There is, perhaps, no bigger argument when it comes to a game's mechanics than about what's more "powerful" when it comes time to roll the dice. While this is a discussion that can be had on a one-to-one comparison (discussing damage output, for example, or discussing the number of dice thrown for particular effects), the more general the discussion becomes the more likely it is you're comparing apples to pineapples.
That's tough enough to get good sense out of, but there is one, undeniable fact when it comes to RPGs pretty much across the board... every power, every ability, and every skill is going to be more "powerful" in certain situations than it is in others. And if you don't remember that, then all you and the person you're arguing with are doing is blowing hot air in each other's faces.
|Look, I'm just saying, wizard trumps barbarian. Fight me!|
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Everything Has Its Strong Suit
I've said this several times before, but it bears repeating. Everything in an RPG has a situation where it's going to be more potent, and a situation where it's going to be useless. Even things we think of as obviously powerful are going to be rendered moot in some situations and games because there are simply too many variables for anything to be universally powerful across the board.
For an obvious example, consider the paladin.
|This fight is almost totally one-sided.|
Paladins are a perfect example of situational potency. Because if you're in a game chock full of evil dragons, undead, demons, and other nasties who rely largely on fear and disease to make them dangerous enemies, then a paladin almost feels like they're playing with cheat codes on. They're flat-out immune to a lot of the conditions coming their way, they get huge bonus damage from their smite, and they can call on potent divine powers to make them an even bigger threat against evil enemies.
You know the easiest way to kick them off the ladder? Put them in a situation where they aren't fighting evil enemies all the time.
Paladins are geared very specifically to stand against the forces of evil. Even if they aren't doing that (say they're fighting a construct, or dealing with magical beasts, or have an opposing force of neutral mercenaries who are just here for the money) they've still got a full base attack bonus, good armor, ability to heal themselves, and a lot of other tricks... but they are no longer a one-character-wrecking-ball.
|Yeah, that checks out.|
We see this with a lot of other classes and builds, as well. The two-weapon fighter who becomes a blender if they can take a full attack is rendered a lot less viable if they need to run all over the battlefield just to reach a target (or worse, the target is out of melee reach). The ranger who can utterly destroy their favored enemy (especially if they can grant their bonuses to the rest of the party) becomes a lot less effective when dealing with foes outside that specialty, and outside their favored terrain. Rogues and slayers who find themselves up against foes immune to precision damage suddenly find themselves nowhere near as useful as they would otherwise be.
And before all the spellcaster mains out there start preening, you're not immune to this either. While it's true that magic can give you a pretty deep bag of tricks, even those tricks are going to be situational... and when you aren't prepped for the right situation you're no more useful than the barbarian staring up at the flying dragon with their greatsword in-hand.
Easy examples are the evokers and blasters. Dropping a fireball might be impressive if it's on a large group of regular mooks, but if they all have evasion and your DC isn't up to snuff, then suddenly your big hammer didn't amount to a hill of beans. If your magus relies on the nova blast from a huge shocking grasp critical, and you suddenly stab an enemy that doesn't take that electricity damage (or worse, gets healed by it), then you've got a conundrum on your hands. If you're an enchanter, mindless enemies (or those protected by the right spells) can take your most potent whammies off the table. Illusionists have a similar issue, compounded by enemies that have senses that allow them to ignore illusions as fakes. Those who rely on conjured monsters can easily be countered by low-level protective spells that mean the creatures can't actually attack them. Necromancers often find their most debilitating powers are useless against those who are already undead. And if you specialized in utility spells, but you find yourself on an open battlefield where none of them are appropriate, you may suddenly find yourself wishing you'd prepped a few tactical strikes just to be safe.
And the list goes on.
This Applies To Every Aspect of a Game
A lot of folks out there have probably noticed that the last section focused largely on combat. The reason for that is that it's the most visibly crunchy part of the game, and it can be life and death for the PCs... but it's important to remember that situational ability is still applicable outside of the initiative order.
|Especially then, you might say.|
Say, for example, you wanted to play a rogue specialized in stealth and trap disarming. If your game is a dungeon crawl, or you're the point person on a heist, then you are in your element and doing exactly what you're made for. If you're in a situation that's largely about social maneuvering and mystery solving, then your skill set may not come into play as often (though it may be useful in certain spots, such as eavesdropping, or breaking into a location to try to find evidence).
Alternatively, the big bad bruiser who would be lord of the battlefield in a combat heavy game is going to be twiddling their thumbs in a campaign where problems can't be meaningfully solved through the application of violence. While the diviner, who may have been less than helpful during a siege or a run-and-gun style campaign, is going to be a magical Sherlock Holmes when it comes to solving a murder, or finding out what happened to stolen valuables.
Every ability, every skill, every spell, is going to have a situation where it is useful, and where it is less than useful. And if the situation where it's strong doesn't come up in a particular campaign, it's easy to think of it as useless. If the campaign is made up almost entirely of situations where a particular ability is strong, then it can seem far more potent than it really is.
Specify Your Parameters
Something that I think would make these discussions far more useful for all of us would be if we narrowed our parameters for what we're actually talking about. It would also stop us from comparing totally unrelated fruits to declare which is the best.
For example, if your parameters are, "What is the most powerful class for killing demons?" you now have a level playing field to compare abilities, feats, powers, etc. If the question is, "Who puts out the highest melee damage?" that's also something you can find an actual answer for using math instead of conflicting opinions.
This also works when you try to discuss character utility and breadth of usefulness over a vague "power" that can be hard to quantify. Comparing the spell lists for bards and wizards, for example, you could see which spells would allow you to overcome particular obstacles that would otherwise be quite hazardous to the party (things like endure elements or perhaps fly). This also stops conversations where one person feels that a bard is more flexible (and thus more powerful), and someone else feels that a barbarian has maximized damage output (and is thus more powerful), since neither of you are talking about the same thing.
Lastly, remember to specify in which situation these things are coming into play. Who is the enemy, how many are there, what is the environment, what is the task at hand, etc.? Because without these specifics we don't have anything to gauge the situation by, and you might be extolling the virtues of a sledgehammer at solving problems that instead call for a can of WD-40 and a Phillips head screwdriver.
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