Michael's RPG Shelf: Magic Missile - The History of D&D's Second-Most Iconic Spell, Part Two

in hive-140217 •  6 days ago  (edited)

(Note: All images appearing in this article are scanned from my own sources.)

In part one of this piece, we looked at the pre-history of Magic Missile up through its addition to the Dungeons & Dragons legacy in the Greyhawk supplement, as well as its inclusion in the John Eric Holmes version of Basic D&D. But as noted, there was something missing. Magic Missile wasn't quite it's recognizable, iconic self just yet.

In 1979, that changed with the publication of the Player's Handbook. Arriving with an attention-grabbing throat punch to the role-playing world, Dungeons and Dragons had gone Advanced!

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons


Player's Handbook.jpg

Players seeking more bang for their buck when it came to the wizardly arts were likely shocked when they opened up their brand new hardcover and saw the spell list on page 41.

The Holmes Basic D&D rules had taken the 1st level magic-user list of 8 spells in the original D&D boxed set and the three additional ones, including Magic Missile, from Greyhawk, and added three more for a total of fourteen options for a low-level caster to study, learn, and deploy.

The Player's Handbook doubled that list: a prospective mage now had thirty different choices for their first level spell. This included a number of stalwarts that have remained in the game ever since, such as Unseen Servant, Feather Fall, and Burning Hands, as well as some like Erase and Nystul's Magic Aura which haven't stood the test of time.

Settling in at number sixteen on the list is our good friend, Magic Missile. But if you read the description, you'll note a few differences from its previous incarnations:

Use of the magic missile spell creates one or more magic missiles which dart forth from the magic-user's fingertips and unerringly strike their target. Each missile does 2-5 hit points (d4+1) of damage. If the magic-user has multiple missile capability, he or she can have them strike a single target creature or several creatures, as desired. For each level of experience of the magic-user, the range of his or her magic missile extends 1" beyond the 6" base range. For every 2 levels of experience, the magic-user gains an additional missile, i.e. 2 at 3rd level, 3 at 5th level, 4 at 7th level, etc.

Talk about your overhauls.

Something you probably noticed, especially if you never played older editions of D&D, is the range given in inches, not feet. This nonsense is worthy of a post all its own, but now is not the time. Here's the short version.

Since D&D combat originated from table-top war gaming standards, it was assumed combat would take place using miniatures as opposed to "theater of the mind's eye". Ranges for everything were expressed in real-life inches -- players would use rulers or measuring tapes to determine whether or not they could make a successful attack, movement, or other action. You can see this mechanic even in modern miniature games like Warhammer 40,000. Later editions amended this so everything ran on the same scale of feet, but to convert tabletop inches to in-game feet, you multiply inches by 10. Thus, Magic Missile in 1E has a base range of (6" = 60'), plus (1" = 10') per level of the caster. High-level mages were thus capable of sniping targets well outside longbow range with the spell.

The first major difference between this Magic Missile and its older siblings is the damage downgrade. Previous missiles hit for 2-7 (1d6+1) damage, while this new version only strikes for 2-5. Why the loss in damage?

Well, that's because of the second and third major differences. First of all, the spellcaster now gets an extra missile with every two levels, as opposed to every five; a damage downgrade was essential to prevent high-level mages from pin cushioning a dragon from half a mile away. But the other reason is perhaps more important: Magic Missile unerringly strikes its target. No to-hit roll. No saving throw. The magic-user just aims, speaks an arcane phrase, and whoever they're pointing at takes damage.

No other spell in a wizard's arsenal does this -- it's unique to Magic Missile, and it all but guaranteed every sorcerer worth his star-embroidered hat inscribed it into his spell book from level 1. But what changed between editions that Gygax felt the need to make Magic Missile so potent?

How about two and a half weeks of back and forth argument between Gygax and fellow TSR employee and The Dragon editor Tim Kask:

To hear Kask tell it, Gary wasn't big on wizards, which is why they were so under-powered, especially at lower levels, in the original D&D game. In his eyes, heroic fantasy was all about being Conan, or Elric, or some other pulp-style superhero, not a guy who stood in the back ranks and tossed lightning around like some kind of wannabe Zeus. Gygax's choice of magic system where spells are memorized and then forgotten after they've been cast until the mage re-memorizes them from his spell book again later, didn't help spell lobbers either. At first level, with an inability to wear armor, the option of entering melee with only a staff or a dagger, a single spell slot good for a single casting of one single first-level spell, and an average of 2-3 hit points, magic-users were ambulatory meat snacks who had to be shepherded by the rest of the party well into higher-tier play.

