Thursday, February 7, 2013

Magic in 5AK

Received an email from "Mark" recently, and (in addition to talking about Norv Turner and the Chargers) he wrote the following:
One "problem" I always seem to be trying to find a fix for is help for low level Magic-Users. One spell and no real combat ability is such a drag. I am always considering adding access to "cantrip" like minor spells such as in 3E or allowing magic users to buy lesser wands for 25g that is functionally identical to a sling, but at least provide something to do besides wait out of sight until the fight is over.
Sometimes I fear though that I have simply played too many modern RPGs that are more tactical in combat, though the single class Magic-User was never appealing to me because of the lack of things to do [at] early levels. Give me an Elf any day of the week though, I had lots of fun with that class.
Have you ever seen this as an issue in your B/X games, and if so, have you had any house rules that worked well?
Rather than replying to Mark, I've decided to post my response, just in case others find it interesting.

I have, in the past, attempted many, many times to institute house rules of one sort or another for magic-users, none of which really had any sticking power (that is to say, they'd be tried for one or two games sessions and then dropped). Several of these "grand ideas" have been posted to the can find them under the "magic-user" label along with a lot of info on Vancian magic in general...with the most recent one being this one. The gist? Magic-users get bonus spells for high INT (similar to the way clerics in AD&D receive bonus spells for high WIS scores).

Unfortunately, this idea actually went over like a ton of bricks with my main "magic-using player" in the B/X game. His issue was not the lack of variety/options (well, that was certainly part of it), but rather the lack of potency: that he'd cast a spell and the creature would make its saving throw rendering his character completely worthless and humiliated. "Welp, there goes my one spell of the day. Good thing I brought this bandolier of daggers for throwing."

Is that what you want your wizard to be? I certainly don't...and while the creative player can find other ways to make their character useful even outside of a combat encounter, the fact of the matter is a player wants to play a magic-user because he or she wants to USE MAGIC. How f'ing hard is that to understand? You want to play a magical character, THAT's why you arrange your stats in a particular way and bite the bullet with your D4 hit points and AC 9 (or 10 depending on edition).

Not being able to use magic (when such is your intent) is a major drag...and let me tell you, if your 1st level spell is a charm person and the ogre or hobgoblin or whatever makes its save then, no, you are NOT using magic. Same for the guy who memorizes sleep and then finds himself fighting skeletons in the necropolis. Same for the guy who memorizes read magic and then fails to find any spell scrolls.

And even if you DO find that spell scroll, or get off that magic missile or whatever...well, then, your first level character is done for the day, right?

Some of you may have noted (on this blog or elsewhere) that Gygax's own house rules indicated player characters should start at 3rd level of experience. Doing so has the following impact on game play:

  • all characters have extra hit points (more survivability)
  • if the AD&D combat tables are used, fighters have a higher attack roll than other starting characters (otherwise they get their big bonus upon reaching the next level: 4th and "Hero" status).
  • spell-casters have more spells (and thus more options)

This, of course, all makes great sense in making a beginning character's career more enjoyable. It is also  just a "patch" on what might have to be considered (sorry) a broken rule system. If you want beginning characters to have extra hit points, give 1st level characters extra hit points! If you want magic-users to cast more spells when starting out, let them cast more spells! Jeez...not very hard, right? If Gygax wasn't a purist for his own game system, why do we have to be?

It really depends on what you want to model in your game. Some people want to give magic-users cheap wands or the ability to constantly "zap" monsters like the wizard in the old Gauntlet video game. Personally, I'm not into that...what I call the "Harry Potter-style" of wizardry. My thoughts on what I DO want to model (and what I'm using for D&D Mine) can be found in this earlier post on Building a Better Magic-User. However, for Mark's sake, I'll spell out my current iteration of "magician-isms" for 5AK (the working title for my version of D&D, currently in process).

  • Magicians are untrained in the use of swords, shields, and bows. That doesn't mean they can't use them, just that they are penalized (compared to trained characters) in their use. Some magicians may have had training in one of these things as determined during the chargen process.
  • As academics, magicians are a little less hearty and take a -1 penalty to all hit dice rolled. They likewise receive less bonus HPs at high level than other adventurer types.
  • Magicians must have full freedom of movement to cast spells, to this end they cannot be bound or wearing burdensome armor.
  • Low level magicians learn magic (spells) from a master; once they reach a level of independence they are responsible for creating their own spells.
  • Spells are generally written down (i.e. in a spell book). The recitation of a spell (from a book or scroll or from memory) casts the spell...spells do not "fade" or otherwise disappear by reading them.
  • Magicians have a maximum number of spells they can memorize (like you might have a maximum number of phone numbers you can memorize). As the magician grows in proficiency, they can memorize more. Memorizing a spell means the magician can cast it at will without needing to read it from a book or scroll.
  • Magicians still have to cast a spell correctly, which can be difficult when embroiled in chaotic events (like combat). This is done with a die roll (like trying to make a successful attack). The die roll is modified by the caster's level and INT as well as certain other factors (reading the spell from a book gives you a bonus, for instance).
  • Spells of greater magnitude have a greater complexity requiring a greater effort (higher "attack roll") and a longer casting-time (a lot more pages to read in the old spell book). Memorized spells can be "fast-cast" at a penalty to the success roll.
  • Very few spells do "damage" to an opponent; if you want to damage someone, you strike 'em with a weapon. Nearly all spells are of the "utility" variety; there are 84 spells divided into seven magnitudes, though players can work with GMs to invent more.
  • Magicians can forgo the casting of a spell in a round to "counter-spell" another magician's spell.
  • Magicians can brew potions and imbue artifacts ("create magic items") and can generally detect enchantments and magic "at will." Likewise, they are all trained to "read the language of magic" so all scrolls and spell books are open to them...if they can get their hands on them. Magicians tend to be kind of protective of their lore.

