Rock, paper, scissors

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Read magic, as a spell, is often looked down upon. The primary criticism is that it seems like something that a magic-user should be able to do inherently. I don’t want to get into arguments about what a magic-user “should” be able to do, but I do want to talk a bit about why read magic is interesting to have as a spell that must be chosen and what this says about the design of the game.

First, what does read magic do? Here is the text (Men & Magic, page 23):

The means by which the incantations on an item or scroll are read. Without such a spell or similar device magic is unintelligible to even a Magic-User. The spell is of short duration (one or two readings being the usual limit).

So, read magic is the “key” that fits the “lock” of scrolls (most commonly) and even perhaps other magic items. I take that mention of “an item” to be a great suggestion to put instruction runes on all kinds of magic items (and even architectural features). As Talysman writes in his spell series post on read magic:

The Read Magic spell appears to have originally been a “gatekeeper”, blocking immediate access to something; in this case, magic scrolls or activation inscriptions on magic items. You can decipher magical inscriptions later, at great expense over several weeks, or you can cast Read Magic now — but that means devoting a spell slot you might prefer to use for something like Sleep. The intention, then, was that scrolls found in the dungeon would normally not be usable until much later, with Read Magic allowing you to bypass that rule.

That’s what makes read magic as a spell interesting. If you don’t have information about the dangers and obstacles that you will be facing, then picking your spells is much like rock, paper, scissors. Once you have done some reconnaissance of your target, you are then operating with more information, and can react appropriately, but that comes at the cost of time and perhaps alerting the denizens of the dungeon to your presence (an aside: this is also why the “15 minute adventuring day” is a feature, not a bug).

This is also an argument against including spells like magic missile, especially on the low-level spell lists. It’s not a strong argument, as the obvious rejoinder is that not all obstacles can be solved by combat (for example, read languages might be more useful if you need to figure out how to activate an ancient machine). But magic missile does lack some of the interesting trade-off inherent in a spell like sleep, which is incredibly powerful against enemies like orcs or low-level humans, but useless against undead. Magic missile is also less interesting because missiles are how fighters solve problems. Even fireball and lightning bolt don’t really have that issue within the structure of the game, as they attack enemies in novel ways (by area of effect and line of effect, respectively). [Edit: see also Talysman’s post on magic missile in response.]A number of other spells plug into other aspects of the game in ways that may not be immediately obvious. For example, read languages is not just about translation; it is the “key” that fits the “lock” of treasure maps (Men & Magic, page 23):

The means by which directions and the like are read, particularly on treasure maps.

Another example: charm person is not just about getting your way with some NPCs, it is also a way to obtain a retainer while bypassing the negotiation step and the reaction roll social mechanics. From Men & Magic, page 12:

Monsters can be lured into service if they are of the same basic alignment as the player-character, or they can be Charmed and thus ordered to serve. Note, however, that the term “monster” includes men found in the dungeons, so in this way some high-level characters can be brought into a character’s service, charisma allowing or through a Charm spell.

Thus, charm person is more properly understood (in terms of its place in the game) as a more reliable replacement for a high charisma. Almost every single magic-user spell in the 3 LBBs has this quality of being scissors to some situational paper.

This principle almost immediately starts to break down with later versions of the game, however. For example, Supplement I: Greyhawk includes the first level spell ventriloquism. Now, it’s true that use of ventriloquism could lead to some creative problem solving, but it is not clear to me how it fits into the structure of the game in the way that most of the original spells do, and thus also unclear why a magic-user might want to make the trade-off of preparing ventriloquism rather than some other spell.

Just like the equipment list, the spell list is potentially a valuable source of information regarding the types of problems that will be present and thus what the game is about.

13 thoughts on “Rock, paper, scissors

  1. Gusty L.

    I like how you look at 1st level magic – though I think Magic Missile is a misunderstood spell at 1st level. It’s a way around lack of silver weapons and holy water, or something frightful and intimidating to do with magic against suggestible enemies. It can even be understood as a stealthy assassination tool of sort. Its damage is usually enough to kill a 1HD monster, but that’s a waste – unless 1) you can’t hit the thing otherwise 2) You need it done right then 3) You want to show off power.

    Otherwise awesome post.

    1. Brendan

      True, hitting something that can only be damaged by magic is one of the uses of magic missile. The Greyhawk version of magic missile does not mention auto-hit though, and I believe there is evidence to support that it originally required a to-hit roll.

      Also worth noting: the original dungeon encounter tables did not include any monsters on the first two levels that required special means to damage. The first such monster is the wight, present on the third dungeon level encounter table.

      First level:
      Kobolds, Goblins, Skeletons, Orcs, Giant Rats, Centipedes, Bandits, Spiders

      Second level:
      Hobgoblins, Zombies, Lizards, Warriors, Conjurors, Gnolls, Thouls, Ghouls, Berserkers, Theurgists

      Third level:
      Wights, Heros, Giant Hogs, Giants Ants, Ochre Jelly, Thaumaturgists, Swashbucklers, Magicians, Giant Snakes, Giant Weasles [sic]

      (That’s right, giant pigs are a major encounter type.)

    2. Brendan

      For reference, Supplement I: Greyhawk page 22:

      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″.

    3. Gusty L.

      Yeah I use the Lab Lord Version – which ramps up faster and auto hits. I am also fond of immunity monsters (as I know you are). As written in the LBB it seems superfluous, especially with 1D6 daggers getting tossed around.

    4. Zenopus Archives

      In OD&D there’s a 33% chance (5-6 in 6) of encountering a 3rd or 4th level monster on the 1st level of the dungeon! It’s on the table on page 10 of Vol 3 right above the tables by level. The 3rd level table has Wraiths, and the 4th level table has Wraiths, Lycanthropes and Gargoyles. Overall, about a 7% chance of any particular wandering monster on the 1st level being one of these.

    5. Brendan


      Good point. I go back and forth between not being able to interpret that MONSTER DETERMINATION AND LEVEL OF MONSTER table (something about confusing the column headers), but right now I can and you are absolutely right. Wraiths, lycanthropes, and gargoyles can all be encountered on the first level.

      Slight correction though: at least according to my copy, there are no wraiths on level 3, only wights. But yeah, your point holds.

      (And Gustie, you guys have been getting it easy in Pahvelorn I guess! Because I have not been including the chance of level 4 monsters on level 1.)

    6. Gusty L.

      @Brendan – You know I like my magic missile weird – I get where he’s coming from, but still see it as an unerring murder spell that intimidates folks. It makes wizards seem dangerous to normal men. No one is going to mess with even weak wizards if they know that all of them have the ability to do something (and the way I play it it’s a variety of terrible somethings) that is very deadly to the average man. Sure the Minotaur isn’t intimidated by you 2-7 points of damage, but the town guardsman, that other wizard, the shopkeeper and the local thugs all are. Gives wizards back a mystique!

    7. Brendan

      If you’re ever looking for blog post fodder, you could make such “weirdness” tables for all kinds of different spells. I bet such things would be fun and useful.

  2. John

    I agree completely about the LBB spells, but I do rather like having a wider variety of less ‘essential’ spells. In particular I like the outcome of a magic-user who has more spell slots than top-tier spells, and so has to find creative uses for the more obscure ones. And I like the idea that some spells are more generally applicable, and therefore highly desirable, than others of the same level.

  3. LS

    This is a really interesting way of looking at things.

    Personally, I like the idea of giving the players strange tools, then watching to see what they do with them. But the meticulously balanced nature of the lock/key relationship is a fascinating one. It would be fun to design a magic system around it.


Leave a Reply