Kask often made suggestions which Gygax overturned, but the hill upon which he chose to die was this spell. In Kask's opinion, Magic Missile gave the poor, helpless magic-user one shot to contribute something in combat that could be relied upon when the situation was grim: a free 2-5 HP attack which hit no matter what. It was a suggestion Gygax poo-pooed over and over, but Kask eventually wore him down in a short-running war of attrition, much to the delight of every would-be Gandalf or Merlin on the planet.

But Gary didn't go down without a fight. While Magic Missile acquired an automatic hit, he made sure there was a way to foil even this minor boon courtesy of another spell which received an upgrade from previous editions: Shield.

Once a short-term solution to boost a magic-user's Armor Class and protect them from incoming projectiles, in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Shield spell was power-boosted to foil all Magic Missile attacks against one so protected. And with Shield lasting five rounds per level of the caster, it wasn't outside the realm of possibility for one or more of the PCs' foes to have it in place shortly after combat starts. The Magic Missile wielder's only chance? An attack from the flanks--Shield only protects the front of the caster, leaving his sides and back exposed.

Magic Missile had earned itself a permanent place, both in history, and on magic-users' character sheets, but it still had some growth, development, and even a little back-tracking, to do.

Basic D&D, Revised


By the early 80's, Dungeons & Dragons is a globe-spanning cultural phenomenon. Both the Holmes Basic set and Gygax's Advanced D&D are doing great sales-wise, but would-be new players are still confused about the two systems, and aren't sure if they're even the same game.

Holmes produced his version of the rules as a kind of stair-step intro to the AD&D product line. The idea was, new players picked up his rules, played a while, got their characters to third level or thereabouts, then purchased the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual when they were ready to hit the big time. This made sense--Holmes was condensing the original D&D rules, and Gygax was using those same rules to form AD&D.

But it turned out "Advanced" Dungeons & Dragons was a little too advanced for some players. Parents looking to introduce their children to the game, or groups of kids trying to play in an after school club or on weekends found the rules cumbersome and confusing. The Dungeons & Dragons game had always been aimed at adults with a war gaming background, but by now the game had legions of new recruits who'd never seen a sand table, and their ages were trending younger.

Thus the decision was made to split the game into two separate systems. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons would remain for adults or players who craved the complexity of Gygax's system and length of character advancement, along with the strict rule set which allowed for ease of tournament play anywhere in the world. The basic game of Dungeons & Dragons, minus the 'Advanced' moniker, would become its own beast, re-written for younger players and disconnected from the hardcovers. To accomplish this, TSR brought in Tom Moldvay, who took Holmes's rules and broke them down to make them even more user-friendly to a new player.

Basic Revision.jpg

Moldvay's revision was only available as a boxed set, but in that box buyers got not only the rule book and some dice, but an adventure: B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, a module Gary Gygax penned specifically for new Dungeon Masters so they could have a ready-made, introductory sandbox for their first games.

Moldvay's version of Magic Missile is a mashup of all of the spell's previous incarnations:

Magic Missile
Range: 150'
Duration: 1 turn
A magic missile is a glowing arrow, created and shot by magic, which does 2-7 (1d6+1) points of damage to any creature it strikes. It will automatically hit any visible target. For every 5 levels the caster has gained, he or she may shoot two more missiles when casting the spell. EXAMPLE: a 6th level magic-user may cast three missiles. These may be shot at one target, or the caster may choose to cast the missiles at different targets.

From Advanced D&D, it plucks Tim Kask's auto-hit property. From Holmes, it retains the 1d6+1 damage. But Moldvay pumped its range to a flat 150 feet -- something you'd need to be a 9th level mage to achieve under AD&D rules -- and the "two more missiles every five levels" mechanic which Holmes discarded returns from its original Greyhawk incarnation instead of Gygax's "one new missile every two levels" rule from AD&D.

There's one other change you might not have noticed though.

It's subtle.

If you aren't familiar with older rule sets, you probably glossed right over it. Did you catch it?

The spell's duration is now "1 turn." And that's incredibly important.

Modern D&D breaks everything down into ten-second rounds, so every six rounds = 1 minute of in-game time. If you cast a spell which lasts for six minutes, then it lasts for sixty rounds. Older rule sets, on the other hand, are based on a three-legged system of segments, rounds, and turns.

