Awesome cosmic powers vs swinging pointy sticks…

This is one of the oldest debates in the RPG community. It is generally referred to as the “tier problem” or “martial characters suck” or something like that. The problem generally stated is that in terms of game balance for games like Pathfinder, spellcasters are simply vastly more powerful, versatile and interesting to play than purely martial characters.

I tend to agree with the general idea that casters are much more powerful than martial characters. I don’t necessarily think this is a problem. I tend to be of the opinion that mastering the awesome cosmic powers of the universe should make someone more dangerous than swinging even the most amazing pointy sticks.

On the other hand, I think that the game as it is today, with the spells and abilities of some classes, the disparity is truly vast. Spells like “wish” or “time stop” or “miracle” are simply power on a completely different scale than anything a purely martial character could produce.

There are variants of the game which attempt to address this disparity, including “low magic” variants and third party or gamer community options like the “E6” rules.

When I look at literary characters that are commonly considered to be awesomely powerful, it strikes me as interesting how limited those famous literary characters actually were. Merlin was basically a fortune teller with some shape-shifting powers. Gandalf never did anything more impressive than a few fire-based spells and some minor healing.

In some respects I believe the game would still favor spellcasters significantly over martial characters if nothing changed except the existing spell list were capped at, say, level 4. Maybe even level 3.

I’d be interested to get the opinions of folks who visit this blog on this question.

7 thoughts on “Awesome cosmic powers vs swinging pointy sticks…

  1. I have no problems with spell casters being more powerful, but that should be offset by lower hit points and harder xp curves. I think 1e did that well, but over time they softened the hindrances, but kept the spells just as powerful. I think 4e did a good job balancing the classes, but we all know how much people love that system 🙂

    Galdalf held a Balrog at bay, that’s some power there.

  2. There are a lot of issues and topics in here…

    To your final question, capping spells at level 3 or 4 would even the playing field a lot…and it’s still a landslide for the spellcaster. Fly is level 3. Protection from Arrows and Blur are level 2. You are now a flying creature that almost can’t be hurt by ranged attacks. Get a crossbow and a lot of bolts, you can kill anyone that can’t fly themselves or cast dispel magic.

    Another issue is that the magic system is not terribly well-balanced even against ITSELF. Within core, let’s look at two level 9 spells: Wish and Meteor Swarm. Meteor Swarm is 24d6 aoe damage, which is pretty dang impressive. Wish is, literally, any 8th level spell you want. Prepare one spell, have access to everything. Plus a list of other possible effects. Which one is more ‘powerful’? I would obviously say wish.

    As a component of that, there are a number of spells that are individually ‘game-breakers’. As in, cast that spell, and you win the encounter. It does not matter what the rest of your team has done, it does not matter what the enemy will do, you cast the spell so you win. Wish is probably in this camp, and I’ve heard of things like Glitterdust (innocuous, but Blindness basically means you can’t attack) and Slay Living being similar. They outclass anything else, there is not a better or even equivalent option. So what if you take out all of these spells? Spellcasters get much more ‘fair’. Instead of the spellcaster getting off their spell so you win, the entire party works together to whittle down the foe’s HP, everyone contributing.

    Next is the ‘realism’ aspect. Of course magic opens up a whole new set of abilities beyond what someone with a sword could be capable of. In a world that worked by D&D rules, with access to D&D spellcasting, yes all spellcasters would be more dangerous, powerful, and versatile than anyone mundane. So, of course, everyone would be a wizard. Per game lore anybody can learn to use magic the way wizards do, so everyone would. That is what the universe would look like. Now the question: Do you WANT it to look that way? Do you want literally everybody to be magical? If you do, great. If you don’t, obviously it is a problem. But it’s a problem with the way the universe operates, like taking issue with the laws of physics.

    Let me spell out that point a little better. Take a non-magical class, like the monk. Is there a class out there which is capable of replicating all the abilities and features of a monk? This is debatable, how exact do you want to be etc etc. But one answer is ‘you can make a Cleric that can do all that’. How it gets it done is a little different, but in the end it can be speedy, have immunities, be effective in combat, all at about the same level. Or, the Cleric can do other things with a different build. The Monk can’t. So, the function of the Monk can be totally encapsulated within the Cleric. Well, then why let someone play a Monk? The class is a ‘bad’ decision because there is a choice that is simply ‘better’. So remove the class! Then repeat this with every class in the game and play with what is left.

    This is a viable answer, not just a thought exercise. I have heard of many playgroups that basically choose between full casters like Druid, Wizard, Cleric, et al and play that way. I’d say that is actually a fine system. Most of the world are mundanes, but YOU are a PC. YOU get access to magic, and therefore are heads and shoulders above the rest of the world. It explains why magic is so rare while being so desirable (only PCs or Named Characters can have it), it makes the PC special and able to change the world, it’s all good.

