D&D General Compelling and Differentiated Gameplay For Spellcasters and Martial Classes

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
In this initial post I am going to try to stay away from targeted criticism of specific versions of Dungeons and Dragons. Instead I will lay out a problem I see across most versions of the game so we can discuss it and possible solutions.

Much has been made about balance between spell casters and martial classes in the various versions of Dungeons and Dragons, but by making it about only about efficacy I think we all largely miss the point. Besides the most egregious cases I think most complaints about spell caster and martial class balance are more about a desire for more compelling game play for martial characters, both inside and outside of combat.

Playing a spell caster is fun because the decisions you make shape and alter the outcomes of events in a way that is usually not true for players of martial characters. A well timed and well chosen spell can completely turn the tide of an encounter or problem that the players are dealing with. Generally speaking the decisions martial characters make do not have much impact on how things go. Their prowess definitely does, but there is little in the way of being able to distinguish yourself. It is difficult to play a martial character skillfully in the same way you can play a spell caster skillfully.

Some versions of the game have tried to address this gap in compelling game play by using a similar structure for martial classes and spell casters. While it does work I find it not artful because it removes the game play distinction between classes. I think we need more distinct play experiences, not less. Just like the play experience between a fighter and a wizard should be distinct so should difference between either a fighter and barbarian or wizard and sorcerer. We need more compelling and distinct game play.

So how do we create an environment for skilled play where distinctions that reflect how it should feel to be a fighter or a monk or a sorcerer or a cleric are felt in play?

I have some opinions here including some targeted criticisms, but I am curious what everyone else thinks.
 

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Nagol

Unimportant
By including additional potential dimensions of game play where spellcasters would be naturally weak by genre or at least spellcasters are less likely to want to partake.

A few off the top of my head, because I belabour this point continually are:
  • skewed magical treasure acquisition that is likely to provide breadth to non-spellcasters rather than depth
  • adding a default of increased depth to the social environment including factions, guilds, and other power bases that can be cultivated over time.
  • access to NPC or other environmental resources that can provide depth through investment
  • rewards from adventures that provide individual inherent abiliites
  • "non-magical' (alchemy, herbalism, contraptions) versions of magical abilities that act as a secondary source of effects that change how adventures flow / which adventures can be accessed (i.e. environmental immunities, divinations, travel options)
The biggest and most valuable thing would be to openly discuss why and how to pursue this goal in a DMG equivalent. Why it is good, what the game defaults to, and how to bolster/alter those settings and the likely consequence of those alterations.
 

5ekyu

Hero
I am not sure I see your position here.

I have seen dwarven fighter be a force that pretty much dared the opposition to stop him before he killed them one by one due to the combination of expertise in build, equip, and play.

I have seen barbarians switch between strike and grapple at key moments to change the complexion of the entire fight on a thought.

I have certainly seen rogues change the situations dramatically with well executed sneaks in addition to all their explore or social play.

I have seen monks turn into veritable made hunters in combat carrying mages like nightmares.

And for any of them, I have seen their backgrounds and other creative play drive scenes, plots, adventures and campaigns like no tomorrow.

So, this difference in gameplay experience and skilled play ir whatever else you sort of allude to but not pinpoint is not something I myself have seen.

Which would imply it's not actually something tied to class (which our games likely share) but to some other difference in our games.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I am not sure I see your position here.

I have seen dwarven fighter be a force that pretty much dared the opposition to stop him before he killed them one by one due to the combination of expertise in build, equip, and play.

I have seen barbarians switch between strike and grapple at key moments to change the complexion of the entire fight on a thought.

I have certainly seen rogues change the situations dramatically with well executed sneaks in addition to all their explore or social play.

I have seen monks turn into veritable made hunters in combat carrying mages like nightmares.

And for any of them, I have seen their backgrounds and other creative play drive scenes, plots, adventures and campaigns like no tomorrow.

So, this difference in gameplay experience and skilled play ir whatever else you sort of allude to but not pinpoint is not something I myself have seen.

Which would imply it's not actually something tied to class (which our games likely share) but to some other difference in our games.

How often does the fighter breathe water, the barbarian detect the magic portal, or the rogue ignore environmental fire damage? I have fairly consistently seen full casters handle major combat scenes.

The game is currently designed such that all classes are decently balanced within the combat pillar, but the other two pillars have no such balancing mechanisms.

In my opinion, exploration in particular would benefit from providing tools the various character types could exploit to flatten class discrepencies.
 

I am not sure I see your position here.

I have seen dwarven fighter be a force that pretty much dared the opposition to stop him before he killed them one by one due to the combination of expertise in build, equip, and play.

I have seen barbarians switch between strike and grapple at key moments to change the complexion of the entire fight on a thought.

I have certainly seen rogues change the situations dramatically with well executed sneaks in addition to all their explore or social play.

I have seen monks turn into veritable made hunters in combat carrying mages like nightmares.

And for any of them, I have seen their backgrounds and other creative play drive scenes, plots, adventures and campaigns like no tomorrow.

So, this difference in gameplay experience and skilled play ir whatever else you sort of allude to but not pinpoint is not something I myself have seen.

Which would imply it's not actually something tied to class (which our games likely share) but to some other difference in our games.
I have found too many mechanical rules a hindrance. People over rely on these abundant rules to do the thinking for them. They stifle creative thinking and creative solutions to problems.
 

