The Wish spell: anything your heart desires


The Genie of the Lamp, illustration by Himmapaan

I really like what D&D 5e did with Wish. The flavour of this spell didn’t originate in D&D, it directly evokes fairy tales, so it’s supposed to be insanely powerful. However, any insanely powerful resource is bound to cause problems in game, knock things out of whack, disrupt combat and storytelling. So you need to rein it in somehow. If you nerf it (like Pathfinder), that problem is solved, but… it doesn’t feel like a Wish any more. If you can’t wish for anything, what’s even the point.

The traditional D&D method was to turn it into a word game, where the DM is free, and generally expected, to fulfill the letter of the request but subvert the spirit. (This also directly evokes fairy tales, it’s great.) The classic version is “I want a pile of gold!”, “You are immediately buried under a pile of gold, you take 100d6 damage and suffocate.” And it can get VERY elaborate, and the goal is basically to come up with a full-proof wording. Of course, how that plays out in game depends entirely on the DM.

In addition to that risk, and in exchange for turning certain standard uses of the spell “safe” by RAW, 3.5 added the XP cost. However, RAW (and rules-lawyers) also provided several ways of bypassing XP costs, and you could easily have a character with infinite wishes, aaaand it wasn’t D&D any more, it was “I do what I want lol”. And nobody wants that.

So 5e did, I think, the sensible thing. You can use the nerfed version of Wish (i.e. duplicate an existing spell) with no drawbacks. This is a renewable resource, you can do it 1/day for as long as you live, and it won’t blow up in your face. OR, you can use it to wish for anything, like in fairy tales. And like in fairy tales, your wish might get subverted, especially if you aim high. And more importantly, like in fairy tales, you can’t keep doing it forever. An actual Wish is a HUGE deal, it simply should NOT be a renewable resource for player characters. So you can try it, but you run the serious risk of losing the spell forever.

This trick keeps the open-ended version of Wish on the table as an option, a very powerful and very dangerous option. And that’s good: it can lead to amazing, memorable games. At the same time, it keeps it from becoming a perpetual win button. You can risk it, sure, but statistically you’ll only risk it a few times in your life, perhaps only once. So players with Wish will keep that option as a last resort, or for when the stakes are impossibly high, or perhaps for a painstakingly organised plan. They won’t use such a powerful spell willy-nilly.

And at least in my book, that’s what the ability to Wish for anything should look like. It’s not a renewable resource, it’s a storytelling device! A once-in-a-lifetime (or a few times in a lifetime, if you’re lucky), life-changing, nay, world-changing boon. Which might still blow up in your face if you don’t word it carefully.

I understand why some people find it harsh, but I DIG that. I think all gamblers dig it. High risk, high reward, what’s more exciting than that. 😀


In fairy tales, it’s almost never the person wishing who is casting the spell to grant the wish: it’s either an enchanted object (e.g., a well) or a magical being (a genie, a fairy, whatever). […] Which begs the question: why is it available to players as a spell that can do basically anything they themselves can cast when they want to on themselves for themselves instead of only accessible via complicated tasks they have to perform or items/beings they have to track down in-game (who may or may not be able to fulfill the wish anyway)?
~ wearesorcerer

Because then a true Wish (i.e. one where you can wish for anything your heart desires, as opposed to anything the game designers thought to make possible via an existing spell) would be a storytelling device that ONLY the DM can provide. Whereas making it a normally available spell gives the reins of the story to the players, with all the potential wonder and mayhem that entails.

D&D is like, if you’re a lvl 17 Wizard or Sorcerer, you’re allowed to have a reality-bending nuke. As a treat. It’s not safe or stable by any means, and it’s in very short supply, but here it is if you want it!

Isn’t that cool? I think it’s cool. Think about it. Anything your heart desires. Oh, the potential!

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