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D&D 5E Casters vs Martials: Part 1 - Magic, its most basic components

Stalker0

Legend
So I was pondering the old arguments of casters vs martials. Fundamentally the concern about casters is really more the concern about magic. Magic can "do anything", and so a creature tied to the laws of reality can never hope to compete. That's the fundamental "issue". So before I dug any more deeply in that debate, I wanted to understand what does 5e magic actually "do"? I wanted to understand where magic works "within the rules" versus where it "breaks the bank". And so I've attempted to break down all of the various 5e spells into categories of how magic works. hehe you could argue I almost have an "ars magica" type breakdown here.

First we have two fundamental "buckets" of magic.

Manipulation - The ability to "adjust", to increase or decrease. Most of this falls within the "rules", aka there are often non-magical ways they could be done, but can become system breaking when taken to its extremes.

Destruction / Conjuration: This is the ability to take out or create something, such as a totally new ability. This is normally abilities beyond standard reality, and is most often the purview of magic alone.

  • Essence - "Life Force", often hitpoints in the game but can also refer to things without a technical hitpoint pool. Temporary hitpoints would also fall under this.
    • Manipulation - Increasing or decreasing hitpoints. Standard healing and damage spells.
    • D/C - It might be tempting to put spells like Power Word Kill here, but those are actually just more extreme forms of manipulation. This category is for things like raise dead, animate dead, animate objects, or dispel magic..... things that can literally create an animating force or that can snuff out things that don't technically have hitpoints.
  • Knowledge / Perception - Knowing things and seeing things through senses.
    • Manipulation - Comprehend Languages is an example, languages can be learned normally this simply gives you access to that. Many illusions.
    • D / C - Most scrying and divination spells go here, giving you access to information that you could not know normally. Modify Memory is an edge case, you could see that as extreme manipulation or as D/C. Also the ability for inanimate traps to "only trigger when XYZ creature's move past" is a good example of knowledge creation.
  • Die - Altering standard probability.
    • Manipulation - Advantage and Disadvantage or die rerolls. Foresight is an example here. Energy resistance is normally another. Anything that provides a final result that could have been gotten by the standard die roll is a good one here.
    • D / C - Spells that add/subtract bonuses beyond the normal die range, or provide a roll when normally one would not exist. Bless is an example. Invulnerability is another (effectively turning all damage results -> 0. That's different than the half damage of resistance, which in most cases is a die result that would have been possible normally).
  • Will - A creature's mind, personality, and ability to make decisions.
    • Manipulation - Dominate Person is a classic example, or confusion. Things that could be explained by "mental maladies" are good examples here.
    • D / C - Magic Jar is an example, where the personality of the creature is completely subsumed.
  • Creature - Effecting a creature's abilities, powers to act, and move through the world. A "broad" category.
    • Manipulation - Haste is an example. Even the powerful Time Stop is just multiplying abilities a creature can normally do. Even Simulacrum is an example here (though that spell would combine many traits).
    • D / C - Alter Person, Teleport - Not because of the distance (that's just manipulation to an extreme) but the ability to go places you couldn't possibly go normally. Fly, Plane Shift.
  • Environment - Ability to change the landscape or project force upon the landscape. Often different than creatures due to less resistance.
    • Manipulation - The lowly unseen servant and mage hand are examples, as is continual flame. Stone Shape or Fabricate are stronger examples.
    • D / C - Wall of Force is an example, or Demi plane.

So that's my list. Let me know what you think while I review it and consider tweaks. Do I need more categories, fewer....does this seem a "reasonable" breakdown of magic?


Once finalized I will use this list to then take a look at martials.
 

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Interesting analysis. I rather suspect that you're operating at a level that's too high level to be useful. Creation, Destruction, and Manipulation/Alteration likely encompass most activities people perform generally. I'm not sure it's meaningfully different for magic in that way.

