Might&Magic: the linear fighter and the exponential wizard


For once, let me begin with a disclaimer. In this article, I discuss the famous linear fighter vs exponential wizard, from a mechanical perspective, an in-world perspective as well as a meta-design perspective. And although I focus on the Fighter and the Wizard, some observations are true of all martial and casters.

This article is not about:

  • Which between fighter, wizard or cleric is better
  • Which is the most fun or valid to play
  • What a party composition ought to be

The designers did a great job with the classes, the hit die mechanics, and how they relate to the system. There are very few builds and party composition that aren’t playable, if any. However, 5e does not resolve entirely the problem of Linear Fighters vs Exponential Wizards — and D&D as it is won’t ever be able to — as I try to demonstrate.

Quick and incomplete history

In D&D it has long been the case that wizards started weak but got extremely powerful as they leveled up, progressing exponentially while Fighters started strong, and progressed linearly.

In AD&D (2e), the way Fighters were balanced versus Wizards is that the first ones were solid all throughout the game while the seconds were early on always one-hit away from death, and with very few spells. However, at a certain point, a Wizard started to wield the power of spells like Fireball, and there just was no contest.

In 3e/3.5e, the same was still true to a certain degree. Particularly, the power curve was even more pronounced and higher level became crazy for casters. Even more, some things which made casters weak in Ad&d, including longer casting time and being hit interrupting the spell, got removed, while some other numbers turned out to advantage casters.

In hindsight, we can also say that neither 2e nor 3.5e were balanced, and they had many clunky mechanics.

In 4e, WoTC aligned every class on the same model, by taking two radical decisions given the system’s history. Firstly, they clearly separated combat from the rest of the adventuring day. There was no place in the rule for you to use your daily combat abilities, outside of combat. Secondly, all classes had access to a common set of abilities. But their abilities were very similar, and balanced the same. This made most fans dissatisfied as they felt every classes played the same in 4e, just with a different flavor.

 The complete success of Fifth Edition

In 5e, WoTC decided to streamline the games, with elegant mechanics such as Advantage/Disadvantage, natural wording, and a large deflation in keywords. They heavily emphasized class differentiation, each feeling unique in and out of combat. They also balanced the numbers better (compared to 2e and 3.5e). One big way they achieved that was by bounded accuracy and small numbers. In 3.5e, bonus to rolls and ACs could get in ridiculous number range. In 5e the range of numbers got compressed so much, that any gaps between builds looks much less impressive. As a result of all of this, the various classes match very well against each other — and with each other — including the fighter and the wizard.

Compare those ancient red dragon numbers:

  • (3.5e) 660HP, AC 41
    STR 45 DEX 10 CON 31 INT 26 WIS 27 CHA 26
    Saves between +22 and +32
    To hit +49
    Breath 132 (24d10, DC40)
  • (5e) 546 HP, AC 22
    STR 30 DEX 10 CON 29 INT 18 WIS 15 CHA 23
    Saves between +7 and +16
    To hit +17
    Breath 91 (26d6, DC24)

Those numbers do not mean the same in their system, but you can see the compression of 5e or rather the inflation of 3.5e.

The system did not disown its legacy, including mechanic elements that are of little relevance such as Alignment. It still uses the temperamental d20, and follow a kind of high-fantasy feel, where level 1 characters are barely above commoners, and level 20 characters are close to demigods.

Players express overall high satisfaction with the results. Everyone feels that outside of a few overpowered options and even less disappointing ones, everything is fun to play. And never has D&D been more popular.

Versatility, the unbridgeable gap

Yet, a large and unbridgeable part of the gap remain: versatility. Let me illustrate with a simple example.

Sokka in Avatar: The Last Airbender.

In Avatar: the Last Airbender (that you should watch if you have not yet), Aang, a young child that was fated to be the Avatar a century ago found himself encased in ice, while his nation got destroyed. He is awakened a century later, by two young members of the water tribe, Katara and Sokka. The story grows as Aang explores both his inner self and outer self, until he is a fully-fledged avatar. Aang and Katara are both benders, great ones — likely a gestalt of fighters and sorcerers. Sokka would fit well a fighter/rogue.

