The Mage’s Squad – 1

Last time we explored how a mage’s adventuring party can be used to form the core of an Archmage Lord’s personal security detail. This time, we shall dig into my notions of the kind of squad that a mage would probably want to assemble for themselves, should they have the choice.

I am proud to say that my notions in this regard are not simple theoretical musing. They are built from countless hours spent as a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master (DM) and player. Within the 3.5 system, I have DMed multiple parties from first to epic levels. The observations I make here are based on extensive playtesting.

Now, if we are taking about a proper D&D squad that develops organically in its rise to epic levels, our mage subject is not going to be able to handpick exactly the squad they desire. When the campaign starts, each player is going to roll up the character that they want to play. Even so, experienced players will make sure they have their personnel bases covered. Two to three fighters? Check. Cleric? Check. Rogue or ranger? Check. Ironically (in terms of this piece), in my experience, it is rare that a player choses to play a mage when starting a 1st level campaign. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they do.

When players are used to campaigns that do not go on past 9th level, they have a tendency to rely on fighters to do the bulk of their work (that work being killing). Particularly if their DM does not tend to utilize enemy spellcasters. This fighter-heavy focus is for good reason. In the 3.5 D&D system, there is not much of anything that can stand toe-to-toe with a single class fighter in melee combat. When we are fighting nothing but orcs, ogres, and lesser giants, having a lot of fighters around is the way to go.

However, it is very difficult to challenge a party past 9th level without using spellcasting opponents. Either humans or monster mages and priests, or monsters with spellcasting abilities; such as dragons, greater giants, devils, or demons. Making the transition from a hack-and-slash grinding campaign to one where we face properly played spellcasters is ugly.

For example, say we have a 9th level party with two single-class fighters, a ranger, a rogue, and a priest. Hill giants’ worst nightmare, these guys. However, this time they are facing a cult controlled by one 9th level cleric. Of course, this dood has a 5th level cleric underling, and three 3rd level cleric acolytes. Then a bunch of warrior peasants with maybe one or two 6th level fighters. On paper, for a 9th level party of five, this should not prove too difficult, right?

Well, if this is the first time our players have faced a spellcaster of this level, they are going to have a serious problem. Our party cleric, being good and therefore able to convert their memorized spells into healing spells, has probably memorized a bunch of buffing spells for their fighters (Bull Strength and Bear’s Endurance), a number of Cause Wounds spells at various levels, maybe one Hold Person, and then their battery of smiting spells (Flame Strike, and Summon Monster). And this is badass, there is no doubt.

However, when things kick off, the cultist cleric changes the whole script. Let’s assume that the cult was able to jack the party and get a surprise round in on them, since, after all, the party is encroaching on their turf. In their surprise round, the cult leader casts the spell, Silence, focused five feet away from the party’s priest. Because the cultist priest did not cast it on the party priest, he gets no saving throw. Now, in a twenty-foot radius around this spot there can be no spellcasting (because all of our priests’ spells have verbal components), and a properly hardass DM will not allow the players to talk with each other about what to do.

(Uh-oh.)

When the cultist leader casts Silence, his 5th level counterpart casts Windwall between the cult members and the party.

In round two, let’s say the cultist win initiative, because the dice just love fucking over players when they’re in a tough spot. With his action, the cultist cleric hits the party with his bonus 5th level spell: Flamestrike. They all can eat the 9d6 damage (Reflex save for half), but are definitely lubed up. The 5th level cultist cleric casts, Hold Person, on the biggest fighter. That’s a will saving throw difficulty of, let’s say, 14 (2nd level spell, plus the priests +2 modifier for a high wisdom. Our fighter’s will save is probably at +3, meaning that he has just less than even odds of making that save. If he fails it, our party is probably cooked.

Meanwhile, all the cult’s fighter types have moved to their marks 20 feet away from the party. Not coincidentally, this is just on the cult’s side of the Windwall and the edge of the Silence.

For their action, being oblivious to the Windwall spell that is in play, the party rogue, ranger, and maybe one of the fighters, shoot at the cultist cleric with their bows, hoping to disrupt his next spell. Their arrows are whisked harmlessly up into the air. The party cleric and whatever fighters didn’t waste their action messing around with bows probably charge the line of warrior cultists. They take down a couple, but they are just the weakest warriors out in front.

The cult leader next hits the rogue with Blindness. Rogue gets a saving throw, but that’s a fortitude save, which sucks for rogues. He probably fails and, if he does, is struck permanently blind. The 5th level cultist cleric casts Bless, giving all of his allies a +1 bonus to strike.

Now the melee begins in earnest. The warrior cultists swarm the priest, attempting to grapple to drag him to the ground. The two 6th level fighter cultists team up on the party fighters, one at a time. The cult priests back them up in this, focusing on healing up whatever damage their fighters take.

Depending on how the party’s first saving throws go, this scenario would very probably result in a TPK (total party kill). Even if it does not, they will have to be very lucky to get through this without losing anyone.

The thing to keep in mind with this encounter is that we are not even dealing with arcane spellcasters. Start throwing some Dominate Person spells at those fighters, and things get even worse. Two failed Will saves and the party’s number one hurt machine turns on his own cleric and hacks him to bits. This leads us to my next point.

When a party is reaching high level, if they are facing spellcasting opponents, it has been my experience that fighters (as a class) become a liability. Don’t get me wrong: they are good at what they do (killing). We have explored this. However, that Will saving throw of theirs is a real vulnerability, and not just to themselves.

So, what to do, then? Tune in next time to learn all about my theories on the matter. Or don’t, if you think you’re so smart.

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