The Alexandrian

Wherein we discuss the fallacy of the 15-minute adventuring day, and explicate the reasons why this supposedly systemic flaw is, in fact, an error in the technique of the Dungeon Master. (Mostly.)

In classic D&D there were four primary roles in combat: The fighter was the guy who could reliably contribute every single round by dishing out damage. The arcanist was the guy who could deal “spike damage” and turn the tide against tough opponents. The cleric was the guy buffing and healing, assisting the others in various ways. The rogue also got in on the action, but was generally an opportunist.

The guys providing “spike damage” also generally got to be more productive in the non-combat sections of the game — either because of the arcanist’s utilitarian spells or because of the rogue’s skills and searching ability.

This balance of spotlight time always worked for me. People gravitated towards the type of game they wanted to play by selecting the class that best-suited their preferences. And because there were a variety of game styles supported, different people could enjoy playing the game for different reasons. (Or, when they got bored of playing the game in one way, could switch to playing it in a different way.) The one problem was the generally unappealing nature of the cleric — but 3rd Edition’s spontaneous casting largely fixed this problem.

However, with that being said, this balance did begin to break down at higher levels of play. As you got close to 20th level, the spellcasters — particularly the arcanists — became so powerful that they completely dominated the other classes. This was an acknowledged problem and one of the biggest flaws in the design of the Epic Level Handbook was that it not only failed to address these problems but actually made them worse.

Over the past couple of years, however, this meme suddenly turned virulent: Wizards were referred to as the “win button”. People were reporting that this domination — which previously hadn’t become a problem until the highest levels of play — were cropping up in the mid-level of play around 8th level. I’ve even seen people insisting that, by 5th level, the game is over and the wizards have won.

But this wasn’t what I was seeing at my gaming table. It wasn’t until you got to around 12th level that I was beginning to see the wizards outpacing the fighters, and it wasn’t until after 15th level that I was seeing the wizards beginning to completely dominate the table. Were the guys playing fighters in my game just preternaturally talented? Were the guys playing wizards particularly incompetent?

It took me awhile to figure it out, but I eventually summed it up with a catch-phrase:

The death of the wandering monster tables.

In other words, the DMs experiencing problems were allowing their players to control the pace of encounters. As a result, the casters were able to go into a single encounter, blow through all of their “spike damage” spells for the day, and then say, “Well, I’m out of spells, let’s rest up.”

And, of course, once you had redefined “spike damage” to mean “normal damage”, the fighters were completely outclassed. And, indeed, by 5th level the wizard could completely dominate the game.

But the game doesn’t have to be like this. It used to be that the threat of wandering monsters would keep the PCs in check: They wouldn’t blow through all of their abilities because there was always the chance that something unexpected might happen. In my games I don’t use a lot of wandering monster tables, but I do run the NPC opponents proactively: The PCs can’t rely on being able to control the pace of encounters. They don’t get ambushed every single night, but the possibility is there — so they have to keep a little bit in reserve. They’ve also learned that, if they try to face one encounter and retreat for the day, then the next day they’ll find that their opponents have reinforced and entrenched their positions and it’s going to be that much harder for them.

So, really, we can see how two oft-cited complaints about 3rd Edition — the “15 minute adventuring day” and the “all-powerful wizard” — both stem from the same source: Poor DMing.

Given that, why do the casters really start to own the game above 15th level? Well, for a few reasons:

(1) The lack of powerful options for high-level fighters.

(2) The sheer power of the spells available at those levels (the spike damage gets a lot spikier).

(3) But, most importantly in my experience, the power provided by those spells (and the other resources available at those levels) to make it possible for the PCs to control the pace of encounters: At those levels it’s not that the DM is simply letting them control the pace, it’s that the PCs can proactively take that control in very reliable and predictable ways.

Once that third step happens, you’re back to a situation where spellcasters can blow massive amounts of spell power in a relatively narrow window of time and the spotlight balance between fighters and wizards becomes completely skewed.

