Thursday, February 28, 2013

Armored Spell-Casters

Previously, I wrote that a cleric’s ability to wear armor wasn’t “worth mentioning” by which I meant “isn’t pertinent to the subject at hand,” said subject being what the cleric brings to the game that isn’t there otherwise.

Red commented that the cleric’s ability to use spells and wear armor is a special ability…that what the cleric brings is a hybrid of the magic-user/fighter class for humans that isn’t already present (said hybrid being present with elves) and that prior to the thief class, clerics were the jack-of-all-trades class (for humans) in the game.

Okay, I guess it does bear discussing. Let’s discuss.

First off, I disagree that the cleric is a “hybrid” anything. Elves, with their ability to fight as fighters and magic as magic-users are the only hybrid in the game. Clerics are spellcasters (that discussion is in the next post…which has been put off because I need to write this, thanks a lot!), but they do NOT cast magic-user spells…they have their own suite of spells, different in nature and effect from wizards.

Personally, I dislike calling a thief a “jack-of-all-trades” but I guess it really is the closest thing prior to the bard class of AD&D. They have the full use of weapons, the ability to read magic scrolls, attack ability equivalent to a cleric (if none of the cleric’s other abilities) at the cost of wearing heavy armor. The latter, while probably a game balancing effect, at least has an in-game justification that a big noisy human can’t perform their thiefly skills while bedecked in clinking mail. I don’t see any reason to rule that a thief can't wear armor (when not performing their thief skills)…I mean, it’s not like it burns their skin or something to put it on.

[likewise, you can justify making any thief that wears armor fight as the equivalent of a 1st level fighter, regardless of actual level; his better attack rolls at high level are in part due to his “thiefly fighting style” and being constricted by armor hamstrings his ability to duck and weave and feint and throw sand and fight dirty, etc.]

But the baseline human in OD&D has the ability to wear armor. Any of the NPC men found in the monster section could be kitted out in full armor and suffer no worse for it (they’re not the equal of an adventurer in fighting ability anyway, but they are unhindered by a little plate and mail). A cleric’s ability to wear armor isn’t unusual…the magic-user’s lack of ability to wear armor IS.  The real question isn’t why the cleric can wear armor and cast spells; the real question is why CAN’T the magic-user? After all, the elf can wear armor and cast spells, the cleric can wear armor and cast spells, what’s the bug up the wizard’s ass that prevents him (or her) from doing the same?

Under the elves’ description (in LBB #1) it states they “may wear magic armor and still act as magic-users.” The implication here is that magic-users can wear armor (like any other human) but their magical ability dries up (at least for the duration of wearing armor). Why?

The short, pithy answer is, of course, “game balance.”

In CHAINMAIL originally, wizards were of variable ability but all fought the same: as two armored foot, or as two medium horse (when mounted). For recognition of scale, an “armored foot” is the equivalent of a dismounted knight on foot (presumably with all the armor, weapons, and know-how to use them). A medium horse is the equivalent of pre-plate armored cavalry (the examples cited as "medium horse" are mail-wearing equivalents, like “Norman knights” and “Saracens” while “heavy horse” are simply “knights”). That wizards fight as two men gives them double the effectiveness…quite a bit more effectiveness than a single fighter, in other words.

Now whether this advantage is due to the actual wearing of armor or some magic that protects the wizard and strengthens his sword arm is not said (Chainmail is an abstract war game, not an individual-scale skirmish game), but either interpretation could be valid with the same end effectiveness. Certainly nothing indicates the wizard in Chainmail does NOT wear armor. In the list of spells presented for wizards none of them are of a “shield” or “armor” variety (the spell “protection from evil” IS present and simply keeps all “evil” opponents outside of a 12” diameter circle). If the wizard’s “armored” value is based on magic, then it is inherent magic that does not need to be cast to be effective.

So really, the only reason I can see for taking away a magic-user’s ability to wear armor (at least presuming OD&D is based on the standards of the Chainmail war game…and there is ample evidence that this appears to be the case) is one of “game balance.” If all magic-users can wear armor AND cast spells, it provides too much of a “leg up” over all the other character classes…despite the fact that elves are already doing this. The only reason not to play an elf is the level restrictions on the character for being a non-human…but to exceed an elf in magical prowess means achieving 9th level (“sorcerer”) with 100,000XP…a long, hard road indeed!

