There are two games that preceded Dungeons & Dragons. One was Chainmail. The other was Tony Bath’s Ancient Wargaming.
So what is the hobgoblin in the dungeon? The dreaded Magic Missile. For those who don’t know, this alliteration refers not to some fancy new artillery, but a spell within the game of Dungeons & Dragons.
Here’s the rub. It always hits. And here’s where it gets complicated. It has a companion spell called Shield that always blocks it.
The movie The Raven (1963) is said to have inspired both spells, but it doesn’t demonstrate the later versions with which this post is concerned. Nevertheless, it’s great fun! Check it out if you haven’t seen it and keep an eye out for Jack Nicholson’s first screen appearance!
So what is actually going on with these spells?
Context is key in any endeavor and that may be the root of the problem in D&D, because it keeps changing.
It all began with the Enchanted Arrows of Chainmail. They always hit normal men, but required an attack roll when shot at more powerful characters such as dragons, heroes, and wizards.
The original publication of Dungeons & Dragons was essentially a supplement to Chainmail, although, as I understand it, Chainmail was never actually used in play, at least by the game’s designers. What’s interesting is that the game had magic arrows, but not magic missiles in its original publication. Magic arrows don’t have the automatic hit ability unless you’re playing with the Chainmail rules.
Supplement I: Greyhawk introduced both the Magic Missile and Shield spells. These spells closely converted/updated Chainmail motifs into D&D. As originally conceived, Magic Missile conjured a magic arrow which then required an attack roll. The Shield spell granted the wizard (then known as a Magic-User) protection equal to wearing armor. This was an elegant update which used the systems provided in the game.
It was the division in the product line in the late 70’s into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for adults and Basic Dungeons & Dragons for children that introduced the problem. Ironically, the original Basic game, known as Holmes Basic for its editor, retained the original forms of Magic Missile and Shield, even though it was intended as a bridge product for introducing players to AD&D. An additional irony is that many of the monsters in the original Monster Manual use the original Magic Missile which requires an attack roll. It is a Holmes supplement.
The problem really began with player feedback. As originally presented, Magic-Users were extremely fragile. Game designer Tim Kask successfully argued game creator Gary Gygax into beefing up the Magic-User. So, in the then brand new AD&D Player’s Handbook both spells were changed. Magic Missile acquired the always hits quality from the enchanted arrows of Chainmail, but did less damage. This was done to make sure the Magic User had a spell that would always be reliable. Except it wasn’t. Simultaneously, the Shield spell acquired the ability to negate Magic Missiles. This was probably an homage to Tony Bath’s Ancient Wargaming in which a heavily armored man with a shield was immune to arrows. The Dungeon Master’s Guide introduced myriad Magic Items that also provided varying degrees of protection. The Dungeon Master is the player who presents the fictional world and scenarios to the rest of the players, originally called a Game Master, or referee. Along with that, several character classes (archetypes for the lay reader) were made more robust and able to survive taking more injuries, as measured in increased hit dice from the original game.
So the philosophical underpinning of Magic Missile’s automatic hit was sabotaged even within the edition in which it was introduced, but it all seemed to work, in context.
Yet there remains a fundamental flaw in all of this that can be traced to the original Chainmail game. It has as much to do with what was included as with what was left out.
In Chainmail, it is only normal figures which could always be hit (and killed). More powerful troop types such as heroes and wizards required a roll on a table. The update to the Shield spell might be seen as an attempt to capture that notion within D&D. But none of the other classes received similar updates, unless it was in the form of increased hit dice (as previously discussed).
It is within the Shield spell that we witness the problem. Why does it completely stop magic missiles (a supernatural spell), but still give mundane and magic weapons a chance to injure the wizard? This is particularly perplexing in its current version where it’s envisioned as a force field.
There is also the philosophical basis of Dungeons & Dragons in which everyone gets a chance to survive the extraordinary dangers present within the game. Which is the reason magic arrows don’t automatically hit low level characters. All things being equal, Magic Missile should allow a saving throw, but it doesn’t. (A saving throw is roll on a die to mitigate or avoid injury or other peril.)
What we’re left with is an exception to the rules that still baffles me. To the best of my knowledge, there are no video or literary sources that demonstrate these peculiar interactions. The situation that gave rise to the present versions of Magic Missile and Shield is no longer present. Yet the spells remain. They are now more nostalgic than effective within the system.
I was recently reminded that Original Dungeons & Dragons was much more open to interpretation. Indeed, that notion informs the Old School Renaissance in Tabletop Gaming.
Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons is the result of a year of play testing and monthly tests have continued to shape the game. D&D is an agreed upon rules framework. A look back will reveal specific dates of introduction for various elements of the game. It is is a certain way as of a certain date.
So what is Dungeons & Dragons? Whatever you want it to be. It’s not for me to define your fun. For players looking to have their games make a little more sense, there are rules for customizing your games in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. You can also play older editions. That’s what the OSR is all about. There is also Fantasy Hero from Hero Games in which you can craft precisely the characters and world you envision.
So where does this leave the writer? Free! Imagine the possibilities.