Thursday, 2 April 2015

Power and Utility for Wizards and Warriors: critique

I've been reading a LOT about this stuff on 5e forums, especially here, and so have some opinions to spout.

Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards is a very well-established trope of D&D, and it's still a bone of contention even in 5th Edition. Oddly enough, 4th edition was probably the best at keeping parity between classes, because of its power structure. Even then, wizards came out on top in terms of utility and flavour. Being able to inflict ten different types of damage, and target four different types of defensive stat, is simply better than being able to inflict one or two types of damage and target one or two defences; the wizard can avoid strengths and take advantages of weakness. Frankly, the wizard was also more interesting in fluff, because hurling an array of different spells tends to sound more interesting than a dozen ways of saying "I stab it".

So, what do I think the problems are?

For the purposes of this discussion, "mage" just means spellcaster while "warrior" simply means any non-spellcaster. Things like clerics have interesting middle grounds, but they're powerful spellcasters and that's a primary feature.

The first part of the problem is that "mages" get a whole new subsystem of the game to play with, accessible only to them. Meanwhile, "warriors" do not have any subset of the game which mages cannot interact with.

A second part of the problem is scope. There is no broad type of effect, and very few specific effects, which warriors can produce and mages cannot. Meanwhile, there are many effects mages can produce that warriors cannot.

The best example I've seen of this is someone pointing out that a high-level mage can produce an exact magical duplicate of the party fighter, allowing them to contribute literally everything that the fighter can on top of a vast array of other magical powers.

This is slightly truer in current editions. In some editions, rogues could find and disarm traps, which nobody else could touch. In practice, many traps would still be amenable to common-sense solutions, even if no rogue was present. It was also possible in most cases to simply soak up damage from all but the most lethal traps.

A third part of the argument tends to be power: mages have some incredibly powerful spells that do enormous damage to enemies, or can otherwise exert very significant mechanical effects. High-level warriors are felt to be short on power.

A fourth aspect is that mages scale far more than warriors, so the difference between low- and high-level mages far outstrips the difference between low- and high-level warriors.

A fifth aspect is 'feel': some people argue that high-level warriors simply do not feel like mighty heroes of legend, while mages easily equal or outstrip the accomplishments of their literary inspirations. This is particularly highlighted when D&D books cite inspirations like Hercules, Gilgamesh, King Arthur or Cu Chulainn, who frequently perform feats no D&D fighter mechanically could, while D&D mages hurl around both more spells and more powerful spells than Gandalf, Merlin, or the Biblical figures who inspired the clerics. Many wondrous feats performed only once as the climax of a mage's career are available daily to a D&D mage of sufficient level.

"There are many famous fighters from legend: Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried, Cuchulain, Little John, Tristan, and Sinbad. History is crowded with great generals and warriors: El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Spartacus, Richard the Lionheart, and Belisarius. Your fighter could be modeled after any of these."
AD&D 2nd edition

A level twenty fighter cannot kill a CR2 thug with a single critical hit without some magical gear or spell to boost damage. A level seven sorcerer can potentially kill multiple thugs with a single fireball; the level twenty mage will on average kill every single thug she hits with the fireball, which by that point is one of her least powerful spells.

Moreover, most mythic heroes have considerable non-combat ability which is typically ignored in game mechanics. This is a problem even in editions where non-combat has no mechanics, because having both "DM Decides" and "Use a well-defined spell" is always better than having only the first.

Lodoss makes what I think is a very interesting point: that D&D is trying to mash pulp and epic fantasy together, and that it's spellcasters who receive most of the epic. D&D is capable of emulating a Conan or Legolas, but that's more or less where its fighers cap out, while mages can stretch from hedge wizards to spellcasters capable of annihilating armies single-handed. Moreover, mages tend to accumulate the disparate abilities of many different literary spellcasters (each spell gained is a new ability), thus increasing in the scope of their powers, while warriors tend to have few specific abilities because most martial feats sound quite similar.

