Best Character Class: Wizards or Thieves
As Nicholas Eames so effectively (and profitably) pointed out, assembling a proper party is a lot like fashioning the perfect rock band: You always open with your workhorse warriors slaying the crowds with their axes, and while sure everyone’s there to see verbal wizardry of the lead singer front and center, could the group exist at all without the support staff of the rhythm section in the shadows off to the side?
Each class certainly has their own advantages, and with over 40+ years to balance out their abilities, what character class one a player picks says more about their psychology than anything else. Do they prefer the unabashed simplicity of the barbarian, or the stringent requirements of the paladin? Does the druid draw them in or the cleric call to them to serve?
Despite all the choices, the top two classes were never in question when this question was posed, and now Wizards and Thieves will battle it out for the top spot as Sigil members Daniel Olesen and Matt Presley take up their respective causes.
Daniel: The first class I ever played at tabletop RPG was a wizard. I’ve tried a variety of classes since then, especially including those offered by video games (Baldur’s Gate, anyone?), but I still find the wizard (and related classes wielding arcane magic) to be the superior choice. I imagine this discussion will go a variety of ways, so I’ll start with just how iconic the archetype is.
Does anything say fantasy and adventure more than a wizard? From Merlin to Gandalf, the wizard is indispensable as part of the story. They possess an air of mystery, command forces beyond the understanding of most, and their keen intellect and knowledge of all things mystical serve great purpose in many situations. If you could choose freely, would you want to be the person fighting with a metal stick, or the one shaping the laws of physics to suit your whims?
Matt: Not a bad opening gambit on your part there, and I’d be lying if I said my black little teenage heart didn’t cleave to wizard Raistlin over his metal stick-wielding brother Caramon (also, I like how spell check didn’t object to either of those rather specific names, which just goes to show how backhandedly mainstream Dragonlance has become). All fantasy has a certain degree of wish fulfillment drilled down right into its DNA, and nothing is more wish fulfilling that gaining ultimate power over the environment wizard-style.
That said, the thief was always my go to in gaming sessions. Something about being able to disappear into the shadows, take what I wanted through guile over brawn, and spending those nights flitting over rooftops rather than studying arcane texts really appealed to me as a person. As did the ability to backstab for double damage, which probably says a lot about my teenage mindset.
Also probably tellingly teenage, I never got to play many sessions with a single character since our gaming groups always broke up too soon to really level any characters. Which made the thief the obvious choice. The wizard will ultimately be a hundred times more powerful than the thief, what with their one word kills and wishes. But the wizard is an investment character somewhat similar to retirement plan you pay into little by little for years. Both start out as a pittance that only returns the investment after constant and continual effort spanning years.
Thieves, on the other hand, are instant and immediate fun. Not just for the aforementioned backstab ability, which is probably the highest single damage any first level character is capable of at the onset, but because they afford more storytelling options due to their nature. In fact, if you tell me you didn’t ever get sidetracked on an entirely impromptu adventure because a thief party member went and stole something the DM didn’t intend, I’ll call you a liar.
Daniel: You have cleverly employed procatalepsis, a word that here means, “bringing up an argument against your own case in advance to prevent your opponent from using it” (I just finished watching all 3 seasons of A Series of Unfortunate Events). I was planning to bring up the old, familiar trope “linear fighter, quadratic wizard”, i.e. as time progresses, wizards increase in power exponentially compared to other classes.
I am not ready to concede the point, though. While I do see the appeal of backstabbing (half the reason why I ever play a thief), I don’t think wizards are quite the dry, financial investment you make them out to be at early levels. Thanks to their versatile spellbooks, they have access to more abilities and options than any other. They can use illusions to trick NPC’s, divine crucial information otherwise inaccessible and so on. The versatility is what makes the wizard shine, even at low level.
Do you love the role-playing aspect of RPG’s? Wizards have all sorts of spells to charm or cheat people, or using predigistitation (I can’t believe I spelled that right in one try) to add flavour to your actions, your game, the story you’re crafting etc. Or do you only care about putting the hurt on those goblins? No worries, just choose all damage spells. And it doesn’t stop there. Do you want to incinerate your enemies in fire or freeze them with frost? Bolts of lightning or sprays of acid more your poison of choice? Or literally poison attacks? As a wizard, you can specialise in just about anything, or you can choose a bit of everything, ensuring you always have a useful spell, come what may.
