I played a magician to level 9. Here are my thoughts

I played a magician up to level 9 over Roll20 in the period between June 2017 and July 2018. It was a great experience and probably remains the height of my RPG career…but all was not sunshine and roses. There were a lot of things I found myself very frustrated with by the time my group decided to move on to a different game, all of them directly tied into the magic rules. I never thought to share my experiences online for whatever reason; now, at the invitation of Thor, I come bearing thoughts.

The first thing to note is that I’ve lost my character sheet and will have to rely entirely upon my memory. Since it’s been over two years, I might have to omit some details. Please note that we were using the updated spells I had found online, replacing Eldritch Darts with Aetherial Swarm at C1 and turning Eldritch Darts into a powerful fireball-like spell.

With that out of the way, I’ll try to go through things chronologically. Be forewarned that I wrote more than I was expecting to.

Getting Started: Levels 1-5
My character was a chaotic teenage witch with megalomania named Saline. Her belief for the entirety of her time as a PC was always:

I will stop at nothing to discover the secrets of magic.

Her instinct:

Consult my knowledge of lore whenever signs of unknown magic are discovered.

When I wrote “nothing,” I really meant nothing. I regularly walked into spike traps, agreed to terrible deals with ancient undead monsters, and generally subjected myself to a wide variety of horrors for little (or no) gain. As such, my group nominated me for Embodiment nearly every session, and I always earned my fate points.

This post isn’t about Saline–as much as I love her–but it should be noted that, since I played into her belief/instinct/alignment/goals so entirely, I leveled up much faster than the rest of the party. Combined with a rotating cast and occasional PC death (I made lots of stupid choices, but I was always very careful when it came down to life/death), I played the only character to make it past level 4. This will be important later on.

Loner, Tough and Cool
Saline was very much a loner, at least at the start of our campaign, and I naturally chose this option during character creation. Little did I know how badly I had fucked myself.

According to the rules, wizards will earn new spells from their mentor once per level, up to level 5 (“Earning New Spells,” p. 42). However, loners do not have mentors. It was never clear to me whether or not this was an oversight in the rules or the intention as written. But my GM liked to see me suffer and so came down with a hardline “you’re shit out of luck” stance on the issue. My power-level was severely hindered for the rest of our campaign as a result.

I’ve played a lot of Burning Wheel, in addition to Torchbearer. I’m very familiar with the design philosophy of BWHQ games, and so I never really complained. The GM ruled that I’d have to seek out a new mentor in play if I wanted to learn these spells. That seemed appropriate enough. I’d have to fight for what I wanted, for what I believed in, if I was to benefit from my advancement.

Unfortunately for Saline, despite numerous attempts, I never managed to actually find a new mentor–a story for another day. That meant I was restricted to scrolls/finding spellbooks in the wild if I ever wanted to become more powerful.

My frustrations were as follows:

  1. Had I known what I was getting into, I never would have chosen to be a loner.

TB isn’t afraid of being a game. That’s what I love about it. And even though there was plenty of roleplaying, and I loved the fact that Saline was a loner, the choice to forgo 4 additional spells is so obviously subobtimal that it feels like it has to be an oversight. One choice made during character generation, when I knew almost nothing about the game, was a huge shadow over the rest of Saline’s existence. It just wasn’t worth it, especially when the loner trait can be earned later on in-play.

  1. Jesus, take the wheel

Sans mentor, I had to rely upon either my GM’s good will or random loot tables for the purpose of advancement. My GM built adventures for the whole party, not just me, and so understandably she didn’t always have this on her mind when preparing. And as for finding spellbooks from random loot, this never happened to me until a very high level. A lack of reliable advancement created a problem within the rules, due to…

  1. TB’s permanent advancement of level benefits vs. the fleeting advancement of stats

Often had I lamented not playing an elf. At level 8 and 9, Saline received access to one C4 spell and one C5 spell . I never found either. At these same milestones as an elf, according to the beta 6-10 rules, I could have instead received the Shrug It Off talent and Grief.

