D&D 5E The Fighter/Martial Problem (In Depth Ponderings)

Zardnaar

Legend
So 5E is basically coming to a close so one can evaluate the Fighter designs and figure out what went wrong and what went right. I will break down the overall gist of the fighter design in previous editions and evaluate what worked, what didn't and how one can port the concept to 5E/Future D&Ds. Fundamentally I think they broke the fighter design in 3.0 and each attempt to fix it since then has focused on trying to fix the previous fighter design with a rotating cast of designers than realize what went wrong in that initial transition from 2E to 3.0. I will use several abbreviations from here on out but when I mention fighter basically I'm talking about non magical types. Magical fighters will be referred to as MF, and 4E type fighters and things like the Battlemaster will be cool stuff fighters or CS. A fighters prime design goal to me is killing stuff (KS). Very broadly speaking the fighter chasis leaves room to splash around 1 third of another class onto it or the equivalent (in theory). Fighters are things like the Champion and similar designs, MF are Eldritch Knights, Rune/Echo Knights and CS ones are Battle Masters, Purple Dragon Knights etc.

Mission statement. The Fighter should be the best at well you know fighting. I don't mind niche protection eg a Ranger in the wilderness, A Paladin vs undead/fiends or a Barbarian Raging. Theoretically they are trading off damage for utility (spells, skills, abilities etc). In 5E this doesn't play out that well but I'll address that in the 5E part of the evaluation.

The TSR Fighter

Very broadly I'm grouping all of these fighters together. Generally they all had unmatched ability to KS vs a modern (WotC) Fighter. This is mostly due to how hit points worked. They have inflated the hit points over the editions but a modern fighter is barely dealing more damage than an AD&D fighter for example. With weapon specialization it may not even do that and the AD&D fighter has various ways to gain more attacks depending on the exact edition. That may be weapon specialization, rate of fire, or a 1E fighter ability to cleave 1HD critters. If you played official adventures the Fighter kind of transitioned to a MF. In effect they were kind of 2 5E (Champion+Eldritch Knight) classes with the artificers infuse items ability on steroids. They also increased their saving throws a lot and armor was a bigger deal back then. Heavier armor was just better AC wise. A lot of this wont port well to 5E along with things like domains however some concepts will. More attacks, more damage and better scaling saves could be duplicated in 5E. I'm not worried about the details or preferences.

5E does have this precedent with the Monk being proficient in all saves by level 4. A fighter shouldn't step on the monks toes but could be proficient in 5/6 saves (4 minimum) by level 14 as an example. Other types of fighter eg MF and CS fighters could get one less save than the martial types. Multiple attacks etc I will address in the 5E breakdown. Better saves lets catty that forward from TSR era 3E and 5E failed horribly here, 4E did follow that lesson.

The most badass fighter moment I ever saw was in 2E with a level 12 or 13 ish fighter IIRC solo a lich, dragon and Marilith in 3 rounds one after the other. Dual wielding, weapon specialization, bracers of the blinding strike, d12 damage vs large, magic weapons and Gauntlets of Ogre Power etc.

3E
In third ed they essentially nerfed the fighter and gave you feats instead. A big problem was it took you several feats just to approximate a 1E or 2E fighter that got stuff for free at level 1 eg weapon specialization and cleave ability in 1E. The 3E fighter had terrible saves relative to DCs (5E repeats this) and as an added bonus you got penalties to hit with your follow up attacks a huge mistake that thankfully is more or less exclusive to 3.X games. You could buy weapons and armor but the good stuff was essentially gate kept behind higher levels vs a mid level (eg 7 or 8) TSR era fighter. Choices was the key design feature (feats, buying magical items) but implementation was horrible. There is very little here to draw from except perhaps choose your own class abilities and feats which 5E also offers. Personally I like micro feats over big feats theoretically but like 4E there is to much +1 modifiers here and there and the feats have opportunity cost involved. Eg if you want a skill feat it comes at the price of a combat feat. Overall the 3E fighter is a shining example of what not to do conceptually. Still more feats or pick your own class abilities have been picked up on in 4E and 5E so 3E did leave a legacy after all.

