Monday, October 27, 2014

Might and Magic (Part 1)

I have so many different ideas for blog posts I want to get up, I feel a little stymied in where to start. But I guess I better do goes:

I was up till...oh...2:30 or something in the morning reading the first twelve issues of Dragon magazine (at the time called simply, The Dragon). I went looking for a particular article, which then led me to another, thence to another, and so on until I finally just said, 'whatever...I'll just read the first twelve issues and see where it takes me.'

Minus the fiction, of course...boy, there was a LOT of fiction back in those days. Much more than what I remember back in the mid-late 80s (when I first started reading Dragon). Anyway, the main article of interest for purposes of this post is Bill Seligman's March '77 essay, "Gandalf was only a fifth level magic-user," found in The Dragon #5.

I love this article...perhaps not the way it is written (though the point here is not to critique Mr. Seligman), but the concept. That is, the idea the man is trying to express. The point (for those who don't have access to this particular issue) is that the abilities displayed by Gandalf throughout both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy can be modeled in OD&D (the only edition at the time) with the stats of a 5th level magic-user. That is to say, the majority of magic Gandalf displays in the text can be mimicked using existing 1st and 2nd level spells (or slight variations) with only the occasional use of a 3rd level lightning bolt spell...though the author points out the latter could possibly be explained by Gandalf's use of Narya the Great.

Seligman also states that Sauron's displays of magic can be modeled with a 7th or 8th level caster's ability (or 12th level "if you're going to be nasty" and allow that he has the control weather spell). Personally, I'd say that Sauron is at least 11th level in D&D terms, given his ability to manufacture magic items (like, ahem, magic rings).

As I said, I really like this. For one thing, if you look at the Tolkien books as adventure guides, you can see just how much is possible with a 5th level Magic-User carrying a bunch of utility spells and one (maybe two) "blasting" type dweomers. Gandalf is no slouch as an adventurer, being quite clever and not reliant on his magical abilities. It helps, of course, that he carries a sword like Glamdring (presumably the sword-equivalent of something like the dagger +1, +2 vs. goblins or similar)...but I've seen plenty of low-level (and not so low-level) magic-users that would be skulking around the back of the party, even with such a blade. Clever and yet bold: this is the kind of character I'd like to see in my own games...but herein lies the problem.

Being 5th level means needing an umbrella.
Gandalf is a very cool character in literature, but how does one get to him in the game? If he starts at 1st level (with only the capability of casting a single spell), he's certainly not going to resemble "Gandalf." More like a very raw apprentice...and one who tires quickly (blows his wad with a single spell-casting). Of course, if he survives to level up (probably by ducking and skulking), you'll get there eventually...and then you'll pass that "Gandalf level" rather quickly and soar into the stratosphere of magical power: polymorphing Nazgul into rabbits, conjuring walls of fire and stone to shore up Minas Tirith, and teleporting back to the Shire as necessary.

Just not quite right.

["JB! D&D isn't Tolkien!" Got it...just bear with me, ok?]

The problem (or, more accurately, MY problem) is that D&D is too slow to get to (what I consider to be) a competent level of magic, is too quick to ascend to lofty superhero levels of power, and too focused on combat, in general...the latter due to the nature of the game.

[plus, not enough geezers (though I recognize that may not be everyone's style)]

That all counts as ONE problem, by the's a problem of granularity that doesn't really exist in the other classes. Characters increase in effectiveness doesn't jump in the same leaps and bounds as other classes...the differences between a 1st level fighter and 5th level fighter are very minimal compared to the difference between a 1st level (raw apprentice) MU and a 5th level "Gandalf." The gulf between the 5th level Gandalf and the 12th level Sauron is gigantic, which is a good thing....until you consider that it's not so terribly hard to advance from 5th to 12th level. Certainly it doesn't take thousands of years (considering the age, experience, and power of Tolkien's "Big Bad Guy") of game time...depending on the amount of playtime, the generosity of the DM, and the skill of the party, and the particular edition being played, a player could reasonably expect to reach 12th level within one to three years of play. I know 3rd edition shot for about one level gained per month (assuming weekly sessions). That is a fast, fast road to power.

