PRACTICAL MAGIC: Or what to do now that your 1st level Magic-User has cast their one spell

Erol Otus

Currently playing in Miranda Van Elkin's Nightwick Abbey It has been great so far to be on the player side of the BX system and see how it feels to be on the receiving end of a BX DM in a megadungeon. 

In BX fashion my 1st level Frogling met a bifurcated end in the first session, but the Magic-User I rolled up, Mayfly, so far as survived 3 sessions. Here he is below:

MAYFLY 1st level MU
Spells: Light, Protection from Evil, Read Magic
STR 07 (-1) INT 15 (+1) WIS 08 (-1) DEX 16 (+2) CON 16 (+2) CHA 08 (-1)

A pretty great spread of stats for a Magic-User. The 15 INT gets me a 5% XP bonus. And the 16 DEX makes throwing daggers +2 to hit as well as the adjusted unarmored AC a 12. The biggest boon might be the 16 CON which effectively makes my Magic-User HD on par with Fighter HD. But the question I am faced with is a perennial one: 

What to do when I've cast my 1 spell (or even 2nd spell if I am higher level)? 

While not insanely novel, I think below are six suggestions that can put you on the right track:

1 | Use Hirelings: Far from being a dump stat, CHA represents a solid force multiplier in D&D. Even if your MU's CHA incurs a -1 bonus, still consider hirelings. Two or three hirelings armed with spears (3 people are allowed in a 10' space), can create a formidable 2nd rank behind Clerics, Dwarves, & Fighters.  Another variation would be to arm them with short bows. If the DM is a stickler for space, then try crossbows firing alternately to keep up the pressure.

And if your CHA is low, well, speak with a silver tongue, and by that I mean, pay cash upfront for loyalty.

2 | Daggers are a ranged weapon: While 1d4 damage might not seem exciting, there is still a 50% chance you will roll a 3 or 4 which is enough to down a 1 HD opponent with an average HP (~4). Or shave off enough to ensure follow-up hits kill them. It's also worth noting that ranged weapons get a +1 to-hit at short range. 

So Mayfly there gets a +3 to-hit with throwing daggers and I've made sure to equip him with 5 to last most combats.

3 | Oil flasks are ranged weapons: This requires a 1-2 combination, but opponents or a square can be covered in oil. Then when flame is applied, its 1d8 damage for 2 rounds to things covered in that oil. So a total potential 2d8 damage, which is pretty hefty. 

Also worth noting that torches can be used as weapons (1d4 dmg).

4 | Scrolls are paper spell slots: Yes, this might be a little obvious, but I think it is under-discussed how scrolls can help enhance party success. The 100 gp/level seems expensive, but if an extra Hold Portal prevents the lizardfolk patrol from getting through a door after you've absconded with two 500 gp ruby eyes then it was worth it. Knowing that Protection from Evil allows you to walk into a room with an iron golem and walk out unmolested, gold chalice in hand is amazing value at 100 gp.

5 | Bring equipment: Most Magic-Users are really not carrying much except a spell books, scroll, and 5 daggers. This leaves plenty of room for useful dungeon equipment like torches, oil, and 50' rope. But also less obvious stuff like a:
  • stinky wheel of cheese to pay off the goblins
  • water skin of wine to pay off the orcs
  • bag of rats to test strange liquids on or throw to giant spiders or toads
  • chalk to mark or crush and throw in an opponents eyes or mark the invisible beast with no eyes
  • shovel to fetch coins from weird pools you forgot to bring rats for
  • crowbar for stuck doors or heavy crypts
  • candles for light or to stick in your ears (harpies)
  • paper for rubbings of important information
  • sacks for anything of interest you can turn into a spell component
  • pitchfork so you can pin things you don't want to touch
  • spikes to foul traps or wedge doors
Seems like a silly list, but these items are the fuel for crazy OSR high jinks and safe dungeon exploration!

6 | Be a thoughtful player: Just because you don't have an immediately useful spell or any spell to cast doesn't mean you are out of the game or can provide nothing. Your Magic-User is still can perform an action or undertake observations in a dungeon turn. Meaning that a more thorough exploration of the space is performed in a shorter amount of time.

Only on the third session of Nightwick Abbey did Mayfly actually cast a spell from a scroll. Prior to that he participated in no combat (only as an observer), but did marshal his hirelings in the 2nd rank. He wedges doors open/shut. Got eight 1/2 HD creatures to fight to the death over rations. Paid off goblins and made a rope ladder for a quick exit.


  1. There's a good rundown of what a magic-user can do besides cast spells.
    I think the gameplay of OSR games makes point 6 super important. Even without in-game powers, you are still a player with the infamous 'player skill'. And playing the smart and learned member in the party, it kind of makes sense for you to use your player knowledge to solve problems.

    1. Agree about #6. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe in old-school D&D a player spends about 80% of their time actually NOT doing anything specifically-class related. Even in a dungeon. Like the 80/20 rule: Despite defining our characters by 20% of their abilities, 80% of the time you're not even using them.

      I also wonder if the desire to multi-class is because some players feel like they need additional powers as mainly triggers to do stuff.

      So instead of the player of the Fighter getting good at learning how to investigate a room ("I roll marbles on the floor to find the floor trap"), they instead want to have Thief skills as "tigger words" (I roll for "find traps").

  2. Man, i really loved this post! I'm trying to play as a MU and this is by far the best "guide" to play it!

    1. What a compliment! I am glad its useful to you. Yeah, MUs are hard at low levels, but I try to look at it as an opportunity to think about what else I can be doing.