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Martial / Caster disparity: What are you going to do about it?
Well, I wrote this informative bit of text, so that discussions about the topic can get beyond discussing if it exists, and hopefully come up with this some real solutions. See the list at the end for some basic suggestions.
Or the Angel summoner and the BMX Bandit
The caster/martial disparity is a tendency for higher level magic using characters to outshine their non-magic using counterparts in many aspects of adventuring.
Before we go further, let's get specific about what we are talking about here:
Casters: For purposes of this topic, casters are the classes that have a caster level equal to class level, and generally have access to 9th level magic. Wizards are the most classic example of "caster", while druids, clerics, sorcerers, generally present similar issues. Classes that only have access to 6th level spells are generally considered "casters", although many people have far more problems with summoners then bards. Each class fits into the disparity is slightly different ways, although the end result is usually similar.
Martials: Martials are classes that never have a caster level, and whose class features are usually extraordinary special abilities, not supernatural or spell-like abilities. Fighters are the most representative martial class, with rogues, barbarians, and monks presenting fairly similar issues.
Others: Classes that have access to 4th level spells such as rangers and paladins are generally not considered to be representative of balance problems, and are used more as a reference point for appropriate class power rather then an exception to it. Some people put bards into this category, although summoners are almost always considered representative of casters.
Now that we have defined the caster/martial part, let's move on to "disparity". While many words such as imbalance and inequity get used to describe the issue, it is important to realize that this is NOT about identical performance, perfect balance or sameness! No one is asking for the classes to perform the same or have perfect mathematical equality. Generally, people find the core problem to be a lack of options for out of combat effectiveness for martial characters. Beyond use of skills, martial characters generally have no class features that allow them to influence the narrative. Monks and rogues have adequate and great skills respectively, however both classes infamously struggle to stay relevant in combat. As both classes were recently rewritten in Pathfinder Unchained, I'm not going to bother discussing their previous issues, except to mention that they both required full round actions to contribute well, and almost completely lacked a decent ranged attack option.
At the lowest levels of play, martial characters are often considered to be better off then casters. A strong fighter or skilled rogue can effectively solve most problems that low level adventures face, and magic is usually fairly limited. This is not to say that casters are weak, they are fully effective at facing CR appropriate encounters, and if built for it, can disrupt encounters from level 1.
Most effects of the disparity begin around level 6, although they frequently don't affect gameplay much until level 11 or so. These effects can be broken into several categories.
Point Buy Economy. Casters generally need only one really good stat, and have numerous class features (magic!), and supernatural and spell-like abilities that benefit from that stat. They also have class features to boost that stat, or compensate for a lack of other stats. Wizards often have more skill ranks then rogues later in the game, and the spellcraft skill is what item crafting is based off of. Bards and sorcerers are well set up to dominate social encounters. Druids and clerics can have great perception and whopping will save modifiers.
Action Economy. Generally, martial characters need a full attack action to be fully effective, while casters can generally do almost everything as standard actions. Casters are also given numerous class features that allow their player additional actions. From an animal companion or familiar, to summoned creatures, to dominated or bound minions, casters frequently act for several creatures, while martials are often forced to spend actions moving, switching weapons, etc.
Economy Economy. Casters are far more adept at creating their own magic items. This can have a drastic effect on individual power as magic items make up a substantial chunk of a characters power, especially as they get to the mid to high levels. Wizards easily have whopping spellcraft, bonus crafting feats, and the ability to access or bypass many crafting requirements. While a caster can craft for other party members, those items are treated as purchased when calculating WBL, while items the caster makes for themselves count as cost to craft. This results in casters often having 125% to 175% of WBL. Since casters often don't need weapons (some of the most expensive items) and get amazing use out of stat boosting items, they are much better served by the game economy.
Skills vs. Spells - Some martials have can have substantial access to skills, however, even max ranks and a decent ability modifier in a class skill is often a very poor substitute for what a spell can accomplish. Skills are useful if you need to do a fairly easy task for a long time, but in many cases, magic allows automatic success for more time then you need to accomplish the task. For example, rather then make a bunch of climb and acrobatics checks to climb up a 100' wall and cross a narrow ledge, the caster can just fly right up, much quicker, and with no checks required. While skills do have their place, they are severely limited for classes like the fighter, and many other martial classes lack the ranks or class skills to use them effectively. Casters generally also have ways to increase their use of skills, while martials have none. Several casting classes are better able to use skills, and even the "master of skills" - the rogue, is often outdone by bards and even wizards.
Versatility. Martial characters generally have three basic options for dealing with a situation: Melee attack vs. AC, Ranged attack vs. AC, or Attack vs. CMD. In social or adventuring encounters, they can use a skill. Casters on the other hand, can target AC, touch AC, 3 saves, etc. they can use deal damage from 5 different elements, force, positive/negative energy, etc. Outside of combat, they can do... well... anything they wish.
