Martials vs Casters

This has been a topic of discussion since long before I picked up my dice - casters have always been universally more powerful than martial characters in D&D. In prior editions, this was largely offset at early levels by their fragility - without a fighter or two to hide behind, no wizard ever made it to third level. But fifth edition, with it's "bounded accuracy" breaks that paradigm - wizards are somewhat more fragile than fighters, but with bladesingers, clerics in heavy armor, and valor bards, it's trivial to make a quite functional level one party entirely out of caster classes. And since martial characters contribute far less to every type of important encounter at level 11, that's exactly what a lot of groups do.

Now, many of you aren't really worried about class balance, and I understand that point of view. If you're building a character to roleplay, and combat is just part of the roleplaying experience, then it doesn't really matter if your fighter isn't as useful at higher levels - he's still the character you wanted to play, and you can milk his relative helplessness for all kinds of interesting character interactions. So if that's the way you play, you can probably skip this article - I (and much of my group) play D&D mostly as a tactical game with a story, and I'll be writing from that experience. Your experience of the game is totally valid and probably not affected by the 'issues' I'll be describing here.

First Attempt

For a while I labored under the idea that the problem was with martial characters - they weren't interesting enough, they weren't powerful enough! I tried to solve the problem by adding abilities, by forcing them to the forefront and elevating their effectiveness - this.. "worked," but produced a game very much like one that didn't contain fighters at all, but only different types of wizards - some of them wore plate armor and cast more melee spells, but they all play pretty much like a caster. In pathfinder, you can see some of the better attempts to solve this problem this way in the Path of War series by Dreamscarred Press - it added martial characters that were fun to play and interesting to build, but it dropped the fundamental separation between martials and casters just like my solutions (only it did a better job of it - if you play Pathfinder, I encourage you to check it out sometime).

But in fifth edition, there are numerous problems with trying to solve the problem that way:

  1. It elevates martials into mystical figures, which don't remotely correspond to the martial characters in fantasy novels. This causes problems for those roleplayers that don't actually care about class balance, because they generally do care about genre authenticity.
  2. "Bounded accuracy" keeps the different character types from getting quantitatively too far out of line; contrast that with the previous 'Base Attack Bonus' system, which gave full casters an effective -5 to attack at level 10 (compared with fighters). This means that the structure to have a caster be effective at physically hitting people is there, and just takes a few feats or stat increases. But there is a qualitative difference between casters and martials in the area of spell abilities - to overcome that difference, we'd have to give martial characters abilities that are supernatural at the same level as spells.
  3. D&D is at its core in a very magical world. Fighter vs Wizard is a fool's matchup in most high fantasy settings, and changing that requires not just a change to the rules, but a change to the setting itself. Early editions addressed the high-level power imbalance by letting fighters built up a retinue and a kingdom, effectively becoming warlords, but rules and gameplay at that level were clunky, and didn't feel like an adventure game. The dungeon-crawling game sort of stopped at mid-levels, and most people didn't actually play past there.

Go Deeper

So let's think about what martial characters are like in novels, and why people want to play them. I see several approaches to dealing with this problem in the genre:

  1. Martials do important things just like Casters, but their 'important' things are generally part of the struggle-to-survive, while Casters' 'important' things are about the struggle-to-overcome. This is reflected in prior editions by the fragility of Casters - martials held the front-line to keep their casters safe, and casters do the winning.
  2. Casters have enormous limitations - not just "I can only kill everyone a few times a day", but "it takes me 30+ seconds to kill everyone" or "I can kill everyone, but then I'm worthless for days". In some other fantasy works, casters are just not so incredibly powerful, but that would undermine the world-structure of Forgotten Realms too much, so we can ignore it.
  3. Martials become casters as they grow - they gain mystical powers and incredible amounts of control over the flow of combat as they mature. This shifts the power from 'overt' to 'mental' in a way that keeps the martial characters essentially martial in nature, but requires some exaggeration of the actual impact of things like "will" and "determination". This is the approach already taken by 5th edition, but I'll argue that it's not taken far enough, or made impactful enough.

Next Approach

Given that analysis, I'm going to try to expand the powers of Martials in a different way. I'm going to add martial-only feats and feat-chains (which are mutually exclusive with the Spellcasting feature) that are far more impactful on the flow of combat than their non-martial cousins. These will be on the same level as the battlemaster's built-in superiority dice feature (not the softened version that is already a feat), but will be roughly as varied as the existing feats are; intended to allow martial characters to specialize further for greater impact on specific types of combat and non-combat situations. They will also often have minimum levels, unlike most normal feats, since martial characters are already at a pretty good place at the lowest levels.

You can see my expanding list of homebrew Martial Feats here.