[especially considering the elf maxes out at both fighter (4th) and magic-user (8th) with a paltry 83,000XP]

Now an elfish warlock never achieves the ability to cast 5th and 6th level spells, so certainly missed out on some crucial ones (like teleport, animate dead, disintegrate, and weather control)…but everyone misses out on these high level spells unless your campaign lasts up into the 9th and higher levels of experience.  It took roughly four solid months of weekly gaming, with a LOT of treasure to get guys up to the 3rd to 5th level range in B/X (about 8000-9000XP apiece), and even if I kept the same rate (scaling treasure) it would take close to a solid year of gaming to hit 9th level…maybe longer. My recent experience (the last couple-three years) indicates gaming groups get bored a lot faster than that.

But whatever…that’s really straying from the point which is that there is no in-game justification for magic-users to not wear armor. It’s a stylistic (or silly) game balance choice. I mean, at low levels, wizards could simply don their plate armor after their spells had been exhausted, right? Even if it wrecked their “fighting ability” to do so (it’s a lot poorer in OD&D than Chainmail anyway), at least armor could give them the breathing room they need to make it out of the dungeon alive.

Now, why am I wasting all this time discussing the magic-user (and elves) when this post is supposed to be about clerics? Because a comparison was drawn between clerics and magic-users stating that clerics had the ability to be human AND cast spells while wearing armor (bonus!) while both elves and magic-users miss out on some part of this (magic-users lose the armor, elves lose the “human-ness”). As a "hybrid," clerics gain the ability to attack with both magic AND weapons, and are not limited in level like elves.

Okay, they’re not limited in level.

However, the cleric’s spells are NOT attack or combat oriented. For the most part (and I’ll write about this more in the next post), all the cleric’s spells are of the curing, detection, or protection variety. The clerics spells are designed to AID the party members (whether this be with a light spell, locate object, or raising the dead)…whereas the magic-user spell list provides more variety of both type and effect, including a lot of offensive spells along with the miscellaneous/helper offerings.

This, to me, doesn’t suggest a hybrid. If the character is still dealing damage with one’s weapons then there’s nothing “hybrid” about it: armor is necessary to get “stuck in” and fight. Magic-users don’t get stuck in, and they don’t need to due to the types of spells they know.

Does this make sense? Maybe I’m not being clear here. Let’s try this:

It’s not a class feature to wear armor (combat/defensive mechanic) and cast spells (aid/utility mechanic) when the two features are used at different times under different circumstance.

OD&D clerics aren’t casting flame strike and spiritual hammer, and blade barrier while simultaneously soaking up damage with their +3 plate mail. They are fighting like a fighter (armor and weapon), and then casting spells after the fight for other reasons (like healing buddies or detecting traps). There’s no double use one’s getting out of the two attributes of the cleric class. It’s one or the other.

On the other hand, contrast that with the elf. The elf does wade into battle with sword and armor…and then can switch to spell use (Fireball! Lightning bolt!) before switching back to sword and board. Afterwards, the elf might use detect magic or remove curse or wizard eye or whatever, but it’s in the midst of battle that you see the true "hybrid character."

No such hybrid is viewed with the cleric. The magic-user, too, can put on armor (after her spells are exhausted)…so what?  I don’t consider it a class feature that the cleric spends less time changing in and out of their clothes.

Hopefully that all makes sense. Now, let’s talk about the cleric spells, since those ARE something “new” being brought to the table by the class.


  1. Good analysis. Here is a rubric I have used to analyze spells and abilities within RPGs:

    Attacking: Does Damage. Woopee.
    Restoring: Restores Hit Points ("removes Damage").
    Buffing / Offensive: Enhances Self or Allies when moving against the Enemy.
    Buffing / Defensive: Enhances Self or Allies when being moved against by the Enemy.
    Debuffing / Offensive: Inhibits Enemies when they move against Self or Allies.
    Debuffing / Defensive: Inhibits Enemies when Self or Allies move against them.

    Some Spells / Abilities are in combination. Some Spells and Abilities are a little tricky to figure out. E.G.: The "Light" Spell could be considered Buffing / Defensive or Offensive depending on how lack of light impacts combat in the game-system.