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14 Responses to “The Death of the Wandering Monster”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    A few months late, but here we go:

    In regard to Glitterdust and other spells that effectively end the encounter by crippling enemies I’d like to say that it is true that the arcanist has decided the combat the moment he cast the spell, but he still needs the fighter (and rogue) to finish the enemies off else he’s going to have to burn his own direct damage spells to do so.

    So while the arcanist may decide battles at level 3, he doesn’t quite dominate them since the warriors still have a clear and vital job to do.

    And to make it clear what I’m saying I define dominating an encounter as being able to more or less handle it on your own.
    Wednesday, December 02, 2009, 1:53:04 AM

    I’m really interested in this discussion. I agree with what Alexandrian says in his topic, however I also consider what grautry said. I see two possible scenarios:
    1) I, as a DM, make a lot of different encounter/day, usually of reduced threat. This make the fighter guy “shines” but it may results boring for the wizard. Moreover the wizards will concentrate all of his spell for the BIG fight.
    2) I, as a DM, make less encounter/day, usually of comparable strenght. This will make the wizard guy dominate all of the encounters and it will be boring for the rest of the party.

    I suppose that solution one can be considered better, albeit in my own perspective. However there may be other different solutions.
    All in all i think that is the “threat” that can be another encounter after you have blown all of your spells that will check in line the wizard.

    My two cents

    Thursday, March 25, 2010, 7:12:47 AM

    Justin Alexander []
    The fundamental flaw in Grautry’s argument, which Dragatus correctly points out, is that he’s preferring the wizard’s contribution over the fighter’s contribution even when they’re both contributing equally (and contributing in their specialties). Not only that, but he prefers the wizard’s contribution over the fighter’s even when the wizard is contributing by making the fighter better at what the fighter does. This doesn’t make any sense.

    The dichotomy you’re describing is excluding the middle: Include a wider mix of encounters in your design. Not all encounters need to be cut from the exact same cloth.

    Also: IME, wizards love big crowds of mooks. Dropping a fireball and wiping out an entire encounter before it has a chance to start is their idea of a good time. A lot of DMs seem to think that this isn’t “fun”. And it probably wouldn’t be for most people if that was all they ever did. But variety is the spice of life; and the occasional domination provide a much-needed contrast to the bitter struggles to be faced elsewhere.
    Tuesday, March 30, 2010, 12:50:12 AM

    This would be my argument as well, in essence. Yes, “A wizard doesn’t really need to nova to completely alter the encounter.” That’s the point of the wizard, in fact, to alter the encounter. That’s why he has all those encounter-altering spells at his disposal.

    However, having cast his one spell that “alters the encounter”, what does he now do? He lets the more consistent damage-dealers do their thing, maybe he’s smacking blind mooks with his staff, or throwing darts… but his spotlight time is over, other players are now in the hotseat. He’s not dominating the combat, he’s participating in it. The issue isn’t when a wizard has the temerity to affect an encounter, its when the wizard DOMINATES an encounter, when he spoils it for the others. Using one or two spells to cripple or blind a few combatants isn’t problematic behaviour – it’s the role the spellcaster is there to fill.
    Monday, June 21, 2010, 12:09:24 PM

    “To nova” is to expend a large amount of your resources in one encounter. When a psion blows all of his power points on one huge encounter-ending power (never mind that you can’t do that), he is going nova.

    If a wizard with twenty second-level spells uses a single one of them to effectively win an encounter, he is *not.*
    Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 7:20:47 PM

    I was under the impression that when a wizard used a single spell to dominate/ effectively end an encounter that was doing a ‘nova’, not just blasting things to death. So you are arguing that they dont need to nova when that’s exactly what they’re doing.

    At any rate I try not to let the mages outshine everyone else. I personally like monks with improved grapple and disarm if you know what I mean.
    Tuesday, October 13, 2009, 6:12:28 PM

    grautry, have you checked out the Pathfinder RPG rules for flying and maneuvering? They’re still a bit sketchy in the Beta, but hopefully it will be a bit better polished in a couple weeks when the final version is released.
    Wednesday, July 29, 2009, 11:09:56 AM

    Completely unrelated:

    I remember you complaining about the rules of manoeuvrability and trying to complete something along the lines of rules about common air manoeuvres.

