A fighter gets to hit something every round. An assassin can backstab someone if they are really lucky with their Hide in Shadows and Move Silently. A cleric with more than 13 wisdom gets more than one miracle (spell) and can melee as well. But a magic user with an 18 intelligence gets one spell per day and no real melee ability?

The game I am running has a fighter, an assassin, a cleric and a magic user - all first level. The cleric and the magic user both managed to roll a 17 for their primary attribute so the cleric can cast 3 first level miracles (spells) because of the wisdom bonus and the.magic user knows four spells but can only cast one.

What makes combat fun for the first level magic user? The player of the magic user feels left out a bit because they only get to use their class ability once on the first encounter and then have to throw daggers at people which doesn't seem so in line with how you imagine a magic user.

So I see a couple options:

  • I could let the magic user find some scrolls but the last paragraph of DMG page 39 says not to do this because they could then learn spell and cast it later without the scroll. I'm not so worried about that as I would probably give them scrolls of spells they already know. (Magic Missile probably)
  • I could let the magic user find a rod, stave or wand like the last paragraph of the first column of DMG page 65 suggests. I understand that is a better option if it is a spell they don't already know because they can't learn the spell from the device. But, I don't think it is really better than scrolls if the charges are a spell the magic user already knows. (Magic Missile probably)

Is there a better option than these that makes the magic user feel more like a magic user while still keeping the game balanced?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just as an observation, AD&D parties were typically larger than that, in terms of the number of PCs. 6-10 was what I was used to seeing in play. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26 '20 at 13:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I was in a group where the 1st level mage took spider climb as the only spell. The first time we were in combat he cast the spell, climbed up into a tree and started shooting things with his crossbow. As a young mage he learned to not be where the fighting was going on.... \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 '20 at 15:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Philipp AD&D 1e cantrips were underwhelming, and getting four of them cost a spell slot. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 '20 at 16:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ “no real melee ability” ? At first level a mage has the same chance to hit as any one else. No armour and few hit points .. ok, stick to ranged attacks. \$\endgroup\$
    – Erics
    Feb 21 '20 at 14:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ And cantrips weren't even in the first of the first edition, but were a later development. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Sep 11 '20 at 17:32

While there might be some ways to make the combat fun for the mage, you are from a game design perspective trying to fit a square peg into a round hole: The magic user is not meant to have fun during combat. Even more extremely put: The magic user isn't even supposed to fight, ever.

The playstyle of a magic user, especially for the early DnD versions, is based on preparation: The choice of what spells to memorize for the coming adventure is an extremely significant one. It is, (with only a bit of exaggeration) basically the main gameplay part of being a magic user. All other actions and choices are either in support of that choice, or executions of that choice.

To put it more graphically: A fighter can, when finding the entrance to a dungeon, go on in and start hacking at the monster, with the full expectation to succeed at that. A magic user, on the other hand, when seeing an entrance to a dungeon, will not go in -- without preparation, that would be a death sentence. Instead, the magic user will study the writing on the door, go to the nearest village, ask people what they know about the dungeon and its denizens, research and consider their options. Then, once they know what they are up against, they memorize the requisite spells, and then go in. And when the guardian of the dungeon roars its challenge, the magic user unleashes the one spell that defeats that guardian. It might be the only spell of the day, but that was exactly the spell they needed.

As a GM, instead of looking for ways to make the magic user have fun at something they are fundamentally not meant for, you should help facilitate the magic user playstyle of knowing and being prepared before going into a dungeon.

That will usually mean also preparing a different spell than magic missile. Not because the spell is bad, but because it's not meant to be the magic user's main work horse. It's meant as filler for when the magic user has spell slots left over, and thinks speeding along the combat would help.

The first choice should be spells that allow the magic user to avoid entering combat altogether, like Sleep. Because that is their niche, and their way to meaningfully contribute, by providing functionality the other classes can't. The fighter can just hack at things. If something is too tough to hack away, the fighter is out of options. The magic user can put that encounter to sleep and walk right past.