4E
4E changed the game didn't like it much myself but it go some concepts right. For example conceptually it recognized that defenses matter. I didn't like AEDU or the power system but I don't mind similar abilities in Star Wars Saga Edition or 5E as long as they optional eg you choose that class and the more supernatural abilities have an in game explanation eg magic, psionics, the force, a gods blessing etc. Dailies on martials are a stupid idea IMHO but the encounters powers offer a lot of inspiration for the CS and MF fighters. Utility powers conceptually could be folded into a potential CS fighter design (1 third expert abilities for example). 4E left more of a legacy than some would like to admit for me personally it was the design paradigm of 4E I did not like. Not a fan of healing surges for example I don't care about a 5E fighters second wind which is similar conceptually (non magical healing). One could also do worse using the 4E engine (5E evolved it) in d20 based games eg SWSE or write your own clone.

5E.

Overall 5E is a bit mixed on fighter design. The best ones eg Rune Knight, Battle Master need a slight tweak IMHO while the basic class needs an overhaul and something like a Champion needs a lot more help. A big problem is a lot of good abilities don't some online until later in the game where most people don't play. A champion fighters improved critical doesn't come online well into the game. Even 3E gave you that at level 1 with the right weapon or the choice between triple damage on a crit vs double in 5E or a 19-20 crit range. A fighters "good at fighting more feats" gimmick mostly exists on paper. Paladins and Rangers get similar or better abilities at those levels and get spells layered on top of that. Those spells means action surge for example scales very poorly vs a Paladins smite ability. One extra feat is competing with Paladin auras or hunter abilities (PHB beastmaster is very poor effort). Fighters have had some power creep eg Rune Knight but Gloomstalker would like to have some words. ANd the Paladins just a fantastic 5E class. Technically fighters do get that extra attack but Paladins and Rangers often get similar abilities and in some cases get them 8 levels earlier. The extra attack also comes online at level 11 where most games don't reach.

One however must credit WotC they are aware of the issue going by playtest but we will have to wait and see the final results.

Action surge is a great ability and fun to use. But the fighter doesn't get to use it as much and its less useful vs Smite for example in terms of nova ability. We can't really have the fighter to many attacks though relative to the other warriors. A level 5 fighter shouldn't have 3 attacks vs warriors 2. Action surge however can close that gap with Ranger and Paladin spells or the Barbarians 5MWD rage always on type which seems to happen in real games (or rage 3/4 fights at least). Fighters also fairly loaded for its first two levels makes it a great bacon filling in a multiclass sandwich. A more generous amount of action surges (eg a number equal to proficiency bonus per short rest) would do wonders and have it scale vs the extra spells and abilities Rangers and Paladins. An extra save or two in the base fighter at later levels along with something similar in martial types EG champion to get them up to 4 or 5 saves by level 14ish would also help. The fighters failing at its all day thing both conceptually and in real games that probably don't have 6-8 encounters.

The MF mostly just need a few tweaks. Eg the Eldritch knight need to be able to use a weapon as a spell focus and replace an attack with a cantrip similar to the bladesinger. Similar to my other arguments about bringing some fighter abilities forward especially in the level 1-10 space. More saves as the Paladin essentially gets all saves and grant it to allies as part of the aura way better than that bonus feat. Gloomstalker and Tasha's essentially fix the Ranger, Paladin never needed it. Fighter doesn't deal enough damage relative to 5E hit point bloat. More credit to WotC the basic ingredients are all there to make that tasty fighter stew just have them come online sooner but no so soon the fighter gets even better as a dip class.

So thats basically it. Return some of the TSR era fighter glory to the fighter class. These ideas are just spitballing but I think that's the fundamental problem of the class. For those who want fighters that do other stuff than just hit hard they're already in a better spot than the "basic" fighter. Even then there is room to borrow stuff from 4E and 5E to help them out. The MF and CS fighters need to be brought more in line with Paladins and Rangers in utility or damage even while the traditional fighter concept need to compete with the Barbarian.
 

