PF2E - Casters Vs Martials: The Sage Answer
Updated: Oct 13, 2019
So, let’s talk a bit about Martial vs Casters.
I received the following question from a reader:
“My PF2 tamble has 3 casters (two bards and a wizard), and all 3 agree that casters are weaker in relation to martial classes, because when they use two actions, for example, Telecnetic Projectile, to do 1d6 and all, the fighter use two, attacking twice, and causing absurd mounts of damage. I tried to tranquilize them saying that maybe the scaling, with more spaces for magic to increase the magic, etc… would make them more flexible and better in combat.
What is your opinion? Casters are really behind the martial classes?”
I will try here to give some insight into this discussion, and for that we need to first make some clarifications.
We will be looking here both on damage and on utility aspects of the classes, but I will be focusing on in combat utility here, as out of combat evaluation would need to take many things into consideration that would be more prone to vary per table of players. Combat at last we can somewhat have an optimal scenario to talk about, even if in practice it may play different with different players or DM’s as the strategies and encounter building will differ.
We can agree that casters were overpowered on 3.X/PF1E right? Well I will not enter that discussion here, but it is a general consensus that mid-levels and beyond casters could dominate the game, doing everything others classes could do, but better in most cases.
Pathfinder 2E started with a big nerf to casters, and a buff to martial classes. While fighters now have many new actions and interesting options, the spells received nerfs on durations and effects, and now casters have less spells per day.
Where once Wizards could cast up to 5 or 6 of each circle of magic, without using specific items to boost spells per day, now Wizards are limited to 3 spells per day, plus 1 from School Specialization or Bounded Item Spell Recovery, for a total of 4.
It is a significant nerf with loss of 1 to 2 spells per day per slot, but on the other hand, when you gain access to a new circle in PF2E you receive 2+1 spells per day of that circle, which was not true for PF1E, where it depended on your intellect and the items you had to boost it, meaning that for high level spells you ended with 1 or 2 slots when you got a new circle of magic.
Pathfinder 2E also brought scaling for cantrips, where on 1E you needed specific feats to have scaling at-will spell attacks to use when you wanted to avoid using your prepared spells or you had them all exhausted.
But the scaling PF2E cantrips is pretty poor as shown by the data analyzed by citricking[i] on Paizo Forum.
At level 20, the expected damage, taking into account chance to hit, and all, for a cantrip is less than 20 points of damage, while a Fighter attacking can reach close to 70 points of damage with two actions.
This may be a cause of great worry to some players, as this is a great difference. And as shown in the original question, that comparison of cantrip versus fighter damage is what can cause some people to feel underpowered.
The thing is, Jason Bulmahn[ii], one of the lead game designers for PF2E, calls cantrips “viable but behind the curve option”, pointing that they are only a good idea to be used when you are out of other things to do, or when the target is too low health to worth the use of a high level spell. He points that wizard higher level spells are vastly more powerful than his cantrips.
Another point that should make this cantrip confusion a bit clear is the fact that it is pretty easy for other classes to get a damage cantrip to use at-will by simple heritage choices, and they are as effective as a wizard or sorcerer cantrip in all aspects. So cantrips are not something really important or exclusive to the casting classes, and are more like side dishes that the class offer as complement to their real kit, the 1 to 10 level spells.
Now if we look at the expected damage for a 2d6/spell level damaging spell in 2 actions, against a fighter damage in two actions, at level 20 they are pretty close.
In fact, Fighters are right now, by citricking analysis, which I found no flaw so far, just a bit ahead all other classes, and casters using 2d6/spell level are pretty much tied with all other martial classes, and by level 18 to 20, they go up as far as tying with fighters.
And this is ignoring that for example, wizards can do more than just 2d6/level of spell. A disintegrate heightened to 10 spell slot and using a True Strike, in three actions will be rolling 2 dices to hit and will be doing 20d10 of damage!
By level 18, a Wizard can Wail of the Banshee for 8d10 that do full damage even if the target succeeds on its roll. That is equivalent of 12d6 damage or 1,5 d6/spell level, and this is if the target SUCCEEDS! If he dares to fail, it will take 1d4 of DRAINED condition, that causes 1d4 times the level of create in damage, and debuffs the target fortitude against your next spells. Against a level 18 enemy, that is in average 45 extra points of damage, or ~13d6 of damage. So, failing a Wail of the Banshee save is akin to be taking 25d6 of damage, for a level 8 spell. Remember that for two actions a 2d6/spell level was on par with most Martials, and at level 18 on par with the top damage per round, the fighter? Yeah, our Wail of the Banshee is doing 156% of that theoretical damage. (This is already normalized by hit chances and save chances of average enemies, if we trust citricking data.)