    Have you completed that project? I can’t seem to find where it was on your site.
    Tuesday, July 28, 2009, 12:07:26 AM

    I’m discussing two separate things.

    Look, your claim is basically this: wizards rule because DM’s tailor encounters to wizard’s strength, right? Thus allowing them to nova.

    My first argument is this: wizards don’t really need to nova. A single spell from a wizard can easily cripple multiple opponents. A wizard doesn’t really need to nova to completely alter the encounter.

    Take for example, Glitterdust. It effectively grants all players Total Concealment against affected enemies. Not only that, it also lowers AC of the enemies(by denying them their Dex bonus and giving them a further -2 penalty). But wait, there’s more! They move at half speed. There’s STILL more! They get multiple penalties to skills and automatically fail Spot checks.

    Enemies such as those are crippled. I’d say that the CR is easily cut in half against enemies affected by the spell.

    All with a single spell. Why should a wizard nova against opponents who are the equivalent of a quadruple amputee in a fight? I mean sure, by novaing you can turn that quadruple amputee into a blind, deaf, depressed, chained and paralysed quadruple amputee(this is what will happen if the wizard isn’t forced to be conservative), but really, is there any need?

    Sure, the Fighter gets to ‘contribute’ by finishing them off(and suffering some damage in return, less than half of what he would take were the enemies not crippled). But the fight has been effectively ended ages ago, when the wizard cast that spell. The fighter’s contribution is just a formality.

    My second argument is about this supposed “tailoring” of encounters to wizard’s strength. I ask you – what is an encounter that’s not tailored to a wizard’s strength?

    If by that you mean that there are so many encounters that a wizard can’t nova(which as I already said – he doesn’t really need to) then you have two possibilities:
    1) The Fighter is running close to empty too.
    2) The encounters are so trivial that they can’t really hurt the players.

    Give me an example of what you consider to be a day’s worth of adventuring that doesn’t favour the wizard and maybe then we’ll be able to discuss this more properly.
    Monday, July 27, 2009, 2:39:08 PM

    Justin Alexander
    So you’re saying that:

    (1) The wizards are rapidly ending encounters before the fighter can contribute to them.

    (2) Despite this, the fighters are getting so banged up that they can’t keep adventuring.

    How can both of those things possibly be true?
    Monday, July 27, 2009, 12:37:13 AM

    I don’t think we understand each other.

    I just described a situation where a wizard – if he wants to be conservative about his spells – can completely alter an entire encounter using a single spell.

    How can you call that a nova? A single spell per encounter?

    Let’s say that every 3rd or 4th level spell in a Wizard’s arsenal is the likes of Glitterdust/Web/Grease/Slow/Etc. or similar encounter-altering powers.

    Not really that hard to do.

    Our example 8th level wizard can trivialize 9 encounters per day.

    If you’re really running more encounters then we’re facing a situation where either:
    a) The monsters can’t really hurt the players.
    b) The constant-damage fighter-types are running pretty close to empty as well.

    Why? Because, well, the resources of fighter-types are usually finite as well(unless your Fighter types often have Regeneration or Fast Healing but that’s a pretty unusual situation). That which is finite in Wizards is spell slots and in Fighters it’s HP.

    If you’re running so many encounters that a one spell/encounter wizard is at risk of going empty then the very same will happen to the Cleric. And pretty soon after that, the Fighter will be ’empty’ as well.

    This is very much a situation where the wizard remains the ‘spike damage’ type, while still being very much overpowered.
    Saturday, July 25, 2009, 2:18:20 AM

    Justin Alexander
    The style of play you’re describing, however, remains a nova: The players are specifically choosing to face fewer encounters per day so that they can completely dominate each encounter.

    They’re only able to do this because (a) you’re building encounters that make it easy for them to do it and (b) you’re letting them control the pace of encounters.

