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5E Balance at high levels - and a possible house rule

Mercurius

Legend
One of the ongoing concerns in every edition is the balance of class power, especially at higher levels. There is no way around the fact that a 20th level wizard is simply more powerful than a 20th level fighter.

5E ameliorates this somewhat. But with the “game-changing” 9th level spells, it seems inevitable that there will be a gap, at least not without messing with spell casting tropes. And of course, the gap is only widest at 20th...it starts well before then.

But is this really a problem? It certainly jives conceptually, but also with fantasy tradition. Of course D&D assumes some degree of balance, and the designers want players to feel happy about playing characters that they want to play, not just for munchkinism.

There is some balance in that non-spellcasters tend to be more powerful—or at least less vulnerable—at lower levels. But somewhere between 5th and 15th level, the tables are turned and martial players watch wistfully as wizards stop time and level armies with meteor swarms.

But we WANT to be able to do that. We want super powerful wizards capable of facing ancient dragons or destroying armies. But we also want our martial characters to remain relevant—not just in terms of role-play, but combat.

So I have one idea. I haven’t really thought it out, so don’t know how well it would actually play at the table, which is partially why I’m bringing it to the collective wisdom of ENWorld. It is this: what if spellcasters were unable to use magic items? The basic setting-specific rationale would be that there is a kind of interference or “shorting out.” A spellcaster’s magic comes from within and thus could not augment their own magic with s external items.

So my question: how would that impact balance and game play? Is it over-compensating too much?

An alternate would be that some magic items would still work, but they are rare and there is a cost of some kind. Or maybe a spell-caster could use magic items, but not stacking in any way with their own magic.

Again, I haven’t thought this through in a meaningful way, but wanted to explore the idea a bit.
 

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TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
I'll be honest, I've played a fair amount of Tier 3 at this point (not Tier 4, where I do think some 9th level spells have balance issues), and casters are good, but they aren't really all that. Casters have a drastically limited pool of high level spells to cast, and concentration is still absolutely a factor.

Plus, my personal feeling is that the game should be focused MORE on acquisition and LESS on innate character growth, so taking away magic items from half the classes is pretty much the opposite of my taste. That is completely personal preference, of course.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
One of the ongoing concerns in every edition is the balance of class power, especially at higher levels. There is no way around the fact that a 20th level wizard is simply more powerful than a 20th level fighter.

5E ameliorates this somewhat. But with the “game-changing” 9th level spells, it seems inevitable that there will be a gap, at least not without messing with spell casting tropes. And of course, the gap is only widest at 20th...it starts well before then.

But is this really a problem? It certainly jives conceptually, but also with fantasy tradition. Of course D&D assumes some degree of balance, and the designers want players to feel happy about playing characters that they want to play, not just for munchkinism.

There is some balance in that non-spellcasters tend to be more powerful—or at least less vulnerable—at lower levels. But somewhere between 5th and 15th level, the tables are turned and martial players watch wistfully as wizards stop time and level armies with meteor swarms.

But we WANT to be able to do that. We want super powerful wizards capable of facing ancient dragons or destroying armies. But we also want our martial characters to remain relevant—not just in terms of role-play, but combat.

So I have one idea. I haven’t really thought it out, so don’t know how well it would actually play at the table, which is partially why I’m bringing it to the collective wisdom of ENWorld. It is this: what if spellcasters were unable to use magic items? The basic setting-specific rationale would be that there is a kind of interference or “shorting out.” A spellcaster’s magic comes from within and thus could not augment their own magic with s external items.

So my question: how would that impact balance and game play? Is it over-compensating too much?

An alternate would be that some magic items would still work, but they are rare and there is a cost of some kind. Or maybe a spell-caster could use magic items, but not stacking in any way with their own magic.

Again, I haven’t thought this through in a meaningful way, but wanted to explore the idea a bit.

Is there any single class caster than can do the amount of single target damage that a fighter can do - even at high level?
 


TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Don't know. Maybe it isn't a problem, as @TwoSix says, in 5E, which I haven't played at high levels. Just a passing idea I had in a spare moment at work.
I mean, I don't want to poo-poo your idea. Modifying rules for magic items is certainly an underappreciated method of affecting game balance in 5E, primarily because no formal methods of evaluating their prevalence exists. But I imagine they're pretty common in a large swath of people's games.

A possible alternative would be that spellcasters don't naturally have attunement slots, but can sacrifice their slots daily to gain one or more attunement slots. That way magic items are a horizontal sidegrade to high-level spells.
 

jgsugden

Legend
Play it before you assume it is a problem.

