Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

A Case For Perpetual Low-Level Adventuring

I’m a fan of the knife’s edge of low-level adventuring. I even dummied up an OSR system called HALLS (High Adventures for Low Levels System) based on the premise of a B/X-like system that caps out at level 4 but allows for a handful of XP sinks. I don’t think what I was doing scales well, however, and the vast amounts of XP required to level up in HALLS put a bit of a drag on that play-reward feedback loop that makes levelling such a focus of gaming.

I really think that the system my friend has cobbled together, loosely based on Warhammer Fantasy RPG, really manages to capture what I was unable to with the D&D based HALLS – a system that allows for constant and continual character development/improvement while maintaining that rain-slicked precipice feeling of the first few levels. Almost every session, we’ve been able to gain enough XP to put a point in something, but every adventure has a substantial amount of risk that doesn’t require massive scaling of monsters, NPCs and treasure hoards. Even my character, with whom I’d only missed a couple sessions over the course of maybe 20 now, while incredibly good at doing what they did (throw knives, steal things, do massive damage, and plan really great parties) I always had to stay cautious, because two solid hits would kill me; when I stopped being cautious, two hits killed me. It’s a system where you can’t afford to get cocky.

The new character I rolled up, though substantially weaker in many regards, was not so much weaker than the rest of the party that I was a load; on the contrary, my new character held his own and killed a cultist or two before fleeing to the back ranks after taking a crossbow bolt to the shoulder.

The way the system calculate character HP (grit), 1d4+3 + CON mod (max 3) + Profession mod (max 2), you’re never going to get a character who take a lot of solid hits. Weapon damage is all d6 based with modifiers (usually -1, occasionally -2, sometimes +1, very rarely +2). Armor reduces damage rather than detracts from to-hit rolls (allowing for a minimum of 1 ‘ping’ damage). You end up with combats where most characters can take at least 2 hits, 3 or 4 if a few are glancing, but you don’t have those long, drawn out mid-to-high level combats where everyone is slowly whittling away at dozens of HP in 1d8 increments.

The relatively low HP means you can throw weak-to-average monsters or opponents at the players, and it will ALWAYS feel like a challenge. Foe creation is incredibly quick. A monster statblock would consist simply of Grit, Movement, Melee, Ranged, Init, and a base save.

A human mook would be something like this:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 10, Ranged: 6, Init: 0, Save 10

Let’s keep him simple by giving him a sword that does a flat 1d6 damage.

  • The mook could take 6 damage; any damage putting him below 0 would force a roll on the dismemberment table (for mooks, it’s easier to go with ‘not killed by the wound’/’killed by the wound’).
  • The movement of 5 translates to whatever scale you’re using. 5′, 10′ squares, 5 yard, 10 yard hexes, whatever – he moves five of them.
  • To hit in melee, he’d have to roll equal to or under 10. To hit with ranged, he has to roll equal to or under 6.
  • No mods to initiative, and if a situation forces a saving throw, he has a 50/50 chance to save.

Now, let’s try something more interesting; a spitting spider dog:

Grit: 6, Move: 5, Melee: 12, Ranged: 10, Init: 1, Save: 10

On the surface, it’s not much different. And that’s good! Because it means it’s easy to create new, weird things. But players will be terrified of it, because it’s a spitting spider dog. Instead of biting, the spitting spider dog might use a ranged attack that will incapacitate a victim with saliva. The target would get to make strength check at disadvantage when their initiative came up to break free. I just came up with that monster completely on the fly; took me 2 minutes thinking of something weird and gross that we’d probably run into in the setting. We’d probably fight half a dozen of them; if we got lucky, we’d get away with some scrapes, bruises and one or two broken limbs.

To give you a bit of comparison for what a PC looks like, my character who died looked something like this:

STR: 7, Con: 11, Dex: 18, Int:11, Cha:11, Luc:11

Grit: 7, Move: 4, Melee: 6, Ranged: 17, Init: 5

That 17 in range meant that I was good enough at throwing knives that I could attack at disadvantage every time to ‘buy’ an additional d6 damage (for 1d6-2 + 1d6), and the Init 5 meant I could make that attack twice per round whenever I rolled a 3 or higher on a d6 for initiative (0-7, where 8 or higher gets a second attack on the modified initiative roll -8; so, if I’d rolled a 4, I’d attack on 9, then again on 1). Now, I was a bit of a fluke, because I a)had a 17 natural dex that I bought to 18, and poured all of my XP into maxing out my ranged skill profession mod (combat skills can’t be modded higher than +8, and you have to have the advanced profession that allows you to reach those caps). But that’s what a character with nearly 1200 XP looks like (session XP was usually in the neighborhood of 70). Yes, I’d point-by-point built a killer who could put a knife through someone’s throat and skip off into the crowd before the guards showed up, but certainly wasn’t going to be able to take more than a couple blows. In a previous fight, she took a crossbow bolt to the arm; like most folks who take a crossbow bolt to the arm, she was done – time to hide behind the wall and hope her friends could finish the fight without her. The most I could’ve ever got my grit up to was 10, which would’ve taken a classes that would let me raise my Con by 2 and my Grit by 2 (possibly requiring anywhere between 400 and 800 XP depending on how I ultimately went about it). But that could’ve been the difference between suffering broken ribs and the disemboweling she ultimately succumbed to.

Every fight was life-or-death. It was exhilarating!

My DM is working on codifying his core rules into a consultable player’s guide. I’m hoping to convince him that this will be a worthwhile marketable system and offered to help him put together something if he were ever interested in commercially publishing it. I’ll admit, I had a few issues getting used to it at first, but I have a hard time imagining enjoying another system as much.

The Wise Red Fellow

AC: 0
HD: 12****
Move: 90’ (30’)*
Attacks: Gaze / 2 claws + 1 bite
Damage: Special / 2d6 each + Special/
No Appearing: 1
Save As: F12
Morale: 12
Alignment: Chaotic

The Wise Red Fellow stands well over 9 feet tall, even though his body appears to be that of a frail and stooped old man. His body is hunched over to support his enormous triangular head.

The head of this creature appears to always face the person observing it, even if directly behind it. Any individual caught in the Wise Red Fellow’s gaze must save vs. paralysis or be transfixed. If the victim succeeds on their saving throw, they must again make a saving throw against spells at -4 or be affected as per the spell Fear. Dwarves need not make the first saving throw and suffer no penalty on the second. Elves need not make either saving throw.

The Wise Red Fellow will move towards a paralyzed target, taking two rounds to reach them regardless of distance. Upon reaching the victim, the Wise Red Fellow will swallow them whole. Characters killed in this manner cannot be restored outside of a Wish spell.

If forced to fight, the Wise Red Fellow will attack with its two long-clawed hands. If both claw attacks hit, the Wise Red Fellow does no damage but will attempt a bite attack; if the bit attack succeeds, it does no damage, but the Wise Red Fellow will swallow its victim whole.

The Wise Red Fellow is immune to spells cast by Elves. Damage dealt to the Wise Red Fellow by magical weapons is halved.

The Wise Red Fellow is thought to be either a demon or a creature of fey, perhaps even a forgotten god. Legend holds that its head is filled and weighted with polished stones and its heart is an uncut ruby that oozes blood on the solstices. Supposedly, it possesses the knowledge of all beings it has consumed; some witches claim it can be summoned and petitioned for aid on an equinox by pouring sacrificial blood onto uncut rubies.

Solutions to Bring Vancian Magic into Your OD&D/Holmes/Moldvay Game

I’ve written in the past how Basic D&D’s magic system isn’t truly Vancian. I’m not talking Vancian in the “Fire and Forget” manner which has become so reviled because it is so misunderstood. I’m talking Vancian in the sense that the flavors of the mechanics evoke the sense of one having to scrounge for and collect ancient lost and forgotten arcana at great cost.

In OD&D and (to a lesser degree) Holmes, Magic Users have access to all spells at levels they can cast at. There are even rules that imply they can simply go down to the spell emporium and buy a replacement spellbook at fixed cost to replace any spellbook they lost. In B/X, Magic Users only learn one spell/add one spell to their spellbook per level. In all of those cases, there’s no finding scrolls to learn new spells by adding them to your spellbook.

Shitlord: the Triggering settles on a hybrid of Holmes and AD&D that allows you to incorporate truly Vancian magic into your setting, and it arrives at the place that my own house-rules on magic were more or less heading.

S:tT uses Holmes’s Intelligence chart for chance to learn spells and minimum/maximum number of basic spells per level for its Bullshitter (Magic User) class. It specifies that “a beginning Bullshitter’s spell book contains as many of the eight basic first level spells as the newb character can know.” However, it goes on to specify that a MU would need to find and copy new spells into his spellbook. So, here is how it would work:

-At first level, the DM would select the MU’s INT guaranteed 1st level spells, then MU would roll to see how many of the other 1st level spells they know. Based on the wording, the rules imply that those spells are simply not in their spellbook, but they CAN be learned in the future if a)the MU finds the appropriate scroll, b)the MU has not reached the maximum known spells for their INT, and c)the MU succeeds on the chance to learn the spell.

