Larry Elmore

After two weeks of other topics and a weekend of GenCon, I’m back this week to continue the History of the Fighter Class. This time we’ll be talking about AD&D 1e, and as I kick off my research, I’m really wondering how much I’ll find to say about it – the rules text is quite brief. There’s also Unearthed Arcana to cover here, and it makes a considerable difference.

Part One | Part Two


Player’s Handbook

The 1e fighter doesn’t have any supporting flavor text that I can see, but that’s generally true of the book’s class writeups. They skip straight to the mechanics, and so shall I:

  • d10 Hit Dice, which on release was the largest Hit Die – the barbarian won’t surpass it until Unearthed Arcana comes out. Fighters gain up to 9 HD, after which they gain 3 hit points per level.
  • They can use any kind of weapons and any kind of armor.
  • The whole attack progression gets hidden from the players in 1e, but the text calls out that fighters, paladins, and rangers “have the most advantageous combat table.” What it really means is, to use the later-edition parlance, +1 to hit per level.
  • Fighters can use a pretty decent variety of magic items: weapons, armor, shields, potions, and a selection of everything else.
  • They have good saving throws, according to the text. This is only partially true. At 1st level, fighters have the worst saving throws of any 1st-level characters, but improve more frequently than any other class. It’s not until 5th level or so that they start beating out other classes, and even then it stays close for a good while. I would call the class writeup misleading on this point.
  • Fighters can establish freeholds at 9th level and attract mercenary soldiers to their cause. The PH gives the player no hard numbers except for revenue (7 sp per person in the freehold; I’d love to know how Gygax arrived at that number), so let’s look to the DMG for more details.
    • The fighter gains a lieutenant who is anywhere from 5th to 7th level, with the higher-level versions also wielding more and better magic items. By comparison, the cleric gains no lieutenant, only followers.)
    • The fighter gains one of four different collections of forces, with highly specific breakdowns of armaments. By comparison, the cleric gains small but random numbers of basically every type of soldier – mostly not enough to form a cohesive or effective force – and a comparable number of non-combatant followers. The fighter’s force is a little larger than a typical Roman century.
    • In total, the fighter’s one advantage over the cleric is the lieutenant. The cleric’s followers are far more numerous, they pay 28% more to the church (the cleric PC) in tithes and donations than they do taxes and tariffs to the state (the fighter PC), and they arrive a whole level earlier. To contextualize that “one whole level” thing, we’re talking about the cleric needing 110K XP and the fighter needing 250K XP.
    • I don’t do a lot of these kinds of head-to-head comparisons between classes, but I think it’s relevant in this case to note that this feature seems significant in the fighter class (because it’s the only fighter feature not completely shared with the paladin and ranger) and much less so in the cleric, even though it’s a more potent late-game feature for the cleric.
  • A fighter can be of any race, though the level caps are ferocious for anyone but humans. Dwarves and half-orcs have the least-awful level caps, at 9 and 10 respectively, but every nonhuman race has a note that their level limit is two levels lower with 16 or lower Strength and one level lower with 17 Strength (except for gnomes, as their level limit is already so low that they only have a 17-or-lower clause, for -1 level). Halfling subraces have their own breakdown, since baseline halfling Strength is limited to 17 for men and 14 for women.
    • These limits are going up when we get to Unearthed Arcana. See below.
  • Only fighters can gain Exceptional Strength with a Strength score of 18. Women fighters are limited to, at most, 18/50 Strength, while men can potentially reach 18/00 Strength. In short, Strength is the best stat in the game, fighters are better at being strong than other classes, and if you start with a Strength score that isn’t 18, then I feel bad for you, son. I have no idea why this looked like a good idea when it was written, but it’s only too obvious to note that it shaped the whole culture of D&D that followed it.
  • Only fighters can gain additional hit points per Hit Die above 16 Con – everyone else caps out at +2, but fighters gain +3 for 17 Con and +4 for 18 Con. (Still not as important, pound for pound, as 18/xx Strength.)

For all that that’s a lot of words, there’s just not very much there with the fighter. You can tell, because I got hip-deep in explaining ability scores. There’s not a twitch of change from the Everyman conception of the class. They hit things and soak up damage, and if they survive long enough they can subcontract their hitting-related activities to their New Friends. It is the clearest example of the Wild West meritocratic ideals that others have commented on – you spend the first eight levels as an Everyman, and suddenly achieve de facto nobility, without any clear position in a political or military hierarchy. I’m also pretty sure there’s a table specifying additional attacks per round as you progress, but I can’t find it right now, and it’s going to get revised in UA anyway.


