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Why Sorcerer?

I was recently asked a question that I will forward on to you as the guiding thought of this post: "Why would anyone pick sorcerer? Wizard and sorcerer are like Coke and Pepsi."

A provocative question, but not something I would call a "hot take" per se. The two classes in D&D 5e that get the most flak are without a doubt ranger and sorcerer, and I don't think those conversations are entirely without merit. For sorcerer's specifically, their spell list needs a lot of love, and metamagic costs should be adjusted to be a bit more spammable at low/mid levels.

But back to the question - why would someone choose sorcerer over wizard? Taking a look at their abilities in a side-by-side, on-paper comparison, it doesn't look good for the sorcerer.

  • Spells. Sorcerers get one more cantrip than wizards, but every wizard starts with 6 spells available to them whereas a sorcerer is limited to 2 leveled spells. This disparity only gets worse as the levels rise, with wizards able to accumulate 38 more spells over the course of 19 levels (even more if they find scrolls to copy into their spell books). With only 15 spells known at 20th level, a sorcerer will have less than half the options of a wizard. Even with the most generous subclass (Aberrant Mind granting 11 additional subclass-specific spells), that's still a huge disparity.

  • Prepared vs Known. Now the large number of spells a wizard gains is somewhat balanced by them only being able to prepare so many at a time, but even then they will be able to prepare 25 spells (assuming 20th level and 20 Intelligence); ten more than a sorcerer with no subclass spells. And with the ability to add to their list of spells with scrolls or other spellbooks, wizards can become incredibly versatile casters that can tailor their kit to suit exactly what they need in an adventure. A sorcerer is "stuck" with the limited spells they have, waiting for level ups to change out of redundant, underwhelming, or bad spell choices.

  • Ritual Casting. Wizards have the best form of ritual casting, able to ritual cast spells they don't even have prepared. Meanwhile sorcerers can't ritual cast at all.

  • Spellcasting Endurance. A slight edge to the sorcerer here since Font of Magic is able to regain more spell slots per long rest than a wizard's Arcane Recovery: 20 sorcery points can be spent to create 14 levels of spells, whereas a 20th level wizard can only regain 10 levels of spells. However, this tiny advantage is quickly subsumed by the opportunity cost of spending all your sorcery points - a precious resource that can fuel more exciting, flavorful mechanics like subclass powers or metamagic - in order to barely perform better than Arcane Recovery, which is not needed for anything else except regaining spell slots. Factor in a wizard's Spell Mastery and Signature Spells, and now the most versatile caster also has the most spellcasting endurance.

  • Unique Spells. Another blow-out for the wizard. The tradition of named spells in D&D centers around wizards creating new spells through research, and this results in a massive disparity in unique spells. If you filter spells by class in D&D Beyond, wizards have 18 pages of spells compared to the 11 pages of sorcerer spells. The only spell that is unique to sorcerers is chaos bolt. I love that spell, but a class-defining spell it is not, especially since RAW you can't combine it with Twinned Spell for maximum chaotic shenanigans. (I remove this limitation in my home games - a rarity for a rules lawyer like me, but considering the 1/8 chance of a chaos bolt actually chaining, it's well worth the rule-of-cool to enable the slim but satisfying opportunity for pandemonium. Roll dice and have fun.)

  • Spellcasting Ability Modifier. I would also say that being an intelligence based class is yet another advantage for the wizard. Intelligence is an under-emphasized ability score in 5e, so a wizard is filling a unique niche in a group. Sorcerers are just one of many charisma based classes, making it difficult to be the face when you are likely to have a bard, paladin, or warlock also capable of fulfilling that role. A wizard's only competition for "party nerd" are artificers and two subclasses (eldritch knight and arcane trickster).

Between these two arcane full casters with d6 hit die, there doesn't seem to be much going for the sorcerer. So why would anyone choose an "inferior" spellcasting class? If you want to cast spells, why bother with "Pepsi wizard"?

The Art of Blasting

Now this post already treads in to territory that, in a vacuum, I'm not a fan of. Comparing different classes, builds, or any PC options with the intent to answer "which one is better?" moves dangerously close to saying "your fun is wrong!" I don't like telling anyone that the way they are playing the game is "wrong" when that game is so focused on narrative, cooperation, and fun. "Big numbers go up", min-maxing, whatever you want to call it, is as valid a playstyle as any other, and so shouldn't eclipse the joy someone finds in "suboptimal" choices.

But with that caveat out of the way, let's keep going with the premise that, on paper, the wizard has everything the sorcerer has and more. So why play sorcerer?

I think the answer is looking to a common archetype: the blaster.

This is the caster that prioritizes damage and explosions. Why mind control an enemy, or put them in a cage, or any of that "cute magic" when you can just blast them out of existence!?

Always Sunny "So anyway I started blasting" meme.

Not only is this an extremely fun archetype, but I think it's actually the "default" in D&D. It doesn't matter how thematic a character you try to build. When you get 3rd level spells, fireball starts looking pretty tempting. You could even say that the system itself considers it the default since School of Evocation is the only Wizard Subclass in the 5e SRD. Knowing that, and seeing how much "better" wizards are, wouldn't it be safe to assume that the best blaster is an Evocation Wizard?

