The Fighter Class, Part Seven
Welcome back to the History of the Classes, which is a thing you can be forgiven for completely forgetting that I write here on Tribality. Last time in the History of the Fighter, I covered the 3.0 Oriental Adventures. We have a lot more 3.x-era material to cover, though – not even counting reader requests that I might still receive. Today I’m talking about Arcana Evolved, and I know I still want to do Iron Heroes and Book of Nine Swords. Oh, and I guess it would be weird not to do Pathfinder.
Now, it’s possible that you haven’t heard of Arcana Unearthed and Arcana Evolved, so let’s do a quick rundown. (Don’t get these confused with Unearthed Arcana, the 1e or 3.5e supplements, or with “Unearthed Arcana,” the monthly playtest content release from WotC.) In 2003, Monte Cook released Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed, by and starring Monte Cook. It’s 3.0-adjacent, with some variant engine-level rules, a completely different list of classes, a mostly different list of races, and completely different feats and spells. In 2005, following the release of the 3.5 revision, Monte Cook released Monte Cook’s Arcana Evolved, which modifies a few of the classes, expands gameplay from 20 levels to 25 levels, and incorporates content from two AU splatbooks.
I have a complicated relationship with these rules. The short version is, they’re 75% of the way toward being really good. The remaining 25% is, unfortunately, really important. I played a warmain for ten years of a campaign, going from 1st to 14th level, before life events forced me to drop out of the game. That campaign’s GM is one of my regular readers, so… hi! I’m going to try to avoid an eleven-part article series on what works and what doesn’t in AU/AE, but in brief:
The Good Parts
- Classes are significantly different and say things about the setting that set it apart from other F20 settings.
- Races, likewise.
- A lot of the classes do compelling structural things, which made AU/AE one of my favorite sources to steal from for homebrew design.
- The fighter-like classes are separated into multiple styles, rather than a single class getting pushed into blandness by having to cover such a vast array of concepts.
- Several of the classes have 5e-style subclasses.
The Bad Parts
- Classes are so specific to the setting and what they’re trying to be that it’s much harder to fit a character concept into many of them. Cook wanted this to be a feature rather than a bug, but that’s not how users work.
- The balance between classes is simply awful. Magister is the spellcaster, and none of the other features of the greenbond or runethane come anywhere close to making up for “automatically gets access to all Complex spells.”
- Many classes aim for hyper-specific utility. They’re great in situations that you have to work incredibly hard to engineer, or they take multiple rounds to power up for a fight. They exist alongside classes that can leap right into it and engage their gameplay loop. A buffed-up mage blade is on par with a warmain, except that the warmain has already been hitting the target for 2-3 rounds.
- So very many of the game’s spells seem like they’re doing one thing, but have one little clause that undermines the Cool Thing. Too many trap choices.
- Looking back from a 5e perspective, it is now easy to see what a terrible mistake Weapon Focus, Weapon Specialization, and their greater forms are. Even at the time, though, it should have been easy to see how spending feats for permission to use ever more specialized weapons and armor would make most loot uninteresting.
Let’s move on. For this article, I’m covering only a few classes, several of which could be convincingly argued as belonging more clearly to other class histories. With difficulty, I’m stopping at covering the mage blade, ritual warrior, unfettered, and warmain. It would be great to cover the champion and totem warrior too, but those classes are especially lengthy and don’t have as much clear fighter DNA, names notwithstanding. If I get super motivated, maybe they’ll get their own article someday.
The class name carries the concept here just fine: it’s a fighter/mage in a single class. It’s about as much like an Eldritch Knight as you could ask for.
- d8 Hit Die. That’s still fairly front-line in the context of other classes.
- +3/4 BAB progression. This, of course, screws up feat selection.
- Intermediate progression in all save types: +0 at 1st, +11 at 25th.
- 2 + Int skill points per level. Obviously, one of those goes to keeping Concentration topped out.
