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Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Power of a Medium

During a discussion of the relative power of magic-users, the old wives' tale (old gamers' tale?) of the weak, helpless 1st level magic-user came up. Not in a bad way, since this was the ODD74 forum and therefore pro-old school. The idea is that old school players are willing to play the frail magic-user in exchange for the delayed satisfaction of becoming enormously powerful later on.

But, of course, the 1st level magic-user isn't really frail. In Men & Magic, M-Us, Clerics, and all hirelings, including heavily-armored mercenaries, have 1 standard d6 for hit points. All have the same odds of surviving a deadly blow, and all have the same odds of hitting an opponent. They can use daggers, which means they can use thrown daggers. There's also no restriction on using torches or flaming oil. There may be a restriction on armor or other weapons, depending on how you interpret the original text, but all weapons do 1 die of damage, and at worst putting on armor just removes spell-casting ability. So, a 1st level medium is no more frail than any other typical human.

But mediums are weaker than 1st level fighters (veterans,) right? Just barely. A 1st level fighter (veteran) gets +1 hit point, but that's it. They have the same chances of scoring a deadly hit as a medium. Because they can use ranged weapons or polearms, they have some advantages, but not many. Most of the benefits of the fighter class come from rapid increase in hit die/combat ability and the ability to use magic weapons and armor.

Are humans in general frail, then? Most ordinary wildlife is in the 1 hit die range or less, and most wildlife can be kept at bay by fire, or scared off by large groups. So, most humans stick around other humans, for protection, and build fires at night. A fall off a cliff, or getting caught in a burning building, could be deadly, but that's why people try to avoid those things, right? The only thing in the natural world that's really too much for humans to handle is a catastrophe or a large predator or pack of predators. But these are pretty deadly even for high-level fighters. This is why people in real life try to prep where possible and set up defenses, dealing with the horrible as best as they can when it can't be escaped.

Having established that a medium is no worse off, in mundane terms, than any other human, we have to consider magic. A medium has one spell. What some people seem to focus on is the number one, which is so horribly low, in their eyes; but what they should focus on is the word "spell". No other ordinary human has spells; even clerics don't get spells at 1st level. So a medium is not a weakling, but an ordinary human being with a one-shot extraordinary power. One time per adventure, the medium can avoid or eliminate an obstacle. If the spell selected is Charm Person and it is used on the right target, the medium winds up with an effective boost in power. And if the medium can find or buy scrolls (or, under the Holmes rules, make scrolls,) the character effectively does away with that one spell limitation.

The problem, as I see it, is that too many people focus on what they don't have yet, or what other people have that they do not. They aren't taking into account what they can do, so they denigrate their abilities. But envy is never a viable basis for short-term planning, or for game design. There will always be someone better off than you, or somebody with an ability you don't have. Even if you redesign magic-users to have at-will zap powers at 1st level, there will still be powers they don't have.


  1. Huh! That actually puts things into an interesting perspective. Good thinkin', Talysman.

  2. Always good to see the record set straight.

  3. Exactly.

    The problem I often encounter, though, is that people brought up on newer games where the spellcasters get more off the bat think, "Why should I play this limited weakling when I could play something with more?"

    That, plus the silly idea that combat is central to having fun, and everyone needs to be equally effective in combat at all times.

    It can be really hard for some people to break those two mind-sets if they weren't brought up on older editions.

  4. To expand on Gwydions point; the "two mindsets" you refer to are valid points when in the game they are coming from you can expect the combat to take up 75% of the session and many other forms of challenges can just be bypassed with a skill roll in a few moments. If you aren't effective in combat in that game, it's probably not fun.

    It sometimes takes a session or two to realise that combats can be done & dusted in 10 minutes and the roaming, exploring, poking & scheming takes up the 75% in OD&D.

  5. Blake, I do understand. I've played 3E and Pathfinder and had a lot of fun, and relished the ability to hone my PC to a fine monster-slaying machine.

    I guess I get frustrated when I'm able to see the fun in both styles of play, but others refuse to even give the old school style a chance.

  6. Well put. I think the d4 hit die was a major misstep in Greyhawk, and it's unfortunate that it stuck.

    One minor disagreement: I don't think it can be assumed that magic-users should be able to put on armor and only lose their spell casting ability. That's a perfectly reasonable campaign specific ruling, but not one that I suspect all (or even most) campaigns would tolerate. If you go that route, then why can't magic-users fight with bows or pole-arms, for example? (The question is rhetorical; obviously there are ways to answer that concern, but the point is that they necessarily demand a ruling if you try to explain things in a way other than "because of game balance").

    1. While I definitely got the impression from my earliest D&D experiences (using Moldvay Basic as a kid) that an MU literally couldn't pick up a sword or put on armor, I definitely prefer the more believable explanations of "untrained with most weapons" and "armor is clumsy/interferes with spellcasting" that came along over time. In OD&D it would definitely be a GM call, though, whether "no armor" means exactly that or "no armor and spellcasting simultaneously."

    2. In Men & Magic, the description for the race "Elf" mentions that they can cast spells while wearing magic armor, which suggests that they (and, presumably, other magic-users) can't cast spells while wearing mundane armor. But you know, I'm not sure that any later version of D&D just flat out said "Ordinary armor prevents the casting of spells". It would have solved many debates, and made it clear what a GM was supposed to do if a player said "I'm going to put on this armor."

      As for my personal house rules, I treat any attacks with non-class weapons as "zero-level" and require M-Us and Thieves wearing armor to rest as if they were overburdened.

  7. While you speak truth, I do think it's useful to ponder ways in which the starting MU might be made to feel more "magical." The 4e/5e solution of at-will "zap" spells, even if mechanically indistinguishable from a thrown dagger or a crossbow bolt, is IMHO a poor one in hindsight because it makes magic even more "normal" and artillery-like than D&D already does. That can't be the only way, though. It feels as though there should be a happy medium (heh) between "one trick" and "constant magic." The "cantrip/zero-level spell" solution has been tried in several editions and might point the way, I'm not sure.