Friday, July 16, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 65

"Spell Casting During Melee" appears on page 65 of the Dungeon Masters Guide and is a surprisingly eye-opening read, both in terms of understanding how magic works in AD&D and how Gary Gygax viewed its place in the game he created. His brief introduction to this section concludes with the statement "Being struck by something during casting will spoil the spell," which I think pretty well sums up his overall feelings on the matter. As we shall see, Gygax strongly felt that magic, particularly as wielded by player characters, needed to be reined in and one would not be wrong in seeing this section as a buttress to that thesis.

His tone is adversarial from the start: "Spell-casters will always insist that they are able to use their powers during combat melee." To prevent the players of spellcasters from getting away with anything, he reminds referees of the following:

Consider this: The somatic (movement) portions of a spell must be begun and completed without interruption in a clean, smooth motion. The spell as a whole must be continuous and uninterrupted from beginning to end. Once interrupted, for any reason whatsoever, the spell is spoiled and lost (just as if used). Spells cannot be cast while violently moving – such as running, dodging a blow, or even walking normally. They are interrupted by a successful hit – be it a blow, missile, or appropriate spell (not saved against or saveable against). 

Those are quite a few limitations on the successful use of spells in AD&D! I freely admit that I have never played AD&D completely by the book, but, if the above is any indication, I don't believe I've ever encountered anyone who did so either. Common sense judgment would certainly suggest that spells could be interrupted, especially those with somatic components, but I'm not sure I'd ever be as stringent as Gygax suggests above.

Thus, casting a spell requires that a figure be relatively motionless and concentrating on the effort during the entire course of uninterrupted casting. For example, a magic-user casting a fireball must be in sight of the intended area of effect during the course of the spell (although an associate could be there to open a door intervening between caster and target area at an appropriate time – provided the timing was correct, of course).

Gygax's use of "figure" for "character" is an interesting atavism. More interesting, though, is his insistence that a spellcatser must be "relatively motionless." That's a huge impediment to casting during most combats.

The caster cannot begin a spell, interrupt it just prior to completion, run to a different area, and then complete the spell; interruption instantly cancels it. Unless a spell has no somatic components, the caster cannot be crouching, let alone prone, during casting. 

The scenario presented in the first sentence makes sense to me. The second sentence does too, though it serves to highlight just how restrictive spellcasting is in AD&D as written. (It's worth noting too that there are very few spells in AD&D that have no somatic components, at least when compared to those that do.)

It can thus be understood that spell casting during a melee can be a tricky business, for a mere shove at any time can spoil the dweomer!  

Again, I'm not sure I've ever played the game this way, nor have I encountered anyone who does (cue a deluge of comments suggesting otherwise). Still, it's a consistent point of view, even if it's not one I share or indeed that I think contributes much enjoyment to the playing of the game. 

Gygax then elucidates the procedure a referee should use during melee in determining whether a spell is successfully cast. It's a five-step process that stacks the deck, in my opinion, heavily against the successful casting of a spell. Gygax emphasizes the slowness of casting, as well as the fact that intelligent monsters are "able to recognize the dangers of spells" and will therefore "direct attacks against spell casters." Furthermore, spellcasters cannot use their Dexterity bonus to armor class, since that represents active dodging and would interrupt the spell. In the end, he states that "any successful attack, or non-saved-against attack upon the spell caster interrupts the spell."

His last word on the matter is a doozy, one that makes sense within the context he's just established but that runs counter to most of my experience playing any form of Dungeons & Dragons:

Because spell casting will be so difficult, most magic-users and clerics will opt to use magical devices whenever possible in melee, if they are wise. 

I think that pretty well clinches it: Gary Gygax hated spellcasters (he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek). At the very least, he saw them as potentially overpowered if firm boundaries were not placed on their ability to use magic in combat. I can certainly see the logic of his position and am even sympathetic to certain elements of what he says. However, as presented in this section, I think he was being unnecessarily restrictive, to the point that I'm not sure I'd want to play a spellcaster at his table. But perhaps that was the point.