Matt: Again, I cannot argue with your versatility point. However, I will note that that point is at the end of a two-edged sword (one wizards can’t even wield). Yeah, you can get a lot out of a wizard, but it’s actually a linear equation, meaning you get out pretty much what you put into them. Which is to say spell components suck. Now I’m not saying that the components don’t add a sense of balance to a class that can suddenly overpower the whole campaign; I’m just saying that it often stops being a game about the group and suddenly becomes a demonstration of supply side economic theory: Does the wizard have all of their components? Can they be acquired locally? For how much coin? Will there need to be a sidequest just to prep the character for the real quest?
Couple this with the need to study, accounting for area of effect and duration, which spells the wizard decides to learn that day (and that’s not even taking into account trying to acquire the spells in the first place), which scrolls can be found, wondering if a wand will do, if the wizard properly is rested (and hopefully not encumbered), and you no longer have a character, rather an overly complex inventory management system that might actually require spreadsheets.
Compare that linear model to the exponential enjoyment one can glean from what you put into a successful thief. Armed with only a blade or two, a trusty set of lockpicks, some rope for climbing and mayhaps snares, plus some soft boots and you’re ready for adventure for under a single gold piece (which you probably stole anyways). Hell, were it not for the need for those pesky pockets with which to carry all one’s ill-gotten loot, a truly dedicated thief might not even bother with clothes if fully secure in their stealth skill.
Which is to a say a thief is still an effective character even when stripped of everything. Can you claim the same with your wizards?
Daniel: According to your own argument, a thief needs blades, lockpicks, and rope (not going into the clothes), so it seems like a thief isn’t much useful either when stripped of everything. It sounds more like you’re arguing in favour of monks.
Sure, wizards are challenging to play. I don’t blame people for wanting something simple and straightforward, especially if they’re new to the game or just want to take it easy for a session or two. But the challenge is another reason why wizards are the best and a premier choice for veterans. As mentioned, the many ways you can specialise your wizard means you can play a wizard for many campaigns while still changing up the mechanics and your playstyle.
The thief seems to revolve entirely around the backstabbing mechanic. And yes, that’s fun to do. For a while, even. But it’s the same. Every. Time. Blade goes into back, stabbing it. Being a wizard is challenging, not only because you have to memorise spells and have components, but because your choices matter.
For the thief, every fight is essentially the same in terms of mechanics. You go into battle with a blade, and once the fighting starts, you look for backs to stab. For the wizard, the battle starts long before the actual fighting. Are you venturing into a dungeon full of undeads? You prepare your fire spells. Facing a dragon in its lair? Some buffs for your team members, such as relevant elemental protection, haste, and the like. Fighting another troupe of adventurers? Spells for crowd control or to dispel magic.
I don’t disagree when you say that you get as much out of a wizard as you put into them. Being the most complex class means you can pour more thought and skill into a wizard than any other class, and get more out of it. That’s the beauty of it.
Matt: Huh. I feel I just made the argument that someone was hard to date because they were certifiably crazy, and then you countered that they were a load of fun because of said insanity. And while I won’t argue that sex with a crazy lady ain’t six different types of fun, they’re not the ladies you want to bring home to meet your mother. They’re not the ones you want to make a long term commitment to.
They’re not marriage material in my mind.
But obviously you do want to make that commitment to crazy. You seem to want the high maintenance lover while I’d rather sit back and kill a few bottle of wine with mine. Fine wine that was stolen from someone with equally good tastes but significantly more coin, mind you. I know you threw out your little “simple and straightforward” barb as an insult, but after a few decades on this earth, I firmly believe a good relationship is based upon shared interests you can predictably depend upon for years upon years unending. You might even say I came to this conclusion based upon loads of experience (points) well spent. That bland, daily sameness until you finally keel over, that there is a love you can set your watch by and what I’ll choose over the flitty exuberance of exciting youth each and every day.
Just don’t tell my wife I equated our relationship to “bland, daily sameness” if you don’t mind.
Daniel: I guess we’ve reached our separate ends. I’m fine with relationships being based on what you propose - I just think our approach to RPG’s should be what will be most fun to play, rather than what will provide the best long-term stability. Plus, nothing spices up a game (or a relationship) like a surprise fireball!
Matt: I’m sure there’s a double entendre buried in there somewhere...
Matt Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist. So if you’ve ever got a hankering for some fine flintlock fantasy with a female anti-hero, check out his Sol’s Harvest series, with book three releasing Feb 6th. He can be found at @md_presley and at his blog mdpresley.com.