Thursday, 6 January 2011

The 1st Level Magic User's Survival Guide

In most of the D&D retro-clones, no first level character has a harder time of it than the Magic User or his close pal, the Illusionist. With a typical starting AC10 a mere goblin has a fifty percent chance of hitting the character per round. And with just D4 for his hit dice, that first hit is likely to be his last. Given that The Shorn are about to be joined by it's first single-classed Magic-User, now seems like an excellent time to review how to keep your “clothie” alive. Much of what follows is as true for the Illusionist as it is for the Magic-User, with the obvious exception of spell selection.

The best armour a magic user can have is a 250lb hulking,  hairy-arsed growling walking meat-shield. A big (nay, huge)  fighter wrapped in planty of metal, with a huge sword and an even bigger shield. The monsters can't hit you if the party's fighters are keeping themselves firmly between you and the foe. If your group tends to hire on mercenaries, then it's a smart move to equip a few of them with decent armour and good shields, and task them to protect the mage.

But there's more ways to protect your wizard than simply standing behind a wall of hulking metal-clad brutes. Static cover works just as well. There's nothing wrong with a magic user peeking round a corner, quickly casting his spell, and ducking back again. Safely out of sight. Likewise, overturned tables, the space between an open dungeon door and the wall, a handy tree, bush or stone, all make the Magic User a more difficult target for his foes. Most importantly, find yourself a battle-brother or shield-bearer you can rely on. One's whose first instinct upon encountering a foe is setting to receive a charge rather than hurtling into battle himself. When you find an NPC (or, even rarer, a high AC, high hp PC with such restraint) treat them like gold-dust. They're just as rare and about thirty times more valuable.

Finally, whenever your party comes across a protective item that improves your armour class or survivability in any way, grab it. Beg, borrow or steal it does not matter. Nobody, nobody needs it more than you.. Do absolutely everything you can to secure that item for yourself (as far as your alignment allows). That extra -1 to you AC might very well be the difference between an ignoble death and living to see second level.

A 1st level Magic User or Illusionist isn't exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to weapon selection. Depending on the D&D or retro-clone rules you're using, you options might be limited to a simple dagger or staff. Alternatively, you could have as many as five or six options. Typically, these options will include: Dagger, Dart, Sling, Staff or Oil.

The ignoble dagger has it's advantages. They are ubiquitous enough to barely even considered weapons at all – after all, we don't think of our fork as a weapon. An unlucky wizard might be forbidden to take his staff into a king’s hall on the odd occasion-but no-one is likely to insist he remove his dagger. Hell, he's got to be able to eat with something, hasn't he? Another benefit of this commonality is the availability of magical daggers. When you've finally be cornered by that goblin and are looking at a fifty percent chance of being taken out of the fight every combat round, it helps to have that magical attack and damage modifier to improve your chances of putting him down before he does the same to you.

The sling has a number of advantages as an alternative. It can easily be concealed as a simple belt and, when the lead bullets run out, there's always plenty of pebbles lying around to replace them. However, a sling is worse than useless in hand to hand combat. Sure, you can have a dagger as a back-up, but do you know how to use it? When that goblin comes calling, you'll want to be fighting him in melee with something you actually know how to use. Your survival chances are low enough without a non-proficiency modifier subtracting from your attack rolls.

The staff has much of the same advantages as the dagger and does more damage but, unlike the dagger, it can't be thrown effectively, making it a far less versatile weapon. Again, it's fairly innocuous as weapons go. You might legitimately claim it to be a simple walking stick -at least if you’re not advertising your profession through your clothing.

Flaming Oil is another excellent choice -though expensive, you can catch many opponents in the area of effect with a single pot. It's also pyrotechnic-ally appropriate. With some “magic words” and a bit of arm waving, you can have the goblins wondering if that really was just a flaming pot of oil you chucked -or are they in fact facing someone powerful enough to toss fireballs around? A disconcerting dilemma for any foe.

However, the piece d' resistance in the Magic User's arsenal has to be the humble dart. It does as much damage as a dagger on a single hit, is cheap and cheerful (allowing you to carry plentiful ammunition), they can be re-used after every combat, they are usable in melee and, what's more – you get to chuck three of them every round. That's right. Three. That means three chances to hit, which means three chances to do damage. This becomes all the more important when you consider the wizards terrible combat skills. Suddenly, a first level magic user with Affect Normal Fires and Feather-fall as beginning spells doesn't seem so useless any more, does he?

If your DM is anything like me then you've had no choice in your spell selection at all. Instead, you've had to put up with whatever the dice gave you. However, if your character is luckily enough to survive the first session or two, you'll soon have plenty of cash to purchase a scroll or two from the local wizard and (hopefully) learn something more useful.

