Wednesday, April 14, 2010

1st Level Magic-Users

I was checking out Lord Killgore’s recent postings on the magic-user and it reminded me of my own musings on the subject. Way back in the early days of this blog (ooo…11 months ago!) I was trying to figure out ways of making the magic-user “more magical” in order for the class to be more “viable” at first level.

I have since changed my tune on the subject.

At least in my head! For me, I consider the whole issue of the Poor Little Medium a matter of scale. Or rather, PERSPECTIVE, but perspective with regard to scale.

JB, what the hell are you talking about?

Well, it occurs to me that most of us long-time D&D gamers approach the magic-user class from the perspective of an advanced (or at least experienced) campaigner. Meaning, we look at the magic-user at 1st level and say: “how weak is THAT?”

- AC 9 (sorry, folks, I’m only talking B/X and OD&D for the moment)

- A dagger

- 1D4 hit points

- One single 1st level spell

Considering the experienced gamer knows what lies ahead (owl bears and purple worms and orcish archers and evil fighters and whatnot) it is perhaps forgivable that he (or she or me) looks at the 1st level MU’s total package, shakes his head, and thinks, “well, maybe the DM will let me start off at 3rd or 4th level.” After all, the veteran gamer ALSO knows that the magic-user will definitely come into his (or her) own eventually, it’s just a matter of “leveling up.”

I know I have been guilty of doing this myself in the past.

However, that’s looking at the character with jaded eyes…I believe (now) that one has to look at the character from the character’s perspective…take a “pawn’s eye view,” if you will. If you do, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Give the 1st level magic-user his swagger.

One-on-one, the Medium (that’s the level title at 1st level) is a pretty even match for ANY adventurer, and more than a match for some. Even at 1st level, the Medium’s single spell gives him a leg-up over most any mere mortal with whom he comes in contact.

For one thing, I’ve pointed out before that the rules as written make the MU a scrappy little fighter. In both OD&D and B/X (and BECMI) the default rules makes the dagger a 1D6 damage weapon, the equivalent of a mace, a warhammer…or a two-handed sword (all weapons doing the same damage). In B/X play, a reasonably fit magic-user (Strength 13+) has good chance of killing any other 1st level character with a single blow. And don’t forget that the magic-user has the same chance to hit as any other character of levels 1-3 (yes, the Medium is just as accurate with his knives as a 3rd level fighter).

But it’s the Medium’s spell…that single, stored pulse of power…that truly sets him apart from other characters.

In general, I think it’s safe to say that a good 75% of 1st level player characters will choose Sleep as that 1st spell. And why not? The ability of magicians and witches to put people to sleep has long been a part of story and folklore…it’s appropriate. Of course, in the dungeon setting it is the Uber-Spell, the whole reason a party of 1st level characters will give the MU a full share of the treasure found. It is so good at pulling the party’s proverbial bacon from the fire, I just can’t believe anyone can question the Medium’s value. Though knowing when to use it can be a skill unto itself!

Example #1 (from actual play): a small party consisting of a cleric, a halfling, and a magic-user enters an abandoned dwarf mine. Although the magic-user is 2nd level his 2nd spell consists of Read Magic. The first couple encounters (a giant spider, small parties of kobolds…with javelins!) FEEL dangerous, but the non-wizards have plate mail and are able to rush and pummel without anyone getting killed; they tell the MU “hold off! hold off!” Proceeding deeper, beaten and weary, they come to the final chamber…to face the chief kobold (armed with a magic item), his shaman, and his hand-picked bodyguard of bruisers. “Now!” they shout, the Sleep is loosed and the entire cadre of enemies are defeated with but a single word of magic.

Example #2 (from actual play): the same party, now expanded by three additional fighters and a thief venture into a different part of the mine. Unfortunately, the magic-user is unable to make this game session. In their first (and only) encounter, the party stirs up a nest of troglodytes…half a dozen to be exact. The party (all 2nd and 3rd level characters) is demolished; only two members survive. Where was the Word of Power?!

