Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Lowly Magic Missile

Nowadays, magic missile is, along with fireball, taken to be one of the iconic offensive spells of the D&D magic-user, which is interesting as it didn't exist in OD&D until the release of Greyhawk in 1975. That august tome describes the spell thusly:
Magic Missile: This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes. For every five levels the magic-user has attained he may add an additional two missiles when employing this spell, so a 6th level magic-user may cast three magic missiles at his target, an 11th level magic-user casts five, and so on. Range 15".
The Holmes rulebook generally follows this description but offers a particular clarification to it:
Magic Missile -- Level 1; Range: 150 feet
A conjured missile equal to a magic arrow, and it does 1 die roll plus 1 point (2-7) to any creature it strikes. Roll the missile fire like a long bow arrow (Missile Fire Table). Higher level magic-users fire more than one missile.
As I understand it, the question of whether a magic missile hit its target automatically or whether it required a to-hit roll to do so was a contentious topic in the early days of D&D, one that was definitively answers with the release of the Players Handbook in 1978:
Use of the magic missile spell creates one or more magical missiles which dart forth from the magic-user's fingertip and unerringly strike their target. Each missile does 2 to 5 hit points (d4+1) of damage. If the magic-user has multiple missile capability, he or she can have them strike a single target creature or several creatures, as desired. For each level of experience, the range of his or her magic missile extends 1" beyond the 6" base range. For every 2 levels of experience, the magic-user gains an additional missile, i.e. 2 at 3rd level, 3 at 5th level, 4 at 7th level, etc.
Moldvay reiterated that magic missile required no to-hit roll to deal damage but otherwise hewed to OD&D and Holmes for his version of the spell:
A magic missile is a glowing arrow, created and shot by magic, which does 2-7 (1d6+1) points of damage to any creature it strikes. It will automatically hit any visible target. For every 5 levels the caster has gained, he or she may shoot two more missiles when casting the spell. EXAMPLE: a 6th level magic-user may cast three missiles. These may be shot at one target, or the caster may choose to cast the missiles at multiple targets.
In the Dwimmermount game, I use the OD&D version of the spell and have found it to be extraordinarily useful -- and deadly -- in combat. A trio of 6th-level Termaxian magic-users dealt a lot of damage to the party through the use of magic missile and Iriadessa's wand of magic missiles has proven essential to defeating opponents on more than one occasion. I don't think it'd be as potent if a to-hit roll were required, especially if such a roll depended on the magic-user's combat table and Dexterity modifier.

I like the fact that a 1st-level spell packs a lot of punch even against level 4-6 characters; it helps ensure that magic-users of any level can make a huge difference to a combat if they choose their spells wisely and know the right time to use them. Of course, this is balanced by the limited number of spell slots available to MUs, but then even magic must come with a cost, shouldn't it?


  1. I suspect Magic Missile was more or less for what we'd call the "generic energy blast", the kind of stuff you'd see in comics and on TV.

    The most unusual description comes from Moldvay, who sees it akin to a glowing arrow. I don't know why, but I never liked that--it seemed too literal a description.

  2. I generally leave the "trappings" of spells like Maigc Missile up to the player. Often, my players will pick a theme for their wizard. i.e. Fire Mage (very popular), or Necromancer, or Ice Mage. It has no real effect on the spells, but it sure is fun when the "necromancer" hurls a ghostly laughing skull at a foe.

  3. Interesting. In all the years we played AD&D, we missed that "range extends with level rule!"

    Looking at the variations, I prefer the Holmes version: 2-7, but roll to hit. I'm not sure if I'd keep it at "two additional missiles per every five extra levels," or "one additional per every two extra levels," however. I never liked the Moldvay description of the spell's "look," either, and would just leave that up to the player.

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  5. Holmes, as you mentions, describes magic missile as being equivalent to a magic arrow. In the three original booklets, a magic arrow is described as doing not only one die of damage plus it's bonus (as normal), but also as killing a normal man.

    Since the three original booklets are based partly on chainmail, I've come to interprate this to mean that a magic arrow, on top of dealing regular damage to a creature, will also kill a normal man without necessitating the need for a roll of damage. But in this, in my my mind, a normal man is any sort of man with only one hit die, though a referee could extend this reference to mean any man who is not a hero or superhero.

    The point being, magic missile in all editions it appears in retains a huge margin of effectiveness.

  6. I once annoyed a player by describing a magic missile as a glowing dart of golden light.

    The player, who was playing a non-magical thief who hadn't even met a magic user yet (they were rather rare at the time), was quite annoyed to discover later that it was only a magic missile.

    [Eventually magic missile left my game in favour of more Bushido-like spells, elemental darts, arrow, spears, bolts, balls, storms, and the like, which defined the missile by the elemental association. Or in C&S terms, Create/Move/Accelerate. There were to-hit rolls, but magic-users were treated as fighters for purposes of magical targeting (and vice versa).]

  7. One of the reasons why I just don't grok 4e is that they turned Magic Missile into a roll to hit power that you can cast an unlimited amount of times. MM is a sacred cow I wished they'd kept. :/

  8. Magic Missile has always seemed to me to be the single best magic-user spell. Always hits and gets better with level increase. It is never not useful!

  9. When I played D&D as a kid, I did not play spellcasters because all the spell descriptions was too much for me at that time. But I did encounter "magic missiles" in the game through a NPC Magic-user. At first I thought the Wizards summoned a magic rocket or something, but I was told that "missile" was an old term for arrow in fight, and its like when Hank (from the D&D cartoon - say what you will, that was my only real source of context at the time) fires his light arrows.

    Oddly enough, when I finally read the rules on my own (while dealing with a reading disability), I was really disappointed to find no magic bow that fires Magic Missiles like in the cartoon.

    I also never liked how Magic Missiles hits automatically - it feels really cheap! If they have the ability to ignore armor, then they should hit the target at base AC. Treating them like +1 Arrows sounds a lot better to me.

  10. In the campaign I'm putting together, there's a tinker that's made a "gun" that shoots MMs. It holds six rounds and is extremely prone to misfire. She's also built a prototype fireball version that is just a terrible idea. ;)

  11. Hah! I love crazed "magi-tech" variants. :)

  12. One of the reasons why I just don't grok 4e is that they turned Magic Missile into a roll to hit power that you can cast an unlimited amount of times. MM is a sacred cow I wished they'd kept. :/

    Odd that you posted that. Todays rules update reverted MM to an Autohit.

    As this is my first comment, I suppose I should add I highly enjoy this blog.

  13. @JRT: My first exposure to MM was the Mentzer Basic Set, which had as part of it's introductory adventure included a sketch of Bargle casting MM at a cleric. Elmore's illustration was very clearly of an 'arrow' so I'm sure that sealed the image for most who started there.

    @Sepp: The July '10 Errata for 4e changed MM back to it's pre-4e flavor.