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What good is a first-level wizard, anyway?

By Lloyd Brown III May 1996
In the AD&D® game, no opponent is more feared than a high-level wizard. They can slay with a word, travel the planes, conjure efreet and fiends, and stop time itself. The trouble is getting there. The average novice wizard has less stamina than the town baker, no armor, and no weapon better than a tree branch. Comparatively, they are almost the equal of a kobold in combat but must amass the equivalent of 358 victories over kobolds to earn enough experience points to reach second level. How do they ever survive?

By their wits, of course.

By the time a 0-level PC or NPC has cast his first magic spell and earned the right to call himself a wizard, he has learned quite a few things, but his studies have consumed much of the time he could have spent learning other things, like intensive weapons studies. First observe the things a wizard can’t do, and try to make the most of it. Then catalog the considerable things a novice mage can do, and see how they make their way in the world.

Would-be wizards are advised to listen to the words of the Archmage Tallus, Guildmaster and Dean of the University of Candlekeep, who was a surprise speaker for the College of Magic graduating class of 1321. His experience is vast, and his intellect astounding. His anecdotes tend to involve intricate technical details, some of which go past the heads even of his peers, who have learned to nod their heads and murmur agreement rather than to ask for an explanation. For this reason, large parts of his speech are not repeated here, and notes are given and details explained for the layman.

“The best armor you’re going to find is a good suit of plate mail. Polish it, enchant it if you can, then put it on somebody else and keep him between you and anybody that wants to hurt you. If the armor isn’t good enough, use your spells to help out the man wearing it. If a fight goes very badly, you’re probably not strong enough to run in 50 pounds of steel, including 10 pounds on your head that limits your sight to a 30 degree arc. A shield spell costs nothing, protects you from magic missiles, doesn’t inhibit your vision, and never slows you down. There. I think my opinion of armor is clear.”

A wizard cannot wear armor. The restrictions are pretty clear here, and any attempt to fiddle with this rule will most likely lead to abuse. For characters in arctic weather conditions, some DM’s may allow heavy clothing to count for AC 9 or even AC 8, but it will almost certainly apply movement or Dexterity penalties as well, probably resulting in a net loss to the PC. Whenever possible, a mage should hide around corners, snipe from a prone position, kneel behind a low wall, or use natural cover to deflect missile attacks and enemy spells. The best way to compensate for not being able to wear armor is to support the fighters between the novice wizard and the enemy. An enlarge spell does this well. (See the cantrip ideas listed below for elaborations on this tactic.)

The only advantage here is that the wizard is virtually guaranteed first selection of any magical protections that the party may come across. Magically protective rings, bracers, cloaks, etc. are almost always given first to wizards. These items weigh little and most provide saving throw bonuses as well as Armor Class bonuses.

Weapons and combat tactics
“Whenever possible, stay away from the enemy. This may sound like telling you to stay out of the blast radius of a fireball, but you’d be surprised how many graduates perish trying to be brave. If you can attack by dart, by spell, or better yet, by someone else, then by all means do it! Just because you don’t attack by sword or spear doesn’t mean that you don’t contribute to the fight. Far from it.”

According to the Player’s Handbook, the mage is allowed to choose from five weapons: dagger, dart, knife, staff, and sling. Five weapons makes for poor versatility. Receiving only one proficiency at 1st level makes the decision a tough one. One possibility for improvement is to take a kit that allows the use of different weapons. Ask the DM if the weapons allowed to wu jen, either from the old Oriental Adventures book or The Complete Wizard’s Handbook, are allowed. Barbarian mages may also be allowed different tribal weapons. While this may offer variety, few of these weapons are really an improvement over those already available to mages.

Another option is to petition the DM to allow some other weapons. The choices are restricted to weapons that require little strength or skill. A club hardly requires a great deal of skill, although some degree of strength is required. A net should probably be allowed to wizards, especially if the player is willing to take the fishing non-weapon proficiency in order to justify knowledge of how to use it.

Even choosing among the basic weapons is tricky. Each offers a distinct advantage. First, consider the melee weapons. The staff is a likely choice: it inflicts the most damage of any of the wizard’s weapons and costs the least. A good bargain. If lost, a staff is easily replaced. It is also likely to be found in magical form. If the DM allows for it, a fine quality or exceptional quality staff able to provide non-magical attack or damage bonuses could be commissioned at low cost — if a weapon maker skilled at constructing staves can be found. For that matter, a better quality weapon of any sort allowed by a wizard should not be too expensive.

A knife or dagger can be used either as a melee or missile weapon. Although it causes less damage than a staff, a dagger, too, is frequently found in magical form. Knives and daggers have the benefit of being easily concealed. Several should be carried and at least one kept handy in case the character is caught in a net or in close quarters.

