On 1st Level Magic Users

I saw a post today about the fragility of 1st level characters, particularly a magic-user who was killed by a single blow.

It got me to thinking about wizards as low level PCs.

Mages should consider internships over adventuring if they’re serious about mastering their craft.

In any setting where magic is codified, like in D&D, where there’s kind of a set handful of spells that all mages may or may not know, magic would probably be institutionalized in some way, taught, practiced and passed down. In this case, you’d have two types of wizards in the world.

There would be those who were seriously devoted to their craft, spending their time learning under tutelage, privately in libraries or in group settings of magic learning.*  I’d imagine that after several years of schooling, these wizards would know a handful of spells that they could competently cast, from which point they could continue on in higher magic learning via academia, adventuring, or in their spare time as professionals (because let’s face it: utility magic doesn’t always come in handy when fighting monsters, but would make daily life a lot easier for those who could afford the help of a wizard for labor, manufacture and construction. This is what most wizards did in the Earthsea books). These wizards would probably be around level 5 or so, meaning that they were professionally competent journeyman wizards. Not super powerful, but with a repertoire such that someone who knew them, saw them and was aware of their capabilities, they’d say “Yes, ‘es a wizard, alright!”

Then you have the 1st level adventuring wizard. I’ve always imagined that level 1 mages were not so much serious wizards as they were dudes who thought “Hey, I just learned how to cast a spell! That makes me awesome, right? Time to go fight monsters!” Why would someone who would be serious about magic go out adventuring when they were 1st level? What is a 1st level wizard mechanically? HP wise, he is someone that a punch to the face, a fall down a short hole, or brushing up against someone in a crowd would probably incapacitate if not kill. Magic wise, he knows how to read magic, and cast a single spell. Once. He’s a one-trick-pony. So, he can’t take a hit, can’t fight, and within a single 24 hour period, can cast one spell once. He’s not a very useful fellow.

So, what sort of person is 1st level adventuring wizard? He’s someone who is physically weak, but has just discovered a new power. He thinks this makes him great, and it makes him cocky. If he were serious about magic as an art, he would find tutelage or at least a good library. Instead, he takes his new-found power and feels he has something to prove. Magic can be like bringing a gun to a knife fight. The thing is, the gun this neophyte mage is bringing is a musket with one ball, wad & ounce of powder. If a 1st level wizard is any help to his party, chances are it’s going to be a matter of luck. “Hey, this one thing I know? Who’d have thought it would be useful!” Wizbob McOnespell may not be good in a fight, but at least he knew featherfall for that pit-trap, right? Let’s hope we don’t have another pit trap for at least 24 hours!

Something to think about when playing a level 1 magic user: he’s probably going to be someone arrogant & cocksure without the substance to back up his talk. But if he didn’t have something to prove, he wouldn’t be out adventuring, would he? An adventuring magic user who survives is probably going to be even more arrogant because he HAS started to prove himself and is starting to have the power to back up his feelings of superiority that magic has brought him.

How does this translate into the game world?
Adventurers – There will be a handful of 1st level wizards running around, but very few wizards of 2nd-5th level, because out in the wild, magic users just don’t survive.

Apprentice wizards – In the libraries & academies, these young wizards are serious about magic as a profession & will be between 1st and 5th level.

Professional wizards – These wizards would be 5th-7th level and be found living in towns in numbers as needed. They’d be available for contract work in which magic would be helpful. Because of the demanding nature of their work, they would build up large amounts of xp that they would not be able to “cashed in” for levels & spells unless they took some time off for study and research. Unless they needed new spells for their profession, however, they might not feel the need to take time away from helping locals to devote themselves to study.

Adventuring mages – After spending some time developing their skills, 5th level and above wizards might feel that they were strong enough to be a serious asset to adventurers and might free-lance as a wizard-for-hire. While the work would be more dangerous than strengthening ships’ sails, blessing harvests, finding lost thing, etc., it would also pay a lot better and give more ample opportunities to grow skills and knowledge.

Scholarly mages – Some mages might choose to stay in academia longer, or, after spending time in the professional world, acquiring the money and resources for greater research, come back to academia. These wizards might end up becoming teachers, scholars & devote their time to writing treatises on arcane nature, replenishing the world’s supply of magic scrolls & potions, and creating wondrous items.

Archmages – After a certain point, either scholarly or adventuring mages gain a questionable amount of power. They have learned spells that are dangerous and world-threatening. If these mages are part of academia, they might act as custodians of forbidden wisdom. Or they may go rogue and take their power somewhere that it can develop and grow further, if they are ambitious. Adventuring wizards who have continued to this point are ambitious by nature. Those wizards who choose to grow their powers in isolation or through further adventure are likely to be seen as dangers by the academic community, who may seek to intervene, lest the world be threatened by a wizard who has grown too powerful.


*In many game terms, this would mean having 0 xp, because having xp means you’ve killed things or found treasure, but I think that spending years of studying should give magic users more xp than adventuring. This isn’t practical for a gaming group a lot of times, since you don’t want to give free levels just because a magic-user’s player says “I go to wizard college until I’m level 20!”  But I’d think that it could work for NPCs based on time spent and the level & spell list of their teacher.  A great trick would be if a low level Magic-User’s childhood NPC friend goes off to the wizard university, and, after a few years in-game, the adventuring PC meets up and finds his friend is a higher level and knows more spells because you learn more magic by (surprise!) studying magic than fighting monsters.

