Content of the article: "Things You Should Know About: The Fighter Class"
I'm trying to start a series of articles about different topics in D&D and similar RPGs. Specifically, I want to bring some context to terms that have become really common in these kinds of stories, but it feels like we might not know much about in reality (words like paladin, monk, lock-picking, pirate, barbarian, etc). And while I'm at it, I have a number of thoughts about a lot of these topics which I would bring to my players to shape how they view their characters and the setting they're playing in.
Quick shoutout, but a lot of my inspiration for this stuff comes from Gm Word of the Week. It's a podcast I've been listening to for a few years now, and it's full of insightful stuff like this. And if you want to branch out from that, one of the collaborators on that podcast is The Angry GM, who writes a lot of articles on the subject of playing D&D. I'll probably get my research from other sources, but I already know that a lot of the stuff I bring up will come from these guys, so I figure I'll go ahead and source them (plus, if you aren't already checking their stuff out, they're pretty great even after several years of content).
This time, we're going to talk about the fighter class, and what they're all about. They're often called the most boring class to play, but the fighter has an entire world's history of warfare backing it up, and so many different directions a player can take in terms of character design.
The Fighter in 5e
The 5e PHB has this to say about fighters:
A human in clanging plate armor holds her shield before her as she runs toward the massed goblins. An elf behind her, clad in studded leather armor, peppers the goblins with arrows loosed from his exquisite bow. The half-orc nearby shouts orders, helping the two combatants coordinate their assault to the best advantage.
A dwarf in chain mail interposes his shield between the ogre’s club and his companion, knocking the deadly blow aside. His companion, a half-elf in scale armor, swings two scimitars in a blinding whirl as she circles the ogre, looking for a blind spot in its defenses.
A gladiator fights for sport in an arena, a master with his trident and net, skilled at toppling foes and moving them around for the crowd’s delight—and his own tactical advantage. His opponent’s sword flares with blue light an instant before she sends lightning flashing forth to smite him.
All of these heroes are fighters, perhaps the most diverse class of characters in the worlds of Dungeons & Dragons. Questing knights, conquering overlords, royal champions, elite foot soldiers, hardened mercenaries, and bandit kings—as fighters, they all share an unparalleled mastery with weapons and armor, and a thorough knowledge of the skills of combat. And they are well acquainted with death, both meting it out and staring it defiantly in the face.
Fighters learn the basics of all combat styles. Every fighter can swing an axe, fence with a rapier, wield a longsword or a greatsword, use a bow, and even trap foes in a net with some degree of skill. Likewise, a fighter is adept with shields and every form of armor. Beyond that basic degree of familiarity, each fighter specializes in a certain style of combat. Some concentrate on archery, some on fighting with two weapons at once, and some on augmenting their martial skills with magic. This combination of broad general ability and extensive specialization makes fighters superior combatants on battlefields and in dungeons alike.
Trained for Danger
Not every member of the city watch, the village militia, or the queen’s army is a fighter. Most of these troops are relatively untrained soldiers with only the most basic combat knowledge. Veteran soldiers, military officers, trained bodyguards, dedicated knights, and similar figures are fighters.
Some fighters feel drawn to use their training as adventurers. The dungeon delving, monster slaying, and other dangerous work common among adventurers is second nature for a fighter, not all that different from the life he or she left behind. There are greater risks, perhaps, but also much greater rewards—few fighters in the city watch have the opportunity to discover a magic flame tongue sword, for example.
Mechanically, fighters in this edition have the following traits and abilities:
- They are proficient in all simple and martial weapons, and in all types of armor and shields. In this edition, that means they can use pretty much any weapon they find (except for firearms, if your game uses them). And they can wear and utilize all kinds of armor, unless you specifically add in some kind of exotic homebrew armor.
- They get Fighting Styles, which each focus on a specific style of weapon: archery, one-handed weapons, dual-wielding weapons, etc. While the class is built to use all kinds of weapons, this style of fighting gets a significant minor boost when you utilize it with your fighter, giving them an incentive to focus on one type of weapon.