    I think an interesting discussion along the Cleric would be how "Healing Abilities / Magic / Spells / etc." should be represented in the game and whether or not it makes sense for the Cleric to be the sole provider of this.

    In my own game, Surgeons (which will be a class) and Magic-users can also Heal -- so there are several sources of Healing beyond Clerical magic.

  2. In the early OD&D playtest document, it refers to the iron in the armor as interfering with magic. I think this comes from some schlocky fantasy novel. Dave Arneson allowed wizards to wear armor in his pre-D&D game as well.

    I solve the problem by giving magic users long duration spells (8 - 12 hours) that increases his AC. So wizards can wear armor but generally don't need to.

    1. It comes from real-world superstition about witchcraft, I think.

    2. @ Rachel:

      If it came from real world ANYthing, you'd thing ELVES (being faerie-folk) would have the real problem with cold iron touching their bodies. Just silliness for the sake of "game balance" if you ask me.

  3. I still see the cleric's spell list as one of having utility, even though it is a different and more focused list. I don't know the OD&D list very well. Light, Invisibility to Undead, Protection from Evil, Sanctuary all have multiple and broad situations of applicability (even the very specific Invisibility to Undead can be used for escape, intrusion/scouting, setup for attack, etc). Does OD&D allow heal spells to be used as damage to undead?

    For me, seeing the cleric as a secondary after the battle spell caster is a disservice to the cleric AND a limitation of what it means to be a spellcaster. In OD&D, spells were often used as a "get out of problem free card" mechanic to apply to what otherwise would be a free form prolonged negotiation of a dungeon obstacle. While the cleric's list is admittedly more focused, the ability to memorize ANY of the spells on the list and the wide applicability of divination type spells does make the cleric a very useful source of utility. That they do this while still being capable of being a front line fighter (able to make their AC as high/low as a fighter) is pretty awesome.

    You'd think I'd like playing them, hah. It's their RP that I don't like usually.

    At any rate, my comment was meant to expand the discussion and I hope it was taken that way.

    Aside: life has sucked for quite a while, but I appreciate being kept in the Thursday loop.

    1. To expand or explain the spell comment more, as it is your next comment: in a game of exploration with combat as one of many choices as opposed to the primary focus of the game, the broad usefulness of spells goes far beyond their damage impact.

      The OSR recalls a few aspects of the original games: reaction rolls, empty rooms and exp for treasure. Using these as written, with adequately open maps (which empty rooms help, but branches are required and not spelled out in the rules) creates a game of exploration of obstacles in search of treasure. Given the deadly nature of combat (death at 0!) using a spell to avoid combat is more much useful than a spell to simply cause damage in it. More broadly, using a spell to pass through an obstacle and thus take a route that avoids combat again allows the exploration (search for treasure) to continue without danger.

    2. Man, I keep adding more comments here, you think I should have my own blog?

      I should explain myself regarding the like/don't like about cleric RP. To me, their allegiance to a god is what makes them interesting as a character choice. It's one I don't like, but I find it distinctive.

  4. Well, first line of the description of the cleric class in Men & Magic is:

    Clerics: Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged magic weapons (no arrows!), plus they have numbers of their own spells.

    Personally, as regards magic-users, I think that armor should just impose a penalty on the spell casting roll. Of course, that means that there needs to be a spell casting roll...

    1. @ Brendan:

      Done and done.

      [in response to your final paragraph]

  5. @ Red:

    Your input into the discussion is welcome (as is your presence at the game table, which is why I "keep you in the loop") forced me to think about something that I had been ready to dismiss out-of-hand.

    Now having said that, your reasoning is colored by later edition "tweaks" to the classes. No, healing spells had no effect on fact, NONE of the spells on the OD&D cleric spell list have ANY effect on the undead whatsoever! The cleric spells are all very much based on supernatural powers observed in the Bible and the lives of saints...and there just wasn't all that many (or any) "undead" in those stories.

    That's the cleric as ORIGINALLY conceived and written-up. Everything else that came later is (stuff I consider to be) "patches" to the class. And if it's broke from the get-go, do I really want to take the time to shoe-horn a patchwork class into my game? That's the question I'm trying to explore here.

    [thanks for the comments, BTW]

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