Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why the Heck is your 1st Level Wizard Just Standing Around?!

  Not too long ago someone I was discussing gaming with was very dismissive of 1e, 2e, OSRIC, S&W, etc. because low-level mages had so few spells and could not do damage in combat more than once. They felt that all the caster did was 'stand around' while important stuff (i.e., fighting) went on.

  I hesitate to write about how wrong this is for reasons related to length of post, breadth of topic, and losing my ever-lovin' mind to rage-induced psychosis. Mainly because there is a lot more to RPGs than combat. But also because there is a lot more to combat than damage density AND mages are better at melee than you think.



  Let's look at the 1st level magic-user in AD&D 1e which is a pretty darn good reflection of all the clones, too.

  Average hit points: 2.5
  Average A.C.: 10
  THAC0: total 'to hit' roll to strike a kobolds (a.C. 7): 14
  Number of spells: 1

  Wow. he isn't a big deal next to the fighter (H.P. 5.5, A.C. 5, THAC0 13), cleric (H.P. 4.5, A.C. 5, THAC0 14), or even thief (H.P. 3.5 A.C. 8, THAC0 14)

  And what is his spell likely to be?
  Using the spell acquisition rules from the DMG he gets Read Magic and three randomly rolled spells. only 3 of these spells cause damage so if he wants one of them his total odds are about 40% for any of them (he can 'choose' 10% of the time). The other spells are defensive or miscellaneous. If he does get one of these damaging spells then once a say he can do spell damage that, on average, will kill from the average goblin to the average hobgoblin. If you end up with starting spells like Enlarge, Feather Fall, and Mending then you have no spell that can cause damage at all.

  But this guy is far from useless. Let's start with the thing a lot of people seem to miss.

  A first level mage is as good at fighting as a first level cleric, thief, or (in many flavors of D&D and its clones) a fighter. While they tend to have a low armor class and hit points, having the mage loaded down with darts or daggers as a missile weapon is not just possible, it is a damn good idea. A mage with a bandoleer of 12 darts = 4 rounds of sustained missile weapons. Against a group of kobolds that is an average of 4 hits (same as a fighter) with total average damage of 6 h.p. Replace that with 8 daggers and the average is 3 dead kobolds - not bad.
  So, let's look at this another way. Your magic-user knows Magic Missile, Shield,  and Identify. Your party runs into a tribe of 18 kobolds. Your spell kills 1 (statistically) - and your daggers kill 3. In a way your mage is 3 times better at fighting than he is at spell casting.

  How about a higher level mage? In Swords & Wizardry, among most, a 6th level magic-user still only has a 8 spells. If, IF, those are all combat spells he still runs out in 8 rounds. In reality he will have no combat spells much sooner. Is he useless now?
  Well, in Swords & Wizardry he fight just as well as a 5th level fighter (as far as THAC0). Even in 1e his THAC0 is as good as a 3rd level fighter - the darts, daggers, even the staff, are all viable options.
 
  And there is a lot more to do in an adventure than fight and a lot more to do in a fight than cause damage. Know how I keep talking about the Main Four Roles (plus the odds and the monk) and how the interaction of them is important to understand the dynamics of RPGs, but these are just tools to explain the main roles that need to be covered!
   mage with the right spells in the scout and a thief in the right spot is physical offense; a cleric can be physical offense and sometime the mage can be physical defense; etc. Don't let the fact that the main assume role of magic-users is magical offense prevent your from realizing that mages can be scouts, defense, and even physical offense.

