1st Edition AD&D: How Magic-Users Get Their Spells

Introduction

You know, it seems the learning process never ends with 1st Edition AD&D.  You play for 30 years, you think you know how something works, you read it once more for the umpteenth time and once again you find that you're mistaken.  Rather than tell you what it was I actually got wrong let me just say that THIS time I think I got it right.  Let's move on shall we?

The first book in the line of AD&D rules was published in 1979.  That's about FOUR decades ago now and things have most definitely changed.  Several new versions of the game have come and gone.  1st Edition AD&D is, however, enjoying a certain amount of new life.  Some portion of that uptick is because Wizards of the Coast actually reprinted the three 1st Edition AD&D core rule books - the Monster Manual, Players Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide.  It is a sign of resurgent interest that certain questions pop up here and there, sometimes from newbies to the entire hobby, sometimes from people picking up their books again after many years, but they're all asking about just how some AD&D rules are really supposed to work.  This is one of them.

To someone who's been playing D&D since 1979 this might seem to be obvious information.  To some it might STILL be new information if they were mistaken in how they THOUGHT it works.  In all honesty AD&D was not always well-written.  Certainly it wasn't as clear and thorough as RPG rules are apt to be today.  This is not a huge topic but I've seen it come up enough recently on the D&D forums I visit that I decided to write this explanation.

How You Get Spells In the First Place, and How Spells Get Used

In 1E a magic-user has a spellbook.  In that spellbook he has all the spells that he "knows".  These are the spells which he has been taught, or that he has found or researched on his own.  He has recorded these spell in his spellbook.  He can understand them and can potentially cast them.

In order to cast a spell he first has to memorize it by studying it from his spellbook.  Low level casters have a very limited capacity for spell memorization.  The table of "Spells Usable" lists the caster level and then the number of spells of each spell level which a magic-user can memorize (and thus cast) each day.  So, a 1st level magic-user can only memorize one spell of 1st level.  Once he casts it his spellcasting is typically done for the day [I'll get to resting and recovery later].  To cast another spell he has to rest, and then again must spend time to memorize a spell from his spellbook before he can cast again.  A 5th level magic-user, as another example, can memorize (and thus cast) four 1st level spells, two 2nd level spells, and one 3rd level spell.  He can cast at least that many spells every day before having to rest and re-study.  These memorized spells can be multiples of the SAME spell or all different spells - so long as they come from the casters spellbook.

The method of how a magic-user character determines the roster of spells that he has in his spellbook winds up being largely up to the DM.  The Players Handbook provides a set of rules which dictates how many of the spells listed in the Players Handbook the character can actually understand.  This means ONLY that the character understands the spells and COULD use them, but doesn't mean the character actually has those spells in his spellbook.  Nothing in the Players Handbook actually tells a player what spells are truly IN the characters spellbook - only which ones the character can understand and which he therefore COULD have in his spellbook once he does find them.

I'll go ahead and tell you that this was my error.  I, along with countless others, have long believed that the PH was giving you a method to determine the spells that the character begins play with in his spellbooks but that isn't what it actually says.  The Dungeon Masters Guide is where you are actually presented a method for determining that - the spells which the character actually begins play with being IN his spellbook.  But ultimately it is still up the the DM to decide how many spells he thinks it is appropriate for a magic-user in his campaign to have and how to determine which spells those might be.  The DM's Guide itself, after all, has a couple of additional suggestions in that section about allowing more spells in the character's spellbook as well as greater choice about what those spells might be.

The Players Handbook information works like this: It presents the chart for the characters intelligence score which determines a % chance that he has to "know" a spell.  That is, it is the chance that he will understand how the spell functions such that once it IS copied into his spellbook he can memorize it from there and then cast it.  It says that the player should look at the list of magic-user 1st level spells and just start going down the list, rolling that "% To Know" for each spell.  [Note that you don't actually have to go through the list in order.]  If you successfully roll the % or lower for a spell then the character understands it and when and if the character actually FINDS the spell somewhere (or perhaps it is taught to him by a mentor before the game even starts) then he could enter the spell into his spellbook for actual use.

But, there are two other factors - the minimum and maximum number of spells per level.  If you roll poorly (possibly because the characters intelligence is low and he thus has a low % chance to understand spells) you could go through the whole list and not meet the minimum number of spells.  If that happens then you can go through the list again, re-checking the ones you failed to know the first time through, until you do meet the minimum.  But you are otherwise supposed to go through the whole list of 1st level spells to see which ones you "know" in order to meet at least that minimum number.  If you end up having failed to "know" a spell then your characters brain simply can't wrap around the magical concepts needed for that spell and pretty much never will [unless his intelligence changes, up or down, in which case you're supposed to go through this process again.]  Once you've actually met the minimum number of spells you can stop checking (although any you have failed to know up to this point you still won't know) and thus retain some ability to encounter other spells of that level in the future to add to your repertoire.

