Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be looking back at last week’s conversation about the martial/caster discrepency.
Last week I did an article talking a bit about the caster/martial discrepancy, and my personal stance on it. Afterwards, I invited any reader who wanted to join the debate to post in a thread that I made on the Know Direction fourms. Now, a week later, I’m ready to share some of my findings, and the first binding is WOW, you guys are tame. Like super, super tame. We only had seven people posting, sure, but there weren’t any fights or any arguments. Not a lot of back and forth either, but that’s likely because our forums aren’t traversed much (yet), and honestly I’m cool with a civil conversation. The thread is totally worth a read, so here’s a link.
Now, I’m not going to use my soapbox (aka article) to go over that conversation. Instead, I want to share a bit more about my thoughts on the martial/caster discrepancy. And yes, I do think that a discrepancy exists, but as far as I can tell, I don’t think it exists in the same way that many others do. So sit back, relax, and get ready as I spin a tail for you that revolves mostly around design ideals, as a matter of fact.
What is the Martial/Caster Discrepancy
Basically, when we’re talking about the martial/caster discrepancy, the general idea is that there is a noticeable lack of power between martial characters (aka people who don’t use magic) and spellcasters (aka people who do use magic). Between levels 1 to 5, its generally agreed upon that the discrepancy is in favor of the martial characters. Spellcasters have to be super conservative with their magic, and realistically they WILL run out of spells during the day. This allows martials to do what they do best: murder people with damage, without too much trouble. By Level 6, its generally agreed upon that martials and spellcasters are at their closest in terms of power level; spellcasters typically have enough spells that they can adventure for an entire day and have a decent selection of spells to choose from, while martial characters are picking up their second attack so they keep pace with some of the powerhouses like 6d6 fireballs and the like. This is why you see talk of an ‘E6’ game where the game effectively ends at Level 6; because that’s where the game is decently balanced among players. (Or at least, in the favor of martial characters.)
Things start to rapidly slide towards spellcasters by Level 7, however. First, spellcasters are starting to get some of their powerhouse utility spells that allow them to create effects that martials simply cannot match. You’re watching spellcasters get things like lesser planar ally, dimension door, and black tentacles; spells that can utterly define an encounter. Furthermore, the martial becomes equally encumbered by his own mechanics; gone are the days where he could move about the battlefield and still be effective, now he has to rely on sitting still to deal his optimal amount of damage and since he’s likely relying on multiple attacks, he has a considerable chance to simply not reach his maximum amount, unlike a spellcaster. (That being said, all but the sneak attack-dependent martials rely much more heavily on static numbers compared to spellcasters, meaning they don’t spike up or down much damage-wise.) As the game progresses, martial characters are basically doing the same things that they were doing at Level One (hitting stuff with a weapon) while spellcasters are unleashing powerful abilities that make them incredibly important in a group; the teleports, the planar allies, the private sanctums, and more. Martials cannot ever hope to match the usefulness of a high-level spellcaster in this regard, so by Level 12 or 13, all pretense of “balance” between the martials and the spellcasters is gone; the game is thoroughly dominated by spellcasters.
So says the martial/discrepancy theory, anyway.
While I think a LOT of the above is true, I personally don’t think that utility of a character is what most people are REALLY complaining about when they’re complaining about the martial/caster discrepancy. Why? Because I think when most people sit down to play a fighter, they have no illusions about their character’s abilities. I don’t think they expect their fighters to start slinging fireballs around all over the place, not unless they’re picking a character archetype that allows them to do so. Fireballs just don’t fit the fantasy of every martial character. But to an extent, therein lies the problem; I don’t think that we as a community (or as designers) can really agree upon what the fantasty of martials should be.
Martials, Martials, Martials!
So, when you get right down to it there are two camps of designers when it comes to building martial character options, whether they themselves realize it or not. We’ll call the first camp “The Newtons” and the second camp “The Saitamas.” The Newtons believe that martial characters need to represent the physically mundane, abilities that ordinary people at the peak of their condition could theoretically possess. This means that while they themselves can be extraordinary, they are forced to obey the boundaries of physics as we know it. They view classic fantasy martials, such as Aaragorn, and newer takes on those same characters, such as Ned Stark, as the “iconic martials,” in terms of ability. The Saitamas believe the opposite; they see the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game as a system that inherently breaks the laws of physics and believe that martial characters should be able to break them as well. Oftentimes, Saitamas see characters such as Goku, Ichigo, and Cloud Strife (to an extent) as the “iconic martials.
