Sometimes systems do a disfavor to themselves in playing to the idea of perfect balance. I speak somewhat of magic user quadratic progression and martial class linear progression. Those of you familiar with older iterations of D20 role playing games will already know this but for those young and unknowing I’ll explain.
There was a time not so very long ago when RPGs were not as finely balanced as they are now. Some of the PC classes made a little more sense when it came to life expectancy. Those who rocked the armor and put their lives in the faith of their sword arm were tougher and better in a fight right out of the gates at level one. Magic users on the other hand were typically frail individuals who spent most of their short lives as academics cloistered in sanctuaries and libraries pouring over yellowed tomes and developing their minds rather than bodies. Magic users at the low levels were fledgling casters, one-and-done spell slingers, “glass cannons”. Life is constantly in peril when you rock 1d4 hit dice and you can’t wear armor for fear of spell failure. As it were adventuring did not stop for the day due to grievous wounds but so the magic user could recover and memorize his one spell for the day.
But assuming you put in your dues, alternating the casting of deadly magics and hiding like a frightened bunny behind the martial PCs you continued to level up. The level up is a sloping curve rather than a straight line. Stick around long enough to gain the XP to become a veteran dungeon delver and suddenly your power exploded. As martial characters began to plateau against more fearsome and strange monsters magic users turned lethal with a strong dose of save or die spells. At the end of the spectrum straight martial characters became relatively ineffectual. Hitting a demi-god with a sword seems a lot less productive than say a spell with the moniker “Disintegrate”. Defensive spells also helped to alleviate the woes of 1d4 hit dice.
Unfortunately modern systems tend to take the idea of balance, especially in the vein of making magic and martial classes more equilateral, to a fault. An unfortunate side effect is the hamstringing of magic and its wonder. I think it’s mainly unintentional but that is the perception. For martial classes anything beyond “I hit it with the pointy end of a sharp stick” is just gravy. You cannot really break it down any further than smacking a monster with a weapon. So by default magic has to change to be brought parallel with martial practitioners. This creates some silly quirks and some inane redundancies.
For example I received word from the GM of the regular Pathfinder game I play in that he crunched the XP and we should level up to Level 3 (Level up! Awesome am I right?). He also pointed me to the spell Masterwork Transformation. Turn a mundane item into its masterwork equivalent, hells yes, Awesome x2!
…Wait (continues reading description). I have to pay the difference of the item and its masterwork equivalent in spell reagents? Ideas like this are f*cking stupid. The spell is hamstrung to the point it is no different than just trading normal gear to a merchant and purchasing the masterwork items. The entire spell is inane and is literally a waste of space.
Unfortunately many modern RPGs are littered with this sort of ‘balanced’ magic. Brew a healing potion for the exact cost of purchasing one at full market price is another useless option. You know there is one spell that could easily replace all these. A nice ritual of “Summon Merchant”. Actually… I should probably write that down. It’s very reminiscent of the Trygalle Trade Guild (Malazan Book of the Fallen) or Vulgrim (Darksiders). Make the spell a flat cost in reagents and all goods have a 10% price hike for their convenience. Bam, done and I saved you at least a page of stupid spells for you rulebook.
All of this also assumes your DM/GM is not a dick and doesn’t make your magic users buy/find reagents for specific spells as would be entirely practical and within his rights to enforce.
I think for an ideal game balance developers should look more to the idea of generalist vs. specialist. A hammer is a great tool but it isn’t the most practical choice for all problems. Likewise a fighter is generally the best as the whole fighting gig but some problems cannot be solved by sword and board. Good examples of this would be incorporeals, swarms, and the common poison arrow trap. If the guy encased in steel with a big, sharp killing stick isn’t your go-to character in a fight you may be doing combat wrong. Return the magic users to a more situational role with the occasional blast of raw power. I can tell you it’s much more memorable to use the spell Grease effectively than incinerate your eleventy-first mook with a fireball. Dealing large amounts of damage of the mundane variety is best left for the weapon wielders. I think the average mage should be reserved for something better than hunting down goblins and beating skeletons to bone dust.
On the upside it means you can give monsters crazy vulnerabilities that reward players for playing smart. Fire elementals are tough for the sloped brow martial characters but quick and easy for a magic user decked out with a cold/water spell.
Do you have warm gushy feelings about quadratic vs. linear class progressions? What do you think about spells that simply replicate mundane transactions?