Of Archetypes and Angels
Revisiting "Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit"
This past September marked the 15th anniversary of Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit, the 2006 comedy sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look, which lampooned the superhero trope of high-powered and low-powered characters fighting the same threats. Think Batman taking on Doomsday alongside Superman and Wonder Woman—or Black Widow and Thor both going up against the Hulk.
For many in the Dungeons & Dragons community, this sketch perfectly captures a problem also known as “Linear Fighter vs. Quadratic Wizard” (LFQW, if you get into a lot of online discussions about it): magic-using classes may start out weak, but as the characters progress, they can become so powerful, they overshadow martial classes at high levels.
To one extent or another, this issue exists in most editions of the game, but it became particularly acute after Wizards of the Coast released the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000. D&D 3e accelerated the trend of increasing character customization that had become popular with second edition AD&D. This “character build” approach was a natural fit for Wizards, who had made their mark on the gaming world with the deck-building card game “Magic: The Gathering.”
Players responded—they wanted options. With options came combinations of options—many of which the designers hadn’t anticipated. Some combos were so effective, they significantly exacerbated the power-gap between magic-using and martial characters.
Even though B/X Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have builds, magic-using characters do grow steadily more powerful as levels increase, and on a sharper curve than martial characters.
At 11th level, a B/X fighter with 18 STR can do a maximum of 16 points of damage with a single attack, using a two-handed sword +3. An 11th level magic-user, if they take the appropriate spell, can disintegrate any one creature. A 7th level cleric can kill (but not disintegrate) any one creature by reversing the Raise Dead spell!
At 14th level, the fighter is still limited to the same maximum damage for a single attack, while the magic-user or cleric can prepare and use as many as four Disintegrate/Raise Dead spells each day. Throw in the ability to further increase available instances of these spells by banking scrolls, and you get the picture. Even if you give the fighter credit for more consistent damage output across multiple combat rounds, the spell users are at least giving them a run for their money.
There’s not much more I can say about the LFQW issue that hasn’t been said many, many times already. There are players and DMs who think it’s a big deal, and players and DMs who don’t understand what all the fuss is about. I won’t plough exhausted ground any further. If you think it’s a problem, it’s a problem for you. If you don’t, it’s not.
What interests me more than the argument itself, is the fact that the discrepancies which give rise to it are an intentional aspect of the B/X system. Original D&D, of which B/X is perhaps the most clearly implemented version, seeks to evoke a certain feel in play—namely the feel of sword & sorcery fiction. It does this by creating character classes based on archetypes taken from sword & sorcery novels and short stories.
In the “Inspirational Source Material” section of Tom Moldvay’s D&D Basic Rulebook, nearly half of the listed fiction authors—30 out of 63—are specifically mentioned in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction’s “Sword and Sorcery” article. The ratio is even higher for Gary Gygax’s more famous “Appendix N (in the 1e DMG) with 17 authors—all duplicated on Moldvay’s list—out 28 being mentioned in the article.
The raw power discrepancy between magic-using and martial characters is a major trope in sword & sorcery fiction. Usually, the magic-using characters are villains, and the martial characters must oppose them with wits and courage, as well as strength, to overcome the power gap. This is a common theme in Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories.
Of course, D&D players don’t just want to fight Thulsa-Doom or Xaltotun—some of them want to play Merlin or Gandalf. So B/X includes both magic-using classes and martial classes. True to its literary roots, however, it doesn’t cap the power of the magic using classes. Play a magic-user long enough, and your character can come to rival the greatest wizards of fantasy fiction.
B/X makes a gesture at game balance by starting magic-users out very weak, with few spells at their disposal—itself an emulation of neophyte magician coming-of-age stories. The rules then allow magic-users to grow in power, to the point where, at high levels, they are truly forces to be reckoned with.
From a game-theory perspective, this may be a flaw, but it fulfills B/X’s vision of archetypes. Each of the four human character classes in the game are meant to represent one of the main archetypes found in sword & sorcery fiction—the fighter (warriors), the magic-user (sorcerers), the cleric (holy men and women), and the thief (rogues). As they progress in level, each of these character classes is allowed to become more and more a representation of the corresponding archetype—fighters become powerful weapon-masters, magic-users become mighty spell casters, clerics become great channelers of divine power, and thieves become wily and subtle experts in the arts of deception, infiltration, and larceny.
So a high-level game where a fighter can best any opponent (or numerous opponents) in physical combat, while a magic-user can summon powerful, other-worldly beings to aid them in their cause, is completely in line with the source material.
Those who are looking for parity between classes at high levels are correct to see this as an unbalanced design choice. For those who want a game that properly emulates sword & sorcery fiction, however, the imbalance is integral to the experience they are seeking.
Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit is wonderful humor, in part because we are laughing at ourselves. Maybe it doesn’t make sense that Batman can hold his own next to Superman against Doomsday, or that Aragorn can stand beside Gandalf, facing down the hordes of Sauron—but we love these stories nonetheless. Perhaps they let us feel like we too can prevail against overwhelming odds, if we are brave and committed—and if we have a powerful friend who can summon a few angels to help us. ;)