Both the dart and the sling are effective missile weapons. The sling is cheap, highly concealable, inflicts good damage if bullets are used, has virtually limitless backup ammunition in the form of stones, and has excellent range.

Darts, however, are the weapon of choice in close combat. Despite their seemingly puny damage, their high rate of fire means both higher total damage than the sling and multiple target capability. Also, if a wizard’s attack or damage capability is magically enhanced in any way, the higher rate of fire capitalizes on that improvement. Improving damage by +1 means only one more point of damage each round with a sling, but potentially three more points of damage with the darts.

Of course, nobody ever said that since a wizard can be proficient with one weapon that he can’t carry others. Hard-pressed fighters, acrobatic thieves, and clumsy clerics can all lose weapons sometimes. If a wizard is handy to toss a club or dagger to the newly-unarmed comrade, his companion may not have to face the enemy empty-handed.

These aren’t all the weapons allowed by wizards. This survey exhausts the list in the Player’s Handbook text on mages, but there are others available for the resourceful. Greek fire, holy water, vials of acid, torches, nets, marbles (detailed in The Complete Thief’s Handbook) and other “equipment” can all be used to harm or hamper the enemy. Wizards should stock up on these items whenever they can afford them. None of them weigh much, and most can be used to affect undead and certain other nasties that can’t be hit by nonmagical weapons.

There is still more a wizard can attack with. Some animals have natural attacks more effective than a wizard’s dagger or staff. Even a beginning mage can probably afford a trained war or hunting dog. Sturdy (1+1 to 2 HD), fast (MV 12), keen of sense (difficult to surprise), and intelligent, a dog makes a loyal companion. If treated well, he can be a loyal companion for years. A couple of animals can even be bred, and pups trained, especially if the character is skilled in these areas. Characters who buy dogs solely for cannon fodder are warned: even these domestic beasts have their protective deities.

All of these tactics can be applied by any member of the party. What makes the wizard unique is that each day he can choose a different selection of spells with which to arm himself. When considering which spells he can use to harm the enemy, two things should be remembered. The first is that enemies are often allowed a saving throw or magic resistance check to reduce or avoid damage. Allies don’t or won’t resist these spells. The second is that indirect attacks can usually be directed against more than one enemy. Consider an enlarge spell, a common first-level alteration. Burning hands could be used to attack one enemy, if he is within 3’ (something most sensible mages avoid). An enlarged fighter, even if his damage potential is improved only by one point, can do more damage before the spell’s expiration, can attack different targets, and gains other benefits as well (greater reach, overbearing benefits, etc.). Spells like enlarge work well on animal companions also. In general, spells that enhance the party’s ability to inflict damage are better than those that attempt directly to damage the enemy.

Freedom from front-line combat also puts the wizard in an excellent position for a hands-off leadership role. The wizard can direct the combat and throw his strength where it is needed, acting as a tactical reserve, or he can give commands, serving the party as a combat coordinator.

Starting money
“So you’ve spent all of your money on books, tuition, and material components. Big deal. What else do you need? You have it all, right there in your hands! Your spellbook and what you put in it are your keys to success. You’re the smartest men and women in this city. Use those brains. Money is the least of your worries. Trust me.”

Looking at the starting money for the different character groups, it seems that the wizard has the least of the four groups. Instead of looking at starting money, compare what is left over after the necessities are purchased. They actually have the most spending money left over after purchasing weapons and armor. Priests must have a holy symbol, thieves must have lockpicks if they wish to use those abilities that require them, and good weapons and armor for warriors are not cheap. Wizards begin play with a free spellbook, cannot wear armor, and their most expensive weapon costs 2 gp. That leaves quite a bit left over for other things, like the grenade-like missiles or animals mentioned earlier. This money can even be loaned to other characters who come up a little short when buying expensive weapons or armor. Mages who lend money to these characters are virtually guaranteed a little extra protection in battle.

If a character feels the need for more money, the wizard is in an excellent position to earn more. This is a case where a player must become aggressive with the game and not wait for the DM to drop the next adventure in his lap. Certain spells have great commercial value, even those available to beginning mages. Detect magic, erase, read magic, comprehend languages, and identify all have obvious uses and are sometimes commissioned by those without these abilities. If a mage lets it be known that he is willing to perform these services for money, customers may seek him out. Some other spells have applications to a more select market, mostly shady or questionable. The thieves guild can be a good customer for these spells. Armor, for example, gives a thief the benefits of an Armor Class better than he can achieve by wearing the armor types allowed for thieves, and it still gives him ability benefits of not wearing armor. A thief fearing violence would be wise to have this spell cast on him.

