Worlds of Design: Who Needs Spellcasters Anyway?

The most widespread (by far) RPG has been Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), though in quite different forms. And Dungeons & Dragons tends to be dominated by magic users, or more broadly, spell casters. Why is that?
There are no heroes...in life, the monsters win.” George R. R. Martin
Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” Primo Levi
(I’m going to ignore that the original players of D&D were wargamers and they were used to artillery and very powerful weapons. Then it’s not surprising that they included magical analogs to those weapons in the then-new game. I’m pursuing the “real world” design reason, if you will.)

In typical medieval fantasy literature the spell casters are generally less powerful and less “in your face” than they are in D&D. The monsters in typical medieval fantasy literature often aren’t terrifically dangerous or numerous, either.

Now think of the real world: yes there are dangerous monsters, but they’re never intelligent, nor are there many of them. Most people are never going to see a grizzly bear, or lion or tiger, or a killer whale, except in a zoo. In many fantasy (and science-fiction) settings there are lots of really dangerous monsters such as dragons and demons that don’t exist in the real world. If you transfer people from the real world to the fantasy world without giving them some kind of “ace in the hole” then even if they do improve considerably in their hand-to-hand combat ability they still don’t have much chance to survive.

So what can the “ace in the hole” be? Technology is what we’re using in the real world; a gun that slings pellets is the great equalizer in many situations, and of course now we have artillery and tanks and jet planes and helicopters to even the odds if Godzilla really does show up, and to overmatch the real-world monsters.

In a fantasy world the Aces are going to be magic and possibly mutations to the race or races (including superheroes). The magic can take two forms, magic items that many people can use, or individuals who can in effect create magic as they go - spell casters. Magic items without powerful spell casters feels wrong (to me), it becomes a kind of technology. So if you want to avoid any “smell” of technology you need individuals who are spell casters.

There’s a big caveat to this. Some RPGs have reduced danger to the characters to almost nothing. When I first discussed this “ace in the hole” idea with a friend he said only when somebody did something really stupid in his game did they risk dying. If the participants are not really afraid of death then they don’t need an ace in the hole. You can play a game without spell casters or perhaps without magic at all, and that will work out. On the other hand, if you play in the older style where the RPG is a game that the players can lose if they are really unlucky or play poorly, then an ace in the hole is definitely needed because without one the players will be overwhelmed.

This brings us back to D&D where, in my experience, magic users do much more damage to opponents than any other class, and quite possibly the majority of the damage to the enemy altogether. Long ago I wrote a simple program (in Basic!) to help me enter numbers to track the relationship over a two day invitational adventure. Unfortunately I can’t put my hands on the results, but magic users were way ahead of any other class in damage done. In short, magic users were the ace in the hole that made the difference in D&D. I’ve tried to diagram this relationship in the below picture.

XY diagram Lethality and Storytelling.jpg

Long ago I played several games with a party that included no arcane magic users, though we did have clerics. It’s a recipe for being constantly worried because there are no magic users to bail you out.

But I also played a one-day game where the GM wanted to see the players (who were strangers to each other) messing with one another. Our characters had to watch the others constantly and didn’t worry about the monsters because, in comparison, monsters were not dangerous. In this case there were some big-time magic users but they were there to threaten other characters, not to keep the party alive. A few characters died, killed by other player characters.

Examples:
  • Cthulu: All the dangers of the old gods have been added. And little to nothing added to player capabilities/options. So it’s not surprising that insanity or death is a typical result
  • Undead Apocalypse: There’s a whole lot of undead, especially zombies, about. Additional player capabilities may include favorable mutations, medical improvements, and situations where undead are at a disadvantage. But it’s still likely pretty desperate without magic.
  • Apocalyptic War: If war has brought the apocalypse, players may have improved technology in weapons. If nuclear war, there can be mutants - on both sides.
  • Science fantasy (e.g., Star Wars): While there may be new unintelligent monsters to fight, the players have blasters and light-sabers. In that situation it’s unsurprising that intelligent beings are the main danger.
  • Gumshoe Detective: It’s very close to real-world, so there’s no need for an ace in the hole beyond pistols and explosives.
We could generalize this for RPGs thus: Compared with the real world, what serious dangers have been added to the game setting/world? And what has been added to player capabilities to counter that?
 
Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
"Most damage" is correlated to but not the same as what actually "matters" mechanically in D&D - that is denying an opponent actions. Killing them is a very effective way to do this. But, at least in 5e, when you hear about casters doing the most damage, it's Area of Effect, not focus fire. Not putting it down - other characters can then capitalize on it to generate those no-actions.

The flip side of losing actions being the important part is that a lot of casters in 5e can do crowd control, debuffs, and other methods (soft or hard) or reducing foe actions. Splitting a fight into two lesser fights and defeating the foes in detail is a very powerful thing, even if minimal or no damage is done.

Agreeing with your example, this would show why and old-school cleric would be less of an Ace In The Hole than an old-school arcane caster - the spell list had less focus on those spells, and the culture absolutely had more of a focus on the cleric providing healing back then.
 

Hussar

Legend
But, but, I've been told over and over and over again that in AD&D, casters virtually never got to cast any spells and the game was totally dominated by the non-casters. Are you telling me that people might be wrong about that? :shock:
 

S'mon

Legend
The most widespread (by far) RPG has been Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), though in quite different forms. And Dungeons & Dragons tends to be dominated by magic users, or more broadly, spell casters. Why is that?


(I’m going to ignore that the original players of D&D were wargamers and they were used to artillery and very powerful weapons. Then it’s not surprising that they included magical analogs to those weapons in the then-new game. I’m pursuing the “real world” design reason, if you will.)

In typical medieval fantasy literature the spell casters are generally less powerful and less “in your face” than they are in D&D. The monsters in typical medieval fantasy literature often aren’t terrifically dangerous or numerous, either.

Now think of the real world: yes there are dangerous monsters, but they’re never intelligent, nor are there many of them. Most people are never going to see a grizzly bear, or lion or tiger, or a killer whale, except in a zoo. In many fantasy (and science-fiction) settings there are lots of really dangerous monsters such as dragons and demons that don’t exist in the real world. If you transfer people from the real world to the fantasy world without giving them some kind of “ace in the hole” then even if they do improve considerably in their hand-to-hand combat ability they still don’t have much chance to survive.

So what can the “ace in the hole” be? Technology is what we’re using in the real world; a gun that slings pellets is the great equalizer in many situations, and of course now we have artillery and tanks and jet planes and helicopters to even the odds if Godzilla really does show up, and to overmatch the real-world monsters.

In a fantasy world the Aces are going to be magic and possibly mutations to the race or races (including superheroes). The magic can take two forms, magic items that many people can use, or individuals who can in effect create magic as they go - spell casters. Magic items without powerful spell casters feels wrong (to me), it becomes a kind of technology. So if you want to avoid any “smell” of technology you need individuals who are spell casters.

There’s a big caveat to this. Some RPGs have reduced danger to the characters to almost nothing. When I first discussed this “ace in the hole” idea with a friend he said only when somebody did something really stupid in his game did they risk dying. If the participants are not really afraid of death then they don’t need an ace in the hole. You can play a game without spell casters or perhaps without magic at all, and that will work out. On the other hand, if you play in the older style where the RPG is a game that the players can lose if they are really unlucky or play poorly, then an ace in the hole is definitely needed because without one the players will be overwhelmed.

This brings us back to D&D where, in my experience, magic users do much more damage to opponents than any other class, and quite possibly the majority of the damage to the enemy altogether. Long ago I wrote a simple program (in Basic!) to help me enter numbers to track the relationship over a two day invitational adventure. Unfortunately I can’t put my hands on the results, but magic users were way ahead of any other class in damage done. In short, magic users were the ace in the hole that made the difference in D&D. I’ve tried to diagram this relationship in the below picture.


Long ago I played several games with a party that included no arcane magic users, though we did have clerics. It’s a recipe for being constantly worried because there are no magic users to bail you out.

But I also played a one-day game where the GM wanted to see the players (who were strangers to each other) messing with one another. Our characters had to watch the others constantly and didn’t worry about the monsters because, in comparison, monsters were not dangerous. In this case there were some big-time magic users but they were there to threaten other characters, not to keep the party alive. A few characters died, killed by other player characters.

