Swords and Sorcerery (but all about the Sorcerery)

One of the trickiest things (in my opinion, at least) that D&D tries to balance is the relative power of magic vs. martial classes.  Magic is meant to be impressive, powerful, and swing the tides of battle.  But if the wizards and sorcerers can cast their biggest spells all day long, all the time, then what glory is left for the fighters and rogues and their other martial friends?

(the following is a bit of a train-of-thought working through some mechanics and balance, feel free to skip down to the class table

To preserve balance, there have been different approaches:  Magic users "forgetting" their spells after casting them, slower leveling progression, etc.  Warlocks can use many of their spells without limitation, though they are of lower power than wizard or sorcerer of equal level could cast.

But most magic users of fiction, be they like Gandalf, or Harry Potter, or from somewhere else, rarely work that way.  They can use magic (within their knowledge) almost without limit.  Some fictions might have magic that has a fleeting drain or exhaustion that becomes apparent as the caster reaches their limit, but usually that's about it.  Can we do the same thing in D&D?

Psionic classes in the current and past few versions of D&D (and some sorcerer variants) have used power points as a replacement for spell slots, which gives some additional versatility, but generally has relied on a once-per-day or long rest reset.  If power points refreshed more quickly, can we get some semblance of balance?

Let's start with the spell's cost.  If we make cantrips cost 1 power point (pp), then we can let everything else costs 2pp for each level of the spell (so a 3rd-level fireball would be 6pp).  Now, just looking at cantrips, then, if the caster regenerates 1pp per turn, we've got our status quo -- the caster can cast cantrips every turn, all day long.

If we stick with the 1pp/turn regeneration rate, let's look at how big the caster's power point pool should be.  It needs to be large enough that they can caster their highest level spell, but we want it smaller than, say, what a psion gets since it will regenerate much faster.  It probably needs to be a bit bigger than the cost of the highest spell, but only by a little bit.  Caster level plus one or two or three or ability bonus might be good.  Let's say it's caster level plus three, which is probably the same as caster level plus ability bonus for most low-level characters.

A first level caster would have 4pp.  And that the 1pp regen happens at the start of the turn, and only if the caster is below their full pool amount,  They could cast a three first level spells (assuming 1 per turn), and then be stuck with cantrips unless they went a round without casting.  Over an "adventuring day" of 6 to 8 encounters, that's a fair bit more powerful than a normal 1st level wizard or sorcerer, who could only cast 2 first level spells total.

At level 5, the caster would have 8pp.  A 3rd-level fireball would cost 6pp, and then the caster would have 2 rounds of 1st-level spells, and then be down to cantrips.  But the caster could have some more interesting choices to make: Maybe they plan on using 2nd level spells for the first two rounds of the battle, instead, or just use a cantrip the first round or two before deciding to use a 3rd or 2nd level spell.  This is getting closer to being in line with a regular caster's 9 1st-or-higher spells per day, but still likely above the average.

From the GM's point of view, this is quick-regen style caster class actually makes magic users little less of a wild card.  Regular casters can choose to blow through all their highest available spells at once, making the current encounter trivial but making a possible later encounter that much harder.  While that can be an interesting decision, it is often one that is made without meaningful information, as rarely do the characters have knowledge of exactly how many encounters they might face before having a chance to rest.  With a quick-regen power point pool, the caster will have their top spells available every encounter, but with a limit on casting too many of their high level spells in succession.

If your game contains both sections of single encounters separated by days of rest, as well as dungeon-crawls filled with many back-to-back battles, then I think you would see casters being on a much more even keel compared to martial types.

That said, what we've got now means that a 5th-level caster could still cast a fireball a minimum of once every encounter.  If 6 to 8 is the expected number of encounters in a day, that's way above the 2 times a regular wizard could do it.

Let's lower the pool threshold.  If we make the pool cap the caster level then the caster can't ever cast their highest level spells.  The could, then, have a once-per short rest ability that gives them a few extra power points and raises their pool cap temporarily (alternatively, it could reduce the cost of casting a spell, same difference).  With an average 2 short rests per day (plus the initial rest going into that day), the caster could now hit their max-level spell just 3 times a day.  This is getting closer to what we want.  Our level 6 caster, though, can still cast fireball every encounter, so let's tweak a few more numbers.

We want the highest level available spells to be only available with a 'boost" ability.  If we stick with the double-the-spell's level for the power point cost, then we want a 1pp limit at levels 1, and it being 1 less than caster level beyond first level.  The boost ability can give 2 or more power points (and is allowed to exceed the regular power point cap), so only when the boost is triggered will the caster get their highest level spells.

So, we've got a caster class that can use their highest available level of spell once each rest.  They'd be able to use spells below their highest level more often, but unless a fight runs long and the caster take rounds out to not cast anything, they caster will still be limited to a few of those bigger spells.

One drawback is that by giving cantrips a cost, a caster needs to not use them to rebuild their power point pool.  One of the design goals of 5e's cantrips was that caster could use them for reliable, stylistically-appropriate damage (instead of the situation where the magic user spends a lot of their time shooting a crossbow).  We could drop cantrips to having 0 cost.  A caster, once low on power points, would be able to then effectively alternate between casting cantrips and 1st-level spells, or stick to cantrips for a few rounds if they wanted to rebuild their pool.

One last consideration is out-of-combat spells.  If you feel that they need to be limited, you could assign certain spells a drain that reduces the power point pool cap by a point or two until a long rest is completed.  This would stop them from being able to be cast too many times a day.

Here's our final (for now) version:

Class levelPower pointsMaximum spell level

Spell levelPower points

Spell casting: You can cast a spell up to the maximum level listed, by paying the power points for it out of your pool.  If your start your turn below your pool's maximum, you regenerate 1 point.
Boost: You can cast a spell spending 2 power points less than you normally would.  This ability resests on a short or long rest.

