Saturday, August 11, 2012

Killing Vancian Magic (Part 2)

[continued from here]

You read or hear (at least I do) all this garbage about “how great D&D is at the low-to-mid levels” but then "sucks after that." Tell that to the guy playing a magic-user! Just how "awesome" is it to be a 4th level magic-user (where one’s average hit points and armor class are about equal)? 10,000xp…that’s a lot of dead orcs (100 in OD&D, 2000 in B/X) that need defeating. Or huge, fat wads of treasure. Now, I’m a big believer in the “3-to-5-sessions-to-level” school of thought, which means four to six months of regular play to earn that 4th level and the right to cast two 1st level and two 2nd level spells…which will probably be sleep, charm person, invisibility, and web (or levitate), right? How can that be called “satisfying play?”

Okay, okay…I’m digressing (as usual). The point of the mini-rant from the last couple paragraphs is simply this: there are problems with character class as designed/written that make game play unsatisfying. So let’s get down to brass tacks and start DECONSTRUCTING that design:

First off, all these detrimental aspects of the magic-user class…the lack of hit points, lack of defense (armor), lack of combat ability (weapons and attack %), lack of saving throw progression (incremental increase every 5 levels? Holy crap!)…all of these detriments in the main appear to be design choices made to BALANCE the character against other classes. As in, “magic-users get to cast cool spells so we have to make them suck in every other way.”

And the reason I chalk this up to design choice is that there’s not a whole lot of literary precedent otherwise. Sorcerers and wizards found in Howard or Moorcock or Bradley or Tolkien or even Vance (look at Turjan in the Dying Earth) are hale and hearty adventurers, capable of holding their own in a fight, happy to wear armor and wield weapons. Elric is one of the greatest swordsmen of his world, only hampered by his albinism (like he rolled a “3” for his Strength score); it’s not by dint of being a wizard that he's a weakling (his sorcerer cousin Yrkoon has no such problems). Gandalf and MZB’s character Lythande are likewise depicted as able (and feared) swordsmen despite their magical professions.

So the idea of a “spindly wizard” as a class is a design choice. Please note the distinction here: there are plenty of “spindly” (or at least “below average”) wizards pictured in literature, too, like Elric’s nemesis Theleb K’aarna (though NOT Jagreen Lern, the sorcerous theocrat of Pan Tang with his plate armor and great axe). However, “wimpy as class” is much different from a “wimpy character” (of any class). Get it?

Personally, I dislike this design choice, this “balance by subtraction.” After all, one could simply make fighters stouter and more lethal (because of their training) compared to the baseline adventurer (like magic-users, etc.). Instead, it feels like thieves, or perhaps clerics, are the “baseline,” and magic-users are a step-down on the physical prowess scale. And by doing this, you make the class terribly hamstrung once the character’s vaunted magic power is exhausted (as pointed out earlier).

But, hey, whether I like it or not, it’s just a choice of design, and done with an eye towards BALANCE versus the magic-user’s magic, right? Okay, so now let’s look at what that magic power entails:

Since the LBBs of OD&D, arcane magic has worked more or less the same. A magic-user has a spell book containing one or more spells. The magic-user “memorizes” spells found in the spell book. Casting a memorized spell causes that spell to be “erased” from the magic-user’s memory. Advancing in level increases A) the number of spells that are known (in the spell book), B) the number of spells that can be memorized, and C) the level (magnitude) of spells that can be learned and memorized.

In addition, it’s important to note that in most (all?) editions, spells may be transcribed on scrolls and cast simply by reading the spell; however, this causes the spell to disappear from the scroll. Depending on the edition, spells might be transcribed from a scroll into a spell book, but it is unclear (or varies) as to whether or not a spell book functions like a spell scroll – i.e. can a magic-user read a spell from a spell book as from a scroll.

According to Gygax, the mechanics of the system is modeled off the magic described in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels. Wizard has book. Wizard memorizes spells from book. Casting spell erases spell from memory. However, I think it’s pertinent to point out that Vance’s magic differs from the D&D system in a number of ways. There are no degrees of magnitude (“levels”) for spells. The number of spells memorized seems more connected to the degree of complication inherent in the spell. The number of spells memorized seem much fewer in number (in Dying Earth), even for a powerful mage. Scrolls (or the transcription of spells in books) are unmentioned, as I recall.

