Can the Fighter be Saved?

i DungeonCrawl brought up the radical idea that maybe it’s time for Fighters to go away as a class in D&D.  Of course, as a sacred cow of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s hard to imagine the game without fighters (or imagine that WOTC would consider it).  But then, when you look at the average party in a lot of groups, how many fighters are actually there?

The Dungeon Cops want to know…has anyone seen this PC? Or any PC like it? Last seen hanging out in adventuring parties, before the introduction of barbarians and rangers.

In the old days of Advanced D&D, fighters were the poor man’s choice.  People wanted to play rangers or paladins, cavaliers or barbarians, but needed high attributes to qualify (not that that stopped many people).  But if played RAW, those classes were rare and supposed to be special.  So fighters were the most common character that got rolled up (actually, interestingly, you had a greater chance of rolling a mage, but that’s by the by).

In OD&D and B/X Fighters represented the entire gamut of warrior, from swashbucklers, to heavy knights, to barbarians.  Unfortunately, the core game assumptions (heavier armor is always the best) works against this idea.  Playing a leather clad fighter is an almost always suboptimal choice without some additional mechanic to bolster the character’s defense.  In addition, the ONLY thing a fighter does well is fight, something that all classes get better in over time, so they share their primary function with everyone.  Further, once skills were sort of introduced via the thief, the physical character lost some of his physical capability.  And with each specialized class, more and more of the fighter ‘design space’ gets used up to let the special types shine while the basic ‘grunt’ becomes more and more vanilla.  What sets the Fighter apart is what they ARE NOT, rather than what they ARE.  Because Rangers and Barbarians were the ‘skilled/perceptive’ warriors, fighters in 3E couldn’t even do a good job as guards thanks to how skills worked (no Spot or Listen as class skills).

That seems like bad design work.

None of the other classes are defined by what they aren’t.  Their aren’t 4 different versions of rogues or wizards (even specialists in later edition still didn’t dilute the core archetype of the wizard).

So what does ‘Fighter’ mean?  I think the class needs to be reworked so that there is something significant to the class that sets it above other ‘warrior’ classes, so that they become something specific. But honestly, the most likely specificity that fighters would get is ‘Weaponmaster’.  That’s ok, I don’t have a problem with that, let’s just call them that.  Or Knights maybe.  I don’t know.

I’m not sure how much of this heavy lifting should be done by Themes, because Themes get applied to any class and therefore are ‘less special’.

Now, in a conversation on my blog earlier, Iron Heroes was mentioned.  Iron Heroes was an interesting 3.X game in which nearly everyone played fighter characters.  All the classes had specific tricks they could play, but they were essentially non-magical and mundane.  There was a Men-at-Arms class that was the closest IH came to ‘just a fighter’.  What made this class interesting was that it had a sort of floating feat mechanic, so the PC could, when faced when an unexpected situation, spend time (or maybe some other resource… it’s been a long while since I read it), and then he would have the feat he needed. Now, if the only thing that sets the fighter apart is his ability to wield everything and be generic, then this seems like a really good idea to me.  I’m not sure how it would be implemented in D&DNext, but then I’ve not seen many moving parts just yet.  I also realize it has the danger of being accused of ‘hurting verisimilitude’ or whatever, but frankly I’d rather have a fuzzy mechanic representing the ability to remember some trick from ages ago that you don’t normally use, then the lameness that is requiring fighters to specialize in feat tracks or whatever.

Oh, and fighters need to be more badass.  Hands down.

Since I wrote this, WotC has told us a bit more about D&DNext, specifically their intention of keeping ‘Bounded Rolls‘ (meaning difficulty does not scale, but remains static in the world…like it used to in oldschool games).  It might be interesting if one of the ways fighters get differentiated is that they are more accurate and do more damage than other melee characters.  But if they did that, what makes the barbarians and rangers special?

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11 thoughts on “Can the Fighter be Saved?

  1. Mitchell Willie says:

    Rage and naturey-tricks? Barbarians have an interesting flavor, but I’ve never liked them as a separate class, as they seem too similar to thug style rogues; same with Rangers, who had magic in 3.x for some reason I’ve never been able to fathom. They’re interesting, but they do so many things that I find them a bit more generic than fighter, honestly.

    In 3.x, one of the things that got me was a friend of ours who always wanted to play a ranger. Always. He liked them, so that’s what we wanted him to play (no sense being unhappy with your free time), but he always had trouble building them. He’d tend to focus on the fighting aspect rather than the rest of the Ranger flavor, and I wound up routinely being able to out-do him at whatever his combat specialization was by the time I was level 3. He was a very, very good player, but he simply refused to grasp the concept that (in that edition) if you’re going to focus on a Ranger’s combat effectiveness instead of the rest of the kit, you’re better off playing a fighter.