Examples:
  • Cthulu: All the dangers of the old gods have been added. And little to nothing added to player capabilities/options. So it’s not surprising that insanity or death is a typical result
  • Undead Apocalypse: There’s a whole lot of undead, especially zombies, about. Additional player capabilities may include favorable mutations, medical improvements, and situations where undead are at a disadvantage. But it’s still likely pretty desperate without magic.
  • Apocalyptic War: If war has brought the apocalypse, players may have improved technology in weapons. If nuclear war, there can be mutants - on both sides.
  • Science fantasy (e.g., Star Wars): While there may be new unintelligent monsters to fight, the players have blasters and light-sabers. In that situation it’s unsurprising that intelligent beings are the main danger.
  • Gumshoe Detective: It’s very close to real-world, so there’s no need for an ace in the hole beyond pistols and explosives.
We could generalize this for RPGs thus: Compared with the real world, what serious dangers have been added to the game setting/world? And what has been added to player capabilities to counter that?
You can have super-heroic monster-killing PCs without spellcasters or magic items. Greek heroes (some of them). Beowulf. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 4e Martial classes.

I am pretty sure pre-3e D&D would be playable with just Fighting Men and Monsters. John Carter did ok.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
But, but, I've been told over and over and over again that in AD&D, casters virtually never got to cast any spells and the game was totally dominated by the non-casters. Are you telling me that people might be wrong about that? :shock:
That was true in fairly low levels but once magic users got Web (3rd level) and then Fireball (5th level) things started to change, at least with good timing. However, they were vulnerable and had limited resources. Look out if they got wands or the like, though. Magic users were the artillery piece.

Unfortunately one of the weaknesses of 1E and the general D&D design more broadly was that when the casters were out of spell the game often stopped. The problem of the "Five Minute Workday" has been there all along. Much of the design of AD&D tried to boost up the fighter, for instance via Exceptional Strength and later weapon specialization, but that had the pernicious effect of making any non-caster character without those, including fighters, much less useful in a fight. The super high strength fighter pretty much always owned every other character in a fight except perhaps the high level wizard.

Still, the issue of "linear fighters" vs. "quadratic magic users" was always there. It was used in reference to their growth but the original idea came from Lanchester's laws of combat, with which many of the wargamers of the early hobby would be familiar. Fighters were linear in that they could only engage a small number at a time whereas the area effect spells of the wizard did broad-based damage.

You can really see it in the 5E-based Adventures in Middle Earth, where area effect attacks are essentially non-existent and thus nearly everyone is "linear". About the only really "quadratic" abilities are things that induce the enemy's morale to break, which was very much how things worked in real life combat back in the day. Really big casualties in battle weren't typically created by the fighting itself but by a rout.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
"Most damage" is correlated to but not the same as what actually "matters" mechanically in D&D - that is denying an opponent actions. Killing them is a very effective way to do this. But, at least in 5e, when you hear about casters doing the most damage, it's Area of Effect, not focus fire. Not putting it down - other characters can then capitalize on it to generate those no-actions.
Certainly, good tactics very much orient around the idea of knocking foes out of the fight, not on scattered attacks. Any group that does that routinely are just tactically foolish. (IMO this kind of suboptimal play is dumb, not RP-interesting.)

As you say, one big benefit that Area Effect damage does is soften up foes. For instance, a party that has Fireball often wipes out lesser foes entirely, but even if it the foes are strong enough to take that, it often softens them up. It also may end up knocking out some of the weakened ones. For instance, a large pack of ogres can certainly soak up a fireball, but if they all take it, they start the fight at about half hit points, which means that well-focused attacks can often kill them before they're able to do too much.

Vice versa, if the group of ogres concentrates to beat on the melee combatants, a fireball can often kill off any weakened ones and nicely soften up the rest. This works great if the melee combatants or the caster has a way to mitigate the damage somehow.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
You can have super-heroic monster-killing PCs without spellcasters or magic items. Greek heroes (some of them). Beowulf. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 4e Martial classes.
You can but game systems don't tend to model them really well.

I am pretty sure pre-3e D&D would be playable with just Fighting Men and Monsters. John Carter did ok.
I've actually played pre-3E D&D with minimal spellcasters. It's a MUCH harder game.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
But, but, I've been told over and over and over again that in AD&D, casters virtually never got to cast any spells and the game was totally dominated by the non-casters. Are you telling me that people might be wrong about that? :shock:
Well, like many things, it's complicated. First, you probably shouldn't say "casters," in reference to AD&D; clerics were primarily there for healing and some utility spells and didn't have great offensive spells, and druids were somewhat uncommon in play (although they did get Call Lightning as a third level spell), and Illusionists were, well, again, not to much with the pure damage, so you are pretty much discussing Magic Users.

