Magic-Users are awesome

JB has a post up about how the traditional D&D magic-user class sucks. I’m not putting words in his mouth, either:

So when I say, MAGIC-USERS SUCK, I’m only talking about the magic-using class, as used by player characters. And my astute observation (that they suck) comes from a careful review of the rules as written and their actual use in-play. My concern is about the “fun factor” of the class, both for the player who actually plays the character, the other players in the party, and the DM running the adventure.

In contrast, I think the magic-user as written is great, one spell slot at first level and all. First I’ll tell you why, and then I’ll address a few of the points he raises directly.

Eknuv the magic-user, tamer of hobgoblins

Eknuv the magic-user, tamer of hobgoblins

This morning I played a magic-user in Dwimmermount at OSRCon, and never once did I feel like I had nothing to do. We started at second level, but this still only gave me two prepared first level spells, a scroll, and two hit dice (which was 5 HP, as it turned out). Still in danger of being killed in one hit. I had AC 9, two daggers, and a small collection of adventuring gear. I had sleep, charm person, and a scroll of shield (which I never used). The sleep got us past a group of hobgoblins, and the charm person got me a hobgoblin henchman. But I didn’t feel the need to use any spells until fairly deep into the dungeon, on the second level.

Let’s also look at the list of first level spells. I’ll stick to the 3 LBBs here, because I think they encapsulate the essence of the class best. Later editions dilute the list by adding direct damage spells like magic missile too early, but the essence still remains if you look.

  1. detect magic
  2. hold portal
  3. read magic
  4. read languages
  5. protection from evil
  6. light
  7. charm person
  8. sleep

All of these spells are solutions to common dungeon problems. Detect magic can tell you which treasure is most valuable, or what aspect of a complex puzzle you should focus on (or avoid). Read magic allows you to use scrolls that you find without needing to retreat to the surface or potentially identify some magic items, if there are inscriptions. Read languages allows you to decipher maps or clues (I wished that I would have memorized read languages today when I was exploring Dwimmermount). Protection from evil prevents enchanted monsters from getting near you (like level-draining undead). Light is a failsafe in case you lose your main light source, or need to light an area that can’t be well lighted by torches or lanterns (like under water, in within magical darkness). Charm person gets you a retainer. Sleep allows you to avoid one direct confrontation. You get one of these potential wildcards in addition to everything else you can do as a person with two arms, two legs, a brain, and exploration equipment.

How much of a character’s capabilities should be located in the class “extras” and how much should be player creativity and interaction with the environment? I see the second category as primary, and the first as secondary. Everyone is an adventurer. Fighters get a small advantage in terms of combat (a bit more HP, better weapon selection, etc); thieves can climb and have a small advantage in some dungeoneering activities; clerics get to turn undead (and no spell at first level!); magic-users get a spell and the ability to use magic items and scrolls.

Which brings us to scrolls. How could JB have forgotten to mention scrolls? Scrolls allow magic-users to carry a potentially limitless number of utility and attack spells. If using the Holmes rules, they can be scribed for 100 GP per spell level, and if not using those rules DMs can place them as treasure or make them available for purchase (doing so is part of the class design, not a house rule). Even more spectacularly, depending on your edition of choice, you may be able to cast spells above your level from a scroll (I believe AD&D gives a chance of failure, but OD&D and B/X allow magic-users to cast spells of any level if they are on a scroll). In addition to scrolls, there are, of course, other magic items, most of which cannot be used by any other class. Even a small amount of adventuring will provide a fledgling magic-user with plenty of resources and options.

Now to individual points. Quotes are from JB’s post linked above.

The existence of house rules in many, many campaigns to change or increase magic-user effectiveness.

People house-rule many things. The most common house-rule I have seen in TSR D&D (and its simulacra) is full HP at first level. This is something I don’t think is necessary, is usually not specific to the magic-user, and even if implemented still leaves the magic-user often dead after one hit.

The modification and tweaking of the class and its abilities over-time and across editions, expressing dissatisfaction with the class as conceived in prior/earlier editions.

This has happened to all the classes, not just the magic-user. The humble fighter has probably come in for the most revision (due to some people not liking the lack of “awesome things to do” written on the character sheet), but every single class has been targeted at one time or another. The thief takes away skills from other characters, the cleric is a healbot, or is out of place in swords & sorcery settings, etc, etc. I do play commonly with several house rules about weapons and armor, but this is because I don’t care for weapons restrictions in general, not because I think that the magic-user class needs more weapons. Also, the OD&D method of using d6 for both hit dice and damage solves the same problem.