- Proficiency in simple and martial weapons, and in light armor and shields. This looks stingy now, but hey, it’s casting spells in armor at all! Super generous in context.
- Charisma is their casting stat.
- Knowledge of all Simple spells. The simple/complex/exotic distinction in spellcasting is a bit tricky to characterize; suffice it to say that simple spells are often underwhelming, and complex spells do the thing you actually wanted to do. You can spend feats to add all complex spells of a given spell level (hint, pick 3rd, it’s likely the best in the game).
- Mage blade spellcasting uses the “slow” progression, shared by runethanes and witches. You top out at 8th-level spells, never receiving 9th or 10th-level spells.
- Ignore spell failure chances from wearing armor if you have your athame in hand.
- The athame is literally the thing that you get your class name from, so it’s probably super important. Ahem.
- Any weapon, not just a blade. Only one at a time.
- It gains enhancement bonuses to attack and damage on its own, so you don’t have to spend money on that.
- You can always sense its distance and direction.
- At 6th level, it gains a biometric security feature (ahem), so that it attacks anyone other than you who picks it up. Fun times with “hey, pass me my sword, please?”
- At 9th level, they can summon it to hand, though with limitations and a chance of failure. This feature improves further at 14th All of the limitations look unnecessary in hindsight – what’s the interesting tension here? Just let them summon the damn weapon, and if you absolutely need to take it away, use an antimagic area or something.
- Shimmering Shield grants a +2 shield bonus to AC that you don’t need a free hand to support, but it takes an action to summon and lasts just a few rounds a day. Note to Mike Mearls, this is the kind of frustrating design that happens if a game doesn’t acknowledge or use bonus actions or anything like them.
- Bonus feats! In total, the mage blade gets seven bonus feats, though only 4 by 20th
- Sprightly Step at 7th level grants proficiency in medium armor, and means you aren’t slowed by medium armor. I hope you didn’t spend a lot of time or money enchanting the light armor you used to wear!
- Slice Through Wardings at 11th level grants a once-per-day ability to ignore magical defenses on a target for a single attack. It’s certainly underwhelming to wait this long for a boost to one attack per day.
- Familiarity with Magic at 12th level grants a small bonus to saves against spells, spell-like abilities, and supernatural abilities. It also improves your AC against spell attacks. Again, underwhelming for something you waited this long to receive. Granting this at around 3rd level, which is otherwise a dead level, would have looked good.
- Spell Parry at 16th level is – finally – a really exciting feature. You gain a unique potential to counter single-target spells aimed at you. Most spells don’t apply here, but when it does and you fully negate a spell before casting, you’ll feel great. Again, this should probably show up earlier; it’s one of the most exciting images in the fantasy of playing a mage blade.
- Slice Through Spells at 18th level is… wait, didn’t we just do this? Twice? Anyway, this involves one free dispel magic-like effect on a magical creation (not an effect on a creature).
- Athame Critical at 22nd level gets you out of making a confirmation roll for crits with your athame. Remember having to make confirmation rolls, and how that was the worst? Yeah. Waiting until 22nd level for this is just ridiculous.
- Athame Burst at 24th level lets you make an attack against all enemies within 30 feet. You can use this multiple times per day, based on your Charisma bonus. This is, at best, okay in comparison to the 6th, 7th, and 8th level spells you’re casting at this point.
And that’s the class. With 25 levels, all of these classes will have a lot of features. The mage blade definitely suffers from a lot of features that are both limited use and not all that impressive. Since it’s also a per-day spellcasting class, you mostly have your weapon and a huge assortment of 1/day options. It doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the concepts of swordmages, spellswords, Eldritch Knights, gishes, or bladesingers. I like the spell-negation features thematically if not mechanically.
PS. I do plan to make fighter-mages their own History of the Classes series, because there are so many entries over the years.
Probably the easiest way to sum this up is: you remember the sword forms that Rand al’Thor learns in Wheel of Time? It does that. To put it another way: what if katas?
- d10 Hit Die.
- +3/4 BAB.
