1st level M-U is actually pretty awesome

This blogger posted about how weak 1st level M-Us are and how most would probably stay in academia until 5th level or so, which he calls a journeyman status.

First, on the combat abilities of an M-U. I don’t know what game system each of you are looking at, but what I find is that many numbers were taken from earlier editions of D&D even though the assumptions behind those numbers changed. Delta talks about this related to archery.

In 1E AD&D a 1st level Fighter (who is a “Veteran” which is a person not only well trained but experienced on a campaign) has a to-hit number of 20, the same as everyone else. It only starts getting better at higher levels. His saving throws are terrible compared to all other classes. I’m using the Fighter as a comparison because Normal Men act as 0-level Fighters.

So take this Normal Man. If he’s sedentary he’ll have d4 HP and -2 to hit, if he’s a laborer d6+1 and normal 0-level fighting. From that we can see the M-U isn’t weaker than a sedentary human; in fact he has the same HP as any sedentary man and a better attack chance than even a miner or woodcutter.

Furthermore this M-U has the ability to cast one spell per day from a short list that incudes:

Charm Person: mind-slavery
Sleep: drop 2d4 first-level enemies with no save
Magic Missile: auto-hit with an arrow’s damage, good chance to kill a normal man
Comprehend Languages: read any language and equivalent to 100% Read Languages skill as Thief
Armor: invisible, silent, weightless Scale Mail

These are all pretty miraculous, and worth using weapons that do -1 damage and having -3 HP on average compared to a Fighter.

There’s the question of why anybody would go out and adventure at 1st level? Because you need experience and money. I’ll give a few examples:

In 1E AD&D, you have to get XP by killing monsters and seizing treasure. You don’t get XP for sitting around in town. Also, you need such large amounts of money to train that even if you killed pigeons all day you still couldn’t train.

In 2E AD&D, it’s possible to get XP by performing class functions, but only in a useful way. You can’t go out into the woods and cast Magic Missile at a tree to get XP. The DM needs to exercise some common sense in preventing abuse. The DM might decide that someone in town casting Cure Light on farmers’ injuries counts as useful. Another DM might say you need to be on some adventure in danger, do something useful to furthering the adventure, and succeed (which is my criteria). Even if your DM’s rulings allow townie spellcaster advancement, where does their money come from? The supply of low-level spellcasting is going to be pretty high with the local adventurer Wizards traipsing through every week, so either fees will be low or demand is not enough to support many townie wizards. Training costs in 2E is an optional rule. Again, let’s say the DM is generous and requires no training cost or time. What about getting new spells? Wizards don’t get new ones for free; specialist wizards get one per level. With little money you can’t afford new spells, even if NPCs are pretty open about selling theirs.

To create new spells you need an expensive library and pay high fees, and even then you might fail. Someone can just waltz into the dungeon and pick up a scroll or maybe even a spellbook and come out with the equivalent of months or years of research and tens of thousands of GP in research costs. It’s not worth it to research spells unless you can’t find them “in the wild”. Because a 1st level M-U can research spells, I would call him a PhD in Magic. He’s already gone through the equivalent of a decade of college or private tutoring. Wouldn’t it take another decade to hit level 2? Who has that kind of time?

(Right. Elves.)

Similarly, XP advancement, even if possible in town, is faster in a dungeon. You could walk out of a dungeon after your first expedition, rest a couple days, go back in, and come out ready to train for level 2. The guy in town might not have had a customer yet.

Yes of course you could die. That’s the tradeoff. That’s why adventurers are all the crazy kind of folk who are willing to take big risks for a big payoff. Maybe your M-U has a feud going with another young academic wizard, and in order to best him you have to learn faster: by experiencing magic use in strange situations and against different monsters, and getting cool magic items. As long as he survives the ordeal, the adventuring M-U will definitely, absolutely outpace the academic.

I say that for two reasons. 1: it’s supported by the rules in 1E, 2E, 3E even assuming the most generous possible DM interpretation, short of very generous house-rules. 2: it supports the existing assumptions of the game. If it were possible to sit around in town and get more XP and treasure then literally nobody would go into the dungeon. We would be playing Papers & Paychecks.

