The feedback I’ve received so far on the magic blast idea has been great. Lots of good points and suggestions have been made both here and on the thread I started over at the Labyrinth Lord forum. I’ll admit that I’m more than a little confused over the objections to the idea that some are raising, not because I don’t like objections but because I don’t really understand what it is that they’re objecting to. That will be a different post, maybe.

For now, I’m curious about how others play low-level magic-users, particularly regarding the “magic-users should be doing other stuff during combat” statements that many objections to magic blast contain.

I personally have never played a lot of magic-users, due in great part to low-level play looking fairly boring most of the time. I’m not necessarily saying that, if magic-users existed, being one would be fairly boring. I’m saying that being a player controlling a low-level magic-user in a game looks like it could be fairly boring most of the time. I also must say that I haven’t had a lot of players choose to play magic-users over the years, though I can’t say for sure that it was due to fear of boredom. All in all, I’d guess that around 90% of the non-multi-classed magic-users who have been in PC parties in nearly 30 years of gaming have been NPCs (a few of them henchmen controlled by players) and not player characters. Due to this, I haven’t really seen a lot of creative magic-user play in my gaming career.

So just what is all this “other stuff” that magic-users should be doing when they aren’t casting their one or two spells for the day? Particularly during combat?

I’ve got some of my own ideas, but I’d love to hear what other people do. I think I’ve been “missing something” for a long time.

Yes, I realize that certain situations may require specific actions. Freeing prisoners while the fighters hold off the goblins and the like. Some of those specific actions would be ideal magic-users. Also, being mapper (or caller if you use one) could make sense. But the reason they would make sense is because the magic-user player/character HAS NOTHING ELSE TO DO ANYWAY.

I’m particularly interested in things where the player DOES something. “Holding the torch” is one of the first suggestions I saw for magic-users during combat. That may be vitally important to an adventuring party but it is not a lot of fun for the player. It’s a game. Fun playing trumps “realism” every time. Magic-users are a core class of the game and I want them to be fun.

26 Comments to “Playing Magic-Users at Low Level”

  1. ze bulette says:

    I really liked Erin Smale’s MU abilities (in his comment on your last post here). Nothing too powerful and gives the MU something to do and be considered valuable to the party early on.

    Re-introducing and re-working cantrips is an easy way to help accomplish this – I wrote up some thoughts about this a while back. You might also finds JB’s post on the subject of interest.

    • Kilgore says:

      You’re right, and I am actually working on a minor spell/cantrip thing (I’m calling them “tricks”) for our game. Thanks for pointing out your post, it looks very much like how our “tricks” will work.

      What I’d like to know on this post is what people playing by the book do with low-level magic-users. I get a lot of “there’s all sorts of stuff they should be doing” but I don’t get much in the way of actual examples.

      • ze bulette says:

        Ah! I have no idea what those folks are talking about then. By the book stuff the MUs should be doing? Hmmm. Looking for weeds that are spell components? Practicing writing their runes? Polishing their wand? 😉

  2. Telecanter says:

    One thing that’s happened recently in our Swords & Wizardry play is our discovery of the deadliness of darts. With a rate of fire of three per round, they are more effective in combats versus weak but deadly foes like rats and kobolds than other weapons.

    I’m sure you were thinking of something other than combat that Mus could be doing, but last session the MU’s darts were way more effective than the fighter’s bastard sword. I’m sure this will become less effective quickly as they climb levels.

    • Kilgore says:

      Ah, the dart-throwing mage. I’ve mentioned a few times that the only magic-user I ever played much had crossed bandoliers of darts and fired those things off wily-nily. IIRC, darts were 3 per round in 1e.

      Yeah, I’m mostly wondering about non-combat (or indirect combat) stuff. In feedback to this and in lots of other places I keep seeing about how magic-users do all this stuff. But no one ever really says what any of it is.

