When I was young, my favourite class to play was, hands down, the magic user. Nothing exemplified fantasy adventure so well as a mysterious robed wizard with miraculous powers, and I delighted in finding cool new ways to use my spells.
In one of my very first games, my friend, Peter, played a magic user named Orpheus, and he always picked magic missile as his sole spell at first level. This selection puzzled me, since it was of such limited use and as we were using the Holmes rules, he even had to roll to hit with it. I asked him why he chose magic missile for his spell, and he replied that it was the only offensive spell he had, the implication being that it was, therefore, the only rational choice. This is a mentality that I like to call "the tyranny of magic missile," wherein we become so focused on damage dealing spells that we forget about the many offensive uses of non-damage dealing spells.
I used to make a point of selecting spells that were generally considered useless by my friends and tried to find ways to use them creatively as offensive spells. Dancing lights was one of my first dalliances with creative spell casting and quickly became one of my favourite spells. I can't recall just how many times I lured pursuers over the edges of cliffs, into traps, and so forth, with a simple dancing lights spell. I've killed more orcs with a single dancing lights spell than I ever have with a fireball.
Enlargement is another spell with great potential that I always had fun with. There are just so many different ways one can use it because it can be used on both animate and inanimate objects - it is such a versatile spell. Of course there are far too many uses for enlargement to describe them all, but here are a few of my favourites: When being chased by a group, duck into a crawl space, tunnel, or other tight squeeze. Wait for the first pursuer to follow then enlarge him so he becomes stuck and blocks the way for the other pursuers. When someone lifts something heavy, perhaps to throw at you, enlarge it, doubling its size and mass. If you've ever seen the "Biggy-Wiggy/Teensy-Weensy sequence from Loony Tunes, you'll get the picture. I also like to use it on myself to intimidate people. One time, when we were being rushed by a group of bandits, I enlarged myself while threatening to summon a demon to drag them all to the abyss. They ran away screaming. I was very pleased, many years later, to see Ian McKellen use the exact same tactic in the movie, Fellowship of the Ring, although he only used it to bully an elderly hobbit - pffttt...amateur.
Even the lowly light spell can be used for more than just to light your way. A popular tactic with my friends was to cast it on face of an attacker, effectively blinding him. As your opponent is stumbling around clutching his head and bellowing in rage, you can further taunt him by serenading him with a Manfred Mann song.
Given the many fun, challenging and effective spells available to a 1st level magic user, why would anyone ever choose magic missile? Sure, it's handy at higher levels when more first level spell slots are available and you can fire multiple missiles with a single casting; and it is awfully comforting to be able to be able to rely on dishing out guaranteed magical damage when you really need it, but pound for pound, it is one of the least useful spells in a magic user's arsenal. You certainly can't use it to see off an entire band of orcs and single-handedly save the party from imminent doom.
Yet, magic missile has a certain traction in the hobby. It has come to be seen as one of the signature spells of D&D. During the early days of 4E's development, I followed the designers' podcasts with some interest to see what they intended to do with the new edition. One of their stated goals was to give the magic user something to do every round, even at low levels, instead of forcing him to shoot a crossbow every round (magic users were allowed crossbows in 3E) after casting his few spells for the day. So how did they achieve this goal? By making magic missile an 'at will power,' and they balanced this by requiring a roll to hit. So now instead of the poor magic user having to shoot his crossbow every round he gets to shoot his magic missile every round. I fail to see how the slightly different aesthetic is any more exciting or fun.
Worse, though, the 4E designers did away with all vestiges of creative spell casting - sorry, power use; spells no longer exist. The first time I played 4E I chose my favourite class of youth. Gone were my favourite spells. Almost every single power is a straight forward offensive power, there are no versatile powers that can be used creatively to overcome a foe. Nowadays you just blast them until they fall down. The wizard is now just a 'blaster' or 'controller' to use the MMOG terms. No imagination required. And thus, in 4E, the tyranny of magic missile has become entrenched not only as a mindset, but in the rule set as well.
I know lots of people that have always played this way, and I always thought that they were missing out on the real fun of playing a magic user. It's true that the class isn't much fun to play when you only select damage spells - you cast off your magic missiles, deal a few points of damage and then you're effectively out of the fight. I'm sure this must have been the way that 4E's designers played too. They, like so many others, never 'got it.' A low level magic user might not have had many spells at his disposal, but he had some real doozies, and used creatively they were awesome. But these old magic users were the by-product of a game that emphasized problem solving - they were "not as clumsy and random as a blaster, but elegant weapons from a more civilized age."
If you know people who are still enslaved by the tyranny of magical missile try this as an experiment: disallow any direct damage spells for starting characters (including sleep - it's way too easy), and force them to find new ways to use the so-called utility spells. They might just have more fun than ever before and become better spell casters in the process.
Welcome Back to the Labyrinth
"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."
"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."
"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"
"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"