Friday, May 22, 2015

Why Wizards Suck on the Battlefield

  Hey, everyone, sorry I've been gone a lot.
  I was relaxing a bit the other night and talking gaming with someone I have not played a lot with when I ran into another variant of the discussion I call 'not this again', but is sometimes called 'linear fighters and quadratic wizards'. The basic argument is pretty old and is roughly,
  "At low level fighters easily outshine wizards but at high level wizards are like unto gods while fighters are just mildly better fighters."

  As I've mentioned before, I don't agree with this assessment at all. I did my usual response of pointing out that at any level a fighter, cleric, or thief will almost certainly just flat-out kill a wizard of the same level one-on-one. 
  Disagree? OK, let's look at the numbers:
  [of course I am talking about 1e/OSRIC/etc! They are my favorites!]
  13th level magic-user Abelard the Average. H.P. 30 A.C. 2 (magical stuff)
    Abelard has a total of 25 spells, 2 scrolls, and such
  13th level fighter Mendacus the Middling. H.P. 59 A.C. 0 (cool armor)
    Mendacus has a nice sword and something that gives him extra damage, like ogre gauntlets

  At average encounter distance for a dungeon assuming no surprise Abelard has time to cast a single spell before Mendacus closes. Further, the spell had better be 3rd level or lower because of initiative rules.  We have no idea what spells Abelard has gotten, blown, etc., but let's assume that one of them is a Fireball. Average damage for Abelard is 46 h.p. - not enough. And since Mendacus will probably save it is only 23. That's insulting.
  So Mendacus closes and with 2 attacks a round will almost certainly prevent Abelard from casting (by hitting him about 19 times out of 20). It will take Mendacus about, oh, 2 rounds to cut down Abelard.

  It is similar with clerics and thieves; Abelard must have the right spell, use it at the right time, and his foe must be very unlucky or the mage dies.

  "But that's not what I mean!" said the person I was talking to, "I mean that the mage can cause a LOT more damage to foes than the fighter can!"

  That depends on what you mean, actually. Look at Abelard; if he has a lot of luck and the right access, etc. he could cast Death Spell, which has the potential of killing up to 80 creatures of 2 HD or less! That is pretty serious. Fireballs and Lightning Bolts do a lot of damage, too. 
  But then the spells are gone. And once his spells are gone Abelard can't deal out that damage like that until he gets a good night's sleep and a fair chunk of time to re-memorize.

  Mendacus can slaughter until he needs sleep. With a great deal of luck (rolling a lot of maximum numbers; the goblins standing shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, etc.) Abelard could kill 400 goblins in 10 rounds. With average numbers Mendacus will kill 120+ goblins in the same amount of time. Abelard will be out of spells; Mendacus will still have a sword.

  So while the wizard can, indeed, drop a lot of death in a short period of time, the fighter can easily surpass it over time. 

  I am not saying that fighters are better than wizards or anything like that! I am just pointing out that they each fulfill their respective parts of the Four Roles well. Without all of the roles filled any party will suffer.

  That is when we entered slightly different territory. The person I was speaking with said,

  "But you must admit that even from medium level the wizard is much more effective on the battlefield"

  That got me to thinking about the mass battle I recently ran for my Blackstone campaign. In that one I had pointed out what I have learned from that and other mass battles.

  What I have learned, in a nutshell, is that Wizards Suck on the Battlefield.

  "But Rick!" you say, "All those spells! He can fly! Tturn Invisible! Cast Fireball! Cloudkill!

  Meh.

  Seriously.

  When you are talking about armies taking to the field, and I mean armies with forces of hundred to thousands or more per side, wizards are very limited.

  Let's take a look at the big scary, Fireball. Wizards get it at 5th level so its range is...
  150 yards.

    I know a lot of people keep all spell ranges at 1" in the book = 10', but I follow the rule that missile weapons and spells switch to 1" = 30' outdoors/on a battlefield, just like Gary intended.


  The edge of short bow range. Medium range for a heavy crossbow. A salvo of heavy quarrels at a 5th level mage is probably going to disrupt his blood flow, let alone his casting.

  And the Fireball is only 40' across. Plenty big for a dungeon, pretty small for a battlefield. it is going to catch at most somewhere between 12 and 26 foes, typically. If those foes are normal orcs, goblins, etc. they are going to die.

  And the 5th level mage's lone Fireball is gone.

  OK, how about a 9th level wizard? One with the bane of the battlefield, Cloudkill! I mmean, Cloudkill is terrifying; 40' wide, 20' deep and tall; instantly kills anything weaker than an ogre; can kill virtually annything (read your DMG).
  Cool!
  It's range is 10 yards.
  30 feet.
  Within short range for a thrown dagger at battlefield scale.
  It lasts (in this case) 9 rounds, creeping forward at 1/12th the speed of a walking man. In this case it stops after going a total of - 100 yards. In the meantime an entire pike square could move out of the way or even split up to let it pass. Great way to blunt a wild charge, yes, but very, very dangerous to cast and if the conditions aren't just right it is mainly useful to make formations move or break up.