To return to our graphic example, when a fighter and a magic user enter a dungeon together, the fighter will go ahead and hack at those rats and spiders and other minor things. And the magic user will just hang back and stay out of harm's way. But when the medusa guarding the treasure shows up, the fighter's method fails. But the magic user, having prepared for encountering the "snake-haired guardian" the old books mentioned residing in this tomb, whips out their Cure Petrification and saves the day.

There is very much a difficult GM challenge there, because of the different approaches to problems and different moments of activity a mixed party faces: Something needs to keep the fighter entertained while the magic user is off researching, and somehow the magic user needs to be involved during the dungeon crawl even while the encounters are still all fighter fodder for now. Unfortunatly, it's something that's really hard to get right, and depends a lot on the group involved.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer. You can't plan for fun, but you can plan to support various play styles. It's up to the player to pick a play style that suits them. \$\endgroup\$
    – Iguanodon
    Jan 26 '20 at 16:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ RE: Wizards should "buy scrolls if they don't know the spell yet." This was never an option in any AD&D campaign I was involved in. Magic items—even scrolls—weren't routinely available for purchase. And, if they were available, they'd be beyond the financial grasp of a low-level magic-user. (By the way, given the edition, consider changing the answer's wizard references to magic-user.) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26 '20 at 17:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ The player also needs to know this. If they think they're picking a "spell-caster" like the Wizard in Diablo 3, and blow things up along a Barbarian, that's not what D&D is about at all. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelson
    May 25 '20 at 2:53

A Magic User’s early combat ineffectiveness is consistent with the design goals of AD&D 1e

(And the easiest way to make combat more action-packed for a low-level Magic User is to play a newer edition of D&D.)

Delayed Gratification as Game Feature

Magic Users were designed to start out very weak but then gain amazing powers.

Consider this quote from the 1980 article in The Dragon, In Defense (Once Again) of the Poor Magic-User:

Most people who have played Magic Users feel that they finally climb that first step to becoming powerful when they achieve the 5th level and can use a 3rd-level spell.

The idea of getting through 4 levels for your character to become powerful might seem astounding today, but this sort of delayed gratification was an intentional part of the game.

So the “traditional” answer to how to make the game more fun for a magic user would seem to be: They should be enjoying the anticipation of going up levels, when their power would outstrip other characters.

A side note: One might easily argue that 5th level is still a turning-point for 5e Wizards, considering the power of fireball. But additional spell slots, and (especially) at-will cantrips give 5e wizards “more to do” at low levels.

Character Race and Delayed Gratification

If this notion of delayed gratification seems unbelievable, consider the rules for character races.

Demi-humans got many advantages at 1st level, including infravision. This advantage persisted until the demi-human character reached the Class Level Limitation (AD&D 1e PH, p. 14) somewhere between level 4 and 11 (preventing gaining of futher levels entirely).

After that, as human PC’s gained more levels, they accrued a big and ever-growing advantage.

In both the case of choosing a race and class, there was a trade-off between advantages at early levels and later-game potential.

A Suggestion from the 70’s

As you have chosen these earlier rules for your campaign, here is one suggestion from those earlier days, which would keep new-fangled notions such as cantrips out of your campaign.

In 1979, Charles Sagui suggested in his article Poisons from AA to XX:

Magic Users who desire a more potent missile weapon may, after gaining permission of the Guildmaster of Assassins and paying the Guild 1000 gp per experience level, coat darts or daggers with type “AA” or “A” poisons. They may purchase 30 vials of strength “AA” or 15 vials of strength “A” poison per game-year.

(The Dragon, issue 32, p. 4)

Getting Magic User powers without that helpless feeling

There are a couple of ways you can play a Magic User with more versatility.


One technique to have more fun as a first level Magic User was to multi-class. This worked great at first level, but once level advancement started was less ideal.

You need experience points from both levels to advance, and don’t get hit points for both classes.

