The magic user is my favorite character class in classic fantasy gaming. A lot of people don’t like playing magic users because they are perceived to be not fun to play at low levels. The wizard is challenging to play but if you can keep the character alive long enough, they become a potent force in the campaign.
The woes of the level 1 wizard
You have no armor, limited weapons, and few hit points. Getting into melee is dangerous and often ineffective.
Your missile weapons are limited in range and damage.
Besides spell casting, you have no other mechanically defined skills like sneaking, climbing, turning undead, or tracking.
You have one spell, and not the one you need for this situation.
The most commonly asked question about playing a first level wizard is, “After you cast that one spell, what do you do?”
One of the reasons I love playing a wizard in OSR games is that you have to be creative. You can’t rely on the numbers on your character sheet to get you through. You have to role-play.
The genre convention of the wizard is that they know lots of lore. The etymology of the words used to describe the user of magic go back thousands of years and in just about every language has something to do with being wise, knowledgeable or cunning. Use that image. Role-play a character who has and constantly seeks after knowledge. That is the archetype of the wizard.
It behooves you to learn as much as possible about the campaign setting. That information can provide you with many ways to creatively manipulate a situation in the game world without requiring a die roll or resort to a mechanism. You are using information that your character knows.
Use what magic you have, in combination with that setting knowledge to your advantage. You can use charm to get an audience with the baron because you know he hates goblins. You know where there are goblins in his fief and maybe he’ll pay you an extra bounty for killing them.
Most referees really like it when you want to know about the world they’ve created or the published setting they’ve chosen. It makes them feel like the time they’ve put into world building was worth it. If the referee has provided some information about the setting, engage with it as much as you are able. Take notes. Read session reports and setting lore the referee provides.
Even after engaging with the setting, you aren’t going to know everything that your character knows.
Ask the question, “What does my character know about this?” The referee might tell you a lot of useful knowledge. Sometimes the referee might require a 1 on a D6 or a roll under your Intelligence to get information. That’s better than not knowing and having no chance of knowing because you didn’t ask. Ask open ended questions starting with “how”, “what”, and “why.” You might not get much or anything. However, what you get might save your character’s life.
Before leaving civilization and heading out on adventures, gather information. Wizards are literate. If there is a library, a university, a lore master, or cabal of wizards in town go talk to them. Get as much information as you can about where you are going, the dangers you might face and how you might prepare for them. You might also be able to develop a reputation with those resources that will provide your character with adventure hooks, aid when you need it, and other profitable opportunities.
After magic, knowledge is the wizard’s most powerful tool. Use it to your advantage.
Unless you have rolled extremely poorly in character generation, you probably have one of the highest intelligence scores in the party. That means your character has the potential to speak more languages. You will see why I’m pointing this out in a moment.
Most OSR games are not particularly clear about how language acquisition works. There are many different house ruled ways to deal with language and your referee probably has their own. If your referee requires you to pick languages at character creation, be strategic about your choice. Ask the referee questions, “What are the most common humanoid monsters in these parts? What other languages are spoken in the region? Are there ancient/dead languages that are found on inscriptions or manuscripts that surface in the ruins of the collapsed society we are exploring?”
Since your character likely has the largest repertoire of languages, take any opportunity you have to talk to the monsters and NPCs your party meet during adventures. Only about 1/4 of the available XP in a classic adventure game comes from killing monsters. The fighter might have as many as 9 hit points to your 2 or 3 but that can mean two die rolls and he’s dead. That’s only one more than a 1st level magic user. Getting into fights is not hazard free, even for fighters.
Negotiating with sentient monsters and NPCs can make your adventuring more successful and reduce the danger. You can trade what ever the party has for information about the adventuring location or even a temporary alliance. Weak monsters like goblins may be willing to join forces with the party against monsters that have been bullying them. Chaos is fickle and resentful. Exploit that weakness.
Being able to speak the language of potential allies or adversaries is a tool a high intelligence character has in their bag.
Hirelings and Henchmen
One of the upsides to playing a wizard is that you don’t have to buy a lot of armor, equipment, and weapons when you create a character. Unless you start with very little money, you probably have more money than party members who will buy the best armor and weapons they can afford. That should leave you with enough money to hire a few meat shields. Even one protector can give you enough time and space to flee or absorb a hit until the fighter gets around to helping. Even if the hireling only carries a torch and some extra gear, you can have that much better movement rate when you have to run.
