D&D PHB: Sorcerer, Warlock & Wizard

Ok, in the home stretch. I am literally starting this out in my hotel room in the middle of the night, partly to just get it started and wind down before I crash, partly to test out how the chromebook I’m using works offline. There is technically wifi here, but it’s the kind that makes you suspect someone has maybe set up a zombie router or the like.

Anyway, we’re starting out with the sorcerer. This was one of the really fun additions to 3e for the simple fact that it introduced an alternative for handling magic that felt a little less academic and a little bit more comic-booky. You just shot lighting from your hands. It just happens, Because you’re awesome. Over time, the idea evolved to introduce reasons for why this was so, but that was just a bonus.

In translating to 5e, the spirit of the original Sorcerer is easily found in the spellcasting rules, which I’m going to take a brief aside on here. Most caster classes cast spells the same way (the warlock possibly being an exception – I’ll know in a minute) – you get N spell slots per level, and the big differentiator is how you determine what spells you know. Divine casters pray for a certain number and get a few permanently based on their domain. Wizards have a variable pool based on what they’ve studied recently. Sorcerers have a fixed list that they just know.

Originally, this made sorcerers the option for players seeking less bookkeeping, and I’m not sure that part is still in play. But let’s dig in and find out.

Beyond spellcasting, the other core class feature for sorcerers is “sorcery points”, their currency. They get 2 at level 2 and gain 1 per level beyond there. Extra sorcery points can gained by sacrificing spell slots, or they can be used to buy extra spell slots (at a small upcharge, so the exchange rate is not entirely fluid). More importantly, sorcery points can be used to fuel metamagic, something that will look very familiar to fans of 3e.

Metamagic abilities are things like heightened spell – spend 3 sorcery points to give a target disadvantage on their saving throw. The sorcerer starts with two of these, and gains more at 10 and 17. Importantly, these largely do not stack (the exceptions being the damage booster).

These are cool and stylish, but do look a little fiddly. They definitely increase the complexity of playing a sorcerer, but I suspect they’re worth the tradeoff. Mechanically they seem fairly reasonable, though I admit the duration-increaser worries me a little. Extended spell lets you double the duration of a spell for 1 SP, and you can spend as many as you like to a maximum of 24 hours. That feels like it could create problems, even with the concentration rules, but I don’t have more than a feeling on that yet.

The sorcerer subclasses are sorcerous origins, effectively the reasons why the character has the power they have. There are only two presented – Draconic bloodline and wild magic – picked at level 1 and improved at 6, 14 and 18. The draconic bloodline is a classic idea – the blood of dragons runs through the sorcerer’s veins and empowers them. It starts out with an elemental affinity (based on dragon type)[^f1], extra hit points and a bonus to AC[^f2]. Later on you start doing more damage with your element of choice, sprout temporary dragon wings and generate dragonfear.

Wild magic is an acquired taste, but people who like the idea will probably be pleased. First and foremost, roll a d20 after every non-cantrip spell. If that’s a 1, you get a wild surge (which can be good or bad – there’s a d100 table of outcomes that takes up a whole page). And I’m confident there will be more tables in the near future.

A little weirder is the Tides of Chaos ability. Basically, you have a single invocation of this ability to gain advantage on a roll. You recover it after a long rest. No problem. Where it gets weird is that any time you’re waiting to recharge, the GM can call for a wild magic surge roll, and once that’s done, you recharge. This seems very strange on the surface of it, since it’s just something the GM can do whenever. It makes more sense when you realize that it is, effectively, a second instance of inspiration for the character. They start inspired, use it for a bonus, and can get re-inspired by something akin to a compel. If looked at that way, I can see it in use, though it’s still a bit of an oddball.

At later levels you can spend 2 sorcery points to add or subtract 1d4 a roll by someone else who you an see, and you gain a little bit more control over the wild surge results (roll twice, pick which one you keep). Ultimately, your spell damage dice can explode.

It’s a little weird that there are only 2 of these. I imagine it was a space constraint, since they used a full page for wild magic surges, but it creates a bit of a hurdle. If you want to play a sorcerer and don’t want to deal with the wild magic mechanic, your options are dragon or nothing. One more origin would have been welcome.

Ok, now I have been super curious about the warlock. The idea behind the character has always been compelling, but the 4e version of the class leaned heavily on 4e mechanics. There were some 3e precursors in supplemental books, of course, but this is the big leagues, the 5e core. How were they going to make them feel like something other than just one more flavor of wizard or sorcerer?

Warlocks choose a pact at first level. THis is their subclass, and it improves at 6, 10 and 14, with a sidebar at level 3. Setting aside pact-specific abilities, the Warlock is a spell caster, but her table doesn’t look like anyone else – rather than spell slots per level, it merely says “Slot level”, which very quickly caps out at 5 (at 9th level). I admit, just looking at it, I was confused.