Another comment by NichG points out that casters also help with handwaving. A journey across the ocean fraught with peril might be interesting once or twice, but by the tenth time you probably should replace it with an atomic action. That's sort of what 'gaining abilities as you go up in level' achieves - it gives you access to things that allow you to handwave over repeated tasks that you already know how to solve because you did it at lower levels. The difficulty, of course, is that only mages contribute this to the party. You might argue that a long journey through a dungeon fraught with peril is interesting once or twice, but by the tenth time your powerful warrior should enable you to handwave it. A mage allows you to handwave stuff that would once have been a mini-adventure in itself; a warrior continues to contribute to resolving combat.

Definitions and subsystems

I think one of the reasons behind these problems is the way characters are defined. Fighters, the archetypal warrior, are defined by one very specific part of the game: fighting. In fact, it's even a restricted subset of fighting: fighters are good at surviving small-group combat, and to a lesser extent good at winning small-group combat. The abilities of the class are focused on dealing damage, surviving damage and using combat equipment.

Because warriors are defined by their combat prowess, they tend not to have mechanical abilities that affect other situations. In fact, most of those kinds of abilities are specifically designated as belonging to one warrior class or another. Dealing with wilderness is a ranger's schtick, so it can't be a specific character choice for warriors. Being noble and personable is a paladin's schtick, so it can't be available to warriors in general. Being really charismatic is a bard's schtick, so it isn't an option for warriors. Of course, they can make a gesture towards it by buying up Charisma or Nature or whatever, but those create permanent tradeoffs between the warrior's core role and this sideline, which is rarely the case for spellcasters, and it's a limited mechanical boost rather than any significant capability.

Meanwhile, mages are defined by being able to use magic. Having access to magic is a huge, broad toolset. A mage can* use that toolset to:

  • Combat
    • Survive combat
    • Cause damage to enemies
    • Cause damage to large numbers of enemies at once
    • Impair enemies to limit their threat
    • Control the behaviour of enemies
    • Cause damage to enemies without being physically present
    • Turn enemies into allies in the midst of combat
    • Non-lethally remove enemies from combat for extended periods
    • Avoid combat through stealth
    • Escape combat through stealth, speed or movement abilities
  • Environment
    • Survive dangerous environments
    • Physically alter the local environment instantly
    • Create dangerous environments to control the behaviour of others
  • Social
    • Make a positive impression on NPCs
    • Make a negative impression on NPCs
    • Distract or influence NPCs
    • Understand and speak foreign languages to interact with NPCs
    • Alter the memories of NPCs
  • Information
    • Detect and diagnose magical effects and objects
    • Learn of approaching dangers
    • Learn about the local terrain, its possibilities and dangers
    • Learn important information about people, places and things
  • Interaction
    • Manipulate things
    • Manipulate things safely at range
  • Travel
    • Travel through or around very difficult obstacles
    • Travel long distances at great speed
    • Interact three-dimensionally with the landscape, rather than two-dimensionally, by taking to the air or water
  • ???
    • Gain the appearance of another person
    • Gain the appearance of a completely different creature
    • Gain the abilities of a completely different creature
  • Resources
    • Obtain servitors, servants and allies
    • Obtain valuable items from people
    • Create items instantly and without access to raw materials
    • Transform items into other items
    • Safely store items, then retrieve them to any location
  • Magic
    • Remove magical effects from themselves or others
    • Affect the beliefs of others in order to affect their behaviour
    • Ignore the effects of powerful magic

*Yes, potentially, but that doesn't actually negate any of this. Options are important.

The key here is that the ability to do any or all of these things depends on precisely one talent: the talent for magic. Not only can the mage typically do these things faster and more reliably than others (who may not be able to do them at all), but they require no specific skill to do so. Moreover, a mage can typically choose which effect to produce on any given day; in some cases, they can choose which to produce at any moment. While some mages need to select spells they know as class features, they are generally able to retrain these as they gain levels. There are also tools like scrolls or wands, which greatly increase the range of spells a mage can use at any time.