And we are not even taking into account the fact that Wail of the Banshee is an AOE, targeting all enemies on a 40-foot emanation from you.
Meteor Swarm does 6d10+14d6 as a level 9 spell, and 7d10+16d6 at the 10 circle, that is equivalent of 27d6, 135% of the expected 2d6/spell level, and affecting a huge area of 4 different 40-foot bursts.
And what about low level spells? Shocking Grasp does 2d12 for a 1 level spell. That is almost 4d6 for a level one spell, and can do more damage on targets wearing metal.
Magic Missiles do not incur in miss chance, and it does equivalent of 1d6 per action used. If used on 2 actions, it does 2d6/spell level as expected by the table, but incurs in no need to hit or save, which increases its expected damage, since it was normalized for hit and save chances.
The very basic Burning Hands does exactly 2d6/spell level, but is an AOE spell. And we are not even talking on extra effects that the spells can place on enemies, even on a succeeded saving throw.
Yep, the key isn't to make a regular failure a disaster, that'll just take us back to PF1 instawins, but instead to drill into the idea you mention here and one of the main reasons for the degrees of success in the first place: We need to make sure that success is still something useful for the caster. For a single target save or lose spell, if you cast it and the target saved, it's more likely a boss, so something like taking away one of the boss's actions is very useful (slowed 1 may be humble, but I can't count the number of times in my game that my foes were screwed by losing that third action, for instance by losing access to a three-action activity or because I couldn't move and use a two-action activity). And some reasonably lowish level spells do that on a success, like slow is a great spell for that. Spending two of the party's twelve (for four person group) actions to take 1 of the boss's 3 actions even on a success is a 2:1 advantage for the group (even better for a larger group, but then a solo boss is odd for a giant group and might critically succeed), and that's on a success! - Mark Seifer, Designer on Pathfinder FORUM[iii]
Casters have access to things like flying, magic healing, true strike, illusions, silence, etc…
Many low-level spells can be very useful because of their situational effects, and as casters level up, they can leave lower level slots with those kinds of spells ready while filling higher level ones with more generalist spells for combat, or they can let debuffing and buffing spells on lowers slots, since they keep being useful even being low level spells.
Examples: (Just to list a few)
Hideous Laughter: Level 2, Slow 1 on Failure, even if target succeeds, he can’t use reactions while you sustain it. Bye Bye to that big boss reaction that was plaguing your fight.
Silence: Level 4 version, everyone in 10-foot radius of your buffed party member cannot cast spells.
Grease: Level 1, can cause every one entering it to fall prone, potentially screwing the target whole turn. Great to divide enemies in corridors.
Invisibility: Level 2, version is good to start combat. Level 4 is OP against most creatures.
Mirror Image: Level 2, avoid miss effects and can save you from nasty critical hits.
Slow: Level 3, if target fails, he loses 1 action for 1 entire minute, if the succeeded he still loses 1 action on next turn.
Dimensional Door: Level 4, 120 feet teleport. At Level 5 the range becomes 1 Mile!
Freedom of Movement: Level 4, Automatic success to escapes, and immunity to speed reductions.
Globe of Invulnerability: Level 4, Automatic Dispels against spells that try to enter an area. (is limited by its spells and target spells level so it depends on the usage.)
Stoneskin: Level 4, resistance 5 to physical damage. Goes up by 5 per 2 levels of heighten.
Haste: Level 3, extra attack action to one of the party members.
Confusion: Level 4, if the target succeeds, he is stunned 1, if he fails he is confused by 1 minute, and can try to save at each turn.
Fear: Level 1, if the target succeeds, it is Frightened 1, if it fails it is Frightened 2 Success.
Goblin Pox: Level 1, if the target succeeds, it is Sickened 1, if the target fails it contracts Goblins Pox that makes the target Sickened one, and can progress to Stage 2 for Slowed 1.
Ray of Enfeeblement: Level 1, if the target succeeds its Enfeebled 1, if it fails its Enfeebled 2. You can also use Spider Sting spell for similar effect but with fortitude save instead of spell attack roll.
Wall of Wind: Level 3, prevents gases and small ranged attacks. Great to force enemy ranged's to move closer to the group.
(Update: It is important to notice that spells with the incapacitation trait are not very effective against enemies that are not below your level, and they need to be used on your highest slots of spell to not face the trait effect, even against enemies with level a bit lower than yours. Because of that, against enemies with level higher than yours, it is best for not to use this kind of spells or just use it using the lowest circle you can use, since they will have the same effect being used on a low circle then on your high one if the enemy level is higher than yours. In more broad terms this kind of spells should be avoided when not to be used with specific strategies.)