But which spells should you spend your hard-earned gold on?

Assuming they are available for purchase at all, the three most useful spells for a 1st level Magic User are Identify, Charm Person and Sleep. Magic Missile and other first level damage spells are often a popular choice, but let’s face it, you, the Magic User, are the party nuke. Do you want your spells to have the battle-winning impact of a B52 strike or the snip-fizzle of a damp squib? Yes burning hands looks impressive, but you have to be within 3-5ft of your foe (depending on edition) to use it. What's your AC again? And yes, magic missile hits every time. But what damage does it do? Your dagger does that much. Do you really want your one spell of the day to do as much good as a hurled dagger?

Now sleep on the other hand, is a battle-winner, especially at low levels. Unless you’re fighting undead (when it's as much use as sewage water) pop it when your party is surrounded, or likely to be overwhelmed. Then while the majority (perhaps even all the enemy) slumber, you can kill the ones still fighting before murdering the sleepers. Or, if you still think you can't win (or think you can't kill the alert creatures before the slumbering ones awaken) you can beat feet and retreat. Chances are, your spell has so awed and frightened the foe (they might not even realise their allies are only sleeping) that they will gladly let you go. Just in case you have another one of those spells tucked up your sleeve.

That's the result you want from your one spell of the day. Not D4 damage to a single foe.

Charm Person is not to be sneered at either. Why fight the guards if you can charm one of them into convincing the others to let you pass? Plus, consider how long the spell lasts. How much damage can a single well-armed, well armoured hobgoblin dish out over the course of a charm effect? A hell of a lot. Especially if you keep recasting the spell periodically and don't do anything stupid (like ask him to take a shot at some of his friends). How often have you come away from a near-victory thinking, “We'd have won that if we'd just had one more fighter.”

Best of all, unlike a hireling, you don't even have to pay the guy. He's doing this out of “friendship”, after all.

In short, when it comes to selecting your combat spells, “bang for the buck” is the key. Especially at low levels. When you only have one spell a day, it pays to make it a good one.

Finally, Identify will not only save your group a fortune in sage costs, it's also a marketable commodity. If other bands of adventurers plunder ruins in the same environment as you (and you have a reputation for honesty) you might find them coming to you for their own Identifications. It's traditional for the supplicant to provide the material components of the spell where possible of course, and who's to say a little mark up here and there to subsidise your own castings of the spell would be unreasonable? If they don't like it, they can pay 100gp a day to the Sage instead. Who MIGHT get the correct answer after a few days. Or not.

And it's not just Identify that can be used to save (and even make) you money: Mending, Tenser's Floating Disk, Identify. Even Feather-fall and Spider-climb (if you don't mind helping out the local thieves) can be real money-spinners. You just have to think hard about how to market yourself. What does all this money mean for you? More hirelings (more metal between you and the enemy), more healing potions and maybe (just maybe) even enough for a raise dead spell, just in case. After all, who in the party is more likely to need it than you?

Don't be tempted to “waste” your only spell slot on a defensive spell like shield (not unless you can still contribute to combat with a sling, or preferably, some darts). The other characters expect you to be their nuke. If you spend your only spell slot on protecting yourself, they may begrudge you your share of treasure. You might be able to take the long view (that's probably why you elected to play a Magic User in the first place) but don't expect “I need to stay alive long enough to learn a few more spell slots, then I'll be useful” to wash when a simple sleep spell might have saved the lives of some of their fallen companions. There are other (and better and more permanent) ways to protect yourself from harm. As discussed both above and below.

Player Characters being what they are (especially novice PC's) you can't always expect your fellow party members to act with your future health in mind. They'll selfishly leave you open to attack in a heartbeat if it means they can grab the glory or kill just one more fleeing foe. So what you need is someone loyal to you. Someone on your payroll. Now Magic Users don't start with a great deal of cash, but you can pick up a weapon for about 2gp (unless you've gone down the flaming oil route for your proficiency choices) and you don't need to buy armour. That leaves a lot of cash left over. So what do you spend it on? Not the traditional adventurers gear: ropes, hammer, poles and such like. Oh no. get yourself a pen, a scroll-case and some ink. No-one else will think to buy it (except maybe the cleric) and you'll need it for making maps, sketches and taking impressions of strange objects and carvings. THEN get yourself what's really important: your own personal hireling: A bodyguard.

Even if you can’t afford to hire a decently armoured mercenary right away (who could, you'd need to buy his kit for him after all) I suggest plopping down for a war dog or two. They hit just as well (if not better) than your average mercenary and best of all, they come with weapons already attached. If a monster does break through the line to reach you, sic the dogs on ‘em then conduct a fighting retreat.

