Monday, August 13, 2012

Building a Better Magic-User

Thank God the Olympics are over. They were a lot of fun (as usual), but it will be nice to get some sleep at night. I was open till 3AM re-watching the closing ceremonies (which I missed earlier in the day), and man-o-man am I beat. Worst moments from the games: no broadcasts of fencing (even medal highlights!) on NBC or On Demand, Morgan Uceny getting tripped up in the 1500m, no Iron Maiden (or ANY British metal bands) at the closing ceremonies. Best moments from the games: Mexico’s local kids winning gold in soccer over Brazil’s pro superstars (that’s like the 1980 USA vs. USSR hockey final) ; Grenada winning their first ever medal (and it was gold); final match of Trainor-Walsh in beach volleyball; shorty Leo Manzano’s run for the silver in the 1500m from the back of the pack; Oscar Pistorious (just awesome); David Boudia (diving) and Aly Raisman (floor exercise) winning gold despite being underdogs. Oh, yeah…the Australian girl winning the hurdles…watching her gliding speed was about the smoothest thing I’ve ever seen on a track. Actually, there were a ton of “best moments,” but those were some of my favorites…in other words, well worth the lack of sleep.

[so, so tired…]

[by the way, little to say about the Seahawks game except hooray the season has finally started and it looks like we’ll have our QB for the foreseeable future. Whether or not there will be anyone who can catch is the same old story. Oh, and my son LOVED the game and yelled and cheered and clapped without getting bored, despite not having much idea what the hell was going on]

Okay, let’s get on with it.

Just by the way (before I begin) please allow me to say that I appreciate all the feedback on the recent posts, including the disagreement. Not only can it (sometimes) sway my mind, but it can lead me to things I missed before: for example, magic-user spells in OD&D (pre-Supplement) is quite different from the later (Vancian) take. Specifically:
  • Magic-users are presumed to have access to ALL spells on the spell list (similar to a cleric). While they still have a set of spell books, each book (initially received for FREE) contains a complete collection of spells for a particular level. In other words, a 5th level magic-user would have three books: one with 1st level spells, one with 2nd level spells, and a third with 3rd level spells. If a book gets lost, the magic-user needs to pay to replace the volume.
  • The number of spells an MU can be cast is the spells that a magic-user can REMEMBER from his (or her) spell books. An experienced (i.e. high level) magic-user can remember many more spells than a new magic-user. There’s no “morning study” or “memorization” that takes place at the beginning of the day; instead casting is based on real “memory” (which, interestingly, is similar to my own system as currently written). This has a couple interesting implications. #1 Low level magic-users are terribly ignorant or absent-minded (that’s what such a system models; not sure if that’s what you want to model). #2 Can MUs bring their books into the dungeon (i.e. risking their loss) in order to cast more spells?
  • Per the rule book, no spell may be cast more than once per day/adventure. No particular reason is given, but this puts a stop to “doubling up” on offensive spells (like sleep or fireball). While this has interesting game play effects (MU players are forced to be creative rather than relying on old stand-bys; players have the ability to “count bullets” with enemy wizards: ‘Well, he’s already used lightning bolt and fireball so we know he can’t cast those anymore…’), it’s hard to think of a non-game play justification that really makes sense here. On the other hand, if you only get one knock spell or levitate per session it makes thieves’ abilities a bit more practical/useful, which is cool.
But, hey, this particular method of working magic-user spells is ONLY found in the LBBs of OD&D; I would assume these rules were tweaked and replaced in later editions due to them “not working” for one reason or another, interesting as they are.

That’s kind of the point of my original series of posts: it’s not that any particular edition’s take on magic-users can't be used. An intelligent and creative player can do a lot with most ANY character. My two part concern is this:
  • Can the character class be used consistently with satisfaction?
  • Does the character class model what you want it to model?
Now, making a character class (any class) one that can be used “consistently with satisfaction” is not a matter of just giving the archetype to blast opponents with laser mind-bullets at will (i.e. going the 4th Edition path). The consistent satisfaction is not about “character inflation” (the opposite of “nerfing”); it’s about making the character fun to play for most people, most of the time, including other players in the group AND the DM. That’s a tall order, but I think it’s doable.