So, who’s right?
To say that it is a matter of opinion is a cop-out, so I’m going to go ahead and argue that the Saitamas are right. Please be aware that everything past this point is an opinion; the part where I share unbiased information is officially over.
#1 – Pathfinder Spellcasters Use “Fantastic Magic”
Martial characters are held to a different standard than spellcasters in a “who can be fantastic without magic” sense. Oftentimes characters lik Aaragorn are cited as “the traditional martial,” those who should be held as a golden standard of martial-ness. This is mostly because Lord of the Rings is the cornerstone of our hobby as we know it; Gary Gygax designed the first Edition of D&D based on a combination of tactical tabletop war games and Lord of the Rings, after all. So while it makes sense that we would honor the game’s roots by making martial characters somewhat realistic like they were in Lord of the Rings, that same standard isn’t held for the game’s magic system.
Magic, as we know it in 3.5 Edition (and even going back as far as 1st Edition, AFAIK), uses a system of explosive uses-per-day commonly known as Vancian Magic, because it is derived from a system of magic created by author Jack Vance. Vancian magic is explosive, powerful, and absolutely NOTHING like the magic of Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is a wizard, sure, but his “magic” is more along the lines of twisting fate and fortune to his liking, and that is NOT what spellcasters do in Pathfinder, or what they have done traditionally. When we’re talking fantasy, rule of cool is the name of the game, and while spellcasters are universally gifted with coolness, Newton Designers are apprehensive about giving martials anything nonmagical that defies physics, which is somewhat hypocritical if you ask me.
#2 – Pathfinder is Filled With Things that Defy Physics
Let’s talk more about why mundane martials have no place in Pathfinder! Another great reason is that NONE of the GM’s martials are mundane. Or have you forgotten about those megafauna? You know, your giant insects, your turtles the size of islands, or your skunks the size of houses? Newton designers like to argue, “Oh, they’re from another plane! Or there must be more oxygen in the air! Or gravity must be less powerful?” Well, if we can make assumptions about not-Earth physics to let our monsters be cool, then why can’t we design options that let our martials be cool too? I mean, after all, we all know that giants can’t possible exist under real-Earth physics because their humanoid hearts wouldn’t be strong enough to pump their blood from their humanoid feet to their humanoid head effectively, right? Right?!
#3 – Power is Fun, and Fun is Power
The ideas of “fun” and “power” in a game are weird, because as Undertale (arguably one of the best games of 2015) has shown us, sometimes the most fun way to play a game is to do it your way. This is my basic argument about the death tax in Pathfinder and why design-wise, the least restrictive option is always the best one. If I want to willingly limit myself in what I do and how I do it, I should be allowed to have the mechanical freedom to do so. For example, one of my local PFS players has a movement-focused character that has a level in as many full BAB classes as he could find. (Except inquisitor. He has one level in inquisitor for the Travel domain and the ability to use wands of inquisitor spells.) His build isn’t the most optimized build in the game, but he can do it and that’s fun for him. Likewise, if you want a martial character who is very “traditional fantasy,” then you can do that in the game. You can have your way. What isn’t fair, however, is when we tell other players that their way to enjoy the game is “wrong,” or “overpowered” just because its something that we don’t like. And that right there is another thing worth mentioning; something is not mechanically overpowered just because you don’t like it. (Especially when we’re talking about feats, but that’s another topic for another day.)
I don’t think I have anything else to say about the martial/caster discrepancy that isn’t just blathering, so I’ll end with a summative statement: In terms of power, I don’t believe that there is a true discrepancy in power between spellcasters and martials; people are going to play what they like and prefer one style of play to another. That being said, there is a discrepancy in design between martials and spellcasters, and it happens to be that traditionally, martial options for Pathfinder have been designed with a very Tolkien, “no magic means real physics” mindset whereas spellcasters have been given a significantly flasher, yet ironically not-Tolkien skill set.
Regardless of whether you personally want more fantastic options on your martial characters, more options is good for the game hands-down. It is a sign that the game is alive, well, and evolving. And in the long run, isn’t that what we all want?
Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex also cohosts the Private Sanctuary Podcast, along with fellow blogger Anthony Li, and you can follow their exploits on Facebook in the 3.5 Private Sanctuary Group, or on Alex’s Twitter, @AlJAug.