Being in the Main the Mouth of Olde House Rules

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Was Gary Gygax Afraid of Magic?

Read the title.  Is it on the mark?  I don't think so, at least not in the literal sense; and seasoned grognards who grew up in the man's company and played his games personally know better than anyone, certainly more than this humble blogger.  But I do know how to read, and I've been making a study of OD&D and the various supplements, which never fail to delight and inform with each new perusal.  There's always something more to discover, some fresh bit of insight revealed in its delightfully amateur pages...      

And with my latest reading, I can almost believe that Gygax was afraid of magic!

No, I don't think he was superstitious.  But he was a war gamer and mainly accustomed to managing ordinary humans who couldn't levitate or otherwise bend the laws of physics through clever spellcraft.  Indeed, the whole challenge of historical war gaming lay, at least in part, in having to operate well within the bounds of nature.  Just imagine how the Battle of Hastings might have gone with a unit of magicians armed with Sleep spells!  

And that's the point, really.  In our non-magical reality even the simplest magical effect, however minor, would be spectacular.  The ability to magically nudge a pencil a quarter of an inch (or even less), something with virtually zero real-world impacts, would nonetheless be incredible because it would represent a violation of nature as we know it.  And it would speak to forces beyond our knowledge.  This is obvious, gee-whiz stuff, but there's a point...    

Magic, in any form, is powerful.  And in a fantasy game, where spells do have actual, measurable consequences, even the lowliest magic is spectacular.  Especially in a game otherwise designed to force its players to work through obstacles within the bounds of (Newtonian) physics.  What good is that pit trap when the magic-user can cheat and levitate above it all without a care?  And that's the point.  Magic is, at the end of the day, cheating reality of its due.  I'll say it again: game magic is a form of "legal" cheating.

So let's jump back to OD&D.  Here we have something about as close to Gygax and Arneson's gut-level instincts about game balance as we're likely to see.  And it's clear in the way spells were assigned power levels (and the torturous climb needed before the best of these finally become available) that Gary didn't want them in the hands of anyone before they started fighting dragons on a regular basis.  Oh, and these early spells were powerful and without many of the qualifiers shoehorned into the later Greyhawk supplement...

Charm Person was permanent until Dispelled.  Strong stuff.  Greyhawk would later allow targets a saving throw at shorter intervals; but it starts off pretty powerful, and in the hands of first-level characters no less.  The Death Spell killed 2d8 monsters up to 6th level or 2-16 minotaurs if you want a little perspective.  Gary clearly saw even the weakest spell as very powerful.  Some of this was surely the newness, but some of it was Gary.

Now this is all simple game-balance stuff; but the creator's perceptions almost certainly influenced the original design, and one way this might show itself is in the number of magic-user spells available.  OD&D had 70 spells divided between six levels as shown...

1st level (8) 2nd level (10) 3rd level (14) 
4th level (12) 5th level (14) 6th level (12) 

On a level-by-level basis, there's fewer 1st and 2nd-level spells, far less in the case of 1st level magic; but what a huge proliferation in the mid and upper levels!  Gary was hard-pressed to imagine any spell weak enough for those spell-slinging newbies.  But this also makes sense.  Low-level magic-users are not only limited in power, but in sheer variety precisely because magic is so inherently powerful.  This also explains the near-doubling of available spells at higher levels.  Still, it's easy to see Gary's reluctance.

Spells are powerful.  And Gygax imagined very powerful, sweeping and oftentimes permanent effects straight out of the storybooks.  This clashed with a war gaming mindset accustomed to regular people being challenged precisely because they couldn't levitate across that covered pit trap.  Of course, Gary had already done this with his Chainmail rules; but the more individual nature of role-playing meant that the magic-user could potentially outshine their peers and bypass the referee's obstacles minus any human effort.

And this was hotly debated in the early scene and made it into the pages of Dragon Magazine, where some defended the "poor magic-user" and others argued the class had enough power as it was!  It was a ongoing process of rules refinement...

OD&D was the purest form of the game in my humble opinion, and while it clearly needed some additions, it probably needed less than even the first supplement added with respect to rules and spellcraft (monsters and magic items are a different thing entirely).  Anyway, it's always a revelation to see the unvarnished version of a game and to witness the humanity of its designers.  Time and added content necessarily changes things; but sometimes, first instincts are the best instincts, and OD&D's magic system is an excellent example of this!


  1. Gary didn’t understand why anyone would want to play anything other than a fighting-man. Why? I don’t know. He loved the idea of building a castle, ruling a barony, managing armies. I guess. (Later he warmed to the other classes.)

    I think it was Tim Kask (can’t say for sure) who lobbied for a little more juice for the MU, especially going into Greyhawk. Gary was not interested in detailing the MU. I’m not sure he was even the one who assigned spells to levels.

    1. Incidentally his son, Luke, was totally into magic users. Some of the spells Luke invented still carry the name of his wizard what slung them first: Melf.

  2. AD&D shows even more walking back of the power of magic as magic-users get *very* cautiously designed new spells (Jump, yay), intelligence restrictions on spell learning, new restrictions on casting including expensive material components, and the segment rule that allows most melee and missile attacks to interrupt the most powerful spells.

  3. Has anyone ever figured out how many Appendix N stories were about Wizards? I think the list is pretty Fighting-Man heavy and that might have colored Gary's early opinions on the matter.

    1. That's a good question. Knowing how Conan (for instance) treated them, they could be quite powerful indeed...