08
Jan
13

Cosine Warriors, Tangent Wizards

In third edition D&D and its various spin-offs, spellcasters became more powerful than ever in mid- to high-level play when compared to non-casters, to such an extent that “Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards” has become a perennial topic of discussion on gaming message boards. This is less of an issue in OSR gaming than in more recent games; old-school D&D rulesets predate the big power boosts of 3e, where more spell slots, broader spell selections, combat casting, and other caster benefits eclipsed the skills and feats offered to non-casters. But the specifics of power balance between casters and non-casters varies significantly by ruleset even under the OSR umbrella, based on caster limitations and non-caster strengths.

In Moldvay B/X, “spells cannot be cast while performing any other action (such as walking or fighting).” (Moldvay Basic, p. 15) The limit on “fighting” is ambiguous; it might mean you can’t cast while attacking, or that you can’t cast while engaged in melee.

In Mentzer BECMI, “The caster must be able to gesture and speak without interruption to cast a spell. While casting a spell, the [character] must concentrate, and may not move. A spell cannot be cast while the character is walking or running. If the [caster] is disturbed while casting a spell, the spell will be ruined, and will still be ‘erased,’ just as if it had been cast.” (Moldvay Basic, p. 25) Again, it’s unclear whether simply being in melee or being targeted by an attack counts as ‘an interruption’ or ‘being disturbed.’

The first edition AD&D Dungeon’s Master’s Guide has an entire section labeled “Spell Casting During Melee.” In this ruleset, a character can’t take any other action while casting a spell. Not only does damage ruin a spell, so does dodging! “The spell caster cannot use his or her dexterity bonus to avoid being hit during spell casting; doing so interrupts the spell.” (p. 65) Furthermore, intelligent enemies recognize how powerful magic is and will target magic-using PCs to disrupt their spells.

Meanwhile, fighters gain a variety of abilities at higher levels in many OSR rulesets. In Moldvay B/X, “for every 5 levels above 15th, the fighter gains another attack that round.”1 (Moldvay Expert, p. 8)  At 12th level, fighters in Mentzer BECMI gain both multiple attacks and special moves such as disarming. (Mentzer Companion, p. 18) Fighter-types in 1e AD&D get multiple attacks as they gain levels, and when a fighter attacks creatures with less than one hit die, he gets a number of attacks per round equal to his or her level. (1e PHB, p. 25) 2e AD&D provides even more advantages for the fighter in the form of weapon specialization, which provides ‘to hit’ and damage bonuses with the chosen weapon type. And all of the TSR old-school rulesets offer high-level fighters lots of followers and access to potent magic swords, both of which are invaluable in that style of play.2

Even so, old-school spellcasters have always been stronger than non-casters at higher levels. We see this right from the start in OD&D: “Top level magic-users are perhaps the most powerful characters in the game, but it is a long, hard road to the top.” (Men & Magic, p. 6) Some of the newer OSR offerings, such as Adventurer Conqueror King, offer fighter-only benefits like extra cleaving attacks and bonuses to damage and retainer morale. Others, such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess, diminish the melee utility of casters to help fighters stand out.

Visit the following blog and forum links to read some interesting proposals for fighter bonus abilities:

Fighters & Weapons (Untimately)

DEX feats and Combat Sequence and The Rest of the Feats (Roles, Rules & Rolls)

Thoughts on Fighter customization (Dragonsfoot)

Noncaster “Wizard Did It” Thread Split-Off: “She’s Just That Good” (RPG.net)

[OSR]Linear Fighter Quadratic Wizard-Beefing up the Fighter (RPG.net)

[1] I suspect this should read “At 15th level and every 5 levels thereafter.”

[2] I have not listed OD&D because I find the combat system too impenetrable to assess.

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13 Responses to “Cosine Warriors, Tangent Wizards”


  1. January 8, 2013 at 6:23 pm

    The most straightforward things you can say about fighters and 3LBB OD&D, without going into the mysteries of Chainmail and the “alternate combat system”, are that fighters are the only ones who can use missile weapons and magic swords. (The Greyhawk supplement further gives them percentile strength and access to weapons with superior variable weapon damage.)

    Missile attacks can be quite powerful, if situational, while the always-on quality of intelligent sword special abilities are hugely transformative. The Grey Company’s playtesting of the Vornheim library adventure yielded very different outcomes than any other group’s as a result of the intelligent weapons found in Caverns of Thracia and other OD&D-era adventures.

    In practice, as characters reached 5th level and above in the White Sandbox campaign we wound up using ACKS-style cleaving rules and fighter bonus damage. This was after trying out various other OD&D-based house rules; there was a definite perception that fighters needed more oomph given our style of play (which tended to allow casters to replenish their spells at the start of each session, and rarely saw enough fights to leave casters totally depleted).

  2. January 8, 2013 at 11:29 pm

    I know it’s early, but “Cosine Warriors, Tangent Wizards” gets my vote for ‘Best Blog Post Title of 2013′.

