Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Awesome Power of the 1st Level Magic-User

Some days I think the existence of fireball and wish blinds us to the simple fact that first level magic-users kick ass. Here are some brief thoughts on the eight spells any M-U in OD&D can cast.

Detect Magic - Not every magic sword will glow like a lightsaber when drawn from its scabbard. That stick could be a magic wand or a conductor's baton. Is our ally cursed or charmed (see below)? You find a pool of water in the dungeon. Care to find out it's enchanted after you wade into it?

Hold Portal - Knowing the bad guys can't get to you, even for a few turns, is golden in retreat situations.  And you want to really mess some NPCs up?  Lure them into a house, hold the portals and set the joint on fire.  Here's another one: a pit with a hatch is just more flooring while its held.

Read Magic -  Worthless scrap of paper or wish scroll?  Only the magic-user knows for sure.  And the OD&D version specifically mentions that this spell can be used on items.  And when you think about it, this spell is the gateway to real ultimate power; all other MU spells flow from this source.

Protection from Evil - Here's an easy way to really piss off an enchanted creature: stand in a doorway with this spell cast on yourself.  The creature can't get past you to your non-protected allies, who can then leisurely ready their oil flasks, scrolls, etc.  Heck, with 6 turns to work with, they might even be able to take an alternate route to the creature and attack it from behind.

Light - I think almost every DM goes a lot easier on the subject of lighting than they should.  I know I do.  If we handled torches and lanterns in any realistic way this would be one of the most popular spells ever.  You ever try lighting a lantern without matches?  How about making an accurate map by torchlight in a drafty catacomb?  I think those tasks are approximately one bajillion times harder than we usually run them.  And even if you don't want to be a dick about lighting all the time, drop the party into a pool of water and all their normal light sources are suddenly useless.

Charm Person - In OD&D this spell lasts until someone successfully casts dispel magic on the victim.  Think about that for a minute.  If there is a single MU1 in the campaign world then you pretty much can't trust anyone that might fail a save vs. spells.  Smart MUs will probably pick one or two choice victims in any area.  Charm too many and you run the risk of a random dispel magic catching one.

Sleep - Get out any old module, the low level kind that comes with a base area like a small town.  Look at some of the entries and ask yourself how many of the homes and business would be vulnerable to a single sleep spell.  That master burglar plaguing the area isn't a high level thief.  Dude's a pipsqueak first level magic-user who peaks in the window, throws sleep, then casually makes off with the tea service and the jewelry box.


  1. I don't know about OD&D, but in BD&D the light spell could also be used to blind something, which by the rules just completely denied it actions until it recovered, 8+ turns later. Sure, they could make a saving throw against it but if they failed then it was basically an instant win button.

  2. Sleep is a powerful spell. You just have to wait for the right moment to use it.

  3. I agree completely. I'm beginning to believe that one could joyfully game for years in just the first three levels.

  4. Of course you can game happily with just the basic red book - you just have to focus on the enviroment and how the characters affect it than the more modern "loot and levels" measure of advancement.

  5. I ran an entire game by candlelight with the windows open just to show the players how incredibly hard it is to survive with crappy light sources. So I completely agree with you about the Light spell.

  6. Lovely observations, as per usual X3

    @John Adams:

    I've been making it a working point that it is entirely possible to play contentedly for ages in the first three levels ~

  7. On the rare occasions I got to play a character in AD&D, it was always a MU. I absolutely love playing a low level MU (well, any level MU) and have no sympathy for those who whine and complain about it. :)

  8. Anyone in the real world with one charm person spell per day could probably fairly easily become undisputed master of the earth.

    All you gotta do is charm your way to the top.

  9. I agree with just about everything here, but read magic has never sat well with me. You need it to learn spells, but then, how did you learn it? If you don't need read magic to learn how to cast read magic what other spells out there don't have that arbitrary gate keeping the riffraff out?

  10. Plus Charm Person can give you some pretty badass retainers if you're lucky.

    Our first level halfling mage had a gnoll eating out of his hand for a pretty long stretch of time. You can Charm up a pretty decent force of dungeon goons, and the stupider they are the longer you've got 'til they wise up.

    Which is also why Charm Monster is such a kickass spell at higher levels. In a Halloween game I ran last year, the party's wizard turned a Werewolf encounter into and instant, epic level guard dog.

  11. I may ruffle a few feathers here, but I've had a few thoughts on Magic Users, and your post has prompted me to put them to bytes...

    As cappadocius said, I think that read magic should be a "property" or "ability" of the magic user class. Surely some one who has to write magic in his spellbook should also be able to read it?

    Similarly, I think detect magic should also be a MU ability, similar to the Paladin's detect evil. It is not instantaneous, as the MU must take time to focus and get in his zone, but it is not a spell.

    With the limited # of spells that a MU can memorize (especially at low levels), I think these two additions give the MU more to do, and don't throw too much out of whack.

    Also, on a "flavor" level, it makes sense and is backed up in genre that MUs are sensitive to Magic and can feel its flow, etc.

  12. I don't feel ruffled at all, Alan. I was speaking to the rules as I best understood them, not an ideal. Some days I lean towards elminating Read Magic and making MUs learn lotsa of arcan scripts and languages to suss out spells, like in Call of Cthulhu.

  13. I like this thought Jeff.

    With OD&D, AD&D, or whatever you want to play. Try to switch party rolls to see what you can you can accomplish. Stretch the player and the character.

    We had a group where both the fighter and ranger died very early on a crawl. Colton took his Cleric and became bad@ss dude with a mace. We joked Conan had been reborn. The kid kept crittin like nobody's business.

    We had a "new" ranger join the party but they decided they did not need a fighter and instead added a second cleric which allowed them to look like holy men with retainers so they were seldom messed with and had a great cover story as to why they were around...interesting places.

  14. Smart MUs will probably pick one or two choice victims in any area. Charm too many and you run the risk of a random dispel magic catching one.

    Would that be high INT or high WIS magic users? ;^]

    Love this post, Jeff. Only problem I have with the spell selection is playing a low-level M-U and trying to *not* pick "Sleep." It is soooo powerful. I think I was only able to make myself avoid it by having to roll for spells. That made me play a different style, which was cool too.

  15. Really love creative uses of spells. Writers who come up with new spells should think on their possibility for such uses, and favor the ones that allow creativity.

    This is also why I'm drawn to a no-duplicates Vancean system. It forces magic-users to dig deeper and think up uses for those "dog" 1st level spells they are forced to carry around at higher levels.

  16. Well, firstly, it will take you 8 days to cast them all once. :) "Hey, wizard dude! Is this sword magic?" "Ask me tomorrow."

    Second, I don't know about OD&D, but back when we played AD&D 1e, we rolled for our starting spells in the DMG, and you usually ended up with something like "Friends" or "Erase".

    Sleep and Charm Person, though... if you could get those at first level, you had it MADE.

    And just in case anyone hasn't seen this already...!

  17. Speaking to the Read Magic issue--in my campaign I've set it up so that Read Magic is an "instant-win" button for deciphering magical scripts of any sort, but not a necessary one.

    In my game-world, magical writing can come in a large number of forms--traditionally, magic users write their spells and scrolls in Draconic (whence the magic originally came), but those engaged in demonology, necromancy, etc. could very well scribe their spellbooks and such in a more appropriate tongue, such as Demonic.

    Additionally, language skills can come in handy for identifying magical items, as they will often have inscriptions, runes, etc. in an archaic form of the language used by the people who created them, and in the absence of an "identify" spell, they can give valuable hints about what an item might do.