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I have a D&D 3.5 group of four players, the classes are; Wizard, Rogue, Barbarian, and Swashbuckler, the level of the players is 4. (Having no healer is part of the game, not part of my question)

My question is about the Barbarian and the Swashbuckler. They are both melee combat characters, and both fill the same role in the group. The problem is that the Barbarian is just so much better at combat than the Swashbuckler, causing the player playing the Swashbuckler to feel inadequate and under-powered in comparison, mainly the player has complained about being totally outmatched when dealing damage.


For comparison:

The Barbarian wields a great axe with 18 strength, meaning his damage with two hands is 1D12+6, and 3D12+18 on a critical, not to mention on a power attack he trade in up to 5 attack bonus for twice as much damage normally, and three times as much on a critical - the Barbarian can then deal an average of roughly 20 damage per attack without a critical hit (1D12+6+8). Not to mention that with rage he can deal even more damage, and has more hit-points than the Swashbuckler regardless. The maximum damage that the Barbarian can deal on an attack with a critical and full power attack is 66 (3D12+18+12), while the minimum without a critical and no power attack is 7 (1D12+6).

The Swashbuckler wields a rapier with 12 strength, and 20 Intelligence (racial bonus) meaning his damage is 1D6+6, and 2D6+6 on a critical, his threat range for critical is 18-20 so it happens more often, but not often enough to match the Barbarians damage - the Swashbuckler can deal an average of roughly 9 damage per attack without a critical (1D6+6). The maximum damage that the Swashbuckler can deal on an attack with a critical is 24 (2D6+12), while the minimum without a critical is also 7 (1D6+6).


As you can clearly see, the Swashbuckler is outclassed in damage, where his maximum damage is less than the Barbarians average. Yes - the Swashbuckler has many skills and more flexibility in combat - including more AC... But the player feels totally useless when dealing damage.

Should I introduce some elements to help balance this? Or let the players simply live with the consequence of their choice? If I introduce balancing elements, should they be overt or covert? Or should I do something else entirely, or a balance of the three? In other words - I seek advice on the situation.

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9 Answers 9

The Barbarian is known to be a more powerful class than the Swashbuckler. The Barbarian is a so-called "Tier 4" class, the Swashbuckler a "Tier 5" class (see the Tier System for Classes). Parts of the definitions of the involved tiers are "Capable of doing one thing quite well" (Tier 4) and "Capable of doing only one thing, and not necessarily all that well". In fact, the two classes are a particularly good example of the difference between the involved Tiers, since both are primarily melee classes that have a similar "thing" to do in combat - dealing damage. So you really have a textbook example of a power disparity within the 3.5 class system. And this isn't all that easy to fix. Some things you can do:

Tailor some of your encounters to the weak player

Difficult to pull off gracefully, but it can be done. The Swashbuckler has a few things the Barbarian doesn't, including social skills (Diplomacy, Bluff and Sense Motive) and the Tumble skill. The Barbarian having more trouble at a king's ball shouldn't be too difficult to envision. Creating combat encounters where Tumbling plays a huge role is usually an exercise in cleverly positioning enemies (long reach helps) and making said enemies good at taking advantage of Attacks of Opportunity.

Problem is, of course, that it doesn't do much for the problem of the Swashbuckler not being competitive in the damage department. The players would effectively be taking turns at being relevant - not something that ages well in a campaign. But once in a while to keep spirits up should be fine.

A more lasting solution would be to...

Steer the Swashbuckler towards more powerful options

There are a few options that make Swashbuckler more palatable.

  • Daring Outlaw: Multiclassing and taking the Daring Outlaw feat (from Complete Scoundrel) is a good way to bring a Swashbuckler's damage output up - up and a bit beyond that of a Rogue, at least. This would be my recommended approach if only there weren't a Rogue in the party already. As-is, it might just move the competition from the Barbarian to the Rogue, but perhaps that allows more branching out.

  • Arcane Stunt: This alternate class feature from Complete Mage grants Swashbucklers a few uses per day of a spell-like ability, at the cost of their Grace. It's a tiny improvement, but usually an improvement.

  • Factotum: Multiclassing into Factotum (from Dungeonscape) provides immediate extra combat use out of the character's Intelligence. Perhaps more importantly, it can provide considerable utility in the form of skills (and other class features), making the comparison with the Barbarian less direct.