  3. January 9, 2013 at 5:37 am

    @Tavis: I remain curious as to the mysteries of Chainmail and the “alternate combat system,” though I acknowledge that they may lie outside the scope of this blog post’s inquiries. Later editions grant spellcasters limited access to missile weapons (slings for clerics, daggers and darts for magic-users) and a broader selection of magical weapons and other devices, further watering down the strength of noncasters.

    I’m curious as to what other OD&D-based house rules you tried before settling on ACKS-style cleaving rules and fighter bonus damage. Spill!

  4. January 9, 2013 at 5:45 am

    @Knightsky: Thanks! I eagerly await the award ceremony.

  5. January 9, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    I recently talked about this over on my Pathfinder blog, and introduced a few variant rules to make spellcasting function more how it did back in First and Second Edition.

  6. January 9, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    …and I misspelled my own name. B’oh!

  7. January 9, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    @Eric, one system was that you got an extra attack for each HD of difference between you and your foe. Another thing that fighters get as an advantage in OD&D as written, but not in White Sandbox’s house rules, is more HD. We played OD&D with characters with 310,000 XP for a recent Kickstarter reward from the D&D Documentary. The fighter had 9+3 HD, the cleric 8+2, the wizard 7+1 if I recall correctly. (Note that the wizard turned out to be the highest level, I think, which surprised me; the HD scale as I’d expect but the XP to advance did not).

    The best way to grok the use of the Chainmail combat system in OD&D, I think, is as a toolkit – you might use the man-to-man, the unit-to-unit, or the fantastic-monsters-and-heroes subsystems as the situation demands. Heroes (4th level fighters) and superheroes (8th level) – perhaps rolled up with their magic swords – are variously quite powerful depending on the subsystem, but the details are beyond me. Maybe if we summon Gronan he can help us out.

  8. 8 James Nostack
    January 12, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    One variation which I like, but have never seen implemented anywhere since, is in the OD&D rules for M.A.R. Barker’s Tekumel, published around 1975. High-level PC’s, but particularly fighters, did extra damage depending on the power level of their opponent.

    So, for example, a 9th level Fighter attacking a 1-HD Orc would only get one attack, but would do 4d8 damage; against a 6-HD Troll the same Fighter might do 2d8 damage. Against a 10-HD Balrog, the Fighter only does 1d8 damage. (I don’t know if those are the correct numbers, but that’s the general idea.) It’s essentially a variation of the Thief’s backstab multiplier, but it always applies and is more dangerous against low-level guys.

    It’s an interesting design choice. You’re pretty much guaranteed to kill one little critter per round, but honestly, at 9th level you should probably have enough magical oomph to do that anyway, even in B/X where you’re limited to one attack per round. An AD&D-style cleave attack that sweeps through the little guys is far superior. On the other hand, being able to constantly dish out double-damage to mid-range opponents is a pretty nice boost.

    One set of “classic” Fighter-boosting rules you forgot to mention: in AD&D 1e and 2e, Fighters and similar types get enhanced bonuses due to extraordinary Strength and Constitution scores. As others have pointed out elsewhere, this really places a lot of emphasis on Ability Score rolls (and hence, either outright fudging those rolls or selecting a legal method that to produce near-superhuman abilities).

  9. 9 Michael "Gronan" Mornard
    February 5, 2013 at 4:55 pm

    You know, “overpowered” wizards have never been a problem in my game. Even a high level wizard is ridiculously fragile in melee.

    And I’ve never, ever seen a magic user “go nova” and dump ALL their spells in one combat unless it was a desperate situation.

    What am I doing that is so different?

  10. February 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    @Gronan, when I first played OD&D (with Tim Kask, at Gary Con) I’d run it before, so I knew spell durations seemed very long, I’d had high-level wizard characters in other editions, so I knew how it worked, and I’d read about old-school play so I chose a ring of mammal control as my magic item. Bringing magically-controlled sheep into the dungeon to spring traps worked well. Choosing all detection spells wasn’t a bad idea, given that we had another M-U in the party. Dumping all of them at the entrance to the dungeon had paid off handsomely in other versions of D&D, but Tim couldn’t believe what he was hearing and I soon learned why.

    If I was representative, it is just not part of the modern player’s experience – especially in a four hour convention game – for a dungeon not to be a lair whose Big Bad can be located and brought to battle within a 120-minute ESP duration, but rather a sprawling ten-level affair full of empty rooms, in which even the inhabited ones usually don’t have henchmen of the Big Bad who can be tricked into thinking of his location and thus giving directions, and assumed to be so full of traps that 12 turns won’t let you travel very far at all before your spell runs out. The assumptions about wandering monsters in your game made not only resting in the dungeon to regain the dumped spells, but even getting back to the entrance to rest at home, a much dicier proposition than I’d ever encountered in WotC-era versions of the game.

  11. 11 Michael "Gronan" Mornard
    February 6, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Interesting points, Travis.

    I think another thing is how the adventure is thought of… we were wargamers so the objective was to secure loot. Who did the most damage in a round wasn’t a big deal; we all had our assigned role and our tactics depended on everybody doing their job.

    Also, surprise is the magic-user’s nightmare; you can be in melee before you know the enemy is even there. Choppity choppity chop chop chop.


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