-At third level, when an MU gains ability to cast 2nd level spells, instead of suddenly gaining access to a new spellbook full of all 2nd level spells that they either can or cannot cast, the MU can begin to inscribe 2nd level spells that he finds. Up to their minimum spells per level number, the MU would not have to roll to learn the new spell. Once the minimum number of spells per level has been reached, the MU would need to roll their % chance to learn the new spell.

While not flawless in its explanation (some of this is my own extrapolation), this offers a potential model, along with the necessary charts missing from Moldvay, of how to do AD&D-style Vancian magic in a Basic game.


They Did the Mash: Revelry at Pickett Castle

After all these years, I finally ran Revelry at Pickett Castle.  I used a combination of B/X (for stats & bonuses) and Blueholme (OD&D’s spellbook rules) with ascending AC. While I didn’t take the dice out of my players hands, I rolled saves for them so they had one less thing to worry about on their character sheets.

To make the most of our time for the evening, I created a handful of pre-gen characters, each with alliterative names and duplicate DM copies so I could better keep track of everyone.

From our pool of 9 characters, we ended up having a party of Elmuth the Elf, Harry the Halfling, Margot the Mage, Paul the Priest (Cleric), Mack the (Magic User) Knife, and Nicole the Nun (cleric). Unused were Thisban the Thief, Dirk the Dwarf, and Alice the Archer.

I’m glad that someone picked Mack the Knife; in the constraints of the B/X class system, I’d made a mage of mediocre stats an effective bard type character, giving him a bundle of throwing knives and a banjo of magic missiles to compensate for his smaller 13 INT spellbook. More about him later.

Each character had some random junk in addition to basic class equipment: a bag of rice, some fancy cheeses and liquors, cooking oil, a cold potato, etc.. Mostly just weird items to see what players might end up trying to do with stuff. They did not disappoint.

Since Pickett’s Castle is meant to be dropped off in a wilderness while the party is on the way to some place, I needed to come up with a decent excuse for them to have to check it out. So, a local constable of a village in the forest had charged them with investigating the causes of mysterious fogs and sightings of undead in the woods. Naturally, the party wanted to set out in the morning.

Obscuring fog hampered travel a bit, and the party meandered through the woods and stumbled on an old graveyard while following various wolf-trails.  The old graveyard had all sorts of holes in it; some seemingly freshly dug by hand, some where things had seemed to burst forth from the ground, and others where wolves seemed to have dug up shallow graves. Seeing a pack of wolves in one corner of the graveyard, the party skirted around the edge and headed to a small hovel opposite from where the wolves were. Inside, they found a scared-witless grave-keeper who told them that over the past several days, dead had been rising from their graves, and a strange pack of wolves had been keeping him from leaving the graveyard. The bizarre occurrences began happening shortly after he had received a mysterious note, written in what looked like blood—an invitation to a party at Pickett Castle on the night of the full moon.

The party dealt with the wolves and freed the gravekeeper to flee back to the relative safety of the village. They continued in the general direction of the rumored castle, and while the fog still had not lifted by midday, they managed to find the ruins of a road leading northward. As they headed north, the scouting Halfling heard some grumbling voices while others in the rear of the party heard the sound of hooves and wheels upon the ruined road. The party scattered, clearing the road; a carriage pulled by four black stallions raced by at unnatural speed, a strange dog-thing’s head out the window, its tongue hanging out. It appeared to be wearing shades. “Aawoooo!” it shouted as it rode by.

(Since the party had set out for the castle early, they crossed paths with the DJ who was on his way with his gear.)

The zombies were still ahead down the road after the carriage had passed. The party made fairly short work of them, noting that they were nicely dressed, as zombies go. They decided to try to disguise themselves as zombies to sneak into the party; they did, after all, have the zombies’ invitations.

Eventually, everyone reached the castle; some zombies and ghouls were milling about on the far side of the bridge, so the party decided to wait a bit. Some of those milling about went inside, and the party crossed the bridge. One of the zombies at the door counted out on his remaining fingers… “I thought there were supposed to be five of you.” With Mack the Knife in the lead, with his banjo of magic missiles, the party had been mistaken for the band.

