Tobold's Blog
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Fixing the wrong end of D&D Next

A third version, or rather a version 2.1, of the D&D Next playtest material was released yesterday for the start of GenCon. As lots of people had complained about Vancian magic (the kind based on memorizing spells), the new version added a warlock and a sorcerer, using two different magic systems. Thus if you don't like Vancian magic, you can use a different system. Everybody happy? I don't think so.

Of course there are some players who are so deeply into lore or into rules details that they really care about whether a spell is memorized or cast using some sort of spell-point system. But what most players care a lot more about is class balance. Vancian magic in D&D Next was criticized because it messes up class-balance, making casters too powerful at higher levels. And unfortunately the two new systems share that same trait, and thus don't solve the problem.

The problem is so old, it even has a name: Linear fighters, quadratic wizards (or LFQW). The idea behind the name is that the power of spell-casters grows as a quadratic function of their level, because they gain two things whose power multiplies with each other: More spells, and more powerful spells. For example the D&D Next wizard has 3 level 1 spells at level 1, but 4 level 1 spells, 3 level 2 spells and 2 level 3 spells at level 5. So not only does he go from 3 spells per day to 9 spells per day, he also goes from burning hands to fireballs, which deal twice the damage. In 2nd edition AD&D, a level 20 wizard could flatten a whole battlefield with a meteor swarm, open a gate to other dimensions, kill somebody with a single word, stop time, or even make a wish. A level 20 fighter could hit an enemy in front of him twice with very little probability of missing. WotC never figured out why the minmax kind of players prefered wizards, and very few people wanted to play high-level fighters.

So what WotC has to work on in D&D Next is not the magic-system, but how to guarantee that the fighter at higher level has an equivalent number of options and power as a spell-caster. Sorcerer and warlocks are nice, but don't solve the problem

Not sure WoTC will ever figure out how to balance the game. My advice is to role-play with like minded individuals who are into what you are and the balance becomes less of an issue.

Liked you post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
I think that max-level fighters and wizards should have equal utility in a given encounter (if it's well designed by the DM). I don't agree that they should have equal power as D&D has generally been constituted for decades.

A 20th-level fighter _should_ have supreme ability in a physical confrontation. A 20th-level wizard _should_ have supreme ability in a magical confrontation. A well-balanced encounter should allow for both of these supreme combatants to use their abilities.

However, the simple fact is that meteor swarm (wish, miracle, name your 9th-level spell) is more powerful than multiple physical attacks. As it should be.

Trying to make these somehow equivalent was, I believe, a flaw in D&D 4e. That is, _calling_ it D&D. And yes, I ran and played in fourth edition games, although never at Epic levels, and I probably didn't play or run as efficiently as I could have.

Absolutely agree with Drew...finding gamers who will not purposefully min-max helps reduce the glaring disparity in power between magic users and physical combatants.

Should Vancian magic define D&D? Maybe not...but the solution that 4th edition put forward was not terribly polished either.
There are other solutions to LFQW than rather kludgy "Give the Fighter more options in combat," or "Give the Wizard fewer options in combat."

Here's a non encounter-based paradigm that works just fine for keeping Fighters and Wizards viable no matter how long they play:

1. Harsh lower levels; make leveling a Wizard a challenge worthy of a smart player. When Wizards die by the dozens, that's not a sign of a DM being too harsh, that's a sign of a challenging game and players accepting that challenge. When failure and death are only ever a distant concern, the game becomes loses something precious.

Precedent: 0e; B/X; BECMI; AD&D 1e.

2. Geometric XP. If your character does die, you only spend 1 party level catching back up, not stuck forever behind everyone else. Look at an old XP chart - it takes as much XP to get from level 6-7 as it did to get from level 1-6! When the rest of the party goes from level 7-8, you're at level 6 and have reached parity by level 9. This is by design, you can fail, as above, but persistence has rewards.