If you want a game where NPCs sit in their ivory towers until they’re at least 5th level, you need to come up with a reason why PCs won’t do the same thing. Here’s how I envision the exchange:

DM: Ok guys you all have 1st level PCs, let’s hit the adventure!
Players: Uh, we’re ging to stay in town until we’re 5th.
DM: How will you pay for this education?
Players: However the NPCs do it.
DM: But you’re edgy, risky people!
Players: My character sheet says Lawful Neutral with cowardly, bookish tendencies.
DM: But the quest! You’ll run out of time!
Players: There’ll be some other quest in a few years when we graduate. It’s not like we’re the only ones who can save the world.
DM: (reading DMing advice) Ok I’ll level with you guys. Why don’t you want to go on the adventure?
Players: We like the adventure. We just want to take a good opportunity. It’s like anything: you can use a +1 sword or a normal one, which do you pick? You take the better opportunity. Why adventure at 1st level?
DM: Fine the town is burning down and you need to escape. Also there are no other towns and all the universities are full and there are no more grants and there’s a double standard for prices of goods and services between NPCs and PCs.
Players: Choo choo! *all circling the table completely twice in a conga-line*

Or avoid the rigmarole and say high level town NPCs used to be adventurers and now are at least semi-retired.

This crops up in almost every game I’m in, player or DM. Some player tries to do something that will bring some advantage because he’s acting like an NPC: being an armorer, making magic items, casting spells in town, picking pockets in town. The player says “oh, this NPC makes this much money, I’d be happy with a tenth of that!” But the DM brings him down to earth and explains that you need a storefront, you need a reputation, clientele, business connections, etc. Most importantly you need to spend so much time running the operation that you can’t go adventuring. So do you want to retire this character in town and roll up a new one?

Not to say that players shouldn’t do stuff outside the adventure. But the player’s goal is usually to get a big payoff with no risk or effort. If the player just wants to have a bookbinding shop, I’m fine with saying he gets some percentage of return on his investment every month. I’d go so far as to make a little table with investment risk levels, with riskier investments having a higher return rate but a higher chance of ruination. Hire an NPC goober to run the place and pay him his wages, and you’re good. What I don’t want is a player setting up a bookbinding shop and churning out spellbooks, expecting to sell as many as he can make, and get such a cashflow that he has to come up with a RP reason to leave town again.

11 Responses to “1st level M-U is actually pretty awesome”

  1. Alex Says:

    Hey, thanks for checking out my blog!

    Of course I wouldn’t want PCs to sit around in the ivory tower earning XP for nothing. I was just brainstorming on social structures one might find in place within a society where magic-users were prevalent as well as the motivations of someone who chose not to take part in it. Of course the 1st level adventuring magic user is going to be different from the arcane intellegencia or working-class wizard, just as your players are going to be different from established merchants/artisans.

    One reason I used level 5 as an example is, I’ve found that a lot of games, it is a common starting level for groups who aren’t insistent on beginning with 1st level characters.

    I don’t know how it is in 4th or 5th ed, but in 3rd, the changes to Magic users and the level 0 spells really does make it feel like you are playing someone who is somewhat more accomplished, because it assumes that any adventuring magic user will always have that utility belt of minor spells in addition to their one leveled spell.

    • 1d30 Says:

      I understand wanting to start with higher level PCs, but I always figured those PCs would have gone on some adventures already, hence the starting level.

      Totally agree on 3E giving more spells per day though they aren’t as powerful as L1 spells. With the general rise in power for all characters over 1E or 2E counterparts, it was a good choice to give more spells instead of just beefing up the spells.

      I think my answer would be either town NPCs are retired adventurers or else specialist NPCs. For example, PCs can’t be sages because the lifetime of study and research is uninteresting for them and doesn’t do much for you on the adventure. There’s a split for me, where some things should be the result of singleminded daily effort (knowledge of the religious texts of a specific religion, carpentry, armoring, law, basically most Trade skills or Knowledge skills) and things that require adventuring because you need exposure to dangerous novelty.

  2. mwschmeer Says:

    Maybe, just maybe, this whole “keep my player in town” thing can be handled by patiently explaining that D&D is an ADVENTURE game. And if you don’t go out and adventure, the adventure comes to you. You want to own a bookbinding shop? Fine. But the new Lord of the Manor has outlawed literacy and wants to shut you down–whatchyagonnado? Or some Lord Dread character comes in with an obviously stolen spellbook he wants rebound and in the process of fullfilling the request, you accidently make a page go POOF and the spell triggers and now you are sitting half-naked in a cage in cell in a dungeon clutching your inkwell–how you gonna make it out alive?

    • 1d30 Says:

      From a player perspective this feels kinda lame though. If bookbinders are constantly getting shut down and blasted into the dungeon how are there any bookbinders left? Similarly with other shops and trades that the DM would invent adventures for. Your examples are the worst of what I would consider if the player failed the Investment Ruination chance, which would be like 3-5% for a bookbinder.

