It struck me that Magic Missile should really be exclusively an Elf Spell. Indeed we see something of this notion appearing in the Ranger spell Conjure Barrage in 5e. The Perfect merging of the Enchanted Arrow of Chainmail with Greyhawk’s original Magic Missile spell.
One of the surprises in looking at the AD&D version was how much it resembled a burst from an automatic rifle. Hence the cartoons. It only affects targets in a ten by ten foot area.
But what is Magic Missile really? While one can trace it’s rules to Chainmail, it’s update has always seemed incomplete in light of the Shield spell’s block. To complete the conversion, Magic Missile should allow an attack roll, even if it can no longer automatically hit. It’s here that I think we have a clue to the real inspiration behind the spell. It has been severely nerfed. In fact, it probably hasn’t been nerfed enough.
Use of the magic missile spell creates one or more magical missiles which dart from the magic-user’s fingertip and unerringly strike their target. —Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Players Handbook
Use of the magic missile spell creates up to five missiles of magical energy that dart from the wizard’s fingertip and unerringly strike their target. —Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Player’s Handbook
Where is it we find this spell on full display? Check out the movie clip above.
When the designers changed the Magic Missile spell for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, they didn’t finish the job. What you can’t see in the clip is that the spell isn’t lethal. Poor Grimes gets up again inside of 15 seconds. As it’s depicted, this spell may even have inspired the Stun setting on Star Trek’s phaser.
Copyright infringement was always a concern, so I understand why the designers didn’t copy the spells effect precisely. D&D was also a game about deadly conflict, so it used the source to inspire something similar, but different.
Seen in this light, the negation by the shield spell begins to make sense. It’s a different kind of energy.
Nevertheless, for players seeking to emulate the original source in their gaming, the new, improved Magic Missile is too powerful. It really should be a spell that knocks people out.
One would have to house rule something for 5e to achieve this effect. The nonlethal rules available in 3rd edition make a fix relatively easy. Nevertheless, it is satisfying to finally know where and what this oddball spell should be doing.
World building is endless fun. Happy gaming.