  3. Derek says:

    Hmm… when playing a low level mage, I always focused on providing non-magical support. I normally create a character that has other skills, animal handling, basic healing to help the cleric out, I generally watch the flanks and the rear of the party for “surprises”. I work to provide distractions and covering actions – a sling for opposing magic users/clerics, oil and torches to block the opposing forces, etc. I also watch carefully for the opportunity to use my limited spells at the best time. I’ve often managed and directed the hirelings as well. I work to beef up any knowledge areas I can so that I can read warnings, directions, runes, etc.

    I can remember one campaign where I carried a huge shield that provided cover for a fighter that liked the crossbow. He’d shoot, hand it to me, I’d reload while he shot and with three crossbows he had a pretty high rate of fire. As I went up in levels, hirelings took my place in that work, but then I also had the big shields for cover to prevent casting from being disrupted.

    It’s not often the most heroic role, but it does a surprising amount of good for the party as a hole.

  4. Al says:

    It kind of depends on the type of game you’re running. If you’re heavy on exploration, offering puzzles and problems, mysteries, weird things to look at, etc, then this is really what the players should be doing, regardless of class. I think this is a big part of why the limited number of spells low-level mages have was less of a problem “back when”. Obviously, if a game is more combat-heavy, then sure the 1st level mage is going to start feeling a bit left out. Letting the player run a man-at-arms or three during all that combat can certainly help.

  5. Dave R. says:

    Fun playing trumps “realism” every time. Magic-users are a core class of the game and I want them to be fun.

    That’s the core disconnect right there. For some players and DM’s, “realism” is an odd kind of fun. Given the rules as presented, that kind of player is more willing to tolerate some boredom in low-level play.

    The one redeeming feature of that is it forces you to stretch your creativity. Sometimes you do come up with some clever gambit you might not have if you had the same reliable combat options as a fighter. But it’s hard to codify ahead of time to answer your question, and it doesn’t always come together.

    So, failing consistent strokes of genius, yes on darts or slings or flaming oil. Or caltrops or marbles or flasks of grease or anything else you can think of, just to have a trick up your sleeve outside of spells. That’s not written anywhere, but it is an emergent feature of the rules that are written.

    I do really like the 3E rules on scribing scrolls. A fistful of 1st level scrolls makes mages a lot funner to play. But that in turn relies on gold and down-time, so it’s still dependent on the DM.

    • Kilgore says:

      Fun playing trumps “realism” every time. Magic-users are a core class of the game and I want them to be fun.

      That’s the core disconnect right there.

      Could be. I don’t see this as a realistic simulation. It’s a game.

      In tabletop wargames (simulations), the counter representing the communications section doesn’t really do a whole lot most of the time. That’s not a problem, because the player has dozens or hundreds of units under his command and many of them DO things. I sort of see by-the-book low-level magic users as that communications section counter and giving it to a player and saying “Here, this is you. Use your imagination.”

  6. Chris says:

    So just what is all this “other stuff” that magic-users should be doing when they aren’t casting their one or two spells for the day? Particularly during combat?

    Chucking darts, caltrops, smoke bombs, burning oil and/or holy water around like they’re going out of fashion. Even spindleshanks in the bathrobe can hit AC9. 😉

    As for non-combat stuff; they’re limited only by the player’s imagination and the willingness of the DM to say “Yeah, why not?”

  7. Kilgore says:

    As for non-combat stuff; they’re limited only by the player’s imagination and the willingness of the DM to say “Yeah, why not?”

    I’m looking for specific examples of things you or your players do. I realize that characters can try anything their players think of; I’m looking for examples of what other people actually do.

    As for the chucking darts, oil, and such, the people who claim that magic-users have “other stuff” to do usually do son in response to suggestions that magic-users should have more combat ability. So combat can’t be what they mean.

  8. James Smith says:

    I haven’t played one in years, but back in the day, on the few occasions, when I wasn’t behind the screen, I always ran MU’s.

