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Friday, August 16, 2013

Dungeon Stocking and Character Class

I've been thinking about magic-users a lot lately. They're an odd class at low levels. Not because they're weak (as some of the early versions mistakenly classify them – e.g. B/X page B10), but because they're one-shot cannons. Even at level one, they're arguably more powerful than any other class. How many other classes can take out up to a dozen orcs in a single round with a sleep spell? But once they've used their spell, they're pretty useless [EDIT: OK, they're not "useless," as Rob rightly points out in the comments below, but they have nothing "mage-like" to do] for the rest of the day. And they're the only class that has this (apparent) one-and-done limitation.

However, as I started thinking about how I might tweak and houserule the class, it occurred to me that the problem might have less to do with the class itself (which probably doesn't actually need tweaking or houseruling at all) than it does with the way I personally have been designing adventures.

My adventure set-up in general tends to follow Moldvay's proportions (in or out of dungeons), even when I don't do it randomly:

1-2. Monster
3. Trap
4. Special
5-6. Empty

These proportions really equate, in many ways, to the class-focus of a given room / outdoor scene / encounter / whatever. Fighting monsters is where the fighters and clerics excel, especially at low levels. They have the best armor (fighters and clerics), the best weapons (fighters), the ability to turn undead (clerics), to heal post-combat (clerics), etc. Similarly, each "trap" result give the thieves their moment in the spotlight.

This made me realize that one area where I think I've been deficient is in providing magic-users their time to step up front and center. I suspect this is largely because of the fact that a) the above table has informed my thinking quite deeply since I was twelve, and b) within that framework, I've used "specials" in a very broad, general sense, including "special monsters" (again for the fighters and clerics) or "special traps" (again for the thieves) or even just "weird" stuff, not directed at any particular class.

From this it seems that magic-users may be getting short shrift in my games.

What I'm tempted to adopt in the future is an approach where I think of "specials" as specifically arcane, or else based in lore, language and book-learning; something where familiarity with magic or other study-based knowledge would be of substantive benefit to the party in dealing with some obstacle (though not necessarily required), aiming to give the magic-user something to do on a fairly regular basis, the same way that the "trap" result does for the thief, or the "monster" result tends to do for fighters and clerics.

To remind myself, I'm going to rewrite the stocking table I use like this:

1-2. Monster
3. Trap
4. Arcane/Lore/Language
5-6. Empty

This won't involve re-tooling the class itself at all, but my actual dungeon / adventure keys will have notes in the entries for any "specials" stating things like "any M-U will recognize this device and realize X about it" or "any M-U has a 4 in 6 chance to understand the markings; others have a 1 in 6 chance" or "the lever will only respond to the touch of an arcane spellcaster," and so forth. This will give the player with the magic-user a bit more of a role, and give a party a real reason to want to have one, even in (or perhaps even especially in) first-level play.

8 comments:

  1. Note that from 1st to 3rd level Magic User, Clerics, and Fighters all have the same changes to hit a given AC. Granted Fighters have higher hit points, lower AC, and focus on having a high strength. But Magic Users are far from useless after their one spell.

    The tactic I would adopt is for the heavily armored characters to attract attention and then move into the side to support their attack with a staff. I would also ask whether I could use the staff from behind another character (poking or gripping it for an extended reach).

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    1. True, I overstate the point -- I shouldn't suggest that they're useless. That's a bad word choice on my part. As you point out, they have viable combat tactics. I should rather say that after using their one spell for the day, they have nothing particularly "mage-like" to do. And that's something which, if one perceived it as a problem and wanted to "fix" it, could be easily done through adventure design, rather than by actually altering the class in any way.

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    2. I see now. With the Majestic Wilderlands I gave mages an improved Thaumatology ability that they can use to detect identify magic stuff. Plus when they are able to cast 2nd level spells they can start using rituals. Not exactly useful in combat as it takes 10 minutes but it brings a host of utility spells into play.

      But adding more mage stuff to fiddle around with is always excellent advice.

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  2. I bow to yours and Robs knowledge!

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    1. Oh, Rob has way more knowledge than I. I have a lot of self-reflective "what-might-I-do-differently-from-what-I've-been-doing" questions. I look at all the GMs I play with for ideas on how it ought to be done.

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  3. This is something I've been trying to do more of lately. I'm thinking of making Read Magic a class ability in order to justify some magical puzzles or riddles in the dungeon.

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    1. That's a very interesting idea. One could also tinker with "Read Languages" -- sort of a mundane flip-side to a "Read Magic" class ability.

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    2. I have one word rituals. The one D&D 4eism that I find works great with classic editions.

      Whatever the highest level spells you can cast divide it in half and round down. That the highest level of spell you can cast provided that it is in your spellbook, take ten minutes, and expend components worth 10 gp time the spell level squared.

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