Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Great Thing about OD&D

It's often claimed that playing a 1st-level magic-user in old school Dungeons & Dragons stinks, because the character is so much weaker than other classes. That's not the case in OD&D, at least prior to Supplement I. At 1st level, all character classes have the same chance to hit and all have roughly the same range of hit points. Both the MU and the cleric get a single D6, while a fighting man gets 1d6+1 -- hardly much of a difference. Granted, clerics and fighting men can wear any armor and wield a larger selection of weapons, but magic-users get access to spells like charm person and sleep, both of which are quite effective in dealing with foes. Over time, the cleric and the fighting man outstrip the MU in terms of physical prowess. However, magic-user spells become increasingly potent and are as likely to turn the tide of battle as anything a fighter can bring to bear, if not moreso.

Anyway, it's been my experience of playing OD&D over the past year that magic-users are not noticeably weaker than other classes. They have their strengths and weaknesses, like any class, but the odds aren't stacked against them from the start, as some would claim. I find I rather like this state of affairs; it's one of the reasons I'm glad to be playing OD&D.


  1. It is not that they are weak. Flasks of oil were a great equalizer for many a low-level character.

    It is just that you have such limited access to the class features. Restricting usage per day (Vance, yes, I know) means the MU gets one spell and then is out of spells for possibly most of the adventure. This makes the player very gunshy about wasting the spell, and so is even less likely to cast anything at all. That doesn't feel like playing a "magic-user" (as opposed to a fighter with an emergency usage only power) to me.

    This is why moving restrictions to "per encounter" is so much more popular these days.

    I always thought that 5-7th level where the golden levels. Characters are still weak enough that things are regularly a challenge, but enough abilities that you are not afraid to use them.

  2. Using the Chaimail's weapon rank of attack have another side-effect: if he survives the first blow, the magic-user with a dagger has good chances to strike two or three times in a round againstv longer weapons, making him a deadly opponent.

    The question if, by the book, he's allowed to waer a non-magical armor is still open. In Gygax's mind, probably no, but a close reading - and a comparison with First Fantasy Campaign - open a window for it. That's why I choose to allow them.

  3. Even in AD&D (at least in 1st edition), the MU isn't that much weaker than the other classes. Using a sling or sticking near a Fighter usually lets the Mage be a fairly potent even without a ton of spells.

  4. Aye, in AD&D I guess it is felt more due to the D4 hit points and spell system. For my system I chose to add a base hit point at
    1st level (only), which is based upon simply size and mass, and thus apart from Class-based hp. 1D6 for all, except for the smaller gnomes and halflings/hobbits. It is simply the hit points of a typical human or demihuman, which perhaps was the point of it in OD&D.

    As for spells, I prefer a very simplefied form of spell point system. It has worked well for us and 'feels' more logical.

    Anyways, a magic-user is tougher to play and is more challenging, and should be more rewarding to those who play them right and survive. But at the end of the day it is all about personal taste.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. It was really hard to play a magic-user back in the old days but I did it. It was really hard and I fought every game just to stay alive.

    Our DM was a "give you nothing for free" type DM. A pure dogmatist of the most pure kind. If you rolled one hit point oh well play it anyway!

    BUT back to my magic-user (who had wings gained from "In Search of the Unknown"), he made it to 6th (or 7th) where you finally get a fireball.

    We were using basic rules and playing in the Tomb of Horrors. The room with the four armed gargoyle is where my magic-user lost his life. Not by the monster but by my casting of the fireball for the first time and not understanding how big the radius of damage was. I fried the entire party but did not kill anyone except for my own magic-user.

    Wow what a great time! I think I was the only Magic-User to ever be played in our group.

  7. "We were using basic rules and playing in the Tomb of Horrors... Not by the monster but by my casting of the fireball for the first time and not understanding how big the radius of damage was."

    Yet more stories of expanding fireballs in the Tomb of Horrors:

  8. Also note the prevalence of save-or-die monsters and effects at low level. When you get attacked by giant bees, having more hit points probably won't even help you.

  9. Yes, it is a good observation that the relationship of the magician to the fighter changed over time. The former was deemed too powerful at high levels, and instead of raising the ability of the fighter at high levels, or reducing that of the magician, it was decided that the latter would have a steeper power curve. A purposeful design choice? I am undecided as to whether it is good or bad.

  10. Also, all weapons did 1d6 damage. When you start looking at all of those factors—how much less differentiated the classes were, it is less surprising that Tenser got a reputation for “going fighter”.

    Do I sound too much like a broken record if I say it again? In my groups, the player’s contribution—ideas—always seemed to outshine mechanics. It was less about how many spells I could cast or how much damage I could do and more about how I contributed to decisions and worked with the other characters.

  11. Biggest reason I never played wizards in any of the older versions of D&D was that wizards couldn't use swords when pretty much every wizard worth noting from fictions did at one time or another.

    But yes, the later editions did tend to put the wizard into a support role.

  12. I just came home from playing a 1st level M-U in S&W and I think the biggest difference for me was that I couldn't use any armor. Fighting prowess is an illusion.

