This article has nothing to do with Gandalf, The Lord of the Rings, or Final Fantasy. If that’s what you were hoping for, sorry to disappoint, and good day!
What this article is concerned with is D&D’s persistent ‘Wizards Shall Not Heal!’ quirk, and why advocates of the ‘white wizard’ concept ignore it. Mind you, ‘white wizard’ isn’t a particular character or class — it’s a placeholder term for a larger idea. It’s the concept of a D&D game world in which wizards, as well as other spell-centric classes, have the potential to learn any spell. Wizards (aka mages) have existed in every iteration of D&D to date, and have always been conspicuously denied healing spells for the most part, so the ‘white wizard’ has become the poster-boy of this larger idea.
Before I begin I get into the meat of the article, I’m going to drop a little factoid to avoid potential confusion — white wizard advocates place little value in game tradition, such as it is. The term ‘tradition’ is overly generous, given D&D’s relatively short existence and few iterations, but I use it for the sake of simplicity.
We’re forever thankful that Gary and Dave invented this amazing hobby, but we don’t especially care how they ran their campaigns, or what they might think about how we play ours. We’re not concerned with ‘how things are,’ because playing a game like D&D is a means to an end — having fun! And holding up game tradition as a self-justifying end unto itself is not fun for us. And if that only hints at the answers you may be looking for, here are the answers to some common questions:
So really, why should spell-centric classes have access to every spell? Magic is these class’ shtick; it’s all they do. Wizards in particular are the quintessential masters of magic, and magic is literally imagination made real within the game world. D&D magic is certainly capable of most anything, up to and including — in certain campaign settings — time travel and the ascension to godhood. Hence, whatever can be done with magic within a given campaign setting should be achievable by spell-centric classes.
Isn’t it easy enough to explain quirks like why wizards can’t heal with a little creativity? Yes, and it’d be just as easy to completely restrict clerics from casting damaging spells, and then explain why. But creativity is beside the point; the point is that such arbitrary restrictions aren’t fun.
Won’t giving these classes access to all spells make them [even more] overpowered? Yes, in the same way that pouring a glass of water into the ocean makes the ocean more wet. Spell-centric classes already have access to the best spells in the game, so getting access to the rest adds nothing meaningful to their potential; just flavor!
Speaking of which, don’t these classes have better things to do than say, heal? If they want to win battles, yes. But then, most spell-centric characters do more than just fight. There’s a cornucopia of spells that are useless in battle and in most other pursuits — detect poison, dancing lights, alarm, endure elements, mage hand, tenser’s floating disk, hold portal, ventriloquism, erase, jump, and animate rope, to name just a few low-level examples.
And besides, what are the chances that no wizard in the D&D universe has ever gotten burned by one of his alchemical acids and thought “Gee, it’d be nice to be able to heal this myself…I know, I’ll invent the spell for it!”?
The Dungeon Master’s Guide says that spell casters can research spells, so for example, can’t a wizard for just learn healing spells via research? No.
During an example about expanding the school of necromancy, the 2e AD&D DMG specifically advises DMs against adding healing spells to the school, even after admitting that doing so is a an obvious means to expand the school. (Page 43.) In advising DMs on what sort of spells to allow PCs to research, the text again specifically cites healing spells as a contradiction of the mage’s style, and therefore as something not to be tolerated. (Page 43.)
The 3.5 DMG specifically advises DMs against creating sorcerer/wizard healing spells. (Page 35.) Later on, it advises DMs about players who want their characters to research original spells — if a DM chooses to allow spell research to begin with. Part of that advice is “Spell ideas that you deem non-viable simply fail in the final research step, no matter how well the player rolls or how much time and money goes into the research” and “Don’t tell a player whether his spell idea is viable until after his character has spent time and money on his research.” (Page 198.)
With advice like this, it’s no wonder that few players take a chance on researching unoriginal spells which are conspicuously absent from their spell list!
The 4e DMG doesn’t contain any guidelines about spell or power research…but at least it doesn’t advise DMs that wizards should never heal.
Isn’t the ‘Wizards shall not heal!’ tradition, and other spell restrictions, part of D&D’s distinct identity? Again, calling this oddity a tradition is overly generous.
But to play the devil’s advocate and grant these quirks the honor of ‘tradition,’…traditions can and do change for the better! D&D’s past is littered with things like racial level caps, varying XP tables, race-as-class, to-hit charts, thac0, and weird ability score charts that gamers at one point called ‘part of the game’s distinct identity.’ And some of them still do! And yet here we are, happily enjoying a descendent of those games*, despite the lack of all that so-called distinct identity.
*Unless of course you’re still playing the OD&D.
What’s the point of other caster classes if spell-centric classes can cast any spell? Classes that don’t fall under the ‘spell-centric class’ umbrella always have class features to make up for their limited spell access. For example, clerics can turn undead, prepare any spell from their spell list, cast cure or inflict spells spontaneously (3.x), and at the very least hold their own in combat.
Again, magic is what spell-centric characters do, and giving them access to all spells doesn’t make or break any class.
So which classes are spell-centric, exactly? Spell-centric classes are those that already have access to the best spell lists in the game, with little else to recommend them. They tend to be conceptually broad, able to fill many niches depending on spell selection. In the 2e milieu of my youth, this means: mages, bards, and psionists. Powers technically aren’t spells of course, but they’re similar in awesomeness — and many are copy-pasted from the PHB spells chapter, with minor adjustments made to fit the power-point mechanic.
In 3e, this means: sorcerers, wizards, wu jen, archivists, psions, wilders, and cloistered clerics. Good arguments might be made for other classes as well, but these are the obvious ones.
If wizards can heal, for example, isn’t it only fair that other casters get access to the wizard’s spells? There’s an argument to be made here, yes, especially with an example like the cleric of a fire deity who wants to fireball infidels. But the wizard spell list contains the best spells in the game, so giving everyone free access to it could unbalance the game in favor of classes with other notable class features.
But can’t any caster gain access to out-of-class spells via many exceptions and loopholes? Yes, they often can, which demonstrates how harmless it is to grant spell-centric classes access to all spells without jumping those hoops.
If you don’t like D&D’s rules, why don’t you play another game? This question, and the sentiment it implies, is a copout. Some gamers have a choice between D&D or nothing; and some gamers love D&D except for a few of its quirks. Not to mention the fact that most DMs stick fairly close to the RAW; even house-rule-handy DMs don’t necessarily take requests from their players. So most gamers like the RAW to back up their preferences, if only so that they might be able to enjoy their preferences in another DM’s game!
The ‘if you don’t like it here, move somewhere else’ sentiment is the debate equivalent of “Get off my lawn!” It doesn’t actually address the topic, it’s dismissive and offensive, and it reveals the speaker’s utter close-mindedness. It also ignores the fact that rules can and do change for the better.