Monday, May 7, 2018

The Magical Three

Just continuing on with the post I started a few days back, I want to get to the second character class that has a less than stellar degree of low level effectiveness: the magic-user. Reading back over my blog, I can see that the MU is a subject I've griped about incessantly over the years, suggesting all sorts of "fixes" that would make the class more desirable/workable...everything from magical skills, to additional cantrips, to age-based magic, to more Vancian magic, to exceptional traits, to a variation of "spell points" linked to hit points, to a few other ideas that I won't bother finding links for. After reading through all of these proposals over the years, I find one major thing they have in common:

They're all crap. Really.

About the only post about magic-users I find worth keeping is this one that basically nerfs the B/X magic-user by restricting the classes which can engage in missile combat with thrown weapons (hint: magic-users aren't one of them). As I've written before, the concept of the wizard with the bandolier of throwing knives was interesting the first time we saw it in a game ('round about middle school) and has since become a trite, laughable image. And not very magical to boot.

What is magical? Dudes with gold skin and hourglass eyes? Albino sorcerers that need drugs to survive? Half-demons that age backwards? Wizards with blue star tattoos and secret taboos?

Nah...all that is interesting color, but no more interesting really than a guy with a curly horns on his skull cap or a robe sewn with images of stars and planets. No, the real thing that makes magic-users magical is their spells (duh), and when you get down to it, spells are really the only thing that matters. And the consistent gripe over on this old blog has always been one about spells...specifically how they scale.

Now, folks might not realize this, but of ALL the various editions of D&D, B/X is the absolute stingiest with regard to spell acquisition. Not only is there the "issue" of spell knowledge (a magic-user's spell book may contain no more spells than the maximum number that may be cast in a day), but the absolute number of spells that may be cast is fewer than every other published least between levels 4 and 14. While this actually helps scale at the higher levels (in my opinion), it is still a fairly intolerable rate of acquisition...especially at the low levels. A first level character, starting with a single spell, is simply not a recipe for effectiveness. Even Gygax's house rules (which purportedly started PCs at 3rd level) provided a bonus 1st level spell to wizards with an INT of 15+.

So what to do?

Well, after careful well as side-by-side comparison between OD&D, AD&D, B/X, etc....I've come up with the following three house rules that I can live with. For me, they give just the minimal effectiveness needed, they still feel both magical and "Vancian," and they jibe with my B/X sensibilities. Here goes:

  1. Magic-users begin the game with one extra 1st level spell. So two first level spells known to start, increasing to three at 2nd level. When the magic-user hits 7th level (the experience level at which they would normally learn a third first level spell), she does not receive a fourth spell; instead, normal B/X progression resumes (so 3-2-2-1, just as in the book). The additional spell is simply in aid of increased effectiveness at low levels.
  2. Magic-users with a high intelligence receive a number of bonus spells in much the same way that fighters receive a bonus to melee combat for strength or thieves receive (per my house rules) a bonus to thief skills for dexterity. An intelligence of 13+ provides a bonus 1st level spell, an intelligence of 16+ yields a bonus 2nd level spell (once the magic-user has reached sufficient level to cast 2nd level spells), and an intelligence of 18 gives a bonus 3rd level spell (again, only upon reaching a high enough level to cast spells of that magnitude). Note that even with these bonus spells, the B/X magic-user will have fewer spells available at high levels than both the AD&D and OD&D wizard.
  3. Finally (and I realize some may hate this), I will not allow magic-users to memorize more than one copy of any spells known (no doubling up on sleep or magic-missile, for instance). I really prefer players to find ways to utilize their entire repertoire of magical knowledge, not simply stacking combat spells. Not only does this ape the feeling of Vance's Dying Earth (as well as other S&S stories), but it provides additional incentive for magic-users to create magic items (scrolls and wands, etc.) both for extra firepower and for trade with other wizards ("I'll give you a potion of water breathing for a scroll with web and continual light."). I want magic to be a scarce and potent resource and magic-users to collect any bits of magical gear they can to bolster their own abilities. I want to encourage PCs to specialize in different styles (fire magic or illusions, for example) rather than accumulating pages and pages of spells that they seldom, if ever, find an excuse to memorize.

