My best(worst) experience with overpowered casters was when I was the caster. I was a Druid, not a Wizard, but I'm telling it anyway, so nyah
This was my first real campaign as a player, and my first campaign in 3.5. I decided to play a Druid, because they seemed cool. I had no real concept of imbalance. It didn't occur to me that the game might not have been designed with parity between players in mind. At first, it all went well enough. I only had a couple spells per day, but I had rolled pretty hot for stats, and managed to make due with a spear and my handful of spells. I was actually overpowered already with the animal companion. Neither my Druid nor his Companion were as good as the party Fighter, but together we were definitely worth more. It didn't feel overpowered, though, because it was split up into two bodies and also because the party was small enough that it really helped to have the extra body around.
It was level 3 that we got the first inkling that my Druid was going to be a powerhouse. We ended up fighting a young dragon, a wyrmling red, and it had the benefit of having ambushed us in a field where it could fly. This shut down the rest of the party almost entirely. They were able to take potshots with their crossbows, but none of them was a dedicated archer. So I decided to break out th big guns and channel a prepared spell into Summon Nature's Ally II. I summoned a hippogryph, and it tipped the scales quite handily.
It was at level 6-7(we started at 6, and levelled during this adventure) that things started getting noticeably bad, like bad enough that a table of all relative D&D newbies were raising eyebrows. We were in an adventure were the party was trapped in a big extra-dimensional labyrinth. It was suppsoed to challenge us to survive in a place with very little food and water, and some enemies, too. My Druid destroyed that dungeon. I used Stone Shape to break walls and cheat at the mazes. We found a handful of berries. Goodberry meant we were all fully fed(we didn't find anymore berries after that). We were never thirsty, I could cast create water. We started to come upon elaborate puzzles and riddles. The DM didn't do a great job of describing them. We could tell he had a clear idea in his head, but he just didn't do a great job of getting it across, and the party got really frustrated. So I let my spells destroy those, too. The next day we were all set to go destroy some more puzzles with spells, and the DM got frustrated and threw a Stone Golem at us. CR 11, immune to magic. But immune to magic is a silly joke, so I summoned a bunch of Thoqqua(weird fire worm things) and melted it into slag.
We eventually got out of the labyrinth, and by this point it was pretty well established that my Druid was overpowered. The group was more or less okay with it, though, because the tense, challenging atmosphere of the labyrinth had made the Druid into a sort of party resource. However, this couldn't keep up. The established campaign arc required that we do things outside of artificially constructed extra-dimensional labyrinths. The DM wasn't up to running a magical arms race with me where the good spells never worked, and I didn't want to either, so we tried to go back to less dungeon-punk adventures. We went to rescue a NPC, an old friend(sorta) of the party who was captured by orcs. The DM planned out a few on level encounters in a cave. But without that tense atmosphere(mainly fueled by all the puzzles no one wanted to do and I got us out of), my Druid was just sick and wrong broken. By this point I was a tiger all day long, with full casting thanks to natural spell. The rest of the party was next to useless in the rescue, and it was no stretch to say that it would have gone the same way if I had been alone.
At this point the rest of the party was pretty upset with the whole situation. Now, I'm not a total jerk, and had only sorta stumbled on all this power accidentally, so I agreed to hold back, for the good of the group. Sadly, this didn't make anyone happy. Oh, the rest of the party got to do cool stuff, but they weren't happy, because they knew they were only useful due to me holding back. One compared it to the feeling of someone letting you win. They were doing things, but they were robbed of the feeling of accomplishment. At the same time, I wasn't happy. I was preparing spells I wouldn't use. I wouldn't let myself channel things into Summon Nature's Ally. It sucked all the joy out of being able to do magic, because if I ever found some inventive way to use a spell, it was almost certainly overpowered and breaking our gentleman's agreement. It felt as though the game was punishing me for being creative. Soon after that, we ended the campaign because no one was having fun anymore.
Thanks for reminding me the 3.0 red wizard of thay! Now that was super broken like beyond broken. The red wizard of our party was casting fireballs with a DC of 36 at level 11! Good thing he was an evoker and not a necromancer or something with save or die spells. Actually, his maximized fireballs were good enough anyways...
D&D 3rd is balanced on the honor system (and the back of the DM, but it can really come down to the honor system). As with most things that run on the honor system, it works pretty well most of the time, as the OP notes. Twice I've run into accidental game breaking
Once (and most recently) was a psionics-heavy campaign with a Shaper, a Kineticist, a Cleric, and a Soulknife. The Soulknife's full attack sequence regularly did less damage than a maxed-out crystal shard from the Shaper, or an Energy Ball (Fire) from the Kineticist. We worked with the Soulkinfe player for a while, trying to improve his build, but it became abundantly clear that even with the psions doing the tamest things possible, they were dishing out more damage with better accuracy at range than the soulknife did in melee combat. Eventually, the Soulknife was allowed to gestalt into a Soulknife/fighter. the extra feats picked up his performance enough to be playing on the same level as the unoptimized psions. (Incidentally, all the characters played FINE out of combat. The shaper, my character, has maxed out bluff; the kineticist is nobility; and the soulknife has a ring of jumping and insane speed for exploration/infiltration. The cleric is, well, a cleric.)