Folks looked around and saw that the party was still in the process of being setup, though some refreshments were being served. The first thing the party figured was that there were probably too many undead to take in a straight fight, and the Vampires hadn’t even shown up yet.

Boris waved the party into his laboratory, and explained that he had thought the castle was abandoned and was conducting important experiments, but apparently a powerful vampire lord had a timeshare on the Castle and was planning something big. His experiment required the power of the full moon and the aid of his assistant, who’d been chained up outside. He needed the monsters out before it was too late to use his machine, and he would pay the party handsomely. (The ‘party getting out of hand’ angle wouldn’t work, since the players arrived before the party actually started).

They managed to find Igor chained up outside, and rather than search for the key, they stuck one of the clerics’ mace in between the chain links and cast enlarge on it, snapping the dope free. They got the fool back to Boris without much trouble, but began to worry what would happen if the real band arrived. They left and told the zombie bouncers they were going to get their instruments and would be back to setup soon.

The sun was almost down, and a large bat could be seen flying toward the castle as the party headed south, where they ran into the Crypt Kicker Five. Mack the Knife took initiative and said “We’re the band, now!” The Crypt Kicker Five challenged them to a jam-off, one which they’d surely win, since only the only instruments the party had were Mack’s banjo and harmonica and Nicole’s mouth-harp. Instead, Mack opened with a chord that zapped the Crypt Kicker’s vocalist with a magic missile, downing him from the go. The remaining members of the band, the bassist, drummer, guitarist, and saxophonist, charged the party, instruments swinging. Paul the Priest mangled his leg in the fight, but the gang returned to the party with (some rather banged up) instruments to keep the charade running a bit longer.

They found Drac, who seemed to be in charge and had very big plans for the evening. He was thrilled that band had shown up, but had promised wolfman that he’d be allowed to do his DJ set for a few more hours because he a friend of brother-in-law, Geoffrey.

The magic users in the party made use of the Read Thoughts spell on both Drac and Boris. Boris’s plan involved harnessing the light of the full moon to power a device that let him contact an intelligence beyond the stars. Drac’s plan seemed to involve a cake. This presented a conundrum, as Boris’s plan sounded like a disaster for humanity, but Dracula hadn’t offered them 8000 gold.

Harry the Halfling managed to wheedle out of Drac that he was throwing a birthday party for his son and had a surprise for him. Somehow, the party managed to convince Dracula that it would be great to play their set outside, since they could work pyrotechnics (courtesy of Margot the Mage) into their set and it would be awesome. Plus, it would give Wolfman a bit more time to do his thing while they set up a bon-fire.

They took some time to explore the rest of the tiny castle. Mack the Knife smoked the bad zombie weed, died and came back as a Thriller zombie. They didn’t stick around to piss off the ghoul couple who was making out. In the master bedroom, they found not only the key to Igor’s chains, but a six-foot layered red cake. Mack the Knife tried to take a taste of the icing, rolled a 1, fell into the cake and right into Drac’s surprise for his son – Alucard’s girlfriend Nancy, who was going to burst out of the cake and sing him happy birthday. Nancy ripped off Mack’s arm and was in position to do some serious damage, but Elmuth the elf threw out a handful of rice and Harry the Halfling managed to stake her with his half-spear while she was compelled to count it. With the cake smashed, Drac’s future daughter-in-law dead, and the Crypt-Kicker Five buried out in the woods, the party was pretty ruined, but that didn’t take care of Boris’ need for the monsters to be cleared out before morning.

At this point, panic in set in, and the party floated several really interest and bad ideas for what to do next. Even though they chucked Nancy and the cake out the window, there really wasn’t any way to clean up the huge mess they’d made. So, they went for an all-or-nothing gambit to kill Dracula (which still wouldn’t have ended the party). What they settled on was papering the window with pages from Paul the Priest’s prayer book, holding portal on door and then trying to kill him while he was trapped counting rice.

While this went on, Harry the Halfling tried to assure Drac that everything was still fine, they knew about the surprise cake, and they’d help with moving it to where they were going to put on the show.

Wolfman has switched to playing doo-wop; Dracula goes into the master bedroom, his jaw drops – first thing he sees is the cake is gone, then he notices the bloodbath, then the rice on the floor as the door slams behind him. The party hoped they could take him while he was counting rice, but Drac had made pretty quick work of his counting (“I taught myself to count by tens for just such occasions!”). Still, he was cornered and outnumbered; he threw the bedtable through the window, knocking away the pages from the prayer book and managed to make his escape after suffering a few wounds. He did manage to rip of Mack the Knife’s legs before he misted out the window, though!