I would argue "no", and furthermore I would argue that not only are wizards not the best, but that they are an in-every-way-inferior blaster. But to explain why, first I want to clarify what exactly I think an ideal blaster looks like.

First off an ideal blaster should have access to fireball, or lightning bolt if you want to change it up a bit. Second, the blaster should have tools to help mitigate the damage they could do to the party - removing them from aoe effects, using more targeted means of destruction, or even being able to heal companions they hurt. And third, they should be fun. Now this is the most difficult to quantify, but in general I think a blaster should feel like someone brimming with raw power without having to add too much complexity to get there.

It's that last criteria that I think sets sorcerers apart and gives them a unique, important identity in the array of options players have to choose from. A wizard certainly has access to the traditional blaster spells, and the School of Evocation allows you to protect your allies from harm, but wizards are thematically at odds with the notion of a blaster. Why?

Options. If you are playing a wizard just to blast and do damage, I feel like you're missing out on so much of the coolness that a wizard is, and you are also having to go through a lot more complexity than if you were a sorcerer. A wizard wants to have options with their spells. That is the strength of a prepared spellcaster - having the right tool for the job at the right time. But a blaster doesn't need (or want) options, at least not permanent ones. How much is sunburst really doing for you that a level 8 fireball couldn't? If you prepare both, you are eating up valuable prepared spells for the day. And if you are choosing stuff that isn't blasting... well now you aren't making use of your evoker features. There's an unsatisfying tension between wanting to go boom and wanting to fulfill the roll of party nerd / toolbox.

A sorcerer might be "less powerful" because of their lack of spell versatility, but it leads to a simpler, more streamlined experience. You don't have to worry about having the correct key to a door because you already have the battering ram that opens all doors.

Boring Abundance

A quick aside about wizards that I think emphasizes the next point I'm going to make on sorcerers - how different is one wizard from another? Sure you can have different subclasses, and as you level up you could obviously pick different spells from other wizards. There's diversity, yes, but how often have you seen this level one wizard:

mage armor

magic missile

detect magic

find familiar

Wizards suffer from the same problems that Clerics have, in my opinion, which is that from one to the next they often feel incredibly similar (are you even a cleric if you don't prepare healing word, bless, and guiding bolt?). Prepared spells are powerful, but it also makes it very easy for players to just take the ubiquitously good options, forcing the classes to derive most of their flavor from the player's personal injection of RP / backstory elements. If you have multiple clerics or wizards in a party, it can sometimes be tough to tell them apart. But the limitation of spells known, on top of highly flavored subclasses and also choosing different metamagic, means that sorcerers will stand apart and feel unique. Even in a party of multiple sorcerers, it's very unlikely that two will be trying to accomplish the same thing in the same way.

Always Be Branding

And that brings me to my next point, which is less about any specific build or archetype and more about what makes a sorcerer special: narrative-first design. Sorcerers have a very strong, specific theme, and the mechanics work together to stick to that theme. This is what makes them more than just a collection of features that allow you to blast (or do whatever it is you want to do), but can make it extremely fun to blast.

One thing to keep in mind about wizards is that they are, by definition, nerds. Whatever flavor or role playing attributes you assign them from there, you will always be working off the baseline nerd flavor.

But sorcerers lack this specificity in their magic and can be as knowledgeable or ignorant about their powers as you'd like them to be. They could be living spells, or children of gods, or the result of a science experiment gone awry/perfect. Perhaps it was their own experiment! And to return to the notion of being the "best blaster", a sorcerer has so much freedom in how they can blast. You can blast people's minds, or conjure massive gears from the plane of Law to crush them, or be a walking mote of chaos, or turn into a dragon, the most archetypical badass fantasy monster around! In my mind, the sorcerer class embodies the power-fantasy that a blaster strives to achieve: amazing damage without having to work hard to achieve it.

Metamagic is also an excellent way to distinguish how you accomplish the goal of your sorcerer. That goal could be blasting, but it could also be any number of archetypes. A sorcerer can be the face, using enchantment magics and Subtle Spell to seamlessly navigate complex role playing encounters. A sorcerer could be the buffer, using Distant Spell to ensure their allies are always operating at peak performance without getting close to danger. And they could even be a controller, creating lingering effects on the battlefield that last longer with Extended Spell.

Notice that none of those examples required a specific subclass to make them work, and you could even mix and match them! Use Extended Spell to make your buffs last even longer, or Subtle Spell to create an illusion that disrupts your enemies movements without them knowing the source. In order to do "their thing", a wizard needs to pick a subclass and tailor their spells to it, all while trying to inject some level of flavor into the how and why of their spell book choices. But a sorcerer can just wing it! They have their origin for a baseline flavor, then spell choices and metamagic to further refine that starting narrative into a specific group roll. Very few sorcerer origins pigeon-hole the character into a specific caster archetype, but they all provide evocative, meaningful flavor to the way that character casts spells and grows in power.

In short, the sorcerer class is entirely focused on narrative potency while leaving their mechanical abilities flexible. As the player grows to understand what they want to achieve and where their fun is, they can tailor their choices to suit that style of play. It puts fun and story first, which is not only the best way to play a blaster (in my opinion), but is also one of the easiest, most satisfying ways to build an arcane spellcaster.

For minimal complexity and maximum fun, sorcerers are supreme!

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