Friday, December 27, 2019

Magic Users and Tactical Dominance in D&D

I read a few threads this week on D&D Twitter discussing how wizards dominated 5e games, there was a lot of talk about game design involved in this as well. The idea being that the game has been built around magic-use as the primary or best way to succeed at the game. Wizards can “replace” other classes by duplicating their abilities, and that the game isn’t as challenging for powerful wizards.
I run 1e with house rules, but the magic system I run more or less as written. I think it’s fantastic at balancing the power of magic-users against overall game challenge. 1e is not thought of in this context as many have played it and also found that magic-users can dominate the game. I’ve been running 1e for about 35 years off and on and magic-users do not dominate our game at all. I suspect this is due to the fact that most people who play 1e house rule the magic system a lot. I house rule a lot of things in 1e, but not the magic system. 
I thought it would be useful to outline the 1e system more or less BTB, not necessarily to get anyone else to use it, but rather to show how it works so you might be able to pinch individual elements from the system to help restrict the power of wizards in your game. 
These rules form the core of the power/restriction dynamic that makes the 1e magic system work with magic-users.
1. Magic Users in Combat - One balancing factor is that magic-users have bad HP, AC, THACO and weapon choice, so they are comparatively at risk in combat. This complicates their ability to dominate the game as they must preserve their lives while still casting powerful spells, the process of casting being very risky. This will often limit spellcasting options as well, for example on line of fire spells, or on spells with short ranges. Survival at lower levels requires a lot of cooperation from fellow party members. 
2. Restrictions on the Variety of Spells That a Magic-User Will Have- D&D has a host of restrictions that ensure that the magic-user does not have access to all the listed spells in the book and cannot select the majority of their spells. This is a significant check on their power. The list is long a. Chance “to know” each listed spell, linked to intelligence. If you don’t know a spell you can only cast it from a scroll, never memorize and cast it
b. Maximum number of spells per level, linked to intelligence. Once you have hit your maximum you cannot know any further listed spells you find c. Randomization of spell allocation. With rare exception, most spells available to the magic-user are randomly determined, which significantly restricts the power and utility of the magic-user.
d. It is possible to cast a spell that is above your regular maximum spell level possible to cast, but only from a scroll, and there is a failure percentage and a reverse/harmful percentage for the casting. e. Scroll spells turn up 15% of the time in regular random treasure allocation, and magic-user spells turn up on 63% of scrolls. f. The number of spells you can cast per day is restricted, so the magic-user must pick what spells they memorize for the day, so a needed spell may not be available g. When spells are cast they are forgotten and must be rememorized. Rest and rememorization times increase with higher level spells, and high level MU’s can take up most of a day resting and rememorizing spells, during which time they need to be protected. So higher level magic-users will often find themselves unable to cast all of their listed spells. 
All of these factors mean that a magic-user in 1e will not have access to the majority of listed spells, nor will they have influence over what spells they find, nor can they be guaranteed to know what spells they find, or have them memorized when needed. This means that the power of the magic-user in game, which is linked to their spell selection, is heavily restricted. 
3. Restrictions on Efficacy of Spells - In addition to restrictions on what spells they will have, magic-users have restrictions on the efficacy of the spells they do have. a. All spells have one or more of verbal (spoken), somatic (motions or actions), and material (objects) components. Material components can be rare and expensive, they run out, they can be destroyed and they are a challenge to track and acquire at higher levels. Verbal spells cannot be cast when under a silence spell, or while gagged or otherwise kept from speaking. Spells with a somatic component cannot be cast if the caster is restrained in any way.   b. Interruption of spells. When spells are cast it is required for the magic user to stand absolutely still while reciting the verbal components, performing the somatic components, using the material components, etc. The slightest disturbance can spoil the spell, in game terms this means that in combat spells can be interrupted by any successful attack against the magic user, no matter how much damage it does. Note that in BTB 1e initiative, if the magic user wins initiative while casting a spell they can still have that spell interrupted, as it may take so long to cast that the opponent’s attack comes first. This is not the case for weapon attacks, where if you win initiative you win initiative. Also, longer duration spells take longer to cast, and thus are more likely to be interrupted.  c. There are saving throws, magic resistance, immunities to certain spells (e.g. sleep,charm), etc. Even though you manage the heroic feat of casting that spell without interruption, there is the possibility that saving throws can either negate the spell entirely, or reduce the impact of the spell d. D&D spells are not “balanced” on the overall, yes, they do generally increase in power with level, but there are always lower level spells that are more powerful than higher level spells, and spells within any given level that are far more powerful than other spells of that level. This magnifies the impact of random allocation of spells, as it is possible to get the least powerful spells of any particular level in your allocation. 
Many 1e DM’s drop or change these restrictions, they drop the min or max spells per level, or to know percentages, they assign spells without any randomization, they increase the number of spells available, waive material component restrictions or fiddle with spell interruption mechanics or initiative.  
I get the reasoning behind all of these changes, and I can see why they would soothe some frustrations with the limitations of the system. However, the restrictions were placed their for a reason. Gygax understood full well the significant impact magic could have on the game and built these restrictions to keep magic-users from obtaining tactical dominance of the game. 
So if you are finding wizards are dominating your game to its detriment, you might want to consider borrowing some elements from this system, whatever elements are appropriate to the system you are currently using.
As an aside, run this system more or less as written and you get a few interesting consequences:

1. As a rule magic-users do not dominate the game 
2. Magic-users become a lot more varied with random spell allocation, helping to differentiate characters and NPCs
3. Combat with opposing magic-users becomes more tactically opaque as spells are randomized, it is harder to know what spells your opponent will have
4. Tactical play is required for all players to increase the likelihood of successful spell casting 5. Resource management is required by the party to obtain necessary spell components 6. Managing spells becomes an adventure hook as components must be secured and adventures are often planned around the availability or acquisition of spells

These are all positives for the gaming experience, and reasons to consider using these rules if you run a 1e game. If you run a different edition of D&D or a similar game, some of these restrictions might help take the bite out of wizards in your game.

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