"Black Dougal gasps 'Poison!' and falls to the floor. He looks dead."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Screwing Magic-Users

In the comments of my previous post Will says:
"Regarding the "by the book rules for spellbooks": I suppose if you really want to run it that way, nobody can stop you, but I think it's a clear case of adhering to the letter of the rules rather than their spirit, since context (every version of the game before and since) makes it clear that this is a simple misinterpretation. I'd never make run a M-U in a game with that rule in effect, because I'd obviously be getting screwed."

Two comments:
1. B/X was the first version of D&D I played. I picked up Moldvay's basic set when I was 10 years old and played that for five years before I picked up the AD&D PHB. I don't see how using the B/X rulebooks as written could possibly be a misinterpretation. I would contend that anyone that doesn't use this rule is house ruling their B/X game. Which is fine. I house rule some aspects of my game as well.

2. I don't think the rule as written obviously screws the magic-user. Sure it limits his versatility but page X11 says, "Magic-users and elves must be taught their new spells… Either the player or the DM may choose any new spells." I usually run this as various high level magic-users have their own specific spellbooks. Some will be famous for having certain spells such as the witch in the swamp that can communicate with otherworldly beings (Contact Higher Plane) or the Ice Mage that lives in the castle on top of a glacier (Wall of Ice). When a PC magic-user wants to learn a new spell they can do some research about who has the desired spell already in their spellbook and can then go an approach that magic-user about learning the spell from them. This allows players to customize their magic-user exactly the way they want and gives numerous adventure and roleplaying opportunities.

I agree that some players will dislike the limitations placed upon magic-users by using this rule. That's fine. I don't like playing clerics. Everyone has their own preferences. However, I like the rule and plan to continue to use it in my B/X games.

What do you think? Does the rule limit magic-users and elves too much?

21 comments:

  1. well now.. that depends on whether or not you allow magic users and elves to memorize multiple examples of the same spell.

    Even though it is obviously permitted (see B/X module X2); some DMs I have played with do not allow it (contending it is more "vancian" to allow only one of each spell to be memorized)

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  2. I do allow multiple versions of the same spell to be memorized.

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  3. I like the rule and have used it before, but am not currently, taking a commenter's advice to differentiate Magic-users with unique spells rather than limited portfolios.

    A tweak I've considered is allowing M-Us/Elves to learn spells beyond the rules limits if and only if they've researched the spell personally, and it can't be a thinly veiled analog of a standard spell (so no "Tragic Missile" or "Slerp"). That sinks the sometimes excessive amounts of B/X treasure, allows more flexibility than the rules as written, keeps M-Us/Elves customized, and encourages the players to invest a little creativity in the setting.

    Even with the rules as written, something tells me you're not going to have trouble finding players who'll play Magic-users and Elves. They're far from nerfed relative to the other classes, so if someone doesn't like the rule, that's cool. Some people don't like how crappy B/X Thieves are, or think Fighters blow compared to Dwarves in the average campaign. Different strokes.

    The one thing I'd keep in mind is that M-U spell scrolls are virtually useless to most PC M-Us in my experience. Read Magic isn't a glory spell. Everyone (rightly in most campaigns) wants Sleep and Charm Person.

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  4. Hey Scott,
    I hear you on Read Magic. If I was playing a magic-user Read Magic would be the second spell that I learned. Right after Sleep or Charm Person.

    Scrolls are a powerful way to break the magic-users resource limitations. It is also another great way to introduce roleplaying, adventure hooks and soaking up excess gold pieces. Trying the haggle a scroll out of an NPC magic-user can lead to all sorts of fun.

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  5. Ever since I read your interpretation of the rules way back when you posted the original article I had decided that my next campaign was going to use that interpretation.

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  6. "I don't see how using the B/X rulebooks as written could possibly be a misinterpretation."

    Again, context. Ten year old ignorant of D&D you and current you are not drawing on the same knowledge base. For the latter, the possibility that this aspect of spell use might just not be clearly and correctly explained in B/X has to be considered.

    "I don't think the rule as written obviously screws the magic-user. Sure it limits his versatility..."

    Exactly. And it's hard to make a M-U/elf player like me feel happy about that. Which is exactly why I said I'd feel screwed.

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  7. I don't run it that way, and never have, because it pokes at verisimilitude too much, and magic-users already do that too much as written. (Really? Magic-users can't fight with a staff? And this is because... ?) But I wouldn't consider it overly handicapping, considering what the spells they do get allow them to do.

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  8. There's no way I would play/DM with that rule. That just stinks for the players.

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  9. "Ten year old ignorant of D&D you and current you are not drawing on the same knowledge base."

    Yet, I still draw the same conclusion as I did then. Moldvay basic is a different game than other versions of D&D/AD&D therefore it has different rules which are not impacted by the context of other editions of the game.

    Just because Holmes basic has a different initiative system than other versions of D&D/AD&D, does that mean that Holmes initiative is incorrect? No, Holmes is a different game. I view each ruleset as a discrete system unaffected by other rulesets.