Instead, they’ll be skulking around the back of the pack, or whining that they need to retreat the dungeon to re-memorize their sleep spell(s), or bitterly complaining that they “can’t do anything.” Or all of the above.

Retreat is a strategy that is often available to PCs. There is nothing wrong with this; it will have advantages and disadvantages like any other choice. I don’t understand the complaint about the 15 minute workday. By all means, retreat if you think it will benefit you! This is only a problem if you have a planned sequence of events that your players must experience in order. Also, can’t do anything? How about holding the light source, flinging oil, reloading missile weapons, or any number of other helpful things?

Another house rule I often use is to give magic-users a chance to retain spells after casting them by succeeding at a save versus spells. But the same house-rule also provides for spell fumbles if you roll a 1 on the save (the point was not to give the magic-user more utility, but to make magic less reliable and more flavorful).

25 thoughts on “Magic-Users are awesome

  1. David Macauley

    I strongly agree. If you’re playing old school D&D and you think your class sucks it’s probably because you’re limiting yourself, not because the rules are doing so. A character is what you make it to be.

  2. Paul


    I don’t care for weapons restrictions in general

    I’ve always thought a strong case can be made that the LBB’s are silent on restrictions of mundane weapons and armor. The restrictions only refer to magical items:

    All magical weaponry is usable by fighters [….] The whole plethora of enchanted items lies at the magic-users beck and call, save the arms and armor of the fighters (see, however, Elves); Magic-Users may arm themselves with daggers only. [….] Clerics gain some of the advantages from both of the other two classes (Fighting-Men and Magic-Users) in that they have the use of magic armor and all non-edged magic weapons

    If I was reading this literally, I’d let magic-users use any mundane weapons or armor, but restrict their use of magical weapons to daggers only.

    1. Brendan

      That’s how I have chosen to read it too, though it requires a certain kind of textual literalness. We know that Gary did intend the restrictions to be on mundane weapons as well. Not that it matters, it’s our game now!

      This is how I’m running my current game:

      Magic-Users may arm themselves with daggers only (Men & Magic, page 6) is a legal stricture. If magic-users are seen armed with weapons other than daggers and casting spells in civilized areas, they will be driven away (traditional punishment also includes branding on the face, and sometimes the severing of the primary hand). Further, casting a spell with the intent of harming another man is malfeasance and punishable by death (traditionally burning). Note that banishment is a significant punishment, as pockets of civilization are rare.

      All magical weaponry is usable by fighters, and this in itself is a big advantage (Men & Magic, page 6). Magic swords are mostly inert for non-fighters, though they can sometimes be wielded as standard weapons (though they may curse their wielder). There are some warlock blades (which will serve a magic-user) and some holy blades (which will serve a cleric), but these are even rarer than magic swords in general.

      Clerics may use edged weapons, but contrary to what it states in the rules, it is a rare magic weapon that will consent to serving a cleric.

  3. rainswept

    I agree with you (& you, too, David!). All the “cool classes” are specialists who suffer a cost in either advancement, combat potency, or both. For any class there is someone who thinks the cost is too high, while the gal in the next seat thinks it’s a steal. Those who find Magic-Users a poor bargain are encouraged to play Elves, where there is little to complain about from the combat potency angle. Easy peasy.

  4. blake

    Yep. The Magic User is one class that the less I play with it, the better it gets.

    And in general I am not averse to a tinker. I use a LOTFP style specialist/skill system & have done away with cleric for my current (post apoc sci fi type) campaign.

  5. Brendan

    Whoops, I accidentally deleted John’s comment. Here is a recreation:

    John has left a new comment on your post “Magic-Users are Awesome”:

    I could hardly agree more, especially with this:

    You get one of these potential wildcards in addition to everything else you can do as a person with two arms, two legs, a brain, and exploration equipment.

    I do agree with JB in one respect, though: the same spells see too much play. Even you talk about using Sleep and Charm. I think it’s important that spells be rolled randomly, to add a bit of forced creativity into the mix. We’ve been using this:

    1. Brendan


      That spell document is wonderful. Do you have other game materials up somewhere?

      I agree that random spell determination is a lot of fun, and I regret not taking more spells off the beaten path in that game.

  6. Hamel™

    I agree on the whole line, although there’s something true when when somebody says that MUs suck (but ONLY under a dice-based and rule-based point of view).

    Anyway,in an OS game what really matters IMHO is still Player’s Skill and not PC’s Skill (as already remarked by Matt Finch in his famous Primer).

  7. Lord Gwydion

    No offense intended towards JB when I say this – I really enjoy his blog, and think he’s one of the more entertaining guys currently blogging and he often has a lot of insight into the game – but he’s said himself that every time he plays a non-fighter, he ends up playing it as a fighter.