Gygax also stated that he felt the D&D magic system may have been too powerful…which is perhaps the case once player characters reach a high level of experience (as those in Gary’s campaign must certainly have done over time). Certainly, high level magic-users have the capacity to cast a great number of spells, even those with limited spell lists (limited due to an early edition of the game or restrictions based on Intelligence score in AD&D). But if a magic-user has the ability to cast five fireballs plus chain lightning, does it really matter that feather fall isn’t in his repertoire? As a side note, I believe the increased casting times and material components found in AD&D are a kind of “patch” against high level magic abuse as neither of these are aspects of the Vance magic “system” (memorized spells in Vance get cast instantly and without components).

Here’s the thing folks: I personally think Gygax’s claim of basing the magic system on Vance is mostly bunk.

The D&D magic system…which mechanically breaks down as a resource management system based on character’s placement on the “flunky-hero” scale…may have some TRAPPINGS of the Vance literature (tomes of spells, memorization, forgetfulness, fini), but that’s all they are: trappings. Flavor. COLOR, to use the Forge term. What you have is a variety of game effects like the fancy-shmancy arrows in Hawkeye’s quiver…except in this case, your quiver is your character’s brain (or “memory”). As you shoot those arrows…the explosive one, the zip-line one, the net, etc….you gradually deplete your ammunition, until you’re left with an empty quiver, and the need to return to “base” to get more.

It’s simply a DESIGN CHOICE…a game rule to limit a character’s magical firepower. Holmes writes that he pleaded with Gygax to let him use some sort of “magic points” (a different way of tracking magic ammunition) when he was writing the first Basic set, but Gary would have none of it (perhaps he really liked the Vancian style; perhaps he’d mostly penned the PHB and didn’t want to have to change the text). But where does the mechanic come from in the first place, since it seems to have little literary precedent besides Vance’s strange Dying Earth magic? Most magic in literature seems to be limited by exhaustion/fatigue or requirements of astronomy (“the right constellations”) or the need for spell components or the limited nature of magic itself (which is very rarely as flashy as what is found in D&D and video games inspired by D&D). What was the basis for this magic-as-resource system?

I would assert it comes from a combination of Chainmail and Arneson (specifically Arneson’s Blackmoor).

We’ll talk about Chainmail first: Chainmail introduces several fantasy pieces to the table-top war game in order to inject a little Tolkien into your Normans and Saxons and Vikings. We have the dragon, of course, and the hero (and superhero). Also the giant, the wraith (as in, Tolkien ring-wraith), and the troll. And you have the wizard.

The wizard in Chainmail has the same attack and defense capability of a couple armored knights, making them pretty tough hombres (no flimsy meat bags here!). They can turn invisible at will (and thus cannot be targeted) until they make an attack (ever wonder where that rule came from?). They can see in darkness. And they have the ability to throw either a fireball or a lightning bolt (chosen at the beginning of a match), making them into a mobile piece of magical artillery…which is just fine for a table-top war game as the subtlety of sorcery in S&S literature is kind of lost on the open field of battle.

Please note all of the listed abilities are AUTOMATIC (it should also be noted that fireball and lightning don’t do “damage” in the D&D sense; instead, they simply wipe out targets, though heroic figures receive a “saving throw” to avoid this). In addition to these automatic abilities, wizards will know a number of additional spells (chosen from a short list, most of which appear later in the OD&D rules). However, UNLIKE D&D there is no mention of Vance or spell books or memorization. As with literary spell-casters, the wizard either knows the spell or does not…and a spell known may be cast over-and-over again. There is no “quiver of ammunition;” instead the player who controls a wizard must roll dice to see if, in the thick of battle, the wizard can cast the spell correctly. Depending on the result of the roll, the spell will either go into effect immediately, or go into effect on the following game turn (“delayed”). And that die roll (based on the “complexity” of the spell) is OPTIONAL.

