Hoo boy, here it is. The day I’ve been dreading since I started this series – and the day that comes as a result of way too much time compared to the others in the series. Today, it’s time to talk about the Fighter.
Grab your swords, axes, maces, longbows, shortbows, crossbows, lances, pikes, halberds, glaives, whips…
On the Origins of the Fighting-Man
Obviously we won’t be doing a full history of war just to talk about the fighter class. But the history of the fighter in Dungeons and Dragons specifically is worth a quick aside.
The original game included only three classes – cleric, magic-user, and fighting-man. Yes, it was called the “fighting-man” right there next to the oh so eloquently named “magic-user” class. In any case, it would be the struggle between those two poorly named classes that would come to define the fighter for the rest of its existence.
See, the main issue with the fighter is that it doesn’t scale well next to the spellcasting classes. By the higher levels, wizards can incinerate whole cities. The fighter can hit things more times than it could previously, but… still. Just look at wish.
This has seen a lot of work done towards finding a solution. Honestly, I don’t think there is a solution, but that’s beside the point – which is that the fighting-man class is one that has to struggle to find its own niche in later levels.
Before we get into that, though, lets look at the fighter in general.
A Fighter’s Features
So, lets run down the basic features of the fighter. The table below breaks down the base class features and the levels you earn them at – we’ll look at subclasses in a moment… maybe.
|Fighting Style, Second Wind
|Extra Attack +
|Martial Archetype #1
|Ability Score Increase (ABSI)
|Martial Archetype #4
|Martial Archetype #2
|Action Surge +, Indomitable ++
|Martial Archetype #5
|Martial Archetype #3
|Extra Attack ++
Now, fighters have a lot of features (unlike spellcasters), but more importantly – they have a lot of Ability Score Increases. And this is the current “fix” for the fighter’s relative impotency at later levels.
Each ABSI allows you to increase one ability score by 2, two ability scores by 1, or take a feat. And here’s where I’m going to get shockingly math-y.
Lets take a generic fighter character – a dragonborn Strength-based Champion fighter using a one-handed sword and shield. At 1st level, the character can have the following stats:
STR – 17 (15 +2 from dragonborn)
DEX – 11
CON – 15
INT – 10
WIS – 10
CHA – 11 (10 + 1 from dragonborn)
That spread is optimized, but not as much as a mountain dwarf (+2 STR and +2 CON). So I’m taking it as a generalization.
With those stats, lets follow our dragonborn as she levels.
At 4th level, our first ABSI goes to increasing STR by 2. The new total is 19.
At 6th level, we use our ABSI for increasing STR by 1 and CON by 1. The new totals are 20 and 16.
At 8th level, the ABSI goes towards increasing CON by 2. The new total is 18.
At 12th level, the ABSI goes towards increasing CON by 2. The new total is 20.
Our dragonborn fighter now has 20 Strength and 20 Constitution at 12th level – both of her primary stats are maxed. She has no need to invest in Dexterity, since she uses heavy armor. Investing in Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma are all similarly mediocre in value. This means our fighter is likely to take nothing but feats for her remaining three ABSIs.
Now, look at any other class (except rogue) – they only get five ABSIs, period. A multi-ability dependent (or MAD) class will struggle to raise just their primary stats to the maximum. Even non-MAD classes will only have one or two extra ABSIs for feats.
So, what does this say about the fighter?
Jack of Any Trade?
The fighter, weirdly enough, behaves somewhat like a bard. Where the bard can easily excel in any given task, so can the fighter. Using bonus feats and ABSIs, a fighter can specialize in whatever they want. And, unlike the bard who can only become good – not great – at anything, a dedicated fighter can become a true expert in almost whatever they want (but can’t quite manage to be good in as many things as a bard can).
Also remember that none of the fighter’s features depend specifically on any one stat or weapon type. Strength or Dexterity, ranged or melee, it doesn’t matter. The fighter can do them all.
By 20th level, a fighter can easily have the highest stat total of any class besides barbarian – and in whatever ability scores they choose, not just Strength and Constitution.
So the basic strength of the fighter is in customization, not raw power. At least, that’s the way I see it – I have my own thoughts on the balancing of martial and spellcasting classes, but that’s a topic for another time.
A Note on Attack Frequency
I should take just a moment here to pause and mention how powerful the fighter’s Extra Attack and Action Surge features are. They’re very powerful. Seriously – fighter is the only class that gets a full extra action. No other class gets that in any form.
In addition, the multiple Extra Attack features the fighter gets are also a major contributor to the class’s power. With multiple attacks per turn, the fighter’s chance of not landing an attack at least once per round drops dramatically – and their damage output with good rolls rises dramatically as well.