Obviously, C4 and C5 spells are enormously powerful. A high level magician with even C1 and C2 spells can kind of break the game if a powergamer like me is running the show, which I’ll touch on later. But it always seemed to me that an important principle of TB’s design was the contrast between the concrete advancement of level benefits and the temporary advancement of skills. Saline regularly had her stats and skills reduced because I played very cautiously. That was always fine, because I knew I could earn it back. I sacrifice a point in Arcanist or Survivalist now for the sake of a fate point and a level later. Great. This is working as intended.

But Saline never found any C4 or C5 spells. She only ever found two C3 spells, despite always actively searching every session for new magic. This means that level benefits weren’t really giving me anything at all. They were all potential power increases more so than anything concrete. Again, we can all speculate on how OP a 6 Arcanist/5 Nature magician will be when she starts slinging C4 and C5 spells, but the fact is we ended our campaign before I had ever cast either. Their potential was never realized, despite my constant efforts, and so I had effectively never received any long-term permanent advancement from reaching level 9. Contrast this with any other class and you begin to see the issue.

I don’t mean to suggest that a lack of balance is the problem. I knew what I was getting into what I chose to play a wizard at level 1. I don’t regret that choice. Still, not being able to capitalize on the advancement which I was working very hard to earn made the systems of TB begin to feel very frustrating. This would have been amplified even further had other PCs leveled up as reliably as I had.

Early Misunderstandings
There were a few things I misunderstood when I first sat down to play TB as a magician. I initially thought spell supplies were required for casting, period. Also, being a new player, I hadn’t made the logical jump between camping and adventure phase–it hadn’t occurred to me that the adventure phase after making camp was actually new; up to the point where I realized this, I had assumed I could only cast my spells once per adventure, and that camping did nothing for me.

Neither of these things are true, but they did color how I played my first few sessions.

Onward: Levels 6-10
Somewhere around level 6, Saline’s power went up dramatically. This had little to do with earning a new C3 spell–I think I only cast C3 spells two or three times throughout the entire campaign–and everything to do with advancement and a certain C2 spell I found.

My Arcanist advanced up to 6 very quickly due to the liberal application of spells like Wisdom of the Sages and Lightness of Being. Health and Will both reached 6 relatively early on, and by level 6, so had Lore Master and I think Manipulator. Nature hovered around 5 throughout. Although I wouldn’t open Fighter until the very same session upon which our campaign ended, these high exponents meant that Saline was extremely powerful in the correct situations. This is simply me acknowledging that I know there’s more to playing a magician than spells.

Because other PCs came and went, I was always the best-statted character on any given adventure. This was the point in our campaign where I realized I had to be aggressive with finding new spells on my own, or else I was never going to benefit from future advancement. However, since everyone else was underleveled compared to me, we struggled when going on “higher level” adventures in which I might more readily discover something such as a C3, C4, or C5 spell. Again compounded by how I didn’t really have very many good spells to begin with, we tended to stick to bullying goblins.

This created sort of a weird situation. My ability to resolve conflicts with magic was highly limited and only marginally improved over a first level magician. Without other PCs to carry me, going off to fight scary monsters seemed like suicide. At the same time, I outshined my underleveled companions every session simply because I had better exponents (and, to be frank, I was already better at Torchbearer than them anyway). There was nowhere for me to graduate up to, yet staying where I was felt wrong, too.

Eldritch Darts
The revised version of this spell is fucking awesome and my GM gave it to me out of kindness at level 6. I used it extensively. Here’s how things would go down:

  1. GM introduces monsters.
  2. Conflict begins.
  3. Someone rolls for disposition.
  4. Saline goes first, casts Eldritch Darts, taps nature with persona, uses a trait, spends a fate point after the roll to explode any 6s.
  5. The fight is over immediately.

This once backfired and nearly killed me (1 success on 13 dice!) and the entire party, but it was the clearly optimal way to use my only real combat spell every session. I had to be careful about draining my nature, but at 5, it was never much of a risk.

I include this example because it shows how powerful wizards can be, and that’s only with a C2 spell. But the fact that I could do this came down to little more than the GM’s charity. Consider Saline’s kill conflict viability before and after learning Eldritch Darts. It’s night and day. And although I blasted the shit out of plenty of monsters using that spell, I really disliked how I just as easily could have only had access to Dweomercraft instead. One is game changing, the other…not so much.

