“…they’d also be less effective as a combatant than a dedicated martial fighter.” What would the point for a wizard, or just a mage, learning to fight then?
So, this is a follow-up to a previous D&D question. Unlike with that question, this time the answers are significantly different depending on whether it’s a build or a narrative choice.
I’ll come back to builds in a second, but it is worth remembering that D&D is a tactical board game. Character build decisions affect the effectiveness of your piece on the table. The class system D&D uses encourages hyperspecialization, because you’re trying to create a character who will be the most effective under specific circumstances you can engineer, rather than a character who will be effective under a broad range of situations.
In short, D&D encourages power gaming. There’s nothing wrong with this in a game. Most combat focused RPGs require this (to one extent or another.) It’s especially true in CRPGs and pre-written campaigns, where your build(s) will be tested against fixed combat scenarios. You’ve either optimized enough to clear the encounter, or you fail.
So, let’s start with the narrative reasons. Having more diverse background gives you more versatility. A character may learn magic to supplement their skillset. For example, you might see a thief, who studied the arcane to help them be a better thief. A monster hunter would certainly benefit from some basic arcane training.
Actually, lets step back even further: On a conceptual level, I’m not wild about fixed class systems for characters. However, there is a lot to be said for characters who bridge between classes. A warrior with a background in stealthy skullduggery has access to options that a “pure,” warrior would lack. They can sneak around effectively, and they could potentially get access to places that their unstealthy counterpart couldn’t. They’d also have a better idea of what someone who was trying to infiltrate would do, and could prepare more effectively.
The problem with all of that is, it doesn’t really reflect how people live. If a character is a soldier or mercenary, they’ll train in that job position. However, that’s not the entirety of who that person is. They (probably) didn’t decide in childhood that they wanted to go to war, and then spent the entirety of their life dedicated to that goal. (Now, you do see this with very select things, like athletes, but they’re more of an exception.) Even if you do hold to the course, you’ll pick up diverse skills and knowledge as you grow up, simply as a consequence of the world you live in. Class based character building doesn’t really reflect that (in most cases.)
Second, even if you’re starting with class based systems to prototype your characters, I do strongly encourage playing around with the idea of stacking a couple classes together to reflect a character’s background. I originally ran across this in Traveler T20 (a D20 version of the Traveler RPG.) That included specific classes for various kinds of military service, and an entire history system, which could see characters starting levels worth of backstory.
So, if you have a character who used to be a mercenary, or got their start as an enforcer for a local gang, but they managed to get out of that life, go to school, and study magic, you’ve got a character with the potential for an interesting skillset.
The inverse is also true, you could see a mercenary or thief who originally studied magic at a school, but parted ways for whatever reason. A magic college dropout as it were. They could still be a somewhat skilled mage, it’s just not what they’re doing now.
It’s also quite possible that your setting simply has arcane warriors who split their training between magic and martial skills. It’s not that they’re a better fighter than someone who only focused on that, or that they’re a better mage than a dedicated wizard, it’s that they have access to both and can use whichever better fits their current situation. These might be elite combatants, strategic experts, magekillers, really whatever their spells allow them to do.
Magic offers a lot of versatility (both in D&D, and out of it), so there are a lot of potential applications for battlefield magic, and having mages who can operate safely near the front lines is a huge advantage.
If you want a diverse collection of mages in your setting, hybrids a very good route towards that. I’d also suggest looking into the idea of having multiple kinds of magic, which aren’t entirely compatible to further differentiate them.
That said, this isn’t necessary, and if your world was built around the idea of highly insular mage lords ruling everything, and jealously guarding their arcane secrets, then hybrids might not be a good fit.
So, for rules, I’m going to stick to D&D. I’m also focusing on the two Third Edition iterations. This is because Fourth really didn’t work for me. I like what I’ve seen of Fifth, but simply haven’t gotten in. I also have passing familiarity with Pathfinder, and a lot of this applies there, though I haven’t looked at Second Edition Pathfinder at all. (Also, on the subject of Pathfinder, there is the Magus base class. This is an arcane casting class that gains armor proficiencies as it levels.)
There’s a number of other games I could talk about, but, it’s not relevant to this discussion, and stuff would get really out of hand. A very short version would be that, some games support hybrid casters better than others. D&D supports it, but it can be very finicky.
Now, why would a Wizard take levels in a non-spellcasting class? Three reasons: Fluff, splash, or PRCs.
Fluff means, “I did it for the roleplaying.” I used to play a Rogue/Sorcerer hybrid back in 3e. Now, if you’re familiar with D&D, you’re probably thinking, “but that’s just a Bard.” While the bard was a better mechanical fit for what I was doing, the idea of adding Sorc levels onto an established Rogue was conceptually interesting to me. (Also, I originally planned to take levels of Dragon Disciple, because I overestimated that class, but the character never got that far, and you could take Dragon Disciple as a Bard anyway.)