In Chainmail, the basic magic-using figure is the wizard, but players can choose to have lesser wizards in their army as well. Why would anyone want a “lesser wizard?” They cost less “points” to field in battle (for readers that have never played war games, most pieces will have a “point value” and the sum of an army’s points is compared against the sum of an opponent’s to make sure a particular match/battle is “fair”). These lesser wizards have names that will be readily familiar to long-time D&D players: Seer (-4), Magician (-3), Warlock (-2), and Sorcerer (-1). The negative number in parenthesis indicates the penalty the lesser wizard suffers when attempting to counter another wizard’s spell; lesser wizards also know less spells, and need higher die rolls to cast those “non-automatic” spells, like phantasmal forces and hallucinatory terrain.

[another side note: interesting that Chainmail has a counter-spell mechanic unlike every single edition of D&D, but very much in-line with fantasy literature]

Now as I wrote before, Arneson used Chainmail as the base rule system for resolving conflict in Blackmoor, but it is unclear whether or not wizards, as player characters, were available from the outset (the first documented game seems to indicate all players were members of the “king’s guard” and thus soldier/fighter-types). However, it’s clear that they were eventually a part of the game and we can get a clue of HOW the magic system was changed (from Chainmail) from two different sources: the board game Dungeon! and Arneson’s First Fantasy Campaign from Judge’s Guild.

Now it’s pretty well documented that the board game Dungeon! was developed from Arneson’s Blackmoor by one of his Blackmoor players. Even the combat system in Dungeon! (roll 2D6 to either one-shot the monster or not) echoes Chainmail and Arneson’s own statements about the primordial beginnings of the game.

In Dungeon! “wizard” is one of the four character types you can play (along with the “elf,” “hero,” and “superhero”). The wizard has a choice of three spells: lightning bolt, fireball, and teleport. The wizard can also fight without spells (not as well as the superhero, but better than both the elf and hero, echoing Chainmail) and I have read on-line that the first printing of Dungeon! allows wizards the choice of using magic swords (though they receive more spells if they choose not to do so). Again, the wizard is an all-around badass, which is balanced by his tougher victory conditions (wizards need more treasure to win than any of the other character types).

[to be continued]


  1. Aight, so it's question time.
    Suppose we remove the arbitrary "balancing" limitations on the magic-user; he can use any weapon (or all weapons do d6), he can wear any armor, he has the same hit points as everyone else, he has more comparable progression for his to-hit numbers and saving throws.

    So, why play a fighter?

    Granted, I'm going to an extreme by leveling the playing field in every aspect, but it really doesn't make much logical sense that a magic-user has these limitations. Of course, you could argue that for most limitations on character class. (A thief's light armor is just practical for sneaking around, but would it hamper his picking locks? A cleric won't use a sword to stab, but he'll bash your face in with a spiked mace?)

    Once we start going down this road, however, we start deconstruction classes, and the next thing you know your blog will be called "GURPS Blackrazor" and mine will be "HT Check vs. Poison" :P

    Looking forward to part three!

  2. Interesting, I'm curious to see where this is heading, meaning what sort of thing you're going to propose as an alternative.

    I can verify from my own ancient copy that Dungeon (at least the version I own) does have an optional rule allowing wizards to memorize more than the usual number of spells, at the cost of not being able to use magic swords.

  3. Considering Elric, or Gandalf by the way, I always considered that those characters were covered by another archetype than the standard "nerdy-wizard-with-stars-and-moons-pointed-hat". They have some kind of genetical prédisposition for magic (Elric is the last of a long lineage of sorcerers, Gandalf is some kind of angelic avatar) allowing then to use both sword AND sorcery. In D&D terms they would be tagged "Elves". The (A)D&D wizard, with his crappy D4 hit dice, no swords and no armor would be rather the hermetic magician of the Renaissance, who tried to attain occult power by studying books.
    I remember that, when I started mastering with my basic Mentzer Red Box, all my players choosed elves over M-U (as I did!). Much cooler for our teenage selves plus -heck!- swords AND sorcery! We didn't play past 3rd level (until my cousin acquired the Expert blue box much later), so the EXP limitations weren't so much of a dis-incentive. One should take note that -those were the days!- none of us was experienced enough to be a min-maxer or what they call today an "optimizer", but we intuitively felt that the low level M-U was under powered, so that probably makes your point.

