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D&D General Nerfing Wizards the Old Fashioned Way: Magic User in 1e

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, we Nerf Magic Users the Old Fashioned Way: With a Series of Complex Rules!

I had been thinking, for the last week, of doing a deep dive into the restrictions that ye olde spellcasters in 1e faced, and then came across the following post by the erstwhile Kitten of Enworld, @Alzrius that provides an excellent summary:

But given the number of times that you see people, IMO, incorrectly assert that Magic Users (in today's parlance, Wizards) were always predominant in D&D, even in 1e, I thought I'd do an overview into the many ways that the magic users were underpowered in many ways back in 1e, especially compared to today (and even moreso compared to 3e).

1. LFQW isn't accurate for 1e.

The whole "linear fighter, quadratic wizard" didn't apply in the same way in 1e, for a very simple reason. In addition to the other things I am about to point out, there is the issue of survivability. Characters with high constitutions were rarely magic users. That means that the typical MU had (on average) 2.5 hit points per level. Period. And a not-so-great system shock and resurrection chance. An MU topped out at level 11 for hit dice, which means that a top-level MU had, on average, 28 hit points (rounded up). And gained 1hp per level after that. So imagine you are the most powerful wizard in the land- an 18th level MU, who can now bend reality to your will and finally can cast a ninth level spell. You'd probably have under 40hp. Most monsters and martial characters could easily kill you in one round.

So while the basic memory of the MU is correct- it could be terrible to play for the first four levels .... it was never an easy, world-conquering class either.

2. You can ignore the Clerics and the Druids.

Healing was a desperate thing in 1e. For the most part, the scarcity of healing (not to mention issues regarding poison and the like) would usually require Clerics and Druids to use most or all the available spells of certain levels for healing. Again, they had some decent combat spells when they had the slots (Druid's Call Lightning at 3rd was fun, and while the Cleric's Flame Strike wasn't optimal, it was cool). But given the numerous terrible "conditions" (poisoning, disesases, blindness, traps- which the cleric had a spell for, but not the MU, not to mention DEATH) the MU was usually responsible for most combat and utility spells.

3. If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball; but if you can't dodge either, you can't cast a spell.

People in 5e complain about the cocentration mechanic and not being able to stack spells. Well, this was noted in the PHB, which warned you that most spells take some time to cast and as such would go off at the end of the round (or sometimes, the follwoing round) and if they spellcaster was struck, "grabbed," or failed any type of save ... the spell was spoiled. The spell could only be cast when the spellcaster was stationary - not jogging, or moving, or dodging blows. (DMG 65). And once the spell was cast, if it was spoiled, you lost it, it didn't work.

So a MU had to announce their spell they would cast. Attacks against the spellcaster would come in on the roll of the opposing initiative die (a d6, so segment 1-6 of the 10 segment round). The spell would be cast on the MU's side of the initative roll, + the number of segments it would take to cast. And because the caster was stationary, there could be no DEX bonus to the AC. (DMG 65).

As to how long a spell would cast ... a typical "fast" combat spell would take (segments were 1/10 of a round, or 6 seconds) three segments - 18 seconds - to cast, as in fireball. So you see the problem. That's an effective -4 (because a tie is as bad as a loss) on initiative rolls. That placed a huge premium on either the very few "emergency" combat spells (Magic Missile, the Power Words were all one segment), or required careful planning and stealth to use your spells.

(EDIT: I should add if it's not clear that I was using an example of fast combat spells; most spells had casting times of 5-7 segments (sometimes more), which meant that you'd always cast last in a round)

As a general rule, though, spellcasting during combat was very difficult, and if you had intelligent enemies ("Tucker's Kobolds") nearly impossible.

4. You didn't get all the spells.

MUs had a number of restrictions on them based on their intelligence. First, they had a % chance to know each spell; if they tried to learn a spell, and failed, they could never learn it. "Awesome, I'm 5th level, I get fireball! Oh, wait. I can never learn fireball? WHAT?" There was also a maximum number of spells known per level; a MU with a 16 intelligence could only learn 11 spells of any given level. Period.

5. Monsters were tough.

Today, of course, your enterprising young Wizard simply targets the monster's worst ability score (which he totally guessed at because he never looked it up, of course I believe that). In 1e, there were no weak scores. Monsters saved by their Hit Dice. So more powerful monsters were much more likely to make their saving throws, period. Not to mention that the most powerful monsters often had a % spell resistance. I don't want to oversell this- combats could be very swingy; spells could, and would, turn the tide of the battle on a failed saving throw. But more often than not, the big boom would just fizzle.

