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THE DEATH OF THE WANDERING MONSTER
In classic D&D there were four primary roles in combat: The fighter was the guy who could reliably contribute every single round by dishing out damage. The arcanist was the guy who could deal "spike damage" and turn the tide against tough opponents. The cleric was the guy buffing and healing, assisting the others in various ways. The rogue also got in on the action, but was generally an opportunist.
The guys providing "spike damage" also generally got to be more productive in the non-combat sections of the game -- either because of the arcanist's utilitarian spells or because of the rogue's skills and searching ability.
This balance of spotlight time always worked for me. People gravitated towards the type of game they wanted to play by selecting the class that best-suited their preferences. And because there were a variety of game styles supported, different people could enjoy playing the game for different reasons. (Or, when they got bored of playing the game in one way, could switch to playing it in a different way.) The one problem was the generally unappealing nature of the cleric -- but 3rd Edition's spontaneous casting largely fixed this problem.
However, with that being said, this balance did begin to break down at higher levels of play. As you got close to 20th level, the spellcasters -- particularly the arcanists -- became so powerful that they completely dominated the other classes. This was an acknowledged problem and one of the biggest flaws in the design of the Epic Level Handbook was that it not only failed to address these problems but actually made them worse.
Over the past couple of years, however, this meme suddenly turned virulent: Wizards were referred to as the "win button". People were reporting that this domination -- which previously hadn't become a problem until the highest levels of play -- were cropping up in the mid-level of play around 8th level. I've even seen people insisting that, by 5th level, the game is over and the wizards have won.
But this wasn't what I was seeing at my gaming table. It wasn't until you got to around 12th level that I was beginning to see the wizards outpacing the fighters, and it wasn't until after 15th level that I was seeing the wizards beginning to completely dominate the table. Were the guys playing fighters in my game just preternaturally talented? Were the guys playing wizards particularly incompetent?
It took me awhile to figure it out, but I eventually summed it up with a catch-phrase:
The death of the wandering monster tables.
In other words, the DMs experiencing problems were allowing their players to control the pace of encounters. As a result, the casters were able to go into a single encounter, blow through all of their "spike damage" spells for the day, and then say, "Well, I'm out of spells, let's rest up."
And, of course, once you had redefined "spike damage" to mean "normal damage", the fighters were completely outclassed. And, indeed, by 5th level the wizard could completely dominate the game.
But the game doesn't have to be like this. It used to be that the threat of wandering monsters would keep the PCs in check: They wouldn't blow through all of their abilities because there was always the chance that something unexpected might happen. In my games I don't use a lot of wandering monster tables, but I do run the NPC opponents proactively: The PCs can't rely on being able to control the pace of encounters. They don't get ambushed every single night, but the possibility is there -- so they have to keep a little bit in reserve. They've also learned that, if they try to face one encounter and retreat for the day, then the next day they'll find that their opponents have reinforced and entrenched their positions and it's going to be that much harder for them.
So, really, we can see how two oft-cited complaints about 3rd Edition -- the "15 minute adventuring day" and the "all-powerful wizard" -- both stem from the same source: Poor DMing.
Given that, why do the casters really start to own the game above 15th level? Well, for a few reasons:
(1) The lack of powerful options for high-level fighters.
(2) The sheer power of the spells available at those levels (the spike damage gets a lot spikier).
(3) But, most importantly in my experience, the power provided by those spells (and the other resources available at those levels) to make it possible for the PCs to control the pace of encounters: At those levels it's not that the DM is simply letting them control the pace, it's that the PCs can proactively take that control in very reliable and predictable ways.
Once that third step happens, you're back to a situation where spellcasters can blow massive amounts of spell power in a relatively narrow window of time and the spotlight balance between fighters and wizards becomes completely skewed.
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