    Another aspect is perhaps the lengthy page count about what magic items classe can and can't use (warriors can use swords, MU can't; MU can use scrolls and wands, other's can't, etc.). In Arneson FFC, you have something very similar. In litterature, the wizard is the guy with spells, but also the one who knows how to make proper use of mystical objects of power. So, maybe, heavy reliance on magic items was the M-U "thing". In one Q&A from Gygax in the Strategic Review , he gives the example of a MU who has two sleep spells memorized and three other spells on scrolls . i-e: more than half of a 2nd level MU "fire-power" comes from scrolls.
    But one can consider that as a "patch" instead of a feature, of course.

    1. It's not a patch, because scroll use is a core aspect of the class (as is magic item use). I don't personally care much about emulation, but this also fits many wizards from literature and mythology, whose magic comes from items of power (like the ring of Thoth-amon).

  4. Gandalf, Elric, Jagreen = epic, LVL1 magic-user = nobody

  5. If you're looking for a great alternate magic system, I'd advise a look at FASA's Earthdawn.

    But on another note, IMHO D&D wizards don't suck, the players who play them do. Many of the 1st-level spells, if understood and used properly, are very powerful and useful.

    Party getting chased by orcs in a dungeon? Stand in a doorway, cast protection from evil, and buy them some time while the orcs just stand there.

    Want to chance the course of combat? Cast charm person on an orc and get a new ally for at least one month.

    Want to figure out that ancient mystery or magical item? Cast comprehend languages or identify.

    Need some information about who own the mansion outside town? Cast friends and go door knocking.

    Are 1st-level magic users one trick ponies? yes. But do they have the same THAC0 as a 1st-level fighter? yup. So grab that staff, cast shield, and join the fray!

    No only that, but when you consider the rules as written say the mage needs 8 hours of _uninterrupted_ rest, it sure does make choices about camping actually mean something. It becomes significant to "let the mage sleep, we need him later."

    I think more than any other class magic-user requires a creative player to be enjoyable. Those who want to just play a combat mage of any kind will have to wait to higher levels (or take feats and what-nots in other editions) to get what they want. But the joy of the magic user is using spells creatively and within the limitations of their own concept. I once played a diviner who was also a cartographer: he was the ultimate dungeoneering utility mage and it was fun, even at 1st-level.

    1. I agree, there are a lot of cool "alternative" spells...however, you have to memorize them before you get to the situation. Unless your MU knows exactly what he'll be facing, would he choose protection from evil over a magic missile? I doubt it.

  6. Are you on Google Plus by any chance? There are a few discussion threads about this over there, if you are interested.

  7. "[another side note: interesting that Chainmail has a counter-spell mechanic unlike every single edition of D&D, but very much in-line with fantasy literature]"

    Do you mean unlike as in a different counter-spell system or unlike as in no edition of D&D has a counter-spell system?

    Because 3e has counter-spell rules.

  8. @ McWeig:

    RE Changing the blog title: I hope not!
    RE Why play a fighter: to kick ass, of course!

    @ Scrivener: Nice to have the option, ja?

    @ Porphyre (& Brendan): Scroll use may be a core element of the class, but it is one largely out of a character's control until 9th (B/X) or 11th (OD&D, AD&D) level of experience. Only Holmes allows scroll scribing prior to 3E (and by that time, PCs are receiving "bonus spells" for INT).

    @ P14: Really, I am NOT talking about "combat mages."

    @ Eldric: Oh, yes, the "if you ready an action and succeed at a skill roll you can counter-spell only if you have the same spell memorized and choose to expend it to do so" rule. I played (and DM'd) 3rd Edition for two (three?) years and never saw a single use or attempt of this. I forgot it existed.

    Yes, Chainmail's version is different from 3E.