The astute reader will notice that the average first level magic-user with an above average intelligence (13+) will thus begin their career knowing a total of three magical spells, all of the first order of magnitude, each of which can be used a single time during the adventure (game session). Personally, I feel this is sufficient for a beginning character: it provides multiple options but is still limited, requiring the young adventurer to make clever use of her resources, but not hamstringing her completely. As previously said, I can live with that.

And anyway, I'm really not a fan of cantrips.


  1. #1. I'd assume that the extra spell doesn't necessarily have to be read magic, the way it is in BECMI. While that spell might be very useful if scrolls are not uncommon, forcing a player to take it usually just results in them leaning on their other spell almost exclusively (at least in my experience).

    #2. This is something I've thought about adding as well. It always struck me as odd how AD&D gives clerics and druids bonus spell slots for high Wisdom, but magic-users and illusionists - who spend virtually all of their time studying magic - don't get even a single one. Even Basic Fantasy uses this to give M-Us bonus cantrips (if that supplement is used), but not for regular spells. I get that it might be due to a desire for "balance", but a less restrictive method might be to just slightly nerf the power of the spells themselves; they could have weaker magic, but more of it.

    #3. I'm going to use this one in my campaigns from now on. I originally borrowed the idea from Alexis, after seeing cleric after cleric choose cure light wounds to fill all of their spell slots. I've thought about letting some "bonus" spell slots be used for duplicates, but my gut says no.

    And personally, I kind of like the age-based magic post. ;)

    1. @ Fuzzy:

      I'd never require read magic to be taken...B/X magic-users don't need that spell to read their own books (page B17).

      I know Alexis uses this method of handling spells (no more than one of each), but he's certainly not the first: that's the rule in the original LBBs. While every edition since OD&D has allowed the memorization of multiple spells, I've come around back to this original line of thought. After all, it forces the MU player to be CREATIVE, right? And that (to me) is a valid trade off for the power of the magician.
      : )

      [thanks for the kind words about the age-based post. I'm still considering some house rules to help age wizards to "geezer" status (similar to Ars Magica)...perhaps related to (permanent) magic item creation, if not high level spells (AD&D did the latter). We'll get those grey beards a-wagging somehow!]

  2. After a number of years' worth of finagling myself, I settled on just using the very generous Holmes scroll-scribing rules and leaving it at that. (Of course, I've always played by Mentzer spell-book rules, so MUs are less restricted by default in my campaigns.)

    1. @ John:

      Mmm. There's no doubt Holmes IS generous, but the average 1st level character isn't going to be scribing many scrolls to start. I want even a young mage to walk into the dungeon feeling a little confidence in their abilities (the aforementioned "fortune points" help with the low number of HPs).

      Also, I'm a bit afraid that the generosity with spell scrolls won't be as welcome at higher levels of play (when they have access to large amounts of gold and have the capability of scribing 5th and 6th level spells for 500-600 a pop). If you're confining your game to the first three or four levels of play, Holmes's rules make more sense than straight B/X.

    2. Why not just simply gift a freshly created 1st level character with a bunch of magical scrolls, which once used are gone forever? Spells above level one could then be considered as well. A single (and only) cast of invisibility by a fledgling magic user could well be a memorable moment for the player.

  3. I'm very intrigued to try a combination of rules changes #2 and #3 from this post in conjunction with the idea in your Vancian magic post. That is:
    - Memorize a number of spell levels equal to the character's level plus bonuses for intelligence
    - Maximum spell level knowable equal's character's level
    - Only one "copy" of a spell may be memorized
    - AD&D-style spellbooks instead of the more restrictive B/X style

    I'm curious to know if you have played the Vancian-style variation with your group and what you observed if you did.

    1. @ Sterling:

      What I remember is the magic-user players complaining bitterly at the prospect of playing with my Vancian rules. They felt that part of the reward for playing a weak-sauce, low-level MU is that they should have access to a multitude of spells at mid-high levels.

      Later, I did something similar (if a little sneaky) with the Summoner class found in The Complete B/X Adventurer (my second book). In practice, I found it wasn't enough spell power. One second level spell at 2nd level? Only a couple spells at 3rd? No...not very cool.

      The original system isn't terrible...there's a reason for its longevity, after for the way in which it scales. Which is why many Old School DMs allow MU player characters to start at levels greater than 1st...and why many decry the power of wizards at high levels.

