Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Sorcery I Like

Well, what do you know: a quiet moment around the old home front, for a change.

I'll be honest: I've (perhaps) had the opportunity to blog recently, just not the spirit. Just lots of things over-occupying my brain/attention. It gave me some peace to simply withdraw from the whole blog-o-sphere for a few days, rather than tread water with throwaway posts and comments. Not that this isn't (perhaps) a throwaway post, but there's enough quiet right now that I can sit and type-type-typity-type.

Mmm. With cup of hot coffee at hand.

Yesterday (or maybe the day before) I had the chance to read Clark Ashton Smith's second Xiccarph story, The Flower-Women (to give credit where credit's due, I only learned about Xiccarph after Maliszewski wrote about it a week or so ago). I like Smith's stuff, though I've read precious little of it (perhaps a dozen of his short stories). His work is reminiscent of other writers, though I recognize he was probably the influence on them, rather than the reverse. But his stuff is (usually) punchy and short, perhaps only slowed down by an expansive vocabulary that requires me to look up two-three words with every reading. 

[quick: who can tell me the definition of odalisque off the top of your head?]

I also like this bit about Smith's writing, aptly summed up by James in his (previously mentioned) post:
Smith is almost unique in the history of pulp fantasy for sympathizing with his evil sorcerers, or at least presenting their thoughts and perspectives sympathetically. It's what sets him apart from both Lovecraft, whose antagonists' motives are largely inscrutable, and Howard, whose dark magicians are never portrayed as anything but villains to be cut down.
I think it's fair to say that, for much of my life, I was one of those who tended to "root for the bad guy" both in story and film. Not always, but often enough. Many times over the years I found myself wishing the villain would triumph, the hero would be cut down (or disgraced), the evil plot would unfold according to its nefarious plan. However, this was certainly more the case when I was a kid...having (in later life) viewed films and such where evil did triumph, I confess that the result is generally unsatisfying.

[perhaps my initial rooting for bad was fueled by too much sympathy for Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester the Cat. My wife, to this day, HATES Tweety Bird, and I can't say it's difficult to understand why]


Anyway, black-hearted sorcerers have long been "my cup o tea;" I think it's fair to say that's part of my fandom of Moorcock's Elric stories, despite the general whininess of their protagonist (for me, his constant bitching-moaning is balanced out by his dark sense of humor and occasional bursts of action). But I like necromancers and black magicians of all sorts; when it comes to sorcerous characters, I become a BIG champion of the flawed, antihero type...a cardboard stereotype that I usually loathe in other genres (action films and supers comics, to name two).

I guess I just like my magic a little transgressive? I mean, sorcery transgresses the laws of reality, so shouldn't a sorcerer transgress cultural/societal norms (the laws of man)?

Eh. Not trying to get too deep here. The heart wants what the heart wants. The funny thing is this: with regard to Dungeons & Dragons, I have long said that my personal play style lines up far better with the fighter type than any other archetype. Even when playing another class (bards, clerics...even thieves) I tend to run my character like a fighter. Bold. Brazen. Hacky-slashy. My old DM famously precluded me from playing anything but a fighter in the last campaign she ran, because I 'always acted like a fighter anyway.' 

I've played a lot of too-loud "war priests" over the years.

Magic-user was the last class I was interested in playing...so much so that, with regard to D&D, I'd never run one as a PC until a Con game in 2019.

[okay, okay...I did play ONE wizard back in a SINGLE session of 3E/D20 years ago, but I gave him feats like "martial weapon proficiency" so that I could use swords, etc. Natch, I was doing Gandalf...and the DM quit the game in disgust when he saw I hadn't taken an "optimal build" for the character. One of the events that led to my disillusionment with that particular edition...]

HOWEVER, while I've generally stayed away from the magic-user class over the years, upon reflection (after reading The Flower-Women) I realized I actually had a hankering to play just such a character...a proper D&D (or, rather, AD&D) -style sorcerer. An old school magic-user. 

