So, last time I wrote a massive screed critiquing the class balance in D&D. See under "fruit, hanging, low". I am nothing if not up to date - which has worrying implications.
I should make some suggestions, then. I'm not saying I'd include these if I ran a game of D&D, they're just some general preliminary thoughts.
Some thoughts on rebalancing
So, if I were going to try and rebalance this, what would I do?
One obvious possibility is to open up new options for non-casters. Magic already lets mages more or less do everything. Well, the literature easily supports an argument that mages concentrate so much on magic they really don't have time for anything else, while warriors get other stuff. While they don't have much in the way of unique abilities, warriors are good at contributing to combat. What else can we do?
The idea here is to divide the game into a series of spheres, and then actively consider what each character type can do with each sphere. None of this business of assuming the fighter just fights things. Here, you'd aim to let a warrior choose some unique skillset that allows them to contribute to exploration, to social interaction, to combat.
You could decide that warriors get a unique social mechanic to play with, in the shape of a Reputation mechanic. Being a badass fighter (or thief, or barbarian) gives you a lot of social clout, and that can take different forms. Maybe you actually select new social perks as part of levelling. A classic musclebound ape might have a Reputation based on valour, might and always being ready for a challenge, which give them some specific defined abilities, influence with martial and military organisations, the ability to always get invited to keg parties, and so on. A noted rogue might gain underworld connections, or pull with certain discreet officials who don't mind getting their hands dirty; a high-class rogue might actually be a popular attraction at posh parties. Some might be able to stare down enemies without drawing a weapon, or make opponents eagerly seek the honour of fighting them.
Mages don't get Reputation. "You did what, now? Oh, by magic. Well then." Magic itself is impressive, but doing things by magic isn't. People are impressed if you can cut your glamorous assistant in half and make him reappear inside a chest holding the card a random audience member picks from the pack you pulled out of your hat, if they think you did it by cleverness. Providing they already believe in magic, it's less impressive to do that by magic; it seems like cheating. Sure, a mage may be respected, but they're not getting the same kind of credibility.
Essentially, what I'm thinking here is that everyone would have:
- access to the base skill-based and attribute-based resolution mechanics of the game
- access to equipment that affects their performance
- particular abilities relating to combat
- particular abilities relating to exploration
- particular abilities relating to social interaction
- particular abilities relating to gathering information
That isn't to say they would all be equally strong at each thing, or even that all rogues would be good at the same things. I'd just like them all to be able to usefully contribute to most things in a way that isn't trivialised by another character. Mages don't seem to need new mechanics, because magic already offers all of these interactions, so I'll reserve the new models for non-casters.
These are samples I came up with while playing around. I'm not putting them forward for actual use, they're just some ideas. Honestly, they could probably stand to be more powerful at higher stages, but I was wary of treading on the toes of specific classes (as I mentioned earlier).
Low tier: Impressive Prowess. You can use your favoured statistic in place of Charisma when obvious prowess would be beneficial. For example:
- a Persuade check to impress, reassure or befriend neutral creatures;
- an Intimidate check to cow enemies or order bystanders;
- a Bluff check to convince guards that they're summoned by the Duchess to offer aid;
- a Bluff check to convince guards that such a nonpareil wouldn't sully their hands smuggling rum.
If using equipment with which your are proficient to make one of these skill checks, you are treated as proficient even if you don't have the skill proficiency. A warrior might terrify enemies with flourishing blades, a sage take parties by storm with some stunning calligraphy.
Mid Tier: Celebrity. Tales of your exploits have spread, or perhaps you simply exude a heroic air. You gain 3 Reputation dice (d6) which you can use as social leverage. They refresh after a long rest.
- spend and roll a die to become the centre of attention in any non-hostile setting. For a number of rounds equal to the die roll or your Proficiency bonus (whichever is higher), any intelligent creature within 50ft. who can see you (other than allies you select) is distracted. They have disadvantage on Perception checks, and grant advantage against Deception, Insight, Sleight of Hand and Stealth checks.
- spend and roll a die to add it to a skill check when you ask for a favour, bargain or seek information.
