In this post, I bemoan the suckiness of Magic-Users as presented in original editions of D&D such as B/X and 1e and I offer some ideas for house rules to give those poor bastards a kick in the ass. Some folks thought I was being too harsh or obtuse. Fair enough. I wasn't, but I get it.
Here I'd like to revisit that topic and attempt to save the ole MU without any house rules. I know, right? How in the world can you possibly do it?
First, please understand I'm not shitting on a beloved class because I hate it. I do love a good Magic-User. But one thing I never did or do is run them without house rules. Because I simply find the original rules for most classes to be limiting and obtuse in ways that annoy me and don't mesh with my play style.
Anyhow, here are some ways that I would personally want to run a B/X MU, for example, without necessarily needing house rules. Most of these ideas came from reading or hearing about similar ideas in other games, blogs, and social media over the past decade or so.
1. UNIQUE WIZARDS
I love this one. In B/X it doesn't say you can memorize the same spell twice, nor does it prohibit it (as far as I remember). This leaves the GM to decide which way to go. For this mode of play, go with "no you can't". Each spell occupies the wizard's mind as a single entity and will not or cannot tolerate another version of itself in the same brainspace.
But take that idea to another level. Make a setting in which a spell can only exist in a single book, scroll, or crystal, or wherever you like to put spells. If it is copied to another place, it disappears from the original. If it is read out loud to cast it... the damn thing is gone forever.
Also, make MUs very rare. Within the PC party, you don't have to limit folks. If you wanna be a MU, be one. But in the setting itself just don't include MUs on your wandering monster tables or as NPCs in towns. They just don't exist very frequently. Consider a small world and there are like a dozen wizards in it, period. One of the PCs is an up-and-coming member of the elite.
In that kind of setting, each spell is extremely valuable and precious. You can't just go to another MU and learn a new spell. You have to find spells in abandoned spellbooks, negotiate the purchase of spells, or steal them.
This kind of campaign, though it seems low magic, might be very wizard-centric because so much time would be taken up with your MU seeking power and playing 5d chess with other wizards who are doing the same thing. Could be fun.
2. MIX EDITIONS
Not technically a house rule, I guess. Use B/X and Holmes combined to allow your lowly wimp wizard to make scrolls. I don't believe Holmes explicitly limits when a MU can make a potion, so just lump that in with scrolls. Then the party's riches at lower levels could be poured into the wizard's laboratory so they can make plenty of Sleep and Magic Missile scrolls and Gaseous Form potions. Make extra and sell 'em to other parties. Clean out that ruined tower, set up a shop, defend it from marauders, discover the hidden dungeon that lies beneath. That's some fuckin' fun right there.
3. MAGIC SCHOOLS/GANGS
Typically, a D&D party has no real ties to anything other than each other and the dungeon at hand. But maybe create a rich tapestry of wizard orders and fit the PCs into that framework. Now the PC MUs have in-world goals related to the setting. Perhaps more potent spells can be had by working your way into a coven or cabal. Perhaps secret powers can be offered, magic items bestowed. Now the lowly 3rd level MU with three spells also has a talking skull necklace that spits acid and knows the names of 3 demons and can call on them for favors (dangerous but that's magic, baby).
4. CREATIVE GMING
The players can be creative as hell, trying all kinds of cool things. The MU is out of spells, but the player says they want to use their arcane connections and lore to cause some magical effect anyway. A shitty GM would say "No, you're out of spells. Can't do it." But a clever GM who actually enjoys playing the fucking game could say "Neat idea. Tell me what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish".
So the player, jazzed at having to work for it, works for it. They describe how they call on the names of several imps they knew during apprenticeship in order to barter for a boon. They sacrifice some tiny portion of sanity and the imps cause something freaky to happen, such as a swarm of flies to appear. Hell yeah. The GM decides what percentage chance the PC has of succeeding, based on the Magical Research rules. A roll is made. SUCCESS!
"Now reduce your Wisdom score by 3. You're not doing too well, emotionally. You'll gain 1 point back each day you pass a Save vs. Spells."
I like this because it re-purposes Magical Research to accomplish on-the-fly magical effects. Unlike casting a spell from memory, this type of magic has a price.
And so on.