One of the things that's consistent in D&D 3.5e, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e is that wizards pay money to scribe spells in their spell books. It is part of the process by which a wizard PC gets more effective at what he does. What makes this an interesting protruding nail is that in modern editions, there are very few classes that have a built-in money sink as part of the fundamental mechanics. Most other spellcaster classes get all their spells for free, and no class pays for training any more. About the only sink that's left is trying to be choosy about specific items (armor, weapons, stat boosts) and everyone needs some of those. What this means is that in a game where money is expected to be spent by players, a wizard falls behind the curve, because they need to spend thousands of gold on spells. If they don't, their effectiveness drops. And, from my experience, in the various 3.x style games, there's no demonstrable advantage to the wizard; most of other classes got their spell powers boosted in effectivness, with extra armor, hit points, and special abilities. There are some cleric ranged builds that are nearly as powerful as damage wizards, and most of the spell buffs are shared across multiple classes.
Basically, only masochists and story-hounds really play wizards now. ;)
The thread I want to pull on here is to take these lemons and make lemonade. I'm often looking for ways to inject story into characters. So how might wizards solve this problem in a way that doesn't hit their treasure horde?
* Patronage - it is RARE for a wizard to exist without a rich patron. Which means for a player character, the chance of dangling interesting patrons in front of them, with the complications. "going it alone" becomes a bit more of a challenge.
* Allow wizards to make more money in downtime because their spells are simply a more effective way to do things. Meaning, essentially, that money becomes less of a problem if you have useful skills. This is more of an artisan model of magic.
* Wizard allies - someone who shares spells in exchange for services rendered.
* And of course, shortcuts to power. Wizardry is a slow path to learned power. That sort of power, earned without obligations to outsiders and deities, is something that could be a threat to the greater powers. So, those powers like to find ways to hook into a character before they get too powerful. :)
Part of this last idea, if separated from the idea of focusing on players, is to allow for other sorts of magic to be added to an NPC wizard. In other words, a wizard might be powerful because he did make a bargain with something he shouldn't have. Or found some magic or location that grants him power through some other shortcut.
(An aside: warlocks are troubling for me in 4 and 5e. Not because I don't like the concept, but because it feels too orderly, and perhaps lacking enough solid hooks into the character).
Taking the concept and trying to generalize it, the thought in my head is to borrow a concept from FATE and other modern games. EVERY class should not only be an advantage for a PC, but also have drawbacks.
Wizards - finding ways to finance your power without bargaining something away.
Clerics, Warlocks - being committed to your patron's goals and beliefs. I'm not saying that such characters should always be on the edge of losing their powers, because I'm not sure that would fly well. But the pressure to perform should be there.
Fighters, Rogues - What sort of secular powers do you owe fealty to? Or something along those lines.
There's lots I could pull on here, so just listing some of the things coming to mind right now:
* Wizards have a big mechanical drawback that ultimately ties back to progression: wealth being a critical part of most D&D games.
* Turning that drawback into a story might be very cool.
* But at the same time, why should wizards have all the pain. EVERYONE should have a few interesting hooks. And maybe one of those hooks for each character should always/almost always be class based. The player chose that class for a reason.
* How do you threaten someone's class-given powers in a way that makes the story interesting? Meaning: Let's say we're talking about a warlock. You can make the patron a total tool, and threaten the player's powers if they don't agree. That works to a certain point, but really, some of that power dynamic moves away from story and ends up being something frustrating to the player. And if they decide to lose their powers, is that character effectively shut down for life?
Arguably, from a play perspective, losing ones class abilities permanently mostly means a character not worth playing. But make it a good story arc and you might be able to get away with it. Can you, say, run a player through a 2-4 episode arc where their powers are lost, with a promise of interesting story along the way and maybe even an option for something a little different instead.
* Almost all of the story stuff ends up being things I'd have no qualms about playing with in a more story-oriented system like FATE - give someone choices, change their aspects when they make big decisions, compel their aspects until the cows come home. What do you do when some things are more "hard coded" - class abilities?
* What do you do when the realities of a particular class don't match up with the play style of a particular adventure. For example, you can put time or money pressure on players -- good for drama -- but that essentially means that the class that NEEDS time or money is going to suffer, without some sort of out. And it also means if someone is playing such a character, every adventure or campaign you run with said characters can't ignore that problem. (Meaning: I could run a game where I ignored a cleric's deity because when it comes right down to it, those story elements don't affect the mechanics of how a character plays. The same rationale doesn't work for wizards; you either need to add those things to your campaign or make mechanical changes to the game system to adapt.
Per the last post I made, the story behind wizards is always something I jump on (a little) when making campaigns and story. Usually that's because putting pressure on a character can be interesting.
More threads to pull on and think about. And here I started writing this tonight because I wanted to note this down WITHOUT pulling on all the threads this evening. Hopefully I haven't just jinxed myself out of some sleep tonight.