Tuesday, September 10, 2013


What do you think of, what image comes to mind, when you hear the word "wizard?"

Is there some iconic character of the silver screen pops into your head? A classic illustration of some sort? Merlin? Gandalf? A video game persona you've been running on your favorite MMORPG? A medieval woodcut?

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that more than a few of my readers have their images of the “magic user” informed by RPG art, especially that of Dungeons & Dragons. Depending on how young you were when you were introduced to the concept of D&D, it’s quite possible that much of your mental pictures of “fantasy” were informed by D&D…or informed by art inspired by D&D.

My iconic wizard.
My own mental image goes back to something different, though. I usually picture the wizard off the cover of the Time Life Book, Wizards and Witches, which was one of my favorites as a child…despite not owning it.

[I don’t know if Time Life Books still publishes these types of series books. They used to be advertised in TV infomercials all the time…volumes on the Old West or WW2, for example. I knew a couple people who collected the “fantasy” series growing up and had a chance to peruse these books…later on, I was fortunate enough to pick up Wizards and Witches, the first volume of the series, in a used book store]

Wizards and Witches provides a lot of good, fun information on the magic users of folklore and mythology, collecting a number of stories from different cultures, not to mention containing many beautiful illustrations. Published circa 1983, this was the first place I discovered Baba Yaga and Vainamoinen and Faust, despite being a (young) veteran of D&D. But then, I was always drawn towards fairy tales as a child (even before D&D) and stories of knights and dragons and wizards and unicorns, etc. would get me amped up faster than a two-liter bottle of Coke. It’s probably why I read so much as a child…back then, books were the main place (or only place) to find such stories, which I devoured when I could get my hands on ‘em.

Anyway, wizards (as depicted in W&W) were pretty much always shown as older gentlemen with long beards and fantastic headgear…miracle workers, with a penchant for flamboyant garb, if an otherwise, respectable and learned “elder” air about them. And I daresay that one will find a similar theme running through the illustrations of the older D&D editions. Whether you’re talking Easley’s painting of “Ringlerun” on the re-vamped PHB (my go-to book for many years) or the Otus drawing on the cover of the Cook Expert set, the robe-and-beard chic instantly identifies an image as a person of sorcery.

Who are these geezers?

THIS is Dungeons & Dragons.
Take a look at the original cover of the AD&D PHB…beautiful and iconic and probably the best depiction of “what D&D is all about” just in terms of the action portrayed. Yes, we have a number of adventurers depicted doing “adventurous stuff.” Can you spot the wizard in the illo? My guess is you’d be drawn to this geezer here:

Withered much?
Now tell me: exactly what retirement home did the party knock over to get this guy on the team?

In my D&D games, I can’t ever recall seeing an “old” wizard. After all, nothing in the rules requires you to create a character that is anything other than a young adventurer in the prime of life…and considering the fact that most campaigns will see you starting at a low level (i.e. “with little magical knowledge”), who would want to play an old coot that’s still “learning the ropes?”

Even if you use the aging tables in the 1st edition AD&D DMG (we always did, back in the day), a first level magic-user has a maximum starting age of 40, and an average age of 30 or so. The guys on the cover of the PHB seem to about the right age for a group of adventures (20s and 30s that is)…except for the geezer with the staff and the long beard. How is that representative of D&D?

Answer: it’s not. But it IS representative of the iconic figure of the “old, bearded wizard.”

But those iconic wizards with the bent back and long beard are also miracle workers, full of might and power...or at least well versed in magical knowledge. If anything, the rules of D&D allow you to create a young magician and tell the story of how exactly he got to the old age, long beard, and powerful wisdom so often depicted in images and folklore.

Except to do so would make the other heroes likewise old and decrepit. Heroic adventurers (other than wizards) are supposed to be hale and hearty individuals in the prime of their lives…and unless there’s some sort of carry-over from campaign-to-campaign (with old, high-level wizards being “grandfathered in,” no pun intended) you’re never going to see that stereotypical geezer hanging with the young Turks. Well, maybe after an unfortunate run-in with a ghost.

But, okay, let’s forget the whole “geezer deficit” thing for a moment. Let’s ask WHY the archetype is typically portrayed in this way?

My guess (or theory or whatever) is that it has something to do with these individuals being wise and learned individuals. Knowledge and lore is, for the most part, only acquired with time and experience and wizards, having excessive amounts of knowledge (compared to the average person) must have been around for a long time.