  I have told the story before of a guy I played with who had a mage that loved to mix it up. His mage had a really good armor class from magic items, a +4 dagger, and would cast Mirror Image on himself and wade right into melee as needed. Why? he didn't have a lot of offensive spells. Imagine if he cast Blink, too - he'd have a bunch of flickering images and stands a good chance of flanking foes, giving him a +2 to hit, etc. all while he is harder to hit than ever!
  BTW, feel free to spring this on your players, too.
  So make sure your low-level mage has enough missile weapons to be a factor in combat. If possible, buff it up even further. In my AD&D 2e S&P campaign Son #3 play a Fire Elementalist who took the option to have a non-standard weapon. He carries a Flametongue short sword and is if an enemy spellcaster gets within range he'll draw it, sprint over, and melee his foe! One of the oft-told tales of the table is about an ambush when a hobgoblin warband with a hill giant ally ambushed a caravan the party was with. The guards had their morale begin to falter when the mage (Son #3's fire elementalist) drew his sword, gave a stirring speech, rallied the men, and led the counter-charge. Great fun.

  But sometimes it isn't the damage, physical or magical, that really makes the day. In the Battle of Tolmar - the Assault on the Temple of Death the only reason that the party lived was someone locked a door. The party was staging a daring raid on the stronghold of an enemy leader and went so far as to try to take out the various leaders to decapitate the army. They charged into a foul temple during an evil ritual and began killing.
  Except for the thief.
  Now Stardust is usually quite fond of battle. Look up the word 'stabby' and you'll find her character sketch. But this time she was pulling 'watch our backs' duty. She was just barely able to shut and bar the main doors before the Slaughter Priests could flank the party. After that she quickly but stealthily crept about the room, largely ignoring the raging battle except for a few thrown daggers, and locked every door she could find, jamming those that locked from the outside with the door wedges she carries. When the main battle was over she finished up by finding 2 concealed doors, too.
  These action kept reinforcements away long enough for the party to meet their objective and get out safely. If this hadn't happened the party almost certainly would have failed or even died.

  Just as important in battle as the brute force of fighting is situational awareness; observing what is going on and looking for threats as well as, if possible, thwarting them. If your mage has one spell or has cast all 20 of them they should be looking for possible threats, closing doors (or opening them!), passing out potions - you name it. Want to know how important this is in the Real World? After the battle of Rorke's Drift one of them men who got the Victoria Cross was praised in part for paying attention to what was going on  and bringing ammo to the men who needed it, preventing them from being overrun. The fact that he was injured to the point he had to crawl, dragging the ammo with him, was a large factor in the medal, too, but the fact remains - on the real battlefield paying attention and being proactive saves lives and wins battles.
  So be that guy.

  And never underestimate being prepared with pure theater. Lew Pulsipher had some suggestions along these lines back in Dragon Magazine #79 from 1983; an issue that I bought new.
Sweet baby John the Baptist, that was a third of a century ago!
  One was to use a skull and either use an illusion spell or simple fakery and dummy it up to look like the head of a medusa. Stash it in a bag on the mage's waist. When all else fails, the mage can yell,
  "Beware! the medusa's head!"
  And brandish the head as the party all avert their eyes and play-act fear of the power of te gaze of the head! If you get lucky the enemy will pause. Worst case, nothing was lost.
Three years after that article came out I used that very trick. In Lew's game. He appreciated it.
  I once saw a very similar move. The party has crept into an enemy stronghold, the Caverns of the Dragoons. Everyone is preparing to burst into a large barracks cavern packed with sleeping kobolds in hopes of wiping them out with surprise and vermin attacks, so all the fighters are in front, ready to kick open a door and start murdering. The thief is checking for traps. The mage is in the back. The DM is marking time as the trap sweep is going. After a few rounds the mage's player says,
  "Oh, yeah. I look around behind us."
  The DM deadpans,
  "The corridor behind you is packed with gnolls 2 wide and at least 10 deep, all creeping up on you in silence. They are only 40' away."
  The player, who is running a 5th level mage with low hit points, terrible armor class, and lousy spells, replied,
  "I sneer, flip my cloak over my shoulder, and casually pull out my wand as I prepare to use it."
  "The lead gnolls begin shouting 'Wand! Wand!' in their tongue as they turn and dash to take cover around the corner."
  It was a Wand of Illumination. With 1 charge left. But it bought time for the fighters to get into position.

  LI haven't even gotten into the idea of using those 'useless' spells on the battlefield (or before and after) because that will be a separate entry.

  So - don't just stand there!