- spend and roll a die in any settlement or travelling group to obtain common items of your choice worth up to 5gp times the number you rolled. You overawe the locals into providing what you need. The DM may rule that certain items are unavailable amongst a given group; for example, pacifist pilgrims may not have any weapons to offer you.
Higher Tier: Aura of Authority. Whenever you visit a neutral (DC15) or friendly (DC10) settlement, you can roll Persuade once per day to recruit a temporary assistant. The assistant provides advantage on recuperation or research checks, contributes to crafting and helps with everyday tasks. You can only have one assistant at a time, and they won't follow you into danger or travel long distances. A character who mistreats their assistants will develop a bad reputation and lose access to this feature.
Reputation: Social Spider
Low Tier: Rumour Mill. You're in touch with all kinds of people, and information flows to you. You can make a Wisdom (Investigation) check to uncover information about a place (including layout, key features, occupants and potential dangers) or person (including broad capabilities, personality and known possessions).
Mid Tier: I Know a Guy. Favours flow to you, and it's rare there isn't some kind of social string you can pull. You gain 3 Reputation dice (d6) which you can use as social leverage. They refresh after a long rest.
- spend and roll a die to add the result to a social skill check to obtain something, get a favour, or overcome social or bureaucratic obstacles. You spend from a minute to an hour talking to people and exerting social pressure. This ability doesn't affect specific individuals or items; you pull strings behind the scenes to get what you want. For example, you can't make the mayor give you her own horse, but you can get hold of a horse somehow.
- spend a die to gain advantage on a social skill check to placate, flatter, cajole, browbeat, embarrass or impress. You pick up enough information to play to your strengths and avoid social blunders. Until the end of the interaction, you have advantage whenever you make one of these checks against the same target or group of similar targets.
Higher Tier: Rumour Monger. You can easily spread misinformation. You can make a Charisma (Bluff) check to plant a plausible rumour in the local populace if you spend a few hours talking or corresponding. You can make a Charisma or Intelligence (Persuade) check to quash a popular rumour, which also takes a few hours. You have advantage on any rolls to trace a rumour to its origin, or to discern its truth, while any rolls to trace or dismiss your own rumours have disadvantage.
You can use this ability to make Bluff or Persuade checks at second hand. The target must be in a position to hear popular rumours, and the rumour must be broad enough to filter through the crowd. For example, you can Bluff the Duke that you have defeated a dragon and carry its treasure, but the ability isn't equivalent to face-to-face deception. You can't Bluff the ogress who lives deep in the woods, because she doesn't hear any gossip.
I Know a Guy is intended to produce two different effects. The first increases both your score and your potential maximum, allowing you to call in favours to achieve things you normally couldn't. The second doesn't increase your scope, but it increases reliability - this one is intended to help when you suspect a failure will cause you problems. If you're planning to deal with a prickly sorceress or oversensitive king, you can soak up information about them and learn how to stay on their good side - or what will make them squirm.
Low Tier: Case the Joint. You instinctively analyse your surroundings. You can roll skill checks to learn more about places you have seen within the past week, and suffer no penalty for doing so. You cannot intuit information you could not possibly know without interaction (such as the contents of a box), but may realise the presence of traps or secret doors, note architectural or historical features, identify alchemical equipment and so on. What you can learn will depend on what you saw; a glimpse through a window offers less scope than a guided tour.
Mid Tier: Mind's Eye. Excellent short-term memory and spatial awareness allow you to function briefly without light. For a number of rounds equal to your Intelligence or Wisdom (whichever is higher) you retain a perfect memory of your environment; you can ignore penalties for vision while interacting with features or objects you have already seen. This does not apply to interactions with creatures and moving objects, nor to activities like reading where memory is insufficient.
Higher Tier: Hazard Intuition. You have a keen eye for dangerous places. You always have advantage on skill checks to notice and avoid hazards, such as thin ice, slippery surfaces, loose rocks or pitfalls.