[yes, there are some pretty young thang sorceresses to be found in folklore, but the really powerful witches – like Baba Yaga – tend to be portrayed as ancient crones, and more than a few of those female mages are said to augment their appearance with their magic. The main vanity of the male wizard appears to be the length and flow-yness of his beard]

I mean, I suppose they could all be half-demons aging backwards like Merlin or Benjamin Button…but then wouldn’t the stories be littered with child-size archmagi?

No, I think that wizards are supposed to be old and stooped due to the time it takes them to acquire and learn the magical knowledge that sets them apart from their fellows. In a pseudo-medieval world (like your typical D&D campaign) there’s no internet and a near total lack of libraries and “centers for higher education.” Knowledge…especially occult knowledge…is scarce and hard to come by. There’s a reason why your average villager isn’t learning a handful of crop-growing spells. It’s not that there’s a limit on magical talent in the fantasy world…it’s that there’s a dearth of learning opportunity.

And trying to get that learning is going to COST you, too. Being a scarce resource allows wizards to charge a pretty penny for their knowledge…and keeping that price high means keeping a lid on the supply. If the village does happen to have a hedge wizard or wise woman, they’re unlikely to want to train any new apprentices…at least not until they’re ready to retire as the local potion-maker of the region. Any type of “wizard school” is likely to only enroll the wealthiest of students…and knowledge will probably only be doled out by the spoonful, as the majority of an apprentice’s time will be spent doing chores around the tower or recopying ancient, decaying tomes…not to mention working in the gardens, cooking meals, satisfying the wizard’s more carnal desires, etc. Basically paying an exorbitant amount of gold for the privilege of being a slave; all for the promise of learning magic. Only the most intelligent of nobleman’s children are going to learn much of anything anyway…and only after a long time (and probably only after taking the initiative to do their own extra studies in snatched, spare moments).

Is it any wonder when sorcerers turn to supernatural means of acquiring knowledge? Including diabolic sources?

The idea of learning magic from Satan or his minions isn’t a new one, of course. Even outside of fiction, the Christian prohibition on working magic is in part based on the premise that its knowledge is procured from hellish sources (the other part of the prohibition comes from the separation from God that occurs when one attempts to acquire powers that should only be available to our Divine Creator). The word occult simply means “hidden,” and there’s a school of thought that such knowledge is hidden with good reason. The Faust story, retold often over the last several centuries, is the prototypical illustration of this.

Faust is an aged, learned guy who, being jaded and getting on in years, decides to make a pact with Satan to live out his last years with all the decadence that magic and hell can provide. Of course, this costs him his eternal soul…but then, that’s why it’s a morality tale. You learn Faust got the short end of the stick and you shouldn’t make his mistake (even in the Goethe version, BTW…Faust is only saved because of his actual repentance, and the kind of divine intervention no one should expect).

But D&D is a game, not a morality tale. I don’t kill people and take their gold in real life…my normal approach to “conflict resolution” usually involves establishing a dialogue and using a little empathy. Part of the fun of a fantasy game is gleeful immersion in the role of a “scurrilous rogue;” why wouldn’t you make a Fasutian bargain if it was available?

Assuming your character isn’t some do-goody paladin-type, of course.

Now, personally, I don’t think the concept of demon summoning goes very well with the Vancian magic of D&D. The pseudo-scifi-weirdness of Vance’s Dying Earth is…well, it’s a different animal compared to the spell working and conjuration found in many folklore tales. A character in Vance’s DE imprints a spell in his brain through memorization (duh) and “fires” the incantation like a chambered bullet, taking immediate effect. There’s no gathering of ingredients, no waiting for the right stars, no chanting and dancing and ritual…all things associated with magic in tales and literature (the only “instant” spells being…usually…associated with magic items, which themselves may have taken time to prepare)…unlike D&D’s Vancian magic.

Or rather, “unlike D&D’s Vancian magic as originally conceived.” Since the advent of AD&D, magic has become a bit of a hybrid, combining folklore with Vance. Spells have “casting times” often exceeding the “instant” time frame. Spells require “material components,” some of which require elaborate preparation. Whether this was done to make Gary’s world more “mythic” in feeling, or simply a matter of “game balance”…who knows? To me, the answer doesn’t really matter, because the starting point (i.e. Vance; see OD&D) doesn’t work for me. It’s a faulty foundation from which to derive the system of magic most folks now take for “D&D magic.”

Yeah, that’s the heart of the matter, and the crux of this post. I don’t play wizards in D&D, don’t much like wizards in D&D, because they don’t meet my expectations of what a wizard is or should be. How’s that grab you? I don’t want to play a 30-something dude with a sleep spell and maybe a charm spell imprinted on my brain…that doesn’t meet my world view when it comes to spell-casters. What I want are old geezers who can truck with demons and spirits and produce supernatural effects because of the occult lore they’ve accumulated over decades.

