Monday, September 23, 2013

Damage Output

Fantasy gaming with higher level characters is uncommon.  Proponents of newer editions proclaim a mid-level "sweet spot" that erodes as spellcasters begin to take over the game, making the other classes obsolete.  Is this a problem in OSR style games as well?  There are far fewer discussions about high level characters or high level campaigns.

Most of the discussions around the sweet spot focus on the magic user's ability to dominate encounters with damage output - the sweet spot is that transition period where all the character classes are contributing equally to dealing with tactical problems.  There's a secondary concern about utility magic obviating the need for a diverse party in the later game too, but today I'm focusing mostly on comparing fighters to magic users in the combat arena.  We've bounced around different old school style games so I'm curious how the relationship between the magic user and fighter scales in higher level games across some of these systems.  I've always assumed AD&D handled fighters the best, but both ACKS (Adventurer Conquer King) and LOTFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) have gone in vastly different directions with their respective approaches to "niche protection".

There are some additional factors to consider.  One of our typical adventure sessions might cover 3-4 encounters, plus the potential for wandering monsters.  The goal is to avoid another later era phenomenon, the "5 minute work day", where the party rests and retreats after every encounter.  So the question becomes whether the magic users have enough gas in the tank to handle the encounters on their own when there's going to be a series of encounters without rests.  Do the fighters act primarily as "offensive linemen", keeping the monsters away from the spell casters, while the spell casters do all the heavy lifting?  Contrast that role with the fighters in the early game, where most of the tactical encounters are settled through missile and melee combat, and spells are held in reserve to get the party out of jams they can't otherwise handle.  Is this a more satisfying style, which is another reason why we see more lower level games than high?

Magic users are fairly similar across editions (except for LOTFP, noted below).  The typical high level wizard is going to have enough spell slots to burn a 1st level combat trick and 3rd level X-damage spell in each encounter, supplemented by a 4th or 5th level combat spell in one of the other encounters.  Assume average damage 3.5, a 10d6 spell will let the wizard do 35 points per encounter, with magic missiles adding 17.5 points (AD&D style) or 22.5 points (BX style).  Obviously, that 35 point X-spell can be devastating as a burst, stripping hit points from a large number of enemies.  Still, that establishes our baseline - a wizard that is rationing his or her magic to have a few good volleys for each encounter is easily laying down 50-60 points of damage, and that's not counting the 2nd, 4th, and 5th level spells or access to devices like wands and staves, many of which can alter combat math even if they don't do direct damage.

Assume an average encounter is against a party of eight high level fighters - a real baseline creature - they'll have 50 hit points or so each, close to 400 hit points across the entire group.  If they're caught in a magic user burst spell, they'll have a 50% save chance to reduce the 35 point X-damage - we'll just say the magic user strips 26 hit points from each (35 expected damage, reduced by the expected number of successful saves to 26 average).  The party will still need to dish out 24 damage to each remaining fighter (and the magic user should be able remove one with magic missiles).

For calculating to hit and damage, I'll assume the fighter has a +1 from strength, is using an appropriate magic sword (we'll say a +2 sword) for an average damage roll of 8, and the opponents are wearing good armor (plate and shield).

Moldvay-Cook B\X
BX Fighters don't get any extra attacks per round.  They'll hit 70% of the time, doing a meager 5.6 average damage per round (round up to 6?).  Trying to wear down those opposing 10th level fighters and their remaining 24 hp each is going to take a long time in BX terms - very grindy.  Each BX fighter will need an average of 4 rounds to mop up a single opponent.

The AD&D fighter also has a 70% chance to hit on each attack; the difference is they get an extra attack every other round, so they'll average 9 damage per round instead of 6 damage per round.  If you're using weapon specialization, the chance to hit is 75%, and they attack twice per round for an average 16hp damage per round.

The AD&D fighter is significantly more effective than BX - and keep in mind that fighters with high strength will be doing more than a +1 damage bonus (bringing that hp-per-round closer to 18-20hp per round).  Unfortunately, the NPC opponents would have 10 extra hit points (AD&D uses a d10 for fighter hit points) so we're still looking at 4 rounds to finish an opponent (or 3 rounds if specialization is in effect).  The AD&D fighters clean the floor against monsters with 8-sided die hit points.

