You’ve never had it so good – Magic-Users

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Once there were magic-users.


I’ve been involved in the world of role-playing games (RPGs) for some time. If I actually told you the year I started playing/DMing then you will probably wonder if the game was even created back then. Well, I assure you it was and there was a lot of great games out there. After returning to the game after a few years out (well probably many years out) I noticed that certain things actually had changed and, looking back on these changes, I felt that things had definitely changed for the better, although it is important to look at these changes so that we reflect on the journey and realise how good we have it now.

Spell-Users of Literature

I grew up in awe of the great wizards in literature. Gandalf blinding trolls in the Hobbit and defeating the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Raistlin putting people to sleep in the Dragon Lance Chronicles in order to allow his group to escape (side note – this was when I first felt the importance of spell components – ‘as the sand trickled from his hand’ ). And the druid Allanon, fleeing from the citadel in the Elfstones of Shannara. Yes, I realise that my memories might be fuzzy when thinking back on these great events in the pages of literature, but I still do remember them fondly.

While some players are attracted to the sneaky rogue or the healing spells of the clerics or even the fighting prowess of the warriors, I have always been drawn to the spell wielding classes. The ones who accept the great restrictions which accompany the desire to channel the greatest power in the cosmos. Although these restrictions are still present in the 5th edition of the rules, things were quite different back in the day!

Starting Spells

When I first started to play Basic D&D and later AD&D first edition, my first level magic-user walked around with 1 – yes I said ONE first level spell! Just one – I can’t highlight this enough

When I came back to 5th edition D&D I was shocked and pleasantly surprised by the number of spells I had as a first level magic user. When I first started to play Basic D&D and later AD&D first edition, my first level magic-user walked around with 1 – yes I said ONE first level spell! Just one – I can’t highlight this enough. I had one spell for the whole adventure or dungeon crawl (more about dungeon crawls in future posts).

Basically, there were really two choices, Magic Missile or Sleep. There were others but it was really the case of thinking which spell could be the most helpful at that moment you cast it. The automatic hit of the magic missile spell was very alluring, but to sleep a whole load of pesky Kobolds could save the party but would be useless once the hit dice of the mobs increased.

I remember walking around with my magic-user, guarding my precious spell, trying to decide when it would be the golden moment to cast it – knowing that I would be pretty useless after casting it for the rest of the adventure. Of course, shooting it off in the last encounter and managing to kill the last ‘boss’ would be perfect but I think I always had to cast it when a small spider got past the fighters and made its way towards me, fangs clicking and dripping with venom.

Armour and Weapons

Weapon and Armour proficiencies were in the early game but I just remember them as being almost optional. Instead of this, each class could only use certain armour and weapons. Yes, as the magic-user, I was somewhat limited. I can’t remember what it was called (it’s now light armour) but I think I could only wear robes – AC10 (-DEX bonus – ha! sure I have a Dex bonus!). As for weapons, well the trusty staff was there as was the dagger and darts! I have to say that I always took darts! They were often the highlight of my adventure, lobbing my darts into combat, hoping that I hit someone or something and made some sort of impact. If anything came towards me, and I had already expended by single spell, then I would just wield my staff around my head.

More about combat in future posts, but I had the worse THAC0 ever! I think unless the mob was restrained, fainted or otherwise incapaciated, I needed a lucky roll to actually make contact. I always felt as a DM that I would run out of what the magic-user actually hit – wall, floor, ceiling, door jamb, imaginary deceased turtle (Bonus point if you can add in the comments where the imaginary deceased turtle features in a fumble table). Enough to say that magic-user’s were definitely not made for combat!

But where were the Warlocks?

Initially, in Basic D&D, your class actually included your race. So you were an elf, dwarf or magic user. Although other classes were available, you could not be an elven magic-user. So as well as only wearing a posh dressing gown, and weapons which meant you were hoping for a 180 score! you were blind as soon as the lights went out. With 1st Edition AD&D, you had a race which would give you some special abilities – 90% resistance to sleep and charm, the race would not impact on your armour and/or weapons.

To make matters worse, you had a choice, Magic-User or Illusionist. That was it. Now before you all instantly picked the Illusionist (I had an excellent gnome illusionist once!) your armour, weapons and spells were just as limited. The only addition which caused some fun and some rule headaches was the phantasmal force spell. After reading an article in the ‘Imagine’ magazine, I remember always trying to open up 60ft deep pits underneath mobs that were filled with spikes. This was always fun although many mobs seemed to make their saving throws and I was back to my trusty darts!

Apart from the illusionists that was it, no warlocks or spell slot swapping sorcerers. Life was simpler but definitely not as diverse!

Apart from the illusionists that was it, no warlocks or spell slot swapping sorcerers. Life was simplier but definitely not as diverse!

Hoping in the treasure

Life as a magic-user was stressful and your chances of gaining levels was hard. In those days – experience points needed for the next level was different from each class. Magic-users had the largest amount of experience needed and many slipped into being dual-classed with the following being very popular. Fighter/Magic-user, Cleric/Fighter/Magic-user, Magic-User/Thief and Fighter/Magic-User /Thief.

But there was one thing you always hoped and prayed for and, if your DM was kind, often put somewhere near the start of the dungeon crawl. A wand of magic missiles! Oh m heart actually would skip a beat if we found one of these not being used in the chest of the first two Kobold guards that we killed. Wands had a large number of charges – normally in double figures, which allowed the magic-user to merrily pepper the mobs with their glowing bolts of light. The only negative was that anyone could use the wand and when the rogue would announce that they wanted it, the magic-user would shrink away and allow them to take it – I mean, we couldn’t defeat a piece of paper let alone the thief class!

In conclusion

Despite all the difficulties that accompanied playing the Magic-User class, I really enjoyed being the weakest character in the party. I think this encouraged me to develop my role-playing more since it was about the only thing I could actually do to participate within the adventure. When Unearthen Arcana came into existence, the class suddenly got some cantrips, although these were weaker than the first level spells of cantrips of 5th edition. I think I could clean my robes of blood with mine – which was usually my own blood!

So next time you are wandering through the adventure clad out in armour, wielding a weapon from your race proficiencies and casting eldritch blast over and over again, spare a thought for the magic-users of the past who paved the way for the changes you are enjoying today and just remember, you have never had it so good.

In the comments – did you play a magic-user in days gone by? What is your favourite memory of your spellcasting class?

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