Sunday, June 4, 2023

My Magic (Part 2)

Magic-users are, of course, a completely different story.

If you read over Ye Old blog, you'll find numerous examples of bitching and moaning about MUs not being "magical enough" or designed well enough or balanced enough or (even) viable for play as written. Hogwash...absolute hogwash, all of it. Despite all my complaints and proposed fixes, house rules, etc.the magic-user AS WRITTEN is a fine and viable and plenty playable.

I've both run AND played magic-users in MOST editions of D&D: OD&D, B/X, Holmes, RC/BECMI, 1E, and 3E. In the days of my youth, I never played magic-users, but I saw some pretty good ones (generally played by my friend Scott) get up to some pretty high levels. In my teenage years, I ran an NPC magic-user as a companion/henchman to a small (three player) campaign that would peter out sometime around G3 (Hall of the Fire Giant King)...that guy went from 1st to 12th level or so over the span of his career. When I first acquired the OD&D books (back in the late-80s/early-90s) I did some solo gaming to test them, running a magic-user named Barack the Half-Handed (based on a character from an old Lythande story). 

[ me at any rate...that I would recycle that name and character concept for two separate Ars Magica campaigns (one PC, one NPC) that I would play/run in my 20s]

In recent years, however, I've had the opportunity to play low-level MUs as a player in other DMs' campaigns. This is unusual, for a couple reasons. First off, unless we're playing a game like Ars Magica (where being a wizard is kind of "the thing"), my tendency is to gravitate towards fighter characters (or MAYBE a beefy cleric). I'm the type of dude that prefers to lead...and probably charge...confronting threats in direct, head-on fashion. Oh, I can be sneaky and cautious at times, but that's not my default setting...consequently I like a character that's a bit sturdier than your standard magic-user. Better survivability with my preferred play style.

Which leads me to the OTHER reason it's unusual for me to play magic-users: I don't trust other DMs. You can call me paranoid or elitist or whatever, but I simply prefer to be the guy in the driver seat when playing RPGs because, well, I trust my ability to be fair and scrupulously honest. With other DMs, you never know what you're going to get. Which is admittedly ridiculous stance to have (I've experienced MAYBE one or two "bad apple" GMs over 40 years and dozens of different gaming tables)...but I'm a ridiculous guy that has some "control issues." And playing a magic-user with no armor, 3-4 hit points, and a single spell makes me feel a little too vulnerable.

Fortunately, I've relaxed a bit the last decade or so, and been able to kick off my shoes (and armor) and put on the pointy hat. The first By The Book magic-user I played was a Holmesian one at a convention. The game was a blast, and I enjoyed myself immensely...there's a bit of a thrill living on the edge with only a couple hit points, and the game forces you to be both creative and a "team player." That's neat!

[mmm...I now recall that my FIRST player character MU was actually a wizard in 3E campaign that lasted all of one session...but that dude was one of those very few "bad" GMs I've had the misfortune of meeting...]

Most recently, I've been playing a magic-user in my son's AD&D (1E) campaign. The character ("Barnaby") has worked his way up to 5th or 6th level at this point...I can't recall because it's been several months since our last game. Diego is running a very By The Book campaign with a couple exceptions: he runs clerical magic the same as I do, and he doesn't charge training costs. But everything else (as much as a smart 12 year old can remember/manage) is BTB. 

And...I've found the class a bit boring. Most of my PC's experience came from plumbing the Caves of Chaos in B2 (modified for AD&D) and while THAT was actually a pretty fun series of adventures (it's very tactically interesting if you choose NOT to work the faction angle), the BTB magic-user made the whole thing...a little too easy?

It helped that I got some good spells from my random roll (find familiar is a godsend for any low level sorcerer-in-training). But the ability to stockpile spells in one's spell book (giving you a wide range to draw from) and the ability to memorize multiples of the same spell (sleep, for example) lends to tactical play that can feel very same-same.

Which is why that...for the last 3-4 years (even since BEFORE I was playing AD&D again), I stopped running magic-users BTB. I know, I know...shame on me.