The 10th level LOTFP fighter will be hitting only 65% of the time, and they don't even get a damage bonus from strength.  They'll average 4.5 damage per round (round up to 5).  This fight will be even longer and grindier than the BX version.

Keep in mind that there are no X-damage Magic User spells in LOTFP, and the other characters in the fighter's party (even at 10th level) will only have a pathetic 10-15% chance to hit in combat each round against the heavily armed sample opponents.  In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king - that's one way to make the fighter seem good.  LOTFP obviously doesn't assume the same degree of tactical combat is going to be happening as in other retro clones.  In fact, the proposed sample fight would be a mind-numbing affair - at least 10 rounds to kill a single 50 hit point opponent.  Best just to summon a demon with the level 1 magic user spell and let the eldritch horror go and fight.

ACKS uses a modified BX chassis for the fighter - the base chance to hit the opponents at level 10 will be 65% of the time, increased to 70% if the fighter has a "fighting style proficiency", which is likely.  The ACKS fighter gets a damage bonus based on level, which is +4 at level 10.  Thus, our ACKS fighter's average damage is 12 per successful hit, which equates to an average of 8 damage per round (3 rounds to knock out one of the opponents).  It's an upgrade from the BX fighter, but it's below the AD&D fighter (and way below the souped-up "weapon specialization fighter" from AD&D's Unearthed Arcana).

However, there are two other factors in ACKS - there's a cleave rule, which means every time one of the opponents is taken out, the fighter gets to tack another 8 average damage on the next one (a down payment on defeating the next guy), and there's a system-supported critical rule (a weapon proficiency) that maxes the damage on a natural 20.


I expected to get to this point and begin a discussion on challenging high level parties - for instance, ways to present difficult tests outside of combat that push the spell casters into selecting powerful utility spells and forcing interesting resource choices.  But after seeing how poorly the fighters scale in pretty much all the old school variants, do you really want to run high level tactical challenges where the fighters carry the load?  On the contrary, you need to be jamming more magic wands at the casters and let the party continue the asynchronous warfare.  A combat featuring the fighters is going to feel like one of those 19-inning baseball games (score tied the whole time 0-0 until the first run is plated)… ZZzzzzz.

From the perspective of peaking early, enjoy those moments of glory while you're level 1 and level 2, fighter players!  It won't get any better than when you're holding the front line in plate and shield, and killing off humanoids and bandits every other round or so.  It's like high school all over again, where that popular jock guy seems kind of successful now to your teenage eyes, but in a decade or so he'll be the one with the beer gut and the bald spot who never left town, and that brainy nerd from your chemistry class is the next Bill Gates (ie, the 10th level party wizard).  Magic users are living the white collar dream.


  1. I was embroiled in numerous Casters-rule, Fighters-drool arguments in years long past but always in much newer editions so I'd like to thank you for taking the time to post an analysis with a lens towards the OSR.

    That said I find that in older editions the purpose of the fighting classes isn't so much as to play offensive lineman (although they certainly will when they realize the caster is their star quarterback for most encounters) instead their niche comes in any encounter where the Magic-User is neutralized. Either because they're spell choice was poorly planned, demons and far too many fireballs memorized, or they are facing a monster that doesn't play well with casters. Golems, Undead (Mind Affecting), and especially Dragons come to mind. At this point the tables should turn and the Magic-User should be supplementing the fighters as best he can as they will be the only ones capable of ending the fight.

  2. Minor correction: magic missile is a LotFP spell, and it is actually more powerful than the version of that spell in many other games:

    A missile of magical energy shoots forth from the caster’s fingertip and strikes its target, deal- ing damage equal to 1d4 per level of the caster (so a second level Magic-User deals 2d4 points of damage). The missile strikes unerringly, even if the target is in mêlée combat or has less than total cover or total concealment. Specific parts of a creature cannot be singled out.