The other factor of maximum number of spells per level is also an issue. If you go through the whole list of spells, checking to know each one, and reach your maximum then you MUST stop.  Even though you logically might be able to know more spells the assumption is that your characters brain is now so full of the various required magical concepts for those spells that he simply cannot comprehend any more - at least not for spells of that spell level.

When your character reaches 3rd level and can now potentially cast 2nd level spells then you repeat this process with the list of 2nd level spells. You make the checks for the second level magic-user spells listed in the Players Handbook.  Again, if you go through the list and haven't met the minimum then you can go back and start rechecking ones that you missed until you do at least meet the minimum number.  You MAY stop checking once you reach the minimum (and again, any spells that you failed to know up to that point you still do not know), and if you DO reach the maximum for your intelligence then you MUST stop checking and you'll have the list of the only spells of that level that you'll EVER be able to cast.

If during play you later come across spells that are not on the list of spells in the Players Handbook then you may check to see if you "know" those spells as well, but again that maximum comes into play - if you've already reached it then you won't be able to learn any more spells of that level, period.  Otherwise, if the roll-to-know succeeds then you are allowed to add that spell to your spellbook when and if you actually obtain it.

The Dungeon Masters Guide was published a year later than the PH and includes a lot of changes and additions to how things were done in the PH.  One of those is actually giving the initial spell selections for magic-users - giving the method not for what spells the character could understand (and thus cast IF he had them in his spellbook), but what spells he ACTUALLY has in his spellbook when he begins play.

According to the DMG, a 1st level magic-user is assumed to have completed some sort of training or apprenticeship before going out into the world to make his own way.  A character must have SOME spells in his spellbook or the character is quite useless until he finds some.  The spells that a 1st level magic-user is given to have in his spellbooks are indeed given.  They're freebies by default - the character does not need to roll-to-know these spells.  It is assumed that he DOES know them; whether he has learned them in his apprenticeship or initial training or whatever.  It doesn't much matter.  He/she simply has them so that play can begin.

It is assumed that all magic-users would need to "know" the Read Magic spell or you really can't do magic - so they all get that one by default.  The remaining 1st level MU spells are then divided into three categories: offensive, defensive, and miscellaneous.  There are only two spells which feature a specific casters name [Nystul and Tenser] which are not allowed to be known at the start and must be encountered during play.  The character otherwise rolls a d10 for each of the three categories and is thus randomly awarded knowledge of one offensive, one defensive, and one miscellaneous spell.  THESE are the only spells that are actually IN his spellbook as an initial 1st level character and ALL others must be acquired by encountering them during game play.  In the random list there is the small possibility in each category that the player would actually just be given free choice from the category instead of having his spell randomly dictated.

Now, you really shouldn't have to do as the Players Handbook suggests and keep a big list of "potential" spells.  In fact, by doing that the character can easily be unfairly limited to ONLY spells that are listed in the Players Handbook.  Spells that may have been published in other gaming resources or even those which the player might want his character to research on his own can be prematurely and artificially denied because the character may have already been forced to determine the limits of which spells he COULD know even before he has ever encountered any of them - meaning that he MUST encounter those if he ever hopes to use them and cannot even bother to try to know spells which are NOT listed in the PH because he's been forced to fill up on PH spells before he can even know what MIGHT become available.

Instead, it is vastly more sensible that you would only make your % roll to know new spells as you encounter them, and then only if you are TRYING to learn them so that you can put them in your spellbook.  If you succeed then you "know" the spell (that is, your PC can understand and actually use it, and can put it into your spellbook) unless you've reached the maximum for your intelligence.  The “minimum” no longer actually applies since you're not checking a big, long, BUT FINITE list of possible spells all at once at character creation, nor doing the same when the next new level of spells becomes available for the character to cast when he levels up.

Each time the character gains an experience level he may freely add one (but only one) additional spell into his spellbooks.  This is also a spell which the character does not need to roll in order to know.  It is assumed that as part of the characters training to gain the level, and/or as the culmination of learning over the course of the previous level, the character has come to understand this new spell as a result of his studies.  When he levels-up the character chooses ONE spell listed in the Players Handbook to simply add directly to his spellbook. Your spellbook is otherwise added to, one spell at a time, AS you come across them and decide to TRY to learn them, until you reach your maximum number of "spells knowable" for that spell level.

