Thoughts on the game’s thorniest spell.
So your player has found a scroll, or a sword, or a ring, drawn a card, or finally gotten a magic-user to high enough level to cast it. WISH. Of all the treasures and rewards in the pantheon of the World’s Oldest Roleplaying Game, this one is the biggest. And for the novice player or DM, the hardest to work with. Back in the old days, we had very little guidance on what boundaries, if any, the spell had. And about that, was a Wish from a genie the same as a Wish from a ring? Or one granted by a Devil or Demon? Or a God? What about a Wish cast by the party’s wizard? Most gamers have at least one humorous or tragic story involving a broken game ruined by a poorly-cast Wish. Here are some guidelines developed over nearly 40 years of play. Some are my own, some I adopted, and like so many old-school homebrew solutions, all have been thought of by many DMs independently.
Let’s address the basic bounds of the spell itself. Wish is the most powerful spell in the game, sitting atop even all the other Level 9 spells. Wish can duplicate any spell, of any level, of any class. This is something I extrapolated from the common use of the spell to raise slain characters from the dead. When cast in this way, the spell always functions as if cast by a maximum-level caster, and with maximum damage, range, and area of effect. This is always subject to the will of the caster when cast as a spell but not necessarily so when the Wish is granted by a power. This distinction is large, both in terms of how the spell operates and how much it can do. A Wish granted by a greater power may (at the DMs sole discretion) have far more power than that of the 9th level spell cast by a mortal. An important matter for the DM to decide when swords, rings, card decks, or scrolls grant wishes is where the power originates from. A ring empowered by a Demon Lord is a far graver matter than a ring crafted by a Wizard for his own later use.
All aspects of this spell are special. A single roll of the dice is used to create a Save DC for the spell, if cast by a player. All bonuses are applied, and if a “1” or a “20” are rolled, there are a consequence/benefit attached. Note: the die roll must be natural, and read as the die lands.
Cost to Cast
The original spell had a high casting cost, requiring the sacrifice of both treasure and life force to operate. Wish almost always comes with a cost, so here are a few simple ideas to help the DM along.
Treasure. The original spell called for a diamond of great value, but let’s expand on the concept. Any art object, gem, or magic item of great value–we’ll say in excess of 1,000 gold pieces or the equivalent of a dungeon hoard in value will suffice so long as the material component represents a significant personal loss to the caster, or the recipient of the Wish. This is key. There should be a lot of agonizing before the spell is cast, and a sigh afterwards. Treasure thus destroyed vanishes out of reality and not even another Wish may restore it. This is not all. This brings us to…
The original called for ten years or the equivalent added to the character age. This became a non-issue as players simply brewed or acquired Potions of Longevity to offset the effects. Here is my preferred method of handling this. 1d4 of the caster’s stats may be reduced by 1 (randomly determined) as the spell ravages the caster’s body. This is magic at the highest level a mortal can channel and comprehend: a particle more would slay him. Remember the die roll earlier? Well, that’s the DC for the Saving Throw. The caster saves against his own spell. A “1” during casting is an automatic failure. The spell reduces his stats and no further recourse is allowed. Note: stats thus reduced may not be raised again by magical means, although level advancement may bring them back up if the rules allow. A “20” is an automatic save. No stats are reduced during the casting. This “aging” effect will also have accompanying cosmetic effects, as well. Hair loss, cataracts across the eyes, wrinkling of the sking, as the DM rules.
When granted by a Power
For the DM looking for a plot or even campaign hook, this is a great opportunity. I ran a campaign where a Devil would show up whenever the party was in a jam and offer to “help” by granting them a Wish to get them out of trouble. He was after their very souls, of course, and while most of the party was wise enough to shun this offer, one was not. And one rube was all I needed to open the Pandora’s Box of troubles for the party. Which brings us to who is granting the Wish and what is it they are after?
This may range from nothing, in the event of a grateful genie or a benevolent god, all the way to using the party as pawns to achieve great evil or good. Which brings us to…
No matter the circumstances, the beneficiaries of the Wish must be bound by the terms they agree to. An evil power may simply ask for “a service later”, and if agreed to, this becomes binding. Specificity is not required. Once the bargain is struck, and the price upon the recipient(s) is named, they are under Geas. Meaning, when they are not actively engaged in fulfilling their service, they will wither and die. Note that the breaking of such a pact by magical means is extremely difficult, but also possible, and presents the DM with an opportunity to create a major enemy for the players later.
One of the most common tropes involving Wish is the careful parsing of wording or grammar to prevent the DM from dropping the “gotcha” on the players. While the “Monkey’s Paw” rule would certainly apply to an “evil” Wish, it need not in all situations. I waive the “grammar statute” when the spell is being cast by a player–the penalties are high enough, and bad things only happen if the caster is getting greedy. (More on this to follow!) As a DM, I attempt to understand as clearly as possible what the caster intends the spell to do, and rule it accordingly, conforming it to an existing spell whenever possible. Wish is not a set of instructions fed into a computer or being relayed to a dull-witted child. It is magic, it is the most powerful spell there is, it is costly. The player should get full value for the casting “dollar.”
Where things can go south is when malevolent power is involved. In this case, no amount of wording, no matter how clever, can alter the misery to come. The Wish will always be granted, and always perverted. If the Wish confers a great treasure, be assured that an ancient and powerful dragon has been given the knowledge of the owner and his precise location. If a party member is raised from the dead, they may find themselves afflicted with anything from vampirism to lycanthrope as an unwanted bonus.
Conversely, a benevolent power will never use a Wish to cause harm. Unless the foolish mortals involved get greedy. Let’s go there.
The second biggest trope revolving around Wish is overreach. Remember above when I outlined the power boundaries for the 9th level spell version of Wish? Let’s start there. Consider the outer bounds of what magic in the game system can do. The largest area of effect, the largest amount of damage, the highest number of people that can be affected. By any spell a character can cast. Now consider the theoretical maximum effect when cast by the highest level caster, with the highest number of bonuses, and with perfect dice rolls. That’s the “river channel” that the magic can flow through safely. When we start going beyond this, we begin to spill the banks. And this is where the DM can choose to employ a “teachable moment” for novices who knew no better or to get junkyard dog mean with a player who insists on repeat offending.
How bad things go depends on the DM, of course, but I always based the outcomes on the specific area that the spell was being pushed. Trying to effect the whole world with a Charm? Not only do you fail, but the whole world knows your name and that you tried. Trying to do enough damage to slay a whole army? That damage happens, alright–but to the caster and anyone within a quarter mile of him as he goes up like a bomb from the eldritch power his body could not contain. Those are just a few examples, but as a rule of thumb, the farther out of bounds the attempted casting, the more dramatic and lethal the distortions caused by the magic as it tries and fails to execute the caster’s will becomes.
Similarly, when dealing with a power that grants such boons, such obscene wishes have the power to offend. A genie or demon might cackle with glee: The Rules permit me to take the mortal’s soul with me for his insolence! An angelic being may similarly afflict a character in an attempt to humble him–or simply remove a blot of evil from the world.
Whatever you do, the goal should be to make the result memorable–even if the player is getting a story about the hilarious and awful way one particular character died! Of course, none of these ideas are binding upon you as a DM–your table is your own. But I do hope that a few of these concepts sneak into your game to delight and terrify your players.