So, web is, you know, fine. But ass many people have pointed out, a MU certainly wasn't pulling their weight in a party until 5th level (when they get their first 3d level spell) and they might be able to cast fireball or lightning bolt. Which is huge; other than the fighter's ability to get 1 attack per level v. less than 1HD critters, fireball is the true beginning of area effect.

...But, and this is a big butt (ahem), MUs had no armor, no hit points, and if they took a hit their spell was ruined. Which, you know, sucks. And as pointed out in the PHB, almost all spellcasting occurs at the end of the round due to length of time to cast the spell. So you could plan on casting a spell, get hit, and lose your spell (VANCIAN SPELL CASTING!).

But but, MUs could also use magic items that only they could use, like wands, and certain staves (for instance) and other items, so that is also incomplete.

Anyway, it's complicated.
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
I've actually played pre-3E D&D with minimal spellcasters. It's a MUCH harder game.
Agreed. And it changed a lot of assumptions. I remember in AD&D 2nd holing up in a cave for several weeks as we healed at some tremendously slow rate. (1 HP per level per day?) And risked random encounters while doing so. And that was just down a cleric, we still had a wizard.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Ok back in the day here how some us military folks described the classes. Fighter = infantry. Thief = Sniper. Medic = Cleric. Artillery = magic user. While magic users were artillery they were glass cannon. Or they could Nova but could not take a hit. And everyone knew back then you had to have the four classes to win the fight aka a well rounded squad. At fifth level pcs were saving for half damage from a fireball by roll at 11-14 depending on the class with out the boost a magic item would give. So yes spell caster were king of battlefield if they could get the spell off.
 

steenan

Adventurer
I think the OP makes a lot of assumptions that cause the whole train of thought to basically reduce to "D&D works like D&D". Taking a wider perspective on how various RPGs are designed could make it much more useful.

A game does not need to be focused on "GM storytelling" to not be lethal. There are games that are goal-oriented, but don't include character death or don't include it unless it's explicitly requested by players. There are games with no GM and games where there is a GM, but the story is created by everybody.

There are games where PCs dying is a normal thing that doesn't need special tricks to avoid. A game that is dangerous does not need "ace in a hole" abilities; it's just a matter of how it is balanced.

Such abilities, if they exist, don't need to be magical in nature. If they are magical, they don't have to be spells and they don't have to be exclusive to specific character archetypes.

I suggest checking Mouse Guard, Exalted, 3:16, Strike, Capes and Apocalypse World as examples of games that don't follow the schema suggested in the OP. And it's just the first few that came to my mind.
 
Ok back in the day here how some us military folks described the classes. Fighter = infantry. Thief = Sniper. Medic = Cleric. Artillery = magic user.
Gary Gygax said something very similar in an old ENWorld Q&A thread.
Doug McCrae said:
Gary, what were your inspirations for the D&D party? The small band of adventurers each with different, but equally useful, skills and abilities has been a very important concept in roleplaying games, yet it seems to have few analogues in fiction.
Gary Gygax said:
Indeed, as far as I know there are no literary parallels of the FRPG adventuring party. My inspiration was from wargaming, the mix of arms on the battlefield. Infantry = fighter, rangers/spies = thief; medical/priest = cleric, artillery/engineers = magic-user.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I really confused by this article. Please help me internet (no, I'm not being snide).

What exactly is the thesis of this article? Spellcasters are powerful (stated as a given), and so why are some players handed disproportionately more power? Is that it?

In my experience as a DM of players new and old, my best players tend to choose spellcasters and make the most of them. Some pick them b/c of versatility (I'm going to find a use for Tenser's Disk EVERY GAME.), some because they're flashy (I want my fireball to look like an explosion of moths!), and some are straight power gamers who destroy all builds for all classes. But who was my biggest damage dealer, by far, in my last campaign? A fighter with a Dwarven Thrower. Not even close. Big reliable hits all day.

