Are mages all work and no fun?

Hi folks,

So my group is finally starting to look at characters and character generation rules for the upcoming campaign (that is currently 10 months in the making, and which I just want to get in and run already!). The player who had been keen on the mage before he read the rules is now having second thoughts. His main comments were:

  1. He found the spell list uninspiring (admittedly he was only looking at the core book and not the companion, which I’ve now directed him to).

  2. Changing spells seems like really hard work, particularly with respect to cost.

  3. Why wouldn’t one just play a Spellsword, who seem to be “strictly better versions”?

I would be curious to hear any comments people have about his thoughts, and any encouragement or reasons you may have about why mages are not more work than fun.


(For context, I don’t generally have an opinion other than that changing spells does seem like a significant investment. I’m just curious as to the opinions of others).

Changing spells is somewhat difficult, but remember that mages in ACKS cast spontaneously off their spells known.

It’s not like a wizard who has to prepare spells; if they know the spell, they can cast it.

If you find the spell list uninspiring, the Companion should fix that (because you can make your own spells if nothing else), although I’m not sure what complaints you’d have since it’s the same basic spell list every edition of D&D has.

As for why you’d play a mage over spellsword, there are two basic reasons; XP costs and level limits. If you’re first creating level 1 characters, and only considering the first-session case, then yes, the spellsword is strictly better; but the one-session case is not really the intent of ACKS, which is really designed around campaigns rather than one-shots.

Mages are for the patient. At low levels, you have to be patient tactically (waiting for the correct time to drop your Sleep to save the party - too late and everyone dies, too early and you win fights that your melee could’ve won without burning spell slots) and strategically (waiting to level up and get to the awesome stuff). A big part of the payoff for the tribulations mages face at low levels is their excellent domain game, which grants them a lot of liberty in world-changing personal projects.

Also, to expand on Aryxymaraki’s answer re:spellswords, the XP cost on spellsword is sufficient that a spellsword will be one level behind a mage with the same amount of XP most of the time. In addition to getting new levels of spells at a delay as a result, the spellsword’s henchmen will also have to be lower level than a mage’s (because a henchman won’t hire on with a master of his level or lower, and is likely to leave the employ of a master who becomes such). This hurts the strength of the spellsword’s entire retinue, which is a primary source for replacement PCs if the spellsword is killed.

The metric for the mage and spell-swapping is slightly nuanced, I think. They essentially work like Sorcerers from the 3.5 edition for picking spells to cast.

Sorcerers in 3.5 could only swap spells at every even level starting at 4th…so, 9 times? I don’t recall there being any other published mechanic, if there was, it was probably feat based. Looks like 5E lets you swap every level.

In either case, feats or “level gains” are essentially priceless (well, technically since ACKS is gold-for-XP, there’s a price here…) ACKS mages get away with it with mere time and money.

It’s probably situational as well. Most folks will dial in on a handful of “everyday” spells and carry that around - either found or researched. There’s also a ROI to look at - if you’re spending 4 months/4000GP to swap out a spell you’ll have a handful of that solve an immediate problem you’ll face - that then nets you XX times more gold over those next 4 months- then it’s more of an investment than a cost.

Lastly, there’s the balance between your repertoire and having scrolls/etc. on-hand - do you really need it in your repertoire for the task at hand, or would a fistful of scrolls work out just as well - scrolls are half the cost and a quarter of a time of a repertoire swap, halved again with a sample/formula on-hand.

I think nothing will break if you lower gold costs for repertoire changes at low levels. Maybe 100 gold times spell level squared, and keep the time cost.

(I didn’t get the impression from the OP they didn’t understand what repertoire changes were and needed them explained, it’s just it is expensive.)

The flip side of the conventional wisdom around mages being balanced by what they get at high levels is that low level games that never graduate kind of are all work and no play. So it’s worth thinking about the scope of play that you’re likely to see in a game.

I played in a Westmarch-style B/X game that ran for two years of weekly play. The highest level characters reached… 4th level, before a TPK of the most active players, and the game petering out after that. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but it has consequences for the mage’s class balance if you happen to cap out at fourth in actual play.

In the event, we had no mage characters survive long enough to level at all. We did see an Elf survive to third level, by starting with a dex bonus and getting plate armor at the first opportunity. Even with the higher xp cost, at low level in a deadly campaign I’d say the Elf/Spellsword is objectively better, in that they get to live long enough to roll that second hit die at all.

In hindsight, had we known we weren’t going to higher levels, I’d have been comfortable seeing mages use the cleric or thief xp chart. Where for a game going to higher levels that might be a disaster.

One way to get interesting spells in the hands of players is spell research, but that’s something I almost never see happen naturally in a game. I will say I’m not a fan of gatekeeping spell research behind a level limit. Between the direct cost and the library investment it’s already prohibitively expensive, so I’m not sure what the level requirement really adds to the game. On gold alone, a low level mage probably needs his party’s backing just for a single novel first level spell, and if they can get that put together, why not?

[quote="SilentTempest"] 1. He found the spell list uninspiring (admittedly he was only looking at the core book and not the companion, which I've now directed him to). [/quote]

The spell list in the main book is an artifact of the game ACKS is derived from: B/X. Perhaps the expanded list in the Player's Companion will help. However, I can't really recall any Basic D&D games where anyone ever complained about the selection of spells. I'd be interested to know a bit more about specific objections...I wil say that one of the tenets of the style of play generally associated with ACKS (i.e. old-school) is of coming up with creative uses for those spells. That means it can be important to think of uses beyond the straight descriptions of each spell, in how they can be usefully applied.