    I think fighter is the most overlooked class from a design standpoint, and they need to do something to strengthen it, but it’s a class that will never lack players as long as it exists.

  2. I agree that barbarians should be variants of fighters, or rather that you should simply be able to build a ‘barbarian’ within a regular fighter class. I think that if a player is playing the fighter class, they should be able to be barbarians, swashbucklers, or heavy-armor guys all with the same class.

    As to the ranger having spells…they always have (except in 4th edition). It’s because the original class was just ripping off Aragorn with his woodsy low-key magical abilities (‘talking to animals’, healing with herbs, etc).

    I do agree that the 3.0 ranger was super weak, and the 3.5, while better, wasn’t super, but only if you focus on all of it’s abilities! The problem was that with the skill system, you couldn’t play a ‘woodsy’ fighter, which kind of sucked.

    I agree that the fighter will never lack players. I certainly wouldn’t want to see it go away. I’d just rather see them build it up so you could be effective no matter what type of ‘fighting person’ you want to play!

  3. No fair restating my point more eloquently! But seriously, very nice, a much better conveyance of my point.

    The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that there are two options WotC would have for the “Fighter” in Next, assuming they care about the people who are concerned that the fighter is being left in the dust. Either they drop the fighter entirely, and replace it with specialized physical classes (Barbarian, Ranger, Rogue, Fencer, Monk etc) or alternatively, they drop all the specialized classes and implement them as fighter only “career paths”. They wouldn’t be extra themes or backgrounds, instead they would be sort of templates that stack onto the core fighter class and provide a bundle of skills or feats from a core physical skills list that looks something like a spells list.

    If you really boil away what makes a class in D&D, you can see that this is sort of what they are already. A wizard is just a fighter that applies a template that reduces AC, To Hit, Restricts Armor and adds Magic Skills. Same with clerics, take a Fighter and add a template that reduces To Hit, Restricts Weapons and adds Magic Skills. So maybe a Barbarian takes a Fighter and adds a template that Raises AC, Raises HP, Reduces To Hit and adds Martial Skills.

    My only concern with this is that spell lists are already stupidly long in D&D, multiple Martial Skills lists would add more, and already I think one turn off for new players is the text book of information that one needs to parse to start playing in 3e or 4e.

    I mentioned elsewhere that what I might like to see as a better alternative to this, is an elimination of Vancian Magic with its associated spell lists as the core element in Next, and replacing it with a more “lego blocks” type magic system like the 5×4 system. (http://www.panix.com/~sos/rpg/4by5.html)

    I know that Vancian Magic is iconic and ingrained in D&D (so much so, they brought it to all classes in 4e), but maybe reducing all the core classes to one “defining” capability that is built with imagination and at table negotiation is better than trying to shoe horn a “Martial Magic” skills list onto the fighter classes.

    Nothing will stop char-op and munchkins from deriding these simplified classes as “un optimized”, or worse abusing the heck out of the system with an inexperienced DM, but perhaps with the goal of a Bounded Difficulty system, the power difference between a simple and a fully themed class will be minimal, and everyone can have a good time, whether they prefer vancian magic, martial powers or simply coming up with new stuff at the table.

    • Mitchell Willie says:

      I’ll disagree with you on two points:

      Firstly, I don’t think that Wizard, Cleric, and Rogue are “templates” of Fighter. I think of those four as the elemental classes from which all other classes are made. Paladin = Fighter + Cleric, Barbarian = Rogue + Fighter, etc. I think that, in their own way, each of those four classes (not just Fighter) gets the “template treatment” to make new classes, and it would be nice to see a return to those four elemental classes if Next uses a template style for hybrid classes.

      Secondly, Vanican magic is not really anything like 4e, because the main element of Vancian magic is that it’s preparatory and finite in nature. While 4e’s push-button system was kind of finite (Encounter powers could be used once per encounter, Daily powers, etc…), there weren’t really any “slots” and there was even less preparation. You knew what you knew, things happened, and magic was never a resource you had to really keep track of.

      That’s why I love Vancian magic so much. It reminds me of the difference between reading Spider-Man comics growing up, and watching those silly movies Sony tossed out a few years ago. In the films, he never ran out of web, so he never had to ration it, problem solve with it, or otherwise worry about it. But in the comics? If he didn’t keep track of what he was doing, he fell. A lot. It was part of the charm of the story, honestly. Watching him scramble to put another cartridge in his web-shooter while his internal monologue made quips about becoming street pizza further endeared you to the character and proved that he had more going on in his head–scattered as it may be–than just a guy who could stick to stuff.

      My wizards are problem solvers; knowing they have a finite resource, unlike the Fighter, they have to be prepared for whatever they have to face that day, and ration their power. It’s part of the challenge of the class–if you prep poorly, you look like a fool, and could possibly die; prep well, and you come out of it looking like Batman or the A-Team.