- Intermediate Fort and Reflex progression; good Will progression.
- 4 + Int bonus skills, and even though they aren’t spellcasters, they need Concentration to use one of their features. It’s a surprisingly short list of class skills, given the extra skill points.
- Proficiency in all simple and martial weapons, and in light, medium, and heavy armor and shields. Note that I didn’t say proficiency in all weapons or armor, because (as I mentioned above) there are piles of Exotic proficiency feats. Yay, paying for permission to use loot.
- Combat Rites are the katas or sword forms of the ritual warrior. Combat Rites are mostly small bonuses to single rolls. The class’s big distinguishing thing mostly looks like fiddly bonuses, relatively unlikely to convert failed rolls to successes. Some of the combat rites do a bit more, adding speed, Cleave attacks, or damage reduction. Wisdom is your prerequisite stat – there are no saving throw DCs to set, but you have to have 14+ Wisdom to use the most powerful combat rites.
- Bonus feats; 6 by 20th level, 11 by 25th.
- Ability score bonus: at 2nd, 9th, 17th, and 25th levels, you get +1 to an ability score, on top of the standard ability score progression. This is meant to communicate rituals of self-transformation that the ritual warrior performs.
- Concentration Save lets you replace a saving throw with a Concentration skill check a few times per day. Is it worth all those skill ranks that you could do literally anything else with? Possible, but not likely.
- Dodge bonus to AC: Starting at 20th level, you gain a +1 dodge bonus to AC, which scales to +6 at 25th
The ritual warrior could be a lot of different things: basically anything except a self-taught warrior. They fight in a high, formalized style, since they have names for their moves. Their moves pretty much bring them up to parity with other fighter-types. It’s not a terrible chassis for a rebuild, though – like more flavorful combat rites, and fewer dead levels. Mainly, I think they just need more going on with their damage output.
This is the class for rogues and agile fighters, though this is still 3.x where Dex never applies to damage rolls. If your sword’s quickness is everything and you aren’t into armor, you’ve come to the right place.
- d8 Hit Die.
- 4 + Int skill points, roguish class skills. Of the fighter-ish classes I’m talking about here, the others don’t get nearly this much social skill coverage.
- +1/1 BAB. A real fighter!
- Proficiency in simple and martial weapons, a significant category of exotic weapons, light armor, and shields.
- Poor Fort and Will saves, good Reflex saves.
- You also get a scaling dodge bonus to AC, starting at +1 and rising to +9. This is important because of the exotic ultra-heavy armors that AE introduces for Strength-focused fighters.
- Parry lets them further boost their AC for a single enemy, along the lines of the Dodge feat. In principle, this makes them good duelists, but in actual use, remembering to declare your Dodge/Parry target every round is a pain. It’s also an Int-dependent feature, which puts you into a multiple-attribute-dependency situation.
- Bonus feats, of course; 6 by 20th level, 9 by 25th.
- Sneak Attack, much like core 3.x rogues. Unfettered SA starts later and doesn’t scale as high, but unfettered get more attacks per round and are somewhat less reliant on it for their overall damage output.
- Parry Ranged Attacks, at 7th level, lets you drop your Parry feature to parry ranged attacks instead. Batting arrows out of the air is mighty stylish.
- Evasion at 9th level is exactly the same as in 3.x.
- Parry Magic (13th level) is a much weaker version of Spell Parry, as it is a contested roll that grants a bonus to your saving throw, rather than negating the spell outright. It is also mutually exclusive with Parry and Parry Ranged Weapons. Having to pick just one of these each round is probably not a choice that feels great. This feature is probably just not good enough for its mechanical load.
- Enhanced Parry Weapon (17th level) lets you use weapons with a special parrying feature more effectively. That’s just a thing in AE’s equipment chart. Waiting until 17th level to slightly improve your use of baseline equipment is not all that impressive.
- Improved Evasion at 19th level is as standard for 3.x.