A warrior wishing to do any of these things will require a specific skill (in the general, rather than mechanical sense, although often it's a mechanical skill). Without that skill, they have minimal or no chance of success. Warriors typically have a small range of skills, and choose these permanently as part of character creation or progression. A warrior who is very tough cannot choose to instead be very charming the following day. A warrior who speaks Gnomish but not Dwarven can't switch to Dwarven in the expectation of meeting dwarves.

Moreover, this is not the mage's only tool. While magic offers the opportunity to do all those things using a single ability (based off the casting attribute), they also have access to the general resolution mechanics used by non-spellcasters to achieve things. These involve a number of attributes, in some of which the mage will be weak, but it's a useful fallback.

The D&D warrior has access to their attributes (most are physically strong, but mentally weak), a set of skill mechanics for doing non-combat things, and some equipment.

The D&D mage has access to their attributes (most are mentally strong, but physically weak), a set of skill mechanics for doing non-combat things, and some equipment. They also have access to magic.

A barbarian may very well be able to simply smash down a door - but the mage can also attempt to smash down the door. The primary difference here will come from their Strength score, and a barbarian tends to be stronger, but this is not a feature of the class at all. A Strength 18 barbarian and a Strength 18 mage are equally good at breaking down doors, but the mage can also use magic to open it. Or use magic to smash it down. Or use magic to make someone open it for them. Or walk through it like it wasn't even there.

If you think about it, the class division is a bit odd.

  • A fighter is a non-magical character who's good at killing things and not dying.
  • A barbarian is a non-magical character who's good at killing things and not dying.
  • A rogue is a non-magical character who's good at stealth, killing things, exploration and (often) social interaction.
  • A bard is a low-magical character who's good at social interaction and boosting their party.
  • A wizard is a magical character.
  • A sorcerer is a magical character.


Anything* a warrior can attempt to do, a mage can attempt to do with a similar expenditure of resources. If they don't use magic, the mage will be less successful at certain things (such as physical feats), though more successful at many others (such as mental feats), but the difference is relatively small. There is no qualitative difference in capability.

* There are things mages can't do, but they tend to be extremely specific. A mage cannot deal Sneak Attack damage as a rogue can; but they can deal large amounts of damage to a single target, or more broadly, "inflict damage to enemies". The inability to inflict Sneak Attack damage specifically does not seriously limit the mage.

The reverse is not true. A mage can travel long distances instantly by using a teleportation spell, thus avoiding the hardships and costs of the journey, evading specific dangers, beating rivals or enemies to a destination, and many other advantages. A warrior can travel long distances slowly by physically moving between those points, and any method the warrior may use to her advantage is also available to the mage: mounts, ships, secret passages etc. A warrior is likely better able to walk long distances without stopping and to climb mountains or ford rivers, but their only advantage over the mage is a slight numerical one - the warrior will have a higher bonus on their rolls. In many cases, the mage can even duplicate this, as spells exist to increase ability scores.

A mage can magically send messages to an ally some distance away, and do so instantly and undetectably. A warrior can send messages by messenger, or by shouting loudly, or by leaving a message to be found, or by travelling to meet their ally. All these options are also available to the mage. All of them are inferior to the magical option, unless the mage is desperately short of resources; and if he is, they are still available.

By dint of magic alone, the mage is able to contribute to every possible sphere of gameplay.

  • They can participate in combat by dealing and absorbing damage, and by manipulating creatures and objects.
  • They can participate in exploration by finding things, overcoming obstacles and manipulating the environment.
  • They can participate in stealth operations by being stealthy, reducing suspicion, manipulating objects, and removing physical and mental evidence.
  • They can participate in recon and research by obtaining information, observing targets and examining evidence.
  • They can participate socially by improving the abilities of allies, disguising the true situation, affecting how NPCs feel, and directly manipulating the minds of NPCs.

And they can also contribute to any or all of these spheres using the same non-magical mechanics available to everyone else.

It seems to me that part of the age-old LWQW problem boils down to this utility imbalance, and so the obvious thing to consider is, can it be rebalanced?

Well, that would seem to call for limiting the power of mages.

Yes, I know.


