Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Roleplaying Dillemas - How To Kill Off The Wizard Master Race

"Those bloody fireball hurling bastards always ruin everything!"

That rather irate response came from an old friend back during a D&D session, just after his Barbarian had been utterly eclipsed by a Sorcerer. While certainly fired off in anger, it's a comment often shared by many a player who opts to take the sword over the staff, or even others who opt to take the path of the Thief, Ranger or Samurai. In the end, the spellcasters always have them beat, hands down, and will always win in the end. You see this in even the best of systems, and given their sheer firepower and versatility it's admittedly hard to avoid.

No matter where you look this issue keeps arising. Dungeons and Dragons attempted to get around this by primarily focusing upon one class eventually taking over from the other. While spellcasters would be limited at first, they would grow in power until they completely eclipsed the warriors. At this point the idea was usually to have the warriors play support, fighting mooks or playing secondary roles, but the abilities of wizards have this nasty habit of overtaking them entirely. Dragon Age promised to avoid this exact trope, only to fall face first right into it, not only making them one of the best classes but effectively giving them a sub-class which turned them super saiyan. This only became more notable in the sequels, especially with II where the entire trailer focused upon a mage.

There are only a few exceptions which have evened out the problem of all powerful wizards, but these are few and far between, with mixed results. Dark Heresy and its similar games featured psykers being able to burn away entire armies with mind bullets, block Titan level weaponry and play Jedi mind tricks, but you at least had to worry about a daemon turning up to say "hello neighbor, can I borrow a cup of souls?" Equally, other games have tried to get around this by some very basic methods, like creating anti-magic runes, enemies or going to the other extreme by making everyone a spellcaster. Obviously, neither is a great answer.

So, what are the best solutions then? Well, in all honesty there's no simple one. If there were, the fact of roleplaying games would look very different right about now. However, there are certainly a few ideas which tend to be quite frequently overlooked which might help to elevate this problem.

The first and foremost way to truly balance this out would be by accounting for how they need to learn their skills. They need to use their mind, hone their abilities and absorb new information over time. While you can argue that the likes of Barbarians, Swashbucklers and Kenesi can all learn their abilities through experience, it's difficult to justify Wizards shooting enough fireballs until they can summon the foot of God himself to stomp down upon his foes. Rather than merely leveling up and instantly gaining a new skill, magic could be treated as a true learning experience; with its practitioners slowly and unevenly developing, with the rate at which they comprehend their new spells varying from one person to the next. One might be able to understand the finer points of Necromancy, but could be completely stumped when it comes to the subject of Tyromancy.

Equally, given that this is a learning experience, the quality of their books or teacher they are should also be taken into consideration. This could relate to their background or general place of origin as much as their personality traits, limiting their progression or even curving it in a certain direction. This could even be to their benefit, perhaps min-maxing certain areas and allowing them access to higher tier spells in certain fields to start with, but limiting their progressions as they skipped the basics. There's even a possibility of being a self-taught Mage, which would open up an entirely new possible avenue of leveling up their abilities or forging a new character. Now, while this idea could again be adapted to other classes, it would have the most impact here. After all, it's easier for a Knight to learn how to keep his shield up a bit more often than it is for a Wizard to remember the exact incantation to banish a ghost.

A further concept could lean towards far more required preparation, or a much greater focus being placed upon ingredients than many settings. A good example of this balancing out with power would be the Witcher series. There, Sorcerers and Sorceresses are immortal, are worth their weight in gold and have access to some very fun abilities such as limited teleportation, duplication and projectile attacks early on. However, that immortality is needed thanks to the lengthy and extremely steep learning curve for many schools of magic, and the most powerful of abilities require specific item. An entire quest in Witcher 2 revolved around retrieving a powerful source of magic, a rare flower and a weed only found in the deepest, darkest mines of the world. This naturally involved risking facing down multiple monsters, or having to barter with rather unsavory individuals. Plus, even then, sorceresses could overexert themselves by rapidly burning through their power, often with painful consequences. This would ultimately leave them with all the power they had before, but it would require far effort more effort to truly earn it.

Still, much of this so far is focusing primarily upon limiting spellcasters rather than boosting the other classes, so what could be done there? Well, a core idea might be having magic turn inwards. While Wizards express it in bright, flashy and vibrant ways, perhaps a setting could have the other classes take in magic in a more passive way. This could be down to exaggerating or extending certain abilities until they reach near superhuman levels, or even to take them to their logical extreme. 

High level Rangers, for example, could gain abilities akin to Aquaman or Falcon, effectively mind controlling powerful monsters or seeing through the eyes of hundreds of smaller creatures. Expert swordsmen could become so skilled at their abilities that they could learn to literally read the body language of their foes right down to the individual thought or general personality quirks. Trappers or Thieves might be able to scan out and examine entire rooms at once a-la Sherlock Holmes or even quickly piece together the history of a room. This could even focus more upon dedicated weapons over classes with those focusing upon Archery turning effectively into Legolas, with the extreme accuracy and enhanced senses he always displayed.