    And when you do that, spellcasters dominate. Because they are, after all, the classes that specialize in dominating encounters.

    You say wizards aren’t overpowered because they can nova. But what you’re describing is, in fact, the nova.
    Saturday, July 25, 2009, 12:00:39 AM

    I’ve just read your article(an old one I see) and while that’s an interesting take, it’s simply not true.

    Take an 8th level Wizard with 20 intelligence(fairly conservative estimate). Let’s say he’s a specialist. He has:
    1st level – 4+1+1 = 6
    2nd level – 3+1+1 = 5
    3rd level – 3+1+1 = 5
    4th level – 2+1+1 = 4
    spell slots.

    This is a huge number of spells. For the “d&d average” of 4 encounter per day, he has at least one highest level spell available and probably plenty more to burn.

    The sad fact is – the perception of a “novaing” wizard is a false one. A wizard can alter the course of an entire battle with a single spell.

    Take Slow for example. It absolutely cripples 4 enemies. Same with say, Glitterdust(Blindness on many, many enemies). Or Web. Or hell, even a properly applied Grease can change entire encounters. Or any of the staples of the so-called Batman Wizard.

    So really, if he knows that he need to prepare for surprise encounters then all he needs to do is keep 1-2(or maybe 3) spell slots in reserve.

    That’s why a wizard is overpowered. It’s not that he can nova. It’s that a single spell can effectively end the battle.
    Friday, July 24, 2009, 11:26:20 PM

    Justin Alexander
    Do they like their bags of holding? Because it’s not safe to take them into a rope trick.

    Between that and the possibility for monsters to discover and besiege the rope trick, my players are generally cautious in their use of the spell. It’s certainly useful, but it’s not a cure-all.
    Monday, March 30, 2009, 12:40:13 AM

    I’d like to see how wandering monsters get inside a Rope Trick (a 2nd level spell)?

    Really, in Core no spell can affect it. All you do is pull the tope up and it is now untouchable by foes.
    Complete Arcane adds Transdimensional metamagic to let you Dispel it (using a 5th legvel spell slot), but not in Core.

    So with Wizards being immune to damage as they sleep: how can they not be considered awesome.

    I will grant that without extend Metamagic: it won’t last long enough by 3rd level (when you get 2nd level spells) so this problem will crop up around 5th level at earliest.
    Saturday, March 28, 2009, 9:51:20 PM

    My group always tended to favour magic users because we found them more interesting. Indeed sometimes we had all magic user groups, which made for interesting encounters.

    Our campaigns tended to be long story driven affairs and relative power levels became less important than on dungeon crawls. Indeed, once the campaign went epic, the increase in wizardly power wasn’t in insta-death spells and even higher save DCs, it was plowed into creating armies, ruling nations and subverting cities.

    I’ve always been of the opinion that high level fighters should not be able to compete with high level mages, thats why people want to be mages, for the power.

    That said, a high level fighter, with suitable magic items can throw out hideous amounts of damage and take a real battering. A fighter we found is just, if not more useful, when you have a single nasty foe to kill. A dragon might shrug off you save or dies all day with good odds, but the fighter is still going to be hitting it 2 or 3 times a round for nasty high-minimum damage.

    Fighters, more than other classes are much more gear dependant too, a poorly equipped lvl 20 fighter is rubbish, a well equipped fighter is very powerful.
    Thursday, February 12, 2009, 11:03:17 AM

    Another option you might considder is that instead of your fighters being more skilled, its your wizards who are less skilled.

    for wizards really isnt “weak half the time you play them”
    allready at lv 3 wizards become able to dominate several encounters per day with simple spells like Web, Glitterduest and sleep.
    Sunday, January 11, 2009, 9:39:46 AM

    Well, in the literature and mythology at the background of my D&D imagination the career paths of wizards and fighters do diverge. High-level wizards are immensely powerful in their own person. On the other hand, high-level fighters lead armies — they don’t face an opposing army on their own (perhaps they might fight a dragon). High-level thieves have more of a choice: some become godfathers while others steal fire from the gods. The early editions (the D&D boxes and AD&D 1st edition) explicitly worked this way.