    2. I remember when I first picked up the 3e PH and read that wizards could memorize additional "copies" of a spell if they had the slots for it. I thought at the time that I had been doing it wrong for 20 years by not allowing (or as a player taking) the memorization of a single spell more than once. (I don’t even recall anyone trying or asking to do that back then.) I went back through the AD&D 1 and 2 PH and DMG and I couldn't find any explicit statement one way or the other. I had always assumed a spell is memorized or not; there is no "memorize twice." The closest statement I can find now is on page 31 of the 2nd edition PH: “Upon casting, the energy of the spell is spent, wiped clean from the wizard’s mind. The wizard cannot cast that spell again until he returns to his spell book and memorizes it again.” That’s close enough for me, actually. There is no twice memorized before 3e. Intriguingly, 5e decouples spell preparation from spell casting to a degree. For me, this makes the game less interesting, though, as it shifts thought away from the strategic and toward the tactical.

      @Alexis, I absolutely agree about the speed. In AD&D casting time for most spells 1 segment per level (6 seconds of a 1 minute round by the book) which is pretty stinkin’ fast. By 2nd I think this was recognized as problematical and casting time for most spells was represented by adding +3 to the caster’s initiative (on a d10 rolled every round) so as to push the resolution later and increase the chance of disruption. Unfortunately, unless one used the optional individual initiative rule and did not use the optional weapon speed rule, this was useless for correcting that problem. I like what you’ve described on your wiki for handling it. I like the fiddly material components though myself. I think my combat runs are less tactical than yours too, so rather than the restrictive space-oriented approach you’ve taken, I’m considering simply moving all spellcasting resolution to the end of the round in the same vein that I move missile fire resolution to the top of the round.

      @Alexis, never changing a spellcaster’s known spells is explicitly RAW, at least in AD&D 2nd, page 30 of the PH specifies: “Once a spell is learned it cannot be unlearned. It remains part of that character’s repertoire forever. Thus a character cannot ‘forget’ a spell to replace it with another.”

      @JB, in the cool, sober light of the next day after reading, and getting very excited about, your Vancian magic post I laid out the spell progression over 20 levels with a method inspired by the post, side-by-side with AD&D. It boosts low level power nicely (especially with the B/X-like way I do ability bonuses), but it hands high level magic to mid-level characters and by effectively limiting the number of spells the wizard casts, keeps that spellcaster forever in the role of being a nuke. I’m still intrigued enough by the idea to work with it more and experiment on my players, but I need to mess with it more on paper first.

    3. @ Sterling:

      Memorizing multiple copies of spells is explicit in the Moldvay Basic rules (the "B" of B/X) and probably Mentzer's as well. Even if it's not explicit in AD&D, there are several NPC magic-users in 1E adventure modules that have multiple copies of spells, and as these tended to inform and illustrate play "back in the day," we took it as rote, loooong before 3E hit the scene.

      [just picking a random 1E module from my extensive collection, I find that in 1978's Descent Into the Depths of the Earth that the Drow magic-users have multiple magic missiles, the Dow clerics have multiple cure light wounds and hold person spells...also multiple fear and augury spells in the first main encounter, and the lich has multiples of both magic missile and web. The "original tournament character spell lists" (sample PCs) at the back also have multiples memorized, including faerie fire, fire ball, invisibility 10' radius, light, and neutralize poison. Consider that Descent was written by Gygax himself, and you can see how we would incorporate such examples into our own style of play!]

  4. I solved this problem so long ago that sometimes I have trouble remembering that it is still a problem for most of the community.

    There are two fundamental things I've done that severely limit magic users - and non-duplicate spells is only a supporter of the other two. This idea, that you can't throw the same spell more than once per day seems so obvious from a game stance that ...

    Well, you guys are getting it.

    The two keys are,

    1. Spellcasters can NEVER change their spells. They pick what they can use, when they level, and those picks are PERMANENT. It means that the casters have to work inside actual, unchangeable, fundamental limitations ... and under those limitations, cantrips aren't really a problem (they can't change those, either).

    You'd think that players would chafe against that, but they don't. Once they reach a level where they have enough spells to last a twenty-round combat, they usually settle in and enjoy their choices and feel they've made the right ones.

    2. It has to take LONGER to cast a spell. This is really the most important element. Spells, even at a low level, can easily be twice or three times more effective than a fighter's weapon: yet we compress the time it takes to cast a spell into the same amount of time to use that weapon once, and then we make it a ranged thing! Players view magic use like flipping on a flashlight that can light up an enemy at fifty yards, BOOM, dead enemy.