Precedent: 0e; B/X; BECMI; AD&D 1e & 2e

3. Level limit: 14 Block off spell levels 7, 8 & 9 as rituals.

Precedent: 0e?; B/X; AD&D 1e &2e (done by race). B/X D&D limits everyone to 14, demi-humans to something lower.

7-9th level spells as rituals is done in ACKS.

4. Plenty of gold sinks. Spell research, golem creation, castle buying, patents of nobility, henchmen payments, hireling payments, training costs, spend GP to earn XP (as opposed to earning XP by pulling gold out of the ground) and on and on and on, players should always be poor.

Precedent: D&D traditionally does this rather horribly. More modern implementations take care of this. Take a look at Adventurer Conqueror King System for a simulationist take on it.

5. Rules for governing organisations. Nobody is doing this better than Kevin Crawford. Take a look at SWN's Factions (Ch.9, p113.): His Red-Tide campaign is a more straight D&D implementation, but SWN is free, so take a look there first. For a less gamist take on it, ACKS gives land, titles and men to fighters and clerics, wizards get 1-6 1st level apprentices and a dungeon full of monsters that want him dead.

Why rules for governing Organisations? It equalizes the power of Wizards and Fighters quite nicely - Wizard: "I have real, ULTIMATE POWER!" Figher: "I have an army; you'll kill maybe 30 on our way to dismembering you. Go suck eggs."

There you go, a complete paradigm for overcoming LFQW. It's not particularly difficult, it just forces you to give up 'the encounter' as the fundamental unit of the game (there are other ways, you can stop at "Lvl. 14 is as high as you go," for one, you can make gaining spells linear, not geometric for another). Considering that adherence to the encounter as that unit is causing all the problems to begin with, that's not only a good thing, it's nearly a necessary thing. Does this mean you give up the more hex and chit wargame aspects of D&D like are present in D&D 4e? Yes, but WarMachine and Warhammer Fantasy Battles fill that role better than D&D ever did and D&D has never been about that before and probably shouldn't be about that again, IMO.

If you want have a game of balanced encounter after balanced encounter, that's great and more power to you, I'm not going to tell you you're having BadWrongFun; there are other, more interesting options that are worth the effort to learn about before we go along the path of "everybody is the same, just different flavors" like we had in D&D 4e though and taking some time to understand them is very rewarding.
I have to point out, this problem isn't automatically inherent to any of the magic systems. Magic users could simply start out with more spells, and add fewer spells as they level, staying roughly even with other classes at all levels.

The fact that it has been like this for decades tells me this is intentional. It is a role playing decision that everyone in the party acknowledges, that you are choosing to be a liability in the beginning, but eventually overpowered.

I don't expect it to be fixed.
Quadratic power progression is actually pretty cool. I wonder why Fighters aren't Vancian instead.
Fighters *are* actually quadratic - it's just that wizards are cubic.

It could be solved by limiting the kinds of things that magic can do. Why *must* wizards be able to shoot fireballs? Maybe they are better at seeing hidden things or exorcising ghosts. They do such things when necessary, and meanwhile they can probably stab a few of the lesser minions in a battle, or just try to stay alive while their slow sleep spell starts to work.

Quadratic power progression is actually pretty cool. I wonder why Fighters aren't Vancian instead.

Because every time fighter progression is made as strong as wizards, a certain breed of grognard comes out to complain that their game is being ruined. It happened this way with Tome of Battle in 3.5, that gave physical fighters the capacity to progress in strength the same way wizards do, and there was backlash. It happened this way with 4.0, where fighters and wizards alike had the same system of progression, and there was backlash.

The fact of the matter is that there is a very vocal group who consider it Wrong to enjoy the "game" part of "role playing game", and any element aimed at those people (Like balancing the classes to be of similar strengths) is Wrong too. The "role playing" portion of the rules need to be king over the "game" portion, thus they hate the idea that a fighter can be as strong as a wizard because he SHOULDN'T be! A guy with a sword isn't as powerful as a guy harnessing the fundamental forces of the universe! These people also tend to play wizards, and can't seem to offer a good reason to ever play a fighter beyond arguments that boil down to "You shouldn't care that wizards can do everything you can do and FAR, FAR better than you can, you should just enjoy pretending to be a warrior"

Note: Take what I say with a grain of salt because I am bitter.
The game does not need to be balanced, the people do. I have really enjoyed reading the comments from all the people on here. GREAT COMMENTS!