[quote="SilentTempest"] 2. Changing spells seems like really hard work, particularly with respect to cost. [/quote]

Based on the designer's notes about this, it's intended to be a kind of halfway point between the D&D 3.5 Sorcerer, and freely swapping spells (which would render the concept of a Repertoire largely redundant). My experience in actual play is that it works quite well, in spite of how you might think it reads. Within a level or two, the amount of gold necessary for swapping a spell is not such a big deal, and the Mage will often have the time while more martial classes are recovering from Mortal Wounds. Also, as I touch on in my reponse to the Spellsword question, Mages will tend to have a larger Repertoire which renders this less of a pressure in actual play. The fact that there are fewer spells which directly solve specific problems, and that the acquisition of them is largely random, also alleviates the pressure to swap to "that perfect spell."

[quote="SilentTempest"] 3. Why wouldn't one just play a Spellsword, who seem to be "strictly better versions"? [/quote]

One certainly can, and for a player thinking in those terms, I would probably suggest they should.

There are some other, more subtle interactions beyond the difference in straight XP requirements, though...

First off, Spellswords have two Prime Requisites, a martial class, there is also more pressure for them to have decent scores in other Attributes beyond those (e.g. Dexterity for Initiative, AC, and missile attacks, and Constitution for Hit Points). This means it's quite common for a Mage to have a much higher Intelligence, and thereby receive Bonus XP (+5-10%), meaning a Mage will likely level even faster than the Level Progression table would imply, and will have a larger Repertoire and more bonus Proficiencies.

Spellswords will often be carrying weapon(s) and possibly a shield, meaning their hands are full, and they cannot cast. A Mage will rarely be carrying anything they can't drop in order to cast a spell.

Spellswords are often going to be putting themselves in harm's way, with their higher Hit Points, AC, and weapons. This tends to make them less survivable, in spite of the improved HP, AC, and weapons suggesting the opposite, as they will simply be facing more than enough attacks to overwhelm the improved probabilities from the aforementioned scores.

Ultimately, Mages play quite differently than Spellswords, and that difference in playstyle is (for me) the reason to play one over the other.

(After reading this thread I wrote the following reply, which may or may not help the OP, but I hope proves useful.)

Launching the fledgling Mage

When Judging a prospective Mage (or similar arcane) player character, I first discuss what sort of Mage the player has in mind. This informs my selection of the first spell in the Mage’s starting spell repertoire:

“A 1st level arcane spellcaster starts the game with a base of one 1st level spell in his repertoire. The Judge should select an appropriate spell for the arcane spellcaster to begin with.” (ACKS p. 67)

To the extent possible, I hope to avoid cookie-cutter Mages, and a Mage’s first spell selection can kick this off by choosing a spell best fitting the Mage. I choose the spell from those available in ACKS core, the Player’s Companion or even a unique spell I construct as needed. Any remaining spells are determined randomly among the ACKS core spells only. In my games, there is an implied spell rarity, wherein core spells are common (among spellcasters), Player’s Companion spells are uncommon and other spells are rare or unique.

The Mage’s starting spell repertoire complete, I next ensure the player is aware of ACKS spell signatures:

“While spells have general effects that are common to all who cast them, the specific sensory effects associated with the spell will vary from caster to caster. This specific sensory effect is known as the spell signature. A spellcaster should write a short description of the signature for each spell he can cast.” (ACKS p. 69)

Spell signatures are an important aspect to customizing a Mage. Finally, I will advise the player on Proficiency selections which may be appropriate for the Mage. Proficiencies are the capstone to customizing an ACKS Mage.

As the Mage advances, magical scrolls, a magical wand and/or a magical staff are items the Mage will hope to acquire. When a beginning player does not realize this, the Judge should direct the player to the related rules. When a Mage is not fortunate enough to acquire these items through adventure, the Mage can turn to crafting the items. Again, the Judge should direct the player to the related rules as needed.

A Mage with Alchemy selected three times can craft potions as an Alchemist as early as level 1. As an example, a Witch can brew potions at level 3, but is delayed in scribing scrolls until level 7. I mention these to demonstrate that the crafting level limits could be tweaked by the Judge: “Every campaign is a law unto itself.” Note that the ACKS Magic Research throw table supports throws for levels 0 through 14. I would not change these values, directly. I might consider campaign-specific and situational modifiers.

For something more dangerous to those looking for a swifter path to power, perhaps the rules-as-written level limits are in fact traditional limits arising in a campaign world over time. In this case, magic research can be attempted below the recommended levels, but failure could be spectacular! The Judge might use or adapt the Player’s Companion Magical Experimentation mishap tables to this purpose. Researching spells, scribing magical scrolls, or brewing potions prior to the recommended level might risk a Minor Mishap. Crafting magic items prior to the recommended level might risk a Major Mishap. Learning and casting ritual arcane spells, crafting magical constructs, creating magical cross-breeds, or creating necromantic creatures prior to the recommended level might risk a Catastrophic Mishap. (In such a campaign world, adventurers of all levels might be hired to stop an individual engaged in such dangerous research.)

Although certainly not necessary, a Judge running a campaign in a nudge higher magic world might consider my campaign rules for ACKS Level 0 Spells and/or Differentiating Mages I have found Level 0 Spells to be a flavorful, not unbalancing addition (when appropriate to the campaign tone.) Although I have not experienced issues with Differentiating Mages, it may be many years before I personally can experience each option from levels 1 to 14 with a variety of players. Any feedback is welcome.