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Dispelling the Myths: Caster-Martial Disparity
If you've done much writing or reading 'round these parts on the subjects of game balance or mechanics or class comparison (at least, as they relate to Pathfinder), then you've probably encountered the topic of "caster-martial disparity" (which I'll often be abbreviating to "C/MD"). In a nutshell, it refers to the idea that there's a gap between the capabilities of spellcasters and the capabilities of martials (that is, non-caster classes). Now, let's be clear: my goal here is NOT to convince you that the C/MD does or does not exist. My goal here is to make future conversations more amiable and productive by helping people get on the same page. Maybe at the end of this post you end up changing your opinion one way or the other, or form a new opinion where you previously had none, or even keep whichever opinion you already had. That's not the point. The point is that maybe the next time you come across one of these conversations, you can contribute to a healthy discussion that unites rather than dividing.
You can't have productive conversations if you're talking past each other because you think the other person is saying something different than they mean. We're all interested in open communication, right? Great! Let's get started clearing up some of the common misunderstandings about the caster-martial disparity.
Myth #1: The Caster-Martial Disparity is primarily a combat issue.
This myth is usually not stated like this, but rather couched in some sort of imperative aimed at the person complaining. Something like, "Just tell your casters to stop optimizing so heavily for combat" or "Remember that the game is about more than just combat". Generally, it's a statement that if the other person and/or their group/GM would just put less emphasis on combat, then the C/MD would more or less disappear. This, in turn, indicates that the speaker believes the C/MD is a combat-oriented complaint.
It is certainly true that the C/MD includes combat; however, this is only perhaps 20-30% of what the C/MD is actually talking about. The primary complaints actually center around out-of-combat situations and how the characters are able to interact with the setting and narrative.
For example, where a martial has to make multiple saving throws per day against extreme weather, a simple 1st-level spell completely bypasses that obstacle for 24 hours. A wizard with the 2nd-level spell invisibility active is better at Stealth (even with no ranks) than a rogue with several ranks and a high DEX. The complaint is that for any given non-combat task, the magical solution is typically faster and more likely to succeed than the nonmagical solution (if a nonmagical solution even exists at all), and at a relatively trivial cost compared to what's being accomplished.
Combat is practically an afterthought.
Myth #2: The Caster-Martial Disparity is the product of exploiting loopholes or assuming very liberal interpretations of fuzzy rules.
It is certainly true that there are some spells with unclear boundaries, whose power level varies greatly depending on how their effects are adjudicated. Somewhere out there is somebody who treats charm person as mind control and then cites it as an example of C/MD. However, if you encountered that guy and then assumed he was representative of what the C/MD crowd is talking about, then you've swallowed this myth. Even if everyone complaining about C/MD adopted your interpretations of the unclear spells, the issue would not be solved, because those spells make up a tiny minority of the C/MD complaint.
Many of the most common "C/MD spells" are completely clear. There is no ambiguity in endure elements' ability to keep you from having to make Fortitude saves against harsh weather for 24 hours. There is no doubt that overland flight can get you across more and bigger obstacles than using Acrobatics to jump. The list goes on.
The point is, the people complaining about C/MD are not just those who stretch and twist ambiguous rules elements. Such cases are the exception, not the rule.
Myth #3: The Caster-Martial Disparity refers to just a small handful of obviously-broken spells that are easily identified and banned/houseruled.
This myth has a strong correlation to the previous one, in that they both (mistakenly) believe that the topic is much smaller than it truly is. Whereas the previous myth identifies a handful of ambiguous rules elements and attributes the entire concept of C/MD to them, this myth identifies a handful of overpowered spells/abilities and assumes that the whole C/MD is just talking about those.
As with Myth #2, this is not the case. Yes, things like blood money and simulacrum exist; any of us could easily rattle off a list of half a dozen or more "repeat offenders" without breaking a sweat. And yes, these clearly problematic spells contribute to the C/MD. However, it is not only these spells (nor is it the sum total of these spells and the spells from Myth #2) which give rise to the notion of a C/MD. The idea of the C/MD comes from huge swaths of spells, not from an easily-isolated subgroup.