Oddly enough, although people often talk about how mages are overpowered compared to warriors, the actual power of the wizard is rarely a problem, nor a specific complaint. It's certainly very powerful to be able to hurl fireballs to annihilate whole squads of enemies, or open a portal to another reality, but these things have their limitations. There are situations where fireballs are unhelpful, and who wants to go to another reality anyway? Individual powerful spells isn't really the issue, although I have to say I don't personally think the game would suffer one jot from shaving off the top two levels of spells and redistributing the rest.

Power is also (in theory) balanced by duration. A warrior has no limit, other than exhaustion, to their abilities: they can keep moving, fighting or talking until they collapse. In theory, a warrior can fight on long after a wizard has expended their spells, eventually wiping out an equally large army as the wizard did a few hours ago. In practice, this is typically not the case, because most adventuring parties will stop to rest as soon as their mages have expended most of their powerful spells, so balance never arrives. But it's a nice idea! This is similar to Warhammer 40,000's implementation of psyker abilities: enormous power in the short term is theoretically balanced by long-term considerations, but pragmatically this never actually happens, as player groups find ways to use their most effective tools as much as possible and the less effective ones as little as possible.


Let's look briefly at the capabilities of 1st, 10th and 20th-level warriors and mages. For simplicity, I will select the Fighter and the Wizard. Note, I'm not trying to optimise anything here, these are just basic characters.

A 1st-level fighter can:

  • attack enemies once per round to inflict modest damage (about 1d8+4)
  • soak modest amounts of attacks and damage (about 12hp)
  • trip and shove enemies to slightly impair them and help allies
  • overcome modest physical obstacles like locked doors (smash), walls (climb), or rivers (swim) (DC12ish on average)
  • overcome modest social obstacles like surly guards, unhelpful peasants and aggressive thugs (DC10ish on average)
  • hide from dim enemies or sneak past guards (DC12ish on average)

A 10th-level fighter can:

  • attack enemies twice per round to inflict slightly higher damage (about 1d8+7)
  • soak substantial amounts of attacks and damage (about 75hp)
  • trip and shove enemies to slightly impair them and help allies
  • survive things slightly better than normal (reroll one save)
  • overcome significant physical obstacles like locked doors (smash), walls (climb), or rivers (swim) (DC17ish on average)
  • overcome modest social obstacles like surly guards, unhelpful peasants and aggressive thugs (DC10ish, perhaps DC14 for Intimidate on average)
  • hide from dim enemies or sneak past guards (DC13ish on average)
  • survive substantial falls by absorbing damage

A 20th-level fighter can:

  • attack enemies four times per round (occasionally eight) to inflict significant damage (about 1d8+13)
  • soak large amounts of attacks and damage (about 150hp)
  • trip and shove enemies to slightly impair them and help allies
  • survive things a bit better than normal (reroll three saves)
  • overcome major physical obstacles like locked doors (smash), walls (climb), or rivers (swim) (DC21ish on average)
  • overcome modest social obstacles like surly guards, unhelpful peasants and aggressive thugs (DC10ish on average)
  • hide from dim enemies or sneak past guards (DC14ish on average)
  • survive enormous falls by absorbing damage

A 1st-level wizard can do most of the following, depending on spell choices:

A 10th-level wizard can do most of the following, depending on spell choices:

A 20th-level wizard can do most of the following, depending on spell choices:

I'm not sure about you, but I feel like the wizard scales pretty obviously. It gains new capabilities as it levels, as well as increasing the power of older ones. And that's being very general about what powers do; I didn't bother with the difference between, say, creating a small stone wall and controlling the weather (both 'alter the environment').

The fighter, well... bigger numbers, right? Awesome.


This one's pretty easy.

A high-level wizard can teleport across the world, walk into another reality, turn permanently into a dragon, conjure powerful demons to fight for her, stop time, blast armies apart with meteors, control the weather, duplicate herself, trap enemies in extradimensional prisons, create unbreakable barriers, reverse gravity, turn people into stone, create undead armies, become invisible, penetrate any illusion, and more. I'm not sure how much more mythic you can get.