Before that (Back in 3.0 even), when I was a new(ish) player, I played a mid-level druid for a one-shot "campaign", which to this day I think might have gone on past the first session if I hadn't broken it so bad. The trouble started with the very first event, when we came across a dead guy who was supposed to be a clue. Having prepared the spell, I decided to Reincarnate him... mostly just as a mercy, really. After a few munutes of arguing, I was flatly told by the DM that I wasn't allowed to do that, and we went on. The first actual combat came, and I fought like the back-line caster I was used to being, having played a Wizard previously. After observing palpable irritation from the DM at the efficacy of Flame Strike and other damage-druid toys, I decided I wouldn't be doing that for the next fight. I wildshaped and went to town on the enemies as a big badass bear. Again, the DM's irratation was felt. I silently resolved to not attempt the "mr. indestructobear" routine again, and we went on. For the third major fight, I waded into melee with my sickle. I was doing well (but not devastatingly well) at this until I simultaneously realized while fighting what I think was the DM's pet baddie that I had spells and forgot my first resolution. I cast Harm, holding the charge, and the next round connected with it and a sickle-swipe for the KO. When the baddie mysteriously recieved a Heal and got up, I Harmed again (I'd gotten a chance to re-prepair since fight 1) and another player followed up with a straight-to-dead hit. I don't think I annoyed the other players, a heals-cleric and distracted ranger, too much, but I gave the DM the mother of all headaches
"Enjoy your screams, Sarpadia - they will soon be muffled beneath snow and ice." THE COALITION WAR GAME -Phyrexian Praetor Round 1: (4-1-2, 1 kill) Round 2: (16-8-2, 4 kills) Round 3: (18-9-2, 1 kill) Round 4: (22-10-0, 2 kills) Round 5: (56-16-3, 9 kills) Round 6: (8-7-1) [current round]
The problem with I've had with spellcasters is that they don't need to optimize to function as well as everyone else.
To illustrate this, I'll use my go-to example. Notably, the player who played the cleric, the spellcaster in this example, admits that this is very wrong. I created a heavily, heavily optimized werewolf warblade for a high level, high optimization campaign. When it came to combat, I bisected things. I would regularly crit and kill enemies. In addition to this, we had several houserules - one of which was to 'train' feats at XP penalties. I had trained around the range of 6-9 extra feats. Extra. Focused on TWF, with enough d6's in bonus dice to put Shadowrun to shame. The cleric, on the other hand, trained absolutely nothing. Nothing. He had a single level on me. That is all. It wasn't even enough to push him up a spell level. He solo'd fights. Regularly. We were there to cheer him on and take blows for him. Not to win combats with his aid. Why? Because he could drop creatures in a round or two. Alone. And we were expendable. Delay Death was something he prepped several times a day, enough for the entire party+extra uses, with a handful of Heal spells. Why? Because if we died, he could pop DD on us, drag us nearby and heal us all with a single Heal spell. After winning the encounter. This is how any major set piece combat ran like this. It was formulaic.
The kicker was that our wizard was played badly and still had more utility and damage than the rest of us. While neither the cleric or the wizard intended to replace, or make anyone else feel like they were overshadowed, it happened. A lot. Nearly every situation. It wasn't even something we could simply point out and go "Hey, could you stop doing that?" because it wasn't something they were trying for. It just happened.
Grrr. Its hard to search for the earlier posts where I've told this story, so here goes.
Playing the Temple of Elemental Evil computer game. It doesn't matter that it was a game, as it was pretty much 3.5 in video game form. Bugs aside.
Anyways. My party was all level 3 or 4, and had people and....a Bard, a Druid, and a scroll of charm animal. I was going up against a Hill Giant and a Dire Bear. Now, that's an EL 9 encounter, yes? So, if my party was level 9, it would be a nice challenge. Going into it with a level 3 or 4 party conventionally (relying on non-casters to do damage, etc)? Bloodbath. TPKs all over. It was bad, man.
Then, I read Hideous Laughter, and....won the fight.
Round 1: Bard casts Hideous Laughter on the Giant. He's helpless for 4 rounds. Druid casts Charm Animal, so now the bear is now on my side.
Rest of fight: Circle-stomp the giant, who is laughing hysterically on the ground and dying. When charm wears off, the party lights up the bear.
