First Level Magic-Users are Useless

That seems to be the attitude of Dungeon Craft, which is a YouTube channel that I normally enjoy. His crafting skills are top notch, and I envy his ability to create terrain and effects and the like.

When he ventures into discussions on rules and editions, though, he leaves very much to be desired. Take this video, for instance:

My particular reaction is to the bit starting around the 7:15 mark.

“Gary Gygax just hated magic users and couldn’t understand why anyone would want to play them so he literally Nerfed magic-users.”

Uh-huh. The guy who played Mordenkainen and Bigby hated magic-users. sigh

The reason magic-users are so weak at early levels isn’t because Gygax hated them. That’s inane. They’re weak as a way to balance out the fact that they are so overwhelmingly powerful at higher levels. The attrition rate is intentionally high for such characters, because they are expected to die in high numbers. Otherwise, magic-users would quickly dominate any game, as fighters and clerics could never hope to keep up.

As for “I cast sleep. I’m done.” That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how early editions of the game are played. Basic, 1E, and to some extent 2E emphasized the problem-solving skills of the player, over the in-game-power skills of the character. The 1st-level magic-user who used his only spell can still solve puzzles, evade traps, parlay with monsters, interact with NPCs, improvise tactics, use the environment to his advantage, and anything the player’s imagination can come up with.

Believing that once a character’s special abilities on the character sheet are done, there’s nothing left to do, is a very modern attitude and ultimately alien to the original aesthetic of the game.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

11 thoughts on “First Level Magic-Users are Useless

  1. Not that there’s nothing left to do, but certain classes, such as fighters, get to keep their special abilities throughout the session AND use player skills like problem solving, talking to NPCs, etc.

    I agree with that guy… 1st level wizards suck. Some of us never get to 10th level. Which is why I created my own RPG.

  2. I almost exclusively played magic-users. They rock! I would save that sleep spell until the third fight with kobolds or orcs, and as soon as things started to look desperate for us, BAM suddenly we won. Up until that I’d be solving puzzles, quarterbacking combat and whacking a kobold or two with my quarterstaff. And after it was much the same until we were able to backtrack to camp so I could study.

    It’s all about the focus of the game. Back then, as Joe points out, the focus was exploration, problem and puzzle solving, and the strategy of dungeon delving. And I loved the game in a way that I just cannot with combat focused games.

    1. I did take the time to ask Luke Gygax (who was also around at the origin of the game as well as the origin of Mordenkainen), and was told that Gary loved magic-users, and that’s why his favorite character (Mordy) was of that class. So there’s definitely room for interpretation when it comes to Gary’s motives for how the m-u class ended up.

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