    So, what if that isn’t good with you? What if you or your group WANT to be able to play 100% mundane characters. Well, in current D&D that means you are not ‘competitive’ with magic. If you and your group are OK with that, OK! Problem solved, go have fun. If you want to be mundane AND able to contribute at the same level as the wizard, then you have a problem. The laws of the universe are stacked against you. So, the only thing to do is change the rules of the universe and use a different game system. (or house-rule a bunch of stuff)

  3. Personally I don’t have an issue with magic-based classes being more “powerful” than mundane. I play a tank right now in our group, and I’m ok with the sorcerer getting most of the kills with fireballs. It’s still fun.

    The only issue I take with your post is your description of Gandalf 😉

    He is able to stand toe-to-toe with the Balrog (who we can think of as a demon analog) and deny its passage twice. Recall the not-in-the-movie incident where he uses a “word of command” to at least temporarily thwart it. His powers tended to be less overt at times — tough to quantify in a game system kind of way. More like a “powerful / potent entity” kind of thing. Recall also how he struggled with Sauron remotely to distract him from the ringbearer (after he became “the white”).

    ANyway, more on topic, Wizards SHOULD be more powerful than their sword-swinging minions. I don’t see an issue with it.

    • In a simulation, yes, definitely magic-wielding characters should be more powerful. But does it make for a better or worse game? In my opinion it makes for a slightly worse game, because it removes mundane characters as a ‘useful’ choice.

  4. Heh, Gandalf.

    One of the things that I see lots of gamers struggle with is the difference between literary magic users and game magic users. Merlin, for example, could do just about everything we associate with Merlin as a third level wizard or sorcerer. Or maybe a witch would even be better.

    How “powerful” Gandalf is has been debated ad nauseum on the gaming boards, and I don’t realy want to revisit that here, BUT 🙂

    Throughout most of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf’s powers are quite subtle at best and downright lame at worst. Compared to a Pathfinder wizard that is.

    Let’s visit what I consider to be Gandalf’s most impressive moments:

    1. He lights up Weathertop in a battle against the Witch King and several Nazgul with pyrotechnics so powerful that they are visible miles away.
    2. He stands up to, and then goes toe-to-toe with a Balrog
    3. He issues a “word of command” which is so powerful that the counterspell the Balrog attempted resulted in a massive cave-in of the stone surrounding Balin’s tomb.
    4. He defends Farimer from the Nazgul with some sort of Nazgul-repelling power.

    That’s really about it. Otherwise his magic is mostly stuff that could be done with Pathfinder cantrips or orisons.

    So, how powerful are those things?
    Well, on Weathertop Strider points to burns and ashes on the ground that provide evidence of a great struggle. It is not much of a stretch to consider that Gandalf used magical energy on Weathertop that is comparable to fireball or lightning bolt. But there’s no indication that he did anything more impressive.

    In facing down the Balrog, the first thing he did, which protected the Fellowship, was not any confrontation with the Balrog at all. It was to destroy the bridge, which kept the Balrog from pursuing the Fellowship. It was only when the Balrog snagged Gandalf with his whip that he had to confront the Balrog at all. And destroying the bridge was such a difficult task for Gandalf that he literally had to break his staff against the bridge to do it. So that implies the power to break the bridge was actually more within Gandalf’s staff than in Gandalf himself.

    But now the fight with the Balrog… That is indeed impressive. But it is mostly impressive in a martial sense, not a magical one. Gandalf is burned, but not immediately killed by the Balrog’s flames. Resist energy? They fall a long way and splash into an underground pool. I suppose that’s a lot of hit points to survive that, but again, where’s the magic? And then they fight under water, then Gandalf chases him to the top of the mountain. And again we see superhuman endurance and strength, but no magic. So while his fight with the Balrog does indeed demonstrate some superhuman abiltiies, most of them are not magical.

    The word of command which ends up destroying a bunch of rocks is pretty impressive. In sheer terms of destruction from a magical action, it is by far the most impressive of Gandalf’s magical things. But how powerful is it, really? “Hold portal?” “Wall of Stone?” Hard to say.

    Finally we see Gandalf the White repel the Nazgul. This is an ability that Gandalf apparently lacked while he was Gandalf the Gray since he encountered the Nazgul a couple of times in that form and did not repel them. So, “turn undead?” But what level?

    A great deal of figuring out how powerful Gandalf is can be factored in from figuring out how powerful Balrogs and Nazgul are since that’s what he was fighting. How powerful were they? Well, a chick with a sword killed the Witch King, and Balrogs were dispatched in the Silmarillion by elves with swords.

    So…. not a whole lot of evidence there that Balrogs and Nazgul are all that powerful themselves.

    The bottom line is that a tiny little bit of magic is enough to do amazing, legendary things when compared to actual real-world humans, which is typically what is happening in literature. In games like Pathfinder the power curve goes through the roof and all sense of scale gets totally whacked out.

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