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After reading this answer, I was once again struck by the fact that a Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 spellcaster, no matter his level, is unable to overcome the limits imposed by his ability scores.

Like most classes that cast spells, the paladin, for example, has this sentence in its description of the class feature spells:

To prepare or cast a spell, a paladin must have a Wisdom score equal to at least 10 + the spell level.

Thus a paladin, no matter his level, is unable to cast spells if his Wisdom score is 10 or less. He can be a level 20 paladin, commander the holy and orderly hordes, lauded by all good and organized folk, feared by evil and chaotic creatures throughout the planes, his god's bloody right hand of vengeance and wrath, yet, because his Wisdom is only 10, he can't cast spells.

  1. How can a DM explain this limit to a player when the player wants his character to be able to cast spells, but the player is, for example, either unconcerned with his character's bonus spells and saving throw DCs or more concerned with an accurate statistical picture of his character than the mechanical benefits a different picture would yield?

    For example, how does the DM explain in a narrative fashion that a character must have a high Intelligence score to realize fully the wizard's spellcasting so his concept of an addled, not-so-bright but patient and persistent wizard is invalid? Likewise, that a character must have a high Wisdom score to realize fully the cleric's spellcasting so his concept of an oblivious, judgment-impaired but dedicated and devout cleric is also invalid?

  2. Mechanically, why does this restriction exist? That is, are there technical reasons to tie a character's maximum spell level to his ability score directly rather than, for example, to his class's standard spellcasting progression? I'm not looking for developer commentary (although that's great if it's available) but for game elements that make this connection necessary.

    Does, for example, a wizard need an Intelligence score of at least 10 or does a paladin need a Wisdom score of at least 11 for anything else besides satisfying that one line in the description of the class's spells class feature? Does the game for some reason descend into anarchy if, for example, a Wiz17 with an Intelligence score of 6 can cast 9th-level wizard spells or a Pal15 with a Wisdom score of 3 can cast 4th-level paladin spells?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Is 1 actually a problem? Is there anything from preventing you from roleplaying a high intelligence wizard as not-so-bright, but patient and persistent? It is no different from roleplaying your fireball as a green ball of hellflame, the numbers are a gameplay balance thing, not something that forces you to roleplay a certain way. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jun 12 '15 at 12:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik That's a worthwhile frame challenge, but I think I can safely say that most would feel role-playing an Int 18 wizard as a patient, persistent nincompoop goes beyond merely reskinning, likewise an Int 3 barbarian as a short-sighted, uneducated genius. I agree that the player can redefine, to a degree, what his character's ability scores mean, but that's still gotta pass the smell test. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 12 '15 at 13:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik Are you getting at the "book smart, life stupid" distinction (used to explain high Int plus low Wis), and the "life smart, book stupid" inverse? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 12 '15 at 17:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Jason_c_o There are many ways the unwise—much less those who cannot cast spells—can become lauded and powerful. I need but point at Hollywood and Washington, DC, for nearly limitless examples. :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 14 '15 at 2:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PurpleVermont While I agree, that's beyond this question's scope. (If you must, assume—perhaps because the player wants his character's statistics to match his vision of the character—that the player chooses not to avail himself of those methods.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 14 '15 at 2:05
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The History

This actually goes all the way back to the first OD&D supplement, Greyhawk. The maximum spell level a Magic-User could cast was now limited by his Intelligence. Although interestingly, Clerics were explicitly not limited by Wisdom. The justification was that, unlike Magic-Users, a Cleric's spells were divine gifts, not based upon their skill. Intelligence also limited how many spells the Magic-User had.

Speculating, this was probably partly simulationist and partly for mechanical reasons. Arcane magical ability is tied intelligence, both lore-wise and in the the Magic-User's prime requisite was Intelligence. High level spells are more complex (the spell level system is a direct mapping from Chainmail's complexity system) so there's logic to a smart Magic-User being able to handle more complex spells than an average one.

Your Ability Scores had little mechanical impact in OD&D, primarily a bonus to experience gain. Greyhawk began increasing the existing, minor bonuses and penalties and adding new ones. Intelligence affecting Magic-Users spells was part of this increasing affects from Ability Scores. And only Magic-Users with an Intelligence below 11 were actually losing anything compared to the core game, because the 7-9 level spells were added with Greyhawk, and did not exist before ability limits.