      • I agree that the four base classes seem like they should be the ‘elemental’ essence of class building (nice term btw). It would be great to see something where those can be recombined by players to make your own class or whatever.
        I agree that 4E wasn’t vancian. On the other hand, I detest ‘pure’ vancian magic, especially for clerics. While I think there some good there, and balancing of resources is a nice system, I think needing to see into the future is pretty crap. Also, the idea that gods grant their followers abilities ahead of time never struck me as making any kind of sense.
        I like the way ACKS has done it, with a repertoire and spell slots, kind of like a mix between sorcerers and traditional casters.

    • First off, thanks for that, but I feel like you were plenty eloquent! 🙂
      Anyway, I think having the base class as something you add too is very doable. I’ve seen it in a variety of systems, even in retroclones (ACKS), so I don’t see why DNDNext with decades of build experience can’t do something similar.
      But while it is doable, I doubt that they will go that route because, let’s face it, splat books sale.

    • First off, thanks for that, but I feel like you were plenty eloquent! 🙂
      Anyway, I think having the base class as something you add too is very doable. I’ve seen it in a variety of systems, even in retroclones (ACKS), so I don’t see why DNDNext with decades of build experience can’t do something similar.
      But while it is doable, I doubt that they will go that route because, let’s face it, splat books sale.

      Oh, and I would like some kind of martial skill system, just because it increases the chances of a fighter being more balanced against casters at high level.

      • Oh I agree it would balance the fighter against the caster, I just hate players having to wade through a text book of skills just to get started. The last thing I want is to turn a player off because playing a character that can hold their own (mechanically) with experienced players requires many years of experience with what skills are “bad” or equally, just has to choose from so many different skills just to get going (GURPS I’m looking at you).

        Ideally, what I would love to see, is a system similar to what Zack S. outlined in his Type V posts, where on level up, you choose from a list of options unique to your class, that allow you either to level up generally (take a higher To Hit, or AC bonus or something similar, or choose a specific skill to gain or level. To use a binary example, imagine the fighter class. On leveling, they can choose one of two options: Higher To Hit, or a level in Cleave. A higher to hit obviously means they can hit more often, each level in cleave allows them to make one additional attack if they succeed at hitting on the first attack. Again, a binary choice and in a developed system there would be more, but it would be nice to be able to tell a new player, “If you don’t know what you want to take, just take the AC and To Hit bonus” and have that allow the player to keep up with more seasoned players. Then you can have generic spell and martial powers lists, and no requirement for knowing those lists before you get going.

      • I think that certainly has merit. I do think that the system math would determine whether a bonus to hit was equal to an extra cleave (and as with 4E, you’d have people figure that stuff out).
        My gut concern with that kind of idea, is the Linear Fighter/Quadratic Wizard Problem. If Casters get multiple spells per level, then classes that only get a single bonus/ability will lag behind. Unless the abilities the martial characters are getting are really potent.

        Though a nice element of that would be that you could tie abilities to certain levels, so at high levels, you could have the more mythic abilities be up there to let the noncasters hold their own.

        Hmmm… it does have some good potential.

  4. Tom H. says:

    You’re running ACKS now – what do you think of it in this regards? When I make a doc that lists the 1st-level abilities of every class for my players to choose from, fighters certainly look like they’re getting the short end of the stick; the fighter variants have damage bonuses, cleave, *and* additional powers, and are only giving up some weapon or armor choice to get it.
    So far, the party has barbarian and assassin, but no fighter.

    • Well, here is what I’ve seen in the game which kind of flies in the face of my normal arm-chair-generalling. Platemail for the win. Seriously, it’s the bomb. That, on top of the (slightly) higher hit points makes them own combat.
      As hirelings, we’ve had a barbarian and a dwarven fury. The classes are built as frontliners, but they can’t match up to a Fighter or Vaultguard because of the damn platemail. Now, granted, a high dex & con version of those classes could sub as the frontline, and as always, you can risk your healer (the cleric) in the front. But the thing that has saved my player’s bacon more than anything is two heavily armored fighters on the front line.
      Now, if you aren’t playing first level, this is less of a deal and if those classes make it beyond first level they start to come into their own. But I’d feel /really/ shaky in a party without a platemail toting wall between my squishy types and the monsters.
      The only class that I’ve seen beat the fighter and vault guard in our group is the Nar (Thrassian) Gladiator. Even with their higher xp cost, I think they might be too powerful. Granted my player rolled some amazing stats, but when you have a 16 strength and 3 attacks a round that can trigger a cleave…well, he nearly always got to cleave…and once he hit 2nd level he almost always got to ‘pick up’ if his first cleave didn’t finish the target (by getting to cleave off his other claw or bite).

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