At first, Sokka kind of keep up with the party, he is a competent fighter, and quickly become the brains of the party. Once he finds his place in the group, he has the wisdom and the tactical genius of a good general. His skills are invaluable to the group. But as the scale get larger, and the bending more intense, Sokka starts to lag behind. At least visually on the screen, as the bending flow and its scale catch a lot of focus.

Sokka and his sword
Sokka and his meteoric sword, post prestige class.

The final battle approaches, and Sokka would have nothing to do but be there to watch. The writers in an act of mercy and a classic DM Ex Machina, increase his sword-fighting ability tenfold. They also give him a sword made of meteoric ore. In D&D terms, one would say he got levels in a prestige class, and a powerful magical item to go with.

I bring up this example, not only because it fits the point of this article to a tee, but also because it is relevant to DMing. ATLA producers/writers wanted to make the audience happy, and so does a DM. And very often, the DM has to balance the needs and the wants of everyone, not unlike those writers. That is part of their mediator role, between the story, the world and the players.

Let us go back to D&D, an example is not enough.

A simplistic demonstration

Fighters contribution to combat is approximately their damage per attack times their number of attack. Some Fighters also get a few battlefield control abilities but those pale in comparison to what casters can do. Outside of combat, Fighters have no particular contribution to bring that another class couldn’t do.

On the other end, Casters get more and more powerful spells. Some have large area-of-effects and damage, others break a yet-to-be touched boundary. The gap becomes obvious when you reach high-level.

High-level from an in-world perspective

And the higher level they are, the more influence casters wield. At their apex, they can affect the whole world if not the multi-verse. No martial character feature can compare to the sheer destructive power of Meteor Swarm, to the Wish spell, to the idea of Power Word Kill or Time Stop, to True Polymorph and Shapechange. And that is after WoTC made sure the number on those spells were small, e.g. Meteor Swarm only affects four 40-foot-radius spheres. Random aside, read the spell Sequester, it is one of the most interesting spells in the game.

A way to think about it from a world-building perspective is that a 20th level fighter can slay a dragon. But a 20th level wizard, can: kill almost anything, including a dragon; level a village or unleash destruction upon a city; create infinite space; imprison or hide people for centuries; turn into a dragon, either permanently, or for a limited duration but still retaining all their spells; find any creature or information; be immortal. Then, there is Wish. And to do all of this, they don’t even have to be here thanks to Simulacrum or their teleportation spells.

It is no coincidence that many important characters of the forgotten realms novels, many BBEG in our campaigns and work of fictions are either extremely powerful casters, or people chosen by the gods. Sometimes both. But who cares about high-level, almost no one plays it, right? Yet the versatility gap starts much earlier than the late game.

The quill dipped in magical ink is mightier than the sword

Here is an incomplete list of the incredible versatility of casters, as well as their increase in power as they keep breaking boundaries.

  1. 1st level has already many spells, but not that much of a discrepancy in power.
  2. At 3rd level, the Wizard can cast Suggestion. For instance, they could compel a Duchess to give up his 500gp ring to the first beggar she encounters. They can also cast Rope Trick to ensure a safe short rest. The Cleric can cast Zone of Truth and the Wizard can cast Detect Thoughts, breaking the self/world boundary.
  3. At 5th level, the Wizard can control the entirety of the battlefield with Hypnotic Pattern or Slow. The Cleric can break the life-death boundary by  casting Revivify, Speak with Dead and Animate Dead. In addition, the Wizard can create an indestructible perfectly safe hut thanks to Leomund’s Tiny Hut. And by the way, hemispheres do not have floor.
  4. At 7th level, the Wizard breaks the space boundary with Banishment, Dimension Door and Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. So goes away the boundary of form, with Fabricate and Polymorph. A tool like Divination also deserves a special mention.
  5. 9th level: The free-will boundary is totally broken with Dominate Person, Geas, Modify Memory and Planar Binding. Cleric Spells step more and more in the realms of miracle with things like Raise Dead or Greater Restoration — which cannot restore limbs, unlike what is commonly believed, but can erase serious exhaustion, even madness, in an instant. The last safe haven of the mind is gone as well, with one of my favorite spells: Dream. We also start to step in the realm of permanent effects, with spells like Hallow.