[and, yes, some folks may wonder why I so stubbornly cling to a “class” system as opposed to moving to a “classless” one; this is a whole separate topic for a different post. Suffice is to say: at the moment, I feel that class-based is a very useful method of chargen for this particular game, and NOT because it pigeonholes player characters into particular “roles”]

With regard to the other question listed (“modeling what you want it to model”) as far as I’m concerned, this may be the more important concern, and for two reasons. First off, I think that a lot is forgivable (and, ultimately, playable) when one can put it in context. Why can’t magic-users wear armor? Um…because they’ll fry like tinfoil in a microwave when they try to cast a spell? I mean, if the rules of a class carry an in-game justification, it’s far easier to get into the role of the character archetype. Secondly, when going through the chargen process, it’s helpful to have the ability to draw on inspiration from other references (literary, cinematic, etc.)…at least somewhat. Of course, this isn’t always possible with specific fictional settings…for example sorcery in Moorcock’s Young Kingdom works in a very specific fashion, being accomplished through contact with and summoning of extra-planar entities rather than specific “charms,” “incantations,” and “spells.”

Okay. SO…keeping these two questions in mind, let’s talk about both in turn (with regard to my rebuild of the deconstructed magic-user class for my version of D&D Mine). We’ll actually start with the second consideration first:


Mmm…now I’m sorry that I didn’t get into my reasons for being a proponent of the “class” system, because some of this might not make sense without that context. Well, whatever…suffice is to say if every player character (PC) is an “adventurer,” then one’s “classification of adventurer” describes the character’s skill set. As in, the character has spent years training in a particular arena (or has a natural ability in a particular category) and this is reflected in the character’s “class.” CLASS describes what an adventurer IS and (in part) what TOOLS an adventurer has to work with.

Magic-users are users of magic. Duh.

But they are still adventurers. What can adventurer do? Well, a lot, actually. Adventurers are “combat ready” (they’re pretty good fighters). They have a heightened awareness and greater destiny/luck that helps them survive hazards (hit points and saves). They can wear armor, and wield weapons that don’t require sophisticated training (e.g. swords and bows).

They have a lot of “automatic skills” that come with an adventuring background: fire-building, using rope, climbing (non-sheer) surfaces, searching for traps and other hidden objects. Other skills may be available to them based on their individual ability scores (Strength, Intelligence, etc.), which represent raw talent.

Okay, those are the things magic-users have in common with ALL adventurers. What else can they do?

Well, they can use magic, which has to be defined by the cosmology inherent in your “fantasy adventure game.” MY game, for example, does not use Vance’s Dying Earth as a source, but rather a hodge-podge of mythology and literary tropes. Some of the things I wish to model include:
  • Magic is a skill that is learnable by anyone (though only characters of the magic-user class have bothered to do so).
  • Magical spells involve incantation and proper phrasing, as well as the proper mindset (i.e. “mental discipline”). Spells may be recited from memory or read from writing (scrolls, books, tablets, etc.).
  • More powerful spells are more complex in incantation and require greater mental focus. They thus are more difficult to cast and take longer to do so. Spell-casters that rush the incantation have a better chance at botching it.
  • More experienced casters are better at casting spells and have committed more spells to memory than less experienced casters.
  • Magic spells are formulae that must be learned, taught, or discovered. Once a magic-user passes his (or her) apprenticeship, he is on his own in this regard.
  • Anyone can attempt to invent or reinvent or steal a spell that is not known.
  • A high intelligence is useful both for performing an incantation correctly AND for creating or “reverse engineering” spells.
  • Magic-users can attempt to imbue items with magical might (i.e. brew potions and enchant magic items) though it takes a certain degree of knowledge (i.e. level of experience) to do so.
  • Magic-users can attempt to counter other mages spells.
Finally, I personally want to get away from the whole idea of “wizards as artillery.” As such there will be very few (if any!) spells that inflict “direct damage” on an opponent: no magic missiles or lightning bolts or laser vision, for example, and any damaging spells that do exist will be of a high degree of complexity and not necessarily readily available. What wizard mentor wants to put the power of life and death into the hands of another? Almost all spells will be of the “utility” variety…if you want to kill someone, pick up a sword and stab him like a normal adventurer!

Magic in my game can be called “the subtle path;” powerful and versatile when executed with creativity. It is the path of the academic (and as such, magic-user characters may be a tad less hearty of constitution than other adventurers), and magicians should have a mystical or mysterious air about them. They are adept at “seeing things others don’t” due to their training…but it’s up to the individual player to correctly interpret what they see and make wise use of the information.


Well, this is a toughie to answer, since it really requires play-testing. I will say this: I have run a single session of D&D Mine with a magic-user class that met 80% of the above requirements (the one way I was still clinking to the old tropes was in disallowing the use of armor…the tinfoil-in-microwave deal), and the 1st level magician seemed to have a blast and had no complaints. Now this was back when I was still designing the game as a “dungeon crawl first” type adventure game, and since then I’ve been working on how to involve other stages of exploration (from the get go) but things still look VERY promising.