    In other words, I think you should expect the wizards to “win” in the long run — but that this should not matter since high-level gaming is fundamentally different.
    Saturday, June 14, 2008, 12:06:48 AM

    Justin Alexander
    @Karrius: I’m currently running an almost completely city-based campaign. I still don’t run into this problem because:

    (1) The PCs have a tendency to accumulate powerful enemies. Sometimes, trouble comes looking for them… and that doesn’t always mean that some cannibalistic goblin wanders down the street.

    The PCs can’t afford to blow all of their power reserves at 8:15 in the morning, because they could be facing assassins in the afternoon. (As I say in the essay, this doesn’t need to happen every single day. In fact, these types of encounters happen only very rarely… but the threat keeps them honest.)

    (2) The Big City Never Sleeps. Things happen in the campaign. Lots of things. And they happen whether the PCs are there or not. The PCs can’t afford to only do one thing per day. The constant pressure of events keeps them actively engaged and busy.

    (3) I don’t break the gameplay into easily recognizable “adventures”. Sometimes the PCs will be in the middle of doing something and somebody will come to them and say, “Our son went into a haunted house and he hasn’t come out! Please help us!”

    Similar to the threat of danger, they can’t afford to burn all their resources by 8:15 because they may desperately need them in order to save a young boy’s life; or answer the Commissar’s call to arms; or any of a dozen other things.

    (4) The fact that the campaign isn’t dungeon-centric actually makes it considerably easier to manage this issue. Why? Since so many situations won’t involve combat, the arcanists are encouraged to prepare utility spells instead of damage spells. This helps to keep them out of the fighter’s niche.

    The problem in this scenario actually comes from the opposite direction: The straight fighter isn’t in a very good position to participate in non-combat challenges. A simple solution is to give the fighter more skill points (4 + Int); encourage them to focus on skills that others aren’t taking; and then make sure there are roles for those skills to play in the campaign.

    But if combat has become so scarce in the campaign, then the easiest solution is to simply not play a straight fighter. It makes about as much sense as playing a wizard in a campaign where 95% of the action is going to be taking place in anti-magic zones.
    Monday, June 02, 2008, 4:08:24 PM

    From a world perspective, or even a storyline one, I have no problems accepting the power limitations of fighters when paired against the cleric or wizard. Aren’t we playing in a magic-based world to begin with? In Dragonlance, I accept that Raistlin Majere is untouchable by human standards, and that there is a true ogre community who are more deeply steeped in magic than any other race on Krynn save the dragons. I accept that in Faerun, even remnants of the Netherese empire and the Illiefarn or Imaskari artifacts are more powerful and potent than what most arcane and divine casters can achieve in present-day pre-4th edition Forgotten Realms. While I may accept the world premise that magic is king and the magic user holds court over non-magic users, that has never dissuaded me from playing fighters or barbarians or rangers.

    The trick becomes what the player is willing to accept in their gaming world at the sacrifice of party balance in higher levels. I personally have no issue with this because when I envision a character, I don’t try to place them within the scope of another character, and I never give my character aspirations that seem out of place. My gnome barbarian has no greater desire than to have a full armor and item set that makes his appearance as freakish and otherworldly as possible. My halfling ranger would love nothing better than to be reincarnated as an elf (or permanently polymorphed into one), but should that never happen he will still defend the lands from evil creatures, even if he attempts to challenge something infinitely more powerful than him. I’ve played a bard who simply wanted acquisition of knowledge. He was the least helpful to the low-level party, but he was still fun to play while he lasted.

