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Reasons Magic-Users Did Not Dominate Play in Early Editions of D&D

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I often hear complaints about how spell-casters dominated play in D&D 3.x -- especially at higher levels -- and that preventing this domination was one of the reasons that spell casters are limited far more than they ever were before in 4e. This makes me glad that I never got into D&D 3.x, because spell-casters did not dominate the game in earlier editions of D&D (before the Skills & Powers "upgrade" to 2e).

Before D&D 3.x, magic-users were very powerful at high levels, but they seldom got to those levels (as they were very weak at low levels) and other character classes -- especially the fighter -- were far more effective at high levels than they were in later editions. There are several reasons for this:

* High level characters and monsters had very good saving rolls -- especially at high levels -- so spells were less likely to be fully effective and save-or-die spells cast against high level/hit dice opponents resulted in "save" more often than not. Fighters had very good saves versus spells in general.

* If a spell-caster took damage in combat, his spell did not go off AND he lost it from memory just as if he cast it. Spell casting, especially of high level spells, was not fast which meant non-magical opponents of a a magic-user casting a high level spell often got their chance to attack before the spell was finished. If they hit, the spell was disrupted. There were no special abilities like "Concentration" in early editions to prevent this. Prevention was other characters preventing the monsters from attacking the magic-user.

* Spells selection was much more limited, especially in core 2e and earlier editions. There were simply fewer spells available to use which meant that intelligent opponents would have a very good idea of what spells were likely to be used against them and could plan accordingly. Also, magic-users did not get to select whatever spells they wanted to learn every time they went up a level, spells had to be found by the character in the game.

* There was no 15-minute work day. When magic-users ran out of spells, they had to make do with their daggers and staves. The rest of the party was unlikely to head home just so they could recharge their spells (as the absence of magic spells was not as telling as it became in later editions) and even at high levels the MU did not have spells that would reliably get him home on his own. Spells also took a long time to re-memorize -- a high level wizard who used all her spells would need days to re-memorize them all.

* Clerical magic in early editions was pretty much non-combat. Clerics were almost as good as fighters in combat, however. And their undead turning ability was one of the most useful powers in the game -- turned undead could not drain levels.

* There were very few "buff" spells and most of those that did exist were not overpowering. The few very powerful buffs usually had an "Achilles heel" that would negate them fairly easily.

* Monsters had far fewer hit points which meant weapon hits still did a sizable amount of damage so wizards were seldom as absolutely necessary to take them out as they became in later editions.

* Fighter classes were the only characters who got multiple attacks in early editions of D&D. A high level fighter could mow through low level opposition each and every round while a spell-caster -- no matter what level -- could cast only one spell per round.

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JoetheLawyer said...
February 10, 2010 at 1:31 PM  

Don't forget a few other points:

Spell research and magic item research were so hard as to make it not worth it, and there were no "magic stores", so the spells a magic-user had were the spells they memorized. You couldn't boost a spell inventory through items. MU's didn't make themselves a utility knife, able to do other classes functions through spells. Hence there was a need for a thief, so a MU didn't waste a valuable slot on Knock.

G. Benedicto said...
February 10, 2010 at 1:48 PM  

I've had no luck convincing my friends to give older versions of D&D a fair shake. It may be an age thing. While I'm in my early 30s, most of them are mid-20-ish. My exposure to D&D began largely with the Mentzer Red Box -- theirs began with 3.x Edition. It's like a Pandora's Box situation: Once WoTC (and to some extent 2nd Edition) opened up the Can o' Unrelenting Powercreep and combined it with this notion of "encounter design" that aims to insure character survival by shaving away the risk factor that makes encounters exciting in the first place -- once that Box was fully opened, a major shift in paradigms occurred. I think this wizard thing is a symptom of that shift.

Andrew Modro said...
February 11, 2010 at 2:46 PM  

Two things:

* The "15-minute work day" is not a function of edition. It is a function of the people at the table. Nowhere in the 3e or 3.5e books does it state, in any way, "The spellcaster should use all of his spells in a single encounter and then go home to rest." If a d20 party wish to forge onward after the mage stupidly blows all his spells, they will do so. If an earlier-edition party wish to stop and let the mage recover his spells after a single encounter, they will do so.

* Spellcasters can still only cast one spell per round in 3e/3.5e, no matter if they get a second attack when their BAB finally reaches +6 at 12th level.

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