Since experience point requirements increased more-than-linearly, and magic users have higher experience point requirements, you would generally be a level behind single-class magic-users — and your lower hit point total is where that hurts most.

“The Character with 2 Classes”

You can also play a human and “change class” to Magic User. This was different from multi-classing (which was only for demi-humans). It entailed changing class permanently. (Ref The Character with Two Classes, PH AD&D 1e, p. p. 33.)

One level of fighter, for example, got you enough hit points to withstand getting hit once. And once your Magic User level exceeded your fighter level, you could use your fighter weapons again without penalty.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The first half of this answer is spot on; been there, done that, you captured it very well \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26 '20 at 18:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ For the record, the "Character with 2 Classes" option was termed "dual-classing" in the AD&D rules. \$\endgroup\$ May 25 '20 at 8:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaveSherohman, thanks for the comment. Can you provide a reference for that? "Character with 2 Classes" (mouthful that it is) is from PH AD&D1e, p. 33. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    May 25 '20 at 18:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimGrant - Unfortunately, I can't provide a direct reference, as all my D&D books are long gone. A google search for "AD&D dual-class" turns up a ton of hits attesting to the term (a large proportion specifically mention AD&D2e, but I found at least one mentioning it being in the 1e rules), but I haven't come up with any actual page references that way. Perhaps the term was introduced in 2e and then informally adopted by 1e players as more convenient to say? \$\endgroup\$ May 26 '20 at 8:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ The down side of dual classing was that you were not allowed to use any of the class features of your original class until you had surpassed your original level in it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Sep 10 '20 at 17:18

They should support the others

They have a ranged weapon (throw a rock, if nothing else). They can keep watch in case someone is sneaking up on the group while they are occupied with the fight. They can warn about reinforcements. If there is a lone weak enemy, maybe they can finish that one off. They can keep watch at the boss, trying to see if they have a weakness or a prepared trick. They can keep their cool and yell "retreat" or "press on" based on the odds in the situation. Hold a door open or closed to hinder enemy positioning or help yours, or open/close the door to allow or deny missile fire.

To make this work, the game master should introduce interesting tactical situations and enemies with weaknesses and tricks to discover.

The magic-user should do something clever

Throw sand in their faces, a bag on their head, lasso them, trigger a trap under them, provoke someone to attack you and have them run into quicksand, strike at the weak pillar to cause rocks to fall on your enemies (or, better yet, provoke the raging ogre into doing so), hide behind a corner and trip an incoming enemy with your staff.

Since you might not survive for long in straight combat, try all kinds of creative things. These are typically not gated through specific mechanical rules that other characters have an edge on, so the benefit of the mage doing them is greater than the benefit of a more mechanically effective character doing them, most of the time. And they are fun.

This requires the game master to make the adventure location interesting, rather than consisting of large empty square rooms and straight corridors between them.

Summary: Think outside the box

The combat rules are not terribly interesting by themselves. It is not a game of combat, but rather of exploration and problem solving, with combat as one problem to solve and one thing to discover or avoid. So play the combat in the same way as the rest of the game: with creativity and calculated risk-taking.

Whereas the game master should provide a living and varied world, which will make this fun and possible.


Hire some henchmen.

One aspect of early play that is very different from modern play is the idea that each player would be playing a whole team, not just one PC. Look to the Charisma table that an average character is allowed to have up to 4 henchmen, and at the top-level up to 15 (subject to hiring, payments, morale and so forth).

Some of my current players took a while to get into that, but at least some of them expect to have the main PC and 2 henchmen standard now. So a player could have a magic-user "primary" and a couple fighter bodyguards that they're directing forward in melee encounters. Or turn it around: e.g., Gary Gygax's famous wizards Mordenkainen and Bigby were henchmen of his primary fighter character, Yrag (as recollected by his son Ernie Gygax when I interviewed him here).