16 responses to “On 1st Level Magic Users

  1. Great post; some very cool ideas here. Have you ever seen or read “The Principalities of Glantri”? It’s one of the Gazetteers for Basic D&D, and it presents a society of magic-users, offering tips, tools, and ideas for running a group of magic-users through a series of adventures as they develop their abilities from 1st level to more formidable levels.

    At least that’s how I remember it; it’s been a few decades since I’ve read the book….

  2. “It must be understood that the expansion of craft and the new lore will be shared between us.” Ulan Dhor, a slender young man, pale of skin, with the blackest of hair, eyes, and eyebrows, smiled ruefully. “But it is I who journey the forgotten water, I who must beat down the sea-demons with my oar.” Kandive leaned back into his cushions and tapped his nose with a ferrule of carved jade. “And it is I who make the venture possible. Further, I am already an accomplished wizard; the increment of lore will merely enhance my craft. You, not even a novice, will gain such knowledge as to rank you among the magicians of Ascolais. This is a far cry from your present ineffectual status.”

    I had always assumed magic-users go adventuring to gain new spells. Why toil for decades, bowing and scraping to your betters in exchange for whatever scraps of knowledge they deign to teach you, when there’s all that ancient lore ripe for the pillaging?

    • This is true, but again, they’d have to find someone willing to escort them. The sort of places they’d likely find new spells to learn are such that they’d ought not stand much of a chance on their own. Now, one option I hadn’t initially considered is that perhaps the neophyte mage is the brother of an adventurer, and the bonds of siblingry might make the near uselessness of the mage easier to put up with.

      Of course there are magic users who adventure for the sake of gaining new spells, but those who’d live long enough to find or use them would be few or far between.

    • Who knows? Maybe mothers would tell stories to their children warning them about what happens to little wizards who drop out of school and try to fight monsters? :D

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  4. I don’t agree that learing in a classroom is faster, or better, than hands-on experience.

    In strict game terms…

    According to the Player’s Handbook 3rd Ed, random starting ages, it could take a Wizard up to 11 years to get to 1st level. I picture this wizard is the mentally slow one of the class. If each level has to earn 1000 xp plus the previous level’s xp then I’d say it would take that wizard up to another 11 years to get to 2nd level. An adventuring wizard, with 3 other party members backing him up, facing 4 CR 1 challenges a day reaches level 2 in 4 days. And has a small fortune in gold and gear compared to your avarage commoner/apprentice.

    Of course this is strictly by the book.

    In the real world a person can be, say, a business major for any number of years. He would be VERY well educated in business theory, philosophy, and the typical workings and best business practices used by all companies. He still has little to no knowledge of, specifically, how Campbell’s Soup runs their day-to-day affairs. The practical experience he earns working for Campbell’s Soup will generate far more toward actually running the Campbell’s Soup company.

    I submit that leaning to cast a Magic Missile is one thing. Casting the Magic Missile at a charging Ork with a great axe covered in your companion’s blood is something much different. Hence, the faster XP gains

    • I believe that an arcane learning institute would be one where magic users would be able to find practical applications for their magic on a daily basis, maximizing their potential. (shooting ranges for missile spells, free-fall tracks for feather-fall, the ideas are endless). The system rationale for magical advancement is comparable to saying that one is more likely to learn German by getting into bar-fights than by finding someone who speaks German and having them teach you.

      An arcane learning center should give ample opportunity to grow magical skills and offer some sort of comparable advancement to adventuring. If you ask me, it would make more sense that a mage able to cast his or her known spells each and every day in a practical setting should have an edge over an adventuring wizard. The problem is, this discourages adventuring. I’m just looking at mages more in context of a sensible fantasy world rather than a functional game world, is all.

      I throw out a lot of what the D&D books say about low level magic users, because I think it’s stupid and leaves D&D magic users severely underpowered compared to wizards in most typical fantasy settings, and it is not even internally consistent in 3rd ed where anyone can just pick up a magic user level whenever they feel like it (Vaarsuvius in OotS bitched about this when Elan the bard considered picking up a level in mage, after Vaar had spent countless years to learn his first spell).

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  7. I’ve been thinking about this for some time while developing magic users for my game system, and it seems to me like the problem with MU survivability is in how they are put on the same “level” as other adventurers without requisite perks.

    A sword, shield, and suit of mail are hallmarks of a warrior — the priest has life-saving divine magic (and whatever else they get as part of the combo-platter) — and thieves have stealth, pick-pocketing, trap sense, and other stuff.

    Magic users stand out as being pimply dorks by comparison. Perhaps a MU should have their own apprentice at 1st level, to represent their training — kind of like the Quigon / Obiwan dynamic? “There are always two, a master and an apprentice.”


    • I also dislike the trope that magic users have spent years and years studying to learn their first spell before shooting up like a rocket.

      However, I’ve recently come up with a character concept (not in gaming terms, but for a story I’m writing) of the prodigal apprentice: a magic user who learned how to read magic, and can therefore cast spells from scrolls and such, but ended their training before hand because powerful sorcerers are completely crazy and a normal person can’t fathom their ways. A lot of the idea, I think, I got from the Char Woman’s Shadow, by Dunsany, in which an impoverished lordling is sent by his father to study magic under the local mystic. Even though he doesn’t learn much practical magic, the fact that he learns to read allows him to outwit his master and get his and the char woman’s shadows back.

    • Addendum: an overlooked aspect of level 1 MUs that (kind of) help balance them out is Sleep, if they know it. At early levels, sleep is an instant kill against low hit dice monsters, since they don’t get a saving throw. Also it meant that a random encounter with low level evil MUs was almost always a Total Party Kill.

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