    1. I didn't overlook it - I just didn't see it in the same class as the powerful 3rd level spells in the traditional games - at 10th level, it's averaging about 25 hp damage to a single target.

      This type of analysis around LOTFP has given me ideas on the right and wrong ways to structure any higher level scenarios I try and run with that system, though.

  3. With the exception of LotFP, I also think it is unfair to compare the magic-users with their tools to the fighters without their tools (which are magic weapons, and perhaps followers if considering fighters above mid level).

    2E makes this explicit in the discussion of magic swords:

    Such weapons are useful to give higher-level fighters some additional tactical options and limited-use special abilities.

    1. (I did see that you assumed a +2 sword, but I don't think that is at the same level as assuming that magic-users have all the direct damage spells.)

  4. I think your post is pretty close to right on. We never cared that much about balance in this way back in the day.
    We played AD&D and used the 4d6 method for generating our guys. We went straight from Holmes to the PHB when it came out, we had not read the whole thing, so we allowed characters to drop some stats to raise others like you could in Holmes, assuming it was in the PHB somewhere (drop int, wis to raise str for fighters for example). This meant we had fighters with 18/xx strength and 17 or 18 dex, so we had some dual wielding fighters (Two weapon fighting was -2/-4 to hit, but modified by you reaction adjustment, so at 18 dex it had no effect on main had and only -1 on offhand.) So our fighters did a lot of damage. Wizards don’t really benefit nearly as much from high stats.

  5. Wizards were powerful, but unlike 3.x where they have perfect spell placement, we generally could only cast area of effect spells before the fight or we would hit our guys too, which we rarely did, I only remember doing it once. If I did it routinely I’m sure our GM would have said something. Nobody is going to stay with a guy who routinely sprays them with fire despite what their player may say. Often before the fight we could not cast a fireball indoors since the rooms were too small and the fireball would expand to fill it’s full volume (something 3.x got rid of as well). You open the door on a 20x30 room, it has 6 guards in it. The wizard is not in the door way, can he throw a ball of sulfur and bat guano into the room without it hitting the guys in front of him, or the door jamb? If he can, the fireball will still expand outside the room and hit at least the first couple allies. Wizards could also not cast in melee. The first round they were engaged they may get a spell off, but any round where they start in combat they could not cast. We assumed even if his opponent missed, the wizard must be trying to avoid the attack, or it would be an auto hit. Even verbal only spells require some concentration. We also used a system where your initiative roll was modified by the segments it took to cast your spell (generally a segment per spell level). If you took damage before your spell was cast, you lost it. Our party wizard was normally dueling the opposing wizard, or leader, or archers. Cast a more powerful spell and you were likely to see it spoiled by you opponents fast Magic Missile, or arrows. So there was a kind of cat and mouse; cast shield on the first round to be immune to magic missile on subsequent rounds, but give up the damage, and the chance to spoil his casting; what if he went for broke and cast hold person, or minor globe of invulnerability, or death? So we assume you got your shield up, and he did cast magic missile, what do you do on round 2? You both know you’re immune to MM (and our out of range of other 1st level damage spells), so you decide to go with Hold Person on him, but he casts invisibility and beats you on initiative. You can’t see him, and therefore can’t target him; do you cast it on a minion or essentially lose the round? Round 3, you have shield up, he is invisible, now what…. Sorry for the over long post, I guess my point is there are ways wizards are balance other than just relative damage potential, I have never really seen this mentioned.

    1. To hop off of Thiles post I'm one of the few people that enjoyed Speed Factor but almost entirely because it gave a window for a caster to be interrupted while casting his powerful spells. Interrupting with Magic Missile like Thiles mentioned was a very common tactic and it forced the wizard to prepare contingencies just in case. A layer of depth (un)intentionally added by a very clumsy combat system.

  6. I have a post brewing (in my head) around the old adventure module Castle Amber (X2), where there are lots of high level opponents, and then that got me thinking about high level game play in general and the damage dealt by fighters, which led me down the path of looking at how fighters compare to their brainy brethren.

