On Wands

If there's a search term that returns good results for wands
I haven't found it yet.
I'd like to talk about wands again.

Yeah, so, 100 charges, huh. One of my players seems to think that 100 free ice storms might be a problem for me as a Dungeon Master.

So, you look at the old dungeon, Greyhawk, by Gary. Perhaps you look at the new one, with recent photographs of the Hobby Shop Dungeon by Ernie. If you'll look closely, you'll see this megadungeon only has 17 pages of content!

That's a big map to only have 17 pages!

That's the point. Players would spend a long time wandering around a very, very, empty place. Hundreds of people could go in, because it was mostly empty. And what they did was map, look for secrets, encounter rooms, and fight wandering monsters.

If you're doing that, 100 ice storms make sense.

But, having played in some OSR games, online and in person, I can say that if something like that is happening somewhere, it's not anywhere I've seen.

So, 100 charges is quite a bit. Also, tracking the number of charges used sucks. So the new solution posited by the OSR is the die roll. You roll a die, and if it comes up a certain number, the wand is out of charges.

There are variations on this, of course. Sometimes the wand may sputter or explode. The wand may have different stages of degradation. The number of dice rolled and when the wand fails may vary. The key to this is to find a number of charges the wand is expected to have, and then find a percentage in some dice combination that matches those charges.

Here are some examples:

  • Rolling 3d6 for a fully charged wand against a single d6. If the single d6 beats all three rolls, the wand degrades down to 2d6. This method also stipulates that you charge up a wand via the dice, 2d4->2d6->2d8, etc. But you have to roll for the dice for the new charge level, and if you roll over a seven, you overcharge the wand and it explodes.
  • Then there is this system, which tracks ammo and wand usage by having a single ammo die (1d12, etc.) that is checked when used. If a one is rolled, it degrades down to the next lowest die.
  • You can also track wand (or arrow) charges with a deck of cards. Either have a certain card indicate the end of wand charges, with the size of the deck being the limiting factor, or simply using cards (or chits) to represent ammunition or charges.

These basic methods of resolution are sound, and merely require you to decide how often, statistically, the wands will fail. Sometimes this can give you greater then the expected number of charges, and that's ok.

There are more esoteric options which allow wands to convert the magic users spell energy into other spells allowing more flexibility, or wands that don't cast spells but shoot energy instead.

Feats that allowed you to modify wand usage, including the ability to craft wands, increase the power of spells cast from wands, fire two wands in the same round (with the second wand using two charges), increase the power of the spells yet again by expending extra charges, and an effect that allows you to trigger a wands effect by slapping someone upside the head with it (smite!).

What are they, Really?

At this point, we should ask ourselves what the point of a wand is, really? What does it do to the game? If a wand has nearly 100 charges, or even 20, of a powerful area affect spell, does that negate the next 15 combats? What if you're running a game where there's not a lot of fighting, that could last for months, or even years. 

In earlier versions of Dungeons & Dragons, they were effectively spell batteries. A gun of cure light wounds or magic missile. Perhaps that's really what they are, an option that gives casters something useful to do every round. The Cure Light Wounds wand meant that you never had to fight not at full hit points, for a measly few hundred gold. 

Perhaps the mechanic is wrong, really. Perhaps, everything should be charged, including that +1 sword! Or perhaps nothing should be, and the wand should just allow the caster to cast the spell. After all, that's effectively what 100 charges means.

But the key thing about wands is that they both define the role of the wizard, and the role of combat in your game. If you can load up a wand with Cure Light Wounds, then you are effectively saying "fight any fight that doesn't kill you". If the wizard can shoot 3d4 damage to any target and auto hit every round for the cost of a few hundred gold, it reduces (but does not eliminate) the utility of the fighter. 

For more ideas about wands, you can read 20 suggested by me and the community in this old post.


  1. If you thought 100 charges for a wand is a lot, in OD&D staves have 200! ;)


  2. Why would wands and staves (or any magic item) be found fully charged? The die-roll for sputter out and drain does remove tallying (and cheating) but for me that only works in games where old wands are found deep in dungeons, if folks are manufacturign them currently why wouldn't there be wands folks knew had 100 shots left (or at least 7 for sure)?
    Maybe that's the trick, new wands get a certain (low) number of charges they certainly have on hand, after that it dice rolling time to see if they sputter out.

    There's also the option that the caster has to use the wand correctly, so it's a skill check every use with a small chance of wrecking the thing.

  3. The only thing I don't like about the decreasing die size is that it gets less random as time goes on. Also, you're still tracking the die size and rolling it after every fight.

    I've seen people use this one for ammo (slightly altered here): The wand has X charges. After every usage, the wand has a 1-in-6 chance to lose a charge. When you find a wand it has 1d6-2 charges on it.

    So there, equivalent bookkeeping to the diminishing die, and equivalent randomness through all parts of a wands lifespan.

  4. Here's a cool source page about wands: http://www.esotericarchives.com/wands/

    Here's my attempt at a decent Google image search term, per your caption:

    magic wands -hitachi -vibrator -potter -aloha -warcraft -trick -magician -soundcloud

  5. There's also the question JDJarvis touches on about not knowing the number of charges. In OD&D, there's no way listed to find out how many charges a wand has. In AD&D, I think many people discovered the number of charges remaining using Identify, although whether Identify should actually do that, regardless of what the rules may say, is another story.

    I personally think there should be no way short of a wish of discovering the number of charges remaining. And methods of recharging should not be well-known or foolproof. That makes wands a precious resource, instead of a mass-produced medieval firearm.

    As for tracking charges or tracking dice and the like, I eventually decided to use a secret 2d6 reaction roll and not track anything, except maybe time the character has owned the wand; give wands two free days of use, rods no free days, tell the character the wand sputters feebly but still works after a 5 or less is rolled, but on a 2, that really was the last charge.

  6. Wands, like other magic items, are subject to saving throws every time you get smashed by a heavy blow or bathed in dragon fire. Just because you have 80+ charges, doesn't mean the wand will survive that long.


  7. Regarding the 3d6 vs. 1d6 system, one way of adding more uncertainty to a wand's usable life is to require a second roll every time the first one fails. This way, even if you have 3 dice "charged up", a very small chance exists that you will lose all three rolls in a row and be left with nothing but a pretty stick.

    On top of that, you could require the roll to be two dice vs. the wand's rating if the function uses two charges; the potential second roll would still be one die vs. the wand, though, or else multi-charge functions come close to being not worth the risk.

  8. If wands are scarce, like magic items should be, then 100 charges isn't that many...


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