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 edition...at 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 consideration...as 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.