Finally, a frame challengey side note: In the last decade of his life, Gygax was running games at conventions using Original D&D (1974) and starting players at 3rd level. So there is an argument that the game mechanics really become interesting at 3rd-4th level, and maybe you should just start there, as both the original authors did at different times. (Arneson is a bit less clear because he intentionally hid a lot of mechanics from players; see here.)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Daniel When Arneson started playing games using Chainmail Fantasy rules, the lowest level fighter was "Hero" (as 4th level) isn't quite right, per Greg Sevnson's notes. I'll get you a link when I find that file. The fighter had to accumulate equipment and (something) and in order to get to Super Hero had to slay 1000 XP worth of monsters, which in that proto D&D game was "1 HP = 1 XP" well before Men and Magic was published. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 '20 at 13:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Here is the link from blogswood boggswood.blogspot.com/2014/08/… "Become hero if possess magic equipment or survived several expeditions or become super hero if you kill 1000 points of anything” Granted, this is a moving target, since Arneson was continually updating his little black notebook as they played and he made adjustments as they discovered what did and didn't work out. PS: hire henchmen is of course one of many ways that we dealt with stuff like that. I once charmed a level 2 fighter we encountered-the charm lasted for weeks. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 '20 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast: That's interesting. Ideally we'd have confirmation that PCs actually started at either the "mortal" or "hero" levels in that link. E.g., When I heard Dave Megarry speak in person he said his first Blackmoor PC was a "thief with 70 warriors", so the inference I took was that the PC was hero-level and the followers were mortal-level to start. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 '20 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ It depends on the "when" of Blackmoor since per DA's interviews a while back, he kept adjusting things in his little black notebook. I am supposed to be getting the Blackmoor movie from the kick starter, will follow up when I have more info. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 '20 at 22:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ Cool, thanks for the link. (PS, the kickstarter promised rewards are, sad to say, not coming in ...) \$\endgroup\$ Feb 11 '20 at 2:16

If you're used to later editions of D&D, AD&D's handling of low-level magic-users can seem weird, because it doesn't naturally provide things for them to do every round when the party is in combat. Also, your mix of characters isn't typical for low-level parties as they were played in the eighties.

The way it was done at the time was to have parties that had more fighters and clerics, and fewer magic-users and thieves than seems to be typical in later editions. It was accepted that parties that had too many characters who weren't effective melee fighters were likely to get into serious trouble. The magic-user should not expect to be a melee fighter at any character level, and if they're doing it at first level, things have gone badly wrong.

Your party has two melee fighters, an assassin who isn't very useful at first level, and a magic-user. Adding a couple more fighters would give better balance and let the party cope with being outnumbered better. The role of the magic-user in this approach is to cope with the party being badly outnumbered via a Sleep spell, or to have a spell that was known in advance to be required for plot purposes.

Combat also played much faster in those days, because character designs were simpler, there were no feats or other complexities, and everything was less formal. Having some of the players running more than one character was quite routine in the circles where I played, and meant the player was occupied even if one of his characters wasn't.

The other job of magic-users was thinking. Not being absorbed in a melee, but keeping track of the larger situation, the plot, the enemy tactics and leadership, and so on. That's actually useful for the DM, and allows for plots that are less linear.

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    \$\begingroup\$ My experience in the 80s was a party always started with a Fighter, Cleric, Magic User, and Thief. \$\endgroup\$
    – Tiger Guy
    Jan 27 '20 at 0:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ScottDunnington my experience was that a party always started with three fighters, two clerics, a magic-user, and a thief =) \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Jan 27 '20 at 2:21

First, make sure that Charm Person is one of your first spells

Then, charm an archer or a heavily armed warrior to be your meat shield. Or charm two of them.

I learned this trick in Original D & D; a friend of mine had, early in his adventuring career, charmed two warriors (2d level fighters) that the party had encountered during an early random encounter. They stayed charmed.

For the first few months of that campaign, the charm did not break. (Using the Intelligence table in Greyhawk). He was wise enough to do his best to keep them alive, and as NPCs they got a share of XP and ended up leveling up with the party. (Yes, there was some grousing among a few of the party members, but so be it; the Magic User survived and was able to cast that oh so precious spell when it was needed by the party).