    Page X11 says, "Magic-users and elves are limited to the number of spells they may know, and their books will contain spells equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day (thus, the books of a 4th level elf will contain two first and two second level spells)."

    That sounds pretty clearly and correctly explained to me.

    Now, when I play AD&D it really is much closer to B/X with AD&D classes, spells, magic items, etc (which is one reason I am a fan of Goblinoid Games AEC) and then the AD&D style spellbooks don't bother me at all.

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  10. "Magic-users and elves are limited to the number of spells they may know, and their books will contain spells equal to the number and level of spells the caster can use in a single day (thus, the books of a 4th level elf will contain two first and two second level spells)."

    You thought that meant at most? I assumed it meant at least. Otherwise there wouldn't be much need to specify that the magic-user has to select which of his spells he'll memorize for the day.

    Interesting.

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  11. "You thought that meant at most? I assumed it meant at least."

    Exactly. With no other write-ups on magic-users to compare it to, there's no reason to favor one interpretation over the other.

    With numerous other such writeups, and them all agreeing as they do, the case for "at most" gets very weak indeed.

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  12. If this was Moldvay's real intention in 1981, Mentzer changed it 2 years later since all magic-users under those rules start play with read magic plus one other spell.

    Even though I use Moldvay I've always played that magic-users may know as many spells as they like but must limit their number selected to the number allowed. It's hard to imagine how a magic-user or elf would learn a new spell if they didn't already know read magic and that's not really a great choice for a dungeon-delving magic-user.

    B16 states (Magic-User and Elf Spells, paragraph one): "Unlike clerics, magic-users and elves must select the spells to be used from those spells that know." If spells books really were limited to holding only the number of spells the character had the ability to cast, this statement would make no sense.

    Another thought: if your character's spell book could only hold the number of spells he or she was allowed to memorise, why not buy another book?

    As a player my first exposure to D&D was through AD&D, as a GM I couldn't afford to get into that system so I purchased Basic (which I preferred immediately). If B/X had been my only exposure, I certainly would have been mightily confused by the mixed messages about this topic.

    Great thread, thanks for kicking it off again!

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  13. You thought that meant at most? I assumed it meant at least. Otherwise there wouldn't be much need to specify that the magic-user has to select which of his spells he'll memorize for the day.
    Magic-users (and all other spellcasters) are explicitly able to memorize a single spell multiple times.

    B16 states (Magic-User and Elf Spells, paragraph one): "Unlike clerics, magic-users and elves must select the spells to be used from those spells that [they] know." If spells books really were limited to holding only the number of spells the character had the ability to cast, this statement would make no sense.
    I'm not sure I'm following this logic. It seems plain that this simply means they don't get access to the whole list as do Clerics.

    With numerous other such writeups, and them all agreeing as they do, the case for "at most" gets very weak indeed.
    Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall ever having seen a single Magic-user or Elf in the entire Moldvay/Cook-era module corpus who had access to more spells than the number he could cast in one day. Every single one I remember had exactly that number, no more, no less. Not one had his spell book included as treasure for PCs to possibly plunder or transcribe.

    Even a single example from any B/X product of any character operating according to the "at least" principle might be helpful. Just because I haven't seen it doesn't mean it's not there, but I've never seen it. Is there even one character - NPC or pregen PC - who had more spells than the amount he could cast in a day, or who had his spell book listed as treasure?

    It's certainly possible that my interpretation is wrong, but surely there's one example out there supporting the contrary position.

    Unless the character has Read Magic, he can't read unfamiliar magic in Moldvay/Cook, anyway, raising the question of exactly how he'd add any new spells he discovered. (Virtually no NPCs or pregenerated PCs in B/X products have the Read Magic spell.)

    The Expert rules state that Magic-users and Elves must be taught their new spells by their masters. The only mechanism I've ever seen for Magic-users and Elves to add new spells themselves is through magical research (and if there's any ambiguity, I think it's in whether these spells "count" towards the limit).

    There's also no mention of adding spells from spell scrolls to one's spell book.

    Unless the character has Read Magic, he can't read unfamiliar magic in Moldvay/Cook, anyway, raising the question of exactly how he'd add any new spells he discovered. (Virtually no NPCs or pregenerated PCs in B/X products have the Read Magic spell.)

    The "wisdom gained from having played other editions" argument is odd. Do 3rd and 4th edition players get to retroactively add things to other editions that way, too? :)

    I enjoy these discussions, but "this rule sucks" is a different argument than "this rule doesn't exist because it wasn't that way in other editions and it'd make me mad."

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  14. You thought that meant at most?
    No, I thought it meant "equal to" as written, no more, no less. As in, this is how many spells a spellbook will have.

    B16 states (Magic-User and Elf Spells, paragraph one): "Unlike clerics, magic-users and elves must select the spells to be used from those spells that know." If spells books really were limited to holding only the number of spells the character had the ability to cast, this statement would make no sense.
    They can memorize the same spell a number of times so it does make sense.