(I realize this goes back to a Moldvay D&D tradition when my options for spells are Level 1 are either Hold Portal or the ICBM that is Sleep. That’s fun at level 1 when rolling for spells, not so fun at level 9.)

Learning High Circle Spells
C3-C4 spells aren’t even in the core TB rulebook and I can’t recall if there are rules for C5 spells anywhere at all. If there are, I no longer have them readily available. AFAIK there are no tables on which to roll for C3 and C4 spellbooks for loot, meaning they have to be pre-placed. However, C3, C4, and C5 spells are enormously challenging to transport for magicians who intend to preserve any utility at all due to the spellbook rules. This brings me to the Magic section (p. 42).

Magic
The wording in this section is highly problematic in its implications and I want to go through it carefully.

To Cast
Makes sense, no problems here.

Mental Inventory
Makes sense.

Libraries
Hold on.

“Arcanists keep their libraries hidden, either in their hometowns or a home base if they’ve established one. Mentors typically safeguard the libraries of young arcanists until their apprentices are ready to establish their own bases.”

Does this mean that characters who are Loners, Tough and Cool, don’t have access to a spell library? If so, what are the implications? How might someone establish their own library?

Known Spells
I understand the process of learning new spells, although I struggled with the terminology when first starting out. However, according to the wording of this section,

“Knowing a spell means that an arcanist may memorize it, cast it and scribe it as a scroll.”

What about adding it to a spellbook? I presume that’s the same as scribing it as a scroll? The intention is for you only to be able to do these things after having visited your library, yes? If I find a spellbook, roll to learn a spell within it, succeed, and it disappears from the pages, can I add it to my own book immediately or do I need to return to my library? If I have no library because I’m a Loner, Tough and Cool, how do I ever learn new spells? How do I ever add spells to my books? How can I memorize them?

“To learn a spell from a scroll, traveling spell book or library, use the Lore Master obstacles from the spell list. Scrolls are consumed if you use them to learn a spell. If you use a traveling spell book or library, the spell in question vanishes from its pages.”

If I use somebody else’s library, right? Since my library only includes the spells that I know? But wait, I don’t have a library because I don’t have a mentor because I’m a Loner, Tough and Cool; if I learned a spell from someone else’s library, I presume the magician in question can immediately add it back? If there are two magic-using PCs in the party, why would you ever use mentor instead of simply visiting the other person’s library? After all, the previous section states that,

“Magicians and rangers are assumed to add new spells they have learned to their libraries whenever they visit them; no test is required.”

In that case, what’s the purpose of the spell being learned disappearing from the library at all? If the owner of said library is looking over your shoulder, it will have been removed and then re-added instantaneously, right?

Traveling Spell Books
Circle = size, each book as 5 slots. Makes sense.

This is a huge pain in the ass when trying to deal with higher level spells.

I understand it’s for balance reasons, but it was my least favorite part of playing a wizard by a lot. Furthermore, it raises serious questions about memorizing spells.

Memorizing Spells
When first starting out Saline’s journey, this section suggested to me that I could only memorize, and therefore cast, a spell so long as it was in a spell book which I had on me. Since I’ve established how much trouble I had finding new spells, this wasn’t an issue. But as I started to earn more C2 and C3 spells, I began to wonder: what exactly is the intention of these rules?

A wizard can, theoretically, carry 3 spellbooks at a time. Because of size constraints, that isn’t necessarily very many spells at all. Realistically, you only can really afford to dungeon delve with one, maybe two, spellbooks.

"Refilling your spell inventory requires uninterrupted time to review the formulae in your traveling spell book. Magicians and rangers may memorize spells without a test during the camp or town phase as long as:

  • The phase is not interrupted by a disaster
  • You have the spells you wish to memorize listed in your traveling spell book (or library if you’re home)

Arcanists may memorize new spells before entering town and when they leave town. This does not require a check or increase the difficulty of maintaining your lifestyle."

I think this means that, at level 9, you may memorize and cast 1 C5 spell, 1 C4 spell, 2 C3 spells, 2 C2 spells, and 3 C1 spells so long as you have visited your library and memorized them during a town phase. However, if you cast them, you will lose them from your mental inventory until returning to your library once again.