  • Tome of Battle: Multiclassing or prestige classing into a Tome of Battle class (probably the Warblade for Int synergy) would make the Swashbuckler an enormous lot better, no question. And level 4 is an excellent time to do it (if not before). Problem is, Tome of Battle works for more or less all melee characters - including the Barbarian.

Some Retraining (Player's Handbook 2) may be necessary or beneficial to make the new options fit.

If it won't...

Abandon ship!

The whole situation might not be salvageable. See K.L.'s answer.

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In my opinion there has been some kind of expectation problem, and we have to track it down.

Expecting a needle to effectively cut down trees

First of all, is the Swashbuckler player an experienced DnD player? He may have chosen his class thinking he would be killer in melee, while his class isn't exceptionally good at this. If there were no other melee characters in the party, this may not have been so apparent, but a Barb killing machine shows what a good melee character can do.

If what the player really wanted was to be a human meatgrinder, then perhaps he should simply make a new character, with the help of an experienced player. Balancing out a weak class to not appear weak is gonna be a long and hard way of doing things.

Redundant character is redundant

If that's not the case, then what did he expect from the gameplay? Maybe there was a problem with assigning team roles? I could easily see a swashbuckler to be made charismatic and daring, quite charming, the "face" of the team, who would not be completely useless in battle. Maybe the player should have his character be the team's PR man? That way he would have his own field to shine in. A mage would be outclassed by a Barb in terms of melee combat, but he does not feel bad about it, does he? He simply does different things.

Having two players filling exactly the same role in a team will lead to a competition of sorts and usually someone is going to feel underpowered/worse. It will also be hard to provide interesting challenges to such a team and make the players have a feeling of success and personal glory.

To sum things up

In my opinion, the Swashbuckler player needs to change his character, and have a clear definition of what he wants to do in the team when creating the new one. Its critical that his responsibilities do not overlap with the rest of the team, or else someone is going to feel outclassed.

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2  
I appreciate your input, and those are wise words, but mostly those are decisions the player could make - and as far as I know he has not asked a question here about what he should do.. I am asking what I can do in order to try to balance the situation... If your suggestion is that I should just tell the player to either man up or change... I think that is a bit harsh... –  Inbar Rose Jul 29 '13 at 10:30
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Well, it may be a bit harsh if you phrase it like that, but in a way, thats true. I can see why you want to work around the problem and customise the character/class/equipment to make the character fit the player's expectations, but I think that the player may have a feeling that you are going easy on him and lose a lot of the sense of accomplishment or awesome when he matches the Barbarian in terms of damage dealing and combat. He will see your hand in his success - it could be a bummer. I think it would be best to discuss the possible solutions to the problem with the player - let him choose –  K.L. Jul 29 '13 at 10:36
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@InbarRose You're playing in a system where some classes outclass other classes at particular roles. Sometimes this is the best thing to do: talk to your player about what they want to do and find a character that lets them be more effective at that. –  doppelgreener Jul 29 '13 at 11:36
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@InbarRose I would suggest letting the Swashbuckler player recreate his character from scratch - as the same character, that is - name, race, backstory - but using the Swordsage class from the Tome of Battle/Book of Nine Swords. It has a lot of the same flavor (Light armor, bonus from mental stats, melee combat) but is a LOT better than the Swashbuckler. It probably won't do as much damage as the Barbarian (Because, really, Barbarian) but it will be more versatile. –  medivh Jul 30 '13 at 7:27

The Problem, in my opinion

The problem is likely the "grading scale" the Swashbuckler is using. Sure he will not deal the same amount of damage swing for swing as the barbarian with higher strength. A tank (the modern military vehicle) will always deal more damage than a sniper. A sniper, however is able to things a tank can't. The swashbuckler can also do things the barbarian can't. The barbarian is a tidal wave of brute force, like a runaway train barreling down the tracks. Once you pull the pin on the Rage Grenade, he will charge into battle and attack until everything is dead.

What's so wrong with that? Plenty. A barbarian is like the Incredible Hulk. If the objective changes from HULK SMASH to anything else, he won't be able to change gears mentally as easily as any other character class will be able to. What if there is a hazard that the barbarian does not see during his rush forward?

