Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Conflicting Visions of 'The Fighter'

The 'Fighter' exists in many different headspaces for me. The WotC notion is typically to split the fighter into Barbarians and Swashbucklers and Rangers and Monks and so on, but the more classes you have, the more you're saying 'your character can't do that thing in the fiction because an entirely arbitrary metagame class is required.' It's one thing to say 'your character can't do a whirlwind strike and decapitate 8 mounted knights at once because I'm trying to keep power levels low and that's not an option' (though with such limits I expect clerics and wizards will become far more popular) but quite another to say 'you can't do a whirlwind strike and CAN NEVER DO a whirlwind strike because you're in the wrong fighter sub-class.'

Just flesh and steel, someday to be bones and rust, with no authorial intent to save them from inevitable death
Fighters have no particular abilities save having more HP and better to-hit than other humans (but not monsters). They have AC 17 and a d8 attack not because this will let them defeat monsters easily, but to showcase just how terrible an idea it is to fight monsters fairly in the first place. They can survive what slays others, and they can hold the line just long enough for the others to get things done. With some +X swords and armor and good hp rolls, they can remain useful in combat at higher levels. But really, the point is to think beyond the character sheet, because the character sheet has no answers beyond an unfavorable 'I guess you can try to fight the monster..."

Thoughts that stem from this are as follows-
  • Trap Option- The obvious first problem becomes 'nobody will play a fighter*.' If fighting sucks, well, let's all be Magic-User/Thieves casting Charm and Sleep and Invisibility and enjoy being able to sprint and climb and swim and sneak and if the reaction tables are used RAW unavoidable fights will be incredibly rare, so why be a fighter at all?
    People might play fighters anyway, you never know
  • Swords Suck- Why waste those bonuses to hit on rubbish like melee combat when you can swagger around with a torch and a bandolier of molotovs? You are le grenadier, and no longer will damage over time and crowd control be the domain of wizardry! Or perhaps grappling rules are forgiving, and becoming some sort of iron-clad sumo wrestler allows you to stunlock and debuff enemies while your friends slap the enemies with their daggers or whatever. This is quite system dependent, of course, but in BFRPG molotovs and grappling and wardogs tend to be considerably better than sword-slapping, a paradigm of combat that I can't say I hate, but is neither what anyone really pictures when they imagine 'fighter' nor is it particularly class-exclusive, so if niche protection is a concern this further erodes the fighter having anything going for them.
There is one thing even the most barebones fighter tends to acquire, however...


The fighter establishes a keep at level 9 or so, and the idea of the Fighter as 'the leader,' even before that point is a concept that seems to have some genre momentum to it. And it makes sense too- hirelings can trust the slow, armored fighter probably will fight to protect them instead of sprinting away at the first sign of trouble like the thief, no religious hangups like the cleric, and no skeevy consorting with forbidden powers and unethical spell-use like the wizard. But then...
  • Humans Suck- 'master of minions' is both not fighter exclusive, and worse yet, fighters seem to get the worst minions. Clerics and Wizards get undead and monsters to command around, and having a charmed dragon at Wizard 7 makes '3d20 level 0 human infantry' seem a lot less cool. And a full army just means
  • Being King Is Perpendicular To Adventure A fighter whose strength is a bunch of high morale NPC hirelings is both a pain to keep track of, and the more their men do, the less impact their personal presence has, until they're practically an NPC themselves, just a source of orders for the mass of mercenaries and retainers, sending companies of horsemen hither and yon, hither and yon, but probably not into a dungeon lest it result in a wraith-splosion of undead conversion or similar awfulness.
  • Game of Thrones Sucks- But okay, lets say you clawed your way up to 'domain level' and now officiate skirmishes between your troops and wicked barons and feud for control of resource-rich legions and try to arrange marriages to nobles and so on and it's real proper Domain Level™ adventures, but
    That's probably not what anyone signed up for and was hype about if you started as a beer-n-pretzels hex/dungeoncrawler. I'm sure some groups have survived the transition, but in my experience, interest in building castles and managing mini-kingdoms quickly withers after initial interest dies down and people realize they're playing for personal stakes and problem-solving and roleplaying and the entire rulebook is based on spells and gear and monsters, not officiating bureaucracy and social engineering. But I'm getting on a tangent away from fighters specifically, and worse yet, a tangent in which my experience is limited anyway.
So if you don't want to drown the fighter in a sea of mediocre NPCs, the next impulse is to make 'em awesome, at which point you end up at
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in case you didn't know
if you didn't know never speak to me again you ignoramus churl
The modern route, where (in 3.5/pf parlance) you crack open the Book of Weeaboo Fightan Magic Book of Nine Swords and start giving the fighter super-powers. The first inklings of this are in the oldschool fighter ability to strike 1hd(or less) enemies with 1 attack per level they have, and later just getting extra secondary attacks at higher levels, or maybe weapon specialization. Issues immediately arise when trying this in OSR because
  • When All You Have is A Hammer... So if you have mastered the Five Point Exploding Heart Palm, when confronted with problems, you are naturally inclined to consider solving those problem with the FPEHP. And the more cool fightan powers the fighter has, the more the idea that the game is about cool kung fu action becomes prominent, and, at least in my mind, while combat is certainly an important tool, it is absolutely not the point of playing in OSR style. I believe that combat in OSR is thrilling because the stakes are high and unpredictable, not because RPG games are all that good at simulating the spectacle of an action movie or mathematical optimization like a videogame.
  • Whose Genre Is It Anyway- One of my secret kung fu techniques floating around the world is the Void Cut, where warriors can slap people 30' feet away with anime-esque slashes of wind or vacuum or blood flicked off the blade or ground-pounds with hammers or whatever. Mechanically speaking, this is pretty equivalent to just having a single volley of thrown javelins, and probably inferior to a molotov.  Perhaps a more mundane description (quickdraw daggers) might be more appropriate to keep the tone gritty and dangerous. But maybe it's a good thing to give fighters these abilities to feel like badasses. But tone and immersion are important for keeping people invested and 'on the same page'
  •  Everyone is Wizards- On the one hand there's a nice equivalency to having fighters who roam the world collecting secret techniques just like a wizard collects spells. On the other hand, there is a little bit of, well...

