... now with 35% more arrogance!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Fixing Magic Missile

Brendan has a post on his Untimately blog about what he calls the "rock, paper, scissors" relationship of spells to situations. That is: various situations, like an unintelligible inscription or a squad of orcs, will almost certainly stop or even defeat adventurers, but selecting the right spell beforehand can turn the tables completely, by deciphering the inscription or putting the orcs to sleep. It's like a given situation trumps a given mundane action, but a given spell trumps that situation, at the cost of not being able to trump some other situation (and needing to guess or research what situations may arise.)

There's also a hint in his post about trade-offs within each spell. For example, Sleep is effective against low HD creatures, but not against those with higher HD or against creatures that just don't sleep, such as the undead. But the "newfangled" Greyhawk spells often don't have that feel; there's no downside to Magic Missile, it's just a way to add distance damage to 1st level M-Us.

So how could we fix it?

First, let's look at the spell as written:
This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes.
Most of us focus on Magic Missile as just another attack spell, but what if we interpret that first phrase literally: the purpose of the spell is to create a +1 magic missile out of thin air, in case you have no way to damage a creature hit only by magic weapons. There's our trump that we're looking for...

Later versions of the spell emphasize that the missile strikes unerringly, perhaps even with no saving throw, but we don't have to follow that rule, now that we have our trump feature. The new version of the spell creates one or more small, throwable magical projectiles, but doesn't aim or fire them for you; use the standard attack roll (at +1, because it's a +1 magic projectile.) You can throw one missile per round, and they will last up to 10 minutes.

A different option would be to drop the attack roll or saving throw, but require an actual physical missile. In other words, the spell turns one to three rocks, arrows, or other mundane missiles into one-shot +1 missiles, then causes them to fly out of the caster's hand towards a target.

Either way, now that we are thinking of this as a physical attack improved by magic, we can see that there is a trade-off: Magic Missile won't work against creatures that are immune to all physical attacks, even those from magical weapons. So, ghosts can't be hit by Magic Missile, unless the caster is ethereal.


  1. There's some evidence that the original intent for Magic Missile was to require a to-hit roll.

    I think you are onto something with the +1 to hit. It's described as a "magic arrow", and in the LBB that's exactly how +1 arrows were listed in the treasure tables, which give both a +1 to hit and damage. Greyhawk adds +2 and +3 arrows, but I think the MM reference to a "magic arrow" must be referring to the original version. I think this implies it should get the +1 to hit as well as damage.

    Holmes makes the to-hit role explicit, and also indicates that it is treated as long bow for missile fire. This gives the M-U further range than a thrown dagger. It also implies the to-hit roll should be subject to standard modifications for range and dexterity.

  2. Am I the only one who thinks Magic Missile is an awful spell?

    Maybe if it was an always-hitting, guaranteed 7 damage, I could see taking it instead of Sleep, but Sleep is just ridiculously good at low levels. You can take Sleep, and take out 4-16 Hit Dice of monsters (equivalent to 32-128 damage, using a d8 hit die, as in Basic Edition), or Magic Missile, 2-7 damage. No brainer, really.

    And if it's included as a way to deal with mundane-resistant creatures at low level, it's a bust. It just doesn't do enough damage.

    A Wraith has 4 Hit Die, so you'd expect to use around 3-6 Magic Missiles to kill it. As a 1st level party, there's no way you're going to be able to muster that kind of firepower. Even a 3rd level party is going to need 3 magic-users using all of their 1st-level slots on Magic Missile to be reasonably sure of taking that thing out.

    If you add in having to roll an attack against AC 3, you're going to need 12-15 Magic Missiles to take down a Wraith... That's 12 3rd Level magic-users to kill the damn thing (and that's not guaranteed, only likely).

    If anything, Magic Missile needs a serious buff. Maybe if it started off with three unerring missiles at 4-10 damage, one per round, I could see taking it instead of Sleep. Maybe.

  3. I'm sure that's why it was eventually clarified as auto-hit.

    In Holmes, a scroll with a 1st level spell can be made for 100 gp, so once some money is available it'd be wise for the M-U to make some with Magic Missile for enchanted monsters and those immune to sleep (more than 5 HD, undead).

    Holmes also just says "Higher level M-U get more than one missile", which could be interpreted as getting one missile per level.