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I've read repeatedly that casters in PF2e are mostly relegated to support roles, i.e. buffing allies, rather than dealing damage. I know that this was an effort on Paizo's part to deal with the linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem.

But I don't fully understand why damage spells are considered suboptimal. Is it because casters don't get access to items that improve their to-hit chances on their spells, the way physical-damage-dealers do with e.g. +1/+2 weapons etc.? Or is there something else in the mechanics of casting damaging spells that I've missed, which is a problem?

If the former, would a suitable house-rule be to allow weapon potency runes to affect spells cast while 'wielding' the weapon? Or add equivalent runes to the effect of, "while wielding this weapon you gain a +X bonus to your spell attack bonus and spell DC"?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not very familiar with 2e, but I know in 1e it isn't so much that casters are relegated to non-damaging roles, it's that casting a spell to deal some damage is usually not as effective as casting a spell to buff your allies or hinder your enemies. Are you sure that's not what people mean? \$\endgroup\$ – PlutoThePlanet Oct 19 at 13:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ If that was the case (it doesn't seem to be), then a confirmation with details about how they keep up in damage would be a valid answer. I'm a good bit into detailing the damage output of various classes and so far it seems true that they simply do less damage (although I need to review some things before I determine how viable I'd consider them) \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Oct 19 at 14:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wish this had some references or links to the things you're reading--I feel like it'd be nice for future readers to contrast answers below with extant arguments being made that damage spells are weak, rather than just in a void. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Oct 19 at 20:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Somewhat related: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/172239/… \$\endgroup\$ – ESCE Oct 19 at 20:43
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It's honestly quite the opposite in PF2e. I'm not sure where you're getting your information from but support spells (at least debuffs/control) is pretty weak until much higher level while damage spells hit pretty hard consistently. Also with scaling cantrips you don't have to worry about doing nothing a turn as even a low level caster any more. Sure a highly optimized fighter or ranger could probably do more damage per turn to a single enemy (depending on critical hits) but only a caster dps can do great area damage. The fact that stuff doesn't die as fast as in PF1e means that's a bit more significant then you'd think.

On the buff/debuff side there is no longer strong low level debuff spells. Grease, create pit, color spray, etc either no longer exist or greatly reduced. 1st level fear spell is worse then just doing an intimidate with a charisma based character. Grease only knocks prone on a critical failed save (nat 1 or total roll 10 below the target DC). Even mid level spells like slow are greatly reduced. It's single target only with a fortitude save (an extremely common high save) and even if it sticks it's not as debilitating as stagger in PF1e. There are some effects on these spells if the enemy does succeed it's save but it's generally only a single round. Buffs are greatly reduced from PF1e too. Haste for example only lets you do an extra basic attack or move and no stat buffs...the attack follows the normal multiple attack penalty and cannot be used for any classes special abilities unlike PF1e which was at your full bonus.

Experience

I'm GMing a game at level 10 and I'm a player in a game that just hit level 9. I ran a play test game until about level 12 and I did all the play test scenarios. In the beginning casters were pretty weak. Their damage and support was all pretty low. Paizo gave all number across the board a pretty substantial buff halfway through the play test. I am playing a druid blaster in the game I'm a player in so maybe my opinion is a little biased but I'm by far doing the most damage in that game. (My fellow party members aren't really built for max damage). I don't see myself being useless compared to a fighter or ranger for damage even if we had one built min/maxed.

As for hit chances casters lag a little behind because martial types get expert proficiency with their weapons at level 5 vs casters getting expert on spell casting at level 7. With the nice spell heightening system you can choose different saves to hit while a martial always has to target AC. Elemental weaknesses are also much more common than in PF1e; these are great to exploit for even more damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Thanks for this great answer which you qualified with your experience with the system. I had been curious about PF2E and been holding back taking a deeper dive on it because the freely available information was pretty intimidating for me to even begin to approach. In addition to answering the querent, you also helped me a bit with your discussion on experience with the system. Hopefully I get to see more of your inputs on other PF2E questions. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Oct 19 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for an insightful answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben R. Oct 20 at 9:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps they are hearing people talk about PF1e? A number of damage spells there do not scale very well (if at all) and are very quickly outclassed by even higher level damage spells, so it’s not unusual for people to play buff/debuff focused casters because they have a much bigger impact on the game no matter what spell level they are using. \$\endgroup\$ – Austin Hemmelgarn Oct 20 at 12:26
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'Blaster' spellcasters have a specific niche

As early as level 8 (our current campaign's level) but increasingly so by level 14 (the level of a one-shot we played before the campaign), spellcasters' damage per action falls behind what martial characters are able to produce with (Greater, Major) Striking Runes, Weapon Specialization, and other options. The +1 to +3 item bonus to hit is substantial, but doesn't come close to comparing to martials' damage on Action because Spellcasters have very few options that do not cost at least 2 Actions.

However, they are far from useless. In fact, they are phenomenal in the right circumstance... unfortunately that circumstance is successful Area of Effect (AoE) spells. While they can't compete single target, they are easily able to out-damage their allies if they are able to land Fireballs and similar attacks on groups of enemies.


Anecdote 1

Next to each example I will include an approximation of their DPR (aDPR) that I determine using the super accurate formula I made up on the spot. It assumes moderately average die rolls. Essentially, any full modifier attack has its average damage included, half for -4/5 and one quarter for -8/10. I estimate criticals by adding in one quarter of their Strikes' DPR to represent critting every 2-3 rounds (this is slightly high but not unheard of) or half of the DPR for the level 14 Fighter to represent their higher ability to crit on attacks. I make no accounting for class's attack abilities I have not witnessed, so these numbers may be lower than optimized characters'.

  • Level 8 Two-Hand Fighter [aDPR 47]

    • Strikes for 2d12+6 (average 19 damage)
    • Fair chance to critically succeed for average 38 damage
    • Maximum approx. 30 damage/60 crit.
    • Can Power Attack for slightly more (other Fighters may take Exacting Strike to have better 2-3rd attacks)
    • With Sudden Charge as an option, almost always able to perform 2 Strikes if not 3
  • Level 8 Thief Rogue [aDPR 47]

    • Strikes for 2d6+6* damage and 2d6 sneak attack (average 21); not everything can be harmed by Sneak Attack
    • Slight chance to critically succeed for average 42 damage
    • Maximum approx. 40 damage/80 crit.
    • Due to spending actions on positioning or attempting to force the flat-footed condition, more likely to only have 2 Strikes than the Fighter, but still frequently able to Strike 3 times
  • Level 8 Draconic Sorcerer [aDPR 32/25 per target limited use or 14 single/two targets]

    • Cantrips deal (generally) 4d4+4 (5-20, average 14) for an average per-action damage of 7; energy damage
    • Can target 2 foes or have a chance to critically succeed for average 28 damage and some persistent damage
    • 4 times per day**, can spend a 4th level spell slot to do 8d6+4 (average 32 damage, 16 per Action) in an area***
    • 4 times per day**, can spend a 3rd level spell slot to do 6d6+3 (average 24 damage, 12 per Action) in an area***
    • Critical chance depends on enemies' Saves, which tend to be slightly higher than PC's by level

*This is my character and I don't actually have a Striking rune yet, but I should as soon as we are able to slow down for a day so I accounted for it in the example.
**Assuming they're not bothering to cast other spells.
***Attacking a single target does not increase damage (although it may impose other penalties)

At level 8, the blaster sorcerer is treading water with the melee attackers. They have bursts of usefulness where they compete but when they run out or are unwilling to spend spell slots, they fall far behind. However, they are able to shine in encounters where AoE is effective.


Anecdote 2

  • Level 14 Fearsome Brute Two-Weapon Fighter [aDPR 90]

    • Attacking with Legendary proficiency, 3d8+9+(3*Frightened condition) (average 24 damage)
    • Substantial chance to critically succeed for average 48+(6*Frightened condition)
    • Maximum approx. 39 damage/78 crit.
    • (Nearly) guaranteed 2 Strikes per round, usually 3 and frequently 4 or can use one action to Demoralize and 3 attacks
  • Level 14 Druid Multiclass Polymorph Monk [aDPR 81(91)]

    • Wild Shapes into a Huge (animal, chose Snake) with unarmed Fang attack (Master Proficiency) for 4d4+10 damage and 1d6 poison damage (average 23 damage)
    • Other animals do up to 4d8+10 damage (average 28) included in parenthesis
    • Fair chance to critically succeed for average 46 (52) damage
    • Maximum approx 32 damage/64 crit. (42 damage/84 crit.)
    • Able to Strike 2-4 times reliably with Flurry of Blows and large reach/high speed
  • Level 14 Archer/Snare* Ranger [aDPR 59]

    • Strikes for 3d8+4 (average 17 damage) plus 2d8 (average 9) damage once per round
    • Fair chance to critically succeed for average 34 or 52 damage
    • Maximum approx. 44 damage/88 crit.
    • Can reliably strike 3-4 times with Hunted Shot and ranged attacks
  • Level 14 Primal Sorcerer [aDPR 54 per target limited, 77 single target or cantrips for 18-22 single]

    • Acid Splash for 3d6+3 (average 18) average per-action damage of 9 with 3 splash; energy damage
    • Produce Flame for 7d4+5 (average 22) average per-action 11; energy damage
    • 4 times per day**, can spend a 7th level spell slot to do 14d6+5 (average 54 damage, 27 per Action) in an area
    • Has 24 other spell slots to deal reduced damage by 2d6 per level
    • Critical chance depends on enemies' Saves, which tend to be slightly higher than PC's by level
    • An Arcane spellcaster could use spells like Disintegrate for 12-14d10 damage (average 66-77 damage single target)

*This was done before the APG was released, so the Snares were next to useless and a large power sink for this character


Summary

As you can see, even with their most powerful single target spell, damage spellcasters only compare to martials' low ball average damage. However, they are the absolute royalty of area damage. Given the opportunity to slam even 2-3 foes with their resource-limited abilities, they will have excellent rounds damage-wise. However, they simply can't compete with weapons' reliability and ability to attack multiple times.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for an insightful answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Ben R. Oct 20 at 9:40

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