In fact, many spells simply ends an encounter when cast. Casting them, maintaining them more than a round, is synonym with winning the encounter. Yet in the end, the gap does not seem to be an issue at the table, or even exist in the mind of the players. There are I think multiple reasons for that.

  • Most of d&d mechanics are about combat, and the numbers are sort of balanced in the various game subsystems.
  • The DM is the arbiter and the keeper of balance. They can shine the spotlight on a particular character, and dish out treasure to make everyone happy.
  • And last, probably the strongest one, is the fantasy of playing a martial character. A fantasy that is so strong that simply rolling die to whack people with a great-sword can bring so much joy. I get back to this point at the end of the article.

Another argument would be that Fighters can do things that no Wizards can really do. In battle, wizard and sorcerer’s casting superiority is balanced partly by the Concentration mechanic, and their lower hit dice. More generally, classes complement each other (as we all know, see article’s beginning). This lead us towards a quick examination of party composition, where I shall bring a bit of economics.

The economics of party composition

Here I shall make a few obvious observations that still yields some insight into the game.

Absolute advantage

Early on, each class, each character can be better at something than another in the party — if there is an agreement at the table to specialize, as is often the case. The rogue at sneaking, the bard at being the face, both at skills, the cleric at healing and being a pillar in battle, the wizard at casting spells and rituals, the sorcerer at blasting, etc. Each of those characters are better at that specific task than everyone else in the party. This is called absolute advantage in economics.

In addition, there are synergies between classes, as the game want to encourage team-play. For instance, Bards or Rogues can pick expertise in a charisma skill when they play the Face. Before a particular important conversation, the cleric could cast Guidance, or the Warlock could secretly hex the other party. This encourage the natural exchange of services between party members, building up the grounds for constructive and fun team-play.

Comparative advantage

Later on however, a high-level caster such as a Wizard (or a Bard, because magical secrets) is better at everything than anyone else. They can do all the things I mentioned in the section earlier. But thanks to certain spells, they can do almost anything. The only thing that would stop them in their tracks would be a powerful and large anti-magic field. In other words, they have an absolute advantage in every sector of the mechanics, if they so wanted. In practice, this supposed superiority is not that obvious, if not absent. Playing that way would be considered extremely rude, and uncooperative. Remember, I am examining mechanics, and the reality of the fighter-wizard gap, not table dynamics.

Yet, it is still logical for the wizard to keep their fighter friends around — I mean, besides for the friendship. If the Wizard is better at fighting and magic than the Fighter, the Wizard is so much better at magic. Hence, they should let the Fighter fight and spend their precious actions on casting spells. This is called comparative advantage in economics. But that is also where lies another part of the gap! The caster’s power becomes so overwhelming that the fighter is, from a purely mechanical point of view, relegated to a support function. The DM and the players then compensate through other means, e.g. narrative spotlight, magical items and fun-collaboration.

Now think back on my Sokka example. Doesn’t it fit perfectly?

A last word

As long as d&d has such high-fantasy magic, the gap between fighters and wizards is unlikely to ever be bridged. If the memetics of swords and spells wasn’t so pervading in our mind, if this wasn’t the stronger shared fictional reality between all of us, D&D might have been entirely built around magic’s versatility. Another issue in our imagery of it is that we often limit fighting mechanics by a certain form of physics. This is why for instance many features in the Player’s Handbook are limited by creature size, even at high level. We visualize it, and we find it silly. For instance, why can’t a 14th level Wolf Barbarian shove a Giant? On the other end, anything is possible with magic. That’s the magic.

See you next week!

Next week, I shall possibly address a controversial topic of old: Alignement. Reminder that I post my homebrews on Tuesday and my article on Thursday.

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