Basically, the Warlock only has a small number of spell slots (starts at 1, peaks at 4) and it is at the highest possible level. These slots are recovered after a short or long rest, which makes their recovery pretty robust, but the bottom line is that the warlock is not casting a lot of spells. So what else are the doing?

Well, they’re also doing eldritch invocations – they get 2 at 2nd level, and eventually have 8. These are…well, remember the Battle Master’s manoeuvres or the elemental monk’s disciplines? They’re like that, except more magical. Powers like Mask of Many Faces, whcih lets you cast disguise self at will. There’s a lot of cool stuff in this space, and a lot of the class color comes from it.

At third level they get a “Pact boon”, which is a special summon (A familiar, a weapon or a spellbook) that depends on your pact. I’m not entirely clear why it’s not under the actual pact abilities. Not complaining about the abilities, though the book seems less cool than the other two.

At level 11, the warlock gets mystic arcanum, which answers my previous question about why their spellcasting stops at level 5. When you hit 11, you pick a level 6 spell, and you can cast it once per day. At later levels, you pick up levels 7, 8 and 9 eventually. As written, once you’ve picked the spell, you’re stuck with it, and since it’s an ability, not a true spellcast, you can’t swap things (so you can’t use your level 7 arcanum to use your level 6 arcanum a second time). At first glance, my assumption was that this allowed many fewer high level spells than a sorcerer or wizard, but that is not the case – at 20th level, they have one more 6th & 7th level spell per day, but only one 8th and 9th. It’s a little convoluted but the net result is that the warlock has comparable power to a wizard or sorcerer, but substantially less flexibility.

At level 20 a warlock can recover spells like she had taken a short rest, once per long rest, by entreating you patron, which is a nice but I admit does not make me say “BEHOLD MY APEX OF POWER”

As may be obvious by now, a lot of the meat is in the pact, the relationship with the an entity of power, and the warlock’s subclass. At first level, the warlock picks The Archfey, The Fiend or The Great Old One, then pick up more abilities at 6, 10 and 14.

The Archfey adds a number of spells to the characters known list (rather like a clerical domain) and allows them to generate a fearful presence. Later, the warlock learn to vanish, turn charm attacks against an enemy and plunge enemies into darkness.

The Fiend also expands the warlock’s spell list and gain temporary hit points when you kill an enemy. Later you can mess with luck, select a variable damage resistance and temporarily throw enemies into hell.

The Great Old One also expands the spell list, and grants the ability to communicate telepathically. Later, you can turn enemy failures into good luck, shield your mind and eventually infect the minds of others. So, creepy.

I admit, I do not entirely get the warlock. It looks like an interesting class, certainly, but I don’t have an immediate sense of how it plays. No ritual casting is a bit of a flag that it’s not a normal sort of caster class, but it goes in a very different direction from the Sorcerer. I have a hunch that the class leans very heavily on the Eldritch Blast cantrip (which several of the arcana improve), at least in some builds, but I really need to try it in action.

(Aside: I have been trying to write this in bits and pieces at Gencon, but it’s full of people! So, hello to you all!)

Ok, now we move on to the Wizard. I am a little worried going into this. Clerics are very obviously awesome, and the Sorcerer is full of flexibility. I am really genuinely worried that the Wizard ends up getting the short end of the stick, so I approach this cautiously.

Aside: I love the iconic image for the wizard. And, notably, he is not purple.

The core progression definitely reinforces that worry. One notable thing about a lot of the classes is that they have very few “dead” levels, where they get no new benefits. This is a good thing, because it makes levelling up more fun than just incrementing some numbers. The wizard has a blank every other level.

This is not exactly a surprise – historically the wizard has had a very small pile of class features, with the idea being that the bulk of the fun of levelling one coming from the increase in their spell capacity. That feels a little bit more thin among the other classes in 5e, but it caused me to look a little bit more closely at the actual spell list, and realized that I had made an incorrect assumption. In 3e, the wizard and sorcerer used the same spell list, so I assumed that was still true. Turns out that it is not, and that the wizard’s list is substantially longer, especially at higher levels. That’s actually pretty damn cool, and a nice point in their favor.

Which is good because the ability shortage is definitely telling. Wizard spellcasting uses slots the same way everyone else does, but its unique addition is the spellbook. The spellbook can have any number of spells in it, from which the wizard can prepare a number equal to wizard level +INT, which means the wizard consistently has more spells prepared than sorcerer and a tiny bit more than the bard. It’s comparable to a cleric & druid, but the cleric (and druid of the land) gets extra spells based on domain, so advantage to the Cleric there.

It is important to note that once the wizard has prepared her spells, they stay prepared forever (or until the wizard swaps them out). I like this very much, because it means that there can be value in just studying someone else’s spellbook, and there are great stories in that More, it means that taking away a wizard’s spellbook is an inconvenience, but not a real problem for them. (and, as an aside, the rules for scribing spells seem very straightforward, which is nice when compared to some of my recent experiences with 1e).

