Issue #49 (May 1981) of Dragon includes an article entitled "Best Wishes!" by Gary Snyder. The article, as its title suggests, discusses the contentious topic of magic wishes in Dungeons & Dragons, with an eye toward providing guidelines to aid the referee in adjudicating them. Snyder then proposes ten "general principles" toward this end, reproduced here.
Friday, April 8, 2022
I find it difficult to disagree outright with any of the principles above, which, for the most part, strike me as eminently sensible. At the same time, I can't be bothered to care. I have long felt that the only important question the referee needs to ask himself regarding magic wishes is whether or not to allow them in his campaign in the first place. If he does, fencing in their efficacy with so many caveats, conditions, and provisos strikes me as missing the point of magic wishes in the first place, namely, they can do anything.
Now, I fully appreciate that how potentially destabilizing putting that kind of power into the hands of players could be. After all, clever players already have a nasty habit of upending the referee's best laid plans; give them the literal ability to alter reality with a word and who knows the mischief of which they're capable? If a referee feels that way – and there's absolutely no shame in this – then simply don't allow magic wishes. Eviscerating them to the point where they can scarcely do anything with far-reaching consequences suggests to me the referee doesn't really want them in his campaign anyway. Why not be honest about that?
On the other hand, if you do elect to include them in your campaign, I recommend you allow them to be fully efficacious. This is not to say that magic wishes should not have consequences, even unpleasant ones. Volume 2 of OD&D, for example, counsels the referee to use "utmost discretion" when handling wishes and then offers suffer examples of ways to turn a player's own greed against him through creative interpretations of his wish. AD&D (in both editions) includes similar advice and I imagine it's through the influence of passages like these that I've never really felt the need to rein in the potency of magic wishes.
If anything, I relish the opportunity to present players with magic wishes, who know full well that W.W. Jacobs is never far from my mind and act accordingly. Wishes are an occasion of a strange battle of ingenuity between not just the players and myself but also within the players' own minds. They carefully ponder the matter, attempting to find the best way to get as much as they think I'll allow before they trigger my desire to twist their words to their detriment. Believe it or not, it's fun, for both the players and myself and probably goes some way to explain why I've never felt the need for "general principles" like Snyder's.
I suppose my real point is that, too often, referees judge how much a rule or aspect of the game as written might "unbalance" their campaigns before they've been given a fair shake. My own experience has taught me that, when it doubt, it's best to assume "D&D is always right," which is to say, that it's usually wiser to stick with the game as it exists until play demonstrates that some rule or aspect of it actually doesn't work well. In other words, try to play the game as it is rather than how you'd prefer it to be, based on some idealized notion of what the game should be. I don't say this to discourage house ruling, which has a long and storied history in the hobby, only to encourage my fellow referees not to worry so much about how magic wishes (or anything else) might "ruin" their campaigns if not confined by all sorts of before-the-fact limitations. Let D&D be D&D – including magic wishes.