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My diagnosis of the fighter is a little different; I believe the main problem with the fighter class is it's try to satisfy at least two very different character fantasies - and each of those could support one or more classes by themselves.

The first is the more classic Broadly Competent Fighting-Man (or -Woman). This is the fantasy novel hero like Conan, Aragorn, Sam Vimes, Mat Cauthon (unless you consider him a rogue with a fighter dip) etc. They're good with weapons - all weapons. They can pick up a sword, bow, spear, axe, mace or any other weapon known in the setting and go mess up some mooks. They may have a favorite, but the favorite is an individual weapon that means something to them personally (and may be magical).

They probably can't cast spells, but they can use magic in other ways like magical items (not just weapons), simple rituals, or maybe they just know a bit about magic so they can think of counters to it.

They're also broadly competent at other warrior stuff - they can survive in the wilds, track, tame horses, search for traps and disarm them, lead troops, organize a barricade, etc. Soldier stuff or similar, but they actually have quite a few skills. They may even have a few skills that sit outside the normal warrior/adventurer list, but not too many.

The champion looks like it could do this, but you never get the skills for it.

The second type is the specialized weapon master. They have a single type of weapon that they want to truly master - they might be proficient in other weapons, but they'd rather use a regular sword than a magic axe if they're a sword-master. They could pick any weapon but swords and fists are the most popular in fiction. For a vanilla example of this trope, look at Kirigaya Kazuto from Sword Art Online, though I would add in Lan Mandragoran offhand. It's more popular in anime than western fiction, but lots of players have watched a lot more anime than they've read pulp fantasy.

These characters may or may not use magic, but if they do they use a lot. 4e swordmage levels of magic use, if they go this route. Others disdain magic for pure sword skill, but the skill they achieve matches what magic could give them.

They generally don't have many skills beyond weapon skills - maybe something related like calligraphy or military science, but no more than one or two.

The battlemaster was supposed to handle this, but falls extremely flat when used that way.

I think in a DnD-like game, you cannot put these concepts into the same class and make it work (without majorly changing the role of classes generally). The first needs solid weapon proficienies, lots of skills, and good defenses in or out of armor. The latter needs a list of specialized techniques to learn, significant bonuses to specific chosen weapons, and a resource pool to fuel their bursts of awesomeness.

The first could also be a nonmagical ranger. You could split the latter into magic and non-magic classes (ie sword-saint and swordmage) to allow for different resource pools, but the two will play out in similar ways.

Leadership options (a la marshall/warlord/cavalier/PDK) could also be a thing - but I'm not convinced it makes for a good class in a game with 5e's chassis. I think I'd rather add a "warfare" skill and some specific uses like "motivate an ally," maybe with feats, and let people add that to whatever character they already have.
 

bloodtide

Legend
A lot of this is how all the numbers changed.

A 5E 10th level fighter with a sword +3 can hit a Stone Golem easy enough....but even if they do "a lot" of damage...they only scratch that 178 HP.

Back in 3.5E that Stone Golem had a high AC of 26....so a fighter might not hit...even with a plus 10 to hit, they still need to roll a 16. And the stone golem has 107 hp.

But...back in 2E.....the Stone Golem had an AC of......15. And only 60 hp. Not only could the 2E fighter hit with no problem....but it would only take a couple hits to shatter the stone golem.

And a fighter can take out a 2E Balor (low ac, less 100 ish hps) compared to the 5E one....with 262 hp!
 

Zardnaar

Legend
A lot of this is how all the numbers changed.

A 5E 10th level fighter with a sword +3 can hit a Stone Golem easy enough....but even if they do "a lot" of damage...they only scratch that 178 HP.

Back in 3.5E that Stone Golem had a high AC of 26....so a fighter might not hit...even with a plus 10 to hit, they still need to roll a 16. And the stone golem has 107 hp.