The Swashbuckler is lighter, faster, and able to go where the fight needs him to go. What do I mean by this? The swashbuckler won't be wearing heavy armor, has the ability to hinder enemy movement and choice of where/who to attack. Any enemy will be faced with a choice: turn his back on the barbarian or turn his back on the swashbuckler who then gets bonus damage (class level) to any strikes he does in the next turn. Not something a choice I would enjoy making. At this point, they should already be doing this. What does it matter if you distract a bad guy if the barbarian then mows him down? That's what the fighter role has done in D&D since the earliest of early days! The fighter/barbarian/paladin/ranger/swashbuckler goes and takes the bad guy's attention away from the wizard who then blasts the baddies with a fireball.

So, where do we go from here?

First, sit down with the swashbuckler and ask them if they want to deal massive damage, or if they want to explore how their character can be better than a barbarian. If it's "I want to do more damage than Grog the barbarian", I think it's time he rolled up a second barbarian or other "front-line" fighter type of character. However, if he is willing to grade his character on another scale than gross damage output, he should work on making the swashbuckler a better character by playing up the differences between him and the barbarian. Were I the DM of your group, I would also let him take the character back to the drawing board (mechanically speaking) and fix any abilities/skills/feats that don't match with his stated character narrative. Is he a show-boat? A pragmatic killer? Does he harbor desire to charge, but know he can't/shouldn't?

Based on what you say he said however, I think he will want to play another barbarian.

EDIT:
In PF, the Swashbuckler is more of a mashup between warrior and rogue. This results in a character who like I said already wants to get into someone's blind-spot where you can backstab. Pathfinder also gives the swashbuckler bonus feats like the warrior gets and some of those feats expand threat range and also I believe critical hit multiplier (or critical effects like bleed).

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Daring Outlaw

Complete Scoundrel has a feat called Daring Outlaw that lets Swashbuckler and Rogue levels stack for a few different purposes, including Sneak Attack (so long as you have at least 3 levels of Rogue) You already have a natural flanking partner in the party in the Barbarian, so that's going to make using those Sneak Attack dice a lot easier.

The bad news is that it's going to take a couple of levels to set that up from where you are right now. In fact in order to do it by level 6 you'd have to have added a level of Rogue already, but you could probably retcon back level 4 into a level of Rogue to make the player happy. If you don't retcon it, by time you can get 3 levels of Rogue and the feat it'll be level 9 and that's a VERY long way away. (I've done that before in my campaign with a player who had an underpowered character and realized it after they'd made a bad decision, after talking it over with all the players. The end result was a happier party.)

At level 6 the Swashbuckler would be able to add 3d6 Sneak Attack dice to his damage rolls (and 4d6 at level 7). Since he already has Weapon Finesse, it might also be worth it to swap over to light weapons (Shortswords for example) and take Two Weapon Fighting (or house rule that rapiers count as light weapons for TWF, since they already do for Weapon Finesse anyway). That'll add more attacks and more Sneak Attack. Not necessary, but helpful.

For added help, pick up the Penetrating Strike ACF from Dungeonscape, and he'll still be able to use half his Sneak Attack dice against things normally immune to Sneak Attack provided he's flanking, and your Barbarian is there to help with that.

Given that you don't want to go down the "change characters" route, I think this is the most straightforward way to boost the character he already has. It also helps give your two melee players something to cooperate about instead of competing about, due to the flanking (and for the Barbarian flanking means more headway to Power Attack, so everybody's coming out ahead).

It's unfortunate that you're level 4 instead of level 3 and thus may have to retcon a level to get it set up soon enough to help the player, but there's only so much you can do with where you are in the campaign without making a new character.

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I think the problem might be a misinterpretation of the role of swashbuckler by the player.

If I ask, describe a barbarian and describe a swashbuckler, how fast would "melee fighter" appear in the description of each?

melee fighting is not what a swashbuckler do, its something he CAN do, melee fighting is basically what defines the barbarian. Make the player think, what does define his class? What makes it different from the other classes?

Also, as a GM, give the player situations where he must play these characteristics, and preferably, as there is this in-party conflict, something that the barbarian wouldn't/ cannot do so well or at all.