It is NOT required to have each of these spells written into your book in order to cast them; however, if you DO cast them, you will only re-learn those in your spellbook when and if your party makes camp. And when back in town and at your library, you can stock up once again.

Because of spellbook size constraints, it’s basically impossible to carry C3+ spells around. Presuming I’m right with my above assessment, that isn’t the end of the world. But in my experience, C3 spells weren’t really all that good. Relative to Lightness of Being and Eldritch Darts, spells I found utility for in almost every single session, Third Circle spells like “Lightning Step” are far more situational. It was never worth it for me to scribe Lightning Step into my spellbook when I could instead put in Wisdom of the Sages, Eldritch Darts, AND Lightness of Being all at the same time. The math never worked out.

Since I never received anything very obviously powerful like Balfire and Hammer of Heaven, I can’t say whether or not it would have been worth it for them.

My GM and I ultimately hand-waived all of this stuff as not-fun and allowed my character to have a spell library despite my loner status, although I still had no mentor. She also gave me access to said library during any town phase, regardless of where we actually were. I was still forced to bear the burden of the spellbook rules.

When it came to spellbooks, my main issue was that there were no rules for finding bigger and better ones. Understandable, since core TB only goes up to level 5. I was desperate to find a C4 spell in what wasn’t a “traveling spellbook,” but was a “Magister’s Spellbook” with ten or howevermany slots instead. But as far as I’m aware, there’s no precedent for anything like that in the rules.

In Conclusion
Magician is definitely the most hardcore class to play and it draws on inspiration from Moldvay more than anything else. I knew this going in. Although I loved the fiction of my character, and I loved using certain spells (especially at low levels), I ultimately found myself very frustrated with the magic rules. The implications of being a loner, the lack of clear rules for finding spells post Level 5, and the tremendous exercise in bookkeeping that was managing my library and spellbooks all made me long for something simpler.

Again, it’s been over a year since I last played Saline the Sorceress. It is my opinion that something, and I don’t know precisely what, should be altered to streamline the magic system. I also think that the Magic section on page 42 could stand to be rewritten with some of the concerns I’ve raised in mind. Although I think I’ve devised answers to all of my own questions that I’ve raised, finding those answers confidently took me far longer than it should have. I long for clarity.

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Thanks for the write up! Why was it so hard to find your character a mentor?

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Let me see if I can remember.

One part of it was setting. Before any of us knew what we were getting into, it was decided that magicians and civilization weren’t on great terms. Add on the fact that Saline was an ultra chaotic weirdo and it wasn’t necessarily clear who she had to go for mentorship within the fiction.

Another issue early on came down to Circles. Starting as a loner, I had Circles 1. Around level 3, I failed a series of lifestyle tests, leading to a huge debacle and the reduction of my Circles down to 0 (among other things). Between being eternally broke, constantly on deaths’ door, and perpetually forced to move around, there never was a great opportunity for me to try and grind it back up.

But I think the biggest obstacles were within the fiction. By the time I had realized as a player how badly I wanted those spells, I was already level 5 or 6. Even a magician at level 6 will have some pretty potent skill expontents, and although the breadth of Saline’s spells and skills was never very wide, it was always pretty deep. It never made sense for me to seek out someone so they could teach me. That wasn’t how the character thought about herself. She already knew everything, and if she ever met an NPC who might actually be wiser than her, heeding their advice was not up for consideration. I went with being a loner for a reason, after all. It makes sense that this character wouldn’t have a mentor at all–but, at the time, I felt like I was being unduly punished for adhering to who I thought my character was.

Remember this was the first campaign of TB any of us had played. We did things and made mistakes I would never make now. I would play this character differently today than I did back then–and were I GMing for someone in a similar situation, I could probably think of some way to resolve it. However, back then, we never really did.

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Hello and welcome!

Thanks for sharing all this. I feel like it should be mandatory reading for GMs and players.

What was most interesting to me is that your character survived but found even deeper levels of suffering than most. Usually, new characters die, and you make a new one based upon your learnings. But you kept going. I wonder if there were any moments of triumph that stick out?