- While every class improves their ability scores at regular intervals, the fighter gets an ability score improvement at almost every second level, the most of all the classes. This implies a direct focus for this class on using their ability scores more often, which makes sense: combat attack rolls and damage are based on your ability scores most of all, and other skill checks can come in handy in combat, such as Athletics and Acrobatics. If you use feats in your game, this also gives you lots of chances to pick up feats as a fighter, which can be equally powerful.
- As you level up, a fighter gets to add extra attacks to their combat round. When you choose to attack, you can hit twice or more, up to four times in a single turn.
- On top of all of those attacks, you can also use Action Surges, which give you a single extra action during your turn. This could mean an extra 30ft of movement, a hasty reload of a weapon, or of course another 1-4 attacks with your sword using those extra attacks above.
- At later levels, fighters get a free re-roll on failed saves. While not super powerful, fighters don't have a lot of protection against more magical attacks, and while they can have a beefed-up set of ability scores to meet most save DCs the extra ability is useful in combat.
Other Editions of D&D
Fighter was one of the original classes in Dungeons and Dragons, although he was known as "fighting-man" at the time. There were only three classes in the original, basic game set that came out in 1974, and the classes each represented a more archetypical character style: magic-users were the people who could cast offensive spells and utility spells; clerics got supportive and defensive spells from their religion, and fighting-man was the combat specialist. As the base game was expanded into Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the fighter became known as the class that specialized in killing things, with its main weakness being that it didn't have any other abilities such as lock-picking or magic.
As the game went on, the creators have tried to expand upon this base type of character. In 2nd edition, the fighter was given subclasses with degrees of flavor to stand out from just being "the guy with a sword", and mechanics were added to vary combat up, such as fighting styles and other specialization options.
In 3rd edition, as well as 3.5 and Pathfinder, the fighter got most of its combat abilities turned into feats, which could be picked up as the character leveled up. While this meant that other character classes could use these combat feats, the fighter was given an edge over them by getting to pick up extra feats as they went. Many of these feats begin to use special abilities given by the feat, such as the ability to Cleave through large groups of enemies or bash an enemy with your shield. In Pathfinder, combat feats were organized so that many of the best ones were stuck behind a number of prerequisite feats, to the point that only fighters could actually get them with their extra combat feats.
Fighters in Historical Context
If we're talking about a real-world version of the fighter, we're basically talking about someone who is trained in the methods of armed combat. So a soldier, basically. But if you look at the history of humanity, it's actually kind of uncommon for someone to make a proper career out of hitting people with their weapons.
For much of human history, armies when they were needed consisted of militias of common folk. These people didn't have a ton of training in armed combat, and most made their living in other trades: farmers, craftsmen, and other professionals. When their community needed to defend itself, the leader would round up all citizens of proper fighting ability, give them a suit of armor (hopefully) and a weapon, and tell them to line up and fight. As you can imagine, this probably wasn't a very effective way to wage wars.
Wealth in the Military
If you think about it, being a trained fighter requires both time and money. Time, in the sense that it takes hours per day of diligent training to become well-versed in even one weapon, much less a large number of weapons. And money, because high-quality weapons and armor were expensive. Think about the work required to make a suit of chainmail: individual rings of iron, steel, or bronze were heated and worked by hand, and then linked together into a coat made of thousands of those rings. When you're a peasant farmer rallied into an army, it's unlikely you'd ever have the wealth to pay someone to work that hard on armor for you. When we look at much of the military history of the world, we often see a distinct difference between the untrained militiamen from the working class, and a more highly-trained, capable class of fighters. In ancient India, we see the kshatriya caste of warriors, who were career soldiers given higher social status for their role in their society. In feudal Europe and Japan, lords were expected to raise armies of their serfs, and they invested part of their wealth into better equipment such as armor, weapons, and horses, and trained in their spare time to use these tools in battle. These groups were given both the wealth and the time to become effective on the battlefield in ways that the common folk simply could not.
War as a Profession
At the same time, there were small examples of professional standing armies in the ancient world, although they aren't very common. Sparta in ancient Greece is a well-known example of an ancient military state: they utilized slave labor to free the citizens to devote time to military training, creating an effective army out of their city-state's citizenry. Philip II of Macedon was known from this time as the creator of the first professional army, paying soldiers to train and maintain their positions in the army year-round.
