Class Dive: What is a wizard, exactly?

This week I have the distinct pleasure of starting a new campaign and among the players, I have two who have not ever played a tabletop role-playing game before. Not since I taught my girls how to play D&D have I had new players at my table, so I’m excited to see how they do.

That said, it’s forced me to take another look at each of the main character classes — Fighters, Thieves, Wizards, and Clerics — and try to define what they **ARE** in simple terms. Though I think fighters and thieves are pretty self-explanatory, I thought I’d start with the wizard and go from there.


Our friends at define a wizard as:

  1. A person who practices magic; magician or sorcerer.
  2. A conjurer or juggler.

We can dive further into other parts of this with…

  • Magician: an entertainer who is skilled in producing illusion by sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; conjurer.
  • Sorcerer: a person who practices sorcery; black magician; wizard.
  • Conjurer: a person who conjures spirits or practices magic; magician.

And then we have to go even further to define what magic is…

  • the art of producing illusions as entertainment by the use of sleight of hand, deceptive devices, etc.; legerdemain; conjuring.
  • the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature.

We could dive even further into the concepts of sympathetic magic, imitative magic, and contagious magic, but we’ll stop there for now. Suffice it to say that the magician’s hat holds more than a simple rabbit.

General Overview

Way back in 2nd edition AD&D, the wizard or magic-user class was described as follows in the 2nd edition Player’s Handbook:

“Mages have no historical counterparts; they exist only in legend and myth. However, players can model their characters after such legendary figures as Merlin, Circe, or Medea. Accounts of powerful wizards and sorceresses are rare, since their reputations are based in no small part on the mystery that surrounds them. These legendary figures worked toward secret ends, seldom confiding in the normal folk around them.”

In Mazes & Perils, we describe Magic-Users as:

“Magic-Users are those few who know the mysteries of how to bend energy to their will and have researched how to do this all their lives. Because all their time is spent in study, there is little time to learn how to wear armor properly or wield various types of weapons.”

(Read more in the wiki here.)

As far as wizard characters played by players at the game table, there are three main types we see over and over again.

  • The old, proper Merlin- or Gandalf the Grey-themed wizard
  • The old, forgetful, professor-style wizard
  • And the young whippersnapper wizard just learning how to use his or her abilities

If you look to those wizard characters played by GMs, they tend to fall into:

  • Mentors and advisers to the PCs
  • Aloof, stand-offish characters who want nothing to do with the PCs
  • Villains the PCs are trying to stop

(If you want to ponder some ideas on how to shake up those stereotypes, I recommend you check out our Essential Questions: Magic Users product at DriveThruRPG or RPGNow, or on Amazon Kindle. 🙂 )


In game terms, a wizard is an individual skilled in harnessing the magical forces of the universe to do their bidding. And their tool of choice is usually the spell. But what is a spell?

  • Spell: a word, phrase, or form of words supposed to have magic power; charm; incantation.
  • Incarnation: the chanting or uttering of words purporting to have magical power.

In game terms, a spell defines a special ability that the wizard summons at will. Such abilities usually require focus and energy and can only be “summoned” a select number of times per day. Controlling such magical energies takes effort and will tire out a wizard. The more experienced such wizards get, the more power they can wield safely and consistently each day.

The amount of power also increases as these characters gain in experience. New “levels” of spells grant control of more and more powerful special abilities.

Those special abilities typically fall into two broad categories:

  • Affecting a single individual or specific targets
  • Affecting all targets in a particular area

But there are many different types of spells. Some summon creatures from elsewhere. Others gather elemental forces of fire or ice to do a wizard’s bidding. Still others seek to control the thoughts or wills of others. There is no end to the applied creativity of magical forces.

Common spells include (but are not limited to):

  • Magic Missile (1st level)
  • Shield (1st level)
  • Sleep (1st level)
  • Phantasmal Forces (2nd level)
  • Fireball (3rd level)
  • Fly (3rd level)
  • Lightning Bolt (3rd level)
  • Monster Summon (3rd level)
  • Ice Storm (4th level)
  • Wall of Fire/Ice (4th level)
  • Cloud Kill (5th level)
  • Hold Monster (5th level)

(Here’s the list of spells available to Magic Users in Mazes & Perils, but players and GMs can always create more spells!)


Hopefully you have a little better idea of who wizards or magic-users are in Mazes & Perils and other role-playing games now. Next up we’ll talk about Clerics!

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