    This flashlight-process is the real killer. The spell casting process needs to be slowed; it needs to be onerous; it needs to be risky; it needs the spongy, fragile caster to carefully create circumstances where it is safe to cast. And then, when a massive BOOM spell can only be cast once every three or four rounds, because of timing, effort and commitment, it gives time for everyone else on the battlefield to be important.

    Again, I find that players don't chafe at this. Oh, maybe a little, when they find out they can't flashlight enemies out of existence at a range of two feet ... but after a while, they get it. It starts to make sense.

    It makes a better game.

  5. And to add,

    You can't give mages bonus spells like clerics because mage spells are WAY more powerful. It's not just a bit, its a big leap up, especially as you get to mid-level spells. As a DM, I can afford to give bonus spells to clerics and druids. What are they going to take? Speak with animals? Purify water? Piffle. It's chicken feed compared with the power of secondary mage spells. Those mage lists are DEEP in powerful options.

    Unless you want to divide the spells up, and limit bonus mage spells to the paltry stuff like "mending," "unseen servant" or "read magic," you're out of your mind giving bonus spells to mages.

  6. RE: Being out of our minds (bonus spells)

    I will consider what you're saying, Alexis; however, there is a decided difference in power level between the spells found in AD&D and the earlier edition I play. One thing I want to do is go through the text, spell by spell, and possibly (probably) alter them somewhat to better fit my cosmology. Compared to AD&D, I believe many more of the spells in B/X are of the "utility" variety (and I want mages to have more utility)...but I'll check that.

    I know my combats are on a much less detailed scale than yours (and a 20 round combat sounds like an unbearable length of time), but I grok what you're saying about time and balancing that with potential power. That's something else I'll have to consider...though perhaps in a slightly different fashion from your own version.

    [spell-casters never changing spells feeds perfectly well into my world view/cosmology...though that's more of a happy coincidence than something I was specifically angling for with these rules]

  7. @Alexis

    I, for one, am perfectly happy to be out of my mind.

    Of course, I admit that my approach ~ granting bonus spells or bonus amateur skills ~ is largely untested, but I'm also in the process of re-writing the spell lists to fit my needs for the game.


    Do I take you correctly, that a mage in your game cannot cast magic missile more than once per day? Because that seems... well, really harsh; like it's an unnecessary limit on the mage's power and hampers the party's ability to address challenges in the game.

    1. @ Ozy:

      I wouldn't say it hampers the party's ability to address challenges; rather it hampers the party's ability to address challenges in The Same Way. No, you don't get to have two magic missiles...but you still get two 1st level spells (only one of which can be magic missile). We need to stop looking at every challenge as a nail to be hammered, yeah?

      Sure, it may be an "unnecessary limit" (I'm choosing an arbitrary restriction), but I can think of few other ways to better force players to simultaneously A) force players to make greater use of the spell lists, B) become more creative with their solutions to problems, C) cut down on at least SOME similarities to combat situations, and D) implement a game rule/system that helps model a fiction I like (wizards as creative types who draw from a multitude o possible "tricks").

      When I was writing Five Ancient Kingdoms, I harshly limited the number of damage-dealing spells in the mage's inventory ("you want to kill things? use a sword"). I've altered my thinking somewhat (violence is a valid possible use of magic)...but this helps keep players from getting stuck in a rut.

  8. Sorry JB; I've got to step in on Ozymandias' comment to you and not me.

    Is the subject of a limit really the problem here, Oz? I could argue that a crooked golf club is an unnecessary limit on your ability to get the ball in the hole ... but is it?

    1. ...

      I suppose it isn't.

      Perhaps this is a matter of looking at the situation and going, "I don't see the problem."

      I think I understand JB's critique of the game, that players tend to get into a rut and use the same tactic over and over and...

      But aren't there other ways to address the issue? In your experience, Alexis, you've described players who start a game and literally wait for the DM to introduce an adventure to them. Your solution to this problem ~ a problem in thinking about the game ~ is not to make a rule that encourages players to seek out adventure. Your solution has been to present your world as it is and, if necessary, to explain to the players that things won't just happen (at least, not until they do something first).

      Could there be a similar solution to the problem of stagnant player behavior?