This Ability Score limit spread to Clerics with AD&D. High level spells required a certain Wisdom and a low Wisdom could cause spell failure. You may have noticed that Ability Scores were only limiting the casting of high level spells. As KRyan touched on, this is because of Prime Requisites / Ability Score requirements. RAW, you couldn't even play a caster with a below average Ability Score in their Prime Requisite.

The Implications

So there's the historical precedent, which explains where it comes from. Was there any other reason to carry it forward, beyond tradition? It makes your Ability Score have a greater effect on your casting. The fact that spell strength is often not based on your Ability Score seems like it could be unbalancing to ignore the Ability Score requirement. I doubt it would be that bad, but I'd ask a optimization expert about it.

I personally don't have a problem with the idea that magic is too complicated for the average (Ability Score 10) person to grasp, and the smarter/wiser you are the more complicated spells you can comprehend and harness. It seems intuitive me, but if it doesn't to you and your players, I say house-rule away.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1. Incidentally, this answers the OP's question about why the ability score requirement for casting spells limits character concepts: Because D&D defines spell casters not only by what magic they can accomplish, but also by the means they accomplish it, including the specific mental faculties they use. In D&D, a wizard can't be unintelligent, because in D&D wizardry is magic performed via intelligence. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Jun 12 '15 at 1:09
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How can a DM explain this limit to a player when the player wants his character to be able to cast spells, but the player is, for example, either unconcerned with his character's bonus spells and saving throw DCs or more concerned with an accurate statistical picture of his character than the mechanical benefits a different picture would yield?

Most people who are new to Dungeons and Dragons (or Pen & Paper Tabletop RPGs in general) most likely get their first exposure to D&D through any one of the many licensed D&D video games. This was certainly the case for me; my first exposure to D&D was via Baldur's Gate. Today's generation on the other hand probably first got a taste of D&D as part of the Neverwinter Nights series. The latter game is also where I truly learned the value of point-buy, and how it helps you design the character you truly want to play. I learned that given the right race/class combination and point-buy value, literally any character concept you can imagine is possible, and even easy to construct. I'm going to use the Paladin example for most of this answer, but this applies equally well to all classes and archetypes - the Paladin is designed to be MAD (multiple ability dependent) because his spellcasting maxes out at 4th-level spells. I'll expand on this momentarily.

Case in point, creating an accurate statistical picture of your character while maintaining other benefits isn't difficult. There was absolutely nothing stopping the Paladin mentioned in that other question from having high STR/CON and still being able to cast spells.

Here's the proof. First, remember that a score of 10 is the average human score for each ability. This means that a score of 16 is typically reserved for the most stalwart heroes, and 18-20 is beginning to approach demigod status. With a 32 point-buy, which is the default in Neverwinter Nights and a good place to start with new players, you can easily get STR/CON both to 16, WIS to 14, and every other score to 10 (this is also before racial bonuses, so in reality a Dwarven Paladin would be even better off). A Paladin needs a 14 WIS score to cast his most powerful spells (10 + Spell Level, with max Spell Level being 4). So really, the idea that you can't create the character you want and simultaneously adhere to the restrictions built into the game system is a false dichotomy and a non-issue, plain and simple.

Mechanically, why does this restriction exist? That is, are there technical reasons to tie a character's maximum spell level to his ability score directly rather than, for example, to his class's standard spellcasting progression? I'm not looking for developer commentary (although that's great if it's available) but for game elements that make this connection necessary.

As for explaining this to a player both narratively and mechanically, think about this. The Paladin is the paragon of virtue and morality. He faces evil every day. Evil can be quite tempting, and evil forces (the smart ones, anyway) often operate via subtle manipulation as opposed to simple direct destruction. In this game system, a character's ability to resist mental manipulation is governed by the WIS ability score. Do you think a good deity would bestow magic powers on someone who is easily manipulated by evil? Does that make sense? Of course not. Let's switch gears and talk about the Wizard so I'm not overly pinning my argument on the Paladin. Wizards learn their magic from scrolls, other Wizard's spell books, other arcane sources such as ancient manuscripts. A character's ability to read, write, and understand language is mechanically tied to a characters INT score. Is it plausible for a Wizard with 12 INT (which is only slightly above average!) to be able to decipher the arcane runes and ancient dead languages in a book containing the 9th-level Shapechange spell? Of course not. Spellcasting is a mental exercise. So, it shouldn't be surprising nor unreasonable for characters with horrible or even average mental stats to not be good at casting spells. A D&D character cannot realistically be good at everything, but they also shouldn't need to be. No PC is an island.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I really like the analogies used here. The only thing I could offer, regarding wizards, are that it generally takes 1 page per spell level in a spellbook. So, for a level 20 Wizard, memorizing 4 9th level spells, he would be memorizing 36 pages worth of complex arcane runes and ritual. That reinforces your mentioning of "can we expect a person with an average intellect" logic. Great Answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Jun 13 '15 at 3:35
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Sometimes, no matter how hard someone tries, they simply will never understand calculus. I'd wager 9th level spells are a heck of a lot harder than calc. So, I find the requirement to be entirely realistic.