A segment in old D&D is equivalent to a modern 'round' in terms of in-game time: it lasts for six seconds. In the Advanced rules, a 'round' lasts for one in-game minute (so a single 'round' of combat is made up of 10 segments). The third and largest block of time is a 'turn', which is 10 rounds: sixty segments or ten minutes of in-game time. Moldvay's Basic set streamlined this so that rounds are ten seconds long, while turns are ten minutes long, and segments don't exist.

So Magic Missile has a duration not of one round, but one turn. Ten minutes. You can only fire one shot or volley during that time, so why is that important?

Because Moldvay's interpretation of Magic Missile allows a PC to deploy her missile(s) strategically.

If cast at the start of combat, she could hold it in reserve for up to 59 additional rounds before being forced to take the shot or fizzle the spell. At any point during those rounds, the mage could take other actions (cast other spells, defend herself with her staff, work her way up to higher ground, etc...). And once she was in position, she could respond to the party leader's request to snipe a particular target. She could target reinforcements that arrived a couple rounds into combat. She could hit an archer who popped out of cover long enough to be visible. She could deliver the kill shot when the Fighters fumbled their attacks. She could pick off a retreating enemy. And there was nothing an opponent could do about it, because there are no rules for concentration in Basic D&D. Once a spell is cast, it's cast -- unless you kill the wizard who cast it, you're stuck with the results until the duration expires.

Moldvay's version of Magic Missile is the only one which can be cast, held in reserve, then deployed later in this fashion. It's so easy to overlook that I never realized it until now, despite having cut my teeth on Moldvay's Basic set when I was a kid.

It's unclear whether this was a deliberate change on Moldvay's part, or a simple mistake which was corrected later. One might be tempted to think it's the latter since Frank Mentzer's 1983 revision of the Basic Rules returns the spell's duration to 1 round, but look at the description for his version:

A Magic Missile is a glowing arrow, created and shot by magic, which inflicts 2-7 (1d6+1) points of damage to any creature it strikes. After the spell is cast, the arrow appears next to the magic-user and hovers there until the magic-user causes it to shoot. When shot it will automatically hit any visible target. It will move with the magic-user until shot or until the duration ends. The Magic Missile actually has no solid form and cannot be touched. A *Magic Missile never misses its target and the target is not allowed a Saving Throw.

For every 5 levels of experience of the caster, two more missiles are created by the same spell. Thus a 6th Level Magic-user may create three missiles. The missiles may be shot at different targets.

That description is...odd...if the spell's duration is only one round. The mage would have to cast and fire it off almost immediately. It would allow the magic-user to cast the spell, move a few feet, and then shoot, but if he didn't fire by the end of the round, the arrow would fizzle. Mentzer's expanded description of the spell only makes sense in the context of Moldvay's longer duration, where the mage could cast and wait.

Yet when Aaron Allston compiled the standard D&D rule set from Mentzer's Basic, Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal (BECMI) boxed sets into the hardcover Rules Cyclopedia in 1991, it's Mentzer's description of Magic Missile, not Moldvay's, which survived wholly intact.

Rules Cyclopedia.jpg

Can you tell this was carried in a backpack for years?

As far as the Basic Dungeons & Dragons product line is concerned, Allston's Rules Cyclopedia (and his 1992 boxed set Wrath of the Immortals, which ended the product's line) is where the story ends. Beyond this, there's only Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But by 1988, AD&D has been on the market for ten years. The cracks are starting to show from the strain of all the materials published in that past decade. New players are again put off at the thought of having to learn and buy so much just to play the game, and those who start with Basic Dungeons and Dragons are learning that the two rule sets, despite sharing a common ancestor, are fundamentally incompatible.

TSR knows it's time to revise the world's most popular role-playing game, incorporate errata and updates published in hardcovers like Unearthed Arcana as well as Dragon Magazine, break the connection between standard and "Advanced", and level the playing field for ease of entry yet again while still keeping most of the new rules backwards compatible with the first edition. TSR staffer David "Zeb" Cook is handed the reigns of a small design team and told to make it happen.

The result: 1989's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, a triumph of design wizardry and precursor to TSR's most prolific expansion, and most disastrous bust. And Magic Missile was there to watch it all happen.

But that's a story for part three, boys and girls. Cliffhangers, you understand.


Leave your favorite Magic Missile memories down in the comments, and until next time, may all your hits be crits.

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This brought back memories back to ADnD and Magic missile was always in the arsenal. Thanks for this, bought back really fond memories for me.

My pleasure, @acurewa! That's what I aim to do with these articles, after all. :)

I didn't start D&D until 4E when MM was an at-will ability if memory serves.

Oh, we'll get there...trust me! :D