    After reviewing these few OSR type games, the disparity between fighters and magic users at high level is significantly greater than the later editions, where multiple attacks and feats ramp the fighter damage. Brendan's point is a good one - folks dedicated to playing something like high level AD&D combat are probably decking out their fighters with uber-gear like Gauntlets of Ogre Power and Girdles of Giant Strength to close the gap. It makes you wonder if the high powered gear is a patch to fill a design gap or a skill tester - kind of like how an organic character that leveled up naturally is going to look a lot different than a high level character made from scratch.

    But at the end of the day, fact-based metrics about magical offense or fighter-based-attrition combat can only help with encounter design. Understanding the pro's and con's of various tactics the players might employ should help you adjust how you want to run your game.

  7. In old-school D&D play, isn't a fighter at higher levels supposed to be transitioning from "lone warrior" to "leader of men" anyway? A squadron of men-at-arms in a support role (in the second rank with polearms, for example, or in the back with ranged weapons) will boost the effectiveness of the fighter-as-intended in the same way that wands and scrolls boost the magic-user.

    Not to mention that a huge part of niche protection is that combat shouldn't be the be-all and end-all of play, and even when unavoidable should be supplemented by tactics and strategy. To me that's part of the point of (for example) energy-draining undead... the very nastiness of them encourages parties to find something to do beyond simply standing toe-to-toe and exchanging damage. Attaching the kind of importance to damage-in-combat that you do here doesn't seem any more logical than comparing fighters to thieves in lock-picking or pick-pocketing and then lamenting their uselessness.

    I'm of the camp that feels wizards should be nudged into a utility/backup role; even in combat, at high levels they should usually be focused on countering the nasty tricks the enemy may bring (spells, petrification, mind control, unusual modes of movement, etc.) rather than pure damage.

  8. I've noticed playimg with a B/X ruleset and some house rules that 5-7th level parties can do a lot of damage. It's the imobilization spells mostly though. Web, hold person. My gun rules help make for more damage output, but yes mid level fights are either a slog or a pushover (thanks to magic).

  9. I'm not sure, but I think your initial scenario is a little skewed, you're pretty much assuming the wizard gets to use their abilities in the most optimal way possible - there are a largeish number of enemies, in a space that is small enough that the fireball will hit all of them but large enough that the fireball (or equivalent) can be used safely, and whose hitpoints are in just the right ballpark to be taken out completely by a single fireball.

    You're also assuming that the fighters have access to very little magic (admittedly, I'm coming at this from a not-quite-so-oldschool AD&D game). At the mid-high level point in my campaign the fighters were regularly dishing out 10-15 damage a hit through a combination of magic weapons, Enlarge Person, and Items of Creature Strength. It's not the hundred or so damage you can get in a single round from a well placed fireball, but against, say, a single dragon (which is likely to be spell resistant, have good saves. and live long enough to eat a spellcaster for breakfast) a reliable 10-15 damage a round is a lot more useful than one ball of 10D6 fire.

  10. My experience primarily comes from hackmaster (1e) and b/x. It is primarily experience from play.

    I have to say I disagree.

    Is it because I am using modified weapon master in B/X? Is it because fighters can crit and instant kill and explode dice and specialize and gain extra attacks in hackmaster? Is it because fighters can field armies of hundreds to thousands of troops?

    I don't know. I do know that beyond taking out single targets instantly with a 20% success rate, altering battlefield terrain, or plinking damage against monsters, mages never overshadowed my fighters.

    Most memorable fighter moment?

    Cutting the head off a dragon in one hit.

    Most memorable Mage moment?

    Spell mishap causing them to trade places with the nearest lich.

  11. In the old days we would do Fighter battles 10 rounds at a time, or even 20 rounds and average all hits & damage. Eg the ATT 3/2 Fighter might hit on a 2 and kill 33-34 opponents while being attacked on all sides by 6 men, taking 6 hits in 20 rounds for 6d8 damage.
    Net result is that the Fighter's killing power is similar to the Wizard's, he just takes 10 times as long!