    I have NO sympathy, whatsoever for all the whining about low-level MU’s.🙂 At low levels, I threw oil, went into battle with my staff, tackled a were-rat on one occasion and pretty much helped out where I could. I like playing low-level MU’s. I like running for my life, carefully doling out my spell resources and throwing flaming oil. I like having to pray for a 20, while trying to hit with my staff. D&D should be “dangerous!” You can have a blast with a low level MU, if you’re not busy cringing.

    Now, with all that being said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving low level MU’s some more options and as DM, I’ll usually throw in some scrolls, or some other method of granting an extra spell or two to baby wizards.

    • Kilgore says:

      I can completely respect that.

      A lot more than “magic-users shouldn’t FIGHT, they’re MAGIC-USERS” followed up with “they should throw oil.”

    • Kilgore says:

      FWIW, way back in the day I rolled up a character who had an 18 STR and an okay INT (this was probably at some stage of the “roll a zillion d6 and drop the lowest”) and made him an M-U. (No, not the crossed dart bandoleer guy). I used a staff and tried to knock heads, but the low hp kept me from playing it all way. Only played him once or twice, though.

  9. Call me dumb, but I don’t get why it’s needed.

    M-Us can clearly already deal relatively low damage at range with a successful attack roll. It’s called a plain old bandoleer of daggers.

    • Kilgore says:

      For flavor, I prefer a magic-users who magically zap things with their wands rather than magic-users who carry around a bandoleer of daggers.

      I’m told that magically zapping things with wands doesn’t feel magical by many of those who say to throw daggers.

      I am confused about why magic-users with wands zapping things are not preferable to magic-users hurling fistfuls of daggers or darts.

      I am even more confused about why zapping things is not magical and magic missiling things is.

  10. Other combat stuff,

    – attacking! At 1st lvl they have the same to hit as fighters(depending on system), and it’s not so bad at 2nd and 3rd lvl esp with dex bonus all m-u’s should strive for. Thrown daggers and darts have mulitple attacks per round (depending on system).
    – throwing oil, tossing torches.
    – holding light source.
    – keeping watch out for flankers, new attackers, tricky shit DM tries to pull during combat.
    – tossing the marbles, caltrops, bag of meat, sack of coins whatever party uses to distract pursuers when it’s time to flee.
    – dragging fallen out of combat / binding wounds.
    – bunch of situation dependent stuff that the melee’rs can’t do cause their busy occupying the bad guys so you can release the captives, raise the draw bridge, spike the door, grab the accursed idol of McGuffin, etc.

    • Kilgore says:

      Thanks for the list. All pretty basic stuff. The way a lot of people carry on, I’ve figured that I must be missing something. I guess not.

  11. > I want them to be fun.

    This is why I’m against a boring effect that does x damage every round. Even worse if it requires a tohit. That’s just like the fighter swinging his sword. One thing I picked up from 4ed was the at will powers, they were all the same roll hit -> do damage, every class had something like that. And when cool daily/encounter powers were gone all you had was the same boring thing everyone else had.

    Part of fun to me is being “unique”, doing stuff other characters can’t do (well). The MU has great potential for lots of fun specifically cause they don’t have a defined role in combat and are free to do whatever.

    For all the same reasons I’m highly in favor of magic color stuff,

    • Kilgore says:

      See, my problem is this:
      –This comment here makes a certain amount of sense, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it.
      –Your comment above it, left 6 minutes earlier, makes a certain amount of sense, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it.
      –This comment AND that comment seem to be saying fairly different things.

      You don’t want them to be boring and attack like like fighters, but you suggest throwing daggers and darts and oil. You want them to do “unique stuff that other characters can’t do (well)” and suggest distracting pursuers, binding wounds, and releasing prisoners…except that anyone else can do that just as well.

      The MU has great potential for lots of fun specifically cause they don’t have a defined role in combat and are free to do whatever.

      Except so is everyone else. Who has a “defined role in combat”? Fighters fight, sure, but they don’t have to. Clerics fight, too, but they don’t have to. Thieves? Lots of people seem to be unhappy with thieves turning into ninja-rogues in later versions of the game, but if they’re not fighting aren’t they doing all this stuff you’re suggesting for the magic-user?