I said Sleep was probably the spell taken 75% of the time. The other 25% of dungeon delvers probably take Charm Person. Incredibly useful for making those large ogres into your bitch/servant. And if you don’t think THAT’s useful you haven’t played Blizzard Pass.

Of course, finding an ogre can be tricky…but if you know where one is (B2), Charm is a godsend.

However, one doesn’t need to make the magic-user so one-dimensional. Especially in campaigns offering more than simple dungeon delving, other spells can be useful. Magic Missile is an excellent weapon for the assassin, body guard, or gladiator Medium. No? It’s auto-hit from range and does D6+1 damage. That’s going to kill a lot of 1st level fighters despite plate mail, shield, and an 18 dexterity…the only protection is having more hit points than the missile. Shield is likewise excellent for the brawler/gladiator Medium, giving the MU a leg up over other lightly armored combatants while wading in with daggers (especially for MUs with high strength and constitution)…it’s also a good spell for magic-users that need to infiltrate areas that armored types are not allowed (in addition to being silent protection).

A 1st level magic-user with Detect Magic or Read Languages can make a killing money-wise identifying true items from false for a local noble or adventuring parties, interpreting documents, and deciphering treasure maps. Such a character can put together enough scratch to hire mercenaries that guard him as he explores ruins and follows the treasure map’s TRUE directions that he did not provide in his translation!

Spells like Light, Floating Disk, and Hold Portal are all 2nd tier spells, generally reactive and temporary in nature (unlike Continual Light or Wizard Lock, for example) and should probably be skipped by the 1st level Medium. Even Protection from Evil is more of a stop-gap measure (for when one’s cleric dies).

However, these powers (even Ventriloquism!) can be useful for getting a party OUT of dungeon alive and intact. As with other spells, the main trick is knowing WHEN to use the spell (being pursued by monsters while trying to make it to the exit? Now’s the time to use that Ventriloquism and send ‘em down the wrong corridor!). It’s up to the Medium to sell himself to the adventuring party as a useful asset (in the latter case, as a possible escape aid/emergency back-up…no saving throw against Ventriloquism, after all).

Magic-users…even 1st level magic-users…should have swagger and demand respect from their adventuring peers. They can do things no one else can. And even though you can only do that thing ONCE per day, it doesn’t mean we (including me!) should sell ‘em short. How many times has a 1st level fighter been bashing away at an orc, only to have string of poor D20 rolls keep the thing alive and longer in combat than necessary? Wouldn’t it be nice if the party medium could just blast the damn thing with a magic missile?

If YOU could blast someone with a magic missile…even once per day!...wouldn’t YOU walk around the town square with a bit of a swagger? Who wants to fool with THAT guy?

[consider the classic movie scene where a single armed villain or hero holds off multiple members of the opposition with the line, ‘who wants to die first?’ Mediums can do that, too]

And, of course, this isn’t even accounting for the fact that in a particular campaign world, magic may be surrounded by fear, superstition, and ignorance…maybe the general populace (or monster population) has no idea of the limits of a magic-user’s power. One display of magic or one star-lined robe, plus the right amount of bluff and bluster, might be enough to cow enemies and make them pay tribute to the party.

This is what role-playing’s all about, folks.

If anything, magic-users, even at 1st level, run the danger of being TOO powerful in scale to their same level/hit dice opponents. Yes, yes, dwarves and elves and human fighters can wear plate mail armor but it only takes one lucky roll by the DM to put you down…and against a group of multiple enemies (or a monster with multiple attacks) the chances of that “lucky roll” occurring increases. Plate mail won’t save you.

Meanwhile, a random encounter with 1D6 1st level mediums is an absolute TPK for any adventuring party under 4th level. It only takes one Sleep spell to go off, and the mediums will be slitting throats and looting bodies. The nightmare scenario would be attempting to break into some wizarding school (like Hogwarts!) and being slaughtered by those “weak” 1st level guttersnipes, lurking in every classroom.