6. Spells were dangerous.

Casting spells could kills you. There were the unfortunate side effects (certain spells aged you, from haste to resurrection to wish to GATE WHICH AGES YOU FIVE YEARS!!!!!), but sometimes the spells were just downright unsafe. You could dimension door and accidentally end up in the astral planed stunned until someone helped you ... because when I think of the astral plane, I think of helpful people, not monsters that will eat you or raiding Gith parties. Heck, you might accidentally kill a party member when you polymorph them to do something useful, and they fail the system shock. Magic was legititmately awesome, but also kinda sorta dangerous too.

....and everyone has a story about the first time you cast fireball in a restricted space.

7. Spells took forever to "reload."

As previously discussed, spells take 15 minutes to memorize per spell level. (PHB 40). A ninth level MU who cast all of their spells would take (4x1, 3x2, 3x3, 2x4, 1x5) = 480 minutes, or eight hours to "reload" their spells. Which is bad enough, but "reloading" (memorizing again) just three fifth level spells takes nearly four hours (225 minutes) of uninterrupted time. This causes pretty severe restrictions on going "nova" in many adventuring environments. In effect, instead of being able to cast, and then re-cast on a daily basis, deciding when to cast spells (especially the high level ones) became a much more difficult game of resource management.

I wanted to open up a general thread about this, because I had been thinking about it for a while (mostly in the context of MUs- as Alzrius already noted, there were other issues for Clerics and Druids, and everything I wrote above applies moreso to illusionists).

But before I throw it out, one last note-

People played AD&D (1e) in a variety of fashions. Not everyone played the same. Some people played Monty Haul campaigns or campaigns that easily allowed MUs to bypass restrictions. Others ignored all combat rules related to spellcasting. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to play, and there was a lot less reliance on the RAW then there is now. This is simply an observation that while MUs could be pretty awesome, they had a lot of drawbacks that we need to remember and consider that were baked into the ruleset.
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The Game Is Over
I agree with everything. Nice post. :)

I never found any LFQW issue in AD&D (1E or 2E). Getting spells off in combat was not always easy, which is why you would see more use of wands, staves, and rods in combat.

Oh, and I don't recall if you mentioned it, but in 1E if you wanted to cast Fireball more than once, you had to prepare it more than once. Now you "prepare" it and can cast it as many times as you have 3rd or higher level slots.

And let's not forget cantrips (introduced in Unearthed Arcana) where pretty much all utility. Many a time I had to resort to throwing daggers or darts while in combat!

It is funny you should write this now. Our group has been thinking how to make magic more like 1E for our 5E game. It is funny, a lot of spells got nerfed in going to 5E, but casting them became much easier and safer and more reliable. I suppose the designers felt that was an even trade-off? shrug


Dungeon Master at large.
The lack of restrictions in later editions certainly created a shift.

Wizards in 5e literally do not have to earn anything. They merely level and take what they want.

I love the 1st ed restrictions because it also has the effect of not making any two wizards alike in what they can and cannot learn.

I have been toying with a port of the 1st ed system for wizards to 5e... in as much as they must roll to learn the spells they want.

Right now I'm pondering this - (for Wizards, Bards, Eldritch Knights, and Arcane Tricksters)

Something like a DC 15 + spell level intelligence check in order to learn. Once you have chosen and arcane focus you may add your proficiency to learning spells from your school.

Failure means that spell is barred to you until your intelligence increases.

This will certainly shake up 5e wizards. I wouldn't apply this to Sorcerers or Warlocks for the simple reason that they don't learn their magic, and get fewer slots. One perk for them is absolute choice.

If I ever run a 5e game with this, I'll let you know how well it goes, (or doesn't! :oops: )

I never played 1e, but started with 2e which had similar but not identic rules. It was a little easier due to weapon speed factors (at least the way we used them), but it was still difficult to actually play a pure magic user. Most of us were wither multiclass wizards or bards or clerics.
3e really made the life of a spellcaster easy and unbalanced.


Spell components were a bear as well.

But yeah, there is a reason everyone carried a bag of pebbles on them. Spell interruption.


Staff member
One DM I knew ran his AD&D campaigns with a slight variation on the % to learn spells mechanic. His idea was that wizards were always researching new spells, but what info they were working with was somewhat random- you can’t control what odd scraps of tomes, research notes, etc. would pass through your hands. Nor could you control your epiphanies.

So when your wizard leveled up, he started by picking spell he didn‘t know to learn off of the appropriate spell list and started rolling his percentages, repeating the process until you had learned all the spells you could.

You were never barred from learning any spell, but you also had no control over what spells were in your arsenal.