  1. Restrictive it may be, but not unreasonable given the literary precedents on which Gygax based his game. Most wizards of the S&S genre aren't flinging spells in combat while running and jumping like some anime superhero.

    [of course, now that I write that, I think back to Vance's Turjan, and wonder if he indeed used magic in pursuit of his creation. Might have to read that story again]

    However, while it's all well and good to say spell-casting priests and sorcerers in the pulps tend to take the appearance of big, fat immobile targets chanting loudly and gesticulating wildly, they also tend to have the ability to pick up a sword and use it when things go sideways (i.e. in the chaos of combat). Gygax takes away this option, thus giving them the worst of both worlds. From that alone I'd suppose one could infer that he dislikes magic-users.

    One thing that strikes me about this passage is how it affects NPCs (i.e. adversarial spell-casters) one sees the need for the great horde of goblin troops (or whatever) to protect the evil wizard or high-priest; here is why the enemy illusionist in the example combat of the PHB needs 20 orcs to back him up. Any lone magic-user, no matter how high level, is going to be particularly vulnerable during the working of magic (again...another literary trope).

    It does make one wonder how a spell-caster could ever hope to deliver a "touch attack" spell in melee, if even a "mere shove" can spoil the spell.

  2. On top of all that, casters are expected to remain "relatively motionless" for one full minute in the case of many spells' casting times. That seems interminably long for modern audiences informed by decades of action movie pacing.

    The DMG rules are also fairly punitive, given the scarcity of one's "prepared" spells and the relatively long recovery time compared to later editions. It doesn't feel good as a player to lose an available spell to a kobold's shove.

    Gary's view reflects older fiction in which wizards spent days holed up in their dark sanctums crafting a single ritual spell. Modern players want more mobile, blastier casters with immediate (and unstoppable) impact.

  3. heh, we never played like this, unless circumstances dictated. so, tied up? check for somatic component, nope, can't cast. we never checked dex bonus, cause who runs the numbers every round?

    one place we did bring this in, is every so often a more-tactical player would announce, in lieu of attacking, he would just batchslip the caster to interrupt spells. that is the only time I remember this being used BY THE PLAYERS. GM, well, depending on how mean he was. No player wanted to come to the table to find out his 15 minute workday had been "Interrupted". Most of the time, we made a dex roll, or similar, when we were hit "To see if we were able to keep casting"

    Anything else seemed too cruel to the player.

  4. We play something like this. It's tense and fun.

  5. I've always run spells like this since 1978 which is why I despise concentration checks in 3e. There is so much benefit to this rule. It demands the use of shield and protection from normal missiles. It emphasizes the importance of potions, scrolls, wands, staves, and misc. magic items. It encourages wizards to create potions, scrolls, and wands. And all of this supports the literary (fictional & historical) concepts of magic use. Hordes of bodyguards, threats of archers, and the tension of trying to stop an arch-mage from casting a 9th level spell!

    1. I think you are right, the rule forces the player to think defensively first - create space (time really) to cast your more offensive spells. It makes mirror image much more useful for example.

  6. I guess I'll add to the "deluge of comments suggesting otherwise". We always played like this. I would've said that one of the (many) reasons that spell casters utterly dominate 3E is the concentration check to keep casting in that game as opposed to automatic interruption on a hit in 1E. "No matter how subtle the wizard, a dagger between the shoulder blades tends to cramp your style".
    Rick indicated that he used a Dex roll to avoid interruption. Out of curiosity, what did you do, James? Others?

  7. It's just a whole lot of band aids to the real issue with nearly every edition of D&D when it comes to casters- they are too powerful. So Gary had to cut them down at the knees with all this BS. 4E fixed the issue with caster/non caster disparity but of course we know how most of the audience felt about that. They want their classic (and OP) casters. I never was so restrictive with MU's, instead building up Fighter (and Thieves) to remain fun to play and competent without resorting to loading them up with magic items (which is something I have never liked in D&D).