Low Tier: Sure-Footed. You move gracefully and confidently through dangerous places. Whenever you would trip, fall, suffer damage or damage something due to a failed movement skill check, you can spend your reaction to make a second roll at the same difficulty. If the second roll is successful, you escape the danger but your movement ends immediately afterward.
Mid Tier: Tight Places. You are adept at squeezing through narrow gaps. You can move at full speed while squeezing, and don't grant advantage to attackers.
Higher Tier: Step Back. You respond instinctively to sudden events. Whenever you roll Initiative, or an unnoticed trap or hazard is triggered by another creature, you can use your reaction to move 5 feet or fall prone.
I'm not going to delve heavily into tweaks for making fighters more epic. I think there are three simple tweaks I might suggest, though.
One, allow a warrior to choose at least one attribute that they're completely amazing at. Rogues make a good start here with doubled proficiency bonus plus always taking 10. A fighter who's famously fast or strong or tough is a really common fantasy/mythology trope, and they could reasonably argue for a similar ability. Being able to shatter doors more reliably is not going to break the game - have you seen what wizards can do at all?
Two, minions were a surprisingly good idea in 4e that could be usefully revived as a class ability. Allow warriors to treat enemies of certain CR as minions! If you're a champion fighter and you hit a generic orc, it should just die. Don't roll for damage, especially if there's actually a reasonable chance of the orc surviving. An orc has about 15hp right now, and can quite easily survive a fighter's single blow. Let fighters (and barbarians) annihilate low-level enemies. Note that they are still quite vulnerable to the orc's attacks, so it doesn't make the fight pointless. A fighter killing two orcs a round is not a massive problem, I think. Notice that a wizard can reliably kill one orc per round with a firebolt cantrip, or two with an acid splash.
Three, give them a bit more battlefield control. 3.5e had feats that actually worked here. Let them make an Intimidate check as a reaction when they reduce an enemy to 0hp. Let them hurl themselves forward to parry a blow at the wizard, risking an AoO along the way. Let them deflect arrows with a sword occasionally if they really want to. Stick a resource mechanic on it if you want - Manoeuvre dice work already, though they apparently forgot to design the last ten levels of the class.
One way to reduce the disparity would be to directly reduce the utility range of mages. I really think this needs to be done, because this is the major point of contention. Being able to drop meteors onto the heads of an army and wipe most of it out is a big power to have, but it's not categorically different from being able to shoot each of those people with an arrow. However, being able to launch fireballs and turn invisible and control minds and open locks from across the room and levitate objects and fly and produce minions from nowhere and be immune to lightning and conjure up food and walk through walls... is a lot of power.
At present, there's nothing to restrict mages from covering all their bases. You can take an attack spell here, a defence spell there, a few utility spells to deal with unexpected obstacles, this mind-control, that shape-changing ability.
A relatively simple route here would be to create a set of spell trees. The magic system is already a large part of the rulebook, so this wouldn't really greatly expand the pagecount. You'd begin with 1st-level spells, and in order to learn anything more potent, you'd need to have the appropriate low-level version. I don't mean a series of, say, fireball spells from 1st-9th level, but something a bit broader. What you basically want to limit is the type of spheres a mage can interact with, not the exact effects of the spell. A mage who wants to contribute heavily to combat would not also be able to contribute heavily to both exploration and social interaction. If you wish to be very good at both surviving harmful things and manipulating the environment, you wouldn't also be able to contribute heavily to damaging enemies.
Note, I mean unable to. Many mage players already make decisions to focus on certain things, such as dealing damage or enchanting enemies. However, the mechanics encourage them to take a wide array of powers so they can do an array of things. Even focusing on non-combat magic is only a limited help, because that leaves an awful lot the mage can do, while still firing their little crossbow (or, in recent editions, launching cantrips) when combat comes around. The idea here is that the mage would (like warriors) be rather good at a small number of things, but rely on the base mechanics for other types of activity.
Note also, this doesn't mean mages get nothing, even if you combined it with the Reputation and Exploration mechanics for non-mages. A mage could choose to take only low-level spells in combat and exploration, and build up to high-level spells social interaction and information-gathering. What they wouldn't be able to do is have all bases covered by either mid- or high-levels spells, and therefore be very good at everything.