In my experience, a high level wizard feel special because of all the powerful things he can do - but a high level fighter, paladin, barbarian or ranger can be truly amazing and dealing damage to a single target. I've played a few high level games and the only characters that felt weak were ones that were not designed efficiently.
 

Parmandur

Legend
Play it before you assume it is a problem.

In my experience, a high level wizard feel special because of all the powerful things he can do - but a high level fighter, paladin, barbarian or ranger can be truly amazing and dealing damage to a single target. I've played a few high level games and the only characters that felt weak were ones that were not designed efficiently.

Not just so much damage to a single target, but doing so every round, all day long...
 


pogre

Legend
Our group has played a fair amount of tier 4 now and even a few sessions of epic 20+. However, we have always progressed as a group to those levels. In our experience, everyone cheers when the wizard unleashes her BIG WHAMMY and cheers when the fighter slices the enemy to pieces,etc. Nobody even considers character class balance at all.

I could see it if it were more of an Adventure League situation.

We have not seen one PC dominate encounters in high level play. It may have a lot to do with my group though!
 

Parmandur

Legend
Our group has played a fair amount of tier 4 now and even a few sessions of epic 20+. However, we have always progressed as a group to those levels. In our experience, everyone cheers when the wizard unleashes her BIG WHAMMY and cheers when the fighter slices the enemy to pieces,etc. Nobody even considers character class balance at all.

I could see it if it were more of an Adventure League situation.

We have not seen one PC dominate encounters in high level play. It may have a lot to do with my group though!

Yeah Crawford talks about balance in terms of narrative moments: does each Class get to do cool things that work with the group?
 

Mercurius

Legend
It makes no sense. Why would a 20th level wizard of all things be unable to use magic items. Who do you think makes them?

Well, I gave you a scenario in the OP as to how it could make sense. It would be a setting-specific rule of magic. The spell-caster's innate magical ability "shorts out" the magic item, and/or vice versa. Wizards could still make magic items because they'd be imbuing them, but they couldn't use them because of the way magic would work.

I'm sure there are other ways to justify it, given the specifics of a campaign world.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
It makes no sense. Why would a 20th level wizard of all things be unable to use magic items. Who do you think makes them?
In 5e (per Xanathar's, I'm not telling you what happens in your game), you don't need to be a 20th level wizard to make a magic item. You don't even need to be a spellcaster.
 

TwoSix

Unserious gamer
Supporter
Well, I gave you a scenario in the OP as to how it could make sense. It would be a setting-specific rule of magic. The spell-caster's innate magical ability "shorts out" the magic item, and/or vice versa. Wizards could still make magic items because they'd be imbuing them, but they couldn't use them because of the way magic would work.

I'm sure there are other ways to justify it, given the specifics of a campaign world.
Exactly. You decide based on what you want to happen mechanically and what tropes you want in your game; coming up with a setting justification is easy.
 

jmartkdr2

Adventurer
I think you're seeing a problem that isn't really there - even at very high levels I haven't seen the disparity you mention.

If anything, martials shine more at very high levels because they can do cool stuff (oodles of damage) every turn,. while wizards only get a few top-tier spells. The ability to level an army is a once-or-twice a campaign thing.
 

Benjamin Olson

Adventurer
It's a team game, and the frontline martial character is about as indispensable as they come. Which is not to say completely indispensable, because this is 5th edition, but still they are there making the wizards look good by keeping them safe, and the wizard should be spending many of their spells making them look good through buffs, debuffs, and other battlefield control. If anything the martials are the ones who get to lay down the hurt round after round whilst the full spellcasters have to divide their attention between moments of glory and support work.

Really the only times class imbalances actually bother me or seem to bother people around me are when someone either beats you at your own specialty in some way or has an ability that would just go so good with your character's abilities. One of my very first games my illusionist wizard was definitely jealous when the warlock could disguise self at will (I can't get that option until level 18!). I've definitely seen rogues get envious of people who could cast invisibility (though that particular case has the simple solution of getting them to cast it on the rogue). But at the end of the day, just like in real life, nobody will outclass you at everything so take pride in what you do well.

As for magic items, in my experience this already happens on an ad-hoc level because most DMs just don't hand out as many magic items oriented towards spellcasters as they do +X weapons. Certainly not as many that radically boost their overall effectiveness the way a better weapon that a martial character uses every turn does. Maybe your games are filled with staves of the magi, mine haven't been.

But yeah, if you have problems with overpowered spellcasters don't give out (or eliminate from the game, or whatever) items that either a) give them lots of extra spells and/or b) increase their spell save DC. The game doesn't seem to be well balanced for the latter in particular. The highest unaugmented spell save they can get is 19, which is exactly the point where any enemy without a negative modifier still has at least some chance of saving. If jealousies are an issue also make a point of not giving out any item that mirrors a major ability of any character at the table.