Both of these things are core parts of the fighter class. However, neither one really allows the fighter to equal spellcasters in terms of noticeable power. Attacking or hitting more often doesn’t feel as impactful as a 8th level fireball does, and even though Action Surge feels great, you can only do it once per
long short/long rest* (until much higher levels).
* My writing coherency, meanwhile, is a strictly long rest recharge – short rests do not cut it, as should be obvious. Oops!
I stand by my feeling that the fighter’s versatility is its greatest strength, but part of that is the presence of the base fighter class as a very powerful foundation. Any character you build using the fighter’s ABSIs is, by definition, powerful simply because the base fighter class is powerful.
The Archetypal Fighter
Now we get to the subclasses – something I half-thought might have to be saved for another post. But we’re here now, so we might as well roll with it!
The fighter has three subclasses available in the Player’s Handbook – the Champion, the Battlemaster, and the Eldritch Knight.
Once again, lets look at trends – something we’ve only done once before because good grief the disparity in subclass design is high.
Student of War
|Core Subclass Mechanic
|Expansion of a 3rd Level Feature
Know Your Enemy
|Improvement of Core Mechanic
|Additional Fighting Style
Improved Combat Superiority
|Improvement of Core Mechanic
|Improvement on 7th or 10th Level Feature
Improved C.S. +
Improved War Magic
So, lets take a look, shall we?
Unlike with bards, fighter subclasses don’t break down into nearly as neat categories. There are patterns to follow, however – they’re just a bit more ill-defined.
Bonus Utility. Some subclasses, not all, get a bonus utility feature at 3rd level (alongside their core mechanic, detailed below). Champion doesn’t get one, but both Battlemaster and Eldritch Knight get features that don’t necessarily make them more powerful in combat, but are useful nonetheless.
Core Mechanic. At 3rd level, each subclass gains a feature that goes on to define the archetype. For the Champion, its their signature expanded critical hit range. For the Battlemaster and Eldritch Knight, its the on-use abilities that define them – Combat Manuevers and Spellcasting respectively. All these features go on to define the subclasses as distinct from each other and any other classes.
Basic Feature Expansion. The first place where the subclasses diverge is 7th level. Where Eldritch Knight gets a combat-oriented feature (War Magic), both Champion and Battlemaster get out-of-combat boons to reflect their subclass design.
Improvement of Core Mechanic. At 10th level, the fighter gets an improvement to the basic idea behind their subclass. Champion fighters get an extra Fighting Style, something all fighters already get one of, to emphasize their martial combat skills. Meanwhile, Battlemaster and Eldritch Knight both get more direct improvements on their existing features.
Second Improvement of Core Mechanic. Much like above, at 15th level the fighter gets another improvement to their core concept. For the Champion and Battlemaster, this is a direct improvement on their existing features. Eldritch Knight is the only one that gets an extra ability, which better integrates their subclass’s unique flavor with the base fighter class.
Capstone Improvement. Finally, at 18th level the fighter gets a final improvement on their existing abilities. Unlike with many other class or subclass capstones, these don’t give powerful new abilities. Each one improves the features the subclass already has to their strongest level.
So here are the conclusions I can draw about fighter subclass design:
- The core mechanic of the subclass should be introduced at 3rd level.
- At 7th level, the subclass generally gives a new ability that is distinct from the previous core mechanic. How this ability interacts with the core mechanic depends on the subclass.
- The core mechanic should be directly improved upon at least once, or otherwise receive a marked increase in effectiveness – generally around 10th and/or 15th level.
- Finally, the capstone of a fighter subclass doesn’t need to be big and flashy – powerful, yes, but not necessarily distinct from the existing features.
The big thing to notice here is that the subclass design has a lot of faith in the basic power of the fighter class itself. There isn’t any need to give out new abilities – the ones the fighter starts with seem to be plenty.
The Art of War
All in all, fighter is a very solid class. I think it comes solidly in second place for “class hardest to multiclass away from,” behind rogues of course. They have good features at almost every level, get tons of benefits for sticking with the class long-term, and are customizable enough that you can make almost anything work if you try hard enough.
The class also has some of the most solidly designed subclasses out there. Each one is unique from each other and from other classes that do similar things, and yet none of them rely on adding a bunch of new abilities to manage in order to achieve this. It’s all very solid design, and I’m quite the fan of it.
I don’t think I’ve ever played a fighter before, but I know I’ve played with them and DM’d for them. Yet, all the same, there are only one or two characters that stand out in my memory as Fighters – the others all stand out more as what their character concept was, rather than their class choice. I’ve played with a crossbow-expert (fighter), a washed-up ex-hero (fighter), and a fun-loving brawler (fighter)… but, still, it seems almost like their class choice is an afterthought.
Fighter is a class that lets you be whatever you want to be – all it does itself is give you the tools to succeed.
Next time we look into an old favorite of mine, and the first character I actually played for any length of time – the Monk!
Thanks for reading!
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