Oh, the other proviso here: ditch wish. Yes, I know it's "iconic", but seriously: a spell that lets you duplicate any other spell plus a whole range of other effects is not helpful here. Ditch also simulacrum and any other spell that lets you duplicate yourself or another PC at anything approaching full effectiveness, because again, you cannot possibly balance a mage with a warrior if the mage can create an exact duplicate of the warrior. Basically, very general spells that are much more powerful than prestidigitation need to go.
There's always a certain resistance to the idea of casters having very similar spells at increasing levels, but if you think about it, it isn't that unreasonable. It's mechanically inelegant, since it's mostly simpler to have spells scale by level if you're doing that, but d'you know who else has abilities that are basically the same each level but a bit better? Everyone else.
I would also, honestly, be inclined to suggest scrubbing the top few levels of spellcasting. I just don't think there's any way to preserve that level of power without rendering non-casters irrelevant (outside of very contrived situations).
There are definitely perfectly valid literary inspirations where wizards do things like deal with genies, turn into dragons, walk into other planes of reality and so on. There are several issues with this implementation, though.
Firstly, in the vast majority of cases, wizards only do a very small number of those things. They don't have access to twenty different incredibly powerful spells (or at least, they don't use them).
Secondly, the spells are used very rarely in most cases. They are used at the climax of some dramatic arc, not every time the heroes run into a band of goblins. Most of the time, lesser magic or other characters do the heavy lifting. The powerful spells are rationalised as being very draining or dangerous, and so rarely used.
Thirdly, the time taken to cast a spell in D&D is extremely short. In a lot of literature, casting any spell is a lengthy process requiring many specific things. These are largely handwaved for the game. It makes things smoother, but also makes the mage more powerful. If any summoning spell took at least an hour of chanting and chalking, perfumed braziers, nailing scraps of parchment to the floor and the sacrifice of a small chicken, that would rather change the situation.
Fourthly, literature is different. An author decides exactly when a character will decide to use that dangerous, exhausting dragon transformation power. The danger of the spell is presented as very real, and the character may be rendered useless for days afterwards. In games, it's quite hard to have capabilities that are genuinely dangerous because players and designers alike aren't keen (as in Deathwatch). If any 9th-level spell had an unavoidable 10% chance of killing you outright and permanently, they wouldn't see much use, but people would probably kick off about it. Similarly, you can't have a spell leave someone helpless for a week in a game, because it's incredibly boring for the wizard.
Fifthly, the genres don't match. The genres where wizards cast spells of earth-shaking power are generally not the same stories where wizards and warriors are co-protagonists; either they're about wizards (Belgariad, Wheel of Time) or they have plot-device wizards (Shannara, I'm bad at examples) This means that including those powers tends to automatically relegate non-magical mortals to second place.
One intriguing possibility would be to change the mechanics for high-level spells. For example, there might be no high-level spell slots at all. A wizard wishing to teleport across the continent might need to spend several hours burning most of their existing spell slots in a lengthy ritual, and only gradually regain them over the following days. They would still be able to use the spell, and to participate afterwards, but would have their power severely limited, making this option useful in specific circumstances.
The ability to conjure up creatures is a useful combat option, although the number of these spells has been massively curtailed in 5e. If it required a lengthy ritual, but a creature would perform one request before the next sunrise, the spell could still be used to help in one battle (as it currently does), but would require more thought. It makes some sense, too. Does a powerful spirit really want to be yanked into the world at a moment's notice? Even a minute isn't a whole lot of warning.
You might even decide that high-level casting is essentially a quest. After all, a high-level warrior gains the ability to storm a modest castle or slay a dragon, but it isn't a roll they make - it's a whole series of actions. Similarly, a mage wanting to transform into a dragon might be modelled as a small adventure, as they seek out rare components, journey to various magical foci to tap into their power, barter with powerful spirits needed to assist in the ritual, and so on.
Okay, enough, stopping now.