Mechanically, I'd guess it prevents minmaxing. Plenty of spells don't need Intelligence to be absurdly powerful, so theoretically NOT having that limit could mean wizards with 10 INT and 20-something CON by level 20, which is ridiculous.

To further elaborate on my first point and more directly answer the question, "Trying really hard" will only get someone so far. Level 20 characters are essentially demi-gods, which means their feats are far beyond what most normal people even think possible. Since a 19 INT is beyond what is possible for most races at level 1, it's safe to say that the concepts even surrounding level nine spells are simply beyond comprehension. It works in the same direction for the other ability scores. Physically, I will never be capable of what Lebron James is capable of, and he's not even level 20.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but you still mechanically gain levels in the wizard class, implying you were accepted in the academy anyway and somehow became a Demi God in power by not knowing anything and practically taking levels in commoner, except you're a WIZARD it's alright fairly obvious that spell level is connected to understanding for wizards, but the point of the question is to find an answer with the least choices a player can take that make no sense whatsoever (i.e. Take levels in wizard while being dumb) \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Jun 15 '15 at 14:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ My comments are all over the place - I only noticed 1 day later that I think my last comment should be in PurpleVermont's answer \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Jun 16 '15 at 7:03
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I find that the best way to expound upon this arbitrary ability score requirement is to think about it in the terms of the game as the designers looked at it.

For example, A clerics power is based upon their wisdom score, which is a numerical representation of how perceptive, and how willful that Cleric happens to be. Since a Clerics spells are based around their connection to their god, their faith in their deity, and their perception of their Deity's power, having a higher score and a greater connection with their god allows them to draw more power from their deity.

The same is true for Paladins, their willfulness to believe in their deity is the tool they use to draw power from that deity to give them the power to cast their spells. A paladin with a low Wisdom score doesn't have the perception or the will to draw power from their deity and shape it into spells. A low Wisdom paladin doesn't have enough of a connection with their Deity to utilize spells, and when compared to a higher level paladin with a higher wisdom score would be less devout.

There's a different reason for Wizards, but I'm sure that you can figure it out with a little thought. A wizards magic is based on many many years of practice, dedication, and study to the magical arts. An intelligence score reflects both a wizards dedication to their study and a knowledge of spellcasting in general. Higher level spells grow more and more complicated the higher the spell level, and wizards with lower intelligence scores simply lack the mental means to understand and cast those spells, even if they may have the power to do so.

That doesn't necessarily mean that a wizard with a low intelligence is useless, for example you could have an NPC wizard with 14 intelligence at level 11 that has the ability to cast up to fourth level spells, but that just means that wizard while he doesn't understand the complications when it comes to fifth level spells it does mean that he has a larger reservoir of power with which to cast the spells that he does comprehend, preparing the fourth level spells in his fifth and sixth level spell slots until he expands upon his studies.

For Sorcerers and Bards their spells are linked to their Charisma, which means their spells are powered by the force of their own personality and their sense of self. A bard without enough Charisma isn't enthusiastic enough about his personage to utilize the confidence necessary to use higher level Bard spells, just like the Sorcerer isnt able to utilize the power of his magical bloodline if he isn't forceful enough in bringing that part of his personality to light. Your bloodline essentially isn't thick enough in order for you to gain the amazing spellcasting ability of your ancestors.

To explain it to your PCs just tell them that their connection to their deity or their dedication to their studies or the force of their personality just isn't close enough to utilize spells of the level they're missing.