Because of two spells, I won a fight that I should have never been able to win. Sure, credit me with creativity, or system mastery, or decry that its not a valid example because its a computer game, but any way you slice it, two low-level spells let me beat the unbeatable.
Gold is for the mistress, silver for the maid Copper for the craftsman, cunning at his trade." "Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall, "But Iron -- Cold Iron -- is master of them all." -Kipling
Defenders: We ARE the wall!
I've replaced the previous Edition Warring line in my sig with this one, because honestly, everybody needs to work together to make the D&D they like without trampling on somebody else's D&D.
I played with a fairly stable group for the full run of 3.0/3.5, we had two long-running campaigns that each went into the low teens. I also ran a campaign of my own with a group that included other players, but it used a heavily modified rule set, so probably wouldn't be a good example.
In both of the long-running campaigns, no one played a Wizard or Druid. We did have Clerics, but the Cleric builds showed great restraint. They did a fair amount of in-combat healing, prepped restorative spells rather than self-buffs (only self-buffing cleric was an evenly-advancing Fighter/Cleric), and, of course, Turned Undead like crazy. We had a Sorcerer in each game, but they consciously avoided the most obviously-broken spells, turning out to be more or less 'blasting' builds.
We did have a recurring villain in one of the campaigns who was a wizard, with Quickened Spell and Haste and Teleport on tap to escape when the fight turned against him (thus 'recurring'). IIRC, he was two levels higher than us - and a serious threat to the whole party of 6 PCs.
I played a 5th level cleric in late 3.5, took a combination of spells that allowed me to fight in melee better than the fighter, heal the party, gather information magically, and generally just be all-around awesome. Any task that came up, I was most likely the best at it. No - I wasn't good at sneaking. But it was a mostly overland game, so it rarely came up. That was the last 3x game I played, just wasn't fun anymore.
As for the 2e examples - I encountered just as many fighter-types with rings of invisibility, boots of flying, armor of invincibility, vorpal swords, Solar bows, x-ray goggles, amulets of undetectability and rings of wishes as I encountered wizards who had been handed every spell they asked for, to the point that they were OP. Considering that spells are learned from scrolls found in treasure, it's exactly equivalent to handing out a bunch of overpowered magical items. It tells you right in the book not to do that. If you do what it explicitly tells you not to do... how can you blame the game? It'd be like saying "2e sucks because when you give the wizard 25 in every ability score, he's really overpowered." Yeah - you're not supposed to do that.
If you play 3e by the book, it's easy to get dominating casters very early in the game - the only way you don't get them is if players are bad at understanding which spells are most useful, or intentionally don't pick them.
The worst part is the TOEE game basically expects you to win that fight and others like it on a regular basis.
Fights like that were some of the things I liked best about that game. I liked using grease/web and then picked them apart from a distance. A level 3 party could get a lot of XP from that and then there was that giant ambush in the guardhouse that was worth a lot of XP.
And the casters in that game were fairly nerfed since you couldn't get access to a lot of the broken stuff because it didn't work in a computer setting. Fighters and paladins were actually worth something in that game at higher levels and if you did the modded version you needed a rogue too IME.
That game is a bit closer to what 3.5 should have been balance wise since they user modded version made almost every class useful at level 10. Monk was about the only one I never found much use for at high levels and bard had some issues, but you could make a good high level version of every other PHB class with the resources they had.
I'm playing a 3.5 campaign right now. The members of the party are a Rogue, a Half-Orc Fighter, a human Wizard (played by a very passive that doesn't bother preparing spells and only casts magic missile over and over) and a Human Druid (me). We just reached level 5. My Druid is the healer of the group, provides mobility , food and water, has a Riding Dog as companion that is almost as capable as the fighter, and has lots of useful skills out of combat when we're in the wilderness (that's most of the time we spent traveling).
Before even being able to Wild Shape I moved the party forward thanks to spells like Spider Climb, that made it possible to infiltrate a mountain fortress only reachable by a lift, or Summoning a Hyppogriff to fly 300 feet up, evading a difficult series of climb checks. I was able to forage and provide cheap, efficient food in the form of goodberries. I used Entangle to slow fleeing, charging or casting enemies. I buffed the fighter if I felt like it. I kept healing everyone, so that the party didn't had to spend days and days to heal naturally. I detected magic items. I called a whole zoo to fight for me and that allowed us to win a fight against a group of 10 mercenaries that included one flying blaster wizard and one evil cleric. And I'm not trying to break the game.
We have fun because we're telling a story together. But in that story my Druid is Gandalf, the Rogue is a hobbit, the Wizard is a magic-missile turret and the Fighter is Gimli on Stilts. And as we level up, the differences between classes are turning more and more obvious...