    Isn’t the real issue here one of unimaginative roleplaying on all sides? The DM is unimaginative for not thinking of specific ways to involve the non-magic users as assets to the story or campaign, the non-magic user is being unimaginative in the way he can attempt to use his environment to his advantage or create a party synergy with the magic user, and the magic user is being unimaginative and selfish in the roleplaying of their character. I see all of this as possibilities, and the plethora of prestige classes and alternative base classes that aren’t directly magic-related or are a martial-magic hybrid shows that while there will never be a complete balance between non-magic and magic, there are at least attempts to make non-magic or hybrid classes more interesting and involving to play. Personally, the day a mage cannot aspire to levels of power that no other class can achieve is the day I no longer play the class, because it will have no appeal over other classes for staying weak for half the period of time you play him.
    Monday, June 02, 2008, 11:40:39 AM

    Your use of the word “Error” is far too harsh. People have different play styles, and that really should be recognized. While some people play WLD-style dungeon crawls, others play games where there really is no way to have wandering monsters that make sense, or only have combat encounters plot-important ones, due to the huge amount of time they take up. It’s not an “error”, it’s just the fact that some people have moved away from what D&D once was.
    Monday, June 02, 2008, 10:22:47 AM

  2. PhelanArcetus says:

    The higher level you are, the easier it is to have that short workday. Because the easier it gets for you to trivially avoid random encounters, or bypass the regular defenses and scry-a-port or telegank the boss enemy before returning to your safe lair.

    The problem is that when the wizard’s spike potential is treated as normal, that makes the fighter weak. Sure. Especially since it also facilitates the wizard retaining spell slots to use in place of the rogue’s skills. But to me, the problem is that the balance between the fighter and the wizard is reliant on there being enough encounters, or at least enough expectation of further encounters that the wizard must conserve his spells. Designing the balance around that means that any time the party does not have as many encounters, and doesn’t fear more encounters (and Rope Trick makes a pretty effective way to rest safely, starting at 8th level when it lasts long enough to sleep), the balance falls apart.

  3. Marc says:

    In my multi-year 3.x experience, as DM and player, I found this to be true (below) of Wizards. JMO and apologies for rushed writing…

    Low-level (up to 5th): wizards suck, a raft of weaknesses and dependencies leaves them in constant fear of any little thing going wrong, decent but not overwhelming spells

    Mid-level (6-12th): catching up, spells strong, still easily taken out by a variety of common methods (grapple, kill familiar, SR, antimagic, feeblemind, no chance to rest, etc.)

    High-level (13th+): More effective than fighters. To me this always felt ‘fair’ due to the wizard suffering the ignominy of being the ‘party wimp’ from 1-5. It also feels ‘realistic’ to me, FWTW.

  4. Sir Wulf says:

    When I read about wizards overpowering the game, I remember all the times my wizard had to depend on fellow adventurers to keep him alive because his foes happened to be resistant to his main spell mix. I remember foes who fell back, protecting their blinded fellows until glitterdust wore off (1 round per level!), then resuming the offensive. I remember grapple-beasts, spell rewsistance, and Int-damaging poisons nerfing the heck out of my guy. Fog clouds and smokesticks blocked his line-of-sight to screw up his spells.

    I disagree with the assumption that wizards will consistently have just the right spell mix and a chance to use it. Unless they invest a lot of effort on reconnaissance or divination, a wizard always runs the risk of running out of his most effective magical options.

  5. Scryer's Eve says:

    What Sir Wulf said. The wizard’s all-mighty powerfulness is vastly overrated in light of a DM who doesn’t eat paint chips.

    Sure, it’s what a wizard CAN do, but as they say: in practice… not so much.

  6. Shoe says:

    One thing I always saw used, and had adapted to my own games in 2E was that Wizards gained power in themselves over time, and that Fighers gained power through others. Sure, a high level wizard could take out a fighter of the same level easily, but wizardry was strange and scared off most common folk. A fighter of 12th+ level was a hero of some renown and would have lands, knights, a militia…an army. A wizard can kill off hundreds of men, and his apprentice a few more, but with all the hirelings and friends and guardsmen and comrades will quickly storm the wizard’s tower when the spells run out.

    With the Leadership feat (which I don;t use) a fighter should be able to hold his own against a wizard of a similar level if the GM plays the NPC’s competently.

