Monday, January 19, 2015

Back In The Olden Days

Magic was once a subtle and mysterious thing, in the olden days.  The number of absolute damage nuking spells were few, and powerful, many were the spells that did something.  The most important spell of all, however, was Read Magic.  If you take a look in your current D&D 5e Player's Handbook you won't find it.  It wasn't in the 4th edition either.  The lack of that particular spell says much about the nature of the game as it is played today and the nature of those that play the game.

In earlier editions, such as the glory days of AD&D 1 and 2 (as opposed to the glory hole days of 3 and 4), when D&D was not trying to be something for everyone, the life of the magic user was not easy.  The acquisition of new spells was determined by the DM using any number of methods, but generally was not easy for the player.  Intelligence limited the number of spells a magic user could know and provided a percentile roll to determine if a magic user could learn any given spell he found.  As a result the magic users were the most idiosyncratic, and often eccentric, of the characters.  While optional rules existed that could force other classes to pay for training rather than simply leveling up to more power, the magic users had a fairly concrete set of requirements to increase their knowledge and power.  The two essential spells that every 1st level magic user should have in his spellbook were detect magic and read magic.  Of these two read magic was the one spell no magic user could ever live without.

A seemingly boring spell, read magic, was the secret to all the magic user's power.  By means of the spell the caster was able, for a period of time to read magical writing.  Was that important, you ask?
Hell yes it was important.  By rule and convention magical writing was not normal writing.  The very fact that the thief class received the ability to read/use magical scrolls at level 10 should tell us something: you can't just pick up and read a scroll no matter how literate you are.  Scrolls are not just words written on parchment.  Scrolls are spells cast into a parchment ready to be released when they are correctly read aloud by one who knows and understands the encoded spell.  It's like a person with no programming knowledge reading lines and lines of code.  It means nothing to you and there is nothing useful you can do with it.

Strictly speaking before a magic user can use a scroll he has to be able to read it.  That's what read magic is for.  The party finally overcomes an evil magic user as part of a quest chain in the campaign and they loot the evil wizard's stronghold.  Among the loot with which the abscond are several scrolls, something that might or might not be a wand, and a book full of seemingly magical writing.  They party magic user greedily claims those as his own cut of the treasure.  Now he has to have time, and some peace and quite, to pour over these objects and determine what the value is.  For this he needs detect magic and read magic.  He will cast detect magic to determine if these items are indeed magical, and once done he will need read magic to begin his work of discovering what the items say, in magical terms.  With read magic the writing becomes understandable to him, especially as the game's standard rules are that wizards write their spells in their own codes.  Read magic allows the caster to understand the essential magical language encoded by the writer.  Without it the magic user would not be able to discover new spells and make those often disappointing know spell rolls.

3rd edition made it standard that magic users (wizards and sorcerers-a class I loathe) would gain 2 spells every level regardless.  Assumed magical research was the order of the day.  By 4th edition all life, flavor and uniqueness was drained from the game and especially the wizard class.  Magic was just a form of MMO ability and even the meanest of melee classes could use it.  Even the latest edition treats magic as some sort of birthright rather than something to be earned, yet still punishes the wizard with low hit dice.  This makes no sense.  None of it does, unless you count the sense of selling product to children (not necessarily by chronological definition) who by their very natures want everything handed to them immediately and have a twisted sense of "fair" play.

Am I saying it should be harder to be a wizard?  No, I'm saying that the rules were written such that non-wizards couldn't be wizards.  A potion is one thing.  It is a compact, limited effect, portable spell that anyone can use.  Scrolls, staves and wands (but not rods, any class could use a rod) were the tools of the wizard alone, unless they were specifically for clerics (and 10th level thieves could take a crack at a scroll).  This was the trade-off for not having armor, or weapons, or hit points, or a decent THAC0.  The read magic spell was not a hindrance to a wizard at all, it was the barrier to entry for the non-wizards, including clerics, a class that received their magic power directly from their gods, no study required.  Yes, it could mean a hassle for a wizard.  He couldn't instantly pick up a scroll or a spellbook and start blasting, but properly played the fighter didn't instantly pick up a sunblade* and know it was magical or how it worked.  All of that was part of how the game was played and gave the party something to do aside from sit around in taverns waiting for adventure to find them.  The loss of this spell and the need for it shows that the game has changed into something very different, and is a loss.  No longer is the magic user special or idiosyncratic and given the types of players, the types that don't want to earn their power and don't want to have a character that is the result of his adventures (they want to go in fully formed as their favorite Drizzt clone), the game attracts, we will never see its like again.  There is no proud claim that you have a 10th level magic user because where that once meant you had been a good player it is now just a matter of course, meaning nothing except that you showed up for 10 games.

You can keep it.

* A most excellent magical item, the sunblade was a good aligned magical sword that any fighter would covet, but its magical nature was not readily apparent.  Through the use of detect magic a wizard could determine that the blade was indeed magical, then the players could quest to find a sage that could test and identify the blade, or the bard would finally get to use his legend lore ability and perhaps recognize the blade by its markings.  Maybe they would be able to learn the secrets then or perhaps it would be found during play, but either way it gave the game a sense of something to do outside of hack, slash, gain experience, level up, kill dragon.


  1. I almost never played magic users, but you still make me long for the "good ol' days" when I read this.

    1. I do recall the time we were all going to play specialist magic users only we were creating new ones. I think you were working on a Cryomancer. I don't recall us ever actually playing it out though.

    2. Yeah, I came up with Cryomancy. I thought Ice Man had pretty cool powers, pardon the pun. I don't recall ever playing them, either, unless it was just one game and we abandoned it.

    3. I don't recall you ever actually playing him, no.