Being able to kill someone by stabbing their shadow or whatever, is, in my opinion, less cool when it's not a one-of-a-kind weirdness

Leaning far, far into GM fiat and narrativist rather than abstract combat, could be a fighter who can defeat a giant with a rusty spoon at level 1 by incredibly detailed descriptions of combat. Like
GM- The giant raises his club above his head...
I scramble a little left, so the raised club tracking my movements will be caught in the rafters!
GM- Ok, the giant's attack fails this round.

Or a more in-depth example
GM- The dragon leaves its lair, scaled belly dragging across the ground as it approaches the goat you tied up...
Player- And when it slides over the concealed pit trap that I'm hiding in, I strike with my poisoned spear up into its belly
GM- Roll damage, you've hit automatically, and the beast must take a round to reposition itself so its claws and jaws might reach you
Player- While its turning around, I leap from the pit and seize the tail so it can't attack me without menacing its own tail, and whistle for my attack dogs to rush from the nearby forest to help harry its flanks. They should buy me time to climb the beast's back and attack its wings to prevent it flying away, and after that, its eyes are next, all the while it bleeds from its belly wound and...
Finding where to draw the line for stuff like this can make combat interesting in a storygamey narrative sense and break away from 'I roll to hit' 'Goblin A rolls to hit' 'I roll to hit.' But at a certain level of fiat, you're just playing pretend, and victories no longer feel earned. The fiction is exposed as nothing but idle whimsy and immersion and emotional investment plummets.
This breaking of the facade is why people tend to dislike 'It was all a dream!' endings- not because a fictional dream is any more fictional than a fictional adventure, but because it calls out the absurdity of caring about fictive people and places, and by calling it out, it belittles the real emotions that the false world created.

IN CONCLUSIONclasses🤔🤔🤔 more like asses lmao😹😹😹, tl;dr light ur bad and dumb class-based sys.//T3M on fire & run Die Trying instead B-cuz D&D is 👏c a n c e l e d👏 'k bye


  1. DCC's Warrior is pretty on point as far as Fighters go. They are the best at combat and get to add a flourish to it as well. Nothing strays into the realm of everybody gets magic but the fighter is consistently fun and powerful, and more reliable than pretty much any other classes just because of how sturdy they are.

    1. I'll have to look more into that, it does sound like a solid compromise

  2. The Fighter Thief Wizard triad is broken. Everyone is a Fighter AND a Thief AND a Wizard!

    You heard it here first folx: D&D is cancelled, Die Trying is the future!

  3. One ability I like to give Fighters (and only Fighters! Not Elves! Not Dwarves! And Hobbits get their own freebies to make them more desirable!) is the ability to just be able to dodge one attack that would have hit them per session. It makes Fighters feel like they stand an actual honest chance at not dying in combat. Especially because, OSR ideals of combat as a failstate aside, eventually combat will happen. Sometimes you just miss the hint that there's an ambush around the corner. Sometimes there wasn't a hint. It happens, especially in older modules. Or sometimes you just put your foot in your mouth while sneaking and give away your position to a bunch of homicidal cupcakes. *ahem*.

    Anyway, when in those situations boy am I glad when I have a Fighter in the party.

    There's also an appeal to playing the underdog, the problem is, most people don't actually want to be the underdog. Many of my players only play martials because they like the idea of mundane man triumphing over spellcasters who have all the advantages. Same players are also incredibly concerned about making sure martials and casters are balanced. At that point the underdog flavor is incredibly artificial.

    So maybe it's not a bad thing that the Fighter is somewhat unappealing because fighting in osr games is unappealing. The people who play the Fighter anyway are going to make it work or die trying. Because that's what being the underdog is about.

    1. Very interesting thoughts on 'Underdogness,' I've had similar thoughts on 'artifical underdog flavor' but in the context of halflings instead of fighters.

  4. I prefer playing fighter for a few reasons:

    *Most OSR stuff happens at low levels where the fighter is the strongest class. No thief "I have a chance of doing cool things." No wizard "I did my thing now I'm a torch holder."

    *When shit does hit the fan, the fighter is most likely to survive it. They're tougher and they're more able to hurt things without planning it.

    *I like including DCC-style Deed dice actions that work off attack bonus so that what the fighter can accomplish is limited more by imagination and thinking tactically about the game than limited by rules, and this focus helps me enjoy the game more. You don't need kungfu to overrun, leap from above, or grapple.

    1. Another vote to check out DCC's fighters

      A compelling set of rationales for the class choice- Not wanting to fall into "now I'm a torch holder" is perhaps the greatest reason to play fighter I've read

  5. My take on the fighter has always been the class gets that gets bigger numbers (better AC, to-hit, saves, HP etc) than everybody else, but no special powers. It's more forgiving to play a fighter, and you're an all-rounder rather than a specialist.
    Basically, the fighter is the default option, and every other class sacrifices stuff to get their cool shit compared to a fighter.