Mechanically, If every person with 10 intelligence was capable of casting 9th level spells then the world would collapse into chaos because everyone would be altering reality with wish spells, utilizing magic to get everything done, drawing on untold amounts of divine power to lay waste to their enemies, etc. A score of 10 means that a character is "average" in that stat. If every average person could cast spells the world would be ridiculous, thus, the limit was created so that only those wise enough, intelligent enough, or charismatic enough could utilize magical power of the highest order.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, everyone with a high enough experience level to cast wish would be altering reality with wish spells. The number of folks who reach such experience levels--were the DM to continue to abide by as-is 3.5 demographic--is really small. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 15 '15 at 9:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Experience and skills necessary to do something are two completely unrelated things. You can have tons of work experience but still not understand the more complicated workings of your job. Classes are the same. Experience is given when a character performs a task that causes them to grow as a person or kills monsters. As you gain in level your knowledge grows ( 4 levels = 1 bonus ) but there are still those who gain experience at a rate not in line with their own capabilities, or someone who pursues a career even though they may not have the aptitude, thus, the limit on primary abilities. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Jun 15 '15 at 11:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ While that's an interesting rationale, I'm not sure how that addresses the issue of demographics mandating rare high-level casters. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 15 '15 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps something like an inept mage named fumbles that manages to screw up every spell he's cast, but still manages to come out on top. He certainly wouldn't be able to cast high level spells, would be a high level, and would likely use his higher level spots to cast the spells that he CAN understand. \$\endgroup\$ – Sandwich Jun 15 '15 at 16:22
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How can a DM explain this limit to a player

how does the DM explain in a narrative fashion that a character must have a high Intelligence score to realize fully the wizard's spellcasting so his concept of an addled, not-so-bright but patient and persistent wizard is invalid?

Wizard spellcasting is based on book learning and memorization. A character may lack the basic minimum intelligence needed to do that. It's not hard to think of real-world examples of things a person may just not be smart enough to ever master, no matter how persistent they may be. A wizard academy would never accept them, nor would a wizard be likely to agree to take them as an apprentice.

Likewise, that a character must have a high Wisdom score to realize fully the cleric's spellcasting so his concept of an oblivious, judgment-impaired but dedicated and devout cleric is also invalid?

Perhaps the gods only grant spells to those they believe to be wise enough to use them "wisely".

Mechanically, why does this restriction exist?

Game balance. A player must make choices about the character's strong and weak ability scores, and weak scores have consequences.

Does it break the game if I remove the restriction?

No, but it will likely unbalance the classes.

Does the game for some reason descend into anarchy if, for example, a Wiz17 with an Intelligence score of 6 can cast 9th-level wizard spells or a Pal15 with a Wisdom score of 3 can cast 4th-level paladin spells?

Of course not. If you want to house-rule it in this fashion, feel free. But keep in mind that you may be overpowering casters relative to other classes by allowing them a class feature without the cost the developers built in for some semblance of balance.

Also keep in mind that a 9th level spell takes 9 pages of a spell book to write down. It's a complicated recipe for something that takes less than 6 seconds to do. But D&D doesn't present this as something that the wizard can practice for a long time and then remember at will how to do. Each morning that he wants to be able to cast the spell, he must spend time re-studying it in order to prepare to be able to cast it that day. Is it realistic to imagine that an Int 6 character (such a character would be developmentally delayed, not just a bit "addled") could, each morning, read and mentally prepare himself to use multiple such long and convoluted "recipes"? If you want to house-rule it, I think you need to basically consider the character somewhat of an "idiot savant" who some obscure strong mental skills (such as spell preparation in this case) relative to their apparent everyday intelligence.

For a Wis 3 (yikes!) Paladin I think I'd have to imagine a foolish or trickster god who thinks it would be fun to have a fool running around casting spells (perhaps often in the wrong time and place) in his/her name.

These ideas open some interesting roleplay opportunities, but be careful about the mechanics of allowing a player to use a class feature without paying a cost (in this case, without prioritizing the appropriate ability score).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm going to have to downvote this based on a game not descending in anarchy from handwaving the minimum stats to cast away, as you're basically just telling casters to go ahead and build like a fighter, because they can still cast anyway. Casters already overshadow all other classes to the extreme, allowing them another dump stat is going to make things ridonculous©. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jun 12 '15 at 12:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Theik - your choice. I did say they would likely unbalance the characters. That is different that the game "descending into anarchy" IMO. \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleVermont Jun 12 '15 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ 3.5 changed older editions' spell memorization to one spell preparation (I assume to eliminate all of the wiped-from-the-caster's-mind baggage that used to accompany the former), so while 9 pages of text might be a lot to memorize, a careful and patient nincompoop might be able to master a 9-page recipe, especially after having spent (presumably a lot of) his off-screen time perfecting it (i.e. adding the spell to his spellbook automatically upon advancing level--the easiest way a wizard can gain access to 9th-level spells). I didn't downvote, but that rationale might need tuning. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 15 '15 at 0:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point. Probably because I grew up in 1e, I think of spell preparation as a very mental/intellectual process. \$\endgroup\$ – PurpleVermont Jun 15 '15 at 3:40
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Fluff

