Are Magic Users Too Weak, Part II

by Solomoriah

Back on January 11, 2014, I posted Are Magic-Users Too Weak? about the persistent notion that, by the book, Magic-User characters are too weak because they get just one spell per day.  I thought my post had dispelled that notion, but evidently not, as it has come up several times on our Facebook page.

I honestly don’t understand it.  I explained all the same things to those folks that I explained in the blog post, and they still said things to the effect that the magic-user was useless because he (or she) could only participate in one combat before running out of magic and therefore being unable to do anything.

Now certainly, if you want to run a more heroic game, and you’ve beefed up the other classes in some way, giving the magic-user more magic might be entirely appropriate, and I will neither judge nor question you if that’s the game you’re wanting to run.  But the question of whether or not magic-users are “too weak” by the book still comes up, and I still do not understand it.

First of all, magic isn’t all you can do.  Classic games of the old days, the ones that Basic Fantasy mimics, expected that a first-level magic-user would start play with a handful of daggers for throwing.  It was also expected that, since that character needed no armor and only cheap weaponry, his or her expenditures would be for party-useful items like rope, spikes, and maybe a ten foot pole.

But the blog post linked above shows a more important truth:  By the book, no first level character is prepared for more than one battle before retiring to a safe place to recover.  I did the math and presented a valid answer, and thought it was over.

It wasn’t.

Last night and this morning I wrote a simulation script.  The parameters are simple:  One each fighter, cleric, thief, and magic-user, all first level.  Each character has a +1 in his or her prime requisite attribute, and is otherwise average.  The magic-user has one spell, magic missile, the number two choice for magic-users (as sleep is generally the nuclear option for first level parties, ending an encounter almost before it starts).  The opponents are a group of four goblins, of average nature.  I assume the fighter and cleric, being beginners, had only enough money for chainmail and shield, giving them AC 16, while the thief has AC 14 due to leather armor and that +1 DEX bonus.  The magic-user is, of course, AC 11.  Everyone gets to roll hit points twice and take the higher result, while the monsters are stuck with a single roll; this is the only advantage I gave the players, and I did this specifically because most GMs won’t make a player suffer with 1 HP at the start.  The fighter has a longsword, the cleric a mace, the thief a shortsword and the magic-user has a dagger.  Ranged weapons are omitted on both sides, and the fight takes place in a 10′ wide corridor, so initially the fighter and cleric are the front line facing a pair of goblins; if either the fighter or cleric dies, the thief moves up, so the magic-user is in melee only if two party members die.  Also, surprise and morale effects are ignored; everyone fights to the death.  This is the “cold steel” option, the harshest one, which should nail down the power level of the party as a whole as well as the magic-user’s place within it.

After 10,000 combats were fought, I had results.  The monsters won the fight, killing everyone, 1,664 times; the players won 8,336 times.  Though ties were possible (as I modeled the standard initiative rules), there were none.  So the players were 83.36% likely to win… but what did winning look like?

All four player characters survived in 3,805 of those battles, or in other words, in about 46% of battles where the PCs won, all four walked away.  That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?  The average damage taken by the entire party in these situations is about 2.8 points, which sounds a lot like one hit from a goblin.  Doesn’t seem so bad, does it?  But even so, at this point one of your front-line characters has taken about half of his or her hit points in damage.  Fighting on is not a great idea, but many would go ahead.

This is, of course, the situation when all four party members survive the combat.  What about when it doesn’t go so well?  In 32% of the battles where the player characters win, one of their number falls; in 17% of those winning battles, two party members are down (the fighter and the cleric, of course).  In just 6% of combats, only one walks away, by the skin of his or her teeth it seems.  Sensible player characters absolutely will withdraw to safety if even one of their number dies or is rendered noncombatant (if you use the negative HP rule, for example); if both front line characters go down, there’s just about no other sane choice.  Thus, in about 46% of battles, it might make sense for the party to fight on, and in those cases the magic-user has “nothing to do.”

I’m not convinced that is true.  Throwing daggers is always a good option.  I’ve actually had people tell me that magic-users should never be reduced to using non-magical combat options, which is silly.  A first level magic-user is just starting out (we used to call them “apprentices”) and thus is not yet ready to depend on his or her magic nearly that much.

But wait, there’s more.  Remember I said the magic-user had magic missile?  What if that weren’t so?  What if the magic-user didn’t do an automatic 1d6+1 points of damage in the first round of combat?

Let’s find out.  I modified the simulation to omit that spell, and here are the statistics:  The PCs win just about 74% of the time, rather than 83% as above.  All four PCs survive their winning battles just 37% of the time, instead of 46%… 33% of the time, three survive, 21% of the time two survive, and only one survives just 8% of the time.  Without that one spell, outcomes are significantly different.

There is one rule I find interesting… many GMs apparently allow magic-users to use a “magic dart” attack of some kind that does 1d4 points of damage, and requires an attack roll to hit.  This obviously does not unbalance the game significantly, as the character could just as easily be using daggers to do this, so it’s just for flavor.  While it does not appeal to me, I see nothing “wrong” with it from a game balance perspective.  I still think, though, that the apprentice magic-user who is not yet sure of his or her magic and so is armed with a collection of throwing knives is a more interesting archetype than one who shoots off sparks of magical energy whenever he or she gets cross with someone.

But again, I believe I’ve successfully shown here why the first level magic-user is not, in fact, “too weak” by the book.  I hope, anyway.

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