The big difference that many has not noticed is that the save DC of your spells are not tied to the level of the spell anymore. This means that a level 20 Cleric casting a lvl 10 spell and a level 2 spell makes his enemies face the same DC.
That makes low level spells that cause nasty effects really powerful, as they keep standing good chance to work against your enemies.
To keep up with the damage of martial classes in higher levels you need to use your best slots of spell, but all your other slots can be filled with utilities like invisibility, fly, haste, stoneskin, freedom of movement, dimensional door, but not only that, things like Blindness, Slow, Hideous Laughter, and even Color Spray can be of great use.
In practice this opened more useful slots at higher levels then PF1 offered.
The most powerful utility, buff and debuff spells of PF1E got nerfed, even Rope Trick got a huge nerf, from second circle to fourth, and making it so that destroying the rope can end the spell, and yet if you look at the lists now, they feel much more balanced.
They nerfed the outliers that everyone always used, and gave small buffs to underused ones. In the end most of the spells are pretty spot on, with some minor outliers for better or worse. But they made they keep being useful at higher levels by not becoming less likely to work as you progress.
With the expected number of encounters per day of adventuring gone, the impact of spell casters will also depend on the kind of campaign and the DM.
“We may have more advice on topics like that in the upcoming GM's guide, but the real answer is still gonna be "As often as the GM feels it makes sense." James Jacob[iv], Paizo Creative Director
The smaller the number of encounters you will face each they, the more you can dish your high-level spells one after the other.
If we take into account a level 11 Wizard, he will have:
6o: 3 slots
5o: 4 slots
4o: 4 slots
3o: 4 slots
2o: 4 slots
1o: 4 slots
This mean that he has around 7 “big guns”, and 16 “utility/debuff” slots.
If our Wizard faces 6 encounters on a day, he can use 1 “big gun” on each fight, and almost “3 utility/debuff” on each encounter. That covers 4 rounds of combat leaving our friend Wizard with maybe 1 or 2 rounds for cantrip usage, as combats generally don’t take longer than 6 rounds?
And that is was a bad case, since most of times we see 3-5 encounters a day, and combats of 4 to 5 rounds.
So most often, a Wizard of mid-level will not even have to use his cantrips.
Surely if we look at lower levels things are not as good, let’s see a Level 3 Wizard then.
2o: 3 slots
1o: 4 slots
Fights on lower levels tend to be shorter, as math from citricking[v] again confirms. The damage caused by players per Hit Point from enemies is way bigger at lower levels, and reach somewhat stable point by level 8 onward.
Based on this and on most reports on Paizo Forum, we can safely assume that most fights at low level will end in 3 rounds of attacks.
If we have a 4 encounters day, of 3 rounds, we have a total of 12 rounds to cover, and we have 3 “big guns” and 4 good spells.
This means that we will still end using cantrip for 5 rounds, which is somewhat bad, but the cantrip damage is closer to the damage of the martials on lower levels then on higher ones.
This can suggest that the feeling of being underpowered that some players may be partially caused by having less spells to rely on lower levels. As well as the fact that many may not yet have noticed the importance of lower level spells with nasty status having a competitive DC in PF2E, which was untrue in PF1E.
But what about the lack of Item bonus to Hit on Casters?
Many people pointed this in fear that casters would be left behind because they lack the +3 item bonus that martial characters can add to their attacks.
Since many spells also hit against AC, they would be behind when doing so.
First, we need to remember that we should compare our chance to hit with Barbarians, Rangers and Rogues and not with Fighters. One of the Fighter features is being “ahead of the curve” on hitting, staying a solid +2 away from other martials, and being the only ones to get legendary proficiency with weapon attacks. (Not even Monks have that for their unarmed ones.)
But our caster buddies get legendary on casting!
Now we will rely on Gisher[vi],another user from Paizo Forum, for an easy to see proficiency table:
This legendary for casters is pretty misleading as it only happens suddenly at very high levels.
In reality casters are two levels behind Martial Classes on attack proficiency scaling. But on most levels, they are at the same proficiency levels that martials. (Again, besides fighters, but that is their “thing”)
The problem is the Weapon Potency Runes, they appear in levels 2, 10 and 16, and we can assume they will be acquired a bit earlier than that, around 2, 9 and 14 most often then not.
This leaves us with:
Casters are clearly behind at levels 5,6,16,17 and 18, and are hugely behind at levels 13 and 14. That is 7/20 of the whole progression.
Still in average, casters are 2 points behind on hit with spells then martial classes are hitting with proper magic weapons.
