Some years ago, when I frequented the Wizards D&D message boards, there was a user whose signature said something to the effect of “the spiked chain exists to find the DMs brave enough to ban Core material”. That is, the spiked chain is intentionally broken, and it should be stripped from the system even though it’s in the very first rulebook, and this is a secret test of character to find which DMs are truly good. I’ve never been sure whether was a self-satisfied delusion from a lone DM who thought they spoke for everybody, or a cry for help from a player who’d seen too many games go bad because of rules abuse. The very concept that a single item could damage the game that badly seemed alien to me, and it still does.
I generally argue that there’s nothing in the rules guaranteed to be a game-breaker. Some things are incredibly powerful in specific situations or combinations, like the blaster sorcerer with access to every cure spell or the monk who can jump so far all witnesses become their slavering sycophants. But in a cooperative game, you can usually solve these by telling the player “hey, that’s not fun, can you power it down some?”. A lot of these builds are complicated structures, where if the player removes a single feat or spell they remain powerful but no longer disgustingly so. And even if they don’t, there’s usually a way around these builds if you’re willing to exploit them. Nothing can turn a game upside-down on its own. Only specific, borderline malicious actions you take with those items can.
Still, I’ll admit it’s easier to cause a problem with some things than others. It’s easier to do insane damage with a hulking hurler than with a samurai, with haste than with a two-weapon fighting tree, and with a vampire than with a gnome. Some things require a more delicate hand to keep things fun for everybody.
Chief among these things, of course, is the spell wish. Wish is less a spell in the rulebook and more a creature of legend, a dusty passage in the back of the Player’s Handbook included for completeness but not to be taken seriously, in the same way the edge of a map might say “here there be tigers”. DMs treat it as a nuclear option, so enemy wizards and demons can fiat their way out of a bad situation, and as a campaign capstone reward, so players can satisfy their desire for ludicrous requests but the DM absolves themselves of adjudicating the consequences. In the eyes of D&D players, it’s not there to be realistically used.
Wish does have game-breaking potential. Its powers are intentionally loosely defined, though they include “pluck anybody from anywhere in existence and deposit them anywhere else in existence”, “heal maladies at the level of a deity walking the earth”, and “be an 8th-level spell, because why not”. It’s this ambiguity that causes the problem. DMs are worried players will use the wish too well, either getting themselves some distressingly powerful gear, granting themselves a disruptive power, or sabotaging the game’s intended direction. Players are worried they won’t use the wish well enough, and the DM will interpret their request in whatever way hurts the player the most. It’s a cold war where neither side wants to use wish because they’re worried the other side will twist it out of control.
Well, we’re in a campaign with genies, so I figured wish was going to come up at some point. In our last session the players befriended a malik, and here are their wishes:
- As many diamonds as wish can create, teleported to the party’s home base.
- Eternal youth for the party’s middle-aged leader. Specifically, “I wish to enjoy the physical benefits of youth forever.”
- The exact location of their missing party member, since the point of the campaign was to find her.
An astute reader may notice that these are the exact concerns I gave above about how players can damage the game with wish: inordinate wealth, a disruptive power, and a near-instant solution to the campaign’s driving conflict. They also all gave me ways to hurt the players with them: they didn’t specify the source of the diamonds, they left “eternal youth” open-ended, and they asked for a location open to misinterpretation. We were set up to demonstrate everything wrong with wish.
And here’s where we get back to my original argument: there’s nothing wrong with wish, just with how you use it. My players and I do not have an antagonistic relationship, no matter how much
we I pretend we do. All of us knew the pitfalls of wish, and not only did we avoid some, we deliberately invoked others. When the players asked for wealth, they explicitly noted that they did not specify from where the diamonds came, expecting it to be a plot point later (their origin is, of course, a spoiler). When they asked for youth, they deliberately chose an open-ended wording and left the rest to me. I puzzled over it for a few days trying to find an option that gave the player what they wanted but didn’t punish them inordinately for it, because I didn’t want to ruin the character any more than they did.
Most importantly, they didn’t actually ask for their ally’s location. First they tried to annul the contract that caused their ally to leave in the first place, and I told them that wasn’t possible, as that actually would end the campaign. They then asked if they could find out where she was, so I looked through rulebooks until I found a spell they could duplicate that did exactly that, and I adjusted my plans to compensate for cutting out a few sessions of trying to find her. We worked together to find a solution that met both the characters’ criteria and the players’, and chief among the players’ was “this is a good game and I want to play it next week too.” There was no battle of wits, no attempt to damage each other’s play experience, and as a result this overtly powerful spell not only didn’t break the game, it improved it.
Wish isn’t the problem. Neither are the spiked chain or the hulking hurler or firearms that target touch AC. The problem is an antagonistic relationship between players and DMs. Somewhere along the line, we as a hobby decided this was how the game should be run, with the DM trying to prove his or her mastery over the game while the players try to outsmart them at every turn, and that’s rubbish. You don’t solve a problem like that by pruning every part of the rules with the potential for abuse. You solve a problem like that by not abusing them.