In my opinion, magic-users, even 1st level ones, are nasty, dangerous, and powerful characters…and they just become moreso as they increase in power. At 15th level, the average damage for a magic-user’s lightning bolt is the same as the average hit points of a fighter of the same level. Above 15th level, the MUs fireball/lightning bolt out-paces the fighter’s rate of hit point progression…though it only takes an 11th level wizard to disintegrate a fighter or a 7th level magic-user to polymorph her into a toad.

Playing D&D (1st level or not, magic-user or not) doesn’t have to be limited to stomping into a dungeon, in a particular marching order, and beating down foes as they present themselves. I mean, that may represent the most recent editions’ designed style of game play, but it certainly doesn’t need to with the older versions. In fact, not only is that a boring way to play (IMO), but a good way to see the party lose members in a war of attrition, magic-user or not.

POST SCRIPT: Um, so, regarding Lord K’s suggested “blasting power”…I vote NO.


  1. I've been present at a TPK from a Sleep spell. Indeed, it is nothing to sneeze at.

  2. Great post, even though I disagree with you about the Zap power. I like the idea of the Magic User getting to do mundane tasks in a magical way so I'd let them light a fire without a tinder box if they have their wand, and other minor actions as well.

    At 1st level all of the characters are relatively weak and vulnerable. A smart Magic User is certainly not at a disadvantage compared to the other classes.

  3. Out of curiosity, why the NO vote? Simply because of flavor?

  4. Mages in my D&D games have had an "Arcane Blast" power for many years. A common house rule back in the day was to allow magic-users to use a sling for 1d4 damage. My "arcane Blast" power is basically a sling converted to a power all MUs have. Instead of using the sling, they get to point their finger and a magic dart shoots out. They have to roll to hit to do the 1d4 damage -- just like they were picking up stones and firing them from their sling. It has the exact same game effect as allowing the use of a sling, but it fits the idea using "magic" better.

  5. @ Lord K: In all honesty, I think it takes away from the Vancian flavor of D&D magic. But IN ADDITION, for the reasons I outlined above, I don't think magic-users are so weak at 1st level that they need the extra ability.

    Let me just make a quick add: if I WAS playing a 1st level magic-user, I would probably spend a good 20 - 40 gp of my starting funds on a bandolier of throwing knives. Which (considering they can be retrieved after battle, unlike arrows) pretty much accomplishes the same effect as a D4 strength "magic blast."

    I don't think D&D is the right game engine for a Hogwarts style ("Expelliarmus!") game. But that's just my opinion.

  6. I don't think anyone contends that MUs are weak or don't pull their weight at 1st level. Every gaming group has those stories where SLEEP ended a low-level "boss" battle even before it began. The point is that, as one of your own examples illustrates, the MU is forced to hold back slinging the magic until circumstances are juuuust right.

    That means for those players who really want to play a magical wizard type, they are essentially forced to play a pale imitation of an unarmored fighter for most of the day. I mean, the mental image of some dude in robes throwing dart after dart makes me think of Friday night at the local KKK bar, not any scene one might see in a plausible dungeon.

    Or how many fantasy depictions of wizards have you seen with bandoliers of throwing knives? You're not playing a MU at that point, you're practically playing a terribly ineffective thief. The knives might do as much damage, on paper, as the "magic blasts", but the image in my head is of Jet Li in wizard's cap.

    I can see your point that it takes away from the Vancian flavor of D&D magic, but I think that in this case, the Vancian mechanic takes away from the fantasy magic flavor of the magic-user. Game mechanics should serve to establish or reinforce the style and mood you want for your game.

  7. @JB: Fair enough. I've never been sold enough on Vancian magic to worry much about degrading its flavor. As far as I'm concerned, it's a great game mechanic for spell casting and not much more.