On the other hand, if we look at the average saves from monsters at the monster manual, we will end with a different result:
Barbarians need between 8 and 10 to hit enemies of their level, and wizards need between 10 and 12 to do the same.
With monster saves, when the facing a monster with a high save on that specific saving throw, monsters need between 6 and 8 on the dice to have a success, and between 16 and 18 to critically success against a wizard spell.
Mid saves bring it to a fairer ground, with monsters needing between 9 and 10 for most levels. And targeting a low save cause monsters of your level to need between 11 and 12 to save.
Wizard attack spells are roughly 10% behind on hit chance, and spells with saves need to avoid the high-save to be effective, as the difference from a good to a bad save is around 5 points.
This numbers where calculated by looking at the monster’s average numbers. And now with the recent Paizo guide of how to create monsters, we can see numbers that are very similar and confirm the assumptions that were used by citricking for monster average CA and Saves.
Obviously, we are not taking into account here things like flat-footed that is way easier to get as a melee, neither buffs or debuffs. But we are not also counting the waste of actions necessary for melees to position themselves compared to ranged. This is a more “perfect scenario comparison” that is useful, not to prove how much each class does of damage, or the real hitting chances, but to get a general idea of the balance of the game.
Things like True Strike makes it way easier for a Wizard to hit with targeted spells for example.
So, while it is true that casters are lagging behind on the hit department, the difference is not huge. Casters have the advantage of having miss effect on save spells, having the best AOE, and the best “nova potential”.
Martial classes bring more consistency on hits, better constant damage, better ability to deal with multiple or long encounters, and overall more resilience.
Yet when facing Level+2 and Level+3 enemies, casters will surely suffer more than martial classes, as they are already 10% behind from the get go. In some levels the gap becomes huge, for example, a level 13 Wizard trying to hit a level 16 enemy has only a 20% chance of success, while a Barbarian has 40%. This huge difference only happens at levels 13 and 14, but still at levels 5, 6, 16, 17 and 18 the difference would be 25% of chance of success for the Wizard, against 40% for Barbarian.
Considering that most of spell attack spells have no effect on a miss, they become somewhat bad against big bosses.
Yet again if we look back at citricking tables, the normalized damage comparison still places 2d6/level damaging spells at equal or better them most martial classes.
This shows us that looking purely on the hit chances does not show the complete picture.
Two things make casters on par with martials, even with lower chances of affecting targets, and even against higher level targets: The high damage when it hits and the effects on a successful save.
It is also important to remember that both Occult and Arcane casters will have access to True Strike, greatly improving their odds to hit single target spell hit spells on bosses. And Divine and Primal casters both have lists with a far less focus on spell attacks anyway.
In the end, this discussion is pretty complex, and involves a lot of math variables. The system is still new, and more data crunch and more work needs to be done to better understand it’s fine details, but we can conclude with a reasonable decree of certain that Caters and Martial characters are both pretty viable, being more or less efficient based on specific situations and contexts like number of enemies, number of encounters per day, number of rounds per encounter, vulnerabilities that can be exploited, how hard or easy is in a given table for players to find the good or bad saves of the enemies, and many other variables.
Casters are not in the overpowered state that they were in PF1E, but are now pretty balanced against other classes, which The Gamer Sage finds a pretty good improvement.
UPDATE-2: Some people are still questioning and saying that spell casters are underpowered. Just to make this clear, a high-slot damaging spell does in single target comparable or even more damage them what martial classes do with two actions. If you hit 3 targets with one of such spells, you already did 3 times the dpr of a martial class. Yes casters are that insane against multiple targets. Peop
[i] Citricking. Member on Paizo Forum, “PF2 Expected Damage by Level Comparisons” https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OSWtYTeaGqxPHRE9bXG-DEQ80r0F9e-A8hKdrxa9gTY/
[ii] Jason Bulmahn, Paizo Game Designer, interview for QueueTimes YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1Hv6jyGPGw
[iii] Mark Seifer, Paizo Game Designer, Post on Paizo Forum, https://paizo.com/threads/rzs42j9j?How-does-PF-2E-handle-the-power-of-high-level
[iv] James Jacob, Creative Director for Paizo, Post on Paizo Forum, https://paizo.com/threads/rzs42nam?1-Hellknight-Hill#37
[v] Citricking. Member on Paizo Forum, ”PF2 Guide Martial Damage Vs Creature HP”, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1pKz1QTYPhBnaS0F2KX8PfVWafiL_6nSmwFvGVFwLtGU/edit
[vi] Gisher. Member on Paizo Forum, “Gisher's Guide to Proficiency Bonuses”,