Is that too much to ask?

I mean is it? Does that wreck the “game balance?”

Let me tell y’all a story. There’s this little spell in 1st edition PHB called cacodemon…not sure how many of you are familiar with it. It’s a 7th level spell; its first appearance (maybe only appearance) in any edition of D&D is in 1E AD&D. It allows the magic-user to summon a single demon of the more powerful type (IV, V, or VI) and bargain with it for service…or condemn it to an otherworldly prison.

You may not be familiar with this spell…I wasn’t (even after many years of playing AD&D) until I saw it used in a game my younger brother was running for two friends. They were about age 12 or so at the time, and it was a fairly typical Monty Haul type game with high level pregens…the kind of game you run when you’re a young DM and have just gotten your hands on your older siblings supercool AD&D books. My brother’s buddy Mike was playing an evil mage (a typical character for this particular player), and when they got into a combat with some monster or other, Mike announced he wanted to summon a demon using cacodemon.

Unfortunately, the casting time is six hours so my brother (in typical young DM fashion) ruled the PC would be out of action for the duration while completing the summoning…presumably off in some corner of the dungeon. The combat proceeded with the other buddy (Brandon) in equally ridiculous fashion, and they all had a few laughs and a pretty good time. I had only been brought in for “consultation,” but having never seen the cacodemon spell in action, couldn’t really provide any great insights.

That was almost 25 years ago. It was the one and only time I’ve seen someone attempt to use the spell.

I like the idea of cacodemon, but I can’t for the life of me see any real application for it in the AD&D game. I guess it could be used like a suped-up invisible stalker, but there sure is a lot of work and effort needed considering its effect…including the need to discover a demon’s “true name?” Why go through the trouble, even to “imprison” the creature; you’d probably have an easier time simply killing the monster if you really had a bone to pick with it!

The presence of cacodemon…and spiritwrack, for that matter…is just odd to me. As I said, I like the idea of it (because, you know, Faust) but it’s a 7th level spell, requiring a 14th level character to cast it. And most 14th level characters don’t have much use for a 7+7 or 8+8 hit dice servant…especially one so resentful and dangerous and so limited in scope of duration. The time to summon such creatures should be when a character is of a lesser level…when the wizard is inexperienced and na├»ve, and believes the reward outweighs the risk. Not when the wizard can toss around disintegrate spells and14 hit die lightning bolts! I can only assume this is Gygax’s homage to Faust and other demon summoning in literature, and that it was given as a 7th level spell for purposes of “game balance.” Or maybe it was simply provided as a justification for high level opponent wizards to have demonic servants?

I really don’t know…what I do know is that in 25 years of play, I’ve never seen it used. In fact, I briefly considered trying to beg my way back into Alexis’s on-line campaign with  sole objective of playing a mage and trying the cacodemon spell (how many hit points would a Type IV demon have in his campaign using its size/mass?)…but upon realizing it would probably take 10+ years to achieve the required level, decided the “experiment” wouldn't be worth the amount of effort involved.

Such is the case with a lot of the “high level content” of D&D. You pick up the book and say, “hey, my character can control weather or teleport once I hit X level.” But the chance of hitting that level (and opening that content) is so remote given the normal parameters of table-top play, that you might as well save yourself the despair and skip the spell descriptions of any spell over the 4th magnitude.

Frustrating. Give me my old geezer who can at least do a neat thing or two. I’m willing to be aged and beardy if it means I can part the sea and call rocks down from the mountains. Hell, I don’t want to play a “young apprentice;” I want to play a wizened loremaster. Forget game balance for a moment…game balance is only a “problem” due to magnitude of spell being linked to ass kickery and putting wizards in the role of “fantasy artillery.” The whole damn class needs a paradigm shift, in my opinion. Which means, from a design perspective, starting from scratch once again.

Consider the desired end result:

-        Magicians should have enough knowledge to be (magically) effective throughout a game session.
-        Magicians should be old geezers and crones by default…unless you want to play someone young and not very knowledgeable/proficient.
-        Magicians shouldn’t over-shadow the other characters. Magic cannot solve every problem.
-        Magic has limitations and/or hazards; there are reasons for not using magic all the time.
-        Magic is not Vancian.
-        Magic is not confined to individuals who possess a special “magic gene.”
-        Magic is not artillery…or only in very limited circumstances.
-        Magic use requires secret knowledge.
-        Magic use requires belief and conviction.