But...back in 2E.....the Stone Golem had an AC of......15. And only 60 hp. Not only could the 2E fighter hit with no problem....but it would only take a couple hits to shatter the stone golem.

And a fighter can take out a 2E Balor (low ac, less 100 ish hps) compared to the 5E one....with 262 hp!

Definitely part of it. Last night we played C&C and the barbarian (not a rage more like 5E martial type) one shot a 2HD critter (basically a gnoll).

Kinda hard to do that in 5E. So an AD&D Fighter in effect does double or triple damage.

Indurect Fighter nerf which makes the -5/+10 feats look that much better.
 

Tony Vargas

Legend
I am pleased to say I was not nearly as appalled by that as I expected to be, and actually agreed with great swaths of it. Some good pondering there. Our key point of departure starts here:
Magical fighters will be referred to as MF, and 4E type fighters and things like the Battlemaster will be cool stuff fighters or CS. A fighters prime design goal to me is killing stuff (KS).
Of course the fighter kills stuff (KS). So does everyone else, except the 3e pacifist cleric (PC ..no, wait). As you point out, it was with weapon specialization in 2e (and part way through 1e) that the fighter got good at KS.
IMHO, one of the only really good sub-systems D&D has ever generated was Hit Points. I went into more detail in "what do you actually like about D&D." One of the downsides of hp, is that they make one reasonable tactic: focus fire, like, the tactic. Another is that the way hp, attacks, armor, and damage bonuses work make multiple attacks/round vs a single target problematic, almost impossible to weight correctly.

The late-1e/2e dual-wielding/double-specialist firehose of melee damage that was the one powerful 'build' of fighter available (like you had enough options to call it a build back in the day) was just that mechanical foible.
Now, that mechanical foible hasn't gone away, and the 5e fighter's claim to relevance is that it gets lot of attacks, and thus exploits that same perennial failing of att/rnd/AC/hp.
Before that, it had two roles stated/implied by the game itself. 1) protect your magic-user allies who can zap the enemy, and your cleric allies who can heal you and 2) become a leader, to wit, a feudal Lord. Both those stuck around through 2e, and that first basic vision of the Fighter has been second only the the Cleric in it's certainty and consistency. The Fighter was stereotyped as a protector, almost as much as the Cleric was as a healer. Even back in the day, people called a plate-armored fighter a 'tank.' Of course, the fighter got to be a feudal lord only at name level, by building money-pit castle, but that was late-in a campaign, and he had no class abilities that made him any good at it. :oops: But, while the fighter was 1hp/level better at taking hits than a cleric, and 3/hp level better than the MU, on average, he had no abilities to actually take those hits for his buddies, as would become apparent...

(Funny thing happened, programmers started mining D&D for ideas and tried to make fighters tanks in their games, and they realized there was an issue. Nothing about the fighter made enemies attack it instead of its allies. All those years, DMs had had a thumb on the scale. 😯 So, they invented Aggro. )

Come 3e, the fighter (as an aside, by far, the best class design in 3.0, customizeable and downright elegant - a feat of design marred only by every other class in the game. 😱 Although no longer becoming a fuedal lord (which made having no feudal-lord skills or abilities OK, I guess), the 3e PH talked up the Fighter as a natural party leader who 'anchors the team,' again, with nothing whatsoever to back that up.
Having played some vidyagames in the mean time, some 3e fans started noticing "hey the emperor fighter has no clothes Aggro!"

4e came along and fixed everything. Which shows to go you, you should be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.
4e introduced formal labels for the traditional "Big 4" roles (y'know, Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, & Thief - respectively, defender, leader (sounds cooler than 'healer,' but, again, careful what you wish for), Controller, and Striker.. Ok, that last one was stretch, but it's better than Trap Fodder). As a Defender, the Fighter got a Mark mechanic that penalized enemies' attacks, against his allies, and he could take immediate attack against an enemy who attacked an ally, but not the marking fighter. The fighter also got, like everyone else, two at wills (in addition to the mundane attack everyone had always gotten, appropriately dubbed 'basic'), encounters, utilities, and dailies. In the Fighters' (martial in general) case, they were called 'exploits.' Ultimately over 400 of them, each unique to the fighter class, picking a total of 16 over 30 levels.... Only the Wizard got more spells to choose from than the fighter got exploits.
It was fun while it lasted, which almost exactly 2 years.