Here is how I run magic-users at my table:
  1. Read magic isn't a thing. Magic-users can read magic-user scrolls just like clerics can read clerical scrolls. Magic-users automatically speak/read the "magical language" as part of their class training.
  2. No stockpiling spells. The number of spells you can cast is the number of spells you have in your spell book. You don't get to (nor have to) find and add new spells to your book. This is, by the way, the same as RAW B/X (BECMI/RC differs however).
  3. No multiple spell memorization. Each spell may be used once per day. This is adapted from OD&D (Book 1), and while others may quibble over my interpretation of the wording in the first paragraph of page 19, in practice I find it works very well.
  4. Each first level magic-user begins with three spells, rolled randomly from the tables in the DMG (p. 39). Yes, this means that MUs in my campaign can cast three spells at 1st level, instead of one. I really like the one offense,  one defense, and one miscellaneous spell paradigm, and I don't force the player to choose which of the three to memorize. Later on, as they progress in level, they can choose whether to specialize in offense or utility or first level, they are armed with the spells their master gave them. 
  5. Upon advancement, the magic-user chooses additional spells up to the amount that they're able to cast for the day. Chance to Know (based on INT) is checked as normal. 1st level spells known are read as the number +2 (because of the additional spells learned at 1st level, of course). Minimum/Maximum Known (based on INT) remains the same.
AND...that's pretty much it. The magic-user is otherwise as written, though some spells have been modified in my game. 

Please understand: the character class as designed (at least, in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, and 1E) works JUST FINE using the rules as written. I've run BTB magic-users over the years and have played the class (By The Book) in multiple systems/games and managed to both survive and thrive. You can run a MU using RAW in any of those pre-1989 works (probably 2E as well) and NOT be hamstrung despite the slight variations and idiosyncrasies in each edition...they all work.

Well then, JB (I hear the hard-liners asking), if the game WORKS why would you bother to change it? The mantra should be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," right?

Yeah. That's right. But I have reasons.
  • Removal of read magic resolves a lot of problematic questions arising from that spell like: Why can other spell casters read scrolls without such magic? Why can thieves read scrolls without using a spell? How does the spell interact with the writings in a spell book? Etc. It also helps foil Gygax's attempt at DMv.PC antagonism (I ignore most of the EGG's rules with regard to "fading" scrolls, etc. pressures designed to PUSH players into hasty decisions in order to trigger curses). F that noise. I'm not trying to "trip up" players (they make plenty of mistakes all on their own), and I don't want every scroll tube found to become an exercise in following a 5-point, best practice plan avoiding risk. No. MU spell scrolls are simply specially prepared, one-shot magic items useable only by magic-users (and some higher level thieves and illusionists).
  • Spells being limited to what can be cast (e.g. I can cast three 2nd level spells, and I only know three 2nd level spells) cuts down on dithering on what to choose and whether or not to end a delve early (because the PCs need to retreat to memorize different spells, etc.) and allows a group to simply get on with the game. The fighter on an expedition doesn't worry about his weapon load-out every morning: he straps it on one time and then chooses the right tool for the job as the need arises. Same for the MU and his/her spells. With a set battery of dweomers, the mage starts to understand and develop tactics (and, from there, creative tactics) based on experience and usage...which I like.
  • Similarly, the prohibition on memorizing multiple spells of the same type creates more variety of tactics and prompts the PC to make interesting choices: do I use my magic missile spell now (since I don't have it memorized thrice?)? When is the best time to cast shield? Etc. For me, this makes the magician character more interesting and models much of the pulp fiction that inspired D&D in the first place (seldom does one see a sorcerer use the same spell twice in fiction). 
  • The three random spells is BTB AD&D (minus the read magic spell that would be part of every 1st level magic-user's inventory), but it functions EXTREMELY well in tandem with the "spells known = spells cast" house rule. As a result of the combo of house rules, I have seen creative and effective use of those 'oft overlooked spells' that would otherwise be left off the daily memorization schedule. Spells like ventriloquism, jump, push, mending, message, and spider climb have all seen great use as part of the regular rotation, and some spells (feather fall and jump) have been real life savers. Spider climb is just a damn useful spell by the way, aiding my BTB wizard immensely in cleaning out the Caves of Chaos. 
  • Allowing 1st level magic-users to use three magic spells per day from the get-go also seems to be the "sweet spot" of making the class seem more magical. I was doing something similar towards the end of my B/X gaming (giving MUs +1 spell for INT 15 and +2 spells for INT 17), but having three spells just"magical." I know not everyone will agree and, as I wrote, I've played MUs with a single spell and (in tandem with companion party members) survived just fine. But I enjoy seeing how my players will use their three spells in early's always entertaining!
Finally, with regard to the automatic acquisition of spells...well, this needs a bit of elaboration.