      Again, we’re assuming the player could have spent this money on anything – a book shop is really the most harmless way to see that money leave the player’s hands. It’s like a player who has family written on his character sheet – a DM shouldn’t look at that as a list of liabilities he can exploit to make the player’s life hell. That’s gonna make people play friendless orphans.

      Besides, in your second example it would be the hireling employee who gets sent to the dungeon, so you’re out 10 GP in funeral expenses and you need an addendum to the employee handbook about working for guys with shrunken heads on their pauldrons.

      TL;DR: Those are moves that I would, as a player, consider dickish. And as a DM I don’t think they’re necessary.

      • mwschmeer Says:

        The fact that you are even rolling an Investment Ruination chance makes my head hurt.

        An RPG is about is about adventuring, encountering dangers, solving puzzles & challenges, killing monsters and being rewarded for that in-game experience. It’s not an accounting simulation. I’d rather have the DM pull a dick move and force me into action rather than sit there and play SimBookseller.

      • 1d30 Says:

        True, and normally I’d avoid Papers & Paychecks because it’s boring and not adventure-y. In this case, the player is trying to set up something safe in town. You go out and adventure, come home and relax. If a month ticked over while you were gone I roll a die and probably nothing happened to your shop / house / mistress. But there’s a chance for something interesting to have gone down. If town is just as dangerous and crazy as a dungeon, why leave the dungeon?

        I don’t suspect any player would sit in town and roleplay running a bookshop. If he insisted, yeah, I’d have to start throwing in interesting stuff. I just assumed from the start that nobody would do that! 😛

        I’m not talking about an accounting simulation (that would be a whole dang game in itself!), just town stuff at the same detail level as normal D&D.

        Which is, if you have a keep you also have some villagers and you get taxes from them. The DM rolls random encounters that come by, which might be new inhabitants or might be threats.

        I think I might see where you’re coming from that town shouldn’t be safe. My last campaign had a pretty boring town because I wanted to encourage people to go out and adventure. But it’s totally (possibly more) worthwhile to make town exciting and end up with lots of town adventures.

  3. smseddings Says:

    What gives the magic-user the impression of being weak is the D4 hit die, I think. Thieves and 0-level hirelings get a D6, despite neither of them being trained for combat. As you say, D4 is “sedentary”, as opposed to fit, healthy and active. I’d like to give magic-users a D6 for hit points, if I could think of some way to balance it out.

    • 1d30 Says:

      I like giving all classes d6 HD, and monster HD, and weapon damage. So yeah, it seems to me that d4 is a bit sucky especially in say 1E/2E where nobody is going to use a weapon that does less than d6+1 (except … an M-U).

      Then again, I like the scrawny bookish M-U image, which fits with sedentary NPCs. An M-U is better at attacking than one of those NPCs (all PCs are better at hitting than 0-level NPCs), but he’s a glass jaw. Makes sense to me.

      M-Us when compared to other PCs were supposed to be the equvalent of artillery in a wargame: they do good damage at a distance but keep them safe because any enemy unit can destroy them. In D&D’s implementation M-Us can be pretty badass in personal combat depending on what kind of spells and equipment they have.

      Of course at first level the initiative roll kinda decides who will win in a fight between an M-U1 and a F1.

  4. BryanRH Says:

    If I remember the rule correctly professional NPC’s (craftsmen, performers etc.) only make 1sp per day per skill check. Even if at first level they have a +6 check they average 16sp per day. That’s 1 gold 6 silver. Per full work day. At 5th level he averages 2gp per day of hard work. That’s 730 gp per year. No days off. No Vacations. No holidays. That is not a lot of gold. A single CR 2 monster is worth 600gp. In exactly one 60 second-long encounter. Heroes don’t want to be Blacksmiths. Blacksmiths are poor and boring. Even at 5th level.

    • 1d30 Says:

      Plus he needs to pay for his upkeep all year. He needs to pay for the rent on his shop, his food and clothes, taxes, guild dues / union fees / mob protection money / bribes. That ignores things like wearing out your tools. But yeah, even assuming his daily money is profit after expenses, he’s better off gathering some friends and raiding a local dungeon level 1.

      I assume NPCs are risk-averse, otherwise they would adventure. Hirelings willing to enter the dungeon are either risk-averse but desperate OR washout failures in general.

  5. On Arcane Institutes | Cirsova Says:

    […] going to wizard school should not be a safe, adventure free easy alternative to dungeon crawling.  1d30 suggested that players might think that they could just say “I go to wizard school and level […]

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