  7. Norcross says:

    High-level wizards have a _lot_ of spell slots. It would be hard for a level 20 wizard to use all of his spells in a single day even if he were specifically trying to do so. And a sorceror? Doesn’t even have to worry about “wasting” slots on utility spells.

    A high-level wizard can easily dominate multiple combats each day, with plenty of spell slots left over for utility spells (after all, he doesn’t really need those 1st, 2nd, 3rd slots for combat spells – what’s he going to do, waste a round throwing a puny little fireball instead of using the good stuff?)

    Wandering monsters are great for low-level parties, but by the time they reach high levels the random encounters are pretty pointless – unless the random encounter table includes ancient wyrms and master liches, in which case how do normal people survive anywhere within a hundred miles of there?

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @Norcross: Good job. You’ve successfully read the essay.

    Well, mostly. Wandering monsters are only one way of preventing the players from controlling the pace of encounters.

  9. gaynorvader says:

    Personally I’ve never noticed Wizards becoming towering behemoths looming over the battlefield. It usually boils down to 2-3 reasons:

    1) Wizards are squishy, they know they are squishy and worry about sneaky ambushes mid battle (which I occaisionally do) and that kind of thing.
    2) They are extremely reluctant to cut loose and destroy monsters because the fighter(s) is/are often in the way and the party tends to get irritated if the wizard is constantly blowing them up.
    3) They tend to use their highest level spells out of combat to impress or intimidate. It adds a great circumstance bonus to the barbarian’s intimidate check if he strolls up to the castle gates with a Balor on a leash!

    Maybe it’s just my players, but the wizards usually stock up on buffs for their party members, and out of combat utility spells. There’s usually a few aoe spells for mopping up mobs, but they tend to avoid the direct damage spells in favour of keeping their party (and by extension themselves alive).

  10. Antonio says:

    What gaynorvader said has been true for me, too, in all editions of D&D. The noise and utter nonsense sputtered by 4e fanboys and other types who apparently have never played D&D by the book (which DOES include random encounters from OD&D onwards!) is simply staggering.

  11. Herb says:

    Rereading this in light of re-reading calibrating your expectations has me wondering if even the 15th level issue isn’t a failure of DMing although not as sever.

    The kinds of entities that challenge players at level 15, or at least the kind of entities behind those entities, should be able to be as proactive as the players in controlling the pace. Now, the effect of 3-6 against 1 in terms of the brains plotting it might start showing but even then I wonder if it is realizing who the players are and giving appropriate opposition.

    That said, adding appropriate opposition at that point could easily be world breaking in terms of initial goals.

  12. Justin Alexander says:

    Good GMing can definitely mitigate even some of the problems you see at higher levels. But under RAW there are a couple really significant problems you run into:

    First, the disparity between PCs in key attack / defense stats. It puts a heavy strain on group dynamics when anything that challenges one PC will either instant death or a complete push-over to other PCs.

    Second, a ubiquity of save-or-die abilities.

    The combination of these two factors, it should be noted, is really problematic. Combat really does fall apart into “let’s see who rolls a natural 1 first and dies”.

  13. DanDare says:

    Hi Justin, I have only recently discovered your site. Love it. I strongly agree with your analysis.

    Have you considered the impact of the new 5E spell mechanism, where spells do not gain power in their slot position but have to use higher level slots to gain the higher level power?

  14. Ilbranteloth says:

    So another thing that is often missed when discussing how 3e changed things in terms of character power relates to rarity. This has become a bigger factor as time has continued through 4th and 5th editions of D&D.

    In 1st ed (and OD&D) wizards and other powerful classes like paladins were also rarer. If you followed the rules and rolled your ability scores in order, the vast majority of characters were best suited for fighters or thieves. In addition, without an easy way to increase ability scores, class level limits were a real factor. Add in the fact that non-humans had level limits for almost every class (not to mention many classes that couldn’t be chosen by certain races). It was exciting when somebody could play a magic-user, or even more so a paladin.

