This week on Todd Talks, Todd Kenreck gathered a panel of sharp-minded D&D players: Lauren Urban, Jen Kretchmer, and Jim Davis, to talk about controversial spells in D&D. With the latest events of Heroes of the Vale fresh on their minds, the wish spell immediately became their first topic of conversation. In this week’s Spell Spotlight, let’s take a close look at the history of the wish spell, and some ways for you to adjudicate player wishes without breaking your campaign.
A History of Wishes
The wish spell has changed a lot over the ages. Some editions wildly restrict its power, some editions let the characters rewrite reality with a word. Some wishes have discrete costs, while others are more lax. Before we dig into the best ways to adjudicate wish at your table, we need to see why wish works the way it does in the current edition of D&D.
Wish first appeared in “OD&D,” in Supplement 1: Greyhawk. This version of wish was, in keeping with the style of OD&D, light on hard-coded restrictions. However, it advised the Dungeon Master (or rather, the “referee”) to be as devious and cruel as they liked with their interpretation of the player character’s wish.
[Wish alters] the past, present, or future to cause a wish to come true. The caster may wish to erase an unfortunate adventure, for instance, or may get a clue to a powerful item or great treasure. Wishes must be careful: the referee may grant a wish in such a way as to kill or handicap a character.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition
The AD&D Player’s Handbook published an updated version of the wish spell, as well as another spell known as limited wish, a 7th-level spell with more restricted effects.
A Limited Wish is a very potent but difficult spell. It will fulfill literally, but only partially or for a limited duration, the utterance of the spell caster. Thus, the actuality of the past, present or future might be altered (but possibly only for the magic-user unless the wording of the Limited Wish is most carefully stated) in some limited manner. The use of a Limited Wish will not substantially change major realities, nor will it bring wealth or experience merely by asking. The spell can, for example, restore some hit points (or all hit points for a limited duration) lost by the magic-user. It can reduce opponent hit probabilities or damage, it can increase duration of some magical effect, it can cause a creature to be favorably disposed to the spell caster, and so on. The Limited Wish can possibly give a minor clue to some treasure or magic item. Greedy desires will usually end in disaster for the wisher.
And though wish was still the ultimate spell, it saw a significant reduction in power between OD&D and AD&D. Interestingly, its power was reduced not by placing restrictions on what kind of wishes the caster could make, but by striking the caster with fatigue that persisted after the spell’s casting. Worthy of note also, is that the spell text now gave referees a certain amount of guidance as how to adjudicate the spell, even going so far as to encourage the DM to “maintain game balance” by obliquely interpreting player wishes.
The Wish spell is a more potent version of a Limited Wish. If it is used to alter reality with respect to hit points sustained by a party, to bring a dead character to life, or to escape from a difficult situation by lifting the spell caster (and his or her party) from one place to another, it will not cause the magic-user any disability. Other forms of wishes, however, will cause the spell caster to be weak (–3 on strength) and require 2 to 8 days of bed rest due to the stresses the wish places upon time, space, and his or her body. Regardless of what is wished for, the exact terminology of the Wish spell is likely to be carried through. (This discretionary power of the referee is necessary in order to maintain game balance. As wishing another character dead would be grossly unfair, for example, your DM might well advance the spell caster to a future period where the object is no longer alive, i.e. putting the wishing character out of the campaign.)
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition
The versions of wish and limited wish in AD&D 2nd edition are much the same as they were in 1st edition. The text is almost identical, in fact! Its one significant divergence from the wish as presented in 1e is a permanent cost to the caster!
Casting a wish spell ages the caster five years.
This is the first instance of wish requiring a cost beyond simply a 9th-level spell slot to cast. This idea would be developed further in 3rd edition. Speaking of which…
3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons
D&D changed a lot in the jump from 2nd to 3rd edition, including dropping the now-superfluous “Advanced” moniker. The wish spell received a significant overhaul, which in true 3rd edition style, was a full codification of the spell’s effects. While this expansive elucidation helped remove guesswork and DM-to-DM variance in the spell’s usefulness, it significantly increased the complexity and restrictiveness of the spell. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion whether or an increase in codification made wish better or worse.