    I think a lot of his problems with the M-U stems from this desire of his to be a combat character no matter what he’s playing.

    I’ve personally found plenty of things to do as a low level magic-user to help out the party in an adventure, whether it’s a standard dungeon crawl (being the smart guy can be advantageous when dealing with old ruins and unknown cultures/creatures) or more “story driven” type adventures.

    1. JB

      @ Lord Gwyd:
      Still waiting for the opportunity to play MY type of B/X magic-user: give me a 16+ strength, a pair of daggers, and a SHIELD spell and I’m a melee-machine!
      : )

      BUT no, my dissatisfaction does NOT come from my desire to run a combat character (I can always figure out ways to do THAT). My dissatisfaction comes from what I’ve seen in OTHER players, both as a fellow party member and as a DM. Certainly I’ve gamed with players who act as Brendan describes…but they’re not the ones playing magic-users. And again, maybe it’s just been my bad luck, but it seems like every dude (I haven’t seen ANY women who played straight magic-users) that takes up the robe finds it a big pain in the ass and complains mightily. At least at low levels (and I’m getting fewer and fewer games these days that reach even to mid-level before ending).

  8. JB

    @ Brendan:

    (I should probably no better than to argue magic-user stuff with a guy whose avatar has a pointy hat, but here goes)

    I agree heartily that a PC adventurer with a brain in his head should be able to find PLENTY to do, even once they run out of spells. Direct the henchmen. Search for secret doors and traps. Use rope and pole and oil to good effect. Perhaps it’s simply been my misfortune to be saddled with shitty players for the last couple years…even though some of the worst complainers were guys who’d played for 30 years through every edition of D&D. All I can say is that I found the complaints CONSISTENT, and I’ve seen how other campaigns, run by other DMs have compensated…usually by allowing characters to start out at 2nd or 3rd level and/or allowing bonus spells for high Intelligence or the like.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to play the MU class as written. I’m saying that the class A) has no literary or cinematic precedent, and B) seems flawed on a number of levels. That doesn’t mean people can’t or don’t try it. I’m sure there are players of the Rifts RPG that will take a Vagabond OCC even though the rest of the party is using Glitterboys and Baby Dragons and Full Conversion Borgs. Sure, a GM can artificially tailor the game to match the players needs…I could also set my pants on fire and dance a jig for the pure entertainment of the players. I COULD do that…but I’m not going to. And the rules shouldn’t be such that I HAVE TO in order to ensure “everybody has a good time.” At least, not if they’re designed properly.

    RE scrolls: OD&D allows a MU to scribe them for the same cost as Holmes…once you’re 11th level. In B/X a scroll can be scribed by a 9th level character, but the price is about 5X the cost (if one goes by the example in the rules). Only Holmes, as far as I know, gives the players the option of scribing scrolls at 1st level. And relying on the DM to “place scrolls” (in order for your magic-user to not suck?)? That’s ridiculous. I write adventures that (hopefully) have some rhyme or reason to ’em, but aren’t necessarily tailored to the PCs. Why? Because I never know who might show up, what they’ll bring, and (if they get killed) what their next character will be. And it is the rare MU that carries a Read Magic spell as their only 1st level spell (especially in B/X where MUs only possess the same number of spells in their book as what they can cast).

    As for the other characters being subject to as much tweaking as the MU, I’d very much disagree prior to 3E and the advent of feats. Till then, fighters pretty much operated the same (and variable damage is pretty much the same across early editions). Thief skills have always FUNCTIONED the same, even if their skill percentages changed, and so has clerical abilities (with the exception of some spells).

    Look, telling me I’m wrong, that magic-users “don’t suck,” is kind of missing the point. If 60% of players are satisfied with the Rules As Written for MUs in the edition they’re playing (whatever it is), and 40% are unsatisfied, I’d still say 40% is a pretty big number…and personally, I suspect that it’s a whole lot less than 60% that ARE satisfied. And for some people who SAY they’re satisfied…well, they’re gamers who’d sculpt their play to whatever edition they were playing just because they want to play “a wizard” and they’re willing to take up the gauntlet, no matter how inconvenient. It’s always POSSIBLE that there’s another way to do a “wizard class” that will be more satisfying, and that’s why I’m bothering to do this “deconstruction thang.”

    Plus, it’s a fun mental exercise.
    ; )

    1. The Recursion King

      I’m calling B/S on this. People who have been playing for 30 years and complaining that their magic user has nothing to do? Pull the other one. You think we were born yesterday, don’t you!