So, once again, the "obvious" spells that a speaker is thinking of when proclaiming this myth are the minority, not the baseline, in regard to the C/MD.
Myth #4: The Caster-Martial Disparity is only an issue if you're trying to compete with your tablemates, forgetting that you're supposed to be a team.
One of the more judgmental myths, this one presumes that the only reason that it matters if one class might be more powerful than another is if the players are deliberately trying to "one-up" each other, or (as a close corollary) trying to "break" the game or "beat" the GM. Believers in this myth think that the C/MD is an issue of malicious (or at least immature or misguided) intent on the part of the players.
However, there are plenty of reasons this is not true. First, consider the role of a GM in a campaign in which classed humanoids (rather than monsters) are the primary antagonists. If such a GM wants to design, say, a CR 12 encounter for his players, then in theory a trio of 9th-level NPCs should do the trick. If the classes are balanced, then the encounter should be roughly the same difficulty whether the NPCs are all fighters or all wizards. But if the C/MD exists, then suddenly the GM has to adjust the NPCs' levels based on what classes the NPCs are. Nothing to do with player one-upmanship.
Second, consider a single player who, over the course of their gaming career, makes more than one character. The potential presence of the C/MD can matter to that player each time they try to decide on a new character to play. Why? Because if the C/MD is real, then certain classes will offer less or more opportunity to engage the narrative, and (assuming that narrative engagement is something the player wants) the list of classes which can offer that engagement may have little or no overlap with the list of classes which can faithfully represent the type of character they want to play. That is, a player might be left having to make a choice between "stay true to my concept but mostly be a spectator until something needs its HP depleted" or "get to really engage the game but at the cost of having to violate my concept". Once again, no malice or competitiveness to be found, and yet the C/MD matters.
There are other examples, but hopefully this is enough to show that the idea of the C/MD indicating asocial gameplay is nothing but a myth.
Myth #5: The people talking about Caster-Martial Disparity want all the classes to be the same.
Also showing up in broader discussions about class balance, this myth is basically the idea that what the people complaining about C/MD are asking for is for all the classes to be essentially the same, with labels of "magical" and "nonmagical" slapped onto near-identical abilities. This one's slightly more complex than some others, as it can sprout from different stalks, so to speak. Let's try to unpack it.
Sometimes, this myth arises when somebody first hears about the concept of C/MD and sees someone say that a high level martial should be able to duplicate plane shift or dimension door by (nonmagically) cutting open a hole in reality. The listener then understands C/MD to refer simply to classes having different abilities from each other, but doesn't see any real "disparity". In this case, this myth is a simple matter of the listener's first impression coming from a non-representative sample. Yeah, there are some folks out there who would like classes who are functionally near-identical. However, most people who complain about the C/MD want their classes to still be functionally different from each other, just brought closer in power.
Other times, this myth comes from a faulty mindset about the nature of balance. Many people wisely acknowledge that total balance among various game options is not possible (or even necessarily desirable). In fact, I think most people would agree to that. However, some folks seem to make one of two logical leaps: (1) believing that since perfect balance isn't a goal, improved balance shouldn't be a goal either; or (2) believing that the people who are complaining about C/MD are themselves striving for perfect balance. Please believe me when I say that neither of these is the case. While there might be a few outliers out there who wish for perfect balance, the bulk of C/MD discussion centers around simply improving balance, not smoothing everything into a homogeneous blur of nothingness.
Regardless of how one may have come to believe this myth of the desire for same-ness, please recognize that it is just that: a myth. The C/MD discussion is not about trying to make all the classes the same.
Myth #6: The Caster-Martial Disparity assumes a "Schrodinger's Wizard" who somehow manages to always have just the right spell prepped for any given situation.