Unearthed Arcana

Unearthed Arcana retunes some fundamental rules, like level limits, in ways that do substantially matter to the fighter class, and also offers the class a huge power boost.

  • Fighters and rangers (paladins have been de-fightered and turned into their own class category, which has a whole ton of unexamined knock-on effects) can now specialize in weapons, using the newly-introduced weapon proficiency slots. This grants a +1 bonus to hit, a +2 damage bonus, and an increased number of attacks per round, varying by the weapon type. With a melee weapon, you could eventually be dishing out five attacks over every two rounds – and as we’ve talked about before, remembering if this is an odd round or an even one is a mental burden that no one needs.
    • There’s also Double Specialization, which is sort of stupid on its face and carries unnecessary restrictions as to which kinds of weapons you can choose (melee only, no polearms, no two-handed sword… er, why?), just to make sure you’re so invested in one weapon that you won’t even consider picking up a weapon of any other type, no matter how magical it is.
    • Bows and crossbows have further rules, introducing point-blank shots for double damage. Bows are the most expensive weapons to specialize in, but they gain an additional attack per half-round over melee weapons (that is, two attacks per round for bows at 1st-6th level, compared to three attacks every two rounds for melee.
    • Also I think this is the first time I realized that Strength modifiers apply to bows in 1e?
  • Within the weapon proficiency system (which is a staggering nerf to the fighter class – what happened to “yes you can use any weapon”?), fighters gain the second-largest number of slots, at 4. Only the barbarian gets more, at 6. The fighter also suffers only a -2 penalty for nonproficiency (and the barbarian -1), which… man, what a pointless kick in the teeth.
    • In case I need to explain why this is so shockingly bad, not only does this take away universal proficiency, it also means that the fighter’s ability to use any magic weapon turns into only a minor penalty for using that +1 glaive-guisarme that you found but aren’t proficient in. This penalty is larger than the weapon’s bonus. Congratulations, it is functionally just not treasure for anyone in the party.
  • This book also bumps up the level limits for all nonhuman races, and further grants that single-classed characters can exceed that limit by 2. It also plots level limits downward for low (that is, not-18) ability scores, and upward for higher, if you somehow find yourself with an ability score north of 18.
    • I just want to say how atrocious this rule is. If you have great stats, you also get to enjoy the game for longer. If you have crummy stats, you really should nuke and pave that character so you don’t get attached to a character who will get level-limited early. Please don’t @ me with your stories about how you never played to level-limit anyway – that kind of campaign is unbalanced in favor of the nonhuman races. Questing for wishes (and it’s going to take a mess of them) to increase your ability score just so you can gain a level turns the game into a constant treadmill of needing that next wish and hoping you don’t waste a ton of XP along the way.

In the balance, UA does nothing to expand or develop the fighter’s theme. It narrows the class concept by carving off “chivalrous mounted warrior” into its own class, if and only if you have high enough ability scores to be hilariously overpowered and thus get to play the better-than-you class. I don’t like extensive negative rhetoric in discussing any game’s mechanics, but UA makes a janky game worse and lays out all the things your character can’t do.

There may well be 1e fighter options and general content scattered throughout the many, many Dragon Magazine articles, but I haven’t found them with a casual Google search and I really most sincerely don’t have time to dig through my (near-complete) collection by hand. Assuming no one comes along with issue numbers, the next article in this series will move on to 2e. I could almost stop at copying and pasting this week’s article, but the absence of UA’s most broken classes makes a huge difference in the fighter class’s relative value. (Also, of course, kits.)

  • Percentile Strength, and how it came about, is always going to be a fascinating subject. You could probably have an entry on the history of ability scores just talking about this kind of thing.

    • I could, but I’m betting Jon Peterson or Shannon Appelcline have already covered it better than I could, both because they are smarter than I am and because they’re not on a weekly column cycle. 🙂

    • Dave(s) 4 Goombella

      Gygax gave a few interviews where he discussed percentile strength. Basically, he thought that Fighter strength needed a greater range. He thought that making the strongest person in the land be a 1 in 216 occurrence was too common and ordinary. He wanted the strongest natural humans to be much rarer, and a 1 in 21600 occurrence seemed reasonable. He goes on to say that exceptional strength is only available to Fighters because it is gained through their physical training.

      In one interview, Gygax opines that an ability score of 19 must come from a magical source. No human could ever hope to achieve a 19 through natural means. (He is talking specifically about strength, but that logic would presumably apply to all ability scores.)