    As for the post itself, I guess I don't see any reason for or against magic blast in there.

    You suggest a bandoleer of daggers instead of magic blast, which is a very common suggestion. That is 100% expressly what I'm trying to avoid for reasons of flavor. Maybe I've read the wrong books or watched the wrong movies, but I can't think of any fictional wizards who spend most of their time flinging knives.

    Magic blast is not an "extra ability" in the sense that M-Us can now participate in combat in a way that they haven't been able to before. It's pure window dressing.

    Your flavor favors daggers for 1d4 and mine favors magic for 1d4. That's all.

    I just wanted make sure that it was flavor and not something else.

  8. @ Flip & KG: I see your points, guys. I'm really not writing this just to play devil's advocate.

    However, if we do look at the MU from a "fantasy" perspective, and you say the lack of regular, magical "blasting" attacks detract from the fantasy flavor in D&D, I have to wonder, um...which fantasy film/lit are you holding up as the "true" fantasy?

    For example, I don't recall Gandalf going around "blasting" folks...nor Turjan (from Vance's the Dying Earth). Most of these "users of magic" normally did combat with weapons...the fact that they also "used magic" set them apart from non-wizards, but their blasting of folks only occurred occasionally, not even every combat encounter, let alone every round. Neither did the sorcerers that appeared in Howardian fiction.

    Personally, much as I enjoyed the Harry Potter books, I was never very impressed with Rowling's "magical combat." And even while I can see it as reasonable in Rowling's wizarding world, is it proper to have it in D&D?

    I mean, depending on your style and the type of campaign world you run, having magic-users able to so flagrantly display magic power...well, it kind of detracts from the whole "mystery/occult" nature of magic if it is used commonly and easily (even if it is only used to minor effect).

  9. Well, for one, there's "Venger" from the D&D animated series. Tons of wizards from comics, such as Dr. Strange, to give an example.

    Gandalf and Elric aren't really D&D style wizards, anyway, because high-level D&D wizards don't waive around a sword with anywhere NEAR the frequency they do, even if the sword is magical. Hell, D&D wizards can't even wield swords to begin with. I think a PC Gandalf really has to be an elf until you get to 2nd Edition with dual-classing.

    By the lower-middle levels, a D&D mage is already tossing spells left and right in a flagrant display of magic power. I don't see why that flavor shouldn't extend to the first level, and I don't see why one detracts from the "mystery/occult" nature of D&D while the other doesn't.

    By it's very nature, being a MU singles you out from the crowd. While simple magic like a zap might be an afterthought to you, it is a wonder to the vast numbers of simple peasant folk who populate the country.

    Of course, it comes down to what you think is fun. The knife-throwing wizard isn't for me, but if you like it, that's all that matters.

  10. @ Flip: Well, cartoons and comics (thing Ariel or any other sorcerer in Thundarr the Barbarian) people shoot "energy blasts" all the time...I don't think of that as the literary tradition on which D&D is based, though.

    Just me, though.

  11. If magic-users in your game fight with swords at the level of Elric and Gandalf, fair enough. If that's the way M-Us are played, I wouldn't think d4 hit dice would be appropriate. And didn't Elric usually wear armor? My guess is that Elric is a fighter/magic-user and that Gandalf is something above human. I don't think claiming that Elric's use of a sword means that D&D magic-users should throw daggers is a very compelling one.

    I can appreciate the idea that a only a few spells once in a while adds to the mystery/occult vibe, but that certainly isn't the only vibe I'm going for in my game.

    As I said, it comes down to flavor. Flavor is why I'm using a magic blast. Despite arguments to the contrary, the only substantial objections I've seen have been from a standpoint of flavor.

    Like I wrote in my post, my magic-users will fling magic and yours will fling daggers. The orcs won't be able to tell the difference.

  12. Next Medium I play is gonna be roleplayed as "Jet Li in a Wizard Cap" ;P