When it finally comes to the time that you can recruit intelligent hirelings, make sure you recruit a steady, patient, defensively minded type with a liking for a high AC. Never let him leave your side, no matter how much other players whine and cajole you to let him join the charge. Other characters wear their armour, your hireling IS your armour. Equip him with a tower shield, and stay behind him. Pop up, cast your spell, and duck down behind the shield. Simple.

At later levels, your choice of henchman is a different matter. Of course it makes sense for the party magic user to take on other “apprentice” magic users as henchmen. But how does that improve your survivability? Go for a nice heavily armoured cleric instead. As your henchmen, your absolutely guaranteed he'll always be saving that last healing spell for you -and no one else.

Grenade- like missiles are always a good choice as well. Depending on the rules your using, quite often you’re not actually aiming at a target, your aiming at his square. It’s a lot easier to hit an immobile terrain feature than a moving target, but sometimes it's to your advantage to smear a number of foes a little rather than splatter one a lot. Especially when you've just doused them in oil and you know for a fact that hireling torch-bearer is a dab hand with a thrown torch.

Finally, you can't go wrong by stocking up on scrolls -when they are available. Sometimes it can be a hard choice between learning a new spell and buying a scroll for a spell you already know. Just bear in mind that you can go one of two ways with scrolls. Either buy up lots of scrolls for combat spells you already know to improve your combat effectiveness OR stock up on those spells you'd rather not waste a slot on but which are bound to come in handy sooner or later. Identify, Jump, Feather-fall, Wizard Lock, Spider Climb, Reduce and Tenser's Floating Disc are all excellent examples of the sort of spells I mean. Don't try to do both though, or you won't be very effective at either. If there is more than one Magic User in the party, split the two choices between you. One of you stocks the combat scrolls, the other stocks the support scrolls. You can pass scrolls to one another throughout the adventure as needed, so that you both might end up carrying a mixture of both scroll types. But one of you should always be responsible for bringing the support scrolls and the other should be paying for the combat scrolls.

• Your staff is not a ten foot pole. Don't use it like one – and don't let the other characters treat you like a pole-carrier either.
• Don't push to the front to cast a short range spell. If the monsters survive your burning hands spell, who will they come after next combat round?
• The Find Familiar Spell: No, just no. Not till much much later. When you can afford to lose the familiar (and the hit points)
• Don't call attention to yourself. Dress in normal clothes. You want to be mistaken for a torch-bearer or porter. Don't dress like a magic-user and the monsters won't treat you like one. At least, not until you've unleashed your first spell. And by then, it should be too late.
• Don't hang around at the back. Equally, Don't hang around at the front. Right in the middle of the marching order is where you want to be.
• Don't let anyone in the party try to con you into opening the door to a potentially trapped or monster-defended room. Opening doors is a job for men with armour. Don't let them try to make your bodyguard do it either. His job is keeping you alive. Not opening doors.
• Do offer advice on puzzle solving. Do not volunteer to test your theories, no matter how sure you are. You don't have the hit points for it. If it comes down to you trying it yourself or it not being tried at all, choose not to try it at all. Your companions may come round eventually. Proving you're right isn't worth causing you're death.

The 1st level Magic User is without a doubt the least likely character in the game to ever see the heady heights of 2nd level. No matter how skilfully played, there's just too much that can go wrong (either through the fault of another player or even sheer dumb luck) to ever let your guard down for a moment. The hints and tips outlined above can't guarantee that your apprentice level character will live to become the powerful arch-mage of their dreams, but they'll certainly help.

Coming Soon: The 1st Level Fighter's Survival Guide


JD said...

Enjoyed the read. It's funny, the day before I first read this, I posted a rant on about how useless AD&D 1st Edition's Identify spell is (as written) for low level Magic-Users. Unless a MU already has Identify memorized AND is carrying around the necessary components (a 100 gp pearl, an owl feather steeped in wine and a live miniature fish!), the spell can't even be used because as soon as the item is touched by anyone, the spell must be cast within 1 hour per level or the caster. Even then, a first level cast must make a percentile roll (20% chance) AND a saving throw to be successful. Good luck with that! The discussion thread can be found here:

Dangerous Brian said...

Yes, it's certainly a strange one. Most of the people I know interpret that version (very similar to the OSRIC version) of the spell in the same way.
In OSRIC the spell states within an hour of bring close to the item - which I interpret as meaning within an hour of having it in the MU's possession. Otherwise, any item taken from a dead foe would be too contaminated but the previous owners aura.
The thing is though, that these guides are supposed to be as system neutral as possible. Many other versions of the spell do away with the time limit and/or the limited chance of success altogether. I'll be sure to check out that discussion on the forums though.