  13. I’ve always read the restriction on weapons in oD&D as intended to ensure that the fighting-men didn’t have to vie with the rest of the party for any magic swords. Possibly to also limit the number of magic swords the party could use at once. As long as your group doesn’t have/care about those issues, house-rule away, I say.

    In AD&D, my groups always allowed PCs to use any weapon. They just couldn’t be proficient in the weapons disallowed by their class. For some people, that might be equivalent to the straight restriction, but we had a few MUs who were willing to take the non-proficiency penalty. Though actually swinging their sword was typically a last resort.

  14. The issue for me is more that an MU only ever works when accompanied by someone else. They basically give the group a significant edge in a single battle, using sleep, but after that they're useless due to the armour problem.

    There's a lot of unbalanced stuff going on there - the wizard is terrifyingly more powerful than the fighter, but once only.

    I've never really thought that magic use in D&D reflected the way wizards (even weak ones) are viewed in novels. They don't inspire fear as they should, especially at low levels. I don't believe any game has managed to produce this effect and maintain game balance though.

  15. I think that for powerful wizards to be balanced they would have to have serious things stacked against them. Perhaps their art has a heavy price or a world that has particularly nasty role-playing consequences that can balance the elevated power of wizards.

  16. Only the 1st level magic-user can have an ogre pet, or slay an ogre single handedly...

    On the point of d6 hit points, you're absolutely right 0d&d does put all the classes much closer together. Their differences more about flavor than game mechanics, i.e. they're all "men". Part of the problem in Ad&d is self inflicted. People give max hit points at first level and that creates a spread of hit points from 4 to 10.

    On average, the wizard should have 3 and the fighter should have 6. When this is done the discrepancy isn't so much. Ironically, giving max hit points at first level benefits fighters more than anyone else, after all a magic-user has a 25% chance to roll max hit points, but a fighter on 10%...

  17. In my group, we house rule that, after ten minutes of rest and studying his spell book, a wizard may regain his first level spells. He cannot change them, only get back the ones he cast.

    This helps make the mage a bit more flashy and spells like shield tend to get cast in most battles to help alleviate the armour issue. We don't find this to be unbalancing - first level spells are pretty low powered after all - but very useful in keeping the party mage able to use magic. For the record, he is now 7th level.

  18. My fav MU character was, with his single spell (feather fall?), one of my proudest achievements - living on one's wits in the world of muscle men and god followers as great fun. More room for 'real RP' also (as opposed to number crunching). Admittedly, it was a low magic world.

  19. Seems like a lot of folks beefed up the the M-U with house rules (e.g. accelerated spell recovery time). The Holmes Basic rules also compensated for low-level M-U weakness by allowing relatively cheap and easy scroll manufacture. In Holmes, making a 1st level scroll only costs 100 gp. So once an M-U has accumulated a bit of wealth he can start bringing along a beltful of extra spells in scroll form.

  20. I think that a lot of people overestimate how powerful 1st level fighters were supposed to be even in later editions such as AD&D (1st ed.) House rules such as granting maximum hit points at 1st level; ability score generation methods that result in numerous high, custom-arranged scores; and "death at -10 hit points" rules that went beyond even the optional rule in the DMG preferentially benefit fighters, making them relatively more powerful. Making healing magic easy to come by is a DM choice that also increases the power of fighters.

    Even AD&D characters are, as written, pretty fragile at 1st level, including fighters. (Though, they are still far hardier than their OD&D or Moldvay/Cook/Mentzer D&D counterparts.) If, instead of using house rules to scale up the power of 1st level characters, DMs used scaled down dungeon designs intended to challenge as-written 1st level characters, the power difference would remain small.

  21. I think 1st level Wizards are quite powerful. The ability to put 4-16 1st level characters asleep with no save is huge. The Wizard can pretty much auto-kill any non-elf less than 4th level. Only having the one spell is a drag, but I'll take to the 3 rd edition alternative. Wizards have many more spells, and feats that let them do spell damage every round, but none of their spells are particularly powerful. With the enhanced hit points and many characters having the ability to take no damage on a save, and the 10d6 cap, the fireball in 3rd edition is a joke. I think 1st edition Wizards are much closer to producing some kind of awe when they actually get around to casting a spell as opposed to 3rd edition where a magic missile does less damage than any one of the fighters multiple sword swings.

  22. The ability to put 4–16 1st level characters asleep with no save is huge.

    I add casting a spell to the things that can trigger a morale check. (Although Sleep will usually do so anyway.) Even looking like a mage should trigger a morale check for most intelligent monsters. Just because a 1st level MU can only cast one spell a day, that shouldn’t be common knowledge. (Not to mention that you can’t tell an MU is 1st level on sight. Maybe you can tell they are generally low level.)

    Too bad something like that wasn’t in the guidelines to begin with.

    That said, I’m not sure it’s fair to use Sleep as the example. Ideally, not every 1st level MU knows it. Still, many of the other 1st level spells can be quite powerful as well.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.