    1. well, they are either too powerful, or two weak. the difference (measured in ISO standard "One-Fighters-Worth" units) between a level 1-4 and a level 5 is insane, even with Sleep being over powered. add the idea that you head into the dungeon, cast one, whoops, almost cast one interrupted spell, then go home to study, and wizards suck for the start. Clerics, who are casters basically equal, not only get bonus spells for wisdom, get to wear plate, and swing a mace....

    2. I think MUs are overpowered in early-edition D&D the way Monopoly is impossible to win in less than 8 hours: Because they aren't played according to the rules. MUs in AD&D should be terrified to take their spellbooks along with them on an adventure, meaning that what they have in memory has to last them not just a day, but the whole adventure. Which is why, for example, there are so many scrolls lying around, since that was the least-expensive backup, and why a PC MU might be willing to spend months and tens of thousands of gold to build a wand of fireballs. Combine that with Gary's admonition about how easy it is to disrupt spellcasting, and even high-level MUs aren't overpowered.

  8. We always played it the way it was written. No major problems.

    For the most part, to interrupt a spell the Monsters needed to win initiative and then successfully hit a caster who had opted to cast that round. Casters weren't frontline combatants so it was relatively rare.

  9. We played it BtB as teens in the 80s, but that always left us with two questions. 1) Wouldn't all these same restrictions apply to someone trying to fire a bow? 2) What is Emirikol the Chaotic casting from his galloping horse on page 193 of the 1e DMG?

  10. I also use this and it works wonderfully.

    Like other parts of 1E, it can't be viewed in a vacuum. Where it becomes "harsh" and "restrictive" is in the broader context of individual DMs applied it to their silver-standard, low-magic world. It is a rule for a world in which most magic users, most of the time, have charged items capable of delivering combat magic, or scrolls with combat magic spells.

    It is not designed for a world where casters are primarily relying on memorized spells for combat magic out of necessity.

    There's a nice tension in AD&D where memorized combat magic doesn't cap the damage potential with level but are easy to disrupt, while charged magic items have a damage output independent of the caster's level and are hard to disrupt.

    So higher level 1E casters can choose between high-risk, high-reward memorized combat castings or a more certain "lower grade" combat casting. Works very well IMO.

  11. Sometimes we followed that as written- usually if we had a decent sized group.

    If I was playing just with my brother, we'd allow the mage his dex saves (vis missiles) at least while he stood out of melee.

    In either case enlisting the fighters, or hiring meat shields or buying war dogs to protect the mage was standard play. So much that practically a gaming meme- so I'm sure an awful lot of people did play that way.

    Throwing daggers, slinging or using whatever device they had- mage combat 101. Positioning so that if someone broke through, they could get a spell off before the other closed the distance was usually easy enough if intention stated to DM.

  12. Thus we see why magic-users adventured with fighters and the like. You need them to keep you safe while you cast your spells.

  13. I suspect this is one of those situations where Gygax didn't practice what he preached, given that nearly every notable bigwig in the Greyhawk setting is a former-PC wizard. Despite all these supposed restrictions on spellcasters, people not only played the heck out of them, but also survived to high level and positions of prominence.

    1. Or... Gygax did practice what he preached; and those bigwigs were excellent roleplayers, which is what our real-life history has revealed to us.

  14. We tried to use these rules as kids during our 1e days, but I think they were much more often used by the PCs against their enemies than vice versa. If the DM had an enemy try to interrupt a PC spell, the group thrust itself down the rabbit hole of weapons speeds and "segments" or whatever they were called. I bet interrupting spells is why those rules were written.

  15. For successful spell-casting I/we went with the following:
    Freedom of movement and unimpaired speech
    No moving
    No attacking
    No getting hit
    No failing saves

    My first DM also had this rule that casting required a full round, and spells went off in the round after you declared casting,
    No declaration of casting previous to the initiative roll.
    Not sure where he picked it up.