Okay, that's about it. There are a couple of other wrinkles (there are a couple variant sub-classes that function a bit differently), but that's pretty much what the magician class looks like in 5AK.

The cleric is quite a bit different.
; )


  1. I seem to recall Gary started players at third level because he ran a lot of pickup games, not because first level characters were somehow broken.

  2. @ DuBeers:

    As I never gamed with the man (nor met him/chewed his brain), I really couldn't say; certainly I'm just making an assumption in my blog post.

    Having said that, if all my games were with long-standing campaigns (where PCs already had levels under their belts) or "pickup" games, when would there ever be a time to use the rules for 1st (or 2nd) level characters? In my experience, many long-run campaigns still begin with "pickup" games and the introduction of new PCs into existing campaigns generally entails giving the guy a couple (or a few) extra levels to "bring him up to snuff" with the others.

    I suppose 1st and 2nd level rules would always be useful for new henchmen/hirelings...though that's not how the rules are presented. And who would want to retain a 1st level magic-user anyway?

  3. Thanks for answering my question JB, you got right down to the point, playing a level one magic-user does not feel very...well... magical. You have also increased my interest in your version of the great game. It has a lot in common with some tinkering I was playing around with.

    If you will forgive me a brief indulgence to outline my current line of thought. I liked the idea of how casting worked in DCC, but disliked having the individual table per spell, and also thought to make casting just a bit more dependable.

    To that end, a Mage can memorize a number of spell levels at a time. A casting check is required (Mage level + INT mod) vs a target number equal to 10 + SpellLevel * 2. On success the spell is not lost, and in addition to the total roll setting the DC of any saves against the spell effect, it also boosts the spell effects. But in a much easier to remember method, such as: Magic Missile, fires one missile plus an addition per 5 points over the target number.

    Failure by up to 5 indicates the spell is delayed, the caster rolls again next round, but suffers a penalty equal to any damage suffered between now and then.

    Upon failure by more than 5, the mage can either let the spell go, thus losing it until they can rememorize it, or internalize it. Internalizing a spell causes damage equal to the spell level and dazes the mage and can cause corruption. Add in Fumbles/Crits on 1's and 20's to taste.

    This is all based on the idea that spells are alive, and spells can be granted by certain objects or beings of power or even stolen from the mind of other mages. A memorized spell however cannot be written down, so spells granted in this method are truely lost once they are lost. A feature certain corrupting entities use to their advantage, teaching powerful black magic to mages, knowing the amount of corruption it will cause as the mage continually internalizes it to prevent losing it.

    I will spare the urge to elaborate further, it is strangely tempting to want to write it all down in some massive comment. The bottom line is that rule changes of this magnitude are quite a bit of work. So I often stop and try to find something that hews closer to the rules as written. I want my mages to be magical, not punished early on with boredom for the promise of power later.

    Thank you for the great post, and looking forward to 5AK.

    1. indeed DCC is almost spot on, only it went a little too far, and to have one table for each spell seems a little too much for too little gain. Still a lot of good ideas

  4. I think that you are on the right track and we are still moving on parallel lines :)

    waiting to read your 5AK :)

  5. Have you seen the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea implementation of the magic-user (Magician)? It's excellent, as it provides at 1st level:
    1- bonus spells for high int
    2- the magician can have a familiar as a class ability; having a familiar increases the hit points of the magician AND provides him more spells (one more per spell level). So a magician with high int and a familiar can cast 3 1st level spells at 1st level.
    3- read magic as a class ability
    4- scribe scrolls as a class ability.
    5- he is not proficient with armour, but he can wear one if he wants, at the expense of spellcasting failure (1/6 for light armour, 2/6 for medium, 3/6 for heavy armour.)
    6- he starts with proficiency in dagger, dart, quarterstaff and sling, but he can add any other weapons he desires (at 4th, 8th and 12th level.)

    I think this is the best old-school magic-user class to date, and in play it works very well.