The wonderful thing about magic items balance-wise is that they can be completely tailored to a DMs taste in both abilities and availability.
 

One of the ongoing concerns in every edition is the balance of class power, especially at higher levels. There is no way around the fact that a 20th level wizard is simply more powerful than a 20th level fighter.

5E ameliorates this somewhat. But with the “game-changing” 9th level spells, it seems inevitable that there will be a gap, at least not without messing with spell casting tropes. And of course, the gap is only widest at 20th...it starts well before then.

But is this really a problem? It certainly jives conceptually, but also with fantasy tradition. Of course D&D assumes some degree of balance, and the designers want players to feel happy about playing characters that they want to play, not just for munchkinism.

There is some balance in that non-spellcasters tend to be more powerful—or at least less vulnerable—at lower levels. But somewhere between 5th and 15th level, the tables are turned and martial players watch wistfully as wizards stop time and level armies with meteor swarms.

But we WANT to be able to do that. We want super powerful wizards capable of facing ancient dragons or destroying armies. But we also want our martial characters to remain relevant—not just in terms of role-play, but combat.

So I have one idea. I haven’t really thought it out, so don’t know how well it would actually play at the table, which is partially why I’m bringing it to the collective wisdom of ENWorld. It is this: what if spellcasters were unable to use magic items? The basic setting-specific rationale would be that there is a kind of interference or “shorting out.” A spellcaster’s magic comes from within and thus could not augment their own magic with s external items.

So my question: how would that impact balance and game play? Is it over-compensating too much?

An alternate would be that some magic items would still work, but they are rare and there is a cost of some kind. Or maybe a spell-caster could use magic items, but not stacking in any way with their own magic.

Again, I haven’t thought this through in a meaningful way, but wanted to explore the idea a bit.
I have found that there definitely is an issue in terms of capability discrepancy between casters and more martial types at high tiers, even over a full 8-encounter day. However, in general I don't think that the suggested fix will fully address the issue.
Fighters for example are much more dependent upon magic items than Wizards are. Generally the fighter requires magic items just to perform their role at high levels, whereas to the wizard they're a slight power boost, but not at all needed.
The situations that the wizard has much more sheer capability than the fighter are generally outside combat. A fighter may be able to match a wizard in terms of spotlight and party contribution in many combats, but outside combat, in the other two pillars of play, they are outshone almost completely in terms of mechanical options.

It is probably better to simply not make some magic items available rather than outright prevent full casters from using any. The most problematic ones that I've found are staves and wands containing level 3+ spells. - They're not ridiculously powerful on their own - a wand-cast fireball may do less damage than a high-tier fighter's attacks if targets are limited - but each wand charge is an extra spell slot for the wizard to shine in another situation.

Is there any single class caster than can do the amount of single target damage that a fighter can do - even at high level?
For high levels and sustained over a full adventuring day? Probably not.
Full casters have fighters beat for multi-target damage, party support, tactical options, scouting, travel, exploration, social interactions, battlefield control, information gathering, limiting opponents and sheer versatility.
However, when it comes specifically to single target damage over a long adventuring day, some builds of Fighter are the best.
 

the Jester

Legend
If you haven't played it- much less played it and found it to be a problem- I don't think you should try to fix it. You're looking for a fix in search of a problem.

My experience with high level play is that all the high level pcs I have seen feel bad ass, and nobody seems to get overshadowed.

EDIT: That said, everyone's experience might be different, and I'm not trying to tell you how to run your game- do what works for your group, if it is a problem. It just sounds like you are assuming it is without actually experiencing that it is.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
Supporter
My solution is to give the non-casters overpowered magic items. Like, if you've seen what a staff of power can do, why not create a greatsword of power that does just as much? Something that makes a vorpal sword look positively Tier 3.
 

NotAYakk

Legend
One idea is that every spell slot greater than 6 requires an attunement slot.

---

My solution is to make give the melee classes saving throw defences.

Start with turning Indomitable into Legendary Resistance (auto-save). And do the same with Rangers, Rogues, Monks (who already have "proficient in all saves"), Barbarians, Artificers; anything half-caster or less.

This mimics older D&D where Fighters got the best saves at high levels by far. But here I spread it to all of the non-9th level casters.

Generally this feature shouldn't mature until at or after 15th level, so you cannot stack it with the Paladin's +cha aura on yourself. So you could turn Fighter indomidable into "auto save" starting at level 15 or 16.
 
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