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Skyrim's Magic vrs Melee balance

For a post entitled The Impossible Goal Of A Balanced Skyrim, that was certainly a fair-from-comprehensive answer, and for a debatably good reason that balancing a game isn't exactly easy, especially when that game is an RPG with open-ended character progression.

Yet, it seems I've managed to get my Skyrim groove back on by diverting my rampant altaholicism to the idea that I should probably become an archmage, a master in all six spell schools, before worrying at all about the warrior or the thief skills at all.  In focusing on getting all the various spell effects, I'm prioritizing maximum player-usable effect versatility, perhaps the only real way to keep a game diverse enough for somebody as finicky as me to keep playing it.  Then, after I get the spells, I can worry about something as simple as swinging a sword or picking pockets.  (Admittedly, this isn't so much an avoidance of altaholicism so much as it is a consolidation of all my alts into one character and, given that there's only so many available perk points, only something you can do in Skyrim if you're willing to cheat a bit.)

One interesting observation about going the purely-spell route is that Spells are actually completely disjointed from the rest of Skyrim's idea of balance.  In the case of skills related to weapon-use, armor-use, lockpicking, even crafting, the way balance works is "The higher your skill value, the more effective doing this is."  Spell skills don't scale like this.  Although there are token efforts towards making spell perks pick up the slack, the results don't even get close, making spellcasters follow a higher-effort-for-less-overall-reward route.

The problem starts at the core "skill point" level.  Swinging a weapon with 25 points of one-handed skill does 37.5% less damage per swing than swinging it with 100 points of one-handed skill.  (It should be noted that Archery actually scales a bit more with skill points than other weapons: 0.8% per point instead of 0.5% per point.)  Yet, casting any Destruction spell does the same amount of damage regardless of Destruction skill.  One can exceed 100 skill points with enchantments, potions, or buffs.

The influence of "perks" could have solved this, but actually make it a bit worse.  Mages can get up to 50% more damage with a single kind of spell (fire, frost, lightning) by investing two perk points in the appropriate perk (three points if you count the necessary prerequisite "apprentice destruction" perk).  Weapon users can get 100% more damage with all weapons of that type (one-handed, two-handed, or archery) if you invest five perk points in the appropriate perk.  Even not including the minor factor of critical hit perks, perks grant twice as much potency advantage to weapons than they do spells.

The influence of crafting, as I've mentioned in previous blog entries, is brokenly overpowered when it comes to weapons. Smithing is capable of increasing the base weapon damage, something multiplied by all these percentages I've been mentioning so far.  If it were just a few points (about 5) that would be pretty powerful, but it's actually capable of increasing them by several (over 20) points, a number of points that would increase some weapons (such as an iron dagger) several times over their original damage value.  Where crafting weapons can boost their damage severalfold, crafting only benefits spellcasters by reducing mana costs of spells.  The exception being alchemy potions, which influence both types of characters fairly identically.

Sneak attacks multiply this already out-of-kilter damage disparity between melee and magic.  In the case of daggers, up to fifteen times as much.  That would actually make sense, if it were not for just how ridiculously stacked the damage can get prior to sneak attacks.  Sneak attacks do not boost Destruction spell effectiveness and there's absolutely no good reason an Ice Spike should take you less by surprise than an arrow in the back.

The Balance In Action.

The result is that, while an iron dagger may remain viable with more skill and perk points, the equivalent mage newbie's Flames spell eventually ceases becoming viable against same-level threats.  As higher levels are gained, the problem only gets more pronounced, a powerful weapon wielded by a high-level physical weapon user is going to do more damage than a high-level mage's best destruction spell.  At least against a single target... but single targets are the most common and most dangerous threats in this game.

Incredibly, the mage has an additional limitation: mana points.  Whereas a fighter has stamina that does not get used at all unless in a power attack, the mage's mana is used in every single spell, and they'll soon find themselves defenseless unless they've devised means of rapid mana replenishment.  Yes, with more skill points, perks, and better equipment, a mage can cast spells more often without running out of mana, but this will not help them in terms of damage per second.  (Unless perhaps you're counting the seconds they're out of mana.)

Example 1: a physical attacker's worst-case (most effective, to the point where it's rather broken) scenario.

My first Skyrim character turned out to be a sneaking bow user, and something like this happened:
  • Start with a "daedric bow" that does 19 damage.
  • Smith it to way-past-legendary status so it does about 60 damage.  Pair it with a commonly available arrow that increases that damage to about 75.
  • Wear full archery enchanted gear that boosts your archery skill.  At 200 skill, this will increase the base damage by 260% to 195 damage
  • Five ranks of the Archery "overdraw" perk doubles this, increasing it to 390 damage.  
  • A sneak attack, with the "deadly aim" perk, multiplies that by 3: 1170 damage.  
This is enough to kill nearly anything in one shot, including most dragons.  It's really no wonder my first character, a sneaking bow user, fundamentally broke the game balance so much as to trivialize everything too much for me.

It'd be even easier for the player, and produce similar results, to have done this with a melee weapon.  Sure, it'd take a few more swipes, but that enemy isn't going to be standing long enough to be a problem.   You could even take down several at once in melee range with the "Sweep" two-handed weapon perk.

This is omitting the influence of alchemy, which could increase the archery skill further or poison the arrows.  This is also omitting the influence of enchantments on the bow which could have secondary damage (which will be trivial compared to the base damage after it is multiplied) or effects (such as paralysis).

Example 2: A magic character's best-case (also most effective) scenario.

