Time for a little more deconstruction.
In the past I’ve been, if not completely raving in favor of the D&D magic system, at least accepting of it as is. I was never bothered (much) by the “mental blackboard/eraser” process, and the weirdness of Vancian magic (borrowed from Jack Vance’s weird Dying Earth stories) actually contributes a “psychedelic” tone to the game which I appreciate, even if it makes the system hell to justify in a “mythic Europe” setting or the literary paradigm of “swords & sorcery.” People who prefer something akin to Tolkien or Howard have all had to find a way to reconcile Vancian magic, a system developed as a GAME mechanic that breaks the 4th wall suspension of disbelief due to its lack of justification outside a world drawn by Erol Otus.
Or so it’s always seemed to me. When I was a kid it didn’t matter because, well, I never really thought about the “underlying logic of the game world.” As a teen and young adult I railed at the “nonsensical” system of magic (in comparison with examples of magic in literature and film) and looked for better, “more accurate” magic systems. As a more mature adult, I embraced the weirdness or (as said) accepted it, being more concerned with other issues…like running a good game and enjoying the “balance” of it. I’ve never really had any major complaints with the Vancian system.
Of course, I’ve never been one to play magic-user characters.
And when I HAVE played an arcane caster, it wouldn’t be the traditional robed and pointy-hatted wizard. I had a 3rd edition magic-user modeled after Gandalf (including spending feats on sword skills, and non-damaging, utility spells). I played a gnome assassin-illusionist that behaved more like a fighter. I had another (single class) illusionist in a recent game that spent most of his efforts on wooing ladies and being talky-talky. I’ve never been the “lightning-slinger” (or “sleep-bomb”) type…but then, I really don’t have that much experience playing arcane spell-casters.
But I’ve seen quite a few of ‘em…both in games I’ve played and in games I’ve run…and I’ve come to a conclusion over time:
I make this statement from the perspective of a player, and from an analysis of the magic-user as a player character class. As a monster, they’re just fine: an interesting opponent, lightly armored, variable abilities, scalable to a party’s level, and usable in a variety of ways. As an NPC (both opponents and allies) the DM can prepare the magic-user in any fashion appropriate for the situation at hand. But then, DMs can do this with any NPC (magic-users just give more in-game justification for their customizability).
So when I say, MAGIC-USERS SUCK, I’m only talking about the magic-using class, as used by player characters. And my astute observation (that they suck) comes from a careful review of the rules as written and their actual use in-play. My concern is about the “fun factor” of the class, both for the player who actually plays the character, the other players in the party, and the DM running the adventure. My thoughts are not considerate of “game balance,” but rather about EFFECTIVENESS and USABILITY.
Just by the way (before I begin to enumerate my position), people who disagree with my position should observe the following pieces of evidence that “something is wrong” with the magic-user class:
- The existence of house rules in many, many campaigns to change or increase magic-user effectiveness. This includes bonus spells, bonus hit points, bonus starting levels, ease of weapon and/or armor restrictions, etc. all of which express dissatisfaction with the class as written.
- The modification and tweaking of the class and its abilities over-time and across editions, expressing dissatisfaction with the class as conceived in prior/earlier editions.
In my own B/X campaigns (the ones I’ve run over the last couple years) I’ve included only a couple house rules that effected magic-users: max hit points at 1st level and the ability for any class to use any weapon (at 1st based on my B/X Companion rules, and later simply because I “regressed” to all weapons doing D6 damage and didn’t see how it was “unbalanced” to restrict magic-user and cleric weapon selection). Oh, yeah…and I waffled back-n-forth at times about how spell research worked. But for the most part I played “straight” B/X. Here’s what magic-users get with the B/X rule set:
- Character starts at 1st level with 0 XP.
- No ability restrictions; Intelligence (high or low) only adjusts XP earned.
- 2500xp necessary for level 2 (highest of any character except elves).
- No armor/shield; dagger only (D4 damage if using “variable damage” rule)
- Character knows one spell of 1st level.
- Character can cast one spell per day.
- Hit points determined by 1D4 (average 2.5) and may reroll 1s and 2s at 1st level.
- Combat and saves advance upon reaching 5th level (20,000XP needed).
But, whatever…I mean, I have many reasons for not playing AD&D or 2nd edition or 3rd or 4th, so I’m not going to worry about them for the purpose of this discussion. Presuming you (like me) are more enchanted with B/X or Holmes or OD&D, let’s look at the “littlest wizard:” that geezer in the robes with the beard, dagger strapped to his belt and single page spell book. This guy? What do you think is the chance he’s going to survive to 2nd level? Or 3rd (at which time he will receive his first 2nd level spell)? 5000xp is a lot, after all…even assuming a high prime requisite score and a liberal amount of treasure. How easy is it for a guy with no armor to take 5+ points of damage (presuming average hit points at 2nd level) and die-die-die? Pretty easy…against a single orc, the average 2nd level magic-user will not survive past round three.
‘Course, it’s not likely the magic-user will be getting stuck-in with the baseline humanoid. Instead, they’ll be skulking around the back of the pack, or whining that they need to retreat the dungeon to re-memorize their sleep spell(s), or bitterly complaining that they “can’t do anything.” Or all of the above. At least, in my experience that’s the usual thing that low-level magic-users are doing for most of a three to five hour game session.
Does that sound like fun to you?
As a DM, I hate it. I HATE it. From every angle. I hate the bitching and moaning and requests for house rules. I hate the party constantly mounting “retreats” to “sleep and regain spells” just so they can rinse and repeat the same approach to encounters. I hate that players get “left out” of action because they’re out of spells, or only have a single spell left that’s inappropriate for the circumstance. I hate that players feel compelled to take the same selection of “most useful spells” including such gems as sleep, charm, web, fly, and fireball. And I REALLY hate the magic-user with the bandolier of throwing knives…it was cool the first time, but has since lost any trace of coolness or originality.