    While this was a mechanical way to enforce the “natural order” of the campaign world, it had a real effect. Combined with the fact that a standard adventuring party was 6-8 characters with, usually, one wizard, who was also pretty helpless for a long time, the fighters were naturally a bigger part of any encounter. Fighters and thieves would also advance in level faster as well.

    The other factor in my mind is really play style. 3e (although I certainly didn’t realize it at the time) started to favor “gamers” more than “role-players.” That is, the focus of the game shifted from the focus on the character and their development as a personality and how they fit in the world around them, to acquiring new abilities. If you go back to the original “Complete” series of books, the kits were about 90% fluff and 10% mechanics, if that. I was just looking through the “Complete Thief” book and if you look at something like the Thug, you get a +1 to hit, and fewer points to spread amongst your thief skills.

    More importantly, even at that time there still weren’t any new abilities for gaining levels, except for spell casting classes that would gain more spells. It is this that is/was perceived as a problem to be fixed: only spell casters gain new things as they gain levels. That’s not fair! Let the arms war begin.

    In a recent thread elsewhere, I had commented on how slow level progression is in my games. More importantly, even in the longest running campaign I’ve had with the same core characters (from ’88ish to 2001ish) nobody gained 9th level spells. In fact, I don’t think any of the characters were high enough to cast 7th level spells, which means at best they were 12th level.

    Several people commented that it must be horrible playing in my campaign. I’d guess the opposite, because a number of people have played for very long times in my campaign, but more importantly because if your focus is on the escalation of powers, you can only go so far before it’s boring, and/or the game breaks.

    As I think about it, though, I realized it’s because despite having played (and thoroughly embraced…except 4th) all editions of the game, at heart my DMing philosophy and approach is very 1st edition. I’m still using the same world (Forgotten Realms) and incorporate most, if not all, of the storylines,

    One example is poking around on the homebrew sites. My homebrew is geared toward fixing problems I see with the rules. Like not being able to portray scenes such as the injured or poisoned mentor that says you must take care of the problem yourself (when you could just heal them so they could do it themselves), or “I am not left handed!”

    But on the homebrew sites I mostly see a bunch of new classes, races, and things of that nature. I’m still annoyed that in 5e Dragonborn are presented as a Core (if optional) race. My focus is on character development and interaction, story and narrative, and things like that. And I’ve found that as a result, people who play in my games do so for a long time. I know it’s not for everybody, and that’s OK. But it also means that we haven’t run into the problem of people upset because the wizard is doing everything (they usually aren’t), or that they feel the need to stop and rest after every encounter, or that they are playing focused on XP (which I don’t use) and the next abilities they’ll get. Munchkinizing basically doesn’t happen because it’s of limited value when combat is not the central focus of the campaign.

    When I’ve played with groups that learned with 3rd, or even more so, 4th edition, or came to D&D via Magic, the focus is very different. And I had to make house rules against the 15-minute workday very quickly because after every single encounter the first thing that somebody would say is they want to take a short rest. It drove me crazy. More because of the interruption of the narrative than the regaining of hp and abilities (I reduced a short rest to a 10-15 minutes recovery, healing, catching breath, collecting arrows, searching and dealing with the bodies, etc.).

    Wandering monsters definitely had an impact. So did the tendency for a lot more lower level encounters (which you covered in a different post). But it was also exciting for everybody to help a wizard survive until 5th or 7th level because it opened up adventuring possibilities for the whole party that didn’t exist before. The fighters were always needed, but appreciated that the wizards could soften the enemies first, that was huge. But also since the focus was on the party, it didn’t matter that some were more powerful than others. Because the entire team was needed to survive and succeed. Of course, our model for an adventuring party was the Fellowship of the Ring, and I don’t think there’s a better example of the quintessential unbalanced adventuring party. Same thing in The Hobbit. Bilbo was significantly less accomplished in combat, yet still managed to shine even before they reached Smaug. People all have their niche, and that includes fictional characters.

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