I Hate D&D Wizards, but I Love Gandalf (a rant and a class)

You know that semi-famous reddit post where somebody goes really in-depth arguing that Gandalf is, in fact, a fighter and not a wizard? Because he fights with a staff and sword and rarely casts spells or whatever? 

People love to use that argument, and that style in general, to argue that Lord of the Rings characters (and other famous fantasy characters) are one class or another, and I think they entirely miss the point. Our classes grow from fantasy stock; the classes are based on the character tropes, not the other way around. By proving that Gandalf’s abilities suggest he’s a wizard, not a fighter, the argument being made is not that “Gandalf is a Fighter,” it’s that “D&D sucks at mechanically representing fictional characters.”

To my view, Gandalf is the most well-known and thus the most “archetypal” wizard ever. Yeah, there are characters Gandalf’s based on—Odin, the god, or Gandálfr, the dwarf Gandalf’s name is from, or Merlin, or a bunch of other mythical characters—but to a modern, 21st-century audience, when they think “wizard,” they think of Gandalf. (Yes, yes, Harry Potter’s given Gandalf a run for his money, but screw you, Joanne.)

Gandalf is the most wizardly wizard. And we all know what wizards do in D&D—they cast spells. Fireball, magic missile, detect magic, and so on. By the high levels, wizards have a whole boatload of spells, and they’re casting them constantly.

But here’s the question: how many spells does Gandalf actually cast? Over the course of the whole run of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, how many times does Gandalf actually go around and use magic? 

The answer is a little bit complicated, but generally the answer is “not very many.” 

I think it helps a little bit if you break it into “big flashy magic” and “much subtler smaller maybe-magic.”

By my reckoning, the number of times Gandalf uses big flashy magic:
  1. Blasting some Nazgûl with light and fire at Weathertop.
  2. Force-smacking Saruman at Isengard (which is of suspect canon, anyway)
  3. Shattering the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, plus whatever that white sphere was
  4. Some sword-and-lightning shenanigans to fight the Balrog
  5. Banishing Saruman from King Théoden
  6. Blasting light at the Nazgûl to save Faramir’s broken Osgiliath attack force
There might be one or two more I’m forgetting, it’s been too long since I’ve read the books, but that list is close to accurate. (Yes, there’s some bullshit in Dol Guldur in the Hobbit movies, but those movies blow, and that whole thing gets exactly zero screentime in the book.)

The point is, that’s not very much magic at all. It’s powerful when it shows up, for sure, but it’s quite rare, compared to what we traditionally expect from D&D wizards.Now, the list of things that Gandalf does that may or may not be magic, but are definitely clever and strange:
  1. Putting a rune on Bilbo’s door
  2. Imitating troll voices
  3. Lighting some pinecones on fire to throw at wolves
  4. Somehow convincing Beorn to let all the Dwarves stay in his hall
  5. Setting off some dope-ass fireworks for Hobbits
  6. Some shenanigans with light and dark to scare Bilbo
  7. Reading ancient texts deep in Minas Tirith
  8. Talking to a moth to summon a giant eagle
  9. Lighting up his staff in Moria (I say this is unclear because it’s never been evident to me if this is a thing Gandalf can do, or if it’s a perk of his staff)
  10. Seemingly knowing how to get anywhere in Middle-Earth at any given time (like, for example, that Mordor is left of Rivendell)
  11. Imitating Saruman’s voice mid-resurrection-glow
  12. Shattering some arrows fired at him, also mid-resurrection-glow
  13. Summoning Shadowfax with a super-whistle
  14. Some deep-insight stuff after Pippin looked into Palantír
These kinds of “maybe-magic” are way, way more common for Gandalf, and I’m sure I’ve missed some instances from the books. I’d also be willing to bet almost everybody has a different interpretation of whether this is magic, or just Gandalf being really clever and knowing stuff nobody else does. 

On top of this, there are myriad instances of Gandalf being wise, or clever, or insightful, or just plain knowledgeable. I won’t list them, because they go on and on and on, but read or watch essentially any scene and you’ll see what I mean. 

I say all this to show that thing that defines Gandalf—and thus, I argue, defines wizards—is not his magic, the literal spells he casts, but rather his ability to be clever and wise and knowledgeable of secrets. 

Current D&D wizards get that all wrong. Across basically all systems and editions. Wizards have been altered and mutated down to a kind of scholarly magician, under a sort of weird thematic argument that magic can be learned the same way that any other sort of education could be. Their focus isn’t on being wise or clever or sagely, it’s on managing spell slots, calculating AoE damage effects, and knowing seventeen billion spell descriptions. Some of the newer-age wizards, like the GLOG wizard, have gotten into interesting kind of “mad scientist” elements, and those are fun and good, but I think they still miss the original point. 

A few games get somewhere close, to my reckoning—the Goði, Seiðkona, and Wanderer from Sagas of the Icelanders all kind of get there, in bits and pieces, as do the Sorcerer and Scholar from Dream Apart, and Skerples’ Philosopher class for the pirate GLOG is pretty close—but for the most part, the image of the “wizard as clever-sage” is sorely lacking in games.

(How and why this happened is kind of up for debate, but I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that “being clever” is really hard to design in RPGs in a useful way. And that videogames, which D&D gives and takes lots of influence to and from, are even worse. And that most people are more interested in blowing shit up than the are in being clever and sage.)

And I think that sucks. It sucks that we’ve moved so far from the archetypal wizards, and it sucks that we don’t have a good example of a “clever wizard” to work from. And it sucks that snarky posts online breaking down 3.5 feats get thousands of upvotes and get repeated everywhere.

So, I present to you a Wizard that, I hope, fulfills the more traditional, original fantasy of playing a wizard: The OG Wizard (aka the Sage)

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