I’ll be building from there. More on all this later.
"Come forth, Mephisto!"


  1. Yes, yes, yes!

    I agree, and have long thought pretty much everything you've just said (though I don't care much about the "requires belief and conviction" criteria).

    After having read the Dying Earth stories I've finally come around to the conclusion that Vancian magic is prefectly fine . . . FOR VANCIAN STORIES . . . which D&D is not!

    Can you imagine Turjan as a high level wizard, teleporting around repeatedly, fireballs akimbo?

    D&D is not Vancian: Low level wizards get too few and weak spells, high level ones get too many.

    Call of Chthulhu's magic isn't perfect, but it has these things going for it:
    * Magic has a price and a risk.
    * Lots summon and contact spells for specific weird entities.
    * Spells are for the most part time consuming to learn, unless some powerful entity carves them into your brain matter.
    * You generally try to make use of whatever wacky spells you can find. The idea of inventing or picking them from a list is laughable.

  2. Yeah. I agree wholeheartedly with this entire post. I've never really liked vancian spellcasting in d&d. I give the casters in my games a certain number of colored glass beads to use as mana points, when they cast a spell they have to givea certain number of them back.

  3. Magic cannot solve every problem.

    can't agree.

    if it is possible for a mage to create spells (i think it should), sooner or later "magic will be able to solve every problem". at an appropriate price...

    i don't see that as an issue though, if you consider Magic has limitations and/or hazards; there are reasons for not using magic all the time.. as long as a wizard can't solve every problem all the time it's nothing to worry about.

    what problems should magic not be able to solve in your mind?

    like peter, i am also not sure about belief and conviction. all a wizard needs to believe in is himself and his powers.

  4. Hah hah, Benjamin Button the Half-Demon! Nice.

    One of my older sisters collected all of those Time-Life Books in the series that started with Wizards & Witches. Some of those books freaked me out, man. I remember seeing commercials on TV about that series. Burned into my brain was the commercial with a woman reading a passage from one of the "scarier" books. She said something like "Unwise was the traveler who set forth at night, for in the shadows teeth clicked..." And they showed an illo of a guy traveling at night, with shadowy figures watching from the shadows...

    This was a great, meaty post! Thanks!

  5. @ Shlomo:

    Hmm...maybe I should have said "magic cannot solve every problem, every time." I like the idea of a particular spell only being used a single time in an adventure...because the stars are only right once or the spell components are limited or whatever. So you might have a "detect traps" spell, for example, that can solve ONE problem...but not the other traps encountered.

    Also, I prefer the "problem" of killing to be resolved with blades, not magic.
    ; )

  6. In re demon summoning, if you haven't looked at the 1st MU spell "Summon" in Lamentations of the Flame Princess... well... it's a doozy.

  7. Regarding wizards in D&D art, yeah I don't get why they are usually so old. Though there are some notable exceptions like Emirikol the Chaotic from the PHB.

    I used the Cacodemon spell with the one magic user I played long enough to get it, though usually I used it as a DM with my NPC magic users. It's a good cruise missile to launch at an enemy, especially if you don't want to get directly involved. Though you are correct that there are less dangerous ways a high level magic user could achieve that goal. But sometimes you just want to send a balrog out to annihilate a castle and terrify the countryside.

    You are absolutely right that the spell would be a bigger boon to low level characters. A scroll of cacodemon would be a prize a low-to-mid level party would be willing to brave a dungeon for, either for their own use or to prevent a rival from getting it.

    I also agree that the Vancian system is a bit of a pain. It's probably one of the most house-ruled parts of D&D and I'm no exception there. I can't wait to see what you come up with.

  8. Ok, now that I've got the stupid gushing about Time Life Books outta the way (see above comment from moi), let me say this: one of my players in my group always, ALWAYS plays magic users. And he told me recently he's yet to find a magic system that really seems "magical." I.E. mysterious, powerful, deadly, risky, etc. A system where the mechanics reflect all of the above. There's a challenge for you, JB! There are people out there screaming for something new! Note: the Savage World backlash system of magic comes close to this guy's conception of a "perfect" magic system. Not sure if you know anything about that there system…I’ve been considering switching to that system for a while for future gaming, but I’m like a coward who doesn’t want to leave the safe, familiar shores of D&D behind…

    On a related note, with regard to age of character, character level, whatever...I feel like I'm tired of levels! And perhaps anything related to character advancement! I sometimes dream of a game with no character advancement! How about a game where the character you make is the character you make, for the entire time you are playing in said campaign. I mean, if campaigns have a tendency to crash and burn (with those decades-long campaigns being the exception to the rule, and trust me I doubt the veracity of those claims of long-running campaigns), then why not just create a character that just advances in abilities, rather than have the seemingly superfluous add-on of an XP system.