  So if Abelard is 9th level and has the very best mass combat spells and takes those spells by preference to all others he could kill about, oh, 80 foes and either break up an enemy formation or stop an enemy charge. This will take him 5 or so rounds.

  That's pretty nice, but in a battle with 2,500 men on each side not as big a deal as you might think.

  What about 9th level Mendacus? How is he going to do? Well, against goblins he's going to be the the Angel of Death. He has 9 attacks per round against them (the 'fighters vs. less than 1 HD humanoids' rule) and will really only miss 1 in 20 times and if he has a magical sword each blow will kill an average goblin. In the five rounds it takes Abelard to kill 80 goblins Mendacus would kill about 43 goblins, round down to 40. Half as many.
  But Mendacus can keep going on. Assuming Mendacus has an Armor Class of 0 and is facing roughly 10 goblins a round he will be able to fight for about 17 rounds before he is at half hit points and needs to retire for healing. In that time he would potentially kill 145 goblins.

  Yes, yes, there are a lot of assumptions going on; Mendacus will have to close with the goblins, keep up with them, etc. But the point still stands.

  While wizards have the capability to do a great deal of damage in a short period of time, the fighter can do much more damage over a long period of time. The total potential damage of a fighter over the course of a day is much higher than the total potential damage of a wizard over the course of a day.  

  Since large-scale battles are much more about attrition over time the fighter is better suited to that particular type of encounter. This is easily forgotten if a particular group, DM, campaign, etc. focuses mainly on dungeon crawling or similar actions because those types of encounters are often about delivering damage quickly. It is also "concealed" by the habit of parties to pull back, rest, and regain spells; they essentially base the pace and rhythm of adventuring about 'recharging' the mages.

  An aside: This is one of the reasons I keep track of encumbrance, components, rations, random encounters etc. It isn't just 'utilizing/taking advantage of the resource management aspect' nor is it just a way to vacuum gold out of PC's pouches. These things are there to also set the pace and rhythm around overall party supplies, 'throttle' the wizard's ability to deliver damage, and allow fighters to shine more as they deal with encounters after the wizards are out of spells.

  As I noted in my post on the mass battle in my campaign I linked above, wizards are very good at some elements of the battlefield; for example, they are very good and eliminating enemy siege engines.

  Many years ago I remember a number of people commenting negatively about something Gary wrote, in Dragon I believe. As  I recall he was speaking of a large battle among Northern barbarians and noted 'the spell casters largely neutralized each other'. People were very upset and spoke a great deal in print and at conventions that this was inaccurate, that wizards would be a key element of the battlefield.
  At the time I thought it unlikely that the man who derived AD&D from his rules for mass combat would get it wrong.
  I don't think he did. One of the key roles of the wizard on the battlefield will be to neutralize enemy wizards.

  'But Rick,' you say, 'Didn't you just way that wizards suck on the battlefield? Why would wizards deal with each other, then?'

  Great question! In addition to wanting enemy wizard's spellbooks and wands, this is because of the thing wizards are good at on the battlefield other than Fireballing catapults;
  Taking out enemy leaders.

  Remember Mendacus and his ability to slaughter 145 goblins before he stops for some gatorade? Abelard dumping a Fireball to kill 30 goblins seems less effective. But dumping it on Mendacus to force him off the battlefield is a great idea, especially if it catches the troops guarding his flanks. So if Mendacus has a wizard ally you can bet his goal is to prevent Abelard from forcing the Angel of Death to the sidelines.

  And this isn't to say that magic is not going to have a profound effect on how battles are fought! One of the most obvious is having teams of archers tasked specifically to attack enemy spell casters. Someone suddenly turns visible? A streak of light blossoms into a Fireball? A guy in robes is flying over the battlefield? Scattered teams of 10 troops with missile weapons target them immediately.

  Another would be to have elite troops in reserve and mobile so they can respond quickly to holes in the line caused by spells and, as importantly, engage guys like Medacus and his sword arm! Just having some hobgoblin mercenaries engage Mendacus (and thus dropping his number of attacks per round) makes a huge difference.

  There will also be some minor changes to battlefiel practice: pikewalls will probably have 3 densely packed rows and then reserve pikemen will be further back and scattered to reduce the damage of spells; Missile units will be broken into smaller groups and more widely dispersed to both dodge spells and react to spell casters; Cavalry units might well have a screen of light cavalry sweep out in front of a charge to check for illusions, spells, and to attempt to trigger magical attacks.

  I will write more about this topic soon.

Next Time: Why Wizards Don't Suck on the Battlefield