D&D General The Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard Problem

Celebrim

Legend
So I want to try to tackle the linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem under my own terms. This is going to take a while. I realize as I sit down to write this that I could require 20 pages to even describe what I’m thinking.

I believe that there are solutions, but they require moving the game from the direction it has been going the last 20 years. Basically, all existing attempted solutions to the problem turn fighters into spell-casters mechanically, embracing the idea of using time limited powers to impose reliable narration. This has kind of gone hand in hand with a gradual erosion of the Exploration of pillar of D&D and a focus on combat as being the core of the game, which serves to hide the problem effectively since martial classes have always been able to impact combat well. The majority demands to fix the problem demand leaning into and doubling down on this approach and treat any dissent from that approach as “martial classes can’t have good things”. This criticism is to put it mildly, unhelpful.

The problem with turning martial classes into spellcasters is that you’ve solved the problem by erasing martial classes. A lot of the other proposed solutions have similar problems.

The one area that there has been positive direction in addressing is attempting to tone down spell-casters, but mostly this has been focused on removing the Exploration pillar of the game and making spell-casters more like 3e Warlocks that are basically just ranged attackers. This attempt to balance combat has had some success, especially when combined with “everyone is a spell-caster”, but it is I think not satisfying to everyone for some obvious reasons. What I do think is important is to realize that the problem is not just that martial classes aren’t being realized correctly, but that spell-casters are part of the design problem.

To begin with, let’s look at one thing that D&D has IMO done right when modelling martial heroes – hit points. One the defining characteristics of any martial hero throughout history has been their ability to survive situations that would have killed a “lesser man”. If you watch any sort of action movie, one of the tropes is that the hero suffers massive trauma but in moments is back to fighting with renewed vigor despite taking blows that should have killed him. This is true of everything from Rocky to Captain America and all the range in between. One of the best examples of this is the ability of high-level fighters to survive falls from basically any height. This is actually strong genera emulation, as if you watch anything from First Blood, to Die Hard, to Winter Soldier you’ll see examples of the protagonist falling a height which is logically greater than the claimed resistance of the character to avoid injury. The great fall is a stable of heroic fiction, and a dramatic visual proof of the toughness of the character, to the point where Aragorn gets a movie and has to be made to have multiple conventional great falls to show he's a hero. D&D gets surviving a fall is a hero thing perfectly.

But there are two points this observation raises. First, a good portion of the player base of D&D has always treated “people can survive long falls without magic” as being a serious problem, as they press for gritty realism as the key to emersion or whatever problems you are having at the table. They have an aesthetic of play that wants martial heroes to be the peer of spell-casters, but at the same time insists that martials not be allowed to do anything that isn’t mundane in order to keep the game grounded and feeling believable. And while I do see that point of view and think that they are correct in bemoaning how much D&D has gotten away from the gritty era of torches, 10’ poles, and iron rations I think they are also being very selective about what they are willing to accept into the game based solely on historical precedent and not what is being simulated. I think that if you really want to keep the game grounded in casual realism, you really need to keep the game to under 5th level where the mechanics of the game support that. We can do more to extend the casual realism into higher level play, but only so much. And it’s not just increasing access to spells that breaks that, but the increasing hit points that let players shrug when someone points a crossbow at them or leap off a 50’ cliff confident that the tactical advantage of doing so outweighs the lost hit points. These things, which are often treated as problems, are not IMO problems. They are just the result of increasing the tier of play. Once you get above 5th level, you are moving into Action Movie Hero genera where realism is starting to take a back seat to dramatic coolness and by the time you hit 10th level you are moving into superhero genera where characters can do clearly superhuman things that you can’t brush off with just the sort of suspension of disbelief you reserve for Rambo or Die Hard.

The second point that this raises is that spellcasters have been having their cake and eating it too for the last 20 years and in many ways the problem is getting worse and not better. For example, I mentioned that hit points were one of the areas that D&D got right. But over time, the gap in heroic durability between a fighter and a wizard has been decreasing, so that I can no longer say that that is true. The truth as I’ve experienced it is that in 40 years of playing 1e and 3e I’ve never once seen a single classed wizard or sorcerer survive play for any length of time. Especially in 1e they were just too squishy. Try levelling up a M-U from 1st level to 10th level and see what I mean. You were always one combat round from death. You had no reserve of hit points ever. One peer level foe getting to you and rolling well would kill you. Check out one of the several the hidden powers of the 1e Fighter: you get full bonuses to CON from 17 or 18 CON. Bonus hit points on other classes topped out at +2. M-U’s topped out around 35-55 hit points, and then gain just one per level after that. They were glass cannons, who were often threatened with death even on passed saves. Full hit points was no protection. They could just get dropped. Fighters often had more hit points left after taking enough damage to kill a M-U than the M-U had.

My experience with 1e and especially 1e post Unearthed Arcana is that fighters just ruled large portions of play with such massive advantages in hit points, easier access to high AC, saving throws, and THAC0 that they were juggernauts.

