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

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I feel there may be a little divide here between official-play and home games which have a much higher variance.
Yes, there is likely to be a LOT of selection bias there, with many (but not all) con players being much better than home game players, many of whom were kids.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
Why do spellcasters predominate?

For me, the appeal of spellcasters include:

• Intuition over habituation
• Imagination over obedience
• Transcendence over limitation
• Moses/Merlin is the modern hero − Gilgamesh/Arthur is the antiquated hero
• Technology = Magic
 

Wiseblood

Adventurer
I think the comparison of damage is putting the cart before the horse. AOE spells do lots of damage IF there are multiple targets BUT would the targets exist if no AOE spells were there? Thus high damage is dependent on both possession of AOE and multiple targets. Also damage is often assumed when spells are cast, hence saving throws for half damage.

The same spellcaster has a distinct damage drop off IF threatened. Spells for defense and spells for escape. Martial characters damage drops because of incapacitation more often.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
I don't know where you live, Mr. Pulsipher, but I know that most Alaskans, even those in the third-of-a-million people City of Anchorage, are likely to encounter one of the deadliest animals in North America at least once a year... the Moose. Most will have seen a bear at least once every decade - the city has bears breaking into homes at a rate of 3-5 per year. In the city. We had a recess cancelled at an elementary school due to a grizzly on grounds in downtown Anchorage...

2 of my former students, and a professor I used to chat with between classes, were killed by moose in Anchorage. Another professor was attacked by a moose, but escaped. I was attacked by a moose, as well - on the Glenn Highway, northbound... It was crossing, I slowed. It turned towards me; I slowed again, it continued to track, until it impacted my van's side, while I was stopped. Big, ugly, stupid, deadly... My father was nearly killed by a moose impacting the side of his car at the same spot of the highway.

I've seen a lynx in Portland, Oregon. I've seen a bear less than 10 miles outside Corvallis, Oregon - small one, probably about 250 lbs... along a highway (Oregon 34). I've seen both cougar and lynx near Corvallis...

I've caught fox and good sized deer on my door camera. (didn't save the footage.)

As for Orca? Just head to pretty much any coast in Oregon, Washington, or Alaska, when they're in that part of their migrations. I've seen them from beaches in Newport, Oregon, Anchorage Alaska, and from the docks near Naval Station Seattle, Washington.

Excepting the large blackbear, and the moose, I've not directly interacted with them... but I have encountered them and altered behavior accordingly.

Oh, and a huge number of people keep as pets another dangerous monster... canis lupus familiaris.
 

JeffB

Adventurer
One of the things I loved most about 4E was that I didn't feel the need to have any class that didn't fit the story/setting. Don't have a world with clerics, no problem. Characters can recover well enough through surges and a potion here or there. Want to run an all Thief campaign? You are not missing out without Fighters or Magic Users. I never was able to do that with previous editions unless I made serious alterations in designing/modding encounters on my side of the screen, or providing a fair amount of items.

As for the discussion at hand- Yes MU's were weak until a certain point. Then, IME they would overshadow the non casters as they started getting into those 3rd level and higher spells. But this was early O/A D&D- Balance was in the hands of the DM and how they "built" their encounters/adventures, and how smart the players were. Even a high level MU who got swarmed by whatever after they got around the fighter/s, was toast. Glass Cannons. It's less of an issue with 5E- they are still cannons, the glass is quite a bit thicker though.
 

aco175

Explorer
One of the great equalizers of early casters was their lack of HP and their slow progression rate. The mage needed to get to 7th level before he started to take over the power gap from the other classes. The low (d4) HP per level meant most died before getting to 3rd level and by the time he did get to 7th level, the other classes were 9-11th level due to that class XP chart being faster than the wizard.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
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.
Maybe this is just a question of balance. If you're fighting a real world monster, your game should support real world solutions. If you're fighting a magical monster (i.e. a dragon that flies, talks, and breathes fire), then you'll need a magical solution.

Yes, it would be vershtinken to play a non-magical character trying to fight magical monsters.

I don't know where you live, Mr. Pulsipher, but I know that most Alaskans, even those in the third-of-a-million people City of Anchorage, are likely to encounter one of the deadliest animals in North America at least once a year... the Moose. Most will have seen a bear at least once every decade - the city has bears breaking into homes at a rate of 3-5 per year. In the city. We had a recess cancelled at an elementary school due to a grizzly on grounds in downtown Anchorage...

As for Orca? Just head to pretty much any coast in Oregon, Washington, or Alaska, when they're in that part of their migrations. I've seen them from beaches in Newport, Oregon, Anchorage Alaska, and from the docks near Naval Station Seattle, Washington.

Oh, and a huge number of people keep as pets another dangerous monster... canis lupus familiaris.
Nice real-world-monster-compendium here. The early, real world counters to these monsters aren't seen very often anymore: longspears and bows. Also, numbers. You're in trouble if you encounter an angry orca by yourself in a canoe. But if you have ten friends with ten spears, you won't need magic to at least dissuade the beast. Since D&D uses auto-defenses, numbers don't matter as much because your opportunities to defend increase as attacks against you increase.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Maybe this is just a question of balance. If you're fighting a real world monster, your game should support real world solutions. If you're fighting a magical monster (i.e. a dragon that flies, talks, and breathes fire), then you'll need a magical solution.

