Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rereading the Moldvay Basic Set - Part 2

My rereading project continues this week with the next section of the Moldvay Basic Set:  Spells.

A fair word of warning before I begin:  I have never played a magic-user.  Yep, that's right.  In the thousands of hours I spent playing D&D in the 80s I never once rolled up a magic-user.  Sure I've taken on the role of a spell-slinger as an NPC or an evil adversary while DMing, but never did I wear the robes of a squishy magician.  "But what about your elves?", you might ask.  Well, I've played many elves over the years but to me that really didn't count.  I mainly relied on their martial ability and used spells only as a backup.  So in both cases, as a DM playing a magic-using NPC and as an elf with a penchant for fireballs, I usually avoided the spell section almost completely.  I simply didn't need to reference it.  After all, what else was there to know beyond sleep, magic missiles, fireballs, and the occasional light spell?

The same can almost be said of clerics.  Although I've played a few when needed (never by choice), once again martial ability was far more important than spells.  To a bunch of young boys/teens, a cleric was nothing more than a fighter that could not use edged weapons, but did possess the gift of casting healing spells.  Detect Evil and Purify Food and Water were all just a waste of space on a character sheet.

My lack of magic use in those early years made the rereading of the Spells section that much more enlightening.  If I had taken the time to read through the spell descriptions thirty-two years ago I might have played more magic-users and clerics.  Those non-offensive spells would have been rather useful back then.

Part 3: Spells begins on page B15 and informs the reader that magic-users must memorize spells before they can be used.  After a given spell is used however, it is wiped clean from memory and must be studied again for use the next day (after a full night's uninterrupted sleep of course).  Since the manual tells the reader that most adventures take place over only a few hours of in-game time, this should not pose an issue.  I can't help but wonder though what adventures Moldvay was talking about.  Almost every module I ever played or ran (wether commercial or homemade) lasted well over a few hours of game time.  Most were epic dungeon delves or longterm travel in the wilds where finding a suitable place to camp in the dungeon or forest was just as an important decision as deciding what to bring on an adventure.  I also wonder how a full night's rest was to be accomplished due to watch schedules and wandering monsters.  I think both assumptions were pretty darn silly.  Fortunately it was never an issue for us because I'm quite sure we simply ignored the rule.  Sure we did set up camp each night (that was part of the fun) but I'm fairly certain no one in the party ever got much rest....certainly not a full night's sleep.  We woke up (if we survived) and our spell-slingers suddenly had new spells.  Now that's magical!

It was a good thing that clerics were able to use a mace and turn undead because their spell selection at lower levels absolutely sucked.  Hell, they could not even use a spell at first level.  At second level, when they finally got one first level spell, the only really useful option was Cure Light Wounds.  One of our players would have been heavily berated and mocked had they chosen Purify Food and Water over a healing spell!  To us, a cleric was nothing more than a combat medic.  I suspect that role remains through the more recent editions as well.

First Level Cleric Spells
Cure Light Wounds:  1d6 +1 of healing goodness.
Detect Evil:  Of course it's evil....it's in a dungeon!
Detect Magic:  Only useful after the adventure when dividing treasure.
Light:  Continual Light at second level is the only way to go.
Protection from Evil:  That's what armor and a shield are for.
Purify Food and Water:  No comment.
Remove Fear:  Useful in the Expert Set when the spell can be reversed to Cause Fear.
Resist Cold:  Good, because low level characters fight white dragons all the time.

Yes, I was being quite sarcastic.  And yes, I know it's all about game balance (but I didn't back then).  But there is simply nothing fun about a cleric's spell selection.  If it were not for the healing aspect, I doubt The Known World would have ever witnessed a mace in use.

Although I never played a magic-user, at least the spell selection was a bit more exciting.  I just wish that a first level PC could do more than blow his load at the start of the adventure, then spend the rest of the day hiding behind the thief.  I may have very fond memories of Moldvay/Metzer/AD&D, but some of the new editions of Dungeons & Dragons definitely make magic-users much more interesting and fun to play.