Over time D&D’s designers have been bowing to pressure to make playing a spellcaster more like playing an action movie hero with big reserves of hit points that keep them from being squishy. Gone are the days when hit points were a big advantage of fighters, buried under the number inflation that has impacted every aspect of the game. If you are going to give spellcasters hit points and turn them into bricks, don’t be surprised when the bricks no longer shine as part of the team. I mean even the THAC0 advantage once held by fighters has been seriously eroded to the point it's not a big deal. The whole gamut of advantages fighters once had is largely gone. They don't have better saves or noticeably better and easier to stack AC or anything they once add.

And in the opposite direction, spells have been getting easier and easier to cast. They no longer take 15 seconds of chanting and waving your arms. They no longer require the character to take a fixed position, nor do they leave the player defenseless while doing them. Think about the difference in casting a spell in book ‘Harry Potter’, versus the movie ‘Harry Potter’ where wands turn into magical firearms that unleash barrages as quick as winking. In the mind’s eye of the player, they should be instantaneous acts of will. In the mind’s eye of the player, spells should be cast as quickly as pulling a gun and with the ballet like elegance of gun-fu. And not surprisingly, letting spellcaster’s do this has taken away a big advantage of hitting things with pointy sticks well. Spellcasters are getting more and more goodies as they lose more and more restrictions.

Part of fixing this problem is making spellcasting suck a little more, but I’ll leave that topic at least partially to a different thread.

The rest of this problem is making sure that Fighters are brought into the modern rules set rather than being left out in the cold by fear and neglect of what has been created. The trouble that fighters have had since 3e is that designers largely imported spells as is, or “as is” with all the drawbacks crafted into them in 1e/2e removed, so in general spells got even better than their original versions. But when the 3e and later designers looked at new concepts like skills and feats, they generally aired on the side of caution, paring them down to things of marginal importance and marginal utility. Feats in general weren’t worth as much as spell slots, and people that got feats generally didn’t get as many as spell slots, or everyone got pretty close to the same number of skills and feats even though they didn't get nearly close to the same number of spell slots. Skills in conception were thought of primarily as binary pass/fail mechanics for getting through DM created gates, and not as true powers or abilities. And all skills, regardless of what they were, were shoe-horned into this single “elegant” system and thus what was a skill and what it did tended to be minimized. Designers were very conservative about what you could do with a skill and particularly how much skill you needed to have before you could do epic superhuman things.

Fixing this in my opinion requires applying a number of important principles which I’ll list before trying to explain what they actually mean.

a) Feats are a fighter’s spells.
b) All martial classes in D&D are skill monkeys.
c) The important martial skills tend not to be of the pass/fail sort, but the sort that add to the character in a quantitative way (in a way few or no skills in D&D yet does).
d) Any spell that duplicates a skill needs to be balanced against having that skill.
e) Combat balance problems are easy; exploration balance problems are hard.
f) If you want real balance, spell-casters need to be made to feel the pain.

What those principles mean is by no means obvious. I’ll delve into the first of them in the next post.
 

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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
So I want to try to tackle the linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem under my own terms. This is going to take a while. I realize as I sit down to write this that I could require 20 pages to even describe what I’m thinking.
That issue hasn't existed since 3e. Quadratic was the wizard(spellcaster) gaining more and more spells of more and more power, while at the same time their spells automatically got more power, range and duration as they leveled.

5e doesn't have automatic spell scaling, except for carefully controlled and balanced cantrips, far fewer spells per level, and the ranges and durations are static. Quadratic spellcasters are a thing of the past.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Quadratic spellcasters are a thing of the past.

I disagree. I think they've very deliberately tackled the problem in 4e and 5e after deciding that it was just about the worst problem of 3e, but I don't think the problem went away. I've seen too many youtube videos and Enworld forum posts talking about the continuing existence of the problem.

But in any event, I don't care much what you name the problem, the point is there is some obvious continuing balance issues in terms of problem-solving ability and utility comparing martial and spellcasting classes. And I've recently come to realize that there is also some "awesomeness" balance issues as well, something I hadn't really thought about with my limited experience with 5e and the fact that I play a rather different sort of game than even most 3e players.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I disagree. I think they've very deliberately tackled the problem in 4e and 5e after deciding that it was just about the worst problem of 3e, but I don't think the problem went away. I've seen too many youtube videos and Enworld forum posts talking about the continuing existence of the problem.

But in any event, I don't care much what you name the problem, the point is there is some obvious continuing balance issues in terms of problem-solving ability and utility comparing martial and spellcasting classes. And I've recently come to realize that there is also some "awesomeness" balance issues as well, something I hadn't really thought about with my limited experience with 5e and the fact that I play a rather different sort of game than even most 3e players.
I think the fighter class needs just a bit of help in the social and exploration pillars. It does fine with damage. From what I've seen in videos and on forums, is complaining about white room spellcaster power. I've also seen many posters overvalue spells, giving them more power than is written.

What I mean by white room spellcaster power is that they talk about how amazing the spellcasters are in exploration and social pillars, and then wax on and on about how they can do more damage than the fighter. The problem is that they ignore that to be better in the exploration and social pillars, they are using many slots that they cannot then use in the 6-8 encounters in the adventuring day, which drops them significantly behind the fighter in damage. To match/exceed the fighter, they need every single slot that they have to be used in combat, which is something that I've simply never seen done. The players like to use utility to overcome things.

