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The Power of Martial Characters

by Neal Litherland 2 months ago in table top · updated about a month ago
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Overlooked, Underestimated, and Underappreciated

We've all heard the stories. Tales of how wizards who could barely hold their own against a goblin grew to a level where they could call down meteor swarms, and summon bolts of lightning. Accounts of sorcerers who once fell over in a stiff breeze becoming potent enough that with a wave of their hand they could disintegrate a foe to ash, or remake reality around them. Even clerics who could barely hold their own growing until they can destroy an entire wave of enemy combatants with a prayer as they held their holy symbol aloft.

At lower levels many spellcasters rely on the protection afforded them by martial characters. The fighters who shield them from dangerous foes, the barbarians who draw the wrath of dangerous creatures, and even the monks whose flying fists can deflect enemies who would be the death of these magic users. The common belief, though, is that spellcasters outpace these martial characters by mid-game, using the power of magic to become more than mere mortals could ever hope to.

However, perspective is needed. Because being able to wield magic is quite impressive... being able to tank magic and keep on coming, though, can be just as terrifying.

Before we get into the numbers, if you enjoy this article, check out the rest of my Crunch section on my gaming blog Improved Initiative! Also, to get all my updates, sign up for my weekly newsletter, too.

The Hammer, And The Anvil

We do not break.

Those who wield magic can do amazing things. They can cloud one's mind, render themselves invisible, call down deadly bolts of lightning, or create massive bursts of flame that can scorch the earth and destroy a foe. Martial characters, on the other hand, cannot wield these powers. While they may boast unique abilities in their own right (barbarians' Rage Powers, fighters' bonus feats and training, monks' ki abilities), martial characters cannot duplicate the spells casters are slinging about.

What they can do, though, is endure them.

As an example, let's take fireball. This spell maxes out at 10d6, so the wizard or sorcerer (without unique hacks or modifications) would be 10th level. Now, let's say this spell dealt the maximum possible damage of 60. A fighter's maximum class hit points alone at that level (since we're comparing maximums here) is 100. The barbarian is at 120. So even without Constitution bonuses, favored class bonuses, etc., this spell could wallop one of these martial characters, and they'd still have half their hit points left. Significantly more if they made the save, or have some form of fire resistance.

That's without getting into evasion, and the various classes and archetypes that may acquire it.

Was there an explosion? Cool. My turn.

Of course, as I said back in Vulgar Displays of Power, attack spells are the least return on investment when it comes to magic use. After all, magic can penalize an enemy's ability scores, render them blind, or alter the arena they're fighting in. It can also summon minions to assist you, protect you from harm, and do any of a hundred other things.

But these things may not be enough to stop a martial class in its tracks.

Penalizing a barbarian's Strength score may be an inconvenience, but it is unlikely to dull the effect of their Rage entirely. Surrounding yourself with false images may buy you time, but a flurry of arrows from the archer could destroy them while also burying several shafts into the caster. And even in circumstances where magic might overwhelm the martial, chances are very good they receive a saving throw to partially or fully negate the effect. Something that, one-on-one, could spell disaster for the spellcaster.

This is the reason why, when the party fights enemy spellcasters, they tend to come with several rounds of pre-cast buffs on them, or they're some kind of powerful creature like a demon, lich, etc. Because otherwise they'd get ground underfoot in very short order.

Regarding Utility

The true strength of spellcasters, or so the common argument goes, is they have more utility than martial classes do. Spellcasters can teleport, summon ghostly mounts, create food and water from nothing, speak to the dead, and even fly. All of these abilities are extremely useful for overcoming obstacles, solving mysteries, and achieving goals.

But as I pointed out in Players, Don't Overcomplicate Solutions To In-Game Problems, there's often a way to accomplish goals that doesn't require magic.

Sometimes the simplest solutions work quite well.

Because it is certainly more convenient to eat the food and water a cleric summoned with a prayer and a wave of their hand, but Survival checks can allow the party to forage sustenance from the land. Speaking to a victim about who killed them may close a murder mystery, but a ranger taking a close look at the body may discover enough clues via Perception and Heal checks that the testimony of the corpse isn't necessary. And while it's definitely easier to fly to the top of a cliff face, a barbarian raised among the mountains could use their physical prowess to climb to the top, and throw down a rope for the rest of the party.

Magic is an extremely useful resource, and a great thing to be able to draw on during your adventure. Like any other aspect of the game, though, it's a tool. If you don't use it properly, it won't be any more effective than cracking eggs with a sledgehammer.

And even if your character never casts a spell, that doesn't mean they aren't impressive and powerful. You just need to look at them from a different angle, and see what they are capable of... especially if it's something the masters of magic can't do.

Like, Share, and Follow For More!

That's all for this week's Crunch topic! Don't forget to check out my full Vocal archive for more... or if you'd like to read some of my books, like my alley cat noir novel Marked Territory, my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife or my latest short story collection The Rejects, head over to My Amazon Author Page!

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About the author

Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

Twitter: @nlitherl



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