Spell acquisition is an interesting subject. In B/X it's one of the few true "money sinks," since PCs over a certain level are left with no alternative than to conduct spell research to learn their new spells (although, without other associated upkeep costs, the time component isn't as harsh as it could be). But in AD&D, the BTB acquisition of spells is quite draconian: the "gain 1 spell per level" is so stingy that wizards (beginning at mid-levels) are left with little recourse than to beg, borrow, and steal spells, especially given the costs of conducting spell research along with all the additional expenses heaped upon the heads of advanced PCs.

The overall effect...which I have observed in multiple long-term something I refer to as "the Raistlin Effect." Any of you out there familiar with the Dragonlance novels? Read the first trilogy with an eye focused on the actions of the Raistlin character and you will get a glimpse of the typical 1E wizard's path. The guy will go to any lengths to find a scroll, or an old spell book, or a library of ancient tomes...lying, cheating, betraying his friends, changing his alignment, whatever it takes. In some ways, the quest for more magic is good adventure fodder: you need a scroll with stone to flesh or mass charm? Check out the abandoned Tower of So-and-So or the ancient Tomb of Whatshisname. 

But it''not great' when the campaign starts to be influenced by one (or more) player's drive to acquire power. And yet, if that drive is stifled (by the DM or the other players at the table)...well, that can have negative repercussions, too. Resentments and recriminations...yeah, I've seen 'em. Both ways. Nobody wants one player character to become the focus of the campaign. 

And, sure, a good DM can prevent this by placing plenty of scrolls and spell books and whatnot in the party's path (or an "appropriate amount," whatever that means). But my house rule neatly sidesteps the entire issue and allows the PCs to get down to what it is they came here for: exploring the campaign world. No side-quests (to get the mage-types their spells) needed. Better, in my opinion, to have the party focused, together, on the task at hand, whatever that might be (plumbing a dungeon, defeating an antagonist, embarking on a money-making venture, looking for trouble...whatever). I prefer that the advantages that come with level advancement...better thief percentages, special war horses, more weapon proficiencies, simply come automatically

And for magic-users, that includes spell acquisition. 

Because, really, the magi's role is challenging enough, isn't it? No armor, few weapons, poor attack capability, low hit points. And their best spells, even when acquired (always have to make that INT check!), often have expensive spell component costs or severe penalties (like aging or possible insanity). The magic-using profession is hard, and rightly so (a fair trade-off considering the amazing marvels they can work). Best to let them simply get to it, rather than forcing them to jump through more hoops.


  1. Curiously, I am going the opposite way. I always assumed that MUs couldn't memorize the same spell multiple times, and I made houserules to allow it. Now I allow MUs to "forget" any spell instead of the one they cast, provided the one that is lost is of equal or higher level. This allows both to memorize marginal spells (because they at least can be spell fodder for the other spells) and to cast multiple fireballs if you want it.

    With spells in your book=spells known, I am with you completelly.
    About the aditional spells at level 1, I'd rather have +1 spell for each INT modifier. It gives INT some positive use for MUs instead of just being a prime requisite

    1. With Basic games (Holmes, B/X, etc.) and (especially) OD&D, the extra languages provided by INT are nothing to sniff at...when the spells are gone, MUs can find a lot of work as translator/negotiator. CHA becomes a good secondary stat, in this case.

      The 1E game is far more stingy with language learning (another reason demihumans are useful party members), but because of the spell learning rules, INT remains a very important ability in the Advanced game.

  2. For my homebrew D&D, I went with 2 spells at 1st level and a spell retention mechanic, basically once you cast you roll some dice and maybe keep the spell in your memory. The slower you cast the more chance you have of retaining it.

    I like spells as treasure so fully embracing building a big spell book and what you call "The Raistlin Effect" as a feature not a bug. I can see your point, but I don't think its any different that the Fighter seeking out rumors of the +1 plate or the +3 sword. My hope as a sandbox DM is the players drive the narrative and I sprinkle lots of motivating treasures around the map. The party then works together to make sure everyone gets their share. If one player is making it all about them they are probably going to do that regardless of class or the rules.

    I also would be 100% fine playing D&D in the style of Ars Magica or Frostgrave where the Magic User is in charge and the rest of the party is henchman. The tropes of D&D work great if the delves into the dungeon are spurred by the wizards need to find more spells, magic, gold. I would say one player is a 3rd level Magic User and the rest of the party is 1st level support. Everyone agrees the MU is in charge on paper, but keep it democratic.

