Original Dungeons & Dragons: The Magic-User

I recently ran a set of three short sessions using the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. I tried as much as possible to keep to the rules as presented in the original three booklets (plus Chainmail), without introducing any of the material added in Supplement I: Greyhawk or in later versions of the game. It was a fascinating experience.

I struggled with using the rules-as-written for the Magic-User class; the class that later became known as the Wizard. In a first-level game, the Magic-User is very limited. It can wear no armour, can only wield a dagger and can cast only one spell. That is, the Magic-User knows one spell and only cast it once per adventure.

Here’s the spell list the first-level Magic-User gets to choose from:

  • Detect Magic
  • Hold Portal
  • Read Magic
  • Read Languages
  • Protection/Evil
  • Light
  • Charm Person
  • Sleep

It is notable that there are only two spells that can be classed as attack spells on that list: charm person and sleep. Magic missile, which became an iconic part of the Wizard’s arsenal, does not appear; that spell would have to wait until the release of the first supplement to see print.

What you don’t see from that list is how potent charm person and sleep were. Charm person, per its original presentation, permanently put one creature under your control if it failed its saving throw, giving you a new – and potentially powerful – adventuring companion. The spell wasn’t hedged around with wording that limited what it would do for you; the creature came “completely under your control”. What a far cry from the charm person of later editions! And a particularly potent one.

Sleep put 2 to 16 first-level creatures (e.g. goblins, orcs, hobgoblins) to sleep, with diminishing effects on higher level creatures; only one fourth-level creature (e.g. ogre) could be affected. In my interpretation of the spell, I did allow one AD&Dism to affect me: in that edition, sleep did not allow a saving throw. Thus I didn’t allow it in this game. However, there’s no text stating that in the original rules, so the orcs should probably be allowed saving throws. With its ability to affect numerous foes, sleep was a spell to win combats!

Unfortunately, apart from the Magic-User’s one significant spell, the first-level character’s ability to contribute in combat was markedly limited.

One six-sided hit dice to determine hit points, so he or she would have from one to six hit points; possibly seven if a good Constitution score had been rolled. At this point in the game, all weapons dealt 1-6 points, so a single blow had a good chance of slaying the character outright; two almost certainly. Halley, upon rolling her Magic-User at the start of the expedition announced that she had a solitary hit point – and the original rules didn’t have “unconscious and dying” rules: once you dropped to zero hit points, you were dead.

These hit points were not all that different to that of other characters. The cleric had exactly the same range, and the fighter had only one additional hit point (so from 2-7 hit points). First-level characters had trouble surviving. However, the cleric and fighter could at least wear armour. The Magic-User? No armour was permitted, giving a standard orc or goblin a 55% chance of striking (and likely killing) the Magic-User in combat.

The solution for surviving the dungeon was simple: stay out of melee combat. And this is what Halley did, as her companions were cut down by lucky rolls from the goblins. She fled the dungeon, being the sole survivor of the first expedition.

During the session, Halley asked if she could throw daggers into the melee. I said she could, and I wandered into an odd state of not being sure if I was using the rules correctly. Daggers are not described as being a thrown weapon in the Chainmail rules, which cover most of the capabilities of weapons. There is a reference to thrown weapons using the short bow table for effectiveness; I guess that includes thrown daggers.

Interestingly, when using the alternative combat system of D&D (that’s the d20 system we’re more familiar with than the d6 system of Chainmail), the dagger is about as effective as a longsword. This is another feature that would change with Supplement I: Greyhawk, but for the original release, both dealt 1d6 damage. There may have been a difference between the weapons in how initiative was handled, but those rules were somewhat unclear – being only presented in Chainmail, and in about three versions.

However, as people who played AD&D may remember, firing missile weapons into melee was fraught with danger. The AD&D rules stated that you had an equal chance (as modified by size) of hitting any participant in the melee! So, if you threw a dagger into a melee between two allies and four orcs, there was a 33% chance you’d strike one of your allies; the Chainmail rules unambiguously state that you may not fire into a melee. Thus, I should have told Halley she couldn’t throw her dagger and condemned her to just watching (or significantly risking her life!)

Consider if the current D&D rules forbade firing missile weapons into a melee! I’d rather enjoy that; as ranged characters currently have significant advantages (and less risk) than melee characters. It would lead to a different gaming experience!

This then was the original Magic-User: one potent spell, and a character with few combat capabilities outside of that spell. What then were the early games like?

The answer is this: They varied a lot. People made and altered rules, and came up with solutions that weren’t expressed in the rulebooks. It’s very dangerous talking about Original Dungeons & Dragons and expecting it to work as it did in the books; they may have provided the basis for the game, but they weren’t the entirety of the game. The succeeding supplements and editions would revise the first-level Magic-User until it became something that could contribute more to combat than just a solitary sleep spell.

The higher-level Magic-User became a far more potent combatant, with the fireball spell being the most iconic expression of that potency. Consider this: a fifth-level Magic-User could cast a fireball spell that inflicted 5d6 damage to each combatant within its 20-foot-radius blast. The hit points these creatures would have? Likely 5d6! This is damage beyond the dreams of Fighting Men!

The spell lists for higher-level Magic-Users were more extensive than those for lower levels; there are twelve sixth-level spells compared to only eight first-level spells. The sixth level was where the Magic-User’s spell list ended in the original booklets (the full nine levels would be introduced in Supplement I: Greyhawk). Spells such as Death Spell, Disintegrate and Reincarnation graced the sixth-level list. Death Spell would slay 2-16 creatures with fewer than seven hit dice. I’m not sure if this is better than Fireball, which seems much more potent at that level, but it would, at least, occasion less property damage, something that apparently destroyed much treasure in Gary’s original games!

To reach the highest levels of being a Magic-User in original Dungeons & Dragons was not easy. Halley was particularly pleased to reach level 2, and – eventually – level 3 as we finished our exploration into the original rules. There may have been much kindness on my part to allow her to survive so long; in addition to a lot of treasure-derived experience points from not particularly well-balanced treasure hoards. I have a lot of fondness for Magic-Users; my main AD&D character was one such, but it’s sometimes tricky to see past the rules on the page and create an experience that is rewarding for all involved. It’s one reason, I suspect, that riddles, role-playing, tricks and puzzles were popular: they side-stepped the dangers inherent in the combat rules.

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6 Responses to Original Dungeons & Dragons: The Magic-User

  1. Borovovic says:

    I couldn’t read it,stopped at 1 spell/adv. It is too lethal.

  2. Arnaud Gomes says:

    I never played OD&D, but in my (Mentzer) basic days magic users were still basically the same. I guess that’s why everybody wanted to play an elf, that is a multi-class fighter-magic user who could cast spells in armor.

    By that time at least, throwing daggers into melee was a well-established practice, even though I don’t remember if the rules said anything about this.

    • merricb@yahoo.co.uk says:

      In Basic D&D, the dagger can be thrown – this is explicitly mentioned. There’s no mention of firing into melee, so I guess it’s permitted! 🙂

  3. IIRC, Magic-users would carry (and throw) darts in one of the old editions – AD&D maybe? – as their main ranged weapon.


    • merricb@yahoo.co.uk says:

      By AD&D, certainly. In Original D&D (at least the first three books), darts didn’t yet exist!

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