    I'm not quite sure what I even mean by all of that...maybe it's related to my growing disdain for roleplaying games as bean counting exercises. Meaning, I'm tired of calculating XP! JB, could you design a game that could be used by busy adults who don't like to deal with XP as traditionally depicted in D&D-type games?! So leveling up doesn't take for fracking ever?! Maybe after a certain number of sessions/character achievements/whatever, the player earns the right to take on new abilities? Of course, this would probably be dependent on a GM to actually facilitate those goals, making the attainment of said goals as difficult as befits the power of said new ability, etc…

    Seriously, instead of gaining level, perhaps your character just gains abilities, spells, etc. Perhaps there's a way to design a system that your character just takes risks on higher-order abilities, such as higher risk combat maneuvers or riskier spells that call up bad things from other universes...

    Sorry for rambling, but I'm just riffing here in light of my frustrations with D&D-esque games.

  9. Anthony, check out Basic Role Playing and GURPS. Both offer advancement systems similar to what you're talking about.

  10. Regarding ther cacodemon spell... the spell almost certainly derives from Gary's reading of the Kothar and Kyrik series by Gardner Fox. In these, in almost every story, a powerful wizard summons a powerful demon (always named) to perform some service. Services range from the acquisition of certain magical items to the wholesale destruction of small armies. After all, what could a small army, sans a hero armed with a magic sword, do against a greater demon... other than be completely destroyed?

    I'm still working my way through the Kothar and Kyrik stories... I was able to buy a complete set of each at a local bookstore a few weeks ago. I have found a huge trove of influences on D&D in these works. I would say that next to Howard and perhaps Vance, Fox's stories had the strongest influence on Gary's work... even stronger than the works of Leiber and others. Once I finish, I'll write up an analysis of the stories and how they influenced D&D.

  11. The "magic gene" part I have to disagree w/you, at least in part. In mythology, *mages were demigods*. It is clear in every myth I have read that the reason they are mages is some otherworldy heritage (even if we can say it was retconned, it is still there). In *fiction*, this is not always the case, but many works still imply or outright state a mystical birthright of some sort.

    The age thing is a matter of using a level-based system, as you noted. A skill-based system where more yrs gives more skills at character generation (these systems do exist) would be better. Fighters would skew younger because they have to excel physically, so creaky bones would hamper them. A grizzled warrior has better skills from the start, but a young warrior w/much experience (skill rolls) is even better.

    Agreed abt Vancian casting. Mages in mythology are *weavers of* reality, not spell-bolt laden guided missile cruisers *forcing through* reality. No magical "power bolts" are required to be stored to make things happen; magic is about paying attention to the details, seeing the hidden patterns in those details, and knowing what you can (and should) do with that knowledge. The basic *universal hallmark* of all European mages was, after all, that they *understood the speech of all things*. The problem is that the Vancian system was put in place to *keep things controlled*. Gygax was a numbers and, especially, an *ATTRITION* man. Hard to predict outcomes when power could flare up *NOW*, bringing instant, module-over-immediately success, or fizzle, leaving a group endangered. Attrition could be controlled to keep the game flowing. Low on HPs? Camp, or return to town.

    Moreover, there was a problem w/the specific spells available. Fireball, Lightning Bolt, and related spells are in no way representative of any ancient myth from any culture on Earth. Rather, these spells exist solely to substitute for the highly exiting effects of having bombs, guns, or Greek Fire used in one’s miniatures wargame, as opposed to the regular infantry-and-cavalry routine. They make magic seem far less magical, imo. Subtle is better, and requires the player to actually think before acting, as a mage should.

    Too, magicians in stories generally know only a handful of spells, many of which take some time and/or rare components to cast. As a wizard generally has had to spend his or her entire youth studying in order to learn these few spells, they are not trifling magics; a mage doesn’t study and sacrifice just to be able to roast mutton with his or her bare hands!

    I heartily agree that Cacodemon absolutely should be low level. In fact, I feel it should be gained *before better means of holding the target exists*, to make it a risky spell that foolish youngsters will try *to their eternal detriment* (bye-bye character). Only truly prepared younger characters should succeed w/it, suggesting the massively strong will and attention to detail that you would envision for such a person.

  12. Assuming 2 levels per game year of advancement but 10th you will have your 40 year old as an old man. Fighters start in their teens or 20. So they will reach middle age (40) about this point, the time that Conan was king and getting a bit tired of actually fighting by himself.