This myth is the belief that those who complain about C/MD are somehow forgetting or understating the restrictions inherent in having to select your spell preparations at the start of the day. That is, despite a wizard's or cleric's access to a wide variety of spells, on any given day they have to choose which ones to prepare; they might prepare a spell to deal with situation A and then instead encounter situation B. This myth is the belief that the only way to conclude that the C/MD exists is through the ignorance or fudging of this reality; that in practice, the inherent limits of having to select your spells in advance is enough to balance the power of those spells. However, this too is a myth, for two reasons.
First, some spells are simply so versatile, able to overcome so many obstacles, that they're always worth preparing. For example, overland flight increases your travel speed, makes you immune to difficult terrain, helps bypass all sorts of geographical obstacles (rough rivers, cliffs, etc), keeps you safe from enemies whose danger comes from their melee power, and so forth. Summon monster spells can give you access to combat power, utility abilities like Earth Glide or Tremorsense, or even other spells (by means of a summoned creature's spell-like abilities). You don't have to guess whether such a spell will come in handy, because you can almost always find a use for it.
Second, for the spells that truly are situational enough that guessing which ones to prepare could be a real limiting factor, that potential limit is sidestepped by the scroll economy. Lots and lots of situational spells (like invisibility, remove blindness, lesser restoration, see invisibility, etc) are of relatively low level (usually about 1-3). This makes them relatively affordable as scrolls, which can be carried around until needed, without having to make the kinds of tough decisions referenced earlier. On top of that, casters typically have less need of magical weapons or armor, opening up a huge chunk of their budgets for the collection of these situational scrolls. Even in campaigns with relatively low access to the necessary markets for purchasing these scrolls, any spellcaster can take the Scribe Scroll feat and make their own. (Wizards even start with Scribe Scroll for free!)
To put it all together, the existence of scrolls gives casters a way to carry those situational spells without having to make the tough choices of preparation, freeing up their slots for the more powerful spells that give them consistent value day after day. Thus, although Schrodinger's Wizard might show up in an internet argument from time to time, he is by no means a required ingredient for the existence of a C/MD.
Myth #7: The Caster-Martial Disparity only exists in theory; in actual gameplay, it doesn't really happen.
Closely related to Myth #6, this myth gets tossed around a lot. Unfortunately, it's difficult to discuss because the people who say it tend not to give much to go on. Often, they just sort of declare it and expect that to settle the matter. It's also difficult because it usually comes alongside other myths.
For instance, someone might start by declaring that C/MD is just the work of theorycrafters and isn't present in actual gameplay. Then someone tells a story of a caster ending a fight in the surprise round, and the original speaker then invokes Myths #1 and/or #4 ("the game is more than combat"/"stop trying to compete with your friends"). Then someone else offers another story, and the speaker dismisses that one too by invoking another myth. Then another story, and another myth-based dismissal. This repeats over and over. The speaker might hear six different stories and dismiss each with a different myth. If he were to look at the big picture, he would see that he just encountered six different stories from six different people who encountered something he thought wasn't real.
Often, this turns into a pointless cycle: someone claims that C/MD only exists in theory, then they're given stories of actual gameplay. But then they dismiss the stories of actual gameplay as not counting for one reason or another, so people try to demonstrate their points more abstractly. But then they go right back to saying it only exists in theory. And no matter how many times they go around, all they see is an ever-increasing pile of outliers, rather than a trend. In the end, this is the most difficult myth to debunk, because doing so is a matter of getting people to accept that others can have legitimate experiences that are different from their own, and that's not something that you can get most people to do through reason alone.
Again, let me reaffirm that I'm not trying to change anyone's mind about the C/MD. You get to have your opinions. What I'm after here is to help people see that the differing opinions they may encounter might be of a different nature than they originally thought. Hopefully, this can help pave the way for smoother, more informative, more friendly, and more productive conversations in the future. Happy gaming, everyone. :)