  • An Int caster has to understand the process of casting a spell to do so.
  • A divine (Wis) caster has to be wise enough to be granted a spell by his deity.
  • A Cha caster needs a strong intuition to be able to intuitively cast his spells.

(Don't get me started on psionics. They need a lot more brainwork to understand.)

Crunch

The high casting score is a balancing mechanic that adds flexibility to the game. While some classes allow you to be both a combatant and a spellcaster, they need to balance it in a way that you can't be very good at both. That way, if you chose to have high fighting attributes (such as Str and Con) you will have poor spellcasting skills and vice versa.

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There's no right answer short of an official comment by a designer, so instead I'll say this: if it's not powerful, and you want it, the DM better house rule it.

You can always change the caster stat through house ruling, in general will saves are better than diplomacy check bonuses (or flat out is beaten by skill points you can use on diplomacy) and hp trumps most of the other stats. If you and your DM can work out a ranking from most powerful to least powerful stat in general for casters, you can make a home brew system that changes your casting stat to one of a lower rank.

E.g. You want a wizard who's a weight lifter who uses extremely heavy spell components with magic already inside them to cast spells. A wizard (or sorcerer!) with 1d4 or 1d6 hit dice will very rarely use a melee weapon, so strength is inherently less useful than intelligence, which gives skill points. With Charisma, it depends on whether the sorcerer is the party face or not.

It also helps keep any rare and hard to role play CON casters away.

On a just-barely related note, what if a guy made a commoner human who started at 8 int and immediately got 20 int at level 18, actually taking wizard levels but being indistinguishable from other commoners? How would that be role played?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The question isn't about switching casting statistics, but disassociating the spell level limit from the casting statistic (i.e. letting an Int 10 Wiz17 cast 1 9th-level spell per day but having low save DCs and no bonus spells). \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 15 '15 at 15:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Yes, and I addressed the question and answered by saying it's not a question that's easily answered, then presented an alternative which is directed to the practical intent (rather than the theory crafting intent that other people may prefer) of the question, which is to have a judgement impaired cleric or not-so-bright wizard. \$\endgroup\$ – Teco Jun 16 '15 at 6:57
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1) To put this in more specific terms:

INT requirements make sense as explained in @Shollus's answer. They become so complex and difficult that simple persistence will never be enough just like in Calculus, not everyone has the capability to understand it.

WIS requirements is a little less straight forward. Think about WIS as your devotion to your chosen diety/religion and your ability to understand their tenants. A low WIS Paladin has very little concept about his religion or cares very little about his diety. He's probably just forced into being a Paladin because of his family and not really devoted to his diety. How well do you think the chosen diety will be about giving them spells? They are essentially just a glorified warrior at that point who is 'technically' representing their diety in action and not so much in thought.

Most requirements have a pretty good loretype way to validate them if you think about what the specific stat really means rather than it just being a number on your paper.

2) Mostly because they are a stat that the game says are important for them. They don't want to give out all of these benefits to stats that are supposed to be important for the class but can then just in turn dump.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ 5 downvotes but no explanation? \$\endgroup\$ – dphil Jun 12 '15 at 14:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ Though I am not one of the down-voters, I would guess that it is the result of (A) your answer is overly dependent on Shollus' answer, and (B) the rest of it is speculation that isn't backed up with anything. \$\endgroup\$ – Dyndrilliac Jun 12 '15 at 15:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Dyndrilliac A) It isn't really dependent on his answer. I just thought he gave a good example. B) I suppose that is true, but by his question it seemed to be more asking for fluff in part 1. I honestly have a hard time seeing what my answer lacks that others have besides extra words unless bringing up other games suddenly makes an answer more relevant. \$\endgroup\$ – dphil Jun 12 '15 at 15:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I downvoted this for the same reasons I downvoted Shollus’s answer: popular intuition for how intelligence works just don’t hold up under scrutiny, so calling it “realistic” is false. It’s not. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jun 14 '15 at 1:11

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