This powerful version of the charm person spell carried over into AD&D 1e.

As powerful as sleep, in some regards; Charm Person was all or nothing

When we look at Charm Person in D&D 5e, it is pathetically weak.

In its AD&D 1e form, it is similar to the Dominate Person spell, or 3.5e's version of Dominate Person. The below description, edited, required me to combine the 2d level Druid version of the spell and the 1st level M-U version of the spell to demonstrate this feature: the table was in the Druid section. The MU spell is the same as the Druid version (mostly, but no beasts could be charmed by an M-U) per PHB p. 65 (table is from PHB p. 55). (I subbed in caster for magic-user or druid to make this more coherent)

Charm Person (Enchantment/Charm) / Level: 1
Components: V,S / Range: 12''
Duration: Special {Italics Mine}
Saving Throw: Neg. {means saving throw negates effect}
Area of Effect: One person
Explanation/Description: {snip} ... the {caster} can charm only persons, i.e. brownies, dwarves, elves, gnolls, gnomes, goblins, half-elves, halflings, half-orcs, hobgoblins, humans, kobolds, lizard men, nixies, orcs, pixies, sprites, and troglodytes. All other comments regarding spell effects apply with respect to persons.

The creature then will regard the {caster} who cast the spell as a trusted friend and ally to be heeded and protected. {italics mine} The spell does not enable the {caster} to control the charmed creature as if it were an automaton, but any word or action of the {caster} druid will be viewed in its most favorable way. {italics and bolding mine} Thus, a charmed creature would not obey a suicide command, but might believe the {caster} if assured that the only chance to save the {caster}'s life is if the creature holds back an onrushing red dragon for "just a round or two". Note also that the spell does not empower the {caster} with linguistic capabilities beyond those he or she normally possesses. The duration of the spell is a function of the charmed creature's intelligence, and it is tied to the saving throw. The spell may be broken if a saving throw is made, and this saving throw is checked on a periodic basis according to the creature's intelligence:

\begin{array}{r|lll} \text{Intelligence} & \text{period between checks} \\ \hline \text{3 or less} & \text{3 months} \\ \text{4 to 6 } & \text{2 months} \\ \text{7 to 9 } & \text{1 month} \\ \text{10 to 12} & \text{3 weeks} \\ \text{13 to 14} & \text{2 weeks} \\ rest & snipped \end{array}

{snip} If the recipient of the charm person/charm mammal spell makes its saving throw versus the spell, its effect is negated.

Most NPC Fighting Men didn't run around with a 19 intelligence. If one spoke Dwarfish, one might charm a dwarf into service.

Second: charm a martial NPC

Charm a warrior, Orc, dwarf, whomever you meet. They are your personal protector and body guard, a martial character that you control (by giving rational orders to) in the same way that you could roll for what your henchmen do. (Most DM's would have you roll their attacks, etc).

The key advantage is that this henchman does not need a morale check, nor cost money in pay. This charmed NPC needs periodic saving throws versus the charm person spell. In two months time, you'll probably have gained a few levels - if you survive. There are still ways to get killed, like dragon breath, falling into traps, exploding poison gas from a trap triggered by the thief, orc archers, etc.

Third: go adventuring!

You need to remember that this NPC is charmed by you and is not an automaton, but as it usually works out in play you can give them reasonable orders and they do your bidding. Each day, as you prepare a spell, you figure out which of the few in your book that you need. You don't need to keep charm person prepared for this to maintain its effect. If you want to charm another NPC, well, go ahead. Just be ready for what happens when the charm wears off - shennigans abound!
Or, release them from your service before that happens.

This answer is related to Daniel R. Collins' answer about henchmen, but it is also a different way to play a minion-mancer kind of character; in this case, you charm normal NPCs who become your minions, rather than undead or beasts.

When a Druid caststhis spell on a beast as a second level spell, they could get, for example, a grizzly bear or a wolf, or an alligator - that beast would stick around for a while.

