Magical Mondays: The Most Un-Useful School   Leave a comment

For this week’s Magical Mondays, I’d like to take you down a trip on memory lane.  This’ll be a D&D 3.5 heavy update, I fear; sorry, all you WoD and Cosmic Patrol fans.  Years ago, my gaming group had a regular “thing” involving us arriving and leaving, with little regard to schedule, at one friend’s place over the course of the weekend.  People would just show up at some point on Friday, and maybe they’d leave eventually, some would stay over the night, others would arrive for the first time on Saturday, and son on until Monday ruined everyone’s mood.  Many good times were had by all.  I couldn’t make it to one Friday, but was able to show up early on a Saturday, around 9 or 10 in the morning if not earlier (my memory is a little hazy on the exact time; it felt early, if nothing else.)

When I showed up, I was surprised to see activity.  Two of my friends were loudly debating something about the schools of magic.  Our host was nowhere to be seen, and these two were making points, counterpoints, and reasonable assumptions about magic.  They saw me enter, let their current track of conversation die down, and turned to me.  Then they decided to get my opinion on what has come to be an infamous topic for us:

“What do you think is the most un-useful school of magic?”

Now, theoretically I could’ve understood a debate about the most useful school of magic.  I was still new to D&D, but I had a faint understanding of the eight schools of magic: abjuration, conjuration, divination, enchantment, evocation, illusion, necromancy, and transmutation.  Each of the eight schools of magic has its own theme, and this thematic grouping of magical spells allows D&D 3.5 players to pick and choose the kinds of things that they can do during the day.

I gave my opinion (at the time it was necromancy), and they admitted that it seemed like a reasonable option since necromancy is, in large part, just a mishmash of spells that better belong in other schools with a death theme.  They then began to go in a circle with each other, one claiming that abjuration was the worst and the other claiming that evocation was the worst.  One’s idea of useful was “I can set anything on fire!  I can conquer the world!”  The other’s idea of useful was “I can walk on lava!  Set all the fires you want!”  (My paraphrasing, not their exact words.)

At about this time, I heard a plaintive cry of “NERDS!” from the bedroom.  Apparently, our host was not at work as I had assumed, and was trying to sleep a bit with the loud conversation happening.  (As a side note: it’s possible that everyone misheard his wail of despair, as he insists that he meant to say it more angrily, and prefaced with an expletive that would have let us know exactly what sort of nerds we were.  I’d tell you, but that’d violate the PG/PG-13 rating I put on this blog.  It’s also possible that in his cry of desperation, he was so exhausted from lack of sleep that he imagined saying one thing and not another.  Who can say which version is true?)

As silly as the topic sounds, it actually has a valid application for players, particularly wizards during character creation.  Any spellcaster might benefit from a careful look at different schools, of course.  Wizards, though, have a particular application: specialists.  A specialist wizard (such as an enchanter or a necromancer or a diviner) is a wizard who gains an extra spell every day at every level of spell that they can cast.  “But John,” you say, “that sounds more like a case where you want to figure out which school is the MOST useful, not the LEAST useful!”  And at first it seems like you’re right.  However: specialist wizards need to pick schools to ban.  Effectively, every specialist wizard needs to ban two schools (diviners being the only exception; they only need to ban one.)  Pathfinder changes this a bit by saying that specialist wizards can still cast from the “banned” schools, but it takes two spell slots to do so, meaning that there’s still a bigger cost.  If you can figure out what school is the most un-useful, those two schools might make the most sense to ban.

I decided to turn to the Internet when my sister suggested that I write this topic, legendary as it is within our gaming group.  There are obvious optimization concerns, and who better than the folks at an optimization-heavy board to discuss the issue?  So I went to the Giant In The Playground forums and posted the question.  I had no idea when I did so that the ensuing debate would BURN FOR TEN PAGES before eventually petering out.  There were a lot of interesting opinions, thoughts, and angrily hurled bits of flame.  My old go-to of Necromancy was mentioned here and there, and I anticipated a lot of votes for Evocation.  I was startled to see one of my favorite schools, Enchantment, getting the most votes.  How could this BE?!

Actually?  It was pretty reasonable.  Most of the people didn’t take the basic premise of each school (as I did).  Instead, they took a look at the available spells (both in core books and in the extended options available in other books throughout 3e and 3.5), looked at what spells were available, and compared the numbers of spells in each school with their imagined applications.  Two interesting points came to light that I think both need addressing:


1) A school being “powerful” is not the same as it being “useful.”  Necromancy, nowhere near the school with the most raw power, has an undeniable amount of highly situational uses.  Spectral Hand has been a favorite spell of mine for the last year, because it takes a ghostly theme (a hand) and lets you do something with it that other schools don’t (deliver touch attacks at a range).  You can debate who wins in a fight all night long (and into the next morning as my two friends discovered) but that doesn’t really tell you much about what a given school can do in more mundane, day-to-day activities.  Rope Trick, Phantom Steed, Rage, Tenser’s Floating Disc and others are ridiculously useful at the right moment.  If you can figure out a way to turn any given problem into a nail that your favorite class can hammer down, you’ll be doing pretty well.


2) It pays to know your DM.  If your DM loves huge dungeon crawls filled with monster fights, you’re going to want to stock up on abjurations and evocations (well… some would say that I’m wrong about that, but you get the point.)  If your DM is more of a fan of intrigue, skullduggery and political exploits, enchantments and illusions might help you to succeed without drawing unwanted attention to yourself.  You can easily use any combination for either of those scenarios, but the fact remains that if you want to fight an army in the Forgotten Realms, explore a lost ruin in Dark Sun, or catch a fugitive spy in Eberron you’ll likely want to pick different things.


That’s all for this week’s Magical Mondays.  I’m going to try something risky here: I’ll see if I can get this post to automatically update on its own.  Wish me luck!


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