The venerable Magic Missile is beloved as an iconic spell in Dungeons & Dragons, but it isn’t really understood by the game’s most devoted players.
I’ll trace its history and then backtrack to illustrate the problem.
Magic Missile was introduced in the Greyhawk supplement for Original Dungeons & Dragons. It conjured magic arrows which required attack rolls. It had acquired such an iffy reputation that Tim Kask convinced Gary Gygax to allow it to always hit for the new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The Shield spell was changed to block them entirely. Another problem vexing the system. It has remained so ever since, with the sole exception of Fourth Edition before the Essentials series.
The change was made to beef up the then fragile Magic-User and give those players a way to participate in battle.
It was only true for First and Second editions. The context and therefore the rationale of the game changed in Third edition, but the mechanics did not.
The bewildering aspect for players is trying to imagine just how such spells worked. To say nothing of scrambling to keep ahead of an almost certain death spell (at least at low levels). The complication I mentioned at the beginning of this blog post.
Well, where did this always-hit notion come from?
Now we get to the meat of the matter.
In Chainmail, the war game out of which Gygax developed Dungeons & Dragons, we find magic arrows. One will always hit a normal target. That is, an ordinary soldier, not a supernatural figure such as a hero, wizard, or dragon.
Where did that notion come from?
In Tony Bath’s Ancient Wargaming, volleys of arrows roll for a number of hits. (It is also here that we can trace the notion of an automatic hit.) The defenders then roll to see if their armor saves them. This notion was cleverly combined by D&D into a single attack roll, the difficulty of which was determined by the armor worn by the defender.
It was in this form that Magic Missile first saw print.
So the always hit or attack roll are really two sides of the same coin. What’s missing is the saving throw.
I can imagine that this was partly to avoid copyright infringement, but it really needs to be there.
So now you know the full story. This peculiarity of D&D has been about incomplete rules. In its wake, players have suffered through ignoble defeats and complicated rules.
Once you understand the full context, you can make the necessary adjustments for your Home Brew. Holmes got it right. Let’s give the man his due.
1 and 2e are poster children for the problem. 3 and 4e work as written.
5e is a compromise design and requires adjustment. That’s the beauty of Home Brew. What will your solution be?
So now when your friends ask you, “why do wizards never miss?” you can smile and say, “They don’t”
It’s a great feeling getting to the bottom of this. With this last niggling question answered, I can truly devote myself to my writing. It’s going to be a great year!
P.S. The picture is fair use, but I will remove it upon request.