5ekyu

Hero
By including additional potential dimensions of game play where spellcasters would be naturally weak by genre or at least spellcasters are less likely to want to partake.

A few off the top of my head, because I belabour this point continually are:
  • skewed magical treasure acquisition that is likely to provide breadth to non-spellcasters rather than depth
  • adding a default of increased depth to the social environment including factions, guilds, and other power bases that can be cultivated over time.
  • access to NPC or other environmental resources that can provide depth through investment
  • rewards from adventures that provide individual inherent abiliites
  • "non-magical' (alchemy, herbalism, contraptions) versions of magical abilities that act as a secondary source of effects that change how adventures flow / which adventures can be accessed (i.e. environmental immunities, divinations, travel options)
The biggest and most valuable thing would be to openly discuss why and how to pursue this goal in a DMG equivalent. Why it is good, what the game defaults to, and how to bolster/alter those settings and the likely consequence of those alterations.
"* adding a default of increased depth to the social environment including factions, guilds, and other power bases that can be cultivated over time.
  • access to NPC or other environmental resources that can provide depth through investment
  • rewards from adventures that provide individual inherent abiliites"

These are pretty standard in my games. They also seem pretty straight up there in most of the official settings too.

One of my objectives as GM us to make downtime a resource for every PC so that, for instance, taking time to scribe spells is not just "free time" but time not doing something else that is beneficial. Once everybody has useful and impactful ways to spend their downtime in ways that spotlight their individual aspects, I figure it's going good.
 

5ekyu

Hero
How often does the fighter breathe water, the barbarian detect the magic portal, or the rogue ignore environmental fire damage? I have fairly consistently seen full casters handle major combat scenes.

The game is currently designed such that all classes are decently balanced within the combat pillar, but the other two pillars have no such balancing mechanisms.

In my opinion, exploration in particular would benefit from providing tools the various character types could exploit to flatten class discrepencies.

Breath water fighter - why that particular combo? Was it an aquatic elf or other race that breathes water? Was it someone able to hold their breath? What was it that drove the PCs to need to ho underwater without preparation?

Magic portal - might well be picked up by a paladin, depending on the specifics.

Rogues ignore fire effects all the time, some environmental, some not.

But, of course you as poster and the GM can always plop down aspects of scenes that make one aspect of one character the key.

As for exploration, what skills does the non-caster take? What backgrounds? What gains from those organizations they associate with can they bring to bear?
 

5ekyu

Hero
I have found too many mechanical rules a hindrance. People over rely on these abundant rules to do the thinking for them. They stifle creative thinking and creative solutions to problems.
Perhaps for some.

I think perhaps some GMs want "classes" to do for the campaign what a robust, resilient and reactive setting and encounter approach will.

To me, the race and background tend to play major roles in the social and exploration pillars - more than classes in many cases. But for that to happen, the GM needs to be on board with that.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
"* adding a default of increased depth to the social environment including factions, guilds, and other power bases that can be cultivated over time.
  • access to NPC or other environmental resources that can provide depth through investment
  • rewards from adventures that provide individual inherent abiliites"

These are pretty standard in my games. They also seem pretty straight up there in most of the official settings too.

One of my objectives as GM us to make downtime a resource for every PC so that, for instance, taking time to scribe spells is not just "free time" but time not doing something else that is beneficial. Once everybody has useful and impactful ways to spend their downtime in ways that spotlight their individual aspects, I figure it's going good.

There are standard fixtures in games I run too (all the points I made are, not too surprisingly). Games I've played in, not so much.

I've been in games where to make the PCs feel "special" (or to reduce the load on the DM) almost no classed NPCs existed which means no spell casting for hire, and no henchmen/cohorts/companions, games where magic is fungible/directable and people focused on improving their specialty almost exclusively because it was possible but expensive to do, and games where the full casters effectively dictate which adventures/scenarios are pursued because secondary access to travel, environmental survival, or divinatory abilities were crucial and if the casters didn't want to go, the group couldn't. (Note couldn't not didn't). I haven't seen a case where the non-casters made enough of a difference that if they balked, the group couldn't pursue a situation.

This is why I think one of the big focuses needs to be on a open discussion about the game defaults and the effects on the campaign in addition to bolstering mechanics in the areas.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
Breath water fighter - why that particular combo? Was it an aquatic elf or other race that breathes water? Was it someone able to hold their breath? What was it that drove the PCs to need to ho underwater without preparation?

Magic portal - might well be picked up by a paladin, depending on the specifics.

Rogues ignore fire effects all the time, some environmental, some not.

But, of course you as poster and the GM can always plop down aspects of scenes that make one aspect of one character the key.

As for exploration, what skills does the non-caster take? What backgrounds? What gains from those organizations they associate with can they bring to bear?

It was the first environmental immunity that popped into my head that I remember derailing an adventure.

Environmental effects typically do not offer Dex saves -- I'm talking things like "inside the volcano rim, PCs take 1-4 hp / round heat damage unless magically protected) or "The air is so cold all creatures lose 1 Con per hour unless magically protected.

As a DM, I run a sandbox. PCs do what they will with the tools at their disposal.

The discussion covers multiple editions of D&D though I cannot think of a background that would grant water breathing in the field, can you?
 

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