The party went back down to Boris’s lab, cast Charm on him and convinced him they needed to move the gold from his vault to a safer location. After the gold was loaded up into a sack which Igor would carry, the party threw Boris down the ravine, thwarting his plans to speak to shadows beyond the stars, and fled the region with the cash, never to return. Dracula, Alucard and Geoff would descend upon the region, seeking vengeance and making the populace suffer for generations for what had been, but the chars escaped with their lives (except Mack who was now a stumpy zombie body with one arm) and a ton of wealth.


So, a couple things: a few players weren’t really familiar with the concept of one-offs and it took them a bit of adjusting. One of the cleric players asked what deities there were to choose from in this setting; “God & Jesus” I told them. At least one player had some issues with the consistency of the setting “Why does the Wolfman have Victrolas? I thought this was a medieval setting.” “He also has sunglasses, too,” I reminded her.

Once the players grasped that there was not going to be a ‘next session’, they realized that no ideas were bad ideas, just fun ideas. One of the many plans which was eventually discarded, was that they’d cast Darkness on the Cold Potato and use it… somehow. But a throwable sphere of darkness could’ve been interesting if they’d tossed it onto the dance floor. Another idea, which would’ve actually worked really well, was to spike one of the drinks with wolfsbane and give it to Wolfman; he’d’ve died, music would’ve stopped, Frankenstein’s monster would’ve run amuck, and they could’ve cleared out the place. Some folks asked me if any of the items I’d given them were for specific things or ways to finish the module; nope, I just gave them weird stuff and wanted to see what they’d do with them. I’d almost forgotten the part about how vampires are OCD and compelled to count things when the player used the bag of rice I’d given him to distract the vamps.

The one older guy in our group was the only one who really “got” a lot of the references and understood the gag of the module, while another seemed under the mistaken impression at first that this was going to be a serious affair. Once it actually clicked with one player that the module was based on a song, he started looking up the lyrics in hopes that it would give them ideas for how to complete it. Normally, I’d frown on that sort of thing, but it wasn’t going to help him that much, and hey, a kid who’d never heard the Monster Mash was looking it up, so that’s cool.

Everybody had a good time, and I had a lot of fun, because it let me do a lot of weird character interaction improv that I just wasn’t able to do with Lost City. Yeah, I didn’t run my own module as written, but it worked well as a flexible template to do a lot of weird, fun things with.

That New Swords & Wizardry Thing…

Okay, some quick thinks on the new Swords & Wizardry thing, which appears to be an even bigger “debacle”::fingerquotes:: than I imagined. How much of the debacle is people (one person) strawmanning? I don’t really know.

So, Frog God Games is kickstarting a new printing of Swords & Wizardry. They put Stacy Dellorfano in charge of the art direction and all of the art is done by women. The stated reason for doing this is “the fact that many OSR games have a physical appearance and presentation that really targets the 40 year old guys who’ve been gaming since forever, and doesn’t have nearly as much appeal to younger or female gamers of the generations following that first wave of players from the 1980s.” So, they put a grimdark exploding elk skull with butterflies on the cover.


Problems with the compositional elements aside*, my take is that it’s an odd, possibly bad, choice at best given that stated goal, especially when the previous cover was done by the guy known for the covers of ‘fun for the whole family’ toystore editions of Dungeons & Dragons.


While some people don’t like the art, period, others are, like me, simply confused as to why this was chosen for the cover.(I really like a lot of what I’ve seen of Kaos Nest’s work as an illustrator, but she’s not someone that would come to mind for a “more-accessible next printing that [Frog God Games] are targeting toward the mainstream market.”) What I haven’t seen is any wailing or gnashing of teeth about the OSRness of the new printing. It’s not an attack on innovation, or even an attack on “not even innovative” innovation; it’s a befuddlement at a single befuddling art direction decision. Then again, there’s really only one guy saying that it is, so it’s probably best to not worry about it.


Seriously, though, S&W is the last big-named OSR system that springs to mind when I hear ‘we need a more mainstream accessible product that will have wider demographic appeal’.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess.png

*generally you don’t want any sort of detailed or dynamic elements where there will be text if you can help it. Changing the transparent yellow to a bright red and the red to a yellow would be a step in the right direction as far as composition goes, but that doesn’t address the issue I took with it.