I think the issues with magic tend to be of the "what 'rules' is it allowed to break" variety. As it relates to Casters vs. Martials, in my experience, the friction happens because these rules can only be broken by magic (even though it's a fantasy game where the PCs are intended to be extraordinary fantasy heroes).
 

I'll echo Gammadoodler's concerns. This analysis is extremely abstracted. "Change things," "make things," and "break things" is about as pure-abstract as you can get without reducing to a single category, "do things."

However, addressing the more specific things...

Healing is very difficult to access without magic. While there are limited sources of non-magical healing, you should not fall into the temptation to say that healing is equally distributed between the two. It emphatically is not, and this is a key point to remember going forward: not just WHETHER magical and mundane approaches exist, but which is easier or more effective or more reliable etc. If all you look at is whether the option exists, you will get an artificially inflated view of what non-casters can do.

Knowledge/Perception: Don't forget that there are several things, usually but not always Spells Proper, which confer senses not available to non-magic-users. Those would technically be "manipulation," e.g. detect magic allows you to "see" magic so it is technically just augmenting your abilities, but that is something a totally mundane person cannot emulate, no matter how hard they try.

Most of the rest seems fine with a quick overview, just...again, keep in mind the qualitative differences, not just quantitative ones. Ease of use is often a huge distinction between magic and mundane: for many magic things, they just work, so long as you have the necessary resource, while for most mundane things, you have a chance to succeed.
 

Usually spells within the bank refer to DC, saving throw, attack roll or other game mechanics. And thus can be evaluated and compared with mundane mechanics. Mirror image is like better AC, fireball or even meteor swarm is raw damage that can be done by normal mean. Disguise self is within the range of the use of a disguise kit. Those spells have concrete impact in combat.

Out of the bank usually don’t refer to them. Control weather, resurrection, teleportation.
Those spells can’t have mundane equivalent. They can influence adventure greatly and may be view a a way to overshine for caster, but actually their impact on fight is lessen.
 

I’ve been noodling around a similar idea. Imagine a hypothetical 5e-adjacent game where the principal difference is that instead of spell saves, a caster must make a Spellcraft check for each spell they cast using their spellcasting modifier. To take three examples, Invisibility would allow the caster to substitute their Spellcraft roll for the target’s Stealth, Cure Disease would allow the caster to substitute their Spellcraft roll for their Medicine check, Knock would allow a caster to substitute their Spellcraft roll for Thieves’ Tools. How would the martial/caster comparison look?

Well, in some respects, martials would have an advantage. Spells are a limited use resource, and especially at low levels, this would bite hard. However, even at middle levels, casters have so many spells that they don’t really need to conserve the resource, even on the longest days. For instance, as early as 6th level, full spellcasters have 10 spells to carry them through the day.

Even under this 5e-adjacent system, casters still have some advantages over martials. Their spell rolls are all made on their highest stat with proficiency (unlike the fighter having to attempt a Medecine check when the healer goes down, or the thief’s checking for traps running off their Wis or Int). Their checks aren’t restricted by them having the necessary gear, such as charges on their healing kits, thieves tools, or even tinker’s tools. Their spells give them greater breadth than martials, since a third level martial would have 4 skills, and the equivalent caster would have 4 skills + 7 spells.

Overall, it seems to me that in this system where spellcasters are restricted, spellcasters and martials are comparable.

But instead, we tend to play in a sphere that empowers spellcasters over and above what I’ve described in 3 ways:
  • Magic just works in situations where the mundane requires an often very difficult roll. Try to identify a magic object? You could attempt a difficult Religion roll, or just use Identify.
  • Certain situations can only be resolved with magic. Mummy Rot? The best doctor in the realm can’t heal you, but a 3rd level cleric can instantly!
  • DMs tend to give greater leeway in interpreting spells (because it’s magic) compared to mundane effects. Another thread on this forum gives a good example, using Misty Step to avoid fall damage, where a martial would really have no options.
 

Voadam

Legend
I think the biggest breakdown comes down to how magic compares to martials in doing combat.