On the other side of the law, wizard mark can be used to identify property in case it is stolen. Revealing an invisible wizard mark can spell doom for a would-be thief who claims a stolen item belongs to him. Rich merchants or nobles might wish to have their valuables protected in this way. The same rich merchants would pay a bundle to have mending cast on an antique vase worth over 3,000 gp that had been knocked over by a careless servant. The servant himself might even bring the vase to the caster, hoping to fix the damage before his master came home and noticed it.

It is common procedure to ask that the purchaser provide his own material components, which the spell-caster always overstates, as part of his “markup.” This can provide the caster with valuable material components for spells that he could not normally afford to cast, like the aforementioned wizard mark.

If a wizard character is ever really, really in great need of cash, all wizards are assumed to begin with a spellbook. A blank spellbook has 100 pages, valued at 100 gp per page — a 10,000 gp asset! Hocking your only spellbook, buying piles of armor, weapons, and good quality equipment for the party, hoping for a successful adventure before the due date on the pawn, than buying back that spellbook, is about as risky as chancing a game of chess on a queen sacrifice — but what a story if you pull it off!

Spellcasting between adventures
“Any mage who waits for a written invitation before casting a spell ought to be drawn and quartered. lf you have the ability to protect yourself or your friends, do it in the safety and privacy of your home. Waiting until you see the whites of their eyes may be fine for attack, but it’s suicide for a defensive position.”

Spellcasting should not be limited to active adventuring periods. Some spells, like armor, mentioned above, have no set expiration time. If this spell is known, it should be cast on the wizard, his pets or familiar, the party thief, and any priests who are not allowed to wear heavy armor. Between adventures is the time the character casts a detect magic spell, item by item, on all of those potential magical things picked up in the last adventure and then casts identify on those that turn up positive. Spells that are commonly cast for others for money can be cast for the wizard and his party, as well. Scrolls can be read, broken weapons can be mended, and valuable property wizard marked.

Finally, new spells can be chosen. A wise spellcaster remembers which spells went unused, which were useful only in certain situations, and which were enormously successful. This critical feedback at low levels makes all the difference when a wide selection of spells is available at higher levels.

Spell selection
“So now you have the things you think you’ll need. You are loaded down with spellbook, food, water, volatile compounds, incendiary missiles, pungent material components, daggers, darts, and a staff. You have it all, right?
“Wrong. What spells are you going to use? Figure you’ll just make that part up as you go, huh? Bad idea. Right now is the time for you to decide what spells are the most important, because you don’t have much choice. If you take one spell and never use it, you’re worse than useless — you’re in the way. Don’t wait until you see your enemies before you cast a spell. Good spellcasting may mean you never have to meet the enemy. The only combat you’re guaranteed not to get killed in is the one you don’t fight.”

When a caster has only one or just a few spells, selection is vital. Between gaming periods, as mentioned earlier, the spells memorized are not important, unless the DM likes to spring adventures on you without warning. When a set goal is known, and the party has time to pack up before leaving the safety of the inn or boarding house, spells should be chosen with care.

Most 1st-level attack spells cause damage less than or equal to a single sword thrust. Choosing these attack spells (magic missile, shocking grasp, burning hands) means that the wizard has one attack in which he is as effective as a fighter for a single round. Shocking grasp and burning hands especially require the caster to get uncomfortably close to his opponent. Given the choice, these should be avoided.

If a player wishes to choose an attack spell, consider color spray, sleep, or charm person (to attack with an intermediary). These all have advantages: color spray and sleep both affect multiple targets with no saving throw, and charm person can have an extraordinary duration.

All things considered, the beginning mage is best suited to let the rest of the party attack. Looking at the numbers, an orc armed with a spear or short sword is likely to kill a 1st-level wizard with average hit points and AC 10 after only two rounds of combat. For this reason, defensive spells should take priority over attack spells.

Good defensive spells include armor, as already discussed, shield (which provides a good Armor Class plus total immunity to magic missiles), and protection from evil (which can provide complete protection against certain monsters). The latter two, while providing good protection, have a duration limiting their usefulness to one battle or fraction of a battle. Other defensive spells are either too specific (like gaze reflection) or less effective than the normal, nonmagical way of doing things (hold portal). Wall of fog provides adequate cover for the entire party to make a retreat, or confound an enemy, giving time to prepare an ambush or light Greek fire, heal wounded, or some other action. Feather fall, in addition to its conventional usage, can save a single party member from a single missile attack that might hit. Once.

The problem with these spells is their limited duration. If the enemy also beats a hasty retreat from the wall of fog, or waits until the protection from evil is expired, the spell allowed for only a momentary respite from battle. This may be useful, but the caster now has no spell to cast to save the party again.

The only 1st-level spell that circumvents this one-shot usage hindrance is cantrip. With a duration of one hour per level, it can affect multiple combats and the important non-combat situations in between.