Disclosure: I don’t play or own any Swords & Wizardry products; aside from Blueholme (and DCC 4th printing, if it ever ships), I don’t own any OSR products. I guess I’m not even really OSR! I just thought it was a really weird choice for a cover given what the stated intentions were.

Update: Okay, so I found one guy who’s on about this as an attack on the OSR rather than just as a bad art/design choice, but his beef is the quip about “40 year old guys” in conjunction with the art as part of a virtue signaling on FGG’s part to dump on their core fanbase.

Read Magic Throughout the Ages Pt. 2 (AD&D 1st Edition)

As I don’t have copies of the AD&D corebooks immediately available at my disposal, I’m pulling the text from OSRIC; if the actual text is substantially different and OSRIC wrong on this, by all means, let me know, cuz that seems like a big deal! I know I said I would look at Holmes in part 2, but I think I will make it 1.5, since it bridges the gap between OD&D and AD&D, with B/X kinda off in its own direction.

Magic in AD&D is radically different from OD&D and B/X. A lot of the spells are the same or similar, but there is a huge difference in how mages build their spell repertoire.

In OD&D, and presumably B/X*, wizards can go down to SpellCo and just buy a level’s worth of spells in a single volume. The magic user isn’t going to be able to learn all of those, of course, but they physically HAVE those spells. There’s no need to scrounge towers for lost arcana, because you already have access to all of the vanilla spells for your caster levels.

In AD&D, however, we start to see thematically Vancian magic emerge.

“A beginning magic user character will know four spells. One of these will automatically be Read Magic. The second spell should be chosen by the player from the list of first level spells, and the last two should be determined randomly from the list of first level spells.” – OSRIC, p 16

So, now we have the assumption that a Magic User at 1st level is someone who has completed his apprenticeship and has access to a small assortment of spells that his master has presumably given him; his student’s spellbook will contain Read Magic and 3 other spells.

Here’s what OSRIC says about scrolls:

“Spells are also sometimes found written on scrolls. It is not
possible to memorise a spell from a scroll, although magic
users and illusionists may copy the spell from the scroll into
their spell books, if they understand the spell. This process
always erases the scroll. This is the primary means by which
magic users and illusionists will acquire new spells for their
spell books.
Alternatively, the spell may be cast directly from the scroll, in
which case the scroll is erased as the spell is cast. In this case,
it is not necessary for the caster to know the spell beforehand,
and indeed it is possible to cast a spell from a scroll even if
the caster does not know the spell or is of insufficient level
to use the magic.” – OSRIC, p 35

So, the Dungeon Book from Holmes is gone, but using scrolls to learn new spells is in.  As they’re written in magic, presumably Read Magic is necessary for a chance to enter them into your spell book.

“Read magic is normally the fi rst spell in every magic user’s spell
book, and its mastery is the fi rst task of every apprentice. The
spell allows the caster to read magical writings (other than
his or her own, of course, which are always intelligible to the
original author).
Unless the writings are cursed, reading magical script does
not normally activate the magic formulae described therein—
reviewing a scroll prior to casting from it does not, for instance,
actually cast whatever spell is written upon the scroll. Once the
magic user has read a particular set of magical inscriptions by
use of this spell, the spell is no longer needed to re-read the
writing at a later time.
The reverse of the spell allows the magic user to make magical
writings indecipherable for the spell’s duration, and is cast
upon the writing rather than upon the caster him- or herself.” – OSRIC, p 97

While it is still necessary for using scrolls, the Read Magic’s greater purpose now becomes to translate scrolls and stolen spellbooks and enter those new spells in your spellbook. Magic Users can no longer simply buy a book for 2000 GP x spell level to unlock a new level’s worth of spells as in OD&D or Holmes, and unlike B/X, where Magic Users ONLY know their spells selected when leveling up, Magic Users can theoretically learn multiple spells based on the MU spell Acquisition Table. Since all Magic Users have Read Magic, and since they do not have B/X’s restrictions, it is no longer a question of forever sacrificing a spell slot for the ability to use scrolls.

To learn new spells in AD&D, Magic Users must cast Read Magic, attempt to understand the spell (MU Spell Acquisition Table), and, if successful, scribe the spell in to his spellbook. Finally, magic in D&D is starting look truly like something out of Dying Earth!


*Holmes, anyway; in B/X, I believe you can replace your spellbooks, but you do not have access to more spells than those matching your current level’s Spell Per Day table, i.e. you can’t know 4 1st level spells unless you can cast at least 4 1st level spells.