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.
 

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

Adventurer
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.
 

Xenonnonex

Adventurer
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

Adventurer
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

Adventurer
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

Adventurer
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?
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
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.
I tend to agree the issue lies less with class mechanics than in other things, especially many GM choices as you describe.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
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?
No, to the background water breathing, but races certainly can. Also, if you run sandbox so players have choices then they can choose to not go after adventures that require water breathing or into areas where is gonna kill them. They can go to other adventures - unless the GM forces them there.

So, it's more a case of changing the adventures you go after than having them derailed, right?

There are always gonna be adventures your group cannot handle or that your character's strengths offer less benefit... but only to whatever extent the GM's choices make that a problem or derailing issue by providing limited ways to advance.

After all, how many times in the dource lit fo we see underwater adventures that end with "hero drowned at the start" or "hero turns back cuz he cant breath water" as opposed to there being other alternatives and angles like say the hero having saved a faeries a while back getting help from them?

Right?

Isn't "one way or derails adventure" setups normally considered a not-best-practice" approach?

But, really, is the goal to have every class built to handle every problem? All rogues get water breathing?

I dont think so.

If the goal was giving everyone plenty of impact in meaningful ways in all the pillars, that's not something needing class mechanics as much as it needs more on the GM side and backgrounds and races etc. IMO at least.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
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.
I think there is a tendency to assume that having mechanics for a thing means it must function much in the same way that combat or spells have traditionally functioned in most versions of Dungeons and Dragons. This was largely the way it worked when 3rd Edition added detail to the other pillars. It does not have to be this way. Game mechanics can be written in a way in which they embrace GM judgement and fictional positioning to allow for creative play. You do this by explicitly calling out areas for the GM to apply their judgement as a referee and having fictional positioning requirements built in to how you design mechanics.

There is a middle ground between rigidly defined mechanics and no mechanical support. Games like Apocalypse World, Exalted Third Edition, Chronicles of Darkness, and the new Legend of the Five Rings live in this space. I find many role playing games are written in this binary way where they either forget that there are human beings playing these games or they leave it entirely up to the group to handle everything.

I find the danger in not defining exploration or social encounters at all is that it becomes difficult to design encounters that will engage all the players and meaningfully differentiate what the characters are capable of. The GM is basically performing game design in the middle of play instead of acting as a referee and playing the opposition. I find this often leads overly conservative rulings, particularly from newer GMs who do not want to break things. It can also lead to a temptation to sway things towards predetermined outcomes.

The other danger is no clear distinction between what characters are capable of. How much better is a 7th level Ranger at exploring his environment than a 2nd level Ranger? How do we provide a niche for a socially capable Rogue that a Wizard cannot duplicate? How do I as a GM make this social encounter distinct from the last seven?
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
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.
I think one of the barriers to martial classes being able to pull off some clutch play is the core mechanics. HP are not a hindrance to casters. If fighters could target spellcaster’s fingers, eyes or mouths fights would end.

Imagine if a fighter and a wizard were engaged in battle on an ice rink. The fighter could pull the jersey over the wizard’s head and pound him til’ the ref pulled them apart. Can’t see can’t target.

HP came from wargames.
If wargames included charm person or player controlled weather effects things might have a different shape.
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
One thing I try to include is an environmental boon that is better than a weapon attack but not as good as a level appropriate spell. I try to give the players the hint that it is there usually a visual clue on the mat. They can decide to use it or not.
 
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 assume this is going to segue into PF2 doing exactly that?

;)

I have some opinions here including some targeted criticisms, but I am curious what everyone else thinks.
Personally, having played a lotta Champions! back in the day, and back in the 90s & the 00s, I don't think it's at all necessary to give every class a different structure - /or have classes at all/ - to give everyone distinctive characters that still allow for everyone's play decisions to matter.
I'm afraid that perceived need is just a groove we grind into our brains playing too much D&D. ;P
 
Game mechanics can be written in a way in which they embrace GM judgement and fictional positioning to allow for creative play. You do this by explicitly calling out areas for the GM to apply their judgement as a referee and having fictional positioning requirements built in to how you design mechanics.
Meh. RPGs are essentially infinite games, mechanics may be adaptable, but they're finite, player creativity & GM judgement will come into it, inevitably. A rule that calls for that up front simply punts on the first down.

The other danger is no clear distinction between what characters are capable of. How much better is a 7th level Ranger at exploring his environment than a 2nd level Ranger?
That shouldn't be hard. There's a numerical difference in level, it should figure into the resolution system in a straightforward way.
How do we provide a niche for a socially capable Rogue that a Wizard cannot duplicate? How do I as a GM make this social encounter distinct from the last seven?
Once we start putting classes in niches we start dividing the game play up, and only the niche guy is engaged in any given instance.
 

dnd4vr

Adventurer
Having read through this thread, I have to admit I am not certain at all what you are talking about. To me and the games I have played in making the game compelling and different for each class all comes down to the DM and the players and the direction the adventure goes in. As a DM, I try to get each character involved in a significant way, highlighting what their strengths and weaknesses are to drive the story. I get to each one in turn eventually so they can all share the limelight.

Unless you are talking about something else, I just don't see the issue.
 

dave2008

Hero
I think there is a tendency to assume that having mechanics for a thing means it must function much in the same way that combat or spells have traditionally functioned in most versions of Dungeons and Dragons. This was largely the way it worked when 3rd Edition added detail to the other pillars. It does not have to be this way. Game mechanics can be written in a way in which they embrace GM judgement and fictional positioning to allow for creative play. You do this by explicitly calling out areas for the GM to apply their judgement as a referee and having fictional positioning requirements built in to how you design mechanics.
But what about the players? What I see is that when you give players a set of tools they can use, they tend to use those tools and nothing else. I ran into this issue some with my 4e group that was new to RPGs.

So it is not about just about telling the DM they can adjudicate or providing Dm with methods to do creative and off-script things, you need to help the players too. In fact, they are a bigger issue than the DM IMO.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Stop being so conservative with what you are doing with skills. Skills are a bit of an after thought in most D&D systems. Allow them to be truly useful. Create skills that cover areas of martial skill little touched in D&D - tactics, leadership, portage, endurance, athletics/running, etc. There are lots of things that 'fighter' types train in and could excel in that we don't really treat as a skill.

Start thinking of every class as being proficient in combat and either spells or skills.

Accept that a high level martial characters natural abilities will be superheroic and stop insisting that a high level martial character will maintain gritty or casual realism in its abilities.
 

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