Because I omitted the influence of alchemy from the melee character, I'll omit it from the magic character as well.  Potions boost weapon effectiveness and spell effectiveness with ratios of effectiveness that are about the same.  Thus, there's no real need to include them in a comparison.

We're also not considering the mana limitations of the magic.  This is because we're assuming the mage has the best perks, enchantments, and skill points to reduce the mana overhead.  Really, enchantment alone would do it, because you can decrease the spell cost of a given school or two to zero with the right enchantments.

In choosing the best possible spell to use, I'm going to go with Incinerate, for several reasons.  First, because unlike the mastery-level spells, it can be cast with both hands, or dual cast, which causes it to do more damage than Lightning Storm in a single second. Second, I'm not sure if Wall Of Flames can stack on the same target. Third, because it's an instant, ranged, and single attack, much like the bow attack it's being compared to.

Here's what we're left with:
  • Incinerate does 60 points of damage.
  • 100 Destruction skill does not boost this damage, it just makes it cheaper to cast.
  • All the best perks are taken, increasing the damage by an additional 50% to 90 points of damage.
  • All the best enchantments are taken, but it only affects mana cost, again not boosting damage per second.
  • The "intense flames" perk will cause the enemies to run when below 20% health.  This doesn't do anything for the damage.
  • 10% additional damage over time because of the nature of this fire spell.  90 damage increases to 99.
  • Casting with both hands doubles the damage.  I should probably have mentioned it more, as it's core to the balance of why spells are as potent as they are.  This alone will take 99 damage to 198 damage.
  • Dual-casting with the appropriate perk increases the damage by 10% per more.  198 damage increases to 217.8 damage.
It should be noted that, strangely enough, dual-casting does not always affect potency.  It does in the case of most offensive spells, healing spells, and others.  However, in the case of conjuring spells or shielding spells (e.g. stoneskin), and others, it only increases duration.  This is a bit of a balance snafu.
Comparison conclusion:
Honestly, there's several things wrong with performing this comparison.  For example: 
  • Yes, the mage does about 240 damage per attack while the archer - even outside of stealth - does 390 damage. However, past basic character progression, the archer had to work to craft that gear, while all the mage essentially had to do was buy a spell.
  • Another consideration is that the mage may be able to cast faster than the archer can draw his bow but, simultaneously, it should be realized that the mage has to worry about mana and the archer does not.
  • The mage could have a number of utility spells from the other schools of spells that grant considerable versatility in aspects besides mere damage.  Yet, this is not a true advantage because, given the flexibility of Skyrim's character progression system, the archer could take those other spell schools as well.
  • If the mage is using certain destruction spells, such as elemental walls and lightning storm, they could be putting out quite a bit of damage per second that could equal that of the archer over time.  Of course, damage over time is moot if the target is dead on the very first hit, as will often be the case with a stealth-multiplier-exploiting character.
In the end, we learn what we probably knew all along: physical damage is broken.  Smithing, for example, should really be capped at 100 smithing skill, no matter what, which brings you up to the first "legendary" level of any given piece of equipment.  Smithing is just one of many out-of-control factors that are breaking the physical damage formula.

It's unfortunately beyond the scope of The Creation Kit to impose hard skill limits on smithing, or perform the necessary fixes in other places.  Until that's fixed, if you want to be brokenly powerful in Skyrim, ditch Destruction and take up a weapon, but feel free to abuse the heck out of the other spell schools: my stealthy archer didn't need to have twin Draemora Lords - the enemies were usually dead before they even found him - but it was nice to have a backup.

Seeking Solutions:

I think that, if I were to propose an easy fix within the realm of The Creation Kit to do, it would be a revamp of Destruction magic to bring it in line with the way weapon damage scales.  This excellent plugin goes partway there by allowing players to craft gear that boosts potency of spells instead of discounting the mana cost - crafting is one way in which the multiplicative properties of weapon damage happened.  To go the rest of the way, I'd like to make it so destruction spells scale more with the players' destruction skills.

This cannot be done directly because there's simply no Creation Kit accessible code to cause your destruction skill potency to directly modify the spell potency.  However, it can be done indirectly by tweaking the perk trees, perhaps granting up to 150% damage boosts to spells (instead of the current 50%) which would bring it in line with a one-handed weapon skill plus perks boost.  I created a plugin that does just that.

Yet, this is just a bandaid of the worst kind: seeing the Destruction damage lagging behind physical damage and raising Destruction damage to match is merely bringing it into alignment with the broken part of the game.

The actual balance problem has more to do with Skyrim's overall potency curve as all characters level up: there's simply not enough consideration towards end game balance.  Destruction magic loses its potency up there, sure, because it simply doesn't scale with level in any way.  But physical damage doers do scale, in several ways, and it causes things to go nuts: watching a 19 damage weapon inflate to over 1000 points of damage is not just wrong, it's insane.

In short, the problem is this: Too many multipliers can lead to exponential increases in damage!  Physical damage is broken because of this: skill level, perk boosts, alchemy, weapon crafting increases, sneak attack multipliers, and so on.  Yet, magic damage is broken because it does not have enough: a perk boost and alchemy, that's it.  This lead to magic damage not scaling enough in level.

A corrective plugin that fixes the problem would need to attack all of this and simultaneously adjust the NPC adversaries to be comfortable with the new balance.  Such a plugin would likely break all gameplay plugins before it and even cause incompatibilities with future Bethesda-released products (such as Dawn Guard).  This puts the burden of coming up with such a solution squarely on the developers.
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