Essentials split the Fighter into two-daililess sub-standards-classes the Knight, a defender with an Aura enemies could just step out of to murder his allies, and the Slayer, the KS sub-class ... towards the end, it added an MS sub-class, the Eldritch Knight.

5e picked up the Eldritch Knight, called the Slayer the Champion, and replaced the Knight with the Sentinel Feat. The 4e fighter got a bowdlerized version, the BM. Subsequent fighters included MS's and a very-unC CS.
The fighter had always received a lot of complaints about doing nothing but "I attack" every round. To address this, 5e gave the Fighter more helpings of the Extra Attack Feature than any other class, and, to further spice things up, Action Surge, which gave the fighter another whole action, that could be used for anything the fighter could do anyway, which, y'know, unless you were an EK or MC'd, was attack - but with all your extra attacks! So, the fighter is back to it's 2e KS tricks. Multiple attacks leveraging the foibles of att/rnd/AC/hp to do a lotta damage to one target in one round.

So what's the problem, really? There's several.
The game presents Fighter and full caster classes as equally weighted choices. It doesn't 'cost' you anything to play one class or another. Which means, unless the game is trying to trap you (it is), those choices should be equally worthwhile. They're not, not even close. This is euphamistically called the martial/caster gap, more simply, it means D&D is a bad game.
The fighter's place in D&D has not really changed, but he's back to no mechanical support for it.
The Fighter is still supposed to protect the squishies, but, the squishies aren't squishy any more, and caster control can far more efficiently lock down enemies than the fighter can (even the BM, or with the Sentinel feat). Fighers are still supposed to represent all the great warriors, soldiers, knights, heroes, and generals of genre/myth/history, but have precious little class tools to do that with. Want to be a knight? Take the Noble background. Want to be a Hero? Folk Hero Background. Soldier? Soldier background. General? Inspiring Leader Feat. None of those are choices found in the fighter class, tho. A Rogue can be an Inspiring Leader, a Cleric can be a Folk Hero, a Warlock can be a noble-born knight, a Wizard can be a soldier. 🤷

5e.2024 offers, so far... weapon masteries. Originally for the fighter, already doled out to other classes... which is reminiscent of the Next playtest, 10 years ago, which introduced Martial Damage Dice (an alternative to multi-attack that let you perform maneuvers), which were well-received, rolled out to other martial/half-caster types the next packet, given to everyone the following packet, then gone forever.
 
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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
My experience with AD&D Fighters was that they did way more damage than 5e Fighters. As if exceptional Strength and more common magic weapons wasn't enough, AD&D Weapon Specialization was there to (both in it's OP Unearthed Arcana version, and the more toned-down 2e version).

I've seen several times Fighters who at 1st level, can one-shot 1 HD foes such as Orcs without needing to roll dice! Now granted, they're a little behind on extra attack (5e comes in at 5, AD&D gets 3/2 at level 7, though if Weapon Specialization is involved, that can be 3/2 at level 1 and 2/1 at level 7). There's also the completely busted 2e Two-Weapon Fighting, where access to Complete Fighter's lets you dual wield a pair of long swords without penalty as a starting character.
 

I agree with much of the analysis on why Fighters were better in earlier Ed (more damage vs monster hp, best saves, etc.).

However it is unfortunately not possible to do this in a vacuum and not also consider all the changes to spellcasters, particularly wizards.

Super fragile especially at lower levels, spell interruption, reliance on DM to even get the spells you wanted, less frequency of magic item drops, xp tables, etc
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
I agree with much of the analysis on why Fighters were better in earlier Ed (more damage vs monster hp, best saves, etc.).