My thoughts as a younger player on magic-user spell selection.  Yes, I will be sarcastic again.

First Level Magic-user and Elf Spells
Charm Person:  Make dumb humanoids fall in love with you and become meat shields.
Detect Magic:  See above.
Floating Disc:  Useful as a pickup truck for treasure if it only lasted for more than 6 turns.
Hold Portal:  Reminds me of Gandalf's mental battle with the Balrog at the top of the stairs.
Light:  See above
Magic Missile:  1d6 +1 is absolutely deadly at lower levels.  Plus, it never misses!  Best. Spell. Ever!
Protection from Evil:  Would help a squishy wizard but casting would leave little room for offense.
Read Languages:  I wonder if this spell was ever pre-studied in the history of the D&D game.
Read Magic:  All magic-users should be able to cast this any time!  That was our house rule.
Shield:  A better option for squishy wizard protection but still shoots blanks on offense.
Ventriloquism:  ...................................Never ever saw it used.
Sleep:  Goodnight Kobolds!  Possibly the second best low level magic-user spell.

Second Level Magic-user and Elf Spells
Continual Light:  Cast this a day before the adventure then forget about torches and lanterns.
Detect Evil:  See above.
ESP:  This is only really useful as a chance at humor for the DM.  I loved confusing thoughts.
Invisibility:  Best armor for a magic-user.  Too bad it doesn't last in melee.
Knock:  Open up!
Levitate:  Good for hiding or dealing with chasms.
Locate Object:  Not very useful as written but I'm sure this spell was heavily abused in game.
Mirror Image:  If a squishy wizard has to resort to this then he has already lost the rest of his party.
Phantasmal Force:  Confusing as hell!
Web:  Of all the second level spells, this is the only one with any offensive ability.
Wizard Lock:  A fancy version of Hold Portal.

At higher levels, a Moldvay magic-user could be devastating.  I very much enjoyed taking on the roll of a powerful spell-slinger when behind the DM screen (my players....not so much).  Getting there as a player character was a challenge though.  That of course was the intent of the rules but I always felt magic-users to be underpowered in the beginning.  Perhaps the reward of reaching higher levels and the power that comes with doing so was enough to tempt others into playing the class.  I simply did not have the patience for it.  I wanted to kill and loot!

In the last years of the 80s before I stopped playing, I became more of a roleplayer.  The emphasis was no longer on destruction and progression. Instead I became more interested in living in the D&D world, enjoying the story, and creating character.  It's a shame that I had already developed such a deep dislike for magic-users.  Now that I have read through the spells and understood their role in the grand scheme of things, I think roleplaying a magic-user would be a lot of fun.  In fact, I may have to roll up a squishy magician right now.  Here are the spells that I would be interested in:

First Level Magic-user and Elf Spells
Charm Person:  Not only could this spell be useful, but in the hands of a clever player and creative DM, lots of role-play opportunities could be developed.
Magic Missile:  This would still be my first choice for an offensive weapon.
Shield:  Using tactical style combat, this could be a useful defensive position to aid the party.
Sleep:  Just like magic missile, this would be one of my first choices.  It would be valuable for crowd control.

Second Level Magic-user and Elf Spells
Continual Light:  A permanent light for dark places.  Could be used as an accessory or as an offensive spell.
ESP:  With a good DM behind the screen, this could be used to create additional RP plot hooks.
Invisibility:  I would still keep this in my arsenal but use it more in non-dungeon settings.
Web:  Another good crowd control device.

How about you, dear reader?  Did you play magic-users?  If so, what did you do to survive the lower levels?  What was your favorite spell?  How did you play the rule for resting/studying spell books?  Do you think Moldvay (or Metzer) magic-users were underpowered?

How about you cleric types...do you think the cleric had any role beyond healing and turning undead?  Was I being too hard on the usefulness of cleric spells?

Thanks for reading.  I look forward to your comments.

