forgotten 1e spells: part 2, mid-level wizard spells

A lot of first-edition spells never made it to 3e and beyond. Some of them would be fun in a later-edition game. Let’s rehabilitate some of the forgotten mid-level wizard spells.


Protection from Normal Missiles: in 3e, PfNM was replaced with the generally more useful Wind Wall – and still nobody took it! Although I never saw anyone cast PfNM, I’ve seen it used in thought experiments, including one that posited that a magic-user with Fly, PfNM, and a sling could safely rout an entire army, given enough time. In fact, with 1-minute combat rounds and a magic-user’s THAC0, a wizard could kill, maybe, 20 soldiers an hour tops, at the end of which the army would have found cover, built big wooden shields, and started construction on a ballista.

In order for Protection from Normal Missiles to compete with Fly, Fireball, and other level-3 spells, it should offer some of the monk’s ability to deflect missiles back at the firer. A goblin shoots an arrow at the wizard. He points! The arrow reverses course! That’s a spell that’s (almost) worth taking.


Dig: Dig lets you excavate one 5′ cube per level. It’s the Minecraft spell. It has obvious uses for people engaged in construction – NPCs and characters building strongholds – but it also has surprisingly detailed, and powerful, combat mechanics. “Any creature at the edge (1′) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided. Any creature moving rapidly towards a pit area will fall in unless it saves versus magic. Any creature caught in the center of a pit just dug will always fall in.”

What does it mean to use your dexterity as a saving throw? Normally, a low saving throw is good, but a high Dexterity is good. Do you roll over your Dex on a d20, maybe? This is a common houserule for making ability checks, but are there any other mechanics like this in 1e D&D?

Between Dig’s ability to let you mine your own dungeons and excavate redstone, its complex rules for shoring up tunnels, and its Lode Runner-like combat mechanics, Dig is a pretty cool spell as it is. I might take it instead of Lightning Bolt for my next first-edition wizard.

Fire Charm: Fire Charm is a very evocatively-written spell that “causes a gossamer veil of multi-hued flame to circle a fire at 5′ distance.” Anyone who views the fire might become hypnotized (if they fail a save) and vulnerable to suggestion (if they fail a second save). The problem with this spell is that it’s the same level as Charm Monster, which requires only one saving throw, and which lasts several weeks, which is way better than Fire Charm’s 2 rounds/level or whenever the victim stops staring at the fire, whichever is less. Still, I think a wizard using Fire Charm is having more fun than one who uses Charm Monster. A wizard casting Fire Charm is tricking people into staring at fires, throwing pieces of silk into the fire (that’s the material component), and composing commands of 12 words or less that all end with “while maintaining constant eye contact with the fire”. And you just know that their face is chiaroscuroed with 200% more sinister shadows.

You know what? Make Fire Charm an exotic variation of Charm Monster. There’s a single copy of this version of the spell, and it’s in the spellbook of the Grand Vizier of the djinn court. It’s just like Charm Monster, except if you manage to cast it while going through the throwing-your-handkerchief-into-a-normal-fire rigmarole, the victim gets a penalty to their saving throw.

Fumble: This spell is like “When you cast this spell, the DM can have fun making up wacky fumbles,” which is probably why it didn’t make it into 3rd Edition. Too silly, and too much improv left to the DM. As a silly improv DM myself, of course, I think it sounds great.

The only tweak I’d make: allow it to be cast on an object as well as a creature. Whoever holds the object becomes clumsy. When you fumble the object, it tends to end up in the hands of an enemy. Cast the spell on a coveted mcguffin during a big battle. Then you end up with the opening scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, with an object that changes sides multiple times during a battle.

Massmorph: Now we’re talking. Massmorph is one of the classic forgotten 1e spells. From hearing its name, you’d think it’s a mass version of Polymorph. That’s basically what it is. You can make 70+ people look like anything you can think of – as long as all you can think of is various species of trees.

Like Dig, this is one of those spells that is clearly designed for mass combat. In fact, the level-4 spell list has a lot of spells that would be useful on the battlefield: clearly, around this level, the characters’ focus is meant to change from dungeon-robbing to wider concerns. Confusion, Fear, Fire Charm, Ice Storm, and Plant Growth all affect large areas or large numbers of targets. Dig, Wall of Ice and Wall of Fire slice up the battlefield. Hallucinatory Terrain and Massmorph allow large bodies of troops to hide in ambush or to approach enemies in secret. Malcolm’s army in Macbeth presumably had a seventh-level wizard along.