- Parry All, at 21st level, lets you apply your Parry bonus to all melee and ranged weapon attacks each round, but it’s still mutually exclusive with Parry Magic.
- True Parry, at 25th level, finally drops all of the restrictions on applying your Parry bonus to weapon attacks, ranged attacks, and single-target spells.
I think the unfettered amounts to a pretty solid class, overall. They’re still deeply vulnerable to a lot of spells (the many kinds of spells that can’t be parried), and their spell parrying is only a saving throw boost. My issues with the class seemed more appropriate in 2005, I think. The thing I like about it is that AE does go ahead and split agile fighters and heavy fighters into two classes, creating space for features more appropriate to each.
This is the one I played. It’s the heavy fighter, trending toward ultraheavy as they advance. They’re the Strongdude counterpart to the unfettered Quick Guy.
- d12 Hit Dice.
- 2 + Int skill points per level, with a very restricted list of class skills. This character is the one that taught me how skill lists lock some characters out of non-combat pillars of gameplay, and as a result why I am so enthusiastic about the skill-granting functions of 5e’s Backgrounds.
- +1/1 BAB, of course.
- Good Fort saves, poor Reflex saves, intermediate Will saves.
- Sturdy at 1st level is AE’s variant of Toughness. ALL the hit points. Hint: you get almost no other defensive features, so you need to be ready to just soak all the damage.
- Bonus feats, 6 by 20th, 9 by 25th.
- Weapon Specialization for free at 4th level, if you’ve already bought Weapon Focus.
- Crushing Blow at 8th level is a once-per-day auto-crit, as long as the attack you declared it on is a hit in the first place. It winds up being a signature feature, because there are so few class features of any kind. I had gone way, way in on exotic heavy weapons (with a x3 crit) and Power Attacking, so I was kicking out mountains of damage once a day. (I never quite made it to 15th level for the second per-day use.)
- Armor Specialization at 12th level grants a further AC bonus on top of already wearing the heaviest armor you can afford. Fortunately, you don’t have to specialize in one kind of armor, the way the name implies.
- You start gaining a small number of Combat Rites at 13th You don’t need these to keep up, and it’s not until 19th level that you get 2nd level combat rites, offering a little more breadth.
- Weapon Size Increase, at 16th level, lets you wield oversized weapons. AE is way into going as far up the size scale as possible; you could be playing a Huge giant wielding a Gargantuan two-hander for some big hits. I was playing a human, more fool me…
- Weapon Mastery is what 3.x otherwise calls Greater Weapon Specialization. Another +2 damage is their big finish of features.
I like the themes of the warmain and the general approach, but there are a lot of dead levels and a lot of passive bonuses to the math. I dearly wish there had been support for noncombat pillars of play, or more active features to use during combat. I’m not remotely objective about this, though: I love 5e’s class design dynamic, especially the fighter.
What do these four classes have to tell us about the evolution of the fighter? There’s one solid entry in the fighter-mage set, with features that are at least sympathetic to the Eldritch Knight’s. The ritual warrior points the way toward the Battle Master, though it doesn’t do it nearly as well. The unfettered is basically a Swashbuckler rogue or a Dex-based Champion fighter, or a Battle Master. I mean, the Parry and Riposte maneuvers are good representation of the unfettered by themselves. The warmain, likewise, easily fits into a Str-based Champion or Battle Master. 5e might very well spin the unfettered and warmain as subclasses of a single class, or even contain the whole difference in their choice of Fighting Style and ability scores.
I may not have a lot of love for AE as a ruleset, and its class design in particular. It may just be independent invention, regardless of Mearls’s work for Malhavoc Press (which I’ll be covering next time in this series), but it still shares a lot of DNA with 5e’s fighter.
On a personal note, I’ve just released In the Company of Unicorns 5e with Rite Publishing, on DriveThruRPG. This is a supplement for playing unicorns as PCs in D&D, reimagining BJ Hensley’s Pathfinder work. I hope you’ll check it out, even if you’ve never before thought that a unicorn could be a cool player character.