Due to how spellcasters are played, fighters are fine where they are on the damage front. But because spellcasters use some slots on utility, fighters fall behind in the other two pillars. Another complaint which is going on in the other thread is that fighters just aren't capable of effects that are as fantastic as what spellcasters have. That's a valid complaint, but not one of balance.
 

That issue hasn't existed since 3e. Quadratic was the wizard(spellcaster) gaining more and more spells of more and more power, while at the same time their spells automatically got more power, range and duration as they leveled.

5e doesn't have automatic spell scaling, except for carefully controlled and balanced cantrips, far fewer spells per level, and the ranges and durations are static. Quadratic spellcasters are a thing of the past.

That may be it's origins, but I see its modern usage refering to the fact that pure martials mostly get more of the same but bigger as they level up (linear) vs. spellcasters open up wildly new areas of power and the power gap widens as well (exponential).

The 5e Fighter can attack more and do more melee HP damage and perhaps do more battlemaster manuvers of the same types they could do at 3rd level.

Meanwhile the 5e Wizard can do a lot more HP damage as well but can now also bend reality in many ways they couldn't at 1st or 3rd level to outright bypass problems they couldn't before.

If you have a graph with the X axis level and the Y axis power + versatility then the Fighter line looks linear and the Wizard line looks exponential.

Whether you agree with this or not, that is the common usage I see today of the term.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I think the fighter class needs just a bit of help in the social and exploration pillars. It does fine with damage...Another complaint which is going on in the other thread is that fighters just aren't capable of effects that are as fantastic as what spellcasters have. That's a valid complaint, but not one of balance.

I don't think we disagree on much.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing
I can't say that I've seen this in my games, certainly not to the degree that you describe in your original post. So I don't think it's a problem that I would ever need to address.

But if I were having a problem where wizards* were gaining power so much more quickly than fighters** that it was creating a balance issue, I'd favor solutions that pumped the brakes on the spellcasters. I wouldn't try to accelerate the martials to match their pace. Adding power to correct a power balance issue seldom works out the way I want it to.

*or other spellcasting class
**or other non-magical class
 
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Celebrim

Legend
I can't say that I've seen this in my games, certainly not to the degree that you describe in your original post. So I don't think it's a problem that I would ever need to address.

It is a problem I needed to address in order to play 3e the way I wanted to, but you'll notice that buried in my essay I note - I don't actually have this problem. Spellcasters do not in practice dominate my games. I'm attempting to explain the principles behind why they don't, which aren't based on the sort of principles you see people usually demanding - "wuxia is the answer", "fighters need the Christmas tree", etc.

But if I were having a problem where wizards* were gaining power so much more quickly than fighters** that it was creating a balance issue, I'd favor solutions that pumped the brakes on the spellcasters.

I did hard put the brakes on spellcasters. The full extent of that I'm not going to go into in part because I think 5e did try hard putting the brakes on spellcasters (albeit not necessarily in ways I would have) and in part because I think it's not enough of an answer. For example, this statement applies as much to 5e or 4e as 3e:

"Skills in conception were thought of primarily as binary pass/fail mechanics for getting through DM created gates, and not as true powers or abilities. And all skills, regardless of what they were, were shoe-horned into this single “elegant” system and thus what was a skill and what it did tended to be minimized. Designers were very conservative about what you could do with a skill and particularly how much skill you needed to have before you could do epic superhuman things."
 

I believe that there are solutions, but they require moving the game from the direction it has been going the last 20 years. Basically, all existing attempted solutions to the problem turn fighters into spell-casters mechanically, embracing the idea of using time limited powers to impose reliable narration.
The problem with turning martial classes into spellcasters is that you’ve solved the problem by erasing martial classes. A lot of the other proposed solutions have similar problems.

I'm potentially interested in hearing more about your proposed solutions.

I feel there are several non reconcilable points of contention that always crop up in "Fix the Fighter" threads though:

1) some people feel like any limited resource ability = spells. Are you talking about not using spells or a Fighter with no "time limited powers to impose reliable narration" at all? Because you feel like any "time limited powers to impose reliable narration" feels like spells or spell casters even if not described that way? Was the 4e Fighter a spellcaster to you? Could a Fighter ability break the action economy like spells sometimes do? (e.g., the effect of an ability could be to reliably get from point A to point B if at all action hero possible. The Fighter wouldn't have to deal with the usual movement/ skill check/ action economy.).

2) some people want a strictly "mundane" Fighter, some are ok with "action hero moves" (and where this line is drawn varies significantly), and some are ok with higher level "mythic martial" powers that are not spells but certainly "magical" from our Earth perspective. They are just "innate power" or the limits on skill are much higher in this magical infused world.

3) some people are willing to bring in other modern rpg game mechanics and some are not. Some RPGs solve the issue with Story Points or some other meta currency that let's Black Widow contribute to a scene with Thor.

4) some are willing to bring spellcasters down a bit which then requires less lifting of the Fighter and some are not

Seems like you are ok with reducing spellcasters a bit. What are your positions on 1)-3)?
 

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