Distance Distortion: This is a very strange spell. “This spell can only be cast when the magic-user has an earth elemental conjured up.” It expends the elemental. For the expenditure of a fourth-level spell AND an elemental, what do you get? You can make 100 yards seem like 50 yards or like 200 yards. What’s it for? Making confusing dungeons? If it were permanent, yes, but it only lasts for 1 turn per level.

One change would make this into a spell worth transcribing. Make it permanent. Now a wizard can use it to build all sorts of architectural tricks and hidey holes into his or her wizard tower. A DM can use it to justify that map mistake that put four 10×10 rooms next to a 20′ length of corridor. A New Yorker can use it to make their two-bedroom apartment big enough for 2 people. Hey-o!

12 Responses to “forgotten 1e spells: part 2, mid-level wizard spells”

  1. Jake says:

    I enjoyed this post.

    I actually like the totally unbalanced nature of 1st edition spells. Sells in 1e mostly have to be found through luck and diligence, and even then you only have a certain % chance of being able to learn them! This makes them both more valuable and more random than in 3rd edition, I think. Also, I like the idea that certain high-level wizards are just better at creating spells than others — so some of them create really badass spells (like Bigby and Mordenkainen), while others are…not quite so talented. Like the creator of Fire Charm. And Leomund.

  2. Zenopus says:

    Fun post!

    The Phantasmal Killer spell in AD&D 1E also uses a stat check – roll under INT on 3d6.

    For other isolated examples of ability checks in early D&D, see here:

  3. Alzrius says:

    @Jake – don’t forget that wizards can also only learn so many spells per level; there’s actually a cap on how many they can know!

  4. 1d30 says:

    PFNM is nice because it’s a 100% defense, not just an AC boost or something. A million jungle pygmies shooting poisoned blowgun darts at your boat? Stick the M-U on the rudder because they’re just plinking off him. Many traps are both non-magical and shoot missiles. I think PFNM was primarily a defense against masses of men firing cheap non-magical arrows at whoever was standing by himself muttering and throwing silk into campfires.

    Calling Dig the Minecraft Spell is completely awesome. I’d make it so the spell actually plops out 5′ cubes of earth and drops it, whole, on the ground nearby – so the M-U can construct a quick wall. Normal digging can destroy them, but the dirt won’t just fall apart on its own. Similarly the hole remains sharp-sided, which makes the spell very useful for digging in sand. I’d also allow its use with mud, but not water. Maybe with water! That would be hilarious and awesome, and heck, it IS a 4th level spell. The save is probably d20 under DEX. Although a no-save spell to neutralize a non-flier is pretty nifty.

    Distance Distortion should have increased the distance much more dramatically. As in, an archer firing an arrow can’t hit the M-U because the distance is now too far. This way the spell can be used defensively to keep melee attackers away while the M-U works – sort of like a low-level Time Stop. Of course someone with an exceptional movement rate, or any teleportation magic, would be able to close the distance.

    Fire Charm is nice because it affects whoever is in the area. So yeah, you need a fire and the charm is weak and doesn’t last long – but you can get the whole room charmed. Love the 12-word limit.

    Agree with the point that M-U spells start looking like mass combat stuff at this point. Could it be that the mass combat spells are carried over from the original highest levels of spells from the LBBs, and many of the other individual-scale high-level spells are from later dungeon-focused development? Would this further reinforce that originally high-level play was all about mass combat and later development bent to the reality that most people just want to blast tougher monsters in cooler dungeons instead?

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  6. Thiago says:

    The funny thing is that I have succesfully cast Fire Charm ONCE, but with great effect – the character presented himself as a court entertainer, and used the spell to charm the baron and his retinue. Fire Charm was chosen because it could work with the situation, as some dude casting a spell for no reason before the court would be shot down with arrows.

    And in my group we used to call PfNM the “Superman” spell, which enabled the fire-bombing tactic: a flying wizard, using PfNM, dropping greek fire upon the enemies.

  7. The answer to your question “What does it mean to use your dexterity as a saving throw?” was in the text you quoted: “Any creature at the edge (1′) of such a pit uses its dexterity score as a saving throw to avoid falling into the hole, with a score equal to or less than the dexterity meaning that a fall was avoided.” It’s just another way of saying “Roll under your dexterity on 1d20 to avoid falling.” This was a common mechanic in Basic/Expert D&D as a generalized attribute check.

  8. Make that “Roll equal to or less than your dexterity on 1d20 to avoid falling.”

  9. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Protection from Normal Missiles (NorMiss) is a MUST for outdoor adventuring!

    Remember, in OD&D, if a magic user gets hit before they throw their spell that turn, the MU LOSES THE SPELL AND IT DOES NOT GO OFF.

    Without NorMiss your magic users will never get a chance to throw a damn spell.

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