A high-level fighter can kill eight creatures with a single storm of blows (although only twice, and providing they are extremely weak creatures), break down quite substantial doors, survive falling off a mountain, swim across stormy lakes, soak up quite a few arrows (about 30, plus misses) and put an arrow through someone's eye at a hundred paces. That feels heroic, but it doesn't really feel mythic to me.

Honestly, I'd expect a fighter of equivalent mythicness to the wizard to do things like: carve through an entire army of ordinary soldiers; deflect storms of incoming arrows; kill most weaker enemies with a single blow; rally armies of followers to join in battle; shatter pillars and walls; tear the arm off a troll and beat it to death with it; dance through a horde of enemies and escape untouched; cow an onrushing horde into giving up the charge. And that's relatively modest: Hercules (a perfectly canonical fighter-type) managed, amongst other things, to:

  • Stun a gigantic invulnerable lion for long enough to strangle it to death
  • Single-handedly slay a hydra
  • Chase a deer ceaselessly for a year, even though it ran faster than an arrow
  • Reroute two rivers in a single day by digging new channels for them
  • Defeat the Amazons
  • Impress the sun-god enough to be lent the solar chariot to fly to a secret island, then kill a giant with a single arrow dipped in hydra blood
  • Hold up the sky

Some of the suggestions others made included striking the ground hard enough to knock everyone off their feet, hurling whole mobs aside with a single swordstroke, leaping high into the air and striking like a thunderbolt, pulling down trees and suchlike. For a seriously mythic fighter, someone to rival the 20th-level wizards, I think you need that sort of thing. It's not what you'd pick for someone who's just an incredibly skilled warrior, but an incredibly skilled warrior is maybe a match for a 10th-level wizard. Beyond that, skill alone just doesn't compensate.

A note on 5th edition

5e has worked on rebalancing the classes. It helps, a bit. Let's check Mike Mearls' design goals for the fighter, eh?

1. The Fighter Is the Best at . . . Fighting!

This might sound like an obvious point, but the fighter should be the best character in a fight. Other classes might have nifty tricks, powerful spells, and other abilities, but when it’s time to put down a monster without dying in the process, the fighter should be our best class. A magic sword might make you better in a fight, but a fighter of the same level is still strictly better. Perhaps a spell such as haste lets you attack more often, but the fighter is still either making more attacks or his or her attacks are more accurate or powerful.

2. The Fighter Draws on Training and Experience, not Magic

Fighters master mundane tactics and weapon skills. They don’t need spells or some sort of external source of magical power to succeed. Fighters do stuff that is within the limits of mundane mortals. They don’t reverse gravity or shoot beams of energy.

3. The Fighter Exists in a World of Myth, Fantasy, and Legend

Keeping in mind the point above, we also have to remember that while the fighter draws on mundane talent, we’re talking about mundane within the context of a mythical, fantasy setting. Beowulf slew Grendel by tearing his arm off. He later killed a dragon almost singlehandedly. Roland slew or gravely injured four hundred Saracens in a single battle. In the world of D&D, a skilled fighter is a one-person army. You can expect fighters to do fairly mundane things with weapons, but with such overwhelming skill that none can hope to stand against them.

4. The Fighter Is Versatile

The fighter is skilled with all weapons. The best archer, jouster, and swordmaster in the realm are all fighters. A monk can match a fighter’s skill when it comes to unarmed combat, and rangers and paladins are near a fighter’s skill level, but the fighter is typically in a class by itself regardless of weapon.

5. The Fighter Is the Toughest Character

The fighter gets the most hit points and is the most resilient character. A fighter’s skill extends to defense, allowing the class to wear the heaviest armor and use the best shields. The fighter’s many hit points and high AC renders many monsters’ attacks powerless.