  3. Can you describe exactly how Spider Climb was used effectively in the caves? I need some inspiration.

    1. Excellent for reconnaissance. We carved a path from the backside and set up a fortified camp on the top of the cliffs. From there we could access cave entrances from above. The magic-user could be lowered via rope, and the utilize spider climb to scout locations, and gather intel.

      [it *did* help that the party had discovered a ring of invisibility earlier (though invisibility was also the first spell learned upon reaching 3rd level)]

      Earlier, spider climb enabled a couple quick escapes from caves after ropes had been lost for one reason or another. Because of the heights at which we were operating, jumping from the cliffs would have been a bad idea.

      I suppose we could have used a thief for recon, but no one in the party played a thief, and the one (or two?) we tried hiring kept getting themselves killed.

      We also found familiars to be very good for gathering intelligence.
      ; )

    2. Thanks for the additional detail. Very cool. That is one brave mage though, "let me leave behind the guys with all the armor and weapons, burn one of my only spells of the day and climb around upside down in a dark cave, hoping nothing notices me..."

    3. As I wrote earlier, I tend to play a bolder (or more foolhardy) type of character...
      ; )

  4. Your scheme is similar to the way I've played it for a couple of years now.

    1. I keep Read Magic, rationalising it as a spell to decipher someone else's handwriting or code for magic instructions.
    2. Same.
    3. Same.
    4. Similar. Four spells - RM plus one each of offensive, defensive & utility spells. Essentially your (4) plus my (1). Elves (BX) get RM plus one, they have enough advantages already.
    5. Different. You have to hunt out spells and be taught them, or find books and teach yourself through research. This leads to goals for Magic Users.

    Another thing I do is allow scroll generation from 1st level, the same as Holmes. The cost is 250gp times the square of the spell level. Hence a sixth level spell costs 9,000gp to scribe (250*6*6).

    1. As long as you're doing that "square the level" thing, I think you're probably okay. It's when DMs do linear progression which tends to get the scroll writing schemes in trouble.

  5. Magic User spell acquisition was not one of the things that I figured would vex me so much, coming from the new school to the old.

    I'm ambivalent about the existence of Read Magic - the flavor is good (of course magic users write their spells in a magical language that only they can read!) But mechanically I don't care too much if M-U's can use scrolls immediately when they find them or only after preparing and using Read Magic a bunch, back in town.

    3 spells to start + only preparing 1 of each spell is nice. Encourages some more interesting spell picks, as you said.

    No benefit from captured M-U spellbooks (I think that's as given if you learn spells automatically?) is tough to swallow. I love the flavor of higher power spells being covetted knowledge, a true treasure if acquired - Engineers the Dying Earth wizards, scheming to get their hands on legendary lost spells. I do think your point on covetous M-U's having a bit of "main character syndrome" while dragging their party on endless wizard tower raids could have merit though.

    1. As a D&D campaign unfolds, you'll find a lot of magic-user antagonists. It is, of course, a trope of S&S fiction for their to be evil wizards and scheming sorcerers that need to be foiled by doughty heroes. And it's a trope of D&D that dungeons are often created by these "mad geniuses" and that evil humanoids hire themselves into service of them.

      How many captured spellbooks do you want to hand out?

      Eh. As I wrote, the AD&D game works as written, and I don't fault anyone for going that route. I WILL say that, even with my particular house rules, a captured spellbook is STILL a decent prize, as it effectively puts the magic-user at your mercy (unless and until he can create another...quite an expense depending on the size of the book). And who doesn't want a wizard at their beck and call?
      ; )

    2. I allow captured spellbooks (or any spellbooks really - you can do this with your own if you're really desperate) to be cast like scrolls: you can use a spell by reading directly from it instead of memorizing, and it will disappear from the book.

    3. I used to do this, too (back in my youth). But remember that scrolls are specially prepared via enchanted item creation rules…unlike spell books.

  6. Could you elaborate on how your rule for spell acquisition works? Say you gain a level and are now able to memorize an additional 5th level spell. You pick one, roll for it based on INT, and fail. Do you keep picking another off the list until you succeed on a roll?

    Also, given that you limit the number of spells known to the spells that can be cast, would you allow an MU to change those out in some way? (say the MU decides they'd really rather not know magic missile any more and they'd rather have shield in that "slot") If so, how?

  7. The short answers are (in order):

    Yes. Yes. No. Not applicable.

    I might elaborate on this in a future post.