Is This The Only Method You Can Use?

Not at all.  But, as mentioned this is largely the purview of the Dungeon Master to decide.  Every DM I've ever gamed under has dispensed with a LOT of both the PH and DMG limitations and given the player not just free choice for the initial spells he wants in his spellbook but to HAVE in his initial spellbook at least the minimum number of spells that he is allowed to know according to his intelligence (sometimes requiring that they roll to know those spells, and sometimes just waiving the requirement of rolling to know these initial spells).  Furthermore, it has been a universal house rule that for any spell which he has previously failed to "know" the player was allowed to re-check every time he levels up. This was largely because it was hard to accept that an 18th level archmage could be casting Wish spells but still not be able to comprehend the logically far simpler magical concepts of a Sleep spell merely because he failed the random roll to know it when he was 1st level.  In any case, because it is already a written rule in the DMG that a character is allowed to choose a spell to write into his spellbook when he levels up without having to roll to know it, players have used that free spell to acquire much-desired spells that they may have otherwise FAILED the roll-to-know, or for which they don't wish to RISK the failure of the roll.

My impression has always been that most DM's are quite generous with letting magic-users choose a good selection of spells to at least start the game with.  It is universally acknowledged that the magic-user is quite a fragile character class at the lowest levels and they have difficulty even surviving much less making substantive contributions.  Saddling them with a "substandard" spell selection on top of all that tends to seem awfully harsh.  Some, however, take this as working the way it was intended and choosing to play a magic-user is to intentionally and knowingly accept the challenge of your PC being quite useless for several levels.

The choice of what method to use comes down to what the Dungeon Master believes will be best for his game.  I personally feel that only more experienced players should be stuck with the significant challenge of the randomness of the method as-written.  I would advise that at the very least, if DM's still wish to follow the suggested DMG method, that in addition to the default of automatically having Read Magic you should just let players choose all three of their offensive, defensive, and miscellaneous spells rather than subject them to a random roll.

Note that just because your PC finds a scroll or spellbook containing a spell that you don't "know" doesn't mean that you MUST actually make the % check. That check is only made if you actually intend to try to learn it in order to add it to your own spellbooks. Using the Read Magic spell you can find out what spells are actually contained in spellbooks and what they do, THEN make the decision whether or not you would like to actually learn it. Same with a scroll. You can look at a scroll to discover its contents and learn the spell's EFFECTS without actually casting the spell written there (though it does activate any traps or curses to read them), without needing to learn or "roll to know" the spell.  Then, after reading it you are free to decide whether or not to THEN learn the spell from the scroll. Learning it from the scroll removes it from the scroll and adds it to the casters spellbook. [Or you can keep the scroll intact, not transfer the spell to your books, and simply use the scroll normally.]

Note also that according to the DMG, scrolls which are not read "immediately" to determine their contents have a chance of fading and being lost.  There is no specific time frame given for how "immediate" that is supposed to be - minutes, turns, or whatever.  The idea clearly was to pressure players into having their characters read scrolls so that DM's could hit them with "gotcha" curses and traps for doing so.  That's the sort of thing that DM's do NOT have to go along with if they don't want to.  Unless the DM is INTENDING to run a particularly challenging and faithfully "old-school" campaign I suggest that you ignore that rule.

Spells which the magic-user is unable to know (such as due to level or intelligence limitations) can still be transcribed into the casters spellbooks by use of the Write spell, but the Write spell is not otherwise needed to enter spells into the casters spellbook.

Spell books

Neither the PH or DMG gives any concrete information about a magic-users actual spell books - what they cost, what they're made of, what happens if they are destroyed or stolen, etc.  It's particularly surprising that the process of adding spells to a spell book is not more carefully detailed.  The only clue you can scrounge about this is one sentence in the DMG: In the section discussing making scrolls it notes that like the ink that you make for scrolls, the ink necessary for putting spells into your spell book is "compounded by the inscriber from secret and strange ingredients".  Note that there is no gold piece cost given for that ink.  The example that followed in the DMG was a formula/process to make ink for a protection from petrification scroll which is a decidedly more costly and rare item - it's still a scroll, but not one that is taken from any spell in any casters spellbooks.  The ink for a NORMAL spell to write a scroll should sensibly be less exotic and expensive, and the ink to simply enter a spell into the casters books - while still being secret and strange - does not need to be yet ANOTHER obstacle pointlessly placed in the magic-users path by the DM.