Using the cantrip

“Let me tell you about my first adventure. I don’t recall exactly what we were there for, but that old wooden hill fort stands out clearly in my mind. I had chosen cantrip for my only spell, and my companions thought I was crazy. When the goblins started pouring out of their little trapdoors, I heard, ‘Put ‘em to sleep!’, ‘Charm one!’, ‘Magic missile the leader!’ Well, I couldn’t do any of that, so they formed an arc, backed me into a corner, and told me to stay alive so they could kill me themselves later.

“Xavier, our war-priest, stood in front of me, waving a huge axe. Attacking those little vermin made him look like a giant slug on a cold day. I used a quickblade¹ to help him out a little. I alternated that with the opposite, leadblade2, on the goblins he was fighting. One of the squirmy little monsters snuck in under his legs and tried to attack me. I turned my hands black — so they looked leprous — with a blackhands³ and reached out to touch him. He backed up enough to run into Xavier’s backswing. After that, their slingers started targeting me. I used an evocation, minor shield4, to deflect their arrows as much as possible.

“Then I noticed a dark elf standing in their midst, directing their attack. Standing on his shoulder was a beady-eyed little rat. A familiar: perfect target for a cantrip. Sure enough, the rat jumped off and started running around, squeaking here and scurrying there. I put a minor slow5 on him when he got close and told Shadow, our thief, to go get him. Holding him hostage, we made the dark elf pull back his goblins and made our escape, were able to convince the regular army to make it a military operation and wiped the goblins out. I’ve memorized at least one cantrip ever since.”

Before discussing the myriad applications of the cantrip, the exact limits of the spell need to be defined further than in the Player’s Handbook. The rules governing cantrips say that “they are completely unable to cause a loss of hit points.” This rule is pretty clear and needs little elaboration. The DM must decide, however, whether he will allow for adding to hit points lost by other means. The cantrip “cannot affect the concentration of spellcasters.” This also is clear, but it must be noted that concentration need not be affected to effectively ruin a spell. Many spells are sight targeted, and impeding the caster’s vision may make using the spell impossible, even if it is successfully cast. The cantrip “can only create small, obviously magical materials.” How big is small? One pound per level of the caster, up to 10 Ibs., is not unreasonable. As for volume, small should fit in the caster’s hand.

The last restriction, that a cantrip “lacks the power to duplicate any other spell’s effects” needs the most clarification. Read strictly, a phantasmal force can create any visual illusion, so a cantrip cannot. A ventriloquism or audible glamor can create an auditory illusion, so a cantrip cannot. An unseen servant can move things, so a cantrip cannot. A Iight can create illumination, etc. A more appropriate reading is that the cantrip cannot duplicate the exact extent of another spell. Illusions must be a limited to certain size (10 square feet, for example) and will fool only the stupidest observers, as they will be semi-transparent and wavering, at best. Sound volume should be limited to a human voice at conversational levels, ability to move objects should be equal to a Strength score of 3, and light should be no more than the output of a single candle.

As they are introduced, DM’s should make other decisions about cantrip applications. Some are very strong for one-shot uses, and should be restricted to one use per casting. Others should be allowed to maintain as long as the caster concentrates. Some other restrictions: no more than one application at a time can be maintained. Beginning a new one cancels the previous application. Effect on chances to succeed at any feat should never be more than 5% or +1. Defensive applications should never reduce damage by more than one hit point.

Magic item use
“In the desert, they have a saying: ‘the best place to keep your water is in yourself.’ In other words, don’t save it. Use it. lf any of you graduates dies with spells uncast, I’ll personally raise you and beat you for it. That goes double for unused magic items that your non-spellcasting companions can’t use.”

Wizards have the greatest number of magic items available to them. Even at 1st level, a wizard can use nearly any of these items. Any charged or one-shot magical items found should be used in an appropriate situation, without considering saving it for later. The only exception is if you know in advance that the party must face an enemy that cannot be harmed by any other means you currently possess. Again, this rule itself is invalid if it looks like you’re going to die before you get there. If you’re saving the scroll of Melf’s minute meteors for use against a gargoyle (which can be hurt only by magical items or magic spells), but it looks like the ogre you can’t avoid now will wipe you out, there is no sense saving the scroll. This applies to all wands, staves, scrolls, potions, certain charged rings, and non-permanent miscellaneous items.

“I’m sure you’re itching to start spell-casting and get to trying all these ideas, so I’ll let you get on with your ceremony after one more word of advice. Well, praise, maybe. You’ve made a wise choice to become a wizard. None of your companions has the potential that you do. When you get older, you’ll be a major power in the world. Until then, be careful, and good luck!”


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