    • I wonder why the most agile, resilient, intelligent, wise, or charismatic person in the land is more common?

  • Syd Andrews

    Aw, you are tarnishing my gilded memories of playing 1e D&D… hehe.

    When I first started playing 1e (about 1982 or 83), I was a young teenager (13 or 14) and had just come out of playing with my own “understanding” of the Blue-Box-Basic rules for a year or two. So the absurdities of the 1e rules (which were just AD&D rules to me at the time) were lost. I just saw all of those OPTIONS! And UA only added to the many, many stories in my imagination about what all of these AMAZING ADVENTURERS could do.

    Now that I’m “all growed up”, I definitely see how problematic the rules were in those older editions. Back when 2e stuff started hitting my hobby store, I couldn’t really see any difference between 1e and 2e. They just felt the same. There were minor differences in some numbers (and the whole THAC0 thing), but in my mind at the time, that made no difference. It was D&D.

    I think that Fighters were the least interesting thing to me and others in my group at the time. They were just so “ordinary”. They didn’t have anything that made them feel like they “stood out” from the other classes. Fighters were boring, Rangers were cool. Fighters were normal, Paladins were important. Fighters were ordinary, and pretty much every other class was interesting.

    But now, especially given your review here, it is clear why that was the view on this class. There wasn’t much in the mechanics to make them stand out. There wasn’t any narrative that drove anyone to want to play the “sword and board’ in the group. Even the bandage– I mean, Cleric, was more fun.

    I’m looking forward to future articles in this series as I think it will get into much of the more interesting parts of the fighter class that emerged in later editions (probably starting with the 2e kits).

    Oh, and to just quickly touch on the level-cap issue. Yeah, they were pretty silly. And I’m certain that they were just a stop-gag measure implemented to support the narrative that humans were the most prolific in the world because they were so adaptable. Still, horrible rules that resulted in horrible implementation (or lack thereof) at tables.

    • Right, 1e fighters and to a lesser extent 2e fighters are that thing you play if you can’t play something better. Obviously plenty of people DID play fighters, though, in part because so many DMs were utter assholes about paladin strictures (and so many players got a bad taste in their mouths from their first encounter with a paladin). 2e’s kits are not really going to break that problem, because the Complete Fighter’s Handbook was the first one out the gate and every class’s kits were a mess to one degree or another.

      The level limit issue really comes down to “why is the race that is weakest on paper the most powerful in the story?”, and it seems to have never occurred to anyone before 3.0 to give humans actual racial features to give them parity. I have plenty of problems with the design of humans in 3.0 and later, but they’re a pale shadow of my issues with humans in 2e-and-prior. (2e’s Skills and Powers starts down the road of getting a pass here.)

    • Cuix

      Aww, the 2E fighter kits help a fair bit in pushing fantasies. There’s a ton of text devoted to pure flavor/RP stuff as actual advantages/disadvantages, some with mechanical consequences.

      Having played quite a bit of 2E now, having a strong fighter (or paladin) does feel like a necessary part of the group. Like, the frontline is important, since wizards are hella squishy thanks to their hit dice and inability to just outright learn whatever spell they want. It is still true, though, that rolling great ability scores often means choosing the paladin/ranger instead, since they get so many goodies.

    • I’m definitely not saying that parties don’t need meat shields! Just that the fighter class is lacks a lot of mechanical interest – which incidentally makes it a perfect intro-to-D&D class.

  • Mikey Kromhout

    You should consider Oriental Adventures. While it would be fair to think of some of the classes in it to be as separate as rangers and original paladins but I could see the argument of seeing them as alternate fighter classes (such as Bushi). Heck the Kensai became a fighter kit in BG2!

    One thing that is not very clear at first as a major advantage but it really is would be in 2e getting to use your bonus languages to get more prof and for a fighter they can be weapon profs which can be huge. There are some great style prof, weapon specialization, all the potential bonuses to unarmed attacks (there were a LOT of those if you look hard enough), and many other prof that can be a big help (even some that can grant spell casting). Honestly in 2e I would argue that int is a better stat than str unless you get an 18. Something to consider when looking at the 2e warrior classes.

    • Episteme

      I wonder if Brandes will get to the classes in OA (as well as the Cavalier in UA) which began as separate classes from Fighter in 1e before being integrated in as kits/subclasses/prestige classes tied to Fighter along the way.

    • UA Cavalier, at least, I’ve already covered:

      I have to admit that bushi, kensai, samurai, and sohei are varied and interesting enough that I want to give them their own article. That article is going to be enormous, so I’m good-naturedly cursing both of your names. =)