Monday, July 30, 2012

Fixing the D&D Fighter

I've never been particularly fond of playing fighters in D&D. I've done it a number of times, but usually for one-shot games. I'm a bit of a caster at heart, but there are ways to play a warrior with a little magic that satisfies my cravings. Except the fighter class is rather dull. I think we find some of the insight to fixing the fighter in the 4e essentials line, the Book of Nine Swords, and also back in the Complete Ninja's Handbook.

Simple is good, don't get me wrong. But there aren't a lot of options one could opt into. My real beef, mostly, is that fighter options tend to force them into being one-trick ponies. And even Pathfinder really didn't do much to fix the lack of real options for the fighter. Some of these ideas are there, but they're overshadowed by a focus on weapons and armor.

Look at weapon specialization, for example. In earlier editions of the game, it is just plain superior to some basic magic weapons. Meaning its better to just keep using your longsword (or upgrade to a magic +1 longsword) than that +2 battle axe that you found. In some iterations of the game/class, you might focus on all axes, rather than just the battle axe, but the effect is the same: every fighter becomes the kensai or weapon specialist.

These specialist feats say: use the flail for bonus x. Use the spear for bonus y. Use the axe for bonus z. In and of itself, this isn't bad. Except there's multiple feats or options for each weapon. So you stack them all up until your fighter really isn't nearly as awesome without his specialized weapon.

Now, some of this comes about from all weapons being functionally equal as well. In 4e, there's no difference between slashing, piercing, and bludgeoning weapons. In third edition there is, but I'm not sure if it ever came up in play for me, except maybe with skeletons. At any rate, the fighter should be able to switch weapons as needed and still be pretty awesome, unless he consciously chooses an option to be the kensai.

What does that leave for fighters to specialize in? Fighting styles. And I don't mean styles that emulate weapon specialization like a spear and shield, rapier & main-gauche, or sword & board type specializations. I'm talking about martial arts.

One of the brilliant insights that the 4e Essentials line shows is that a fighter might fight to defend his allies (Knight class, defender role) or to slay his enemies (Slayer class, striker role). Heck, you could also imagine a fighter who focuses positing himself and his enemies more than holding the line (Controller role, somewhat or the Hunter ranger class sans primal power). Even the idea of the third edition Marshal and 4e Warlord could be thought of as a fighter with a leader role (at least the in-your-face kind). So steal this insight and apply it to fighters as stances or fighting styles.

The idea of these stances was also seen in the Book of Nine Swords, late in 3.5. But the idea of different martial arts also finds a pretty clear expression in the Complete Ninja's handbook in 2nd edition. The basic idea is choosing fighting styles that focus on different areas of offense and defense, and swapping them during the combat.

So a fighter might have a guardian fighting style, wherein he defends his allies. He might have a defensive style where he focuses on raising his own defenses at the expense of some attacking strength. He might focus on one target, or spread his wrath to everyone in his way. He might be mobile himself, or focus on luring his enemies where he wants them. Each of these stances or fighting styles is applicable with all or most weapons and armor.

At home with multiple weapons...
Now, its possible that any given fighter might prefer to use mainly one of these stances or fighting styles. But another insight from the 4e comes in the Berserker class, where he literally starts the battle as a defender and then can become a striker by raging. As the battle winds down and allies need less protection, moving into an offensive stance for the kill will speed up combats. Even if you want to be a guardian knight, you might relish the option of defending one ally or holding the line in a battle with many creatures, but with only one enemy you're happy for the option of single-target control. Heck, there might even be multiple stances of each type, so a guardian might select a stance for guarding a single person, one for holding the line, and a third for pinning down a single enemy.

These stances also gives fighters a tactical aspect that they're generally lacking. These would be clear mechanical bonuses, but they're not tied to any specific weapon. They're not even necessarily tied into specific tricks, though they could be. So a controlling stance wouldn't focus on just disarming an opponent or just knocking someone back or prone.

Stances could even be exclusive, or mostly exclusive, to fighters. Feats or multiclassing might grant other classes a stance that's benefits could be reaped once per encounter or some-such. Other classes, such as a monk or paladin, might have lesser access to these styles (or some styles unique to those classes).

The chief objection here lies largely with one's game style and preconceptions. Martial arts usually brings to mind Asian martial arts traditions, which are also linked to the Monk class. But it doesn't have to be construed that way. Imagine an historical setting where a fencer masters the Sicilian style or Swiss style of fencing. Different techniques could have developed in different places or at different times. In a fantasy world, the names will be made up anyway, so it just needs to be plausible like this.

When this is the fighter's main mechanic, I think I'd once more be interested in playing a fighter. The Book of Nine Swords really did make me want to play one of those fighters, though they were a little high fantasy for my current tastes. I'd like to see something like that in the next D&D game that I play.

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