The Roman Empire would, of course, extend the idea of the professional army to new heights. Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, raised a standing army both from conscription and volunteer recruits. Soldiers in this army were paid a regular wage, and at different times soldiers who retires were rewarded with land, monetary payments, or citizenship for non-citizens who served.
Soldiers of Fortune
While most nations or city-states tried to built military power within their borders, may invested the state's wealth into un-affiliated companies of soldiers, known as mercenaries. Going back as far as ancient Greece, mercenaries were arguably the original professional soldiers, accepting pay from the nations they served or a portion of the plunder that conquering armies claimed when they were victorious. Sometimes these groups were disenfranchised soldiers who chose not to return home after a war had ended, or who had served a city-state that had been destroyed in war. Others were simply men using a skill they were particularly talented at for the highest bidder.
Mercenaries have a history of being distrusted among their clients. A nation's army, built of citizens, has a built-in loyalty to that state. On the other hand, mercenaries follow the money, and there was always a risk in hiring them that the other side of your fight would pay more to convince them to turn away, or to actively fight against you. Some examples exist in history of mercenaries continuing to raid and pillage a nation even after the war they'd been paid to participate in had ended, seeing no reason to stop once their employers no longer needed their services.
Fighters in Fantasy
I also want to talk about the particular challenge of the fighter class in a fantasy setting. While it is already impressive to devote your life to mortal combat with other humans, fantasy versions of these men often have to take on creatures of enormous size and danger, or against forces that utilize magical power. In this world, arguably, it's very different for a fighter to boldly claim "I'm going to go out into this world, and deal with threats by hitting them with a heavy piece of iron".
For the GMs out there, it can be useful to think about the role of the fighter in your game. Becoming a fighter in a magical world may be an act of defiance against that world, a statement of "I can do this without relying on magic to help me". Or it could mean that magic is limited in your world, and some people have to take up arms to defend themselves when there isn't a way to hire a magic-user. Perhaps there's a significant gap between the costs of, say, training to be a wizard and enlisting in a local lord's army, and some people choose the latter as a way of finding a career because it's what they could afford to do.
It's also useful to look at mythology as a source for fighters taking on grand foes. In AD&D 2nd edition, references such as the Greek heroes Hercules and Perseus, the Germanic hero Beowolf, the Irish Cú Chulainn, and the Middle Eastern stories of Sinbad the Sailor are mentioned as examples of a fighter in a fantasy setting.
References for Fighters
If you're looking for pop culture references for what a fighter may look like, keep an eye out for characters that are devoted to their combat skills. Take, for example,
. In this scene, the two characters discuss the many fencing techniques Inigo has studied, and how he might use them in different scenarios. This is an essential part to many fighters: anybody can pick up a sword, but a master knows that a sword is only a tool, and the user must know how best to use it.
While you might not consider him a fighter in the strictest sense, Geralt from The Witcher represents a tactical approach to fighting monsters. He tries his best to understand both his opponent's limitations and his own, and fights with an idea of how to best utilize his strengths and minimize those of the creature he fights.
Or from anime, you may check out Goblin Slayer. The title character is known for using mundane, non-magical tools in creative ways to take down creatures that are more powerful than himself.
____________________________________________________________________________________________________________Questions for a Fighter Character
If you are building a fighter character, or if you're a GM with a player rolling a fighter, you may want to consider these questions:
- Where did you learn to fight? Fighters tend to have either formal training, or to have honed their own skills through raw experience. Was your fighter a soldier? Did they train under a master swordsman or archer? Did they get into fights so often, that they eventually learned how to do it all by themselves?
- What drove your fighter to learn to fight? Did they do so out of survival? As a way of making money? Was there an enemy that they wanted to kill? What reason did they devote themselves to perfecting the art of killing?
- Many fighters have a signature way of fighting, even if this isn't expressed by the fighting style they chose as a class feature. Does your fighter have a weapon they prefer? A technique they like to utilize? How would another fighter assess this character, if they were watching them fight?
- Fighter Vs. Wizard: Single Target Damage
- When comparing Martials against Casters, make sure to consider all the Martials.
- I calculated the average damage output of four classic character options accounting for AC over all 20 levels.
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