Continuing the trend that 2nd edition began, wish now costs experience points to cast, but no longer caused the spellcaster to suffer wish fatigue. Now, a not-insignificant XP cost was the balancing factor in this reality-altering spell. This spell wasn’t the only thing in this edition of D&D to use XP as a currency; creating magic items required an expenditure of experience points, for instance. The XP cost may have been a more successful disincentive than a few days of bedrest, but simply marking down a number feels less epic and mythic than suffering from debilitating weakness after channeling untold arcane power through your flimsy mortal frame. Again, a fielder’s choice.
See the full text of wish in the 3rd edition System Reference Document.
4th Edition D&D
Interestingly, wish didn’t appear in 4th edition D&D as a spell in any capacity, though creatures like genies could still grant wishes. To the best of my knowledge, no official explanation for the spell’s controversial removal is available online, but there’s no reason to ignite old edition wars. Broadly speaking, the effects of wish were divvied up among the game’s many rituals. It’s also entirely possible that the reality altering effects of wish were just another way that spellcasting characters were superior to martial characters, and wish was removed in the name of harmonious game balance.
Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons
Finally, wish appeared in the fifth edition Player’s Handbook as “the mightiest spell a mortal creature can cast,” though it should be noted that limited wish, which existed in D&D since 1st edition (not counting 4th edition), didn’t appear alongside it’s more powerful cousin. One particular item of note is that this incarnation of wish gives the Dungeon Master guidance on how to adjudicate a player wishing a villain were dead, as opposed to the AD&D version of wish, which gave (identical) advice on how to deal with a player wishing another player out of existence.
This change in advice is emblematic of a broad change in playstyle that took place in the decades separating AD&D 1st edition and fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. To oversimplify, players were still ostensibly allies in 1st edition, but life was cheap and campaigns with elaborate plots, complete with character development, were rare. Characters were expected to die early, often, and for petty reasons, all of which meant that intra-party conflict wasn’t nearly as taboo as it is today. If none of the characters had favorable odds of surviving a dungeon crawl anyway, what did it matter if a traitorous rogue was killed by an aggrieved party member, rather than a sphere of annihilation?
This version of wish also introduces one interesting new piece of guidance for the DM: “the greater the wish, the greater the likelihood that something goes wrong.” The idea of the magnitude of the wish being linked to the magnitude of its consequences is narratively satisfying, and inherently provides a unique aspect of risk and reward to the casting of wish.
One final new element of the wish rules also serves to keep the power of the spell in line by discouraging uses of wish outside of certain limited parameters. The Experience point cost from 3rd edition is gone, and the “wish fatigue” present in 2nd edition and earlier returns with a burning vengeance, but only if you use wish to create a wholly original effect. Additionally, using wish to create a wholly original effect also comes with a 1-in-3 chance that the caster is “unable to cast wish ever again.” Those are rough odds… but what a magnificent thing if you use wish to alter reality for the better (or for the worse), but you pay the price of never being able to wish again. Now that’s a plot twist!
Adjudicating Player Wishes
Throughout the ages, wish has advised Dungeon Masters to be cunning with their interpretations of player wishes. This is for good reason; allowing players to wish without restraint is essentially the default end of a game of D&D. Anyone who can’t wish would then essentially be a second-class character, and you would be better off moving to a game system like Exalted, where everyone has godlike power. The restrictions placed upon the spell help mitigate this, of course, but allowing the DM to interpret player wishes how they will is, first, in keeping with our myths of trickster genies and double-edged wishes, and also helps DMs maintain a semblance of control over their campaigns.
If I could only give one piece of advice regarding wishing, I would say: always be generous to players that are willing to be generous to you. If the wizards and sorcerers in your game are using wish to enhance your campaign, let their wishes work to everyone’s benefit. However, the inverse is also true. Never be generous to players that are unwilling to be generous to you. If those reality altering dastards want to wreak havoc with your campaign—and it’s making the game less fun for you—let your inner trickster god flourish and twist those wishes however you see fit.