By the way, I should probably have pointed out in the beginning that I’m not going to be posting any specific rules here…at least not yet (sorry). I know that’s probably a bit disappointing for folks; however, if you stick with my own model listed above and go back to Chainmail and Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D) you can probably puzzle out something similar to my own system.
: )

[on the other hand, I’m going to be looking to create one or more new play-testing groups in the very near future…if you’re a reader that lives in the Seattle area, keep checking this blog over the next couple-four days for a posting about “Players Wanted”]


  1. It's cool that so many people were digging the Olympics, but don't forget what's happening in a couple of weeks.

  2. Anyone can attempt to invent or reinvent or steal a spell that is not known.

    like magic missile or fireball...? ;)

  3. @ Shlomo:

    Of course! However, one would be expected to use the spells in the book as guidelines for any new spells, and (as with standard D&D rules) new spells will be subject to approval from the GM. A spell that conjures a magical dart of energy that unerringly strikes a target may not be a 1st level spell...and channeling electricity through your body is a dangerous proposition!
    ; )

  4. I think part of the problem with the Magic User class is the perception that the only thing the class can do is cast spells, so many people try to make the class better by changing the spell casting ability. I think the key to a better Magic User is making the non-spell casting abilities better / more important. For instance Gandalf did more than cast spells: He displayed leadership/charisma skills, deciphered runic inscriptions to open locked doors, navigated the maze in Moria when other were lost, etc

  5. Looks promising.

    It reminds me in some ways of Palladium (i.e., Men of Magic can wear armor and use weapons, they're just not as good as it as warrior-classes).

    I like the idea of a subtle path. It reminds me of magic in Mary Stewart's "Merlin-Arthur-Modred" books. Magic-users should use finesse and their brains; blowing something up with a fireball is not subtle. :)

  6. on building a better magic-user

    In my opinion this is a problem of equilibrium. The MU should be surely an adventurer, but also the magic/spell system needs some revision. I would like to keep most of the spell (eventually changing/erasing the one out of place in the ambientation; or just increasing their difficulty)

    What I would like to do? On one hand I want the MU to have access to a variety of spell, on the other hand I want the MU to be cautious in spell use. But how?

    In my mind the system should discourage the use of many spells in sequence, should always have some risk for the MU and it's group in resorting to spells (so casting a Lightning Bolt should be a last resort since it could backfire), the risk should build up if the mage cast spell after spell. At the same time the MU should always have a good number of spell option open to him....

    a few confused ideas

  7. I'm coming to think that spells that can be cast more times but with a chance for fumbles is probably the best solution, as it both makes the first level magic-user less of a one-shot (which doesn't really bother me, but clearly bothers many others), and also simultaneously makes magic a bit more mysterious, and explains why magic is not used as technology. It's simple enough to explain to a new player without needing to absorb complicated rules. Also, fumbles are fun. The trick is just doing it in a concise manner (referee creativity is good enough for me, but I don't know what percentage of gamers it would please).

  8. @ Fabio: not very confusing at all...and something very similar to my line of thinking.

    @ Brendan: even MORE similar to my line of thinking; you might very well enjoy my new magic system as it has these elements while NOT turning spell-casting into a total crapshoot.
    : )

  9. You're such a big tease! I was hoping that you were going to answer my prayers by giving me a good, workable retooling of the magic-user for B/X. Argh! OK, what do I have to buy? Is it in the new B/X Adventurer?

  10. @JB thanks

    I would like that after a few spell the chance of fumble or the intensity of failure start to raise enough to make the wizard think twice, so a mage would use spells when _really_ needed and not every other round.

  11. I use spell points to kill Vancian Magic, and while some consider it heretical, it makes sense. My wife plays a Halfling Mechaniker, a mage who makes wondrous mechanical devices, and she likes it. She can think of all sorts of gizmos that are useful in the dungeon, based on a spell description.

    In my house-ruled variant Wizards also have a certain number of spells that they keep in their spellbooks, and pay in magic points if they try to extend the range or duration of spells.

    Range and duration are standard, hard-coded into the system, dependent on the "purpose" of the spell. Is it environmental, direct damage, etc.? Eliminates much of the "lookup" factor.

    I love StevenWarble's comment, about making the non-spell casting abilities better / more important. Maybe that's the key. Maybe if wizards could do more cool shit, perhaps that would help offset the miserable "I've blown my one spell for the day."