Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Tyranny of Magic Missile

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.

21 comments:

bliss_infinte said...

The Magic-user in my game is using Charm Person quite a bit to his advantage. Using it has gotten the party out of a number of potential scraps as well as gotten him some much needed clothing. Charm Person is probably one of the most powerful 1st level spells when you really think about it. Everything from free ale to swaying nations can be done with this 1st level spell.

Sean Robson said...

I'm a big fan of charm person. It's another spell that can be creatively used to very powerful effect.

migellito said...

Excellent post Sean. I think you've summed up quite well the exact problem I have with 4e, and at the same time the number one thing I'd change if I ran it.

I once had a mage cast feather-fall on an opponent who jumped down out of the trees onto the party. He was blown across a river by the wind, thus defeating him. It was a great moment :)

Sean Robson said...

I once had a mage cast feather-fall on an opponent who jumped down out of the trees onto the party. He was blown across a river by the wind, thus defeating him. It was a great moment :)

Wow. That is so cool. That's exactly the sort of creative spell casting I was talking about. What an innovative use of feather fall. I never would have thought of that. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

You got it. And it's not just a magic-user problem... they have changed the nature of all the classes, removing what was liked so much by fans of that class and forcing all classes into the same mold. Personally, I never played wizard types, but I did like fighters. Now, they play more like wizards, which is to say you have a lot of "powers" (similar complexity as spells used to be) to manage round-to-round and simple, direct attacking is not useful. All 4E classes are the same, and they are all about tactical damage dealing in a miniatures battle scenario.

Kiltedyaksman said...

I so agree with your post.

My young coverts from 4E wouldn't know what to do without Magic Missile and Sleep. I think I need to force them out of the box to think differently about spell use.

Well said.

James Maliszewski said...

Magic missile didn't make its appearance in OD&D until Supplement I. I've often been sorely tempted to disallow it in my current campaign on both "historical" and practical grounds, feeling that it'd go a long way toward encouraging creative thinking with 1st-level MU spells.

Sean Robson said...

Now, they play more like wizards, which is to say you have a lot of "powers" (similar complexity as spells used to be) to manage round-to-round and simple, direct attacking is not useful.

Funny you should mention this, because when we were trying 4E out, the guy playing the fighter often bemoaned all the powers, and missed the old days when he could just "run up to something and hit it with his sword."

Anthony said...

If you want to encourage creative spell casting but don't want to remove entries from the spell list, try this variant. Only allow magic-users to memorize 1 instance of a particular spell. As they level up, they will be picking spells besides Sleep and MM. Plus, it puts an emphasis on finding or researching new spells.

Jason said...

I remember a similar comment in the freely available parody/pastiche game Mazes and Minotaurs, where the core spellcaster had no direct damage spells whatsoever, but as the "anniversary edition commentary" reveals, they were overtaken by the direct damage Elementalist class. I'm not really bringing up anything new here but I think their treatment of it pretty much hits it on the head.

Taketoshi said...

I'm running a game with a lot of new players in it, and one chose to play a Wizard (3E rules, shame on me). He specialized in illusions, but honestly doesn't end up using a lot of them--it might be because of how limited the spell descriptions (statblocks) in 3E make them, but he finds himself continually memorizing a large array of directly offensive spells.

However, it's easy to tell that it's not his approach of choice--in our last session he shrunk himself down and made himself fly, turning him into a mean pixie to torment some guards that needed to be distracted without revealing his true identity.

seaofstarsrpg said...

I just ended up banning magic missile in my campaign. While I do not mind damaging spells at low levels, as you say mm is just too easy to fall into the mindset of it as the "only" choice.

Professor Pope said...

We may have simply misread the rules on this, but I was a big fan of using levitate offensively -- simply making someone float up in the air to get him out of the way. Also makes said enemy an easy target for missile fire.

Tequila Sunrise said...

My guess as to why mm was originally introduced, and then at-willified in 4e: not all DMs are as permissive as yours. If a DM likes to see creative spell use, he'll allow you to blind enemies with Light and blow them away with Feather Fall. But if he takes a more literal view of what a spell's function is supposed to be--and D&D's quirky vancian spells tend to encourage literal interpretations--then he's more likely to say "You light up your foe, but it isn't blind" or "Your ambusher gains no advantage by falling on you, but he still lands on you." DMs like this make damage spells very appealing for dungeon delvers.