Now, such an approach would admittedly only work on a high fantasy setting, with more commonplace magical or superhuman elements. It would also remove some of the Batman style badasses of normality ideas behind certain classes as well, but at the same time there would be a solid balance of practicality between the groups. Even if Wizards were capable of incinerating whole armies at a time, there would still be room for the other classes in direct combat or even just doing more of the groundwork. The low fantasy equivalent would be to perform the reverse of what's expected and turn Wizards into something more akin to fighters, focusing upon their physicality.

Spells, in many settings, focus largely upon MP or the general use of certain stored points of magic through items or whatnot. Instead though, a system could instead have spells cast through stamina, physically affecting them as they deployed more spells. Now, it sounds basic for sure, but think for a moment of how this might affect spellcasting classes. For starters, this would encourage games to have fitter or more physically robust Mages to help have them cast more spells. This would allow them to be remarkably useful in fights and also encourage a more hands on approach to things, balancing out physical tasks with merely getting magic to do it all. Some spells could even relate to certain physical movements akin to Avatar style bending, with longer or more complex routines for the most powerful of their spells.

The physical role would also mean that players would need to more carefully choose what they focused upon per level, rather than freely spending skills. After all, they would need to more carefully divide any progression points between physical health and knowledge, so they wouldn't become the be all and end all of classes they're often depicted as. Better yet, this would also leave them open to certain status impairments capping their abilities for a time; with affects ranging from malnourishment to disease or exhaustion, the usual sorts of things systems have this unfortunate tendency to overlook when it comes to spellcasting. Ultimately, rather than just spamming high level spells, it would leave Wizards just as screwed as the other classes in such a state. Plus you get the odd contrast of the old, hunchbacked Mage being knowledgeable but hardly all-powerful like so many other settings.

Now, again, this isn't the full answer to these problems or even a full range of options. This really is just a few general concepts and ideas thought up to help sort out an old genre problem. Any one of these could prove to be a viable cornerstone in an overall system with some time and thought put behind it, and probably a great deal of reworking to get it to fully gel with a true system. Overall though, it would be a start to kicking a trend which unfortunately dominates too many major RPGs, and leveling the playing field for a few other classes.

If you have your own suggestions or ideas you want to throw into the mix, please feel free to add them into the comments below. As this really is just a general purpose article touching on the basics for certain ideas - and mostly the result of spit-balling ideas with a friend - any in-depth details or alternatives would be welcome as always.


  1. I think the worst idea with mages was giving them good defence in melee as they level up. I honestly have no problem with mages in general, even with the really ridiculous spells they can cast, however if a mage is walking along, and they're ambushed by an assassin they didn't know was coming, that should result in one dead mage and one unharmed (or nearly unharmed) assassin.
    Unfortunately a lot of books for some reason give the mage ways to defend themselves to a degree that I really don't think they should be allowed to reach, for example when a mage armed with a dagger is up against a fighter armed with plate mail a broadsword and a shield, and the mage wins without using any spells of any kind, then I can't help but feel there's a problem.

    I would genuinely like to see D&D games and campaigns where the main villain doesn't have any sort of magical ability, however that's really hard to do right as mages or people with super powers always seem to be far more interesting (or they just end up being in the better game). So far the best one I've seen that tried this was the first Baldur's Gate and that was overshadowed by the much better sequel (for the record I do think the first is a really good game) where the main villain was an Archmage.

    A close second would be the second third of Dragon Age 2 where you need to deal with the Arishok, though again the third part of that game where you needed to deal with the Archmage and the super-powered Templar Commander.

    1. That might certainly be the case, but even then we run into the problem that they can just create alternatives at the drop of a hat in some systems.

      "Oh, I can't carry a sword, but I always do carry this golem summoning portal in this bag!"

      Even then as you say, there are still plenty of unfortunate books or works which avoid that. More than a few keep introducing them as being dagger masters as you cited, or even some of the more egregious versions which has them summmoning entire suits of armour and swords, knowing how to expertly wield them.

      It's a complicated matter to deal with unfortunately, and as you pointed out it's hard to make any threat look prominent when the alternative has super powers.

    2. Come to think of it I'm actually going to put Mass Effect as the series that did this the best.
      Yes Biotics were pretty neat, however they were never the be-all-end-all that mages always seem to become in DnD. There was never a moment where I felt as if I was invincible when I played as a Biotic and so long as I got them by surprise they'd be riddled with holes before they knew what happened to them.
      At the same time, all of the best fights and the most memorable villains are non-Biotics.

    3. Huh. You know what, yeah, that's actually pretty damn true for the most part. Admittedly, a lot of the big villains were giant space squids or so bionically enhanced their fantasy equivalent would have been a powerful undead, but they do at least avoid the obvious.

      Also, after thinking about it for a bit, the Elder Scrolls does tend to avoid this a bit. Alright, their villains tend to be gods, dragons or demons, but they at least tend to rely more upon raw power than spellcasting, and a lot of the big villains tend to carry swords, axes or whatnot rather than throwing spells at people. It's certainly not universally true, but there's traits in there at least.