Pathfinder 2e designer Michael Sayer made a post describing the game's assumptions of how spellcasters are intended to play, which I found completely baffling, and totally at odds with any game I've ever played.

...What [the game] does assume, though, is that the wizard will have a variety of options available. That they'll memorize cantrips and spells to target most of the basic defenses in the game, that they'll typically be able to target something other than the enemy's strongest defense, that many of their abilities will still have some effect even if the enemy successfully saves against the spell, and that the wizard will use some combination of cantrips, slots, and potentially focus spells during any given encounter (usually 1 highest rank slot accompanied by some combination of cantrips, focus spells, and lower rank slots, depending a bit on level).

So excelling with the kind of generalist spellcasters PF2 currently presents, means making sure your character is doing those things...

In 15 years of playing D&D-like RPGs, neither I nor anyone I play with have ever heard of any of this. None of us have ever chosen spells to target an enemy's weak saving throw, nor have we chosen our repertoirs based on the number of defenses being targeted. None of us even knew that monsters were designed with weak or strong saving throws. No D&D-like book I've ever read has ever advised players to target weak saving throws. In fact, the idea that any of us could even LEARN what an enemy's saving throws were, has never even occurred to us, nor has it even been supported by the Pathfinder 2e rules until the recent remaster.

I heard further comments from Pathfinder 2e designers saying that attack-based spells' hit chances are balanced around the assumption that the player will cast True Strike first, and that this is, in part, why spell attack rolls should not receive item bonuses. This just further confused me. None of my players has ever thought to cast True Strke, and to hear that the whole game is designed around it just boggles my mind.

I ran some calculations to check just how bad it is if a player does not adhere to these "Generalist Spellcaster" assumptions. A level 9 wizard who does not max out their intelligence, and who targets a level 12 Lich with a Will-based Incapacitation spell, will have only a 5% chance that their spell does anything at all.

This level of optimization is typical of my players, and it's clear to me that the game is unplayable for casters in its current state without an unreasonable level of optimization. I want to change the game's rules to eliminate the need to play a generalist spellcaster.

When selecting a character, my players almost exclusively want to play a specialist caster, not a generalist. Typically they pick a theme, such as "water" or "fire", or "illusions", and select spells around that theme, with a small handful of go-to spells that they use almost every fight. I want all these spells to be useful, regardless of the opponent's relative defenses.

How can I modify the rules to eliminate the "generalist spellcaster" paradigm from the game, and remove the need to target weak defenses without making spellcasters too weak or too powerful?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Role-playing Games Meta, or in Role-playing Games Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Apr 19 at 23:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Reminder to everyone that further comments belong in the linked chat, and not under this comment. \$\endgroup\$
    – Oblivious Sage
    Commented Apr 20 at 12:54

8 Answers 8


You cannot remove it without extensive redesign

I always had the feeling that PF2 was targed at people who found DnD5 too simplistic. You get way more feats, positioning now matters, learning about your enemy (Recall Knowledge) helps here, and so on. These are not only some part of the game, these were the design goals.

Wanting to remove these is like asking how you can remove the Force and Light Sabers from the Star Wars RPG. It would likely be much easier just to play another game.

Flexibility was never wrong

I want to mention that picking varied spells has always been a recommended best practice, at least since ADnD:

  • Fireball was great, but quite a lot of creatures were immune or resistant to fire, so you had to prepare Ice Storm too
  • Mindless creatures were immune to Enchantments, so you had to prepare some damaging spells
  • Golems were immune to most spells, so you had to prepare buff spells
  • Not only were saves different, since DnD 3 they were predictably different

I do not know what game you were playing in the last 15 years, but it is subtantially different from what I played. Yes, PF2 takes tactical planning to new heights, but that is why I prefer it to DnD5.

Needing to think is not a bug, but a feature

If the player does not like to think during an encounter, he picked the wrong character, and should play a martial instead.
If the player does not like to think during character creation/level up, he picked the wrong game.


There is no problem here.

You have two different views here, but they don't contradict each other:

  • Your players want to have themed spell lists such as water, fire, illusions, etc.
  • Pathfinder's rules incentivize them to target different defenses (i.e., AC, fortitude, reflex, will, etc.).

These don't contradict each other. A player could have a fire-themed spell list which provides options that target different defenses, as well as support and utility abilities. They could do the same with nearly any theme.

To help them out: reskin existing spells.

If you want to help them out more, then re-skin existing spells. Enfeeble saps a target's strength. A fire wizard could alter the qualitative details without changing any mechanics: maybe it subjects the target to uncomfortable heat, reducing their strength. A plant-themed wizard might color this as some kind of nettle or biological irritant, a mentalist might think of this as hypnotic or suggestive ability, etc.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I think I see where the confusion is. There's two aspects to this question which intersect and muddy the waters. One is that the characters want to select spells thematically, which could indeed be resolved by reskinning spells. The other part is that the players simply have no interest whatsoever in keeping track of which spell targets which weakness, and exploiting those weaknesses. Just selecting from hundreds of spells is hard. The whole premise of carefully selecting spells to use in combat against certain opponents is undesireable gameplay, which no one in the group is interested in. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 20 at 3:13

That's the fun part: you don't.

You admitted that in D&D 5e casters are overpowered. PF2 offers a solution for that: make them balanced. As a spellcaster will always have more options at their disposal, it means those options need to be individually less powerful.

The design philosophy of PF2 is to make overcoming obstacles a matter of how you play, not how you built your character (as it was the case in D&D 3). It follows that having a strategy should matter against not having one.

More seriously, what if everybody wants to play a one-trick pony?

Then you pick another game. FATE or Dungeon World seem like they could suit your play-style. Or pretty much anything that isn't designed around having tactical decisions matter.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill You can play FATE or Dungeon World with the spells of Pathfinder if that's what you want. What is stopping you? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill "A few minor changes" will just create a worse game. You are basically like someone who orders an "extra cheese pizza" but ask that the cheese is removed. It doesn't make sense. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 19 at 22:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill It makes casters more powerful. You can do that, and even add more buffs to casters, but ultimately you will end up with DD5. Also targeting your opponent's weaknesses is not just something for casters: against an opponent with a huge AC a martials may prefer to use a Trip, a Grapple or a Disarm... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 3:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill It makes the game easier for casters without making it easier for martials: that's pretty obviously a buff to casters. The devs also balance around casters not necessarily have prepared only the best spells for a given encounter. You also are nudging your players against using stuff like Recall Knowledge so all the features that depend on it are going to become useless. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 17:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill "to make the game easier for a class X" is synonymous with "to make class X stronger". You can't have one without the other. Also you seem to claim a lot of things about the designer's intentions without providing any source for that. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 19:47

Change how you run and play, not the rules

This is a frame challenge, but it’s based on my own experience with players of varying approaches and tastes. What you’re describing isn’t a new problem - I’m most familiar with it from the third and fourth editions of D&D, which introduced the three categories of saves (or in 4E, alternate defences) Reflex, Will and Fortitude.

With a game that has rigid spellcasting in the form of long lists of specific defined spells, sticking to a theme is easy and fun - but also runs into these sorts of problems. The design makes the assumption that spells need to be mechanically distinct in such a game, in modern editions because there’s a player expectation that different narrative choices will have different game effects: that casting fire seed feels different to casting magic missile, just as swinging a longsword isn’t mechanically identical to stabbing with a dagger, even in just a small way (e.g. damage die and damage type).

This also comes from a “simulationist” mindset: a desire to have the rules of the game in some (very basic) way model the physics of the fictional world, or at least the way we expect fantasy stories to go. Defences are meant to model what is happening when a creature avoids the effects of a spell or other source of danger. It is more “realistic”, or at least more believable from a story sense, to dive out of the way of a fireball’s blast than it is to survive it because you’re wearing better armour. The fantasy stories from which these games draw are full of monsters or foes that are too fast, too strong-willed, too tough or too magically protected for a certain kind of attack to harm them. The characters in those stories have to adapt and find a solution that works; fantasy roleplaying games have long been the same, with some combination of player skill through decision making and character skill through rules information. That mix is partly decided by the ruleset, but also by the play style of a particular table. And while the new rules make it easier for players to use rolls to discover game information about enemies - representing the information the characters have determined - you don’t have to engage with that. Whatever the designer says, there’s not one way to play the game and have it work! And the basic maths of the game haven’t changed much with the remaster, as far as I can tell. So you can just continue to ignore those numbers if you want.

The rules differentiation is for the player’s benefit too, as these games use broadly the same rules for players and foes. Players want to both differentiate their characters in meaningful ways, and understand what threats their character is best able to resist. Perhaps part of my character concept is someone with a strong sense of self, represented by a high Charisma - I would expect them to be better at resisting mind control than the shy but nimble rogue in the party.

That’s not the only way to do this sort of thing, of course. Plenty of other games abstract some of these aspects of play into narrative-only effects. 13th Age doesn’t vary the amount of damage done by different weapons, for example, instead having that be a feature of each class; in such a case the type of weapon becomes a mostly narrative choice. (Notably it still has multiple defences and damage types, used extensively by spells.) But where character choices and monster behaviour are designed to tie narrative to meaningful mechanical difference, modelling multiple defences to spells (etc) is one of the main ways this is achieved. It’s therefore hard to strip out this system without making characters feel quite similar.

My players have had varying but generally low levels of interest in picking spells (or optimising characters) for game and not story reasons, so I have (and do) run into this, but I didn’t need to change the rules of the game to handle it. This is easier in some games than others - D&D 5e is pretty forgiving of non-optimised characters in my table experience, though I’m much less familiar with PF2e.

Here are my suggestions for things DMs and players can do to mitigate this problem, if it becomes a problem, most of which will work in PF2e:

  • For both DMs and players, engage with the fiction of the combat. You don’t need to know any specific numbers or rule information about your opponents; if your attack repeatedly misses, or the opponent repeatedly saves, narratively your character should be trying a different tactic or spell, not trying something over and over again expecting a different result. You don’t have to learn or memorise numbers: just pay attention to what’s happening and notice if the creature is too fast or tough for this specific attack to work. This also means that the DM needs to describe the opponent’s reaction to your attacks in terms that make sense of the game rules, and they do know if a creature is good at the particular saving throw being targeted. “The mephit saves” doesn’t tell you about the fiction; “the mephit dodges” gives you a vague idea; “the mephit flaps its wings and dodges out of the path of your spell easily” is a very reasonable description and hopefully the sort already being given. That should tip off any spellcaster character that you’re going to have a hard time hitting this creature with spells resisted by Reflex saves, so you might want to try something else - and you don’t have to use any rules or learn any DCs to do that.
  • For that to work, players should have at least one alternate combat strategy. If you have a classic fire mage, whose spells are all targeting Reflex and doing fire damage, then even narratively you can see this is a problem when visiting the elemental planes or fighting tiny nimble pixies. Surely this must already be the case in your two years of play? And since your group likes the large variety of spells in PF2e, I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t already the case that your casters have an interesting variety of spells! But such a player can widen their range while sticking to a theme by re-flavouring spells with alternate effects - a distraction spell that manifests as a crown of flames, or a buff for an ally that looks like eldritch purple flames etc. This opens up new fun options for the player, and they only really need one reliable backup, rather than lots of different ones.
  • You can also spread this variety of options amongst the party. While spellcasters might have the most options, they don’t have provide all the party’s versatility on their own. It’s another classic fantasy trope that each hero gets time in the spotlight: the wizard sets the animated scarecrows on fire, the barbarian steps up to cleave off the serpent’s head and so on. And of course you can join forces by making use of spells and attacks that work well together. The serpent is too fast for the barbarian? The Druid can entangle it in vines to slow it down. This kind of teamwork is meant to be part of the fun of a game with lots of tactical options.
  • Understanding the rules for your own character’s abilities also helps. Your players surely know they have to tell the DM what defence their spell targets when they use it, and understand that has a game effect. They can’t all have picked spells which only target one defence. That in itself is enough to tell you it’s ann important factor in spell choice, even without engaging with any new rules about discovering specific DCs.
  • Similarly players can look for feats, magic items or other character options that enhance the play style they want. As noted in the comments, PF2e doesn’t really support this, at least not in official rules, but many other games do. As an example, in D&D 5e the elemental adept feat helps you overcome resistance and even immunity to a damage type. There have been feats or other character options like metamagic in some editions that switch the targeted defence. 5e also has magic items and character options that can add bonuses to your spell attacks, damage or save DC, and its generally designed to avoid the problem of becoming useless at high levels if you don’t heavily optimise.
  • As the DM, don’t design encounters which the players can’t defeat. I tend to do the opposite; when my Druid player prepared absorb elements, I looked for creatures that used the kinds of attacks it would work on. This might seem challenging at high level play with characters who don’t fit the expected level of optimisation, but you have to design for the campaign you’re in. That doesn’t have to be as extreme as finding an alternate fantasy heartbreaker game that suits you better (though that’s certainly an option). Instead, pay attention and work out what’s an appropriate challenge for your players. Use lower level/CR monsters than the rulebook suggests if you need to. (And you might not - my current game features fewer encounters, so my players can usually beat quite tough fights.) If the players don’t like picking a range of spells for different defences, I can’t imagine they know or care what the level of a boss monster or major villain is. You might need to adjust XP rewards, or use milestone style advancement, to keep the pace of levelling up where everyone wants it. In my experience, none of this is any more arduous or requires more work to prepare for the game; it’s just a question of focus and approach.
  • Similarly, you can create encounters with a variety of enemies to make sure there’s always something that your spellcasters can affect. This gives your players the chance to choose effective strategies without needing to have built their character in a certain way by choosing a particular spread of attacks or saves in their spells. Instead they switch targets to someone they can hit - and it’s okay to give them hints that their strategy isn’t working! Pathfinder has a pretty good collection of alternate versions of monster types, but you can also reskin a different monster to keep a group of opponents consistent if necessary.
  • Also as a DM, use an enemy’s strength as a story hook. The monster your party needs to defeat is immune to your attacks? Well you need to go on a quest to find the McGuffin Of Destiny/lure them to the Caves of Weakness/discover the exact date the third moon will be eclipsed/recruit or be trained by the reclusive snow mage Elsa, which will allow you to harm them/make them vulnerable/alter your own powers etc. You don’t want to do this all the time, but it’s a classic fantasy trope (it’s the Mentor or Elixir of the Hero’s Journey!). And there are a lot of ways to keep it fresh and interesting.

Let’s apply some of these ideas to your example of the lich. Story-wise, this is a hugely powerful foe with a will strong enough to push them to seek eternal existence through undeath; they shouldn’t be easily mentally dominated. Of course such a spell is hugely unlikely to work on them! You don’t need to know any numbers about them to discover this; it could come from stories you hear about the specific enemy, lore your character seek out about liches, or just the experience of attempting this tactic against them.

Applying my advice, hopefully casting such a spell is far from the specific character’s only option by the time they’re level 9! If they try, the DM should describe in fictional terms how the undead wizard shakes off the attempt at incapacitating its mind with ease. It’s up to the player to interpret that and respond appropriately, as they would in any situation in the game. That might include a tactical retreat until they can come up with an alternate plan - another classic trope of fantasy stories.

Other options:

  • A lich may well be a solo opponent, but if the DM knows one of their players only has mental-focussed spells, they can design this encounter with that in mind: perhaps the lich summons other less powerful creatures to harass the party, which the mind-mage can turn against their foe.
  • The DM could make part of the adventure finding a way to hurt the lich - perhaps the wizard player is the only one who can wield the staff the lich cast away as part of the ritual to embrace undeath, which contain new spells that target the lich’s weaknesses.
  • If the party’s cleric has spells much better suited to attacking a lich, the mind-wizard can use very on-brand spells to improve their concentration.
  • If none of those are satisfactory, then the DM should perhaps just not introduce a lich as a major enemy; there are many other choices which won’t be specifically immune to this player’s preferred play style.
  • \$\begingroup\$ Equipment and feats to allow spellcasters to bypass saves or resistances largely does not exist in pathfinder 2e apart from the Shadow Signet. Players are expected to simply prepare different spells. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 20 at 3:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ You're coming into this with the assumption that spells need to be mechanically distinct, but I don't understand why. What does that add to the game, and what would be lost by removing it? \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 20 at 3:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill I agree they don’t need to be part of roleplaying games in general - I actually prepare more freeform magic systems like Mage or Ars Magica - but they are a part of “crunchy” games like D&D and Pathfinder, where in combat interactions like those are intended to matter. My answer isn’t intended to address how you could alter PF2 that way, but I’m happy to add some thoughts about it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 3:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I really appreciate all the effort that went into this post, but this really seems like a lot of work for something we have no investment or interst in. We've been playing PF2 for years, because it advertised well-balanced casters and martials. We've found that casters tend to be much weaker, and I believe this saving throw paradigm is the problem. We've never paid any attention to saving throws before, because by my reading of the original PF2 rules, players have no way to determine an enemy's save DCs. We really just want to keep ignoring save DCs, but with balanced casters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 20 at 4:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill Sorry I couldn’t help. For what it’s worth, from my perspective, my suggestions are mostly just changes in attitude or focus - you’re making all the same decisions and doing the same amount of planning as you would anyway, just in ways that avoid the problem you’ve identified. My players don’t even think about what the AC of their enemies are, let alone their likely save bonuses, and we still have a great time in combat and they don’t constantly miss. But I hope you find a solution that doesn’t involve a major redesign of the game. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 8:42

Flat saves are not a good fit for this system

From the question itself and from the discussions that followed it my understanding is that you are struggling with these two issues:

  • Your players want to play "themed" spellcasters, say Elsa the Frostwitch, who only specializes in cold, ice and snow themed spells. As this answer points out, this would not be an issue in remastered PF2, you still could select such spells that target different saves (say cone of cold for reflex, frostbite for fortitude, snowball for AC), or you could reflavor spells (say calm reinterpreted as freezing for Will). This leads us the second issue:

  • Your players don't want to have to figure out what the strengths and weaknesses of different monsters are. They just want to be able to use the same spell against all comers, with similar effectiveness.

And you say, you do not want to play a different system, you like the many spells, monsters, options in PF2. You want to change the saving throw system, so that the second demand works at least reasonably well.

My normal recommendation would be to instead suggest you play a less crunchy system like FATE, but you repatedly said in comments that you don't want to do this. You want to play PF2 with flat saves.

So alternatively, as your own answer points out, you can mechanically achieve this by just using the same middling saving throw for all kinds of attacks. And as you realize, this has a collateral issues, but it achieves what you are looking for.

I think it will make the casters stronger, because they do not have to prepare multiple different spells to target different areas of weakness. The number of spells you can prepare is limited, so this allows you to learn a lot more utility spells (movement, buffs, divination, protection, healing, transformation etc.), making you more flexible and with that more powerful. But maybe it is not so much more stronger it is a serious problem.

If you want to play that way, you do not need our blessing for it. If you have not tried it, try it, and you may learn something from the experience. If it works for you, great. Either way, you may be able to give an experience based answer to your own question, instead of just a theoretical one. As you can see from the various answers, other people generally have not done this, as they do not think it is the right thing to do here. There is a reason for this.

Pedigree of PF2

Players wanting to win without the effort to figure out where enemies are strong or weak, and expecting they will get that, may be a legitimate request these days. They dislike the crunchy bits of the system, they like winning, and they are playing to have fun, so shouldn't they just win?

Well, this does not fit with the pedigree of PF2, which descended from D&D, where having to work for your successes has been a theme from the start, and for a reason: if you can just by rote do the same thing all the time, and expect to win by doing so, the game gets boring pretty fast.

D&D originally grew out of tabletop miniatures combat, where players were playing against other players, and would try to learn and exploit any weakness in their opponent's lineup. In early D&D there were tournaments about who is the "better" player, that is, able to more successfully navigate traps and opponents with the resources at hand. Selecting the right spells based what you knew about the oppostion was part of that skill: if you picked the wrong spells, you wasted part of the your power.

A lot has changed since these early days of the hobby, but in essence, PF2 still is a "crunchy" system with multiple vectors of attack and defense. Some level of optimization when developing your characters is expected and supported by the rules providing so many moving parts. An expectation that players have to think to make good decisions is also part of the game (Core Rulebook p.9) .

[W]hile you might decide that your character undertakes an epic journey to overcome terrifying foes and make the world a safer place, your character’s chance of success is determined by their abilities, the choices you make, and the roll of the dice.

Learning about weaknesses of monsters so you can better fight them and pick the right attack is a normal part of game play. And it helps you immerse in the game world. Its just not reasonable for your players to expect otherwise. It is not reasonable that their chance of success should not depend on the choices they made.

Now, I realize it is still possible to have interesting adventures even if it is easier to win. Players can absorb a surpring amount of easy wins before they get bored by them, certainly more than GMs normally think. So again, I recommend you just try those flat saves. Many people however play this game exactly for the kind of interesting complexity that having different saves brings.

  • \$\begingroup\$ There's an error in your answer. Identifying weak saving throws is a new part of PF2 introduced in the remaster. The original rules did not allow you to determine an enemy's saving throws, except by critical success, and with GM fiat. See the pre-remaster rules for "Creature Identification" for context. So saying that this has always been a part of PF2 is not correct. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 22 at 0:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, regarding "asking permission". I'm not asking for permission. I'm looking for advice and analysis on precisely HOW to remove the generalist spellcaster paradigm, and WHAT the side-effects will be, so I can do it in an informed way that impacts the rest of the game as little as possible. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 22 at 0:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill it always existed... But was based on guesswork instead of knowledge. Thick enemies were bad at reflex saving throws (ogres, giants, Dragons). Frail enemies (Wizards, goblins, etc..) bad at fortitude saves. Dumb enemies (ogres, beasts, etc) bad at mental saving throws. \$\endgroup\$
    – Questor
    Commented Apr 24 at 20:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Questor In other words, it only existed if you were inducted into the wider homebrew community that promotes it and takes it for granted as the only way to play. If you played the game RAW, however, it did not exist. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented Apr 27 at 17:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Let us continue this discussion in chat. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 28 at 5:03

I think you've forgotten about teamwork

Others have mentioned that positioning and tactics are a lot more important in PF2e than other games and this is true also for spellcasters. This means that everyone needs to think more and it's why the Skills section of the book is more detailed.

When the barbarian spends 1 action to successfully intimidate an opponent, they just made it easier for all of your spells to connect with because the Frightened condition is penalties across the board. A scoundrel rogue with the distracting feint feat is going to easily be able to impose penalties that will make reflex saves that much harder for an opponent.

I will say that it's really the GM's job to help players from other systems understand the importance of team dynamics. Every character only gets 3 actions each turn and they have a ton of choices on what to do with those actions. They could swing 3 times, but they're going to be very unlikely to score 3 hits due to the multiple attack penalty.

Early on when I was playing this system, I felt that our group was consistently having trouble with enemies who I think were our party's level (really not sure, the GM was also new). I started to learn from outside resources that the designers were serious about teamwork and I felt that a lot of our fights thus far were being fought as individuals. So I just asked our GM if we could fight some rats; essentially a low stakes encounter where if we made a tactical misstep we weren't going to be trying to get people up from bleeding.

This gave us more opportunities to practice getting into flanking, to learn about other character abilities and discuss how those could be used to help us. I was playing a rogue and started figuring out that as a scoundrel, I had relatively decent chances on weaker enemies to critically succeed on feints which gave my allies a lot of benefits. When I reached 2nd level, I specifically took a feat to help both myself and our team's wizard.

Teamwork makes the dream work. Individuals get 2 good hits in and then get bodied because the rogue spent 3 actions using Thievery to mess with the foundation of a support column in order to drop it on someone's head and had 1 critical success in there because the bard's song gave them the +1 needed to get just a little more.

And you forgot about critical successes

Almost every single leveled spell in the game deals either damage or an effect on a standard Success for the saving throw. In general, the only manner by which someone can avoid any negative effect from a leveled spell is to Critically Succeed. And even then, it depends.

In your question you had mentioned that a 9th level party would have an exceedingly difficult time affecting a Lich with a spell that targets Will. And yeah, they would. A lich is a CR12, that's way more than the party's level; generally Party Level + 2 is the limit for what's viable for players to handle. What's more, using an Incapacitation spell that targets an enemy's strong save and is a higher CR than them is probably the worst way to use such an spell. That's honestly a terrible tactical decision and I don't see why the party should be rewarded for picking it.

Against such an enemy, casters should be trying to use spells that help give buffs to their allies (because every +1 matters), gather knowledge (because maybe these book cases aren't sturdy), and use spells that help even if the enemy succeeds on their saving throw (electric arc is a cantrip that still deals damage on a Success).

  • \$\begingroup\$ How is it a bad tactical decision? The players don't know the monster's level. They don't know its stats, and they can't learn its stats except by critical success and GM fiat. There's nothing right or wrong about that decision, because there's nothing else they could've done to make any better a decision. We're happy with it being that way. We just want casters balanced. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented May 2 at 23:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Strill feels like before they spend 2 actions to cast a spell, they should spend 1 action on Recall Knowledge to figure out how to attack effectively. Maybe one of their allies already did and they can use that knowledge. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 3 at 0:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ As I've mentioned before, that is homebrew. The original Recall Knowledge rules do not allow you to learn any of that information except as a critical success with GM fiat. We're not interested in the overhaul to recall knowledge rules. We just want balanced casters. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented May 3 at 0:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think you might need to make a separate question for this, but when I compared the two versions of Recall Knowledge on AoN, I couldn't see anything in the original that expressly forbade you from learning an enemy's weak saves rather it was more ambiguous and the Remaster tried to be more direct in its intent. It's possible that I'm not looking at the same thing you are, AoN is still a bit glitchy for me when I hop between Legacy and Remaster. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 3 at 13:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you look at the rules for "Creature Identification" you'll find that it only allows you to learn the most well-known attributes of a monster. Other information requires a crit. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented May 3 at 17:25

PF2E already has created a spellcaster that does this.

It is called a kineticist.

They have everything you want, included a bonus to attack roll spells via items. + They have the ability to ignore/reduce damage resistance to their spells (thru a power).

I mean, yeah they are constitution based spellcasters instead of wisdom, intelligence or charisma based. and yes much like every single PF2E class not boosting their primary ability score as high as you can is a sub optimal decision.

And they have a much more limited spell selection than other spell casters, which limits their options. But for your group this seems like it would be a blessing. Because kineticists can follow the BDFs strategy of "hit it with stick until it stops moving" unlike other spellcasters.

Why homebrew something when your players could just use a class that already functions the way you want spellcasters to function?

Sure you could boost the power of spellcasters. But that seems to be advice that would only work for your group. Any group that I have played with that would change the spellcasters from being better than the BDFs to so much better why do the BDFs even bother? To me it seems like this homebrew would take a lot of work to do it in such a way that doesn't make playing anything that is not a spellcaster a really bad decision at higher levels instead of the somewhat weaker choice as it currently is.

TLDR: Kineticists are a spellcastery character that can be played like a big dumb fighter which seems to be how your group wants to play spellcasters.

note playing kineticists like a BDF greatly limits them, and makes them perform about the same as a martial... instead of displaying the god like powers of a spellcaster. but as your play group seems to measure combat prowess by the ability to hit things with a stick, instead of the ability to take away said stick. eh... kineticists probably won't feel like they are OP

Yes, its no longer an "intellectual" spell caster. but to be honest your wizards don't sound like they were were being played as highly intelligent spellcasters to begin with so not having a high intelligence score will make them being played more 'in character' then they were previosuly.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The kineticist does not function how we want casters to function because it does not get a spell list or any variety in its abilities. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented May 2 at 23:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Strill I mean, yeah, a list of impulses are not quite the same thing as a spell list, but they are pretty close... as your players Typically they pick a theme, such as "water" or "fire", or "illusions", and select spells around that theme, with a small handful of go-to spells"... Except for the illusionist that sounds like a kineticist to me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Questor
    Commented May 3 at 17:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Kineticists cannot heal or summon or scout or buff. They have no out-of-combat utility spells. They can hardly do anything a real caster can do. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented May 3 at 17:29
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill... They can Summon, Scout, and Buff... Limited summoning, only elementals, and only once a day. Scouting, permanent invisibility + the ability to fit thru 1 inch cracks, Or Tremor sense, + the ability to glide thru earth makes for a pretty good scout.. Can allow allies to fly, turn them invisible, fling them forward. Prevent damage. Boost speed. Provide resistance to fire. Protect against ranged attacks. Can heal. (Their is a healing impulse). \$\endgroup\$
    – Questor
    Commented May 3 at 18:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ And of course each of those things costs at least one if not two feats. Moreover, most are only barely functional. Swim Through Earth only lasts 1 minute, doesn't give you tremorsense, so you're blind, and only works on loose earth. You're much better off just taking a caster dedication, getting access to a wide variety of spells that are all fully functional without additional investment, and at that point, why not just be a caster. As for the rest, Ocean's Balm is a weaker, overpriced version of Battle Medicine. I don't know what summon spell you're referring to. \$\endgroup\$
    – Strill
    Commented May 3 at 18:58

The game was designed with assumptions that are incompatible with the rules

Pathfinder 2e was advertised as having balanced casters and martials without the extensive homebrewing or character optimization required in pathfinder 1e. Previously, casters were overpowered and martials were weak, unless the martial was heavily optimized. Unfortunately, Pathfinder 2e has many unspoken assumptions about how players must play, in order for game balance to be preserved. In particular, casters must play at a highly optimized level, simply in order to function at a baseline level compared to martials. The game completely fails to communicate this requirement with the players. The game also fails to advise the GM of this. Even more absurdly, some of these optimizations which the developers explicitly assume players must use, are not actually supported by the original rules. According to developer Michael Sayer, Pathfinder 2e requires the following of casters:

  • Casters must know that each enemy has a strong, moderate, and weak saving throw
  • Casters must know that these saving throws are dramatically different from one another, and that targeting one saving throw over the other is highly impactful.
  • Casters must avoid targeting a monster's strong saving throw whenever possible
  • Casters must use recall knowledge to determine an enemy's relative saving throws. (This option is not actually present in the pre-remaster rules, even though, paradoxically, it's core to the game's design)
  • Casters must prepare a variety of spells targeting different saving throws in order to maximize the chances of targeting an enemy's weak or moderate saving throw
  • Casters must not use attack spells except in exceptional circumstances, as Attack Spells have a much lower chance of success than other spells, for almost every enemy.

Sayer describes a player who fails to adhere to these requirements, as not knowing how to play a spellcaster, and as playing "like a martial"

The game, therefore, in its pre-remaster state, is fundamentally broken. Some assumptions are literally impossible to meet, and others are extremely difficult to learn. For example, the developers say players must use Recall Knowledge to identify monster saving throws, even though that's largely against the pre-remaster rules. Players might learn these saving throw principles organically, however it's highly unlikely. Players are not given access to monster saving throw scores to learn the high-medium-low pattern. They are not told that their choice of saving throw is significant or important. Players are not told the success chance of their spells after the fact. A given enemy will typically only last three or four turns, minimizing the odds that the player will be able to identify a pattern in their spell success chances against that monster. GMs are not advised that any of these concepts are important, or that the players must learn them. Moreover, the book overtly encourages players to select options for narrative purposes, which actively exacerbates the class power disparity, as martial characters do not require anywhere near as much optimization.

If you have been playing in a highly optimized group for many years, perhaps you were already aware of the generalist spellcaster paradigm, and homebrewed Pathfinder 2e to support it. Some GMs homebrew the game by telling the players indirectly through narrative that they picked the wrong saving throw. e.g. "The Lich's powerful mind shugs off your Slow spell". Many GMs take the generalist spellcaster paradigm for granted, and don't even realize they're homebrewing. The fact remains that these homebrew solutions are nowhere to be found in any actual official book. If you played the rules as written, and neither you nor your GM were inducted into any of the online communities that take generalist spellcasters for granted, casters will take the book's advice and use whichever spell they like the aesthetics or narrative of. Without any way within the rules to learn the enemy's saving throws, they will target the "wrong" saving throw, and without any way to identify that saving throws were the problem, they will perform far worse than martials, a problem which cannot be corrected without homebrew. It's exceptionally unfortunate, because the game is very fun and enjoyable, in spite of the martial-spellcaster balance disparity caused by these secret meta-rules.

It's clear that the game requires homebrew in one direction or the other. Either you homebrew the game to actually incorporate the "Generalist Spellcaster" assumptions in full, or you remove the Generalist Spellcaster assumptions entirely. Without one of these, casters will be much worse than martials. Many groups implement the generalist spellcaster assumptions in full, as they were already homebrewing them in anyway.

If your group never used any of the generalist spellcaster assumptions in the first place, however, it may be easier to remove them entirely. The following rules changes attempt to preserve the pre-remaster rules as written by removing the generalist spellcaster paradigm, which was never functional as written in the first place.

1 - Give enemies a single saving throw DC

By default, enemies typically have a high saving throw, a low saving throw, and a medium saving throw. According to Michael Sayer, casters are balanced assuming that they do not target the enemy's best saving throw, so if you use the medium saving throw DC for all saves, that will roughly satisfy the game's assumptions.

Alternatively, if you wanted to preserve some degree of save targeting, you could also simply reduce the enemy's highest saving throw down to the level of its medium saving throw. This would make spells which target the strong saving throw viable, without impacting anything else much more.

If two players have different levels of interest in tactical gameplay, you could even apply this change to one character and not the others. (i.e. Whenever one particular character targets an enemy's strong save, the enemy uses its medium save DC.)

2 - Add Potency Runes for spell attacks and remove True Strike

Let players get a +1/+2/+3 to spell attacks (not DCs), at the same time Martials get potency runes.

Attack spells are balanced around the assumption that the caster will use True Strike. Designer Mark Seifter has mentioned on-stream that True Strike is accounted for in attack spell damage calculations, and he discusses the subject more generally here. I've included an excerpt from that discussion thread.

If you gave spellcasters a lot more accuracy all the time, you'd want to avoid situations where they use a spammable resource to consistently go beyond. If you'd like to remove it from martials as well, true strike could be struck from the game too in this hypothetical.

Designer Michael Sayre has commented that focusing on attack spells rather than targeting weak saving throws is usually "incorrect", because the developers intend casters to always attempt to target weak saves. He goes on to say that they added the Shadow Signet item as a "learning tool" to compensate for the inherent weakness of attack spells, for those players who insist on using them, and to teach players to target weak saving throws instead of using attacks.

So the shadow signet pushes the caster towards doing the thing that all casters should be doing: learning how to identify enemies' weakest defense and deploying a spell that targets it. A well-built caster won't need a shadow signet at all, because they'll deploy a spell that targets the weakest defense without needing the hack.

As a player gets more experience with spellcasters, they should begin to see things like how staves and scrolls are the equivalent of swords and shields for martials; where a fighter wants to progress their base bonus and damage die, the wizard wants to expand their repertoire and be ready to leverage their significantly broader toolbox towards whatever best suits the situation.

So, while martials get potency bonuses from equipment, casters get more spells from their equipment, with the intention that they use those spells to widen their repertoire and target additional saving throws. Hitting the weakest saving throw provides a boost to accuracy, thereby bringing them up to the level of a martial with potency runes. Attack spells, however, have no such balancing mechanism, and are designed around the use of True Strike and debuffs to AC to find usefulness.

These developer comments mean we're in the clear to add potency runes into the game, so long as you remove the True Strike spell from the game, or at least make it apply to strikes only.

Intended consequences of these changes

Casters will play "like Martials"

Designer Michael Sayre describes different playstyles of martials and casters. While a martial has a small toolkit of abilities, and focuses largely on attacking, a caster has a wide toolkit of abilities, and is expected to use the right spell for the right situation. He describes a caster that uses spells without regard for the opponent's defenses as playing "Like a martial", and emphasizes that this is incorrect. The changes in this answer would, in large part, allow casters to play "like martials". There will still be differences in spells, such as AoE size, and status effects. These factors would be more or less useful in certain situations. However, a caster would no longer need to be nearly as selective with which spells they use, and could just toss out offensive spells, largely without regard for the enemy's defenses.

Casters will have less tactical depth (Gameplay will be dumbed-down)

One of the primary challenges of playing a spellcaster is choosing which spell to use on which enemy, and conserving spells of certain types. If you think that an enemy may appear in the future who is weak to one type of spell, you must make hard choices on whether to use it now or save it. This adds a layer of tactical depth and consideration to the game.

These changes would remove that layer of tactical depth in favor of simplicity. Spell choice will be primarily an aesthetic consideration, rather than a tactical one.

Casters will be easier (but not stronger or weaker)

Casters will be easier to play. When you remove the potential for a caster to pick the wrong choice, you make things easier for them. Casters under these changes will not, however, be any stronger than before, as their skill ceiling has not been raised. In other words, this change eliminates wrong choices, thereby lowering the skill floor, but a caster who plays perfectly and makes ideal choices will not be any stronger than before.

Recall Knowledge is no longer necessary for casters

The Pre-remaster rules for Creature Identification only allowed you to learn a monster's most well-known attribute, and required a critical success to learn more. The rules for Recall Knowledge did not allow you to learn much of anything specific about a monster. This largely prevented casters from learning an enemy's saving throws. In the post-remaster rules, however, learning a monster's saving throws is explicitly listed as something you can learn with Recall Knowledge. Moreover, it's largely required for casters, so that they can avoid the monster's strong saving throw.

This change would satisfy the developer's assumptions about caster accuracy, while also reverting Recall Knowledge back to the original pre-remaster paradigm where learning a monster's saving throws through Recall knowledge is not possible, or in this case, not useful.

Attritional resources are no longer a power boost

Casters are rewarded with wands, staves, and scrolls, while martials get Potency runes, because having more spells per day for a caster is an indirect power boost. Even though the individual spells themselves are not any more powerful, the more spells you have available, the greater the chance that you'll be able to target any given monster's weak saving throw. When a caster is able to target an enemy's weak save because of these extra resources, that results in a power boost for the caster.

If you're eliminating the concept of weak and strong saves, then having more attritional resources has little effect on a caster's power, at least in combat.

Success Rates

For an illustration of what caster success odds will look like with these changes, see this thread which has illustrated charts of caster saving throw success rates against a monster's medium saving throw.

Undesireable Side-effects

  1. Overpowered spells will work on everything. Not all spells are balanced well. Slow, for example, is stronger than most other similar spells. Making it work on everything equally well will make it unconditionally more powerful than all other spells. This is a problem without this change, but is even more of a problem with it.

  2. Removing True Strike will significantly affect the Magus class, while adding spell potency runes will not help the magus class much. As a result, you can consider making the True Strike spell magus-exclusive.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I also want to say kudos for sticking it out with your answer. While I do not think its conceptually the right solution (unfortunately, question now closed, so I can't add one to elaborate), I think within your parameters it is a solution that in your experience has worked for you, and it is fine to share that for others that are in the same situation. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 7:57
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, you stated before that you did not originally post the question just to share your mechanical solution, but that you were looking for other suggestions for such a solution. And I'm not claiming the goal of your question was self promotion of your idea. I took it that this answer was based on your experience how to fix it. If it is not, and is just a theoretical idea, that you think would fix it, the best thing for you might be to try it out and see how it works for you. Or, if you intend it as an answer, then you should provide these considerations as part of it. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 20 at 9:31
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill Re: "everyone just gave a bunch of off-topic answers rejecting the premise of the question" We actually do allow frame challenge answers. It may not be what you want to hear, but each user who spent the time to create those answers honestly believes that you will have more fun not trying to make the changes you propose compared to implementing large scale homebrew and having to go through iterations of that. Most (as far as I can tell) provide alternatives, such as other game systems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 24 at 16:30
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill heavily modifying core mechanics is the definition of "large-scale homebrew". At this point you could probably call what you describe an entirely new system strongly based on PF2. And working around such a core change in this patchwork-kindof way seems like a lot of work when the issue seemingly is "we don't want the strategy aspect of this strategy-focused RPG". Fun fact, this is a mistake I've often seen in the domain of software development, and it never ends well there. \$\endgroup\$
    – Matthieu
    Commented Apr 26 at 5:54
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Strill "balanced casters" not possible. casters have been and still are overpowered... martials hit things with sticks. Casters twist the fabric of reality. Yes a fighter can beat a mage in a competition of who can hit thing with stick harder... but any wizard who is trying to hit thing with a bigger stick instead of you know, making that big stick useless doesn't deserve their INT score. \$\endgroup\$
    – Questor
    Commented Apr 29 at 15:56

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