Yes, it would be vershtinken to play a non-magical character trying to fight magical
It might be worth noting that a ton of the legendaries who do this fighting monsters including the arthurians knights were generally described with extraordinary bloodlines.. if not god blood its fae if not that its daemon if not that its dragon. Some take on this aspect after the fact or discover it during a process and it may be magical but rarely spell casty
 
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Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Does anyone else notice that the graph doesn't work with the premise of the article? According to the graph, I can run a high danger, low story (whatever that means) game without an "ace" and also a very low danger, very high story (whatever that means) game with an "ace". This seems exactly backwards of the point.

I think that line needs to start at the origin and move away rather than cut across. If you accept the article's premise, of course, which I only do arguendo.
 

Hussar

Legend
One of the great equalizers of early casters was their lack of HP and their slow progression rate. The mage needed to get to 7th level before he started to take over the power gap from the other classes. The low (d4) HP per level meant most died before getting to 3rd level and by the time he did get to 7th level, the other classes were 9-11th level due to that class XP chart being faster than the wizard.
This is not true. By 7th level, the only class that needed less xp than the MU was probably the thief. By the time your fighter hits 9th level, my wizard is 10th and well on his way to 11th. The MU Xp tables were wonky as heck.
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
And I played that side kick .... once
This is not true. By 7th level, the only class that needed less xp than the MU was probably the thief. By the time your fighter hits 9th level, my wizard is 10th and well on his way to 11th. The MU Xp tables were wonky as heck.
To be fair the character was also under equipped and the thief seemed more useless.
 
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Hussar

Legend
Where it gets really wonky is if you multi classed the character. A Cleric/MU/Thief actually is about 9/9/9 with the xp for a 10th level fighter. ((Working from memory here, so the levels might be a bit different). Because of the doubling, and the fact that some of the classes needed a lot less xp to level up, you weren't actually giving up anything to multiclass. Add in the lessened level restrictions in the Unearthed Arcana or 2e D&D, and it gets really out of hand.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Where it gets really wonky is if you multi classed the character. A Cleric/MU/Thief actually is about 9/9/9 with the xp for a 10th level fighter.
checking AD&D 1E:
Cl 9 =225,001 - 450,000
MU 9 = 135,001-250,000
Th 9 = 110,001-160,000
but that actually violates the 1E multiclass rules.... where the XP totals need to be the same. but 470,000 XP for a fighter is 250,001-500,000 XP at 9th. Dropping cleric to 8th still keeps it 9th level fighter...

Now, a 9/9 F/C is XP parallel to 10th F or 10th C... or 11th MU, or 12th Th...
 
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.
Damage done, especially single-target, sustained, DPR is an easy way to calculate a fairly relevant measure of power, but it misses a lot. It misses the aggregate effects and soft control of AE damage, it misses /everything else the character can do with his damaging resource besides damage/, and it misses everything the character /can't/ do besides damage.

Suddenly, latter era D&D isn't so different after all.
The difference with casters from early to late D&D is not in how overwhelming their power was/is, but in how easy it is to bring that overwhelming power to bear. In the early days there was many a hurdle to be cleared before you could push that "I win" button, you had to /know/ the right spell, memorize the right spell, have the proper components, pick the right time to cast it, stand still & cast it without interruption, and maybe even count on the target failing a save that only got easier for them as they leveled. But skilled play was also a big deal back in the day, and skilled players /made/ all that happen, one way or another.
Latter era D&D you prettymuch can mash you "I win buttons," little stands in your way. You don't need to be /as/ detail-oriented a bean-counter, nor have your rules-lawyer case-law memorized, nor be as masterful a DM-manipulator. And where blind button-mashing won't cut it, system mastery should do the trick.


Anyway, I think the OP's point is off, anyway. Look at the broader genre, from myth/legend to high fantasy to S&S, to cinema. It's not all magic solving all problems all the time. It's heroes, maybe with some magical help or at least advice, here & there, armed with weapons & armor, perhaps faith, and a great deal of courage, slaying the dragon or foiling the evil sorcerer or whatever. The stumbling block we seem to have when it comes to the fantasy side of the hobby is in accepting the genre, whole, rather than picking & choosing. Science Fiction is usually a matter of accepting one big 'what if' and holding everything else equal. Fantasy & sci-fi are closely linked, and a lot of us like both, but the fantasy paradigm is not the same, it's not one forward-looking, logical-consequences, 'what if,' it's a whole 'nuther /kind/ of world.

Approach fantasy like science fiction and you get a "what if there was 'magic'" proposition and the forward-looking logical consequence, of course, is inevitably "magic totally dominates."
 

Garthanos

Arcadian Knight
Approach fantasy like science fiction and you get a "what if there was 'magic'" proposition and the forward-looking logical consequence, of course, is inevitably "magic totally dominates."
You get magic is technology (thanks asimov) and one of the issues with magic in games is that direct comparison is very potent. As technology makes us progressively more awesome in real world For the magic of the game to evoke the incredible and awe inspiring it will be set alongside that so it takes all the more to set up the non-magic heroes as the Hercules and Alexander the Greats and Hiawatha's extraordinary figures. Instead of being able to point to someone on Youtube able to duplicate the feat of multi attacking of the 5e fighter they need to really being doing legendary things.

Because what if magic was a weak force with limitations that make it inferior to modern technology is a perfectly valid science fiction story... . We want it to compete with tech which is awesome and becoming more so every day however
 
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