That character I played back in the 2019 convention? Probably the best time / most fun I've had as a player in a loooong time. And just to re-tell an old saw (for folks who don't want to read the old post):
  • We were using Holmes Basic rules, MINUS the wonky combat (no double attack daggers!).
  • PCs were rolled randomly at the table (3d6) in order; I took magic-user only because I didn't have the stats for anything else.
  • My one spell was protection from evil and it was expended in the first room of the dungeon.
  • I spent the majority of the three hour time slot with 1 hit point (due to being wounded) and no spells.
  • I was only slain by another party member at the end of the session for (reasons).
And it was still a great time. Despite my character's fragility and lack of "usefulness" (sleep spells, charm spells, combat ability, etc.) I was able to contribute and...many times...take the lead on our eight-man band of misfit adventurers. I used the character's multiple languages and negotiating ability, I used poles and oil and torches, I preceded others into trap doors and tight spaces (okay...probably a little foolhardiness there, but not much to lose in a con game), and I was able to help direct attacks...and throw the occasional dagger...such that we didn't lose a single party member over the course of the session. And that's with 1st level characters and zero healing magic.

I was the only magic-user in the party.

The challenge of playing such a character is/was fairly exhilarating. Trying to find ways to be useful (without getting killed) was far more challenging than other (D&D) games I'd played: games where I had lots of hit points and/or good armor and a feeling of invincibility (at least for the first hit or so). I can only imagine the fun that could be had with the increased effectiveness (more spells) and survivability of playing such a character in the Advanced version of the game...it's not difficult to visualize the manifestation of an "imperious sorcerer" the likes of Maal Dweb. Gradually, of course.

The main difficulty, as always, is finding the right Dungeon Master. *sigh*

I've messed around over the years with a lot of different design tweaks for the D&D magic-user. Most of these have ended up being nothing but junk. What follows are my current "house rules" for the magic-user class in my home game (if not otherwise stated, rules are as per 1E PHB/DMG):
  • Magic-users begin the game with three 1st level spells, randomly determined (per the DMG). 
  • There is no read magic spell; magic-users can read magic-user spell scrolls automatically.
  • All spells known may be cast once per day; a particular spell may not be cast more than once per day (no multiple memorizations of a single spell).
  • New spells are added after training upon reaching a new level of experience; new spells are presumed in the cost for training. Preferred spells are chosen by player and then diced for based on Intelligence (per PHB). Spells from spell scrolls and spell books may not be added to the magic-user's repertoire of spells...a magic-user knows what he/she knows.
  • Spell books are part talisman, part grimoire, part journal/scientific notes. Study of the spell book is needed to regain spells. Spell books can be prohibitively expensive to replace; losing (stealing) one's spell book is akin to losing (stealing) one's power. Magic-users will endeavor to recover lost (stolen) spell books (and will punish thieves with great vengeance, if possible).
We've been using these rules for a while now (a couple years) and they work for us; i.e. there haven't been any complaints. I'm sure long-time AD&D players will recoil at the thought of NOT having the option of adding "extra" spells to their spell book; in practice, it's been a non-issue (and it's a lot more convenient to simply HAVE the spells available then to need to search them out). The bonus spells at 1st level provide additional effectiveness to the new character, and the randomness and single memorization clause ensures creative use of even the most "worthless" spell (all spells are precious commodities to be treasured by the first level magic-user). 

We have yet to see a thief reach 10th level (or any high level illusionists/rangers) so it's hard to say how their abilities to "read (magic-user) magic" will interact with these rules. As it's a bridge we've yet to cross, I'm content to leave the issue alone and continue with what works...for now.

As an aside: spell-casting dragons in my world know spells as a magic-user equal to their hit dice (a red with 10 HD, for example, would know spells as a 10th level magic-user). This makes dragons considerably more magical...at least the ones that can use magic (I've toyed with the idea of making ALL dragons speaking and magic-using, but I like the idea of there being more "vermin-esque" dragons who are ignorant...and mundane...threats to civilized folk). For me, in addition to dragons being more sorcerous, this helps justify the dragons' hoards, as magic-users pay them in coin and treasure to be trained in higher level spells (what "magic schools" there are being few and, often, strictly regulated).