Splash is a concept where you take a level in a class for its introductory bonuses. D&D gives new characters a lot of bonuses for taking their first level in a class. This means, a level 1 character is functional, if a bit fragile. One classic example from 3.5 would be taking a level of Duelist on your Wizard. Duelist gives you Martial Weapon proficiency and lets you count your Intelligence modifier as additional Armor Class. Since your INT score should be fairly high, that’s a lot of armor for your mage for the cost of a single level. (There’s a major caveat coming in the next section.)
PRCs are the final major reason for a player to hybrid spec their spellcaster. This no longer exists in current editions of the game. PRCs existed in Third and 3.5 (as well as a lot of the D20 based games that were published by other companies.) Prestige classes are rare or highly specialized advancement routes for characters. These always have a mix of prerequisites before you can start taking them. So, they’re not open to new characters. You don’t start as a Dragon Disciple, or a Shadowdancer, that’s something that you gain access to as you adventure. In rare cases, membership in an organization can unlock access to an associated PRC. I’m specifically thinking of the Harper Scout, Guild Thief, and Purple Dragon Knight, all of which require membership in their associated organizations. If your character isn’t a member of the Harpers, they can’t take Harper Scout.
There are a lot of PRCs that require you to split your build between multiple classes. The Arcane Archer, Arcane Trickster, Eldritch Knight, and Mystic Theurge all require you to split off from a mono-class Wizard or Sorcerer build. The Archer can imbue their spells into their arrows, the Trickster is a Rogue Wizard hybrid that gets sneak attack bonuses for their spells, the Eldritch Knight is exactly what we were talking about last time, a Wizard (or Sorcerer) who continues to study magic, while getting a Fighter’s BAB advancement. The Mystic Theurge requires you have levels as both an Arcane and Divine spellcaster. It advances both at the same time, and can create some really whacky builds, given the character has two separate spell sets to pull from.
Also worth knowing that the Duelist, mentioned above, is a PRC. A level one character can’t start as a Duelist. If you were wanting to splash that onto your wizard, you’d need to wait until level 13, and by that point the INT bonus to your AC would be lackluster. However, it would qualify you for Eldritch Knight at Level 14. So, you’re splashing one PRC to gain access to another. You still gain the benefit of both however, so you’d have the INT AC bonus, and you’d only, effectively, miss out on two levels of Wizard (or Sorcerer). (The first level of Eldritch Knight and the level of Duelist don’t advance your Wizard’s spells per day, but EK resumes that advancement at the second level.)
So, PRCs were Third and 3.5 edition, (Pathfinder copies these from 3.5, while adding a few new ones.) Fourth Edition had the Paragon Paths and Epic Destinies. These were mandatory and would be selected at levels 11 and 21 respectively. In Fifth Edition, most of the work PRCs used to do was baked into subclasses. The subclasses don’t always match up with their original PRCs. PRCs do technically exist for 5e, but they only appear in, an “experimental,” online supplement.
From a game perspective, I’m torn. PRCs heavily warped character building in 3e and had very specific prerequisites. This created situations where you’d sometimes need to plan out your character in exacting detail to get access to the PRC you wanted. On the other hand, a lot of them had some really interesting conceptual elements.
Fourth Edition’s Paragon Paths were the epitome of, “when everyone’s special, no one is.” It did an excellent job of articulating what the level ranges meant in the game. Level 1 characters are fresh faced newbies. Level 10 is a veteran adventurer. (Also, D20 Modern, the Urban Fantasy version of D&D level caps at 10.) Levels 11 to 20 are getting into superhero territory. Levels 21+ are, “epic.” For a frame of reference, apotheosis is a realistic goal for an epic character.
Paragon Paths also solved the problem of players, “missing,” their PRC because they forgot to take a feat, or forgot to check the feat’s prereqs. This is why I said, “exacting detail,” above. While I’m fond of 3.5, it is a very unforgiving character progression system.
So, from a narrative perspective, there’s plenty of reasons a mage might spend some time studying something other than magic. It’s also entirely possible they used to be something other a mage, before they started studying, or gained access to their powers. This can also get flipped, where you have a wizard who left their studies, and is following some other path now.
For game builds, you need to weigh what you’re giving up, and what you get for that. In D&D, most of the time, giving up caster levels is a huge deal. In part, because high level Wizard/Sorcerers spells get really out of hand. However, from an optimization stand, it’s only worth considering if you have a specific goal in mind.