A final note:  The wizard and cleric illustrations in the post are actually Photoshoped images I created of miniatures I purchased from Otherworld Miniatures.  I'm a big fan of their work which combines the old school look of the 80s with the precision and detail of modern miniatures.  I just purchased another miniature from them to represent my re-creation of Tryon the elf in-game and I'm very happy with the quality of that one as well.  If you're not familiar with Otherworld Miniatures you might want to pay them a visit.


  1. http://jdh417.blogspot.com/2012/10/fantasy-core-rpg-wizard.html

    You really hit on an issue with spell-casters. All of those useful, utility spells go unused at lower levels when you've only got 1 or 2 spells a day. I tried to address that in my house rules/rewrite.

    1. What exactly are those house rules? Would you be willing to share?

    2. http://jdh417.blogspot.com/2012/09/fantasy-core-rpg.html

      I've been vacation for a week and hadn't checked back. All the rules are posted at the website. I haven't made up a pdf as yet as the rules are still fairly fluid and I've got some more changes to make.

    3. Thanks for the link. Lots of info on your site. I think I'll be busy reading tomorrow at work. Ha!

      I didn't see a way to join your blog but I did bookmark it.

    4. Well, thank you. Post any comments you have as it's still a work in progress.

      At the risk of sounding totally blogger ignorant (which would be accurate), what do I need to set so that others can join the blog? I'm not locking people out on purpose.

  2. Magic Missile. It was the only spell that mattered. After that it was hide and dagger stab and hope for the best. As you say clerics were heal and turn machines. What else did you need?

    If I were playing this now I would probably house rule/rewrite some of these. For the Magic User I would make some of the lesser spells cantrips that could be cast more often, (Detect Magic, Light, Read Magic, Read Languages etc.) Though maybe with some limitations to use. For clerics I would have 1 automatic Cure Light wounds in addition to whatever the other spells available. Probably have Detect Evil be an automatic thing.

    Still, as you say , as a kid you just want to kill and loot and the Magic User and Cleric weren't optimal for that.

    1. I like those ideas. Now that I'm getting back into D&D I'm thinking about writing up some rules for use in my (hopefully) upcoming games. Thanks for the ideas and thanks for reading!

  3. I only played a couple of magic-users early on and they survived the way the rest of the party did: By running away! Seriously, at low level you have to treat them like QBs and keep them in a protective pocket and even then they have a high mortality rate. I have to admit to favoring magic missile at low level. My group just said that if the m-u got some rest over night, he got his spells. We didn't worry too much about exactly how much sleep they got or how many hours they spent studying their spellbook. I think M-Us of any edition are underpowered but they sure pay off later.

    I always liked clerics as a class. Admittedly, my friends usually referred to them as "the hospital" but I liked developing the character and religious backgrounds. It comes down to the difference between Role-playing and Roll-playing: When I was young, my clerics tended to be auxiliary fighters who could heal and turn but as I got older each of them had a distinct persona and a detailed religious sect that defined them. Again, they become more powerful as the levels increase, but I never liked not having a spell at 1st level.

    Honestly, I think most people, especially kids, favor fighters. It takes a little maturity to want to play spellcasters and thieves and to play them well.

    1. I like your QB analogy Jim. I think that would definitely be a way to come a low level magic-user alive. The only problem with that strategy is that we were too young to think that way. Now, if I do play a magic user I will think more along these lines.

      "The hospital"? I love it. Made me laugh several times! I think you nailed it when you wrote about the difference between role-playing and roll-playing. The lack of the former was the real reason that clerics were not popular in my groups during the 80s. Now I'm only really interested in RP...the combat and level advancement just happen to occur during the building of the story. By the way, I never really thought about developing the religious aspect of a character background. I've always concentrated on the character itself. This opens up entirely new possibilities for exciting personas.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Never had an MU as a player, but from 10 years old onward, I was *always* the DM. One key NPC I played in my longest running campaign (a Moldvay/AD&D mashup) was the party's magic-user - nobody else wanted to deal w/ d4 for hit points and no armor! I ran him, with input from the other players, from levels 1-14.

