What I Want to See in DnD: Addressing the Magic Elephant in the Room

Unlike most of my blogs on this topic, this is actually less about me explaining what I want to see, and more about me trying to figure out what I want to see. Because unfortunately, I firmly agree with both sides of the issue.

Just to be clear going in, two of my favorite classes, across the editions, have been wizard and fighter. (Two others have been paladin and cleric.) So I’m not someone who innately prefers spell-heavy characters, or magic-less characters, but a mix of both depending on what mood I’m in.

Ever since 3E, there’s been an effort to balance the classes against one another. 1E and 2E tried to get around this by assigning a slower XP/level progression to the classes they felt were more powerful, but honestly, that’s an illusory fix at best. It doesn’t actually work. I can go into this at some later point, if people want, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s not a viable fix IMO.

So, we’re left with the necessity of balancing the fighter–a guy who swings a sword–with the wizard–a guy who alters reality at whim, albeit in only a limited number of very specific ways.

At low levels, that’s easy enough to do. At mid- to high level, it becomes a lot harder. Magic items can do it, but only if A) you assume that they’re built into the game, and B) only if the fighter has access to a wider variety of them than the wizard.

You can go the 4E route, and give every class (more or less) the same number of powers, divided between at-will, encounter, and daily powers. But the fact is, a number of people didn’t care for that solution. Some felt it broke their suspension of disbelief to have non-magical skills you can only use once per day. Some felt that wizards were no longer all that interesting. And still others felt that the fighter actually did have magic, in some cases; it just wasn’t called that.

Ultimately, it boils down to this: If the wizard and other spell-heavy classes are to feel magic–if "magic" in the game is to be anything more than a different way to describe the exact same dice you’re rolling–these classes must have a variety of spells available.

But then, we get back to the balance issue. If a wizard at high level is teleporting around the world, flying over the battlefield, incinerating a score of foes with a fireball… How do you balance the fighter against that?

Well, if you’re defining balance as "combat effectiveness," as some people do, it’s actually not that hard. The fighter may not be able to hit multiple foes at once, but maybe he hits a single foe a lot harder than the wizard can. He can certainly take more hits than the wizard can, which means he can do more in close-in battles. And of course, you can give the fighter all sorts of what 4E calls "defender" abilities–intercepting attacks, temporarily ignoring damage, marking, whatever.

Thing is, though, is that’s not the only way to define balance. A lot of people feel–and reasonably so–that Character A should have roughly the same number of options, and roughly the same overall utility, as Character B. They shouldn’t be identical, but their breadth of possibilities should be more or less equal.

And on a game-balance scale, I can see where they’re coming from. As a guy who likes playing fighters and rogues, I can see where they’re coming from.

As a guy who really likes fantasy as a genre, and prefers a certain level of realism in those parts of fantasy that aren’t magical… I can’t agree.

The entire point of magic, in any story, is that it can do the impossible. Not just the unlikely; not just the difficult; the impossible. That’s what it’s for. That’s the entire reason for its existence.

And there simply is no way to justify non-spellcasters having the same breadth of options; not, at least, without reducing magic down to the point where, frankly, it’s not magic anymore except maybe in cosmetic terms.

I know, that’s unfair. It means people playing martial classes don’t have the same number of options, or the same mechanical complexity. It means, at least at high levels, the spell-casters are likely to overshadow the others purely by virtue of being useful in a wider variety of situations.

And I don’t disagree that this is a problem. But I’m just not convinced that the fixes are worth it. If magic isn’t magical, if it doesn’t feel magical, if it doesn’t blatantly let you do things that you otherwise never could, why are we playing a fantasy game at all?

There are ways to minimize the disconnect. You can make sure that the magic-users don’t overshadow the martial characters when it comes to things the martial characters can do. Maybe the wizard can open locks or detect traps, but not nearly as effectively, and certainly not as often, as the rogue. The wizard may be able to burn a dozen orcs, but he’s never going to deal as much damage in a single round to the fire giant as the fighter is, because that’s not what he’s built for.

And of course, adventure design comes into play as well. A game with only one major fight per day is going to favor the spellcasters far more than a game with 10 of them. (Again, except if the martial fighters also have abilities limited to x/day, as in 4E–but also again, a lot of people take issue with that.) But that, of course, is up to the DM and the group’s play-style, not the game itself.

Bottom line is this: You can make sure that the spell-casters don’t overshadow the other classes in their own specific niches. You can keep the fighter as the main damage-dealer, the rogue as the main skill-user, etc. Balance, in that regard, is absolutely possible between the classes.

But in terms of sheer number of options? In terms of making sure that everyone can do as many cool/impossible things at high level as the spellcasters can? Maybe not. Maybe our only choices are to either weaken/limit magic so much that it no longer feels even remotely magical, or to accept the fact from the word "Go" that certain aspects of the fantasy genre–and therefore, any game that would successfully evoke those aspects–simply favor magic-users.

And if those are my choices, even as a fan of the fighter, I’ll take the second one every time. If it’s a real problem for a given group, a campaign can be designed around that–give the others more magic items, throw a lot more smaller fights and traps at the group, include cultural biases against magic, even play an old-school sword & sorcery campaign with no magic-using PCs–but a game that’s built on the assumption that magic isn’t much more varied than mundane skill-use has lost something that’s damn near impossible to slot back in.