Magic can do better than martials, better under certain circumstances, balanced, or less than martials. 4e did a great job of balancing combat power and making martials seem really good options for combat. Out of the 4e PH1 rangers and rogues seemed to edge out warlocks as the strongest strikers (warlocks have a bit of controller role mixed in), fighters were a little better than paladins at being defenders (paladins have a little leader/healer/buffer role mixed in), and warlords seemed up there with clerics for healing/buffs. Most of D&D has variations of magic is better under certain circumstances, with the frequency of those situations varying by edition, level, specific choices, and DM and player choices and styles.

The balance of at will versus x/day powers (how much damage do you expect a fighter to do in a round versus a fireball), amount of magical resources, expected average combat situations (able to use a lot of x/day resources or not), and so on are big factors for the combat calculus.

Whether magic can bypass normal combat procedures through control or save or die compared to attack rolls and hp attrition can also be a big factor.

Secondarily as a general concern is out of combat situations, how does magic stack against those without magic. A rogue versus a magic user is the normal comparison with knock and invisibility being X/day resources that can generally be better than a non-magical specialist at picking locks and stealthing. Magic can also do out of combat things like divination, teleport, reshaping things, etc. Social stuff also comes in here with charms compelling people under defined rules in powerful ways versus social skills being less defined and more subject to roleplaying what seems reasonable.

Also sometimes you have things like 3e martial fighters who commonly have really low non-combat skills compared to others (which is designed to be equal in combat for all classes even if it does not live up to that design goal)
 
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nevin

Adventurer
This is because of the limit on magic items. As mages get higher in level the magic items with a few exceptions become more and more useless because the mage is more effective without them. For combat types at Higher levels older versions of D&D expected the combat types to have magic items to help counter things a high magic user could do. Started in 1e where a paladin with a holy sword had a 50 percent chance of dispelling any spell from a caster of their level if the sword was drawn. Now the mages spells that can change the narrative or do world changing things, that should be countered by all the other powers who'se job it is to maintain reality. Change enough stuff and the heavens, hells and several in between groups should be coming after the mage. That's an issue that will always be up to DM to control system will never be able to balance out High level play and still have it feel like high level play.
 

This is because of the limit on magic items. As mages get higher in level the magic items with a few exceptions become more and more useless because the mage is more effective without them. For combat types at Higher levels older versions of D&D expected the combat types to have magic items to help counter things a high magic user could do. Started in 1e where a paladin with a holy sword had a 50 percent chance of dispelling any spell from a caster of their level if the sword was drawn. Now the mages spells that can change the narrative or do world changing things, that should be countered by all the other powers who'se job it is to maintain reality. Change enough stuff and the heavens, hells and several in between groups should be coming after the mage. That's an issue that will always be up to DM to control system will never be able to balance out High level play and still have it feel like high level play.
That's one way of looking at it. I think another way is that there is a strong hesitation to let non-spellcasters completely break some of the rules a caster gets to just breeze by if they've brought the right spell.

And the impact is that is trivially easy to challenge a non-caster's abilities at all levels with obstacles that many casters might laugh at even at low levels.

For example, I can't think of a single spell-less martial that can fly as a class feature. You want to make something difficult, just put it on the top shelf. Stone walls can impede a non-caster's progress with near identical effectiveness at all levels of play.

Magic items can certainly address these, but so could class abilities, and I don't see a persuasive reason why they shouldn't.
 


When you get down to it, the problem with martials VS casters is that when people say "Martial" they mean "Mundane."
That is both a fair statement and kind of a red herring.

The "problem" is that while all PCs are expected to be extraordinary fantasy heroes, the only tools that exist to surmount many obstacles are spells or other magic effects.

In addition, even in the specifically martial niche, the tools provided frequently have a very narrow scope even within that niche while casters also have tools that allow them to operate effectively within that niche.