  16. My old DM also ruled spell-casting mostly btb, and this was back in the late 80s with a 1e/2e hybrid sort of game. Nobody thought it was un-fun or nerfed or anything of the sort. He did eventually allow a few bonus spells to MUs per a Dragon Magazine letter response. As a young teen playing the game I learned that MUs must be creative and thoughtful in their adventuring, and therefore requires a different approach than say a fighter. The use of 1e cantrips can also greatly increase a MUs effectiveness in many situations (including combat), especially if the player is willing to think outside the box to use their effects to imaginative ends.

  17. Spellcasting is always a game of initiative in pre-3E D&D. Even at the highest levels a wizard is pretty vulnerable if a couple rolls go wrong. I play with most of these though I've never enforced the Dex bonus thing (makes sense intuitively but nerfs the only armor a lot of m-u will have). It does make npc spell casters pretty easy to best unless surrounded by hordes of minions or ensconced in a dungeon filled with traps or, as EOTB says, packing a wand or two.

  18. I think the final bit about devices is actually pretty key here. Wizards have a whole variety of delightful spells that can dramatically impact play but aren't at all useful in combat. And yet the stakes of combat tend to push players toward loading up on as many combat-related spells as possible.

    This tension resolves a bit if you think that the main use of combat spells like Magic Missile or Lightning Bolt is not for direct casting by the Wizard, but for pre-loading into a wand or staff to unleash when needed. A wizard's primary use is utility magic to accomplish things that are logistically difficult, or even impossible, without. Direct damage from a wizard can quickly turn the balance of a fight, but with the whole point of fighters being to inflict damage, it's a secondary concern for wizards, and the people who want to play a magic-user while still turning the tide of a battle through firepower can simply seek out an appropriate specialized tool.

  19. Most of my 1e experience is from the Gold Box computer games which did implement this rule, except that you could move and then start casting in the same turn. But if you were injured before your initiative, no casting that turn. Or if between starting to cast and finishing the spell (1 segment per spell lvl I think) you would lose the spell. Doing this to enemy casters was of extreme importance. The relief of shooting a magic missile wand to interrupt after they started casting a fireball that would have killed a couple of your party was a fantastic experience! It seemed to make Dex the most important attribute for backline characters.

  20. All these restrictions seem so normal for (A)D&D, I can't imagine it otherwise. Really I am surprised by the article and many of the comments.

    Works totally fine and balances the game nicely.

    If you don't use segments and everything takes a round, then I guess it might fall apart on you. But then you've already opted for a rules light game.

    Although...Swords & Wizardry (self-proclaimed rules-light) has the potential to interrupt the caster too, so maybe leaving that out is a Rules-Lightest(?) approach.

    Do you also skip announcing which spells are to be cast? Does one also skip initiative? How else does it all play out?

  21. Also, how is interrupting a spell any worse than magic resistance, or saving throw versus spell?

    Also, if the magic-use is in the back-line, are they not mostly protected for spell use?

    Doesn't a fast (low-level/1 seg) spell light magic missile now seem to be strategically much more than just a glance at how much damage it does?

    There are SO many reasons to include this in your game.

  22. I do play it pretty close to the Gygaxian line. The way I houserule combat rounds is like this:

    1. A combat round is ten seconds with ten 1 second segments.

    2. Every player and the monster side rolls a d10, adding dex bonus as per PHB +1 to +3. I start counting down, players can take action on "their second" or delay action to take it when they want.

    3. Spells start when the spellcaster's segment is, or they can delay to whatever segment they want, and casting takes as many seconds (segments) as the PHB entry says.

    Intelligent combatants on both sides (those who can perceive and recognize) will know when spells start, generally, and will intelligently act to prevent spells from being cast.

    Seems fair to me. There's things that can be done like spellcasters taking cover behind corners or flipped tables, being protected by a couple of stout fighters, or mastiffs, and so on.

    Now, where things get bad for spellcasters are situations where they are not protected, the party has has not established a proper skirmish line, and spellcasters are subject to being jostled and pushed around or hit.

    But that's something player skill can mitigate. Gygax was spot on in my opinion by building in balancing mechanics.