Some things for a Magic User to do in combat include ...

Hold the torch so that the humans can see; light the flasks of oil that your henchman or party members throw; throw burning flasks of oil at the enemy; throw darts; watch for flanking by the enemy; drag downed fighters out of the fight; in general use your brain to think up clever things for your party to do and shout it out as a suggestion, and if you have one, administer a healing potion to your comrades so that they can keep fighting.

Use your wits to improve the party's chances for success.

One of our Magic Users at low level (we were in the Caves of Chaos) tried to make a lasso (we all carried 50' of rope, it was a thing back then) to toss at an enemy to try and restrain him. It didn't work, but it was worth trying. Another time it was our Magic User who held the other end of a rope; the party began to withdraw and the goblins ran after us. Most of them tripped over the rope ... so the thief tossed a flask of flaming oil at the pile up.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In AD&D you can't "make sure" Charm Person is one of your first spells -- you need to succeed at a roll. \$\endgroup\$
    – Roger
    Jan 28 '20 at 14:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Roger that depends on if your DM lets you pick spells, or if the DM does the roll thing in the DMG. That is very table Dependent. I have seen it done both ways, and most DMs I played with let the 1st level players pick their first few spells. But some did require the roll ... please don't try to apply WoTC era RAW approaches to the more wide open game that was AD&D. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 '20 at 14:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Roger Also, see below the table: Note that both Nystul's Magic Aura and Tenser's Floating Disc must be located by the character; they can never be known at the start. If your campaign is particularly difficult, you may wish to allow choice automatically. You can furthermore allow an extra defensive or miscelloneous spell, so that the character begins with 5 spells . (page 39, DMG) Every DM who made us roll also gave that one additional spell that was "pick one.' I appreciate that your experience may have been different. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 28 '20 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fun note, apparently the 5e Vampire Charm effect draws on this 1e Charm Person effect: "The charmed target regards the vampire as a trusted friend to be heeded and protected... it takes the vampire’s requests or actions in the most favorable way it can." \$\endgroup\$
    – Tim Grant
    Jan 31 '20 at 1:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TimGrant Interesting parallel there :-) \$\endgroup\$ Feb 1 '20 at 16:52

Full disclosure: I’ve only ever played one low-level fantasy RPG campaign, and it wasn’t Dungeons & Dragons.

Let me tell the story of how my level 2 halfling mage helped clear out a temple haunted by a malevolent, sentient tree.

My mage, let’s call him Jeff (I cannot recall his actual name) was actually more of an involuntary travelling scholar. At some point, he got kicked out of his home for reasons that were never made clear. A life of adventure on the road was not what he had in mind, and he didn’t like it one bit. He just wants to stay indoors and study. What little magic he had at his disposal was mostly focused on making an itinerant life a bit more bearable: he could light his pipe, put a kettle on, dry his clothes, that sort of thing. The only decent non-cantrip spell he knew, was a spell for climbing walls and ceilings.

So how does one use that to fight evil dryads and the like? With environment, circumstances and wit! During the final climactic battle, Jeff panicked and ran away. (Brave heroic martyrdom was not his cup of tea — cups of tea were his cup of tea.) He cast his climb-the-walls spell, and escaped to the ceiling. Once up there, he realised he had a new ally: gravity. The 20 feet or so of free falling gave the odd loose brick more than enough velocity to injure the dryads (throwing rocks is something that comes naturally to a halfling). To finish off the wood-wraith-tree thing, he drenched his heavy travelling cloak in lamp oil, used a cantrip to set it alight, and simply dropped it from above.

There are more weapons at your disposal than your actual weapons.

  • \$\begingroup\$ this is the kind of innovative thinking that was common in AD&D 1e dayd, OD&D days, and even in the Runequest games we played. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 27 '20 at 13:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Right. I regard the "climax is a stand up fight in a bare square room" mentality as one borne out of computer RPGs such as Diablo or World of Warcraft, where you spend your time min-maxing for combat. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 29 '20 at 0:25

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