Of course, in the latter scenario, you would probably be better off having a frank, out-of-character conversation with your players than trying to torment them in-character. Talking things out works much better than playing hardball, in my experience.
If you need concrete advice on managing wish, I highly recommend listening to Todd Kenreck’s Todd Talk on the subject; it’s embedded at the top of this article. Beyond that, I have three pieces of advice for DMs struggling to get a handle on wish.
The Law of Equivalent Exchange
To quote Fullmetal Alchemist, “If one wishes to obtain something, something of equal value must be given.” The text of wish promises something similar. “[The] greater the wish, the greater the likelihood that something goes wrong.”
Presumably, this guideline given in the text of the wish spell is just a guideline to help you twist your players’ words to create a double-edged wish. This works perfectly well. However, imagine if casting wish literally required a sacrifice of some sort. Do you know what the caster would exchange in order to see their vision fulfilled? Once you’ve decided, keep this in mind when determining the outcome of the wish, and keep the real consequences of the caster’s actions in your back pocket to reveal when the time is right.
Alternatively, you could propose this question to the caster directly. Maybe a god of fate speaks to the caster at the moment the wish is spoken, and the character must choose their sacrifice up front. To save a loved one’s life, another loved one must die instead. Who will take the fatal blow? Now, the choice is entirely in the caster’s hands. Now, the casting of a wish is more than just a spell or a story beat, but a potential ethical dilemma.
Make it Worth It
Earning the power to cast wish is no simple feat. It is truly the capstone of a wizard’s power, and an achievement in its own right. Let the wizard have their fun with their phenomenal cosmic power for a bit, so long as it doesn’t ruin anyone else’s fun. From a diabolical point of view, this is also to your benefit. Let the caster get comfortable making little wishes with only minor consequences. Then, when they become cocky enough to try and fundamentally rewrite reality, pull the rug out from under them!
Consider the Other Players
Fifth edition D&D isn’t a symmetrically balanced game. Its balance is imperfect and asymmetric, but ultimately, I believe that’s for the best. Wizards and bards and sorcerers are the only people who get to cast wish, and clerics have something similar in their Divine Intervention feature. All eight other classes in D&D have nothing that approaches the sheer versatility and potential power as wish. And, in a vacuum, this is a huge problem.
But we don’t play D&D in a vacuum. There are ways to balance this power. The simplest and most symmetrical (and in my opinion, least interesting) way to balance this is to hand out magic items that grant wishes. A ring of three wishes, or a luck blade, for instance. Then, everyone has the power to alter reality!
Or, consider what the wizard gets out of having a wish. What does it accomplish for them from a character standpoint. Is power all they seek? Is it to bring back a lost loved one? Is it to save their ancestral kingdom? Once you distill the power of wish down to this narrative purpose, you can find a way to balance it. How does a fighter gain the power to fundamentally change the world in the way a wizard can with wish? In a way, they already have it.
For example: a 20th-level bard wishes that the evil king were a toad. The consequence? The evil king’s equally evil daughter rules the evil kingdom instead. However, a 20th-level fighter could stride into the evil king’s throne room and cleave his head off with a clean stroke of her greatsword.
Another example: a 20th-level wizard in the midst of a nation-wide famine wishes that the crops in their country flourished instead of suffering from a disease that year. The consequence, the insects that plagued their crops instead plagues a neighboring realm, which declares war on the kingdom. However, a 20th-level fighter could march into that same neighboring realm, which in this reality is flush with food, and demand a share of it—or take it by force.
The power of a wish is to get the DM to pay attention to your character for a time, and then for the DM to decide how to reward or punish whatever ideas you present. Other classes have that too; they just don’t have rules for it.
What unbelievable wishes have you seen in your game? What have the consequences been, either for the player or for the DM?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their sweet kitties Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.