As a few other commentators pointed out: spellcasters tend to be bursty. How the DM designs, balances, and generally runs their game challenges different classes to different degrees. I always made sure to include times when the spellcaster couldn't rest every other fight; just as I included encounters where the opponent had overwhelming preparation against my big-hitting melee fighters. So...?
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
You can really see it in the 5E-based Adventures in Middle Earth, where area effect attacks are essentially non-existent and thus nearly everyone is "linear". About the only really "quadratic" abilities are things that induce the enemy's morale to break, which was very much how things worked in real life combat back in the day. Really big casualties in battle weren't typically created by the fighting itself but by a rout.
This is a great example of rebalancing in classes. Despite having a lot of 5E's guts, you get a tremendously different feel from AIME than core D&D. A good DM can (and should) do this for their game too.

Wizard full of fireballs? Sure, knock the crowd of guards out. But your nemesis knows you rely on fireball and came prepared.
 

Hussar

Legend
/snip

Anyway, it's complicated.
True, but, that's not what the article is saying. The article is saying:

Long ago I wrote a simple program (in Basic!) to help me enter numbers to track the relationship over a two day invitational adventure. Unfortunately I can’t put my hands on the results, but magic users were way ahead of any other class in damage done
So, apparently, it's not that complicated. The MU's were "way ahead". Like I said, I've been told over and over and over again that in pre-3e D&D, MU's were extremely limited and it was the other classes that were ahead. MU's were so limited, they couldn't possibly be the "ace in the hole". They'd have their spells disrupted every time they tried to cast, they'd never have the right spells memorized, they'd never possibly have anything that would let them cast more spells. :erm:

Instead, I've got someone here with more than just gut feelings (actual numbers FTW) saying that, no, MU's actually were "way ahead" on damage done.

Suddenly, latter era D&D isn't so different after all.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Agreed. And it changed a lot of assumptions. I remember in AD&D 2nd holing up in a cave for several weeks as we healed at some tremendously slow rate. (1 HP per level per day?) And risked random encounters while doing so. And that was just down a cleric, we still had a wizard.
Unquestionably. If you just rely on natural healing it's very slow.

I'm running a fairly cleric-less game---a common thing for me---using my house ruled 2E which has a very post-apocalyptic feel to it, but I've introduced a number of things that allow for somewhat faster recovery. For example, there's a magical food called Pablum that can be eaten three times a day and heals d6 per serving. You can't eat it more than three times a day or you become seriously nauseated. I've also bumped up the Healer skill to some degree, especially when combined with Herbalism. However, many of the areas the PCs would adventure are inherently hazardous so if they hang around for a long time trying to recover damage, things will often get worse.

The cleric had some useful offensive spells in 1E and 2E as well. Spells like Command, Cause Fear, and Hold Person, for instance, are all quite useful.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
Suddenly, latter era D&D isn't so different after all.
I feel there may be a little divide here between official-play and home games which have a much higher variance. Given the popularity of optimization forums I don't have a hard time believing that this is true: min-max casters can be pushed pretty hard in non-linear ways.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
So, apparently, it's not that complicated. The MU's were "way ahead". Like I said, I've been told over and over and over again that in pre-3e D&D, MU's were extremely limited and it was the other classes that were ahead. MU's were so limited, they couldn't possibly be the "ace in the hole". They'd have their spells disrupted every time they tried to cast, they'd never have the right spells memorized, they'd never possibly have anything that would let them cast more spells.
A lot of that is latter day hyperbole and hearsay, I suspect.

The MU required a player who had a decent sense of timing and some reasonable tactics. Much of the time, though, players were tactical morons. If they were, then, yes, the MU would get owned, especially at low levels. I suspect that many of the non-hearsay complaints people had about the MU came from people who never played a higher level one, always took poorly chosen spells like Magic Missile at low levels, and had idiots for fellow players, who didn't know how to protect them. (Yeah, I played with some doozies back in the day.)

I do agree there were problems with the way the MU worked back in the day, so I'm not saying it was perfect, but it was, in the hands of a smart player, very effective.


Instead, I've got someone here with more than just gut feelings (actual numbers FTW) saying that, no, MU's actually were "way ahead" on damage done.
I don't know if I buy unreported numbers given that he doesn't actually have them anymore. At this point, they are no better than my own personal impressions or any other piece of lore.

Nevertheless, I do think that the MU back in the day was quite often ahead on damage done. However, without the fighters doing serious blocking, clerics healing, and thieves dealing with traps and scouting, that MU would simply get overwhelmed and killed.

Recall that Gygax, being a wargamer, made the MU the artillery. Artillery does indeed do a disproportionate share of the damage but without the other arms, it's useless. You can't win wars without the infantry.
 
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