A fighter gets to hit something every round. An assassin can backstab someone if they are really lucky with their Hide in Shadows and Move Silently. A cleric with more than 13 wisdom gets more than one miracle (spell) and can melee as well. But a magic user with an 18 intelligence gets one spell per day and no real melee ability?
The game I am running has a fighter, an assassin, a cleric and a magic user — all first level. The cleric and the magic user both managed to roll a 17 for their primary attribute so the cleric can cast 3 first level miracles (spells) because of the wisdom bonus and the magic user knows four spells but can only cast one.
What makes combat fun for the first level magic user? The player of the magic user feels left out a bit because they only get to use their class ability once on the first encounter and then have to throw daggers at people which doesn't seem so in line with how you imagine a magic user.
I see a couple options:
- I could let the magic user find some scrolls but the last paragraph of DMG page 39 says not to do this because they could then learn spell and cast it later without the scroll. I'm not so worried about that as I would probably give them scrolls of spells they already know. (Magic Missile probably)
- I could let the magic user find a rod, stave or wand like the last paragraph of the first column of DMG page 65 suggests. I understand that is a better option if it is a spell they don't already know because they can't learn the spell from the device. But, I don't think it is really better than scrolls if the charges are a spell the magic user already knows. (Magic Missile probably)
Is there a better option than these that makes the magic user feel more like a magic user while still keeping the game balanced?
While there might be some ways to make the combat fun for the mage, you are from a game design perspective trying to fit a square peg into a round hole: The magic user is not meant to have fun during combat. Even more extremely put: The magic user isn't even supposed to fight, ever.
The playstyle of a magic user, especially for the early DnD versions, is based on preparation: The choice of what spells to memorize for the coming adventure is an extremely significant one. It is, (with only a bit of exaggeration) basically the main gameplay part of being a magic user. All other actions and choices are either in support of that choice, or executions of that choice.
To put it more graphically: A fighter can, when finding the entrance to a dungeon, go on in and start hacking at the monster, with the full expectation to succeed at that. A magic user, on the other hand, when seeing an entrance to a dungeon, will not go in -- without preparation, that would be a death sentence. Instead, the magic user will study the writing on the door, go to the nearest village, ask people what they know about the dungeon and its denizens, research and consider their options. Then, once they know what they are up against, they memorize the requisite spells, and then go in. And when the guardian of the dungeon roars its challenge, the magic user unleashes the one spell that defeats that guardian. It might be the only spell of the day, but that was exactly the spell they needed.
As a GM, instead of looking for ways to make the magic user have fun at something they are fundamentally not meant for, you should help facilitate the magic user playstyle of knowing and being prepared before going into a dungeon.
That will usually mean also preparing a different spell than magic missile. Not because the spell is bad, but because it's not meant to be the magic user's main work horse. It's meant as filler for when the magic user has spell slots left over, and thinks speeding along the combat would help.
The first choice should be spells that allow the magic user to avoid entering combat altogether, like Sleep. Because that is their niche, and their way to meaningfully contribute, by providing functionality the other classes can't. The fighter can just hack at things. If something is too tough to hack away, the fighter is out of options. The magic user can put that encounter to sleep and walk right past.
To return to our graphic example, when a fighter and a magic user enter a dungeon together, the fighter will go ahead and hack at those rats and spiders and other minor things. And the magic user will just hang back and stay out of harm's way. But when the medusa guarding the treasure shows up, the fighter's method fails. But the magic user, having prepared for encountering the "snake-haired guardian" the old books mentioned residing in this tomb, whips out their Cure Petrification and saves the day.
There is very much a difficult GM challenge there, because of the different approaches to problems and different moments of activity a mixed party faces: Something needs to keep the fighter entertained while the magic user is off researching, and somehow the magic user needs to be involved during the dungeon crawl even while the encounters are still all fighter fodder for now. Unfortunatly, it's something that's really hard to get right, and depends a lot on the group involved.