Sunday, July 12, 2009

Making Magic-Users Magical (Part 1)

I am not a "fantasy whore" by which I mean I do not watch every fantasy film or show that comes out on TV.  However, I did catch most of that Merlin show on NBC tonight, and it got me thinking about magic-users (*sigh*) again.

OD&D doesn't have any description of what a magic-user IS, just what it can do. I guess the author felt the term "magic-user" described the class pretty well. It does note that the class includes only men and elves.

Moldvay's Basic set says:

Magic-users are humans who, through study and practice, have learned how to cast spells. Merlin the Magician was a famous magic-user.

The AD&D Players Handbook says:

Magic-users draw upon arcane powers in order to exercise their profession. While they have mighty spells of offensive, defensive, and informational nature, magic-users are very weak in combat...for martial training is so foreign to magic-users as to make the two almost mutually exclusive. ... When a magic-user begins his or her profession, the character is usually presumed to possess a strange tome in which he or she has scribed the formulae for some of the spells known to the character. 


Here's the thing...I never played a magic-user character as an Old School player.  The first time I ever tried my hand as a PC magic-user was the 3rd edition, and it went horribly wrong for all the usual stupid D20 reasons (I don't have a post about that instance here, though I have mentioned it in the Actual Play forums of the Forge).  Yes, I did (as DM) have a long-running NPC magic-user named Arioch that accompanied Big Al on adventures, but that's hardly the same thing as playing one in someone else's campaign, nurturing it from 1st level.  I'm pretty sure ol' Arioch started higher than level 1 anyway (probably level 2-4).

Thing is, I never liked the magic-user as a class. They're just too terribly limited. Hell, they're not much of an adventurer at 1st level. No armor, no weapons other than a dagger, one spell. Even the henchman torch-bearer can wield a sword and wear some leather armor.  

I read other blogger's accounts of low-level magic-users and I see one of two things occurring:

A) players using multiple PCs where one is a magic-user and the other is a hardier type
B) players using only a magic-user and lots of running away

Option A sounds like a cop out to me, and option B...well, that hardly strikes me as heroic adventuring, I don't know about you all.

In my opinion, magic-users should be able to offer something to a party, right from the get go. There must be some reason for including the scrubby guy in the group.  In OD&D it's actually less of a problem than later editions, as a dagger does the same amount of damage (1D6) as a guy with a sword, there's no thief class (so even the MU can be looking for traps and such), and all 1st level characters have the same to hit rolls and D6 hit dice!

Regardless of whether or not one agrees with the later evolutions of D&D further distinguishing magic-users from other classes, the distinctions ARE there...and they are such that some people (like myself) won't look at a magic-user as a potential character class.

Even in my old D&D days, I don't think we ever forced a magic-user player to start at level 1. Even Lucky in his 2nd incarnation (the first being created as an 18th level pre-gen to fit into a high level campaign)...I believe he started at level 2.  It's hard to remember.  And as I did mention, the DMs of the campaign eventually decided that MUs could wield short swords thereby (inadvertently!) mimicking the original rules of D&D which we never played (i.e. allowing MUs to do 1D6 damage in melee).

Anyway, let's cut to the chase: I play B/X D&D these days. I don't want to add a bunch of house-rules to make the magic-user more "viable" at low levels.  I'm not a giant believer in "game balance" for the sake of parity amongst classes. The only thing I want to balance is the DESIRE of players' choice amongst possible character classes. 

That's the REAL point of this post. In a B/X or Old School game where a player's character has no guarantee of achieving greatness, I don't want players to ignore the promise of power inherent in the magic-user class simply because they're so frustratingly inept and, frankly, worthless at 1st level.  Given a choice between a 10th level fighter, a 10th level cleric, and a 10th level magic-user players are going to make a choice based on their preferred style of play. Because all the classes are viable at that level.   Given the same choice but amongst 1st level characters, I want player to base their decision on the same thing: their preferred style of play.

So how does one do this?  Well, I think that most players who want to play magic-users want to do so because they want to play the archetype character...the Gandalf, or the Elric, or the Hermione Granger and Harry Potter, even.  They want to be magical.  And that's what needs to be added even at 1st level.  And I am NOT talking about more spell selection!


  1. This is something that has bothered me from day one when I wanted to play a M-U as my very first character but chose a cleric instead. I look forward to part 2.

  2. You can always cite the movie DRAGONSLAYER. In it the lead character, a wizard's apprentice, were leather armor, carries a dragon scale shield and uses a spear. So basically, he equips himself as well as possible and still avoids large amounts of metal. So why not let your M-Us were Leather armor, carry a non metal shield and use weapons that have no more metal than the currently allowed dagger (e.g. spears, javelins, slings clubs)?

  3. What about variant magic systems? I've tried using a points system with Castles and Crusades as well as Labyrinth Lord. It seems to work OK I suppose...but I get the feeling that the characters are a bit overpowered. How about something similar to the way that Microlite20 works magic? It's pretty simple and has drawbacks that seem to balance the upside of more spells at fist level.

  4. Getting to it, folks.

    @ Gamer Dude: speaking of "fist level," check out my post on 'the Magic-Users' OTHER tome.' Fist level indeed!
    : )

    @ Stuart: DRAGONSLAYER is an excellent movie, and great example...of an Ars Magica campaign. However, when you see my next post on the topic bear in mind that I have watched the film multiple times and have integrated it into my inspiration. Also, see my Variant Weapon Damage posts from last month.

  5. I think the solution is two fold. 1) Anyone playing a 1st level M-U, needs to role play their way through the early adventures. They are there as the eyes and ears of their master/guild

    2) Controlled and effective Magic item drops. Wands, rods, staves and scrolls are needed to make the one-spell-wonder a playable and enjoyable character.