What the caster martial disparity does NOT say (Or Myths about the caster martial disparity):
"Casters are better at fighting then martials" - Most people consider fighters and barbarians to excel at combat, however that is generally all they excel at. Due to limited skills and ability scores, and no class skills related to most social encounters, these classes are generally only able to contribute to combat, and even then frequently suffer if situations don't allow effective full attacking. While druids and clerics can be very effective in combat, it generally requires a few rounds, and the caster must sacrifice some casting power in exchange for martial prowess. The problem is that while the caster can play martial, martials can never play casters.
"Casters can finish any encounter with a single spell." - While this is occasionally true, the reality is that a spell is often enough to decide the encounter, while the martial characters often are just needed for coup de grace, or other shooting fish in a barrel uses.
"Casters are squishy" - Many people think that sorcerers and wizards are fragile and vulnerable on the battlefield. This has never been less true. Casters generally have good HP and thanks to spells like mirror image, invisibility, displacement and fly, they are often the safest PCs on the battlefield. All casters have good will saves, some have good fortitude saves, and they have numerous options for boosting saves, AC, HP, and other defenses. Casters also have ways to make themselves basically immune to everything from fire, to grappling, to mental effects. 3/4 BAB casters are generally not considered vulnerable on the battlefield.
"spells are a limited resource" - This was largely the balancing factor back in the AD&D era, however, running out of useful spells can easily be avoided once you get past the lower levels of the game. Most casters start with a few infinite-use 0 level spells, and frequently class abilities that can be used a half dozen times per day. Once you add in scrolls, wands, and other items, casters can frequently participate effectively in encounters without using any of their memorized spells or spell slots. Once you get past 10th level or so, most casters will have several dozen different daily options for effective magic use.
Why the Caster Martial Disparity might not appear in your games.
After leading a sheltered existence surrounded by luxury and game balance in his younger years, Prince Siddhārtha ventured out of his palace for the first time at the age of 29, accompanied by his charioteer Channa.
Prince Siddhārtha - "Why is that Fighter limping and covered in blood?"
Channa responded, "That Fighter has been injured in combat, and has no spells to heal with. Even the Heal skill is not a class skill for him."
As Pathfinder is a highly complex game, and varies widely from table to table, there are almost in infinite number of reasons it might appear or not. Here are some of the most common reasons it might not affect your games:
)Most of your play happens under 10th level.
)Players don't choose to play pure martial, or pure caster characters.
)Caster players don't optimize, and/or martial players optimize heavily.
)There is a spoken or unspoken agreement not to use some options and spells.
)The GM is highly skilled in pacing, presenting a campaign setting, presenting challenges, and giving rewards that even out or minimize the disparity.
)The GM alters dice rolls, and/or encounters so that everyone has fairly equal amounts of success.
)The group views combat and/or other rules heavy parts of the game as something to get resolved as quickly as possible, in order to move on to more roleplay and storytelling elements.
How to Fix the Disparity
"...I don't think its as big a deal as the internet makes it out to be. In my games, casters and non-casters tend to be equally valuable to the party, and equally dangerous in various situations as enemies. ...
...responsibility to keep things fair and fun for all involved lands on the GM's shoulders. ....
It's a balancing act."
- 1) When making characters, no starting ability scores above 16, or below 10 after racial adjustment.
That fixes many of the problems of class power imbalance, without altering any rule.
- 2) Remove hold person and dominate person from the game. (If you want to keep hold/dominate monster, at least they are higher level spells.)
- 3) 7th, 8th, and 9th level spells take at least a full round action to cast. Optionally, all save or suck/die spells take 1 round to cast. Removing the highest level spells from the game, and using the slots for metamagiced lower level spells (heighten spell feat free?) is a more extreme option.
- 4) Spells with a duration of days/level get changed to hours/level. Some permanent spells might have their duration reduced.
- 5) Remove quicken spell from the game, or make it apply only to spells with a range of personal.
- 6) Remove or rewrite known problems like dazing spell meta-magic, witches slumber hex, and other obviously broken stuff.
- 7)Consider crafted items the same as purchased when determining Wealth By Level. I would also make master craftsman into a more useful feat. To take it a step further, you could make crafted items cost market price to craft.
- 8)It should be noted that many aspects of casters are intended to be limited by the GM. Access to new spells, planar binding/ally, divination magic, etc. are not blank checks or guaranteed success.
- 9)Many intelligent foes will ready actions to disrupt spell casting. While it should be done rarely and only by appropriate foes, things like targeting a casters component pouch, wands, familiar and even spell books are not out of the question.
- 10) Communicate with the players and explain that you don't want a lot of action denial techniques used in the game. RPG-Tag is not a fun way to play. This applies on both sides of the screen. I don't want to consistently take a player out of action with save-or-suck and for similar reasons, I don't want players using those tactics on my named NPC/monsters.