The only other ability that the default wizard gets is to be able to recover some spell slots during a short rest. That’s actually quite nice, but I’m not yet sure how often short rests are going to happen (now that they take an hour) so I’m not sure how often it comes up. Beyond that the next benefit is at level 18, when you get to turn a level 1 and 2 spell into cantrips and at level 20, when you pick some 3rd level spells you can cast more often (and despite the levels, the level 18 ability seems cooler than the level 20 one).

That’s a big dead zone from 1 to 18, filled only with stat increases and arcane tradition (the wizard subclass) abilities. The arcane tradition is chosen at level 2, and grants additional benefits at levels 6, 10 and 14, and the traditions presented correspond to the classic schools of magic. There’s nothing that would keep future traditions from being keyed off something else (Students of the Blackstaff or whatnot). All the schools give a discount on the cost of transcribing their spells, but otherwise offer unique benefits.

The school of abjuration gives you a ward that absorbs damage (effectively extra hit points) that can be recharged by casting abjuration spells. At higher levels, this ward can protect other people. They also can gain a bonus to abjuration skill checks (dispel magic etc)[^f3]. At level 14 they gain advantage to all saves against spells and damage resistance against spells. I admit, I’d been lukewarm until that last, but that final ability is awesome and brings to mind images of badass arcane witch hunters, so I’m totally on board with that.

Conjuration gets the ability to conjure up minor magical trinkets pretty trivially. At level 6 you can a short range teleport that lets you castle with a friendly ally. This is pretty cool, but made cooler by the fact that it recharges on a long rest or after you cast a conjuration spell. At 10th, damage can no longer disrupt your concentration on conjurations, and at 14th, your conjurations get substantially tougher. I think the level 6 ability is really the fun signature here.

Divination is historically the crappy school, so I was curious what they did with it, and the answer is awesome. At the start, they get to roll 2d20 after a long rest, and file away those numbers. Later on, they can swap those numbers in for any die roll made by the diviner or someone she can see before the roll is made. That’s spectacular. As you go on, casting divination regains you spell slots of a level lower than the divination spell cast and gain perception bonuses (things like darkvision or etheral sight). Finally, you increase the 2d20 roll to 3d20. Net assessment? Divination is pretty badass.

Enchantment opens up with a “These are not the droids you’re looking for” ability, which is exactly what it should be. At level 6. you can use charms to redirect attacks, at 10 you can add a target to you enchantments and at 14 you get to do some real master of puppets stuff, makign targets forget they were charmed.

Evocation is the one we got a preview of, but it’s nice to see it in context. It lets you shape your spell effects to create a safe zone, which is important when you fireball the fighter. Everything else is basically a variation on “do more damage”, and if you’re playing an evoker, that is just about right.

Illusionists, another old favourite, start by making sure the illusionist get the minor image cantrip, and improves it so that it can do sound and image together. That may sound small, but it’s decently robust. At 6th level, you can alter illusions that are in effect. At 10th, create a mirror image to protect yourself from harm. At level 14? Pick one part of your illusion and make it real. It can’t inflict harm, but even with that limit? That’s kind of awesome.

Necromancy let syou regain hit points when you kill things with spells. Morbid, but appropriate. Later, you can create more, better undead with animate dead, resist necrotic damage and energy drain[^f4] and ultimately seize control of the undead.

Transmutation has a long entry, so I’m intrigued. It starts with minor alchemy, which lets you do minor transformations of material. It’s kind of dull, and only temporary, so it’s primary use will be, I assume, to turn less valuable treasure into silver before getting out of town. At level 6, you get to create a transmuter stone. It takes about 8 hours to make effectively a minor magic item with one of four effects which benefit the holder. You can swap out effects when you cast a transmutation spell, and if lost or destroyed you can make a new one (you can only have one at a time). At level 10, you get an extra cast of polymorph to change yourself. At 14, you can use up your transputer stone for an array of more potent effects, including healing, raising the dead and restoring youth. I get what they were going for conceptually with this one, but I admit, it probably excites me least of them all.

I admit, I like the schools more than I expected to. Despite the lack of abilities, wizards do look like they’re going to be a lot of fun to play, but it’s definitely tricky to compare them to the sorcerer’s metamagic. I think I’m going to need to really dive into the spell lists (and get a sense of which spells are wizard only) before passing a final verdict, but in the interim, I give a thumbs up for fun.

And damn, that’s it for the classes. There’s still more of the book to get to, but it’s going to have to wait until Gencon is over.

I should add, I have had numerous people at the con tell me how much they have enjoyed these reviews, and that is pretty fantastic, so thank you all for wading through this madness, and I’ll see you all after gencon!