How to rectify that?

Much as I liked the essay about Gandalf being "only" 5th level, there IS a part of me that says "how weak sauce!" when you know that it doesn't take that much effort to get to (and beyond) 5th level. Hey, Old Man: he who falls behind gets left behind, ya' know?

Okay, that's one thing I want to talk about...the article made me consider that Vancian magic isn't that terrible as put forward in the original LBBs. But there's tweaking that needs to happen with the advancement dynamic of the wizardly class to get to what I want to see. That and I think I'd like to restrict the variety of spells available to the mage...even more than I've already planned for my "basic" game.

But that has to do with a different issue that I'll be discussing in Part 2.
; )


  1. Your thoughts intrigue me. I've always found the article you mention quite thought-provoking. So I'm really interested in seeing where this leads.

    1. It may lead nowhere. I was going to write more tonight, but I got a little engrossed in this overtime game between the Cowboys and 'Skins.
      ; )

  2. Everyone knows that Gandalf is a Paladin with a magic ring not a Wizard ;)

    More seriously the problem with Bold D&D wizards is that there either Old Wizards or Bold Wizards, never both.

    Even a wizard with a sword (possible in 2e and later under some circumstances) lags so far behind in AC and HP that an on orc is a real risk. Too much risk really

    Using 2e as an example, assuming rather good stats and "Greyhawk Average" hit points, our 5th level wizard has 21 hit points and an AC of what 6 with armor

    With those low HP and lousy THACO I'd be loath to take on more than an orc or two even with a +1 Sword +2 vs Orcs aka Glamdring

    Its a little better in Pathfinder though with extra HP, better to hit (lags the Rogue by 1) and he can wear leather armor as needed,

    This works better and if I were to use D&D for Middle Earth I'd use Epic 6 Pathfinder

    1. @ 5Stone: "straight" B/X, a 5th level Gandalf with Glamdring should be more than a match for any single orc (we'll give him an overall bonus of +3 to attack meaning he hits on a 10 or better and inflicts 6.5 damage against a creature with an AC 6). Even with only 14 HPs (B/X average for MU5), and an AC 7 (+1 for Narya, +1 for being a spry old man), he should be able to survive well enough...especially in a bottle-neck like the goblin tunnels or the Mines of Moria...on AVERAGE, he'll last long enough to do 31.8 points of damage (15.9 if forced to fight two at a time), meaning he'll slay 7 or 3 orcs (9 or 4 goblins) before they "get him." And that could be enough to break the creature's morale.

      (this is, of course, fighting alone and without magic)

      I think we could stand to have a little more old AND bold.
      ; )

  3. Gandolf was a 5th level wizard, who happened to be the equivalent of an angelic host. (one of the Mayar of Valinor, meaning he was one of the lesser Ainor - the creatures that sang the universe into existence at Iluvatars bidding)

    That makes Middle Earth a VERY low magic world indeed.

    1. @ Wyrd:

      The Istari entered Middle-Earth clothed in flesh form. They had all the feelings and limitations of humans (including the ability to be killed), though they aged but slowly.

      Hey, Wyrdness: HUMANS are just angels in flesh form, too (though we tend to age rather quickly and have a harder time learning magic).
      ; )

  4. Just stumbled on to this article and I like to say D&D as far as wizards were concerned little power now because you can become a bad ass later made for some really broken mechanics. A 1st level MU in D&D had to be about the most useless PC around.

    Of course as anime came to the United States just how broken everything was in D&D and how magically poor Tolkien's world really was hit home. Lina Inverse from the Slayers anime would pound anybody in Middle Earth into the ground with no trouble and she is only 15 in Slayers (getting a year older with each successive series getting to 18 in Slayers Evolution-R)

    You can't model someone like Lina in the D&D system without sending the level off into orbit but something like GURPS 4e its doable without hosing the entire system (see for how that works)

    1. @ Bruce:

      Well, as I said, the issue for me is really a problem of granularity...or rather, the difference in granularity between the MU class and the others. THAT for me is what is unacceptable. Whether wizards in your game are Gandalf to start or Lina is simply a matter of one's particular taste.