Our group play games where the most powerful character in the game is the bard, which is totally cool. There are 'roll-players' and 'role-players'. I favour bards, wizards, and priests (In that order). It really is how you play the game.

When I play a bard, I run around and gather information, Inspire the group to greatness and become the spokesman. I get us into and out of trouble using bluff, sense motive, and diplomacy to the extent of their limits. When we do get into a fight bardic music comes in really handy and so does secondary healing magic.

When I play priests the group looks to me as a whole for healing, and if high enough level, ressurrection magic. What is more overpowered than a resurrection spell? When we are up against more powerful foes summoning in an ally or running (or trudging slowly) into combat as a secondary steel plated and heavy shielded combatant is awesome.

When I play a wizard I generally play a multifaceted kind of wizard. I generally don't specialise in a particular kind of magic and have 20% of my spells as blaster spells. 80% of the stuff I choose are the utility spells. It is entirely cool to hurl fireballs down a corridor. Even cooler is the ability to create a secure shelter for the party to rest in, or teleport, or any number of really cool and useful things. Sure meteor swarm has it's uses...

Now the people who play fighters in our group are great people. They role play really well. My bard would never dream of being so cocky without two tough fighters there to back him up, also the wizards that I have played have been kept alive by the fighters, cleric, and the thief disarming the pit traps.

Wizards are overpowered but they are not a one man adventuring party. Wizards eventually run out of spells and heaven forbid you ever run into an anti magic zone...

I think the single biggest thing that bugs be about 4th edition is that they tried to make all of the classes the same. They tried to rectify this oversight and frankly I don't think that it worked. It was cool, but it just wasn't D&D... Not the way I am used to it at least...

Lastly a fighter has a billion hit points and the average wizard has three. One good sneak attack by a rogue, the correct use of poison, an all out attack by a fighter and things could get ugly. I have played fighters too and have really enjoyed playing them when I have. One of my favourite characters ever was a fighter that I worked up from 2nd level to 25th level...

I am becoming repetitive...

You don't need to balance wizards or fighters or thieves or clerics or rangers or any other classes... etc... Balance the players, not the game...
LFQW "problem" may be a bit overadvertised.

First, I believe D&D is a cooperative game. You don't put fighter against wizard, they are fighting together. There is no damage meter either.

Second, there are effective counters to quadratic wizards. You may have noticed that the higher levels, the more monsters have resistance to magic, and it gets higher.

Sure, lvl 20 wizard can obliterate an army of lvl 1 foes in a single round, and lvl 20 fighter has to spend a whole day to do that. However, do lvl 20 adventurers fight lvl 1 armies? No, they routinely take on exotic monsters with 50-90% magic resistance.
re: magic resistance

If the solution to your game's balance problem is that "50-90% of the time," one guy's actions are nullified by magic resistance, you're making a flawed game.

Yes, there are ways that experienced DMs can appropriately balance magic-users. But there is a significant number of RPG players who will never buy that type of game. D&DN is free to ignore that market if they so choose, but they do so at their own financial risk.

Well, actually, Wizards *has* solved this problem. They called the solution "Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition." This is a major part of why I really kinda doubt I'll be transitioning to 5th.
You may think that this hasn't been solved, but you might be wrong. While the casters have remained quadratic, the curved is much more flattened out: decreased DCs, since they no longer are "+ caster level" and "+ spell level", and by lowering the overall power of spells.
Also, the non casters have become quadratic as well. The expertise dice grow in size and number as the fighter levels. The rogue grows in sneak attack damage as well as how often they can get free advantage (which triggers sneak attack) through Knack. While what the fighter and rogue can do is not as cool as what the wizard gains, they have still 'fixed' this problem.
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