    2. Brendan


      Well, I will note that I drew the picture my avatar comes from with a sword:


      Also, I like all the “big 4” classes, and play them with about equal frequency.

      Now to some real responses.

      The class has plenty of literary precedent. Thoth-amon in The Phoenix on the Sword only derives magic from his ring! Saruman, perhaps, in LotR. But really, I’m not all that concerned about emulation. D&D is its own thing, and often something that seems cool in a book doesn’t work all that well in play (dark loner archetype, I’m looking at you). Also, while the Dying Earth magic-users are marginally more martially competent than a first level D&D magic-user, I think you exaggerate the differences. There are no spell-casting Conans in Vance (that I have seen).

      And relying on the DM to “place scrolls” (in order for your magic-user to not suck?)? That’s ridiculous.

      Why? Using magic items is one of the magic-user’s main abilities. If the referee does not recognize that, it is bad refereeing. Likewise, fighters are not very good without weapons and armor (and probably need magic weapons to be competitive as the game progresses). And how is this different than turning undead? Really, all the classes have different competencies, and will be “weaker” if the referee never includes things that they are good at. Also, I will note that unless you have a very mulish referee, self-directed players can seek out whatever they want. “Referee, I want to seek out scrolls. Do I hear any rumors that might be relevant?”

      I don’t think it’s fair to ignore the changes in 3E and 4E if you are considering rebuilding the class, as those editions were partially prompted by your list of complaints. The 3E and 4E magic-using classes (including the d20 warlock and d20 sorcerer) are rebuilds of the magic-user!

      Finally, assume for argument’s sake that your numbers are accurate. What about the 60% that are satisfied? Why not just make another class in parallel for those that don’t like the traditional magic-user? Is the distinction of occupying the main “wizard” or “magic-user” slot that important?

      All that being said, I’m a big fan of your work (just ordered a copy of The Complete B/X Adventurer!) so I’m interested to see what you come up with, especially if it stays within the spirit of B/X. But I suspect that if I like it, it will stand next to the standard magic-user as an additional option rather than as a replacement.

    3. John

      If you don’t place scrolls, randomly or otherwise, how do your magic-users ever learn new spells? I don’t really understand the objection. Scrolls are a treasure type. It’s no more “tailoring” the adventure than placing any other magical item.

    4. JB

      @ John: And as a standard treasure type, they appear with no more frequency in my game than any other standard magic item.

      RE Learning spells from scrolls

      It depends on your edition. Magic-users do not learn spells from scrolls in the B/X game (nor in OD&D).

      @ Brendan:

      Hmm…while I agree D&D is “it’s own thing” it does appear (from the text and book lists it includes) to be inspired by certain literary sources.

      RE Scrolls (again), Fighters, Turning Undead

      I prefer my adventurers to have some level of competency without the need to rely on magical equipment. I disagree with your assertions regarding fighters, and likewise I see the magic-user’s ability to use scrolls as something VERY different from a cleric’s turning ability (or any other inherent class ability). A cleric needs a holy symbol to perform his role, a thief needs thieves tools, a fighter needs arms and armor, and a magic-user needs a spell book…all standard available equipment (and the MU’s spell book is free!). The ability to use a magic item (whether a cleric’s Rod of Resurrection or a fighter’s Potion of Heroism) does not necessitate it being readily available. And a class should not be so limited in ability that it necessitates a magical item either!

      RE 3E+

      While the changes to the magic-user class may indeed have been based on complaints, I can’t see how they’ve “fixed” the problem…at least judging by the continuous tweaking (and complaining) that still continues.

      RE The Complete B/X Adventurer

      The spell-casting classes in this book do NOT supplant the magic-user; they offer different methods of handling magic specific to their own class. They do nothing to usurp the MU’s role as preeminent B/X wizard. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the book.
      : )

  9. Matthew James Stanham

    I enjoy playing magicians, but it is perfectly true that they start out weaker than the other classes, gradually becoming relatively more powerful. As a result, I am by no means adverse to flattening out the power curve.

    1. Brendan

      And of course Gygax did acknowledge this in Men & Magic (page 6):

      Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top, and to begin with they are weak, so survival is often the question, unless fighters protect the low-level magical types until they have worked up.

      However, I believe this only applies to physical weakness, not overall playability.

      I like Jasper’s house rules (just shared them before this on G+, actually), but the major benefit to me is the decrease in power and complexity at high levels, not the increase in power at low levels.

    2. wurp

      To me, the sharp power curve is a strong attractor to to playing MUs. I love the idea of working hard to be effective at low levels, and getting a payoff in superpowers as you advance.

      It’s the classic “farmboy to world power” story that has sold innumerable novels and movies.


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