You don’t have to run faster than the owlbear, you just have to run faster than someone in the party.
If you keep a henchman for a while, be sure to reward him for exemplary service, pay a bonus, buy them better armor or even give them a magic item. Treating a henchman kindly and paying them well can increase their loyalty. Loyalty from a henchman can save your skin.
Single use magic items
Depending on what OSR game you are playing, the setting, and the house rules of your referee; you may be able to purchase or create single use magic items like scrolls or potions. Some referees allow players to buy or make inexpensive charms or a talisman that provides a minor mechanical bonus.
Unless you are saving money for a specific thing, use the character’s money to enhance their mechanical bonuses and available magic when ever possible. Buying potions, “charms”, and scrolls can be a life saver. Even if you can’t imagine what the hell you are going to use that speak with plants spell for, buy it. The spell may come in handy during a random encounter or some odd situation you didn’t anticipate. Scrolls don’t weigh that much and they can save your character.
I allow PCs to create spell scrolls at 1st level for 100 SP (I use silver standard) in materials per spell level and 1 day of work per spell level. It always puzzles me when players don’t create spell scrolls. Even high level magic users would do well to create spell scrolls. I encourage players to have scrolls for utility spells like knock, read magic, detect magic, and floating disk. Utility spells usually aren’t cast under a time constraint like combat. You can take the time to pull it out of your pack, cast the spell and put the scroll back. You can then use the spell slots for combat oriented spells or spells that will help you escape.
Use those scrolls and potions. You don’t get experience points or treasure for hoarding magic. Some players get the idea that there will be a better use of a magic item down the road. Granted, if you have a thief with climbing tools and plenty of time, there’s no reason to use the Potion of levitation. If you don’t have a thief or the lions in the garden are about to eat you, use that potion. Maybe the fighters could beat the lions but maybe it would be better for the whole party if you levitate up, tie off a rope and provide a means of escape. Adventuring means taking risks and sometimes you have to take the risk of using a resource prematurely.
Wizards are one of the most enjoyable character classes to play in old school fantasy adventure games. They are also one of the most difficult to keep alive at low levels. You don’t have a lot of tools in the rules and mechanics of the game.
That means you have to use your creativity, your role-playing skills, henchmen, your knowledge of the setting and any crumb of magic the referee allows you to keep your character alive.
PS: Here is an excerpt from the memoir of the famous mercenary Kalador about using treachery in combination with magic.
8 thoughts on “How Do I Play a First Level Magic User?”
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The wizard player should carry a torch or lantern. In a game without a thief, some wizard players are going to want to be the ten-foot-pole, spring-the-trap player.
You have no armor. This is a huge bonus. You are faster since you are unencumbered. Sneakier too. And you can also carry way more gold out.
Play up your mechanical weakness. Avail yourself on the aid of the other players. Pretend to hem and haw about casting your 1-2 spells. If you play with fan trips, use them to amaze and trick both friend and foe.
Playing the wizard guy is way different than playing fighting men. It’s a great change of pace.
And that doesn’t even scratch the surface of what you can do with an illusion spell…!
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I played a Gnome Thief/Illusionist pre-gen character at a convention years ago. That was a great time.
Excellent! I agree whole-heartedly with what you have written. Too often players look at small numbers on MUs and think “shit, I’m dead!” I have done it myself. I even tried a character that was a Fighter until 3rd and then switched to a MU using the “Characters with two classes” rules. It worked OK but I think what you describe here is what I was really looking for. Top job.
I hope you don’t mind but I have linked to this blog on my blog here: https://dunrominuniversitypress.com/blog/2023/03/37/low-level-magic-user-can-be-exciting-no-really/
If you don’t approve let me know and I will delete it
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I don’t mind at all. Thank you for linking back to me. I appreciate it.
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«The most commonly asked question about playing a first level wizard is, “After you cast that one spell, what do you do?”»
Go stab all the sleeping monsters.
Or .. if your only spell is Magic Missile, ask yourself if using your fast-cast good-range 100%-no-miss no-save magic spell was really best used just now, and not held in reserve for that hail-mary moment of stopping the sentry from running away to summon reinforcements.
Also, you don’t need to be proficient in crossbow to be able to load a spare one up for your Ranger friend .. that way they can get off double the rate of fire. And the Ranger has a reason to stay close to your unarmoured ass.
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I am a big fan of MU taking on support roles in combat like reloading crossbows. Good suggestions.