonn_Underwood I have full builds of each of the fellowship and just so you know if you want to make Gandulf the White with this build all you do is when he defeats the Balor give him +8 more levels in Eldritch Knight. –  Pro756 May 20 '13 at 5:00
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