Friday, September 3, 2010

Roles Through the Editions - Magic-Users

In a weird way, magic-users have changed the least throughout the various editions of D&D in a party role sense, even though they have seen major mechanical changes in the last few editions. In AD&D mages were always the least effective physical combatants with the poorest weapon choices, no armor choices at all, poor to-hit chances, and a d4 for hit points. They also had the unfortunate combination of being the weakest class at low levels and the toughest progression chart, requiring twice as many XP's to advance as a thief at low levels. This weakness has remained basically true through all editions being hard-wired into OD&D, Basic D&D, 1E, and 2E. In 3rd edition there were ways to change this with feats, multiclassing, and prestige classes although the default was basically the same as before. With 4th edition the choices for weapons and armor and the hit point amounts are still weaker than most other classes but it's not as drastic as before.

Abilty-wise Intelligence has always been the king for wizards. In early editions it determined your maximum spell level - not that it mattered until you were in double-digit levels - and extra languages but that was it. It wasn't exactly a power-stat. Dexterity was usually 2nd choice - have to get that AC up somehow! Plus it helped with those thrown daggers and darts used so much at low levels. Some chose Constitution as 2nd but I never saw that as giving great results. When you only have an extra 5- 10 hit points by 5th level it's basically 1 extra hit from a typical weapon or creature. If you were going to be running around with an AC of 9 or 10 it just wasn't enough - Dex always seemed like a better bet.

The biggest complaint regarding M-U's in 1st edition was the limited number of spells at low levels. It is a problem - no one likes getting all prepped and equipped and only getting to do their thing once or twice in a whole day. Before and after that it was all about the knife-throwing (or dart throwing) with the occasional toss of the flaming oil flask. That's really not what a lot of people are thinking of when they think "wizard". Combining this with the extreme fragility of low AC & low hit points, and you had the potential for frequent unhappiness.

One solution was house-ruling and a popular option was to have a high Int grant bonus spells in the same way that a high Wisdom did. I don't have a huge problem with this - it certainly makes the M-U better as almost all of them are going to have a 16+ Int which gives 2 extra 1st's and 2 extra 2nd's, a considerable difference.

One official solution was to add "Cantrips" - a sort of 0-level spell list that could replace a 1st level spell on a 3 or 4 to 1 basis. It was interesting, but I'll be blunt - they sucked. All the low-level mages wanted to do was be better in combat and cantrips were almost universally non-combat magic - lights, changing the color of a piece of clothing, cleaning a pair of shoes, minor lights, etc - absolutely no help in combat for damage, buffs, or any kind of help at all. This was a failed solution.

In my experience the best way to make a low-level 1E magic-user more effective is to get them some treasure - a few scrolls of things like Knock or Wizard Lock let them tap into some of that versatility without reducing their combat ability. A wand of magic missiles was a huge find as now the M-U could contribute every round. The best thing was that all of these were expendable and so self-limiting to a degree - more controllable than adding a +3 Sword to a Fighter in the party or a Mace of Disruption to the Cleric.

Second edition came along and added non-weapon proficiencies. this gave wizards some of the lore skills that their literary and cinematic counterparts often displayed. It was good but made no difference as far as combat though it did make them more "wizardy". Spells and magic items really didn't change, nor did spell-progression. One new wrinkle was the "Kit", kind of a customization to the character that flavored the class in a specific way. One option was the Militant Wizard, allowing one to trade a spell school or three for the ability to become proficient in some additional weapons. The Militant Wiz also capped out at 7th level spells, which rendered this too much of a compromise for many players.

The single biggest change for 2E though was the Specialist Wizard.This allowed a player to trade a more limited spell selection for the ability to cast an additional spell at each spell level as it became available. This was a pretty good option used by about half of the Wizard players in the campaigns I saw. It didn't help in the combat ability department but it did make a big difference in spellcasting,

So 3rd edition comes along and adds skills and feats, better ability score bonuses for lower stats, and a unified experience table. So M-U's are no longer harder to advance, their non-Int stats are more beneficial, and feats allow one to change the traditional poor weapon and armor choices of the mage for something better if the player wants too. Additionally the old house rule of bonus spells for a high Int became official. Wizard players were very happy with 3E as they gained a lot more options and flexibility and really gave up nothing to get it. Scrolls were easier to make, Potions were a breeze, there was a system for making any magic item in fact, many many spells were added and things were good.

The only weakness in all this was that multiclassing a wizard (or really any spellcaster in 3E) was not very effective as armor and level restrictions worked in such a way that casters lost a lot of spellcasting effectiveness when they took multiple classes. Many house rules were developed around this but there was never an official solution that was generally liked and accepted. Looking back I think this was overblown but it was an area where strong passions were involved and many a flamewar erupted over the best way to handle it. I think that weaker multiclassing in return for a better base wizard class is an acceptable tradeoff but not everyone felt the same way at the time.

Alright, so wizards have gotten progressively better and more flexible in each edition. how about 4E? Well, they still play fairly similarly. At low levels a 4E wizard is akin to a 1E wizard with a wand of magic missiles - he can make ranged attacks quite well and look like a wizard while doing it. There are far fewer thrown daggers by 1st lvl wizards in 4E but it's something I can live with. They still have a few weak to strong abilities they can fire off a limited number of times per day and they grow rapidly in power as they level up. The mechanics of how these abilities function have changed dramatically but the wizard is still the lightly-armored guy with weak hit points who stays at the back of the party and blasts things while throwing out the occasional illusion, summoning, buffing spell, de-buffing spell, or movement enhancer. They still like wands and staves. So aside from the mechanics change that affected everyone, wizards end up playing very much like they have in every edition. They have specialized a bit into wizards, warlocks, sorcerers, invokers, and now mages, they are still recognizable as the guys in the pointy hats I won't make a pronouncement as to the general happiness levels of wizard players with 4E given my limited experience at this point, but they do work quite a bit like the old ones in combat and there are a lot of options out there for the interested player. I will say this - if you liked magic-users in old editions and have been leery of 4E then if you get a chance to play I would say try a 4E wizard. That should tell you all you need to know.

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