    In our campaign, magic missile went completely unused until about level 7 or 8! The problem was that it could just target one enemy. When battling through the Caves of Chaos, dropping that one orc just wasn't worth it. The 2-16 hit dice that sleep could pound out (no save!) was a huge force multiplier by comparison. In fact, the campaign day was largely defined by how frequently the MU could cast sleep, and once it was gone it may signal time for the party to begin a strategic withdrawal.

    Read Magic was always an enigma to us and just got ignored.

    Clerics made, hands down, the best NPC villains -- plate and a +1 shield could keep them on their feet long enough to monologue!

    1. Sounds like me Jarrett. I quickly became the DM and played only rarely for the rest of my initial run of D&D. I wish I could have been more of a player back then but I have great memories of sitting behind the screen.

      You are right about magic missile vs. sleep. Sleep is WAY more useful and devastating. It just lacked that offensive glamour that magic missile carried. Putting monsters to sleep was not nearly as satisfying to a young teen as seeing one fall to the ground dead. I did roll up a new magic-user however. Guess which spell I chose....yep: sleep.

      Thanks for reading!

  5. The first D&D character I ever played was a Moldvay basic set magic-user named Merlin. Forgive the name, I was only 10! His randomly rolled spell was hold portal and randomly rolled hit points were 2. That DM was a sadistically cruel bastard. lol

    I remember Merlin lugged around a sack full of daggers as "firepower" for the couple of sessions he survived before being eaten by an ogre. Not a club smash kill and then eaten by ogre. Merlin was simply picked up and eaten. Like I said, bastard DM. :-)

    But I loved every second of it and was totally hooked on D&D!

    1. Awesome story! Thanks for sharing it. That's why I love doing this. Hearing these stories really takes me back.

      *chuckles* Eaten by an ogre. That's truly an epic way to go. I love it!!!!

  6. My friend Frank had a boxed set he and I were going to play, until he found a group of AD&D players, and we played that instead. For a year until our DM graduated high school and went off to College. Then the rest of the group took turns DM-ing.

    My first character was a cleric, because the party needed one. I died about a half hour into playing when I was eaten by a carnivorous tree. At the time I didn't understand the difference between reincarnation and resurrection, so when the party suggested I call on my god for my life back, I succeeded on the dice rolls and promptly asked to be reincarnated... Giant Owl time!

    I've never played a magic user that I can recall, through 1st Edition D&D, 2nd Edition, 3rd Edition, and 3.5. The one game of 4th Edition I played in at a convention I ran a thief.

    I've never really played a magic user in other game systems, either.

    The soon to come out 5th Edition D&D is supposed to be putting out a free PDF of how to play four "core" races and four "core" classes. I was in the play test, and magic users and clerics both have cast whenever you want type of spells similar to what you are talking about house ruling. When it hits the interwebs next month you might just borrow their rules instead.

    I'm really enjoying your blog, thanks for doing it.

    1. Where are all of these awesome character deaths coming from? Eaten by a carnivorous tree...what a great way to go. That death is making me laugh as well. I'm thinking a post on epic character deaths is in order.

      While I didn't actually get to play with anybody, I did download each 5th edition packet when they came out. I read through them each time and to be honest, I really like what I see. I've preorder the basic set along with all three books. I wonder how close the finished product will be to the last play packet from October of last year. Any thoughts?

      I must admit though, I really did not spend much time reading about spell casting. I guess I'm ruined from magic-users by playing Moldvay and Metzer. I like what you're describing. I'll try to read my PDFs tonight before bed. Thanks for the heads up!

      Thanks also for reading! I'll have more posts very soon...

    2. I got to play the 5th edition playtest one time at PAX, run by Wizards of the Coast. I played a cleric then, too. About half way through I realized that my "sun lance" spell did as much damage as my mace, was a ranged weapon, and I could cast it "at will" (ie once per melee round).

      I don't really remember any other epic deaths. Some epic times, but no epic deaths. I guess the first one is always memorable, the rest not so much.