However it is unfortunately not possible to do this in a vacuum and not also consider all the changes to spellcasters, particularly wizards.

Super fragile especially at lower levels, spell interruption, reliance on DM to even get the spells you wanted, less frequency of magic item drops, xp tables, etc
Now it's just my AD&D experience, but generally, for a Wizard to get to any level worth talking about required the DM's intervention to ensure they did so*. Enemies tended to attack Fighters, protective items and Wands appeared for Wizards to use, you had ample access to new spells, etc., because pretty much the DM could kill any pointy hat at will without much need to justify it "the monsters are smart enough to know pointy hat makes boom booms".

*I don't want to minimize the impact of skilled play or luck, but if you're talking about getting a Wizard to, say, level 5 without some DM kindness seems fairly improbable. But at the end of the day, to say "yeah, so this class? You need to be this tall to ride this ride, better play a Fighter instead" has it's own issues.

As time went by, the game designers stripped away the need for DM fiat in the proceedings, much to the annoyance of those who rather liked Wizards existing at their sufferance, lol.

When people talk about buffing melee and/or nerfing casters, they rarely say anything about giving the melee the ability to actually protect the casters if they can't protect themselves and it becomes harder for them to actually do their thing. Which in turn, could lead to a scenario where the only way to play a caster in a D&D game would require DM fiat once again.

And it's interesting that it certainly seems that many people who play melee martials don't actually want to protect weaker party members, they just want to dish out damage.

I don't really want to go back to AD&D-era spellcasters. The problems with the Wizard start, and end, with the effect of their spells themselves for me. I think most players would be happy with their higher level spell slots just being "fireball, but with bigger dice". So strip out the troublesome spells and give them that, lol. Or get rid of the spells above level 5 (but that's not going to happen; D&D without level 9 spells won't "feel" like D&D to a lot of people).
 

Now it's just my AD&D experience, but generally, for a Wizard to get to any level worth talking about required the DM's intervention to ensure they did so*. Enemies tended to attack Fighters, protective items and Wands appeared for Wizards to use, you had ample access to new spells, etc., because pretty much the DM could kill any pointy hat at will without much need to justify it "the monsters are smart enough to know pointy hat makes boom booms".

*I don't want to minimize the impact of skilled play or luck, but if you're talking about getting a Wizard to, say, level 5 without some DM kindness seems fairly improbable. But at the end of the day, to say "yeah, so this class? You need to be this tall to ride this ride, better play a Fighter instead" has it's own issues.

As time went by, the game designers stripped away the need for DM fiat in the proceedings, much to the annoyance of those who rather liked Wizards existing at their sufferance, lol.

When people talk about buffing melee and/or nerfing casters, they rarely say anything about giving the melee the ability to actually protect the casters if they can't protect themselves and it becomes harder for them to actually do their thing. Which in turn, could lead to a scenario where the only way to play a caster in a D&D game would require DM fiat once again.

And it's interesting that it certainly seems that many people who play melee martials don't actually want to protect weaker party members, they just want to dish out damage.

I don't really want to go back to AD&D-era spellcasters. The problems with the Wizard start, and end, with the effect of their spells themselves for me. I think most players would be happy with their higher level spell slots just being "fireball, but with bigger dice". So strip out the troublesome spells and give them that, lol. Or get rid of the spells above level 5 (but that's not going to happen; D&D without level 9 spells won't "feel" like D&D to a lot of people).
Protecting other characters is fun, but a lot of people are hostile to such design. I made a suggestion that it is possible to design a non-magical taunt ability that forces enemies to attack you and it spawned, I dunno, twenty pages of somewhat heated discussion.
 

Tony Vargas

Legend
And it's interesting that it certainly seems that many people who play melee martials don't actually want to protect weaker party members, they just want to dish out damage.
TBF, in 5e, dishing damage, as a melee martial is hard to avoid (so is taking damage), while protecting anyone else requires a not very glamorous nor effective feat or standing right next to them with a shield and protection style, to impose disadvantage.
 

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