[^f1]: I noticed this with the dragonborn too, but it’s worth noting that brass and copper dragons seem to be back. It’s the classic 5 chromatic, 5 metallic, as it should be.

[^f2]: And, yes, this stands out as an immediate abuse. If this bonus stacks with the monk or barbarian ability (and the game supports multiclassing) then we’re going to see a lot of dragon-blooded barbarians and monks. Until I see a ruling, at my table, I am going to use a very strict reading that allows you to use one ability or the other, but not both.

[^f3]: This was a reminder that I am going to need to put together a cheat sheet of when spellcasters do and don’t get to use their proficiency bonus, because I am not sure I would have realized that you don’t normally get it for dispel magic et al.

[^f4]: Technically, their “Hit point maximum cannot be reduced”, but since that’s the mechanic for energy drain, that’s the effect.

14 thoughts on “D&D PHB: Sorcerer, Warlock & Wizard

  1. Douglas Bailey

    I think your reading on the Draconic sorcerer’s “draconic resilience” ability is correct and doesn’t require a table rule. That ability doesn’t grant a bonus to AC, but rather grants the option to compute AC as 13 + Dex modifier when unarmoured.

    So as I understand it, a draconic-sorcerer/monk/barbarian wearing no armour would have AC equal to the higest of (13 + Dex) as a sorcerer, (10 + Dex + Wis) as a monk, and (10 + Dex + Con) as a barbarian… but they would not get AC (13 + Dex + Wis + Con). 🙂

    The _mage armor_ spell (p. 256) works very similarly: it gives you a different equation for AC rather than adding a flat bonus to your existing AC.

    1. Michael Lauderdale

      I agree. These features read to me sort of like replacement effects from Magic. You’re calculating your AC using this feature instead of how you would normally calculate it and since it’s basically a substitution then it seems really difficult to even argue that substitutions would stack.

  2. Brandes Stoddard

    The necromancer’s ability to resist energy drain also averts the super-nasty part of the harm spell and one of the really rude parts of the Exhaustion progressive condition. It reads to me as “I’m halfway to not having a metabolism,” which seems on-point.

  3. Tim Gray

    Reading your bit on the warlock, I started thinking that maybe I would have liked them to have started by publishing a reduced set of core classes with fewer permutations of filigree, saving the rest for further releases and maybe even having a shorter book.

    (I ought to look at the basic PDF sometime – I guess it could be just that.)

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      In fact, it’s pretty much exactly that. 4 core classes, with only 1 subclass presented for each.

  4. Chris Shorb

    Let me speak for some of those not at GenCon to say I am also really enjoying this series. I finally was able to buy the PHB yesterday, but haven’t jumped in. Actually, I’ve been reading the Dragon Queen instead, since your amazing reviews have allowed me to feel like I’ve already read/skimmed to the end of the class section.

    So thank you!

  5. John Kingdon

    The wizard has one major advantage which is easy to overlook: unlike the other ritual casters, who can only cast ritually the spells they know (bard) or have prepared (cleric, druid), the wizard can cast any ritual spell in his/her spell book, whether prepared or not. Once a wizard has built a substantial spellbook, this gives enormous flexibility.

      1. Tyler Duckworth

        Nope. Book Warlocks are the undisputed kings of ritual magic. Their invocation Book of Ancient Secrets allows them to add rituals from any and every class spell list, wizards and clerics alike.

  6. Snark Knight

    I found the Booklock to be the far and away winner as as far as interesting pact boon. 3 cantrips from any class? If you’re going this route the invocation with the tome prerequisite allows ritual casting. It depends what kind of Warlock you’re playing. With the blade pact you can go melee, the chain pact gives you a familiar to scry and cast through, while the book is the most magically inclined.

    1. Tim Gray

      I was just skimming this today and I felt the same. For a class with such limited spell slots, access to more cantrips is very attractive. More than a Highlander sword.

  7. Kurt Rauscher

    At first I didn’t “get” the warlock either, but after reading it again I found some of the ideas clicking. It’s very flexible and I think no two warlocks will resemble one another, after a few levels at least. . The pact boons not being tied directly to the pact will help a lot. I think there’s some interesting melee builds that could be done.

  8. JStaal

    Great write-up on all the classes, and I love how it’s all written in the moment.

    I think you’re initial reaction to the Wizard was too colored by the experience of 3rd Edition. You pointed out how you didn’t take into account Wizard’s having their own spell-lists, which is a huge deal. But it seems that initially you didn’t take into account how impactful the Schools are to the class. Whereas in 3.5 they were little more than a mechanical limitation on the class, here they are every bit the Subclass that other classes get, and I think that they do a TON in making Wizard a very interesting and fun class to play.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      I completely agree – the schools really are pretty awesome. There also seems to be a bit of the classic curve (though not as brokenly as it used to be) where late game wizards get super scary.


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