6. A High-Level Fighter and a High-Level Wizard Are Equal

Too often in D&D, the high-level fighter is the flunky to a high-level wizard. It’s all too easy for combinations of spells to make the wizard a far more potent enemy or character, especially if a wizard can unleash his or her spells in rapid succession. A wizard might annihilate a small army of orcs with a volley of fireballs and cones of cold. The fighter does the same sword blow by sword blow, taking down waves of orcs each round. Balancing the classes at high levels is perhaps the highest priority for the fighter, and attaining balance is something that we must do to make D&D fit in with fantasy, myth, and legend. Even if a wizard unleashes every spell at his or her disposal at a fighter, the fighter absorbs the punishment, throws off the effects, and keeps on fighting.

So, let's see how they did!

  1. Depends on your definition of "fighting". Over the long term, a fighter is probably the optimum balance of toughness and damage-dealing power, able to win considerable numbers of fights. In the short term, a wizard can typically deal more damage than a fighter, and has an array of tricks for surviving, not to mention bypassing fights entirely. It's not entirely simple.
  2. Yup. Fighters are totally mundane, the mundanest of all. They can't do anything not easily explicable by reference to reality.
  3. This sort of conflicts with number 2, no? A fighter cannot rip arms of things (the damage mechanics don't allow it). A fighter can, in theory, take on a dragon single-handed, as dragons vary by level. No fighter can defeat four hundred enemies in a single battle without some serious cheese; assuming incredibly weak spear-wielding enemies with a +0 bonus versus an incredible AC20, and allowing one attack apiece, that's a mere twenty criticals, which is 40d8, which is 180 damage and kills an average fighter of Con 20 and 16th level. If the soldiers have any actual proficiency or Strength, a 20th-level is also dead.
  4. A fighter's maximum weapon bonus is +11 (Proficiency and Strength 20) to hit, for a maximum damage of weapon+5+2 if using Duellist. A ranger's maximum weapon bonus is also +11 to hit, for a maximum damage of weapon+5+2 if using Duellist +1d8 for colossus slayer, although for just two points less damage they can potentially attack twenty-five targets with a single ranged attack using Volley. The fighter is no more skilled than any other martial character, and causes less damage than most per strike. They do, however, get more attacks. The best archer in the realm is a ranger; the best jouster and swordmaster could be a fighter, ranger, paladin or even barbarian.
  5. Fighters who take the heaviest armour and shields can achieve an AC of 21 if they spend their only fighting style choice on defence. An average low-level orc will hit them 25% of the time. They can expect to have 215hp at 20th level. A barbarian can achieve AC22, resists physical damage much of the time, and has more hit points. The orc will hit them only 20% of the time. A wizard can only generally achieve an AC18 and far fewer hit points, but it's not a huge difference and they also have spells to help them survive. The toughest character is a barbarian.
  6. No fighter can take down "waves of orcs each round". A powerful wizard can easily kill a fighter, not least because they can paralyse or dominate them while setting up a big hit, or just teleport away to safety without bothering. Many challenges that a fighter will struggle or fail to deal with (particularly non-combat challenges) are trivial to a wizard; they need the wizard, the wizard doesn't really need them. The wizard is still very much the boss here.

Bounded Accuracy

Warriors are more affected by bounded accuracy in 5e, because they rely heavily on the skill system and combat rules for their impact; high-level warriors mostly just have bigger numbers. Much of a mage's ability comes from the breadth of their powers, giving them entirely new abilities at higher levels. A 20th-level fighter is far better than a 1st-level fighter, but is still vulnerable to low-level enemies by attrition. They are incrementally better at many non-combat challenges, but many things that were a challenge at 1st level are still a challenge: you might need to roll a 15 to break down a DC20 door at 1st level; you'll still need a 9 to break it at 20th level.

In contrast, while the 20th-level mage is also vulnerable to low-level enemies, they can easily overcome the vast majority of challenges that would defeat their 1st-level equivalent. In fact, the mage is also far less vulnerable to low-level enemies, since they can destroy very large numbers of weak enemies with a single spell. A cleric with spirit guardians can basically stand around twiddling their thumbs while low-level enemies annihilate themselves dashing against the spell. This is to say nothing of the mage flying off into space, teleporting to another continent, walking out through the walls, or forcing their enemies to attack each other instead.

Next time: some theoretical musings on rebalancing.

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