All right, the coffee pot is empty and the brew in my mug is considerably cooler than when it was first poured (and the house is not nearly as quiet...the wife is wanting me to make lunch), so I'll sign off for now. Hope y'all are having a good January.
: )


  1. There is a certain charm to playing a AD&D magic user, embracing the creativity and finding ways to participate without depleting your spells. The last long campaign of AD&D I played a MU starting from 1st and reached 5th level only casting one spell in the dungeon but still had a ton of fun. I wasn't thrilled to play the MU, but once we started I embraced it fully.

    So if I read your houserules correct a first level MU can cast 3 1st level spells, then from second level
    On ward they use the standard spell progression chart +3 1st level spell.

    I can see how that speeds play as usual there is some debate on what spells to memorize.

    In my house rules I do less starting spells but you get a 2d6 roll for a chance to retain a spell in memory once it is cast so you can recast it.

    1. @ 7B:

      Spells known/cast would be "as per PHB + 2 first level spells" (since all MUs start with one 1st, normally).

      In my Krull setting (a loooooong time ago), I had a rule for spell failure/backfire (based on INT) that allowed the spell to remain memorized. In other words, it was "cast till you succeed" (with appropriate hilarity till then). Coupled with the B/X system, this put a little bite into players who'd otherwise choose to play a MU withOUT a high INT score (since INT has no function besides XP adjustment and languages in B/X).
      ; )

    2. I am a firm beliver that in old school games if you are rolling and aranging ability scores prioritizing Dexterity for a MU makes sense. The extra AC and better to hit with your inevitable thrown dagger. What good is a 10% xp bump if you don't survive the adventure.

  2. I like your take on MU rules adjustment. The extra 2 spells at first definitely gives the character a bit more "in-character" things to do, but doesn't over-power anything at higher levels. Not casting the same spell more than once a day definitely gives service to other lesser used spells, and maybe makes seeking out scrolls and wands more important. I like this... it's small tweaks, rather than a major overhaul. I was one to often select MU as my class, even with the minimal 1st level class ability.

    1. It’s still a challenge to play such a character, but not (we’ve found) an onerous one.

      The initial spell selection IS still random (as per the tables in the DMG), but the spread is generally good, and I’ve yet to hear any complaints…players know they can always get sleep or charm (or whatever) when they hit 2nd level. And they don’t have to bother “finding” the spell or bargaining with some NPC.

  3. I kind of meet you halfway, there. In my now-defunct OSE game, I allowed magic-users with Int 13+ to have an extra 1st level spell slot. This was not an option for "special" character classes like illusionist. In retrospect, I think I'd give it to illusionists next time, too.

    I also like adding randomization of sorts to spellcasting... backfires, keeping spells, stuff like that... in theory, but I've never created a table or system that I actually liked.

    1. Generally, the game is hard enough without adding problems. The MU's cross is their limited quiver of spells...their advantage is that those spells should ALWAYS function (barring a saving throw / magic resistance).

      In my old OD&D game, I gave a +1 spell bonus for INT 15+ (and I have it as an optional rule in my COMES CHAOS setting supplement for B/X). That worked well, but MUs tend to be a little hardier in those games (better HPs in OD&D, better AC in B/X). For AD&D, three is the sweet spot. We were rolling up spells anyway (per the DMG), and decided I wanted them to have access to ALL of them, rather than making the player choose which spell they had memorized on a daily basis.

      We like having the whole "choice of spell" thing FRONTLOADED (i.e. you choose the spell you want when you advance in level). THEN, in play, the only choice you need to make is HOW to use the spell. No second-guessing of "should I have memorized X instead of Y," just "how best to use Y?"

      It works well in practice.
      : )

  4. Kind of off topic, regarding Dragons. In my games that % chance of speaking/spell use, is their chance to speak common, all Dragons speak draconic, they just might not know the human languages

    1. At least with regard to AD&D, I think that’s probably the correct way to interpret the % (as the Intelligence score noted for each dragon type is well above “animal” it’s only fair they should automatically speak their own tongue).