Some other fun features might include stuff like reducing the cost of spells of a certain school by a point, or the caster being able to increase their regen rate occasionally.

I'll think about some more features, and hopefully try to playtest this a bit, it should be a class that better captures the feel of fictional magic users, but doesn't overshadow other classes (at least in theory).


Rest break

I'm not a huge fan of D&D 5e's rest mechanics.  Let's look at the why it's there, what it does, and some possible tweaks.

Why Rest?

Rests are part of the game balance.  Some characters have features that recharge on short rests, others on long rests.  Features that reset on rests are generally pretty powerful, so giving them more limited uses keeps the overall power of a class in more in line with those classes that that don't rely on those powers.  Long rest features are usually more powerful than short rest features.  These limited use features are "burst" abilities -- extra damage or healing or actions above what could be done normally.

In addition to the class (and some racial) features, rests also have universal effects like spending or regaining hit dice and health , removing exhaustion, etc.

On the player side, it helps stop certain characters from constantly overshadowing others -- a wizard that can cast their highest-level spells, every round, all day, would be pretty over-powered.  The choice of when to use these limited resources should be a fun and interesting decision-point for the player as well -- do they burn a big ability now, or save it for a more dire situation?

On the GM's side, the limited-use abilities are built into encounter creature and encounter balancing.  The DMG assumes an "adventuring day" is roughly 2-3 encounters, a short rest, 2-3 encounters, a short rest, 2-3 encounters, and finally a long rest.  More or less rests are going to decrease or increase the relative encounter difficulty, so you'll need to tweak the target encounter difficulty or adjust the effective creature CR.

Breaking Bad

Players are going to want to rest as often as possible.  Unless there is a reason that the characters shouldn't rest, it makes sense for them to short rest after every encounter, and do as few encounters between long rests as they can.  The GM can add limitations so that rests are limited, for example:
  • time-sensitive goal
  • rest interruptions, such as random encounters
  • escalating threat
  • limit on number or frequency of short rests (long rests are by default limited to once per 24 hours)
While some of these fit well into certain scenarios, they can easily not apply very well, and coming up with limitations on rests becomes a meta-game for the sole purpose of limiting what is often a mechanically-driven choice.

That's not to say that rests can't be a good part of role-playing or be story-driven (indeed, the party's conversation around the campfire can lead to awesome interactions and exposition), but the players' desire to trigger a rest is usually based on the idea mechanically regaining resources, and rarely for other reasons.

If there is a risk or cost (like random encounters, or the foes' power escalating), then it might seem like an interesting decision point, but are they?  Random encounters are usually just filler, extra work for the GM, and not usually advancing the progression of the party through whatever story they are exploring).  Escalating opponents fails to be fulfilling since it is a delayed (and hard to be viewed as causal), as it is not that rewarding to turn a tough fight into a TPK just because the party took a short rest several earlier in the session.

Once the party has access to rope trick or tiny hut or the like, it can be harder to control how often the party can rest.

If the party is resting too often, combats become too easy.  Sure, as the GM you can up the difficulty but that often means just making battles run longer, not to mention that you are effectively overriding the choices the characters make.

The DMG offers a few variant rules, namely increasing or decreasing the time needed for a short or long rest.  Increasing the duration of a short rest to 8 hours (and only once every 24 hours) puts a pretty hard cap on how often they can do it, but that also has a pretty significant impact on the feel of the game to be more gritty and less high-fantasy.  On the flip side you can shorten rests, but that makes them almost too easy to take.

You can use wave-based battles (essentially fighting two or three encounters back-to-back), but then you can have an "adventuring day" that is essentially:  Fight for a minute or two, rest an hour, fight for a minute or two, rest an hour, fight for a minute or two, wait 15-16 hours doing nothing, sleep.  Hardly heroic.


How can we fix rests, then, or at least, what are some alternatives?

Can we just get rid of them? If we get rid of short rests, and just let short-rest abilities recharge when, say, you've been out of combat for x minutes, it's probably not too balance-breaking.  If the interval is too long, it can lead to more meta-game behaviour (like long waits between leaving a room just to hit the interval), so I'd be inclined to make it just a like 1 minute or 5 minutes of not running and nobody trying to kill you.  It does give a bit of a boon to classes that get short-rest recharges, though, as they will likely get them way more often.

If we wanted to keep everything in line with the suggested 6-8 encounters per day and 2 short rests, then we could just add a 2-rest limit:  So characters can take a short rest after they've been out of combat for 1 or 5 minutes, but they can only do at most twice a day.  It adds another thing to track, but other wise preserves the intended balance.  It still doesn't stop the players for pushing for a long rest, though.

Another method might be to just to tie rest effects to XP gains.  If you divide the XP required to level by 12, and trigger a short rest every 2 increments and a long rest every 6.  It's a fair bit more work to track, though, and will get crazy if you have characters at different levels.

What if we combine the ideas and go just by level and not XP?  So when a character levels, they get two long rests tokens (or points or whatever you want to call them), and 4 short rest tokens.  They can cash them in any time they are out of combat for 1 or 5 minutes or whatever.  This gives players the interesting choice of when they can use them, but still puts hard cap on how often they get used.  Optionally, the GM could then reward extra for certain in game events, or force them to be spent (like force a long rest to be spent when a series of encounters is over at what is clearly the end of a day).  I'm not sure if taking the choice out of the players hands that would would be too frustrating for the players or not.  Another alternative would be to give to tokens to the party as a whole, and they'd have to come to some consensus as when to use them.

I haven't tried this idea yet, but will run it by my players to see if they want to give it a go.