Monday, July 15, 2019

The Complete Wizard's Handbook

The first thing The Complete Wizard's Handbook does is discuss the nuances of the game's eight schools of magic. It was somewhere around the second page of this, when they were explaining that the Alteration school got Melf's Minute Meteors and Death Fog as their heavy-hitting offensive options that I finally allowed myself to admit something that had been building for a long time - the AD&D magic system is bullshit.

This is hardly a fresh observation, and I'd be almost embarrassed to make it, but I think my criticism here is a bit different than the boilerplate. Most people focus on the baroque spellcasting mechanics which cause you to play a very peculiar type of resource management game that doesn't remotely resemble anything in fiction (and to be clear, there is some advice on that subject here and it does, indeed emphasize how unwieldy and awkward it is to try and play "second-guess what the DM has planned for the day" every time you memorize your spells). However, when I say "the AD&D magic system is bullshit" I'm instead focusing on the fact that there is no rhyme or reason to what spells wizards get except that it is canonically true that the wizard spell set as a whole can do almost anything, shy of healing wounds and bringing back the dead.

I mean, they devote a little more than a page to adjudicating the Wish spell, and for fuck's sake why is there a "Wish" spell in this game? What sort of half-assed "our mechanical typewriters didn't have delete keys back then" brand of game design went in to approving that monstrosity? It's not thematic. It's not flavorful. It's barely even fun. What little entertainment there is in the spell lies in when the DM tries to twist your wish to stop it from being overpowered, and you can really only do that once or twice before it gets old, so why do they keep putting it in the game, allowing it to distort the upper ends of the power curve and suck up so much DM advice real estate?

Oh, right, because this is Dungeons and Goddamned Dragons and every idea anyone ever had is canon except Warlords and the "mysterious lands of the east."

Oops, that came off across as a little angrier than I intended, but in the spirit of AD&D, I'm going to leave it in and just treat it as an unalterable fact I'm forced to contend with until the end of time. What started this rant was The Complete Wizard's Handbook's handling of Alteration specialists and the way that was like the Wish spell in miniature, revealing the game's purported taxonomy of the mystic arts to be nothing but a tissue of lies.

What does the "Alteration" school do? It alters things. As in, changes one thing to another. Or changes the location of a thing, you know, by moving it. And when I say "thing" I'm getting pretty abstract here. One of the things you can change is Time. Speed time, slow time, stop time, that sort of deal. And when I say "change" . . . eh.

Let's get a refresher on Melf's Minute Meteors - what it does is create a bunch of little fireballs that you can throw at your enemies. It doesn't require any existing fires to transmute into balls, nor any existing balls to transmute into fire. They just come from nowhere and you can throw them. The only thing being "altered" here is your state of not having fireballs to a state of indeed having fireballs.

That's what Alteration does. It's the type of magic where after you use it something has changed. And you can specialize in it. You can play a wizard specializes, specializes, in using magic to make things different than they were before.

And that, ultimately, is why the AD&D magic system is bullshit. All of your fantasy elements are spells. All of the spells can be used by one of two classes. Other classes can use some magic to a lesser degree that isn't really competitive and doesn't help them all that much (if your 9th level paladin is getting a significant power boost from their one first level spell per day, perhaps you need to reconsider your build), so much so that it almost seems tacked on. The result is just huge asymmetries in what the classes can do and how much they can participate in the world's fantasy.

It's incredibly frustrating.

Oh, yeah, also the racist shit is back. "Savage wizard" just makes me want to hurt somebody, and the Wu Jen is our most nakedly orientalist class option yet. They have strange taboos that they must observe to keep their magic. "[They] may seem trivial, or even ridiculous to other characters, [but] the Wu Jen takes them quite seriously."

How can a wizard be superstitious, TSR? How can a wizard be superstitious?

Anyway, my numerical verdict is 6/10. The thing that's broken about the book is merely that which is broken about AD&D as a whole, and The Complete Wizard's Handbook is generally perfectly serviceable within that context. And the racism isn't unique to the book. I owe the author of the Fighter's and Priest's books an apology. Because the Thief's book didn't have the more problematic kits, I thought they were his inventions, but I see now that there was some kind of editorial mandate from the top (and here, the Amazon Wizard having the exact same special ability as the Amazon Warrior not only doesn't make sense, it doesn't even help her with her primary shtick). So really, what this book is is a few extra spells and magic items, some beginner roleplaying advice, and a guide to casting spells under water.

UKSS Contribution - The Sage Tree. It's a tree, haunted by the ghosts of hundreds of sages. It can answer questions, but only after it's argued with itself about it first. It's a pretty neat image, and one which has some versatile uses.

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