Unearthed Arcana finally gave some information about spell books, but I would strongly suggest that you do not have to adhere strictly to that either.  In UA, a standard spellbook would cost a flat 1000gp and the cost for ink to enter spells into it is 100gp per spell level (pay that cost as you go).  The book would hold a limited number of spells and then you'd have to buy another to continue to add spells.  Ultimately you'd have to buy at least three - one holding 1st to 3rd level spells (and it would hold only 24 altogether), one for 4th to 6th (max capacity 16), and one for 7th to 9th (up to 8 spells).  Clearly 1000gp for a spellbook is an impossible cost for a 1st level PC magic-user, so the declared assumption was that the cost of the first spellbook and entering the initial spells would be paid for by the caster's mentor.

Now that's fine and quite workable but it shouldn't be considered as the last word on the topic.  Magic-users only begin with 4 spells (maybe more if the DM is generous) going by the DMG process for determining starting spells.  That first spell book will hold plenty more 1st level spells, in addition to the casters 2nd levels spells and certainly a few third level spells to top it off.  So really the caster isn't likely to face buying more books until he's nearly 7th level.  At that point the cost for buying a book and entering spells into it is sure to be almost negligible.  The amount of cash flow the PC has will surely GREATLY exceed that.  I'm simply suggesting that the cost for a book doesn't need to be so high that a 1st level caster can't even pay for it himself since ultimately the costs are going to be nearly irrelevant to the PC.  Assign whatever costs YOU think are sensible for your campaign, for both the books and the costs of ink to enter new spells into them.

For example, what's wrong with a spellcaster having just ONE spellbook: Something large, iron-bound, with a lock, and containing every spell in his repertoire?  Why should he need more than one?  And what about the safety and security of a spellbook?  Is it as vulnerable to destruction as any normal book?  Can it be made to NOT be as vulnerable, and if so at what cost in time and money?  A DM has a great opportunity here to individualize his game world and make this one small aspect of it a more fun and interesting one for magic-users.

Casting Spells In The Game

As for how many spells a character can cast in a given encounter the only limit is how many scrolls you can carry, and the spells that your character has memorized - which is determined with a maximum for each level of spells according to your characters level. That maximum is given by the charts labeled "Spells Usable by Class and Level" for each spellcasting class.  For those of you who are only familiar with, say, 4th Edition, that means there are no "per encounter" spells, and no "at will" spells. In a sense, ALL of a spellcasters spells are "daily" spells.  You get a certain amount of spells each day (that's still not entirely accurate, see below) and that's all.

It's sometimes easier to explain as casters having spell SLOTS which they fill with memorized spells. You will have a certain number of slots to assign to spells of a given spell level. Having multiple slots of the same spell level you can actually memorize multiples of the same spell, so you CAN cast the same spell multiple times per day in that way. Each spell slot that you empty by casting its contents must be refilled by getting some rest and devoting time to memorizing replacements for the spells you cast.  In this same way you can also replace those spells that were not cast but that you wish to reassign.

Now, as mentioned, those really aren't strictly DAILY limits.  If a character spends time resting and then re-memorizing spells he can re-fill those "slots" and cast more spells in the same day.  The practical limit then is variable with the number of spells that were cast, the level of spells that were cast, and the number and level of spells that the caster intends to recover.  To recover 1st level spells you need at least 4 hours of rest (not necessarily sleep) and then 15 minutes of time to memorize one 1st level spell (see DMG p.40).  So technically a 1st level magic-user (who is limited to just 1 spell at a time) could be casting another spell about every 4.5 hours (about five spells in a 24 hour period) - IF he can safely rest and study his spellbook and doesn't lose too much additional time in between.

Clerics are a little different from magic-users. First, if they have a high enough wisdom they get "bonus" spells. This is just more spell "slots" that they get to fill than the tables would otherwise indicate. Second, they don't need spell books. They are assumed to be allowed to memorize any spells that appear on their spell lists and to which their class and level grants them access. This is because the effects for the spells which they "memorize" are actually granted by their chosen deity or the deities supernatural servants rather than manifested by manipulation of magic directly. Clerical spells otherwise conform to the same nature of "spell slots" that magic-user spells do. That is, multiples of the same spell can be memorized if slots are available. Clerics also require the same amount of rest and time to "study" spells (more accurately they devote time to praying to be granted replacements rather than memorizing the replacements) for replacing spells that have been cast, or which the caster wishes to reassign.

Return to D&D Page
Return to Home Page