      This all started from the magic blast idea, which a lot of people are saying “doesn’t feel magical” or “changes the mechanics of the game” and then they say throw daggers.

      I cannot understand how a magic blast for 1d4 is a problem for magic-users and throwing a dagger for 1d4 is not. I thought it was maybe because I was missing the boat about what magic-users really should be doing, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

      For the record, I am not trying to dig into you. I appreciate your detailed comments, which are certainly of much more value than “Seems stupid to me” or the like which don’t help anyone.

      • Hey, [these notifications got stuffed into my spam folder, hence late reply]

        I often say different things. I sometimes argue both sides (it’s in my nature/training to be a devil’s advocate). I probably contradict myself. I definitely change my mind. And I’ll do the above without comment or warning, 😉

        “is a problem”, the “problem” is a style/flavor one. Not mechanical one, mostly.

        I like magic to be hard, mysterious, barely controllable, wondrous, etc. reliably popping out blasts every round is the opposite of all that. I like classes to each have their “thing”. I see the roles as fairly defined.

        It appears that you like other things. From my perspective you *are* missing the boat, from yours there is no boat to be missed. This is the nature of opinion. Since I’ve stated mine (and you seem to understand it), and I’ve commented on why I don’t share yours there’s really nothing else for us to say.

        • Kilgore says:

          Yeah, Norman, it’s clear that I see “magic” differently than a lot of other players. A lot of it probably has to do with the fact that, though I appreciate the “sword & sorcery” style and am trying to get some more of that “vibe” into my games, that is not the direction I come from originally.

          So yeah, it’s that I like one thing and you (and a lot of others) like something a little different. Which is not a problem to me at all.

          My only real beef with a lot of the opposition was that it was based almost entirely on flavor/fluff arguments but presented in ways that tried to make it appear like a fundamental issue of game mechanics/operation. A lot of the opposers didn’t seem to understand that their arguments about mechanics were nothing of the sort and actually flavor arguments.

          I’ve actually got a post about my view of magic in the game and how it seems to differ from a lot of others but haven’t got a chance to write it up yet. Hopefully this week.

  12. “I cannot understand how a magic blast for 1d4 is a problem for magic-users and throwing a dagger for 1d4 is not.”

    It’s not so much that it’s a problem as that the latter makes the former option unnecessary as a game add-on since the two are functionally-identical. Why add new rules if they don’t add new options?

    • Kilgore says:

      But it is a new option. From a detailed mechanics standpoint the magic blast A) is magical force and may be useful for things that a thrown dagger is not or vice versa and B) requires no ammo but does require a wand. I’d say that is as much of a mechanical difference as there is between a hand axe, a mace, a war hammer, and a short sword (all 1d6 weapons that will perform equally from a mechanical perspective 95+% of the time in actual use).

      From a flavor standpoint, which is where this comes from in the first place, it is a pretty significant difference IMHO.

      Is a magic blast absolutely positively NEEDED? Of course not. But as an objection to adding one, a lack of NEED due to the existence of daggers doesn’t seem terribly compelling to me. Others, of course, are fee to hold other opinions.

      • “requires no ammo”

        Considering that most DMs I know consider throw daggers to be recoverable after (successful) combat, this comes down to a question of how many the M-U is going to realistically throw during most battles. The answer, I think, is: Certainly not more than he could reasonably carry. So this argument, too, is moot, I think.

        “From a flavor standpoint, which is where this comes from in the first place, it is a pretty significant difference IMHO.”

        I guess? I mean, if you want to do it, do it. It’s your game. But most players are ruthlessly practical about how their actions affect the course of the game in concrete terms, so “flavor” may be quite overrated.

        • Kilgore says:

          So you mean that if you ignore the mechanical differences and dismiss flavor differences you don’t see any need? Hardly surprising.