Also, don't forget that classes levelled at different rates. The Magic-User needed 2500 XP for level 2, the second slowest levelling class (behind the Paladin at 2750 XP, looked it up but didn't check the Unearthed Arcana for the "expansion" classes for comparison).
IMXP it was 3e where the restrictions being far less stringent gave rise to the LFQW issue. Not that I remember rolling to learn a spell or using some of the other baked in balance restrictions.

RAW 1E life for a MU was brutal and often very, very short. You started with 4 spells (IIRC) in your spellbook, three chosen by either dice or the DM, and had to choose exactly which one you wanted each day. This joy lasted until you got more experience than any other PHB class required (except Paladin?), then you got to prepare TWO of them! This assumes you didn't die a horrible death first, which was not only common for all 1E characters, but you also had the lowest HD too. IME most parties had one of two views on low level MU's: "keep them around, because they'll be amazingly useful some day" or "I push the MU at the monster and run."


The Game Is Over
Yes, to clarify, you started with 4 spells (one offensive, one defensive, one "extra, and read magic). You rolled randomly, on a 10 you could choose from the other 9.


When Unearthed Arcana came out, you also had a dozen or so cantrips but they were minor utility and you had to sack a level 1 spell slot to memorize 4 cantrips for the day.

1E magic-users had some benefits in that spell ranges and durations automatically scaled with class level. They also had more spells they could cast in 1E starting at 11th level, compared to 5E anyway. At the extreme, a 20th level 1E magic-user could cast 34 spells, while a 5E 20th level wizard can only cast 22 (of course with arcane recovery they get more).


The Game Is Over
Something like a DC 15 + spell level intelligence check in order to learn. Once you have chosen and arcane focus you may add your proficiency to learning spells from your school.
I've toyed around with something similar myself, but if you want it all comparable to 1E you don't want a 50/50 chance for learning 1st level spells, etc.

Also, it should be a spellcasting check (so the PC can add proficiency modifier) instead of just an Intelligence check, unless you want it to be harder to learn spells, which you might... shrug For "school-specific" spells, I would double the proficiency bonus.

Here is some math for it:

With DC 15 + spell level:

With DC 10 + spell level

Since 65% was more typical in 1E, a DC 10 + spell level Intelligence (spellcasting) check works better IMO anyway.

Also, here is the DC 10 + spell level with double proficiency for "school-specific" spells:

So, specialty spells would be very likely to learn. :)


Dusty Dragon
I think that 3e attempted to remove the "fussiness" of being a caster and all the frustrating limitations. (yes, some of us enjoy a challenge but... some don't). BUUUT they remained just as powerful (or more, with more HP from con, more spell slots...) so as a result the 3e spell-casters are immensely powerful (and the spellcasters became more accessible, in theory).

5e's toning down of the casters was very, very necessary and makes for a better game. The "at will" cantrips almost seem like throwing them a bone so they aren't too upset (or are duplication of the 4e at will powers). (I know that PF has those at will cantrips, but they are very weak, doing like 1d3 dmg vs the more respectable damage of 5e cantrips).

Other problem 1e wizards had was that monsters at higher levels got really good at saving throws...

And for good reason. In 3e your wizard was not only quadratic, but cubic if you look closely.
You did not only get better spells levels. They also did more damage with levels and your saving throw difficulty went upwards. So for damage spells that growth was cubic in a way.
In 2e you got better spell levels. Your spells did more damage but there was no such thing like saving throw DC or spellcasting check to overcome spell resistace, but all that was mitigated by the fact that enemy spell resistance went up and saving throws went down (which was also good).
So your power increased more or less linear and in many cases in high level fights you either had to buff your fighter or find a way around spell resistance.
Another thing was magic items btw. Many items could not be used by all classes and fighters were very good at utilizing them. So while the wizard grew more power with spells, the fighter grew with their magic items that let him fly, teleport, become invisible and so on.

And where do you expect this to lead? This isn't how 5e works, you couldn't just cobble it on an have a functioning game. Saving throws for example - that would mean fundamentally changing all monsters, which would have a knock on effect on every class in the game, not just wizards. And that is before you get to asymmetric experience!

The easiest way to implement 1st edition spellcasting is to play with 1st edition rules.
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... 18th level MU, who can now bend reality to your will and finally can cast a ninth level spell. You'd probably have under 40hp. Most monsters and martial characters could easily kill you in one round.
Wait what? I stopped reading here, because it seems like you haven't paged through your 1e MM in a while. Most 1e monsters cannot can cause 40 hp damage in one round, and even fewer with standard attacks. Heck the average damage of red dragon's claw/claw/bite attack is 25 hit points of damage.