    There's also no mention of adding spells from spell scrolls to one's spell book.
    I agree. Reading the description for the Read Magic spell (B17) and the sections on Scrolls (B49 and X48), I see scrolls as a means of bypassing the resource limitations placed on spellcasters by allowing them to cast either a spell they don't have in their spellbook and/or casting more spells per day than they would normally be allowed. There is nothing about scrolls increasing the limit on the number of spells in a spellbook.

    The Read Magic spell does contain the sentence, "A magic-user's or elf's spell book is written so that only the owner may read them without using this spell."

    My interpretation of this may be more of a "support by omission", but I don't read anywhere in this that a magic-user can memorize these new spells just "read them". Maybe too literal for some but it works for me. ;)

    Thanks everyone for the lively discussion! It has been a while since Ode to Black Dougal has seen this much traffic. And I love these discussion!

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  15. I don't think the discussion is 'this rule sucks' it's just a lively debate about the interpretation of a rule. Both sides are adamant that their interpretation is right - and that's pretty much the way any discussion goes.

    I'm liking it. It's certainly making me think how the game would be one way or the other. I suppose magic-users would get less excited about finding scrolls?

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  16. Well, I guess they'd be as excited as finding a cool wand with just one charge left…

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  17. I've always played B/X with the limitation in place as well. The only spells in the MU's book are those he can memorize and cast daily. Look at it this way - an MU always has his full spell repertoire memorized - no need to decide which spells to memorize for the day!

    Leveling up is a BIG DEAL - the MU has learned a new spell! Either by working with another MU to learn it form him or via spell research. Maybe that scroll or spellbook they discovered in the dungeon is finally spilling it's secrets...

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  18. Also, to clarify my comment RE Scrolls:
    Once Read Magic has been cast to "translate" the scroll, the MU always has the option of either using it outright as a disposable magic item, or saving it as a research tool. He needs to do the research to figure out how to cast the spell himself so he can then transcribe it into his own spellbook when he levels up.

    As noted in the main post here, each MU is very unique in the B/X world, and very much defined by the spells he knows. I like that approach and think it contributes to a richer game experience as opposed to the cookie cutter MUs who all have sleep and charm since they're the most effective for combat.

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  19. The Expert rules state that Magic-users and Elves must be taught their new spells by their masters. The only mechanism I've ever seen for Magic-users and Elves to add new spells themselves is through magical research (and if there's any ambiguity, I think it's in whether these spells "count" towards the limit).

    I'd say Expert supports using research to exceed the limits.

    X7:Magic-users may add more spells t their spell books through spell research. At 9th level (Wizard) or above, magic-users may also create magical items. Both of these activities are explained under Magical Research(p.X51)

    The emphasis is mine but the word 'more' does seem to imply exceeding the limits with researched spells. What is interesting is that the second on elves this is not mentioned.

    X51:Spell Research. New spells may be researched by any spell caster. Research requires both money and time spent out of the campaign.

    To research a spell, the new spell must be written out and given to the DM, who decides if it is possible, what level it should be, and what changes are needed for play balance. A player may not research spells higher than his character can cast. Spell research costs 1,000gp per level and requires 2 weeks of research per level.


    X11 contains the same material as before about gaining new spells and being taught them.

    At the time I was playing more AD D than B/X but I've considered using the later of late. If I did I'd go with the reading of more as allowing to exceed the taught limits. I would not allow researching of unaltered spells from B/X proper and would probably make most TSR published spells available in the world thus "known" and not researchable. This seems to fit the logic of the research section.

    One thing I would do, as implied above, is import spells from modules and perhaps AD&D and BECMI as part of NPC spell lists for players to search out. I'd look for a rough formula using either level or XP to give an idea of how many 'more' spells an NPC has.

    Finally, should a player be allowed to research an existing spell from the books?

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  21. For What It's Worth:

    I agree with Pat's interpretation, and have used it ever since reading his original post on the subject (c.f. "Why B/X is the best, etc."). Previously, I used the AD&D (1st) version...but then, I WAS playing AD&D previously.

    I'm not sure how using this interpretation indicates MUs are "getting screwed;" we all agree on how many spells can be cast per day, right? So a 1st level character still gets one spell, a 4th level character still gets to cast 4? And because MUs CAN memorize the same spell more than once, odds are that they will have access to more spells (in their book) then they carry (in their mind). Part of the fun/challenge of playing a magic-user is careful spell selection and choosing when to use each spell in the "mental quiver."

    Having said THAT, I would also point out that while it is a potential limitation on HIGHER level magic-users, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Gygax himself lamented that he had made the magic-user character too powerful, and later rules (like casting times, spell components, maximum 20D6 damage fireballs, etc.) seem aimed at curbing that power level...even though this "nerfing" complicates the games AND (in my opinion) makes the spellcasting LESS "Vancian" (Vance's Dying Earth spells always go off instantly without the need for special spell components!).

    So, I like it. In recent play sessions involving a 7th level magic-user, we (the player and I) found the spells were plenty...and plenty useful...for the adventure. B/X has a limited number of MU spells anyway (12 per level) and are generally the ones that are "broad in scope." Personally, I like it. When writing the B/X Companion, I used this interpretation in the writing of the magic section.
    ; )

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