Also, just as some players like to hit things with swords, some players like to blow stuff up. I can't think of a fantasy game involving battle that didn't have an option for blowing stuff up.

Oh, and yeah, there's a HUGE difference between "I fire my sling/crossbow" after using my few spells and "I fire magic missile" between encounter/daily powers. First, there's style: mm is magical, a sling or crossbow is a muggle tool. Second, my muggle tool sucks. While mm either hits automatically or does decent damage, depending on edition or rendition, a muggle tool requires an attack roll and does negligible damage.

Sean Robson said...

My guess as to why mm was originally introduced, and then at-willified in 4e: not all DMs are as permissive as yours

I think this is a reflection of the increasing codification of the rules over the subsequent editions. Originally, most of the spells were open to interpretation and required DM adjudication, which encouraged creative use. AD&D imposed tighter rules and increased clarification. Codification became greater still in 3E and reached the zenith of intractability in 4E. 4E removed spells which were subject to interpretation and adjudication in favour of straight forward spells that have "x" effect.

Oh, and yeah, there's a HUGE difference between "I fire my sling/crossbow" after using my few spells and "I fire magic missile" between encounter/daily powers

Except that in 4E you need to roll to hit with magic missile and the damage is comparable to a crossbow, so other than one dealing "magic" as opposed to "mundane" damage, the differences are purely aesthetic.

Brunomac said...

Funny, it never seemed problematic to me. The aformentioned Charm Person to me should be eliminated (until higher levels) before MM or anything else.

Magic Missle lets a low level MU hurt stuff without having to rist their couple of hit points doing it with a dagger or staff. If you let it harm non-living objects (like artwork, ropes, weapons, etc) then I could see it being more of a problem.

Sean Robson said...

My objection to Magic Missile isn't that it is unbalanced or not useful, rather that it can lull us into mental torpor and make us forget how useful some of the other 'non-combat' spells can be. Especially at low levels there are many spells that are more effective than magic missile, yet some folks still seem to gravitate towards it and miss the fun of experimenting with subtler spells.

Tequila Sunrise said...

I think this is a reflection of the increasing codification of the rules over the subsequent editions.
I suspect it's a chicken-or-egg scenario: did spells become codified because of unpermissive DMs, or are unpermissive DMs the result of rule codification? A bit of both, I think.

Except that in 4E you need to roll to hit with magic missile and the damage is comparable to a crossbow, so other than one dealing "magic" as opposed to "mundane" damage, the differences are purely aesthetic.
One might argue that the other differences are insignificant, but they're there. Yes, a 4e wizard has to roll to hit with [pre-errata] mm--and his chances will be better than his chances with a thrown dagger. (4e wizards don't have crossbows.) His range will be longer too, and his damage greater. If he's a wand wizard, his Dex will be only a little lower than his Int, so his bonuses won't be that much lower with the dagger--disregarding the dagger's 1d4 base damage compared to mm's 2d4 base damage. But if he's any other kind of wizard, his Dex will be lower so he'll be effectively taking non-proficiency penalties with the dagger. At that point, he's essentially a side-kick.

Brunomac said...

rather that it can lull us into mental torpor and make us forget how useful some of the other 'non-combat' spells can be. Especially at low levels there are many spells that are more effective than magic missile<

Well, all characters are a bit limited at lower levels. By mid-level an MU has a lot of choices. I feel it is up to the player to work out his MU characters choices and flavor. If they all want MM, then great. In D&D worlds it is the bread and butter (like Harry Potter calls "Stupify") of an adventuring mage. NPC MU's who live in a tower researching will be the ones who don't bother with MM. But an MU marching into a dungeon needs whatever damaging spells he can get.

At first level I see some MU's picking MM, some picking Charm, and some picking Sleep. I just don't think limiting this 1st level list is the way to go.

Anonymous said...

I agree whole-heatedly with the OP with regard to the utility of non-damage-dealing spells. One of my favorite character types to play was a gnome illusionist/thief. Very light on the sturm und drang, but a creative player can turn such a critter into a potent combatant from the shadows.

Jim Pacek said...

I don't know how I missed this the first time! :) The tyranny is even worse in 4e now because MM *always hits!* My GM has a program that keeps stats of damage done to monsters and the wizard in the group *consistently* does more damage than my paladin. Also, the auto-hit trashes minions (1 hp) in 4e. I agree, Charm Person is much more fun.