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It’s hard to express how awesome it felt casting Eldritch Darts for the first time and doing something like 13 points of disposition damage in a single roll. Up to that point–level 6–my only conflict-based spell had been Wizard Aegis, and mostly I was resigned to liftomancy via Mystic Porter and Lightness of Being. But one conflict and suddenly I had become a real character, no longer the joke of the party.

And there are plenty of others. Reaching 6 Health after starting 2 Health / 6 Will was an incredible moment because I’d had such a miserable time early on in the campaign. The same can be said for when I finally opened Fighter and got to stab a dude in a conflict.

Overall, my biggest frustration with Saline is that I can never come back to her. The RPG environment isn’t quite like what it was in the 1970s–I can’t bring my character sheet and hop into someone else’s TB campaign. And yet I still don’t feel like I’ve ever really concluded her journey (although I was very close, I think).

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Thank you for sharing! This is good reading for GMs and players.

I made a similarly bad choice playing a Dark Elf Sorcerer, and ended up just taking Prayers instead of spell slots because I didn’t have a mentor. I don’t think a GM should punish a player for the entirety of their character’s game-span because you make a bad (in retrospect) mechanical decision during character generation - and you did it for character concept reasons, which should be rewarded IMO. As you said, it was your first TB game, so it’s a learning experience. It just seems that the GM could have given you a mentor with a failed Circles test - just Twist it so your mentor is insane or gives you a creepy/loathsome request whenever you want a spell or something. Problem solved. Same goes for higher level spells - there’s really no reason to exclude them other than the GM not wanting to have you find them. The GM should be familiar enough with the characters to know what they need to be fulfilling in play, and not giving a character what they have earned (higher level spells for example) is unfair and unsatisfying. Again, all learned from GMing and play experience on my end, and as you say it likely wouldn’t happen were you to play again.
I definitely agree with the the party imbalance issue - both as a player and as a GM. It’s a tough to balance High level and low level characters in TB. I don’t know that it’s any more difficult than other games, but sometimes it’s difficult to challenge a lvl 6+ character without over-punishing the lessers.

I hope you find a way to conclude your journey. Sabine sounds like a great character.

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Mordite Press has been working on rounding out some of those higher level spells, using oldschool DnD as inspiration. That hopefully alleviates that pressure a bit.

From my perspective, part of being a magician is the hunt for magic knowledge and spells, so I think it’s expected that access to new spells is not always easy. Mentors are really a backup plan. They often are not accessible (unless you happen to passing back through your hometown), and for sure, they can make you jump through hoops.

That said, I think its imperative for a GM to engage with a PC’s goals and beliefs. That’s what Belief and Goal are for, and why they exist as lines on the character sheet. They are not just for players to grock, but GMs too.

TB also encourages GMs to not plan ahead too much, and let the players inspire the game’s direction. It’s a back and forth, between players’ intent and GM’s response. It sounds like this GM did engage eventually, and used the players belief to encourage them to make dangerous tests to prove their desire for knowledge.

One area that sort of remains unplumbed is what to do when you get to 5th level and your mentor really can’t teach you anything new (mentors are all 5th level IIRC). Really at that point, your magician should move out and find a new place to hold their library and start bizarre research experiments that amaze/creepify the local populace. The search for a ‘homebase’ could be it’s own adventure, and maintaining it would likely charge a hefty price, but is something a GM could do well setting up and using to challenge the players with domestic problems to contrast their adventuring ones.

How do they maintain the place? Do they need servants? Where does the food come from? Is it a feif, steading, or town? Who is in charge when they are off adventuring? What resources, circles, steward, peasant, carpenter, or stonemason rolls need to happen? What does failure look like?

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Thanks for the feedback, I’ll keep it in mind when my players choose magician.

A few days ago one of my players nearly stumbled into the same mistake you had with Circles, choosing the Loner option, but in the end they decided to try a different class instead.

Finding a mentor in play shouldn’t be as hard as Joseph’s GM made it. Being a loner is definitely a handicap for any character, not just magicians. But it’s about the character you want to play. Also, players should find new spells in play, even if they don’t have a mentor! The GM can add scrolls and spell books to treasure.

Also, an adventure to raid a wizard’s tower is an option!

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Finding a mentor should be as easy as making it a session goal and going for it.