This disparity is not something I experience in PF2e.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I'm not sure this kind of highly abstract/high level analysis of magic and what it can do is really helpful.

I think the problem of casters - wizards especially - is not that they can do fantastic things. Of course they can, they are wizards! The problem is the number of different things a wizard or similar caster can do.

This notion that the wizard can solve almost any problem is why the martials feel so underwhelming. But it doesn't HAVE to be this way. This is a very D&D trope. A lot of other gaming systems have mages that are much more constrained in what they can do. In warhammer, mages follow a "color" of magic system and are effectively restricted to one school of magic. So they can be pretty good... at one kind of magic.
 


ECMO3

Hero
5E is the time of the Wizard and I like it that way.

Older editions, especially 1E fighters and fighter subclasses were way overpowered and wizards were weaklings and this stayed true at all levels. By the time Wizards had enough power to be on an even footing fighters only needed like an 8 to save and the spells took 7 segments to cast.

It is about time wizards were the best class IMO.
 



NOT ENOUGH...

2e I think was built to have fighter rule the low level and casters the high level (like the versions before it) but by 'balanceing' the classes at low level without giving the fighters the high level support every edition since as messed the game up.
 

ehren37

Adventurer
When you get down to it, the problem with martials VS casters is that when people say "Martial" they mean "Mundane."
MCU Thor should be the baseline for what a "martial" character looks like post level 10, and without relying on the DM to hand out the gear they need to keep pace with overpowered casters who get to repick their superpowers after a nap.

It's far too late to salvage the fighter (and rogue). We need a Mythic hero that's just a flat out better version, to appease us that want a decent non-caster. Those that want to play a wand caddy/BMX bandit can keep those classes.
 
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ehren37

Adventurer
I'm not sure this kind of highly abstract/high level analysis of magic and what it can do is really helpful.

I think the problem of casters - wizards especially - is not that they can do fantastic things. Of course they can, they are wizards! The problem is the number of different things a wizard or similar caster can do.

This notion that the wizard can solve almost any problem is why the martials feel so underwhelming. But it doesn't HAVE to be this way. This is a very D&D trope. A lot of other gaming systems have mages that are much more constrained in what they can do. In warhammer, mages follow a "color" of magic system and are effectively restricted to one school of magic. So they can be pretty good... at one kind of magic.
Agreed, decently balanced games dont have this issue. Savage Worlds for example, you have to spend the equivalent of a feat to be able to cast (then have to build up your casting skill), and pay a feat for each 2 powers.

D&D is a caster power fantasy, but every time we try and get some of that for a non-caster, the "muh v-tude" crowd screams bloody murder to keep the game stuck in Revenge of the Nerds mode.
 

Would love to hear more about this difference and/or your experience!
What does PF2e do differently so that this disparity is less of a thing ?
One side of it is (IMO) more security within the single target damage niche. From what I've experienced so far, spells are powered down quite a bit especially as far as damage relative to what the fighter's, barbarians, and rogues are bringing to the table. And the casters that I've seen are waaay squishier getting fewer relative hit points per level and little way to get good armor proficiencies which makes them much easier to take down.

Another side of it is feats and the actions they support in combat. 5e has grappling rules, but almost nothing in the system refers to or makes use of them. And a martial character with a high mental stat will almost always have to go outside of their class to find tools that allow them to benefit from it.
In 2e, there are a ton of feats that encourage you to engage with crafting, intimidation, grappling/tripping/shoving, etc. and there are distinct benefits for doing so. You're almost never in a situation where all you've done on your turn is attack, and the non-attack actions rarely feel wasted.

In addition, martial feats largely continue to scale in power. With certain feat choices Barbarians can become dragons or giants, fighters can cut through the fabric of space, rogues can phase through walls, rangers can hunt things across planes.

I can't testify to how effective these things feel relative to spells at the equivalent levels, since I haven't gotten there yet, but the options alone help reinforce that these characters are heroic, not just dudes at the gym.
 

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