Saturday, August 11, 2012

Killing Vancian Magic (Part 1)

[I have a busy weekend ahead of me...including taking the boy to see his first Seahawks game today in what will undoubtably Matthew Hasselbeck's last appearance on Century Link field until he retires and is inducted into Seattle's "Ring of Honor." Chokes me up a bit thinking about it...I really hope we don't injure him with our new, tuned up defense (maybe the 12th Man will take it easy on him?). such, I'm setting up a schedule of posts for blogger to put out over the next couple days; please feel free to comment, but it might be awhile before I respond!]

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:

Magic-users suck.

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
The simple fact is that few people seem satisfied with the character class as designed. Gygax’s own house rules, from what I’ve read, started new characters at 3rd level and granted a bonus 1st level spell for high Intelligence. That’s fairly beefy compared to your Rules As Written starting M-U.

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).
Now this is based almost entirely on OD&D, only using Supplement I when it comes to variable hit points and weapon damage, and the inclusion of new spells (like magic-missile) in the spell list. AD&D increases the characters choice of available weapons and increases the number of spells in the character’s spell book (if not the number the character can cast on a daily basis). 2nd edition adds some additional options (especially with the later Player Options book: I remember my brother creating a Githzerai wizard who had the ability to wear armor while spell-casting). 3rd Edition adds feats and skills and bonus spells based on Intelligence and reduces all advancement to a single table (so wizards advance as quickly as anyone else); plus the ability to make multiple attacks at high level and multi-class as desired. 4th Edition adds more changes including the unlimited ability to cast “cantrip” spells, including magic missile.

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.


  1. It sounds like you might be drifting toward an idea that's been tugging at the edges of my better judgment ever since it occurred to me after watching a double feature of Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian/Conan the Destroyer: classes suck.

    In the first movie, all the heroes are warriors and the same three heroes are also sneaky thieves - and both wizards are NPCs. Our heroes all get their chance to shine, but at more or less the same sorts of things.

    In the second movie, we have Conan as a tank, a sneaky thief who comes in handy once or twice around the edges, and a wizard who is likewise only occasionally needed.

    I know which party sound like more fun to play in for me.

    I say all this as a Moldvay-era grognard who doesn't play as much as he'd like to, but thinks about D&D every day. D&D is awesome, broadly speaking, but I've come to the conclusions that you and C are right about skills, you're right about experience and by extension damn the concept of levels, and Raggi is largely right about monsters being too common. Demihumans are an annoying Tolkeinism, to boot.

    What's left? Attributes, sneaking, fighting, and just generally being deadly, dashing rogues in a postapocalyptic world full of dangerous men and women, wild animals and natural hazards, and the occasional thing that should not be.

    Your mileage may vary, of course.

  2. Interesting points. After reading this, I was struck with an idea.... what if Vancian magic just indicates what spells will work ABSOLUTELY, and after that you have a table of effects (similar, I'm sure, to what DCC includes, from what I hear)of what could go wrong. For instance.... your first level mage casts his Sleep spell. Great. Everything works awesome. A few encounters later, having spent his one daily spell, he encounters a situation where he needs to try and cast another spell... maybe Sleep again, maybe Magic Missle. Since this is beyond his one prepared spell, he can try, but anythign can happen: maybe he doesn't have enough residual energy left to cast the spell. Maybe it goes off, but trageting randomly. Maybe it goes off, but the mage permanently burns his neural pathways, and can never cast that spell again. This would mage mages slightly more useful, but with all the risk that true magic entails.

  3. An interesting read. I look forward to part II.

  4. very much agreed!

  5. I fully agree with everything you've said here. I say keep the theif; love the cleric;kill the Magic user. M-U's are frail fragile things that suck up your share of the treasure and are never as useful as an Elf with a wand (and I hate Elves.)

    I usualy offer up alternative magic systems for just this reason. Spellcraft and Swordplay's chainmail inspired system gets a lot of use, and I've had a few Dragon at Dawn "power up" Elven Wizards in the mix, but even when granted options to retain spells M-U's are too squishy to be of much use.

    I once ran a house rule where M-U's could sacrifice a spell to improve AC (magic shield) or increase THB (enchanted strike) for a day, but it only helped MU's that went Vancian and even then not by much.

    I can't wait to see you're solutions.

  6. Good, valid thoughts. And i agree.

    Now, other characters have to retreat from the dungeon as well to regain HP. But, if when hps are dropping, they're still valid characters. as you've pointed out (and we've all learned over the years :) ), the magic-user is usually at low levels. It truly is a good example of poor mechanics impacting the game.

    I don't have a solution, really. All the patches don't really address the issue. As much as I enjoy your variable class weapon damage, why should a mage with 17 strength only do d4 damage. If all weapons do d6 (0e), why have other weapons. 3e tried to address the issue by upping the spells as first level and adding bonus spells due to high INT.

    I have to agree that classless fantasy systems handle it better. Like Dragonquest (1/2e). One could learn any weapon, join a college of magic, have multiple professions. Of course, the more one tries to do, the longer it takes one to level.

  7. I love magic-users. I love playing a character that has to be intelligent and not just resort to brute force (thieves are my other favourite). I love figuring out innovative uses for whatever random reality warping powers I've ended up with. Anyone who complains their character "can't do anything" is either incompetent, or is playing in some kind of hack-and-slash gamestyle different from any I've experienced. Literally the only thing a magic-user with no spells can't do that a fighter can in the course of normal gameplay is trade blows in combat.

    But, to be fair, I'm just blowing hot air, because I play AD&D, where magic-users get three random spells to choose from when preparing their 1 a day. Maybe that makes all the difference.

  8. Interesting; no dissents so far?

    Here is one! It went too long for a comment.

    I think you may be wanting class to be more important than it needs to be. A magic-user need not be a character that always responds with magic to every situation, but rather someone that has some magic in store for the occasional situation (as is true for the special perks that come with all classes). Adventurer first, class second.

  9. I'm with Brendan. I love playing magic-users, however, I have often seen players who want them to be something other than what they are, and those players are really frustrating (and frustrated).

  10. @ frijoles junior:

    While I see your point(s), I'm still enamored with classes at the moment, for a variety of reasons.
    ; )

  11. Nonsense. Magic users do not suck. They are just for expert players. If you cannot keep a magic user alive at low levels, then pick an easier class to work with. This idea that all classes should be equally powerful at all levels drains the soul out of the game and leaves expert players with nowhere to go. Beginners get fighters, experts get mages and the other classes sit in between. No wonder you couldn't get a magic user to work very well if you couldn't figure out that a bag of daggers was all you needed to contribute to the encounters where you had used up your magic.

  12. Actually, JB covers that in the last paragraph of his post, RK.

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  14. While for years I totally agreed with this idea, more recently I've come to feel that wizard players who complain about not being able to do anything after casting their 'one spell' aren't hiring enough henchmen. That's what, I think, they are partly there do things while your main is unable or unwilling to.

    Not that I don't think mages could use a good looking at mind you...

  15. "outside a world drawn by Erol Otus" how is that not an ongoing term in the OSR?