I’ve been looking forward to this entry in the History of the Fighter since I started the series. I played more fighters in 4e (er, two) than any other class, and I absolutely loved the two playstyles. The first was a dragonborn sword-and-board fighter, and the second a brawler with longsword and open hand. I’m going to talk about these, but mainly I want to say that the pure gameplay loop for these was just goddamn amazing. The brawler is the only gameplay that ever beat out the predator druid for me. In fairness, though, I’ve described about half the PCs I played in all of 4e in this paragraph.
4e Player’s Handbook
I’m guessing that a lot of my readers already know this, but the fighter is the martial defender in 4e. Class roles are a huge part of 4e’s combat design, in a more concrete way than most other editions. Fighters in 3.x-and-prior defend party members because they had the best AC and the most hit points. In principle, they kick out enough damage that enemies can’t ignore them. In practice, that broke down badly in 3.5e unless you’re using a two-hander and gaming Power Attack pretty hard. This is a big part of why fighters drop off the CharOp map so hard, in 2005-ish. Oh, sure, there are improvements to attacks of opportunity, but it’s not the same as having focused mechanics.
- 15 + Constitution score hit points, and 6 hit points per level thereafter. This is the peak within the Player’s Handbook, shared by the paladin.
- Proficiency in light and heavy shields, and armor up to scale.
- Making fighters pay a feat for plate proficiency is one of the oddities of 4e, but the system wants them in scale for reasons having to do with its armor check penalty and their expected use of skills that suffer an ACP. Plate is for paladins, unless you’re really sure you want plate.
- Look, itemization in 4e is one of its weirdest points, and one of the places where you most need to accept its fundamental video-game-ness.
- Proficiency in simple melee, military (call it martial) melee, simple ranged, and military ranged weapons. You can spend a feat to step up to superior (let’s say exotic) weapons, improving your damage die or tacking on useful weapon traits.
- +2 bonus to Fortitude defense. Considering the scaling function of defenses, this is comparable to “good Fortitude progression.”
- Three trained skills, from exactly the collection you’d expect plus Streetwise (and minus Perception, if you consider Perception fighter-friendly).
- Combat Challenge means you mark every creature you make an attack roll against. The mark lasts until the end of your next turn. Further, a marked enemy triggers an attack from you when it shifts (everyone triggers an opportunity attack when they move), and when they make an attack that does not include you.
- The dynamics around marking, particularly fighter marking, are subtle and involved, and I adore them. Because it doesn’t have to be a fighter attack power, a dragonborn’s breath weapon is a great low-level mass mark. Multi-target fighter attacks exist, of course, but that gets into encounter and daily powers, so you’ve got to think about controlling enough of the field while spending as small of a resource as possible.
- Combat Superiority is your stickiness: you gain a bonus to hit with opportunity attacks, and when you do hit, the target stops moving for the rest of the action that provoked the attack.
- This only applies to OAs, and not to immediate interrupts triggered by a marked creature shifting. Therefore it doesn’t directly apply to Combat Challenge, but the two work together to close off more of an enemy’s options.
- Fighter Weapon Talent grants a +1 bonus to attack rolls with either one-handed weapons or tw-handed weapons. In one sense, this is your choice of build that defines you over the life of the character (until we get to Martial Power 1 and 2).
- It’s also totally not the build-defining choice, from another perspective. The important choice is your weapon group: axe, flail, hammer, heavy blade, light blade, mace, pick, polearm, spear, or staff. (PS., don’t pick staff.) A lot of encounter powers care about your weapon type. Many weapon types have both a one-hand and two-hand model, and many encounter powers include 2-3 weapon types. For instance, Armor-Piercing Thrust gets its extra benefit “if you’re wielding a light blade or a spear.” These powers generally grant bonuses based on an ability score other than Strength – Dex, Con, or Wis – so you’re more or less locked into one from the moment you assign ability scores.
As is true of all martial classes, the powers themselves kind of run together, level over level, though that’s more because of their flavor text than their actual effects. There are only so many ways to say “you stab, slash, or bash ‘em up super good.” Once you drill down, there’s good variety going on, probably better than the ranger offers. As usual, I’m not doing individual power breakdowns, but it’s got everything in common with the less-magical Book of Nine Swords disciplines. The class lacks a strong core story here, because it’s trying to support a lot of different mechanical and thematic ideas under one roof.
In addition to more powers and feats, Martial Power (er, Volume One) brings us two new builds and their core features. The Battlerager fighter is sort of covering for the absence of the barbarian, and (once the barbarian comes along) for a defender variant. The Tempest fighter lets you play a two-weapon-fighting defender. Both of these wear light armor or chainmail.
Battlerager Vigor is the Battlerager’s special feature, obviously enough. It gets you a steady income of temporary hit points, equal to your Con modifier, each time you get hit with melee or close attacks. It grants more temporary hit points if you trigger the Invigorating keyword. You further gain a small damage bonus while wearing light or chainmail armor. The constant bump of temporary hit points is a lot of bookkeeping, very much in keeping with 4e. It amounts to shaving 3-6 hit points off most incoming damage.
Tempest Technique grants a bonus to attack rolls, AC, and damage rolls if you’re fighting with two weapons that have the off-hand property and wearing light or chainmail armor. You’re taking a damage and AC hit to get an attack, AC, and damage bonus. There might be a net gain in damage, and there’s definitely an improvement in ACP. You’re really here for the powers that it opens up for you.
The Invigorating keyword shows up in some powers, and in some cases it’s the one thing that sets that power apart. Benefiting from this requires Endurance skill training, which is almost redundant since you need a good Con to get anything out of Invigorating powers.
The Rattling keyword lets you put a little fear into your enemies. It requires Intimidate skill training, and its benefit is a lot like doubling the attack penalty of a mark when you deal damage with one of these keyword powers. Unless I’m missing something, there aren’t any Rattling keyword powers in the new general-access fighter powers. There are two that have it in one of the new Paragon Paths. So, um, don’t get attached to this keyword unless you want to multiclass with rogue, which has plenty of Rattling options. It’s an incredibly misleading presentation.
The new fighter powers of this book do a lot of different things, of course, but longer-term marks and self-healing are significant throughlines. The trend of the powers all running together in name and flavor text continues unabated. Overall, Martial Power doesn’t change much in the fighter’s concept – in all but the most specific details, it’s more of the same.
Martial Power 2
This book brings us two new feature options, intended to go together to form the Brawling fighter build. I am scarcely able to describe how enjoyable I found the Brawling build, in a game Colin ran. I think it delivers on the promise of feeling like my strong character is strong like no other game element I have seen before or since.
Brawler Style wants you to fight with a weapon in one hand in a spiked gauntlet or nothing in the other. Right out the gate, this is not a style you see genuinely supported for fighters… ever. The closest I’ve seen thus far in the History of the Fighter series goes back to 2e’s Complete Fighter’s Handbook, where your empty hand gives you a bonus to AC… oh God, it’s just a Shield That Isn’t There. Anyway, this feature pays you with +1 to AC and +2 to Fortitude; that Fort bonus is specifically about making you better at resisting grappling, but it makes you better at resisting other things as well. This replaces Fighter Weapon Talent. Since you’ll have a lower AC and damage output than other fighters, this build is actually dabbling in the controller party role, including tons of forced movement.
Further, you gