Ex, Su, and Martial Characters

Let’s talk about the classification of character abilities as extraordinary (nonmagical) vs. supernatural (magical).

Some definitions from the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook, page 554:

Extraordinary Abilities (Ex): Extraordinary abilities are nonmagical. They are, however, not something that just anyone can do or even learn to do without extensive training. Effects or areas that suppress or negate magic have no effect on extraordinary abilities.

Supernatural Abilities (Su): Supernatural abilities are magical but not spell-like. Supernatural abilities are not subject to spell resistance and do not function in areas where magic is suppressed or negated (such as an antimagic field). A supernatural ability’s effect cannot be dispelled and is not subject to counterspells. See Table 16–1 for a summary of the types of special abilities.

(Update June 7, 2014: There’s been a lot of discussion about this article, particularly on the Paizo boards, and I’ve decided to append some notes to the end of the article based on those conversations. Many thanks to all the people who participated in this discussion here and in the comments, it was fun!)

(Update September 23, 2014: If you like this post and where these ideas are going, please check out the kickstarter for my Five Moons RPG, which uses these ideas. Thanks!)

So…

Supernatural abilities are magical (unlike Ex abilities).

Su abilities aren’t like spells (and neither are Ex abilities).

Su abilities aren’t affect by SR (neither are Ex abilities).

Su abilities don’t function where magic is suppressed or negated (unlike Ex abilities, which do function there).

A Su ability cannot be dispelled (nor can an Ex ability).

A Su ability cannot be counterspelled (nor can an Ex ability).

Table 16–1 on page 555 goes on to say that Su abilities don’t provoke AOOs (nor do Ex abilities).

So really the defining difference between a Su ability an an Ex ability is “Su is magical and only works where magic exists,” vs. “Ex is nonmagical and works even if magic doesn’t exist.”

Considering that (in the core rules, at least), “a place where magic doesn’t exist” only occurs if you use antimagic field, and that’s a very, very rare effect, that means that only very, very rarely is there a practical difference between Su and Ex abilities.

3E/PF inherited a lot of “screw you,” player vs. GM crap from earlier editions of the game, such as rust monster attacks that specifically destroy weapons and armor, silence effects that negate spellcasting, wizards requiring spellbooks and therefore destroying a spellbook destroy’s a wizard’s functionality, and so on. Antimagic field is another one of these effects specifically made to negate one specific type of character ability (whether your intent is to challenge your players into overcoming a situation in a new way, or just a desire to punish people playing spellcasters). I suspect one of the reasons AMF was in 1E AD&D was because wizards got really powerful at higher levels, and it was one of the ways to shut down the party wizard and let the other characters be effective.

But AMF so incredibly rare, it’s a real corner case–like having two different types of abilities in the game, except one of them can be reversed by a wish spell and the other one can’t. AMF is rare because it’s a higher-level spell, available only toward the end of the “sweet spot” of adventuring (levels 10–12, where the game starts to give you some really cool abilities, but while the math is merely bent rather than totally broken). And it’s rare because when a GM drops an AMF, it’s totally going to screw any spellcaster players for that encounter, who has to just sit there and do nothing because their character (surprisingly) relies on spells to do things.

Given how rare AMF is, and how that one tiny corner case is responsible for defining various abilities as either “works in AMF” or “doesn’t work in AMF“… what if there was no AMF, and therefore you didn’t have to define abilities as “Ex” or “Su”? What if your character’s abilities were just… their abilities?

Spells would still be spells (and spell-like abilities could still be about 99% spell-like, just as they are now), and spells would provoke AOOs (like now) and could be dispelled (like now). But anything that wasn’t an actual spell (or SLA) would just be… an ability, a power, a whatever. You wouldn’t be able to use dispel magic on a dragon’s breath (like you can’t now), and you wouldn’t be able to use dispel magic on a fighter’s bravery (like you can’t now).

By getting rid of the idea that you have to define special abilities as either “magic” or “not magic,” you also get rid of the idea that “martial characters don’t have magic, and therefore can’t do amazing things because they’re limited to what nonmagical people can do in the real world.”

In other words, if you decide that a level 5 fighter with a shield can deflect a spell back on the caster if he succeeds at his saving throw, that would be okay, for the same reason, because you don’t have to decide “is this something a real, exceptional person could do in the real world?” If you decide that a level 10 fighter is so eager for battle that he can jump 30 feet and still make a full attack, that would be okay, for the same reason. If you decide a level 15 fighter is such a badass combatant that all allies within 30 feet of him deal +25% melee and ranged damage, that would be okay, for the same reason. It wouldn’t matter that the fighter is a “mundane” character who “doesn’t have any magic;” he could still do incredible things that bend Earth’s laws of reality or are even impossible according to Earth’s physics.

All you have to do is decide that the difference between Ex and Su is “long ago, GMs had to use AMF to fudge the game so wizards wouldn’t dominate adventures, and ever since then nonmagical characters have been paying the price for it, and it’s time for that to stop.”

—–

(Update June 7, 2014: From here on down are my followup comments.)

I didn’t say AMF is the reason martials can’t have nice things, or even that AMF is a reason for it. I said that if you forget about Ex and Su, then you can also forget about defining whether an amazing fighter class ability is Ex or Su, and therefore forget about whether or not martials “should have to” obey the laws of physics. In other words: by getting rid of the fixation on whether or not an ability is magic, you can get rid of a (perhaps subconscious) design bias against giving martial classes magical abilities. If it doesn’t matter if an ability is magic or not, it doesn’t matter if the character class “is magic” or not… just give the class abilities that are appropriate to the theme of the class (fighting, sneaking, healing, whatever).

—–

Getting rid of the distinction isn’t the cure to the problem, it’s what leads to the perception shift, in order to alter the design bias that leads to the problem. Much in the way that the discovery of bacteria didn’t cure disease, it allowed scientists to change their understanding of the cause of disease (away from “demons” and “unbalanced humours”) so they could finally work on targeting the actual problem (by dealing with germs rather than demons and humours).

—–

My point is that if you don’t have to label an ability as Ex or Su, it doesn’t matter whether a swordsman is doing X with magic or skill (where X is cutting ghosts in half, deflecting boulders and rays, cutting through stone walls like butter, shattering magic, or cutting a wedge out of a fireball or breath weapon). He just does it.

—–

If you don’t have to put an ability into an Ex or Su box, it’s just a level-appropriate, class-appropriate ability. The name and the Ex/Su label don’t matter.

Did you know that many designers for TCG companies use fake names for individual cards rather than the final names those cards have in the set? For example, a 10/10 beater monster in Magic: The Gathering playtests might be called “the Hulk” or “Iron Man,” but is finally renamed to “Adamantine Juggernaut” later in the process. They design the mechanics, and may let the flavor inform the mechanics (like “we know this set is about traveling to a steampunk plane, so feel free to loot steampunk concepts for things cards should do”), but they don’t let the future flavor constrain the mechanics (as in “existing examples of steampunk literature won’t allow teleportation, so we can’t have any teleportation effects in this set”).

So if you forget about whether an ability is Ex or Su, and whether a class is nonmagical or magical, it frees you up to design cool stuff that’s thematic for the class. Games like Numenera already do this—your shoot-lasers-from-eyes powers might be from nanobots in your system, or bizarre surgical alterations, or you have cybernetic eyes, or because you’re actually a hard light hologram, or you’re an extraterrestrial, or you were experimented on with weird drugs, but the net effect is the same: you can shoot lasers out of your eyes.

So if I’m designing a level 10 ability for a class, it should be
* an appropriate power level for character level 10, and
* appropriate to the theme of the class,

whether that class’s theme is
* “great power from amazing martial training” (fighter)
* “parent is a deity and genetics are awesome” (fighter)
* “near-precognitive intuition for tasks” (rogue)
* “ridiculously lucky or cool like Fonzie” (rogue)
* “mutual pact with a supernatural entity” (cleric)
* “chosen evangelist of a transdimensional being” (cleric)
* “uncanny knowledge of physics that lets me exploit loopholes in reality” (wizard)
* “catalysis of fantastic reactions using apparently-ordinary combinations of materials” (wizard)
* or any other explanation you think is appropriate for your interpretation of your class, race, and archetype.

Don’t let the flavor (and the difference between Ex and Su is mostly flavor) limit the options for design.

And yes, I’m drawing a line between “flavor” and “theme of the class.” “Rogues are martials and can’t have magical abilities” is limiting design based on flavor. “Rogues can teleport a short distance to get behind an enemy, but not across the continent” is limiting a design based on a class’s theme. (And that technically doesn’t mean that “the greatest escape artist ever” as a rogue theme couldn’t have “I get away from my heists by teleporting a mile away.”)

There was some discussion about Captain America and Thor being examples of characters with the fighter class, as both are known for their fighting ability (Thor has superior endurance and strength for being an Asgardian, but Cap is considered a superior combatant and tactician), and those abilities aren’t magical (Thor does have magic, but it’s “magic weapon” and “magic strength,” not “make me better at knowing how to fight”). Continuing the comic book analogy, would you say Nightcrawler from the X-Men is best represented as a cleric, fighter, rogue, or wizard? I’d say fighter or rogue, leaning toward rogue (stealth, swashbuckling, personable)… with the ability to teleport. In other words, he’s a martial, a nonmagical character, who can teleport at will (normally considered a magical ability).

—–

I’m not saying you should recategorize all of these traditionally-magical abilities as nonmagical. I’m saying whether or not they are magical is irrelevant to whether they are appropriate for the class.

The question was presented, “how do you stop a character who can teleport if their teleportation isn’t magical and therefore not affected by antimagic field“? That question has a false assumption: that the only way to stop a teleporter is with anti-magic, which isn’t true; the way to stop a teleporter is to use anti-teleportation effects, which might be magical, psionic, or mundane. In 2E, the rule used to be that living matter prevented ethereal travel, so you could grow moss all over the walls and door of your panic room so enemies couldn’t invade it ethereally. X-ray vision, even from a magical source, is blocked by sufficient thickness of stone, metal, dirt, or wood. So if you need to restrain a teleporter, get some magic manacles of phase-locking on them, or psionically block their teleportation, or put them in a lead-lined room. Or just keep them unconscious or drugged. AMF is a merely a big, clumsy hammer in your toolbox. You don’t need to use AMF to solve a problem that calls for a screwdriver or allen wrench.

—–

I think it would be helpful if the game explicitly told you in the rules, “the best-trained human person on Earth would be level X, and anything beyond that is superhuman beyond what any real person in Earth’s history has attained.” And in the case of 3E and Pathfinder, “X” is probably about 6.

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34 thoughts on “Ex, Su, and Martial Characters

  1. This is an interesting article. In some ways, its harkening back to feat design. Feats don’t usually tell you whether they’re Supernatural or Extraordinary. Unless they grant to access to spell-like abilities (like the kitsune Magical Tail feat), they’re not any type of ability: they’re just feats. To that extend, Dodge (something a real, exceptional person can do) has the same classification as Ray Shield (something a real, exceptional person can’t do).

    As a follow-up to this question, do you think that the Su / Ex tag is worth maintaining in Pathfinder? In your aforementioned, “Fighter deflects spells,” ability, would you classify that as Supernatural or Extraordinary under the current system? The general implication of this article seems to be “There is no harm in giving fighters supernatural abilities.”

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  2. Sounds a little like GURPS, where the very idea of “class” disappears, and everyone can access everything. I do agree that the difference between Su and Ex amounts to a lot of rules-checking and not much else, though… a more elegant solution exists, I’m sure.

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    • I don’t necessarily thing “everyone can access everything” is the goal. Fighters should be able to fighter-appropriate abilities, rogues should be able to do rogue-appropriate abilities, and wizards should be able to do wizard-appropriate abilities. If you said that fighters and rogues should be able to fly four hours or teleport across the world in the manner that wizards do, I’d disagree, just as I would if you said wizards should be able to use a sword to chop a 5-foot-wide pillar in half (sounds like a fighter ability to me) or throw a dagger into a dragon’s eye at 100 feet (sounds like a rogue ability to me). But if you said an fighter could learn the ability to jump 100 feet straight up to hit a flying opponent, sure, or a rogue could learn the ability to teleport 30 feet and appear behind an enemy, sure.
      In other words, there’s a difference between “everyone can access everything” and “a class can gain reality-breaking abilities so long as they are appropriate to the concept of that class.”

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      • I am so on board with this line of reasoning. I’ve always thought the weird juxtaposition of “a Fighter can benchpress two dump trucks but can’t jump more than 10 feet up in the air” was just… weird. It honestly breaks immersion for me way more than a high level Fighter jumping 100 feet straight up and Vital Striking would, because you’re talking about a level where these guys are expected to be challenging and defeating supernatural threats from other planes of existence. It’s odd that this environment has evolved where these virtual superheroes are allowed to only break some of the laws of real-world physics, while everyone else is basically breaking all of them.
        Your insight into the fact that the difference between Ex and Su basically comes down to one extremely rare ability makes a very good case for excising the whole bit out and using that unnecessarily choked off territory to expand the game.

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  3. Personally, I thought AMF is a kludgy mechanic anyway. It’s an “all or nothing” effect AND it still shuts down spells of levels higher than it. As an addition, there are plenty of situations in fiction where the wizard isn’t completely disabled (unless he was a weak wizard to begin with) but is drained or weakened by some sort of field. Instead of a “null zone”, how about an ability that affects someone’s effective caster level? Caster level drop mechanics are already familiar from negative levels, but this way you can have areas that block magic as a floating penalty to caster levels instead of just being a “nope” zone. (And as a bonus, it opens up the idea of a zone of amplified magic, probably in the hands of your BBEG!)

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  4. I’m actually suprised by the sentiment in this post- honestly from my impression of paizo SKR I thought you were a staunch supporter of strict ‘reality martials’ because of things like weapon cord & crossbows etc. I’ll have to revise my opinion I guess! As for the actual sentiment… I couldn’t agree more! Thematically I feel like the martial/caster disparity stems from an unwillingness to accept that 3.x/PF is an epic high magic game that has moved beyond TSR’s vision of a lowish-magic gritty fantasy system. Many ‘legacy’ situations like those you identified still exist… and some of them I don’t particularly mind (rust monsters always create very memorable encounters!) but others need to be left behind I agree.

    Of course, go too far and you end up in the mechanically solid, but ultimately (IMHO) uniformly bland experience of 4e… although I guess that’s an entirely separate discussion..

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    • Hey, Felix! I’m not sure if I’m
      * a “reality martial guy who changed his mind,”
      * a “low-level martials should be ‘reality martials'” guy who is clarifying his stance on higher-level martials, or
      * if I’ve just been misunderstood this whole time.
      I think it’s probably the second one, with a hint of the first. 😉

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      • Hey, Sean!

        That’s fair. You mentioned jumping earlier: I wonder what your thoughts are on the skill system, especially at higher levels. It seems to me the same general attitude pervades skill checks (cannot achieve more than the mundane) as SU/EX distinction – although in this case I don’t think there’s a legacy argument as skills are a new beast in 3.x (NWP aside). In my experience it is a very common houserule to allow for supernatural effects as a result of very high skill rolls (35-40+). Do you consider skills to be a part of solving this mundane/supernatural equation as well, or a separate discussion entirely?

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      • A maxed-out character can exceed some of Earth’s physical records by a wide margin, so that’s definitely pushing the “more than Earth physics allows” category. But part of that is also from the “swinginess” of a d20 roll associated with skills. Probably best to acknowledge it as related to this, but needing to be a separate discussion. 🙂

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  5. Well, it depends on the class, too. If a Paladin got access to many of the abilities angels and archons are known for, it could be argued that the path of the Paladin simply leads to Celestial perfection at the end of it, because they’re THAT Lawful Good. Maybe all Archons were mortal Paladins once, and they earned their way up to their Celestial status as it went. And the size of the Archon is based on the level of the Paladin when he died. (Lantern Archons are all those poor Paladins that never made it past level 1 or 2 before their deaths…)

    Rangers, on the other hand…they’re all nature types. There’s a lot of magic in mother nature…that’s why Druids are full casters, after all. But maybe the Ranger could get access to common animal abilities without needing to change his form. Like Scent, or Pounce, or even blindsense/blindsight (echo location, ya know….)

    Barbarians…everything you’ve ever seen Norse Heroes or Ahnuld in a Conan Movie do is fair game for one.

    But the Fighter, there’s no saving till he gets actual class features instead of just feats.

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  6. Except maintaining the two terms does allow you to define how things work, fluffwise, and allow GMs to make.

    It’d be better to simply replace the word “Extraordinary” with “Superhuman” or… Well, I don’t have another idea, but you get the point. No one argues that, say, Batman is magic, but no one denies that he’s superhuman in capabilities, after all.

    Just clearing that up should make people see things differently.

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    • But even defining abilities as “superhuman” vs. “supernatural” (instead of “extraordinary” vs. “supernatural”) is still going to create a bias where people think supernatural abilities should be better than superhuman abilities (because “superhuman” is still shackled to the concept of “what a human can do, but beyond that to some undefined extent”). The labels have baggage. I’m just saying, “forget the labels and focus on making appropriate abilities for the theme of the class, rather than worrying about how to categorize them.

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      • They may have baggage, but I’m not sure it’s enough baggage to really note. The reason I say this is that when comic book supercharacters are described, they use the same language that applies nearly universally to everyone. For example, Spiderman is described as having superhuman strength and agility, while the Hulk is described as having superhuman strength and endurance. Both characters have superhuman strength, but I doubt anyone could even pretend to think that Spiderman is as physically strong as the Hulk is.

        In Pathfinder terms, it’d be like saying 5th level is the realm of humans; everything else is superhuman. So a 6th level guy and a 20th level/tier 10 guy are in the same category of superhuman, even if they aren’t in the range of power levels.

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      • And if you’re okay with putting Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Hulk in the same category of “superhuman,” then the value of having a distinct “superhuman” (as compared to “supernatural”) label greatly diminishes.
        Let’s add Juggernaut to the “superhuman strength” discussion. Juggernaut got his powers from the Crimson Gem of Cyttorak, which is a magical gem created by the extradimensional entity Cyttorak. In addition to invulnerability and the “once I’m in motion, I can’t be stopped” power, Juggernaut also has superhuman strength (Unearthly [100] in the old FASERIP system). And let’s add Thor, too; as an Asgardian, he’s stronger than humans, and he’s even stronger than a typical Asgardian, and he has a magic belt that doubles his Strength.
        In a “world” where magic exists (the Marvel universe), it doesn’t really matter that the sources of Cap’s, Spidey’s, Hulk’s, Juggernaut’s, and Thor’s strength are from different sources, and it basically never matters that Juggernaut’s and Thor’s enhanced strength has a magical source; Juggernaut is sometimes defeated by removing his connection to the Crimson Gem, but that’s not really an achilles’ heel for him (any more than “make the Hulk calm down and revert to Banner” is an achilles’ heel to the Hulk).
        So if
        * Cap, Spidey, and the Hulk have Ex strength, Juggernaut has Su strength, and Thor has a combo of Ex and Su strength,
        * the Hulk, Juggernaut, and Thor have comparable levels of strength, despite the different sources, and
        * the sources are basically irrelevant to challenging or overcoming them, then
        * the Ex and Su labels don’t provide an advantage when it comes to statting up those characters or creating storylines about those characters, and therefore
        * if those labels aren’t an advantage to the writer, but *can* be a disadvantage to the writer, then
        * discarding the labels is a good thing.
        Overall, I’m not saying “let’s remove the Ex and Su distinction from Pathfinder.” I’m saying “when you look at Ex and Su like this, you should realize that the labels don’t matter and the labels shouldn’t restrict you from creating cool abilities for nonmagical characters.” Which I stated in bold in the original article, which I’ll paraphrase as “without requiring adherence to that Ex/Su baggage, designers can realize that martial characters should be able to do amazing things without magic.”
        I think we’re in agreement on the general goal of my post (“the Hulk isn’t magical, he’s a ‘martial,’ yet he’s still incredibly powerful and has abilities beyond that of normal humans”), even if we’re disagreeing about the usefulness of the labels/categorizations. 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Ex, Su, and Martial Characters | Sean K Reynolds

  8. I was really happy to read this article! I’m always excited when people talk about things in 3.5/Pathfinder that could do with being taken out, when so many people think it’s more worthwhile to ADD things to the game to fix it up – baffling, considering that the game is already so bloated to begin with. I really like this kind of thorough examination of the rules with an eye towards asking if a rule adds anything enjoyable to the game, and axing it if it doesn’t. It’s better if a game is designed from the ground up with this in mind, but I think there’s still something to putting forth an effort to taking 3.5/Pathfinder and paring it down.

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  10. I’m coming to this discussion very late, so I suspect that this has already been said, but here goes.

    The crux of Sean’s argument seems to be this passage:

    By getting rid of the idea that you have to define special abilities as either “magic” or “not magic,” you also get rid of the idea that “martial characters don’t have magic, and therefore can’t do amazing things because they’re limited to what nonmagical people can do in the real world.”

    I never once saw the idea of non-spellcasters developing magical powers as being a problem. Or if I did, then I haven’t in a long time.

    The reason for this is, I think, due to the current “culture of fantasy.” Back when D&D was coming together in the late 60’s and early 70’s, the dividing line between characters that used magic and those that didn’t was stark. You were either a Gandalf or a Conan, in that you either knew how to use magic, or you didn’t.

    This isn’t to say that there weren’t characters who were primarily physical in their approach to conflict that didn’t also know how to cast a few spells. Both Fafhrd and Grey Mouser did, for example. But most classical tales had non-wizards relying only on things that a “mundane” character could do.

    Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and that’s no longer the case. Comic book superheroes have been dancing over the line between “physically possible” and “beyond human limits” for decades. Our video games regularly feature martial characters that have mystic abilities (“hadouken!”). And of course, the influence of anime cannot be discounted, be it Dragon Ball, Bleach, Naruto, etc.

    So this idea, that martial characters can’t ever develop any sort of special powers that let them break the laws of physics (as they are in the real world) was one that never had much traction with me. It’s long been a given that big damn heroes of any stripe – in a fantasy setting – will have “special powers,” real-world physics be damned.

    And for those that want real-world-style martial characters, isn’t that what E6 is for?

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    • {I never once saw the idea of non-spellcasters developing magical powers as being a problem. Or if I did, then I haven’t in a long time.}

      There’s pushback about this topic every day on the Paizo boards about martials in the PFRPG. Heck, the playtest for the new martial brawler class in the Advanced Class Guide had a LOT of criticism because it had a supernatural ability… to penetrate DR like a monk does. The ability was changed to extraordinary, and the objection went away.
      Trust me, it’s out there. Just because you don’t feel this issue is an obstacle (which is great!) doesn’t mean that there isn’t resistance to it in the player community or among people who design for PF.
      (As for “hadouken!” and DragonBall, those are clearly monks, who already have supernatural abilities in the game, and people are comfortable with that.)

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      • To be clear, when I said that “I never saw that as being a problem,” I meant that “from my perspective it was never a problem (for me).” I wasn’t trying to say that the problem is one that nobody has (though I’ll admit that I thought this was one that was confined to a vocal minority).

        The issue with monks actually seems like a very good example of what I was talking about, in that they’re non-spellcasting characters, “martial characters,” that have magical powers. The difference between them and, say, a fighter who develops magical powers seems to be purely an issue of personal conceptualization of what a particular class “should” be like.

        Now, I have heard more about “martials can’t have nice things,” which is another way of saying that “characters with magical powers are able to do more things – and do them better – than characters without magical powers.” The implication seems to be that people want some way for the non-magical characters to be able to bridge these gaps of what (and how well) can be done.

        In that regard, I think this is a question of people wanting to have their cake and eat it too. Simply put, the only way to make characters without any magical abilities competitive against those that have magical abilities is to either seriously dial back on magic in some regard (hence why I mentioned E6, since that’s the most immediate consequence of capping levels so low…which no one seems to want) or play up the versatility and effectiveness of non-magical characters; this latter idea seems to be much more popular.

        It’s also incredibly tricky to do, because if magic is versatile and powerful enough, having non-magical abilities on par with that will quickly become magical themselves, for all intents and purposes. Which, to me, is fine – as I said previously, the idea of “martial” characters displaying superhuman powers seems ubiquitous enough to be plausible (especially in the high-magic setting that’s the “default” presentation in Pathfinder). However, that does seem to run against the grain for people who still want their martial characters to have no abilities beyond what we can see in the real world, yet can still be as effective as Elminster in any comparable regard.

        In short, this strikes me as being a problem of personal perception that some people want to the game mechanics to fix. That’s not impossible unto itself, but if it has to be within the context of the existing Pathfinder rules, it seems exceptionally difficult to pull off.

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  11. {In that regard, I think this is a question of people wanting to have their cake and eat it too.}

    Not really, and I think you’re missing the point–a point you yourself made in your earlier post: we have dozens of examples of superhero characters who are able to perform actions that are physically possible for normal humans, and are doing so without magic. Yet martial characters (like the fighter and rogue) seem to be shackled to the idea that “because they don’t have magic, they can only do what humans in the real world can do.” Because jumping into the air to attack a flying foe is impossible, but the Hulk does it. And bouncing a shield off four targets and having it return to you is impossible, but Captain America does it.

    You make a comparison to E6 as being a “realistic” world, but in E6 a wizard can create a 20-foot-radius ball of fire, and a cleric can animate the dead, but a rogue and fighter can only do mundane things that an Earth human can actually do. So, as is my original point of this article: By getting rid of the idea that you have to define special abilities as either “magic” or “not magic,” you also get rid of the idea that “martial characters don’t have magic, and therefore can’t do amazing things because they’re limited to what nonmagical people can do in the real world.” Martial PCs in a fantasy world aren’t limited to Earth physics and human physical limitations, any more than caster PCs in that same fantasy world.

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    • I’ll admit that I moved the goalposts in my last post, mostly because I see the issue of “realistic martials” as being related to the problem of “martials can’t have nice things.” The reason I said that holding to both positions at once is having your cake and eating it too is because (I should have made this clear before) the people I see expressing that sentiment want it to be resolved purely on the level of (Pathfinder) game mechanics, specifically by further empowering martial characters.

      To be clear, I think that you can have martial characters with realistic powers that can function alongside D&D/Pathfinder wizards in equal effectiveness, but that’s going to be (I believe) largely an issue of how the GM sets up a particular scenario, adventure, or campaign. Barring that, I find it easier to rein in the spellcasters. Trying to solve the problem by giving non-magical characters further non-magical, realistic powers that put them in the same “weight class” as spellcasters seems exceptionally difficult, at least to me.

      That said, I agree that the above is getting away from your original point.

      Insofar as eliminating the distinction (“anti-magic field”) between extraordinary and supernatural abilities as a means of side-stepping the question of “is this magic or not?” and thereby further advancing the issue of martial characters having special powers…I agree with overall goal of martials with super powers, but I’m not sure if I agree with this specific implementation. I say that largely because (as I mentioned above) I personally don’t see a need for avoiding this distinction in the first place, simply because I don’t have a problem with martials with magical powers. To me, it’s a change that doesn’t need to be made.

      Now, I can see the counterargument here – if I’m essentially saying that it’s the same either way (which I am), then why not make that change, since it seems to matter so much to some other people? My answer there is that – and this is another personal reason – I think that more exacting definitions are good for when corner-cases like AMF come up. Even if you remove that spell from the game, these issues have a way of happening, albeit rarely. Various dead-magic zones (e.g. in the Forgotten Realms) or planes with suppressed magic, for instance, or the odd situation where it’s a plot device (e.g. the act of a god, etc.), are all situations where this issue brings things to a screeching halt as everyone tries to figure out what’s affected.

      Admittedly, appealing to the rarities like that isn’t the strongest counterpoint, but I can remember back to Second Edition (and earlier) where this sort of situation was rampant, and while there were many good points about the old school editions, I don’t think that this was one of them. Having a mechanical shorthand for what’s magic and what’s not is a helpful distinction, at least to me. Why make a mechanical change at all when this can solved simply by recalibrating the expectations that people have for martial classes?

      Or even then, as you noted, just give them super powers that are Extraordinary, and the issue becomes moot anyway. If that solves the problem for the people who want magic-less martials, then isn’t this something of a non-problem, since there’s a solution built right into the rules?

      I’d also like to point out that I didn’t suggest that an E6 world was “realistic” – what I said was that E6 gives us a real-world-style martial character (though I’m sure there are exceptions somewhere), and that one of the most immediate consequences of using E6 is that it “seriously dials back on the magic.” The latter point was in reference to magic’s power, rather than its versatility. It’s easier for martial characters not to feel overwhelmed when the sheer breadth of what magic can do (and how many spells casters can use in a day) are so sharply curtailed.

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      • To clarify something, I mentioned “I can remember back to Second Edition (and earlier) where this sort of situation was rampant, and while there were many good points about the old school editions, I don’t think that this was one of them.”

        By “this sort of situation” I didn’t mean that 2E was rife with anti-magic fields. Rather, I was speaking more broadly to situations where the undefined nature of things made it uncertain how they interacted. If you had a red dragon in an anti-magic field in 2E, for instance, there was nothing explicitly telling you if that shut off its breath weapon or not.

        Third Edition largely fixed this with its keyword-tagging; it created a set of keywords with specific definitions (e.g. “supernatural abilities”), and then had virtually everything tagged with one or more keywords. This largely eliminated that ambiguity, and I think that the game ran much more smoothly for it.

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      • I wanted to clarify something I said previously. I’d mentioned that “I can remember back to Second Edition (and earlier) where this sort of situation was rampant…”

        I wasn’t referring to anti-magic fields specifically when I said “this sort of situation”; rather, I was speaking to situations where the undefined nature of abilities made it uncertain how they interacted. If you had a red dragon in an anti-magic field in 2E, for instance, there wasn’t anything that explicitly said if its breath weapon still worked or not, leaving the GM in limbo.

        Third Edition largely fixed this by introducing definitions via keyword-tagging. It created a series of keywords with precise definitions, and then tagged virtually everything in the game with one (or more) keywords, thereby explaining how they worked and eliminating a great deal of uncertainty. I think that this was a good thing, and I see the idea of eliminating definitions like that to be a step backwards (albeit a small one, in case of Sean’s proposed change).

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  13. Sorry to come late to this, but this discussion intrigues me. Especially as I am working on a homebrew class that traditionally exists in science fiction but added a class feature that determines the flavor of the class’s abilities.

    When I first looked at Pathfinder/3.5e a couple of years ago, I thought labeling the flavor of each ability was a pretty neat idea, but I’m sad that the game does not really utilize it beyond antimagic fields, a deliberately antifun spell effect. I liked that there existed slight mechanical differences between a creature that flies with wings, a supernatural ability, or a spell. That the type determines the inherent strengths and limitations of the abilities.

    Schools of magic seem like a good example of the distinction done well. One of the things that fascinated me about Pathfinder/3.5e’s spell system is that the game categorizes spells based on how they work rather than what they do, unlike other games I’ve seen. How a spell works greatly affect its inherent weaknesses and strengths while allowing the flavor of the ability to shine through. As you mentioned, using lead to block divination, blocking line of sight to protect against targeted spells, and utilizing effects that disrupt planar travel to prevent teleportaton.

    I notice another issue is that the line between what’s normal and extraordinary and supernatural never seems obvious. Why is having extra arms extraordinary for a kasatha? Or having wings for a bird? They’re born that way. Additionally, I recently learned that alchemy is technically not magic in Pathfinder, even though alchemy is traditionally thought of as utilizing the inherent supernatural properties of things, even if it does not actually involve casting spells. Then there’s the alchemist class with supernatural abilities when the game does not consider alchemy as supernatural.

    I guess a simpler way to express the problem with Ex/Su is that, unlike SLA, these labels only explain why an ability works rather than explain how an ability works. The latter impacts the way the ability interacts with other elements in the game. The former does not.

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