Finally, as there is this conflict, make the player think how his character could defeat a barbarian (not the other player) if they had to fight. If you decide to actually put him against a barbarian, make the environment some kind of playground that his class could use to outsmart his opponent

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3  
So, what does a Swashbuckler do, then? –  Alex P Jul 29 '13 at 22:30
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@AlexP: Nothing. It's a terrible class - the only good thing I have to say is "At least it's not as bad as the NPC Class Warrior" but even Warrior gets class features not available to the Swashbuckler. –  medivh Jul 30 '13 at 7:28

Now, that is an interesting question. Basically, barbarian should have more attack bonuses, so sending dodgy enemies at them won't work well. Through... Is the Swashbuckler Chaotic? If not - send some goons with protection from Barbs alignment and see how it works. Like spellcasters, or something.
Additionally, you could give the party some non-combat stuff of Swashbuckler' specialization, which will give.him some fun as well. Just make sure that everyone've got something only they can do 8)

Then again, you could suggest the player to multiclass into Warblade from ToB - they get some crazy damage dices.

Also, if the power is the matter - you could give him some nasty template, or, if he has UMD - let him have some cool magic gear to carry around to murder mobs/enchant himself to murder them. He ain't no barb, but he has to have something that barb can't do 8)

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I would suggest letting the Swashbuckler player recreate his character from scratch - as the same character, that is - name, race, backstory - but using the Swordsage class from the Tome of Battle/Book of Nine Swords. It has a lot of the same flavor (Light armor, bonus from mental stats, melee combat) but is a LOT better than the Swashbuckler. It probably won't do as much damage as the Barbarian (Because, really, Barbarian) but it will be more versatile.

EDIT: Or possibly as multiclass Rogue/Swordsage but that's a question of taste and for a player inexperienced enough w/ 3.5 to take the "Swashbuckler" class voluntarily, it might be too complex to figure out how to do the multiclassing without gimping himself.

EDITEDIT: I suggest rebuilding from scratch, rather than trying to "fix" the Swashbuckler, because fixes have to happen slowly as he levels up. No amount of "Just multiclass into Warblade for INT synergy" will help right now and in the long run Warblade has a very different flavor from Swashbuckler so this will change the feel of the character.

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up vote 1 down vote accepted

So, first of all - thank you to everyone who answered, got some great advice.

In the end, after consulting with the players, we decided that the Swashbuckler would change his class from the Core D&D version to the Pathfinder version of the Swashbuckler with a few modifications.

  • First, The Swashbuckler would lose his Bonus Feat at level 3, and his Weapon Training at level 5 and keep the Insightful Strike from the core version.

This decision is made because that was the core idea behind his character choice - "a melee fighter who uses his intelligence"

  • Secondly, Acrobatic Charge ability of the core version would be replaced with the ability to do that anyway as a skill roll, regardless of his level - this would also mean any character could attempt this.

This decision is made because according to the official text of the ability:

Acrobatic Charge (Ex): A swashbuckler of 7th level or higher can charge in situations where others cannot. She may charge over difficult terrain that normally slows movement or allies blocking her path. This ability enables her to run down steep stairs, leap down from a balcony, or to tumble over tables to get to her target. Depending on the circumstance, she may still need to make appropriate checks (Jump or Tumble checks, in particular) to successfully move over the terrain.

There is no mechanic to the ability, just a concept for what the Swashbuckler can do, I see no reason to restrict the ability to run through difficult terrain, etc.. to level 7. But I do understand that it will instead require a roll each time it is attempted, regardless of the character doing it - I opted to grant the Swashbuckler character a +5 bonus to this skill check, simply because I am the DM and I can do whatever I want...


The decision was made with a few understandings, the Swashbuckler character is not, and will not, ever be able to compete for damage with a Barbarian - and that is okay. The Swashbuckler will take not a supporting role, but a cooperating role with the Barbarian to utilize both their strengths in battle, while the Swashbuckler will be more of a dynamic fighter specializing in getting where he needs to be and harassing the enemies that need harassing, while not taking the full brunt of the combat.

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Use Koumei's "Swashbuckler".

http://www.tgdmb.com/viewtopic.php?t=50350

I'd give more advice, but d20 is a terrible wargame engine to play an rpg with; so I haven't been working on it for about 5-6 years now.

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4  
Can you summarize what's at the link? We don't want answers to suucmb to link rot over the years, and forums are very susceptible. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Jul 30 '13 at 0:07
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Welcome to the site! Please take a look at the tour and the help; they're a useful introduction to the site. Since answers that are "barely more than a link to an external site" tend to get downvoted/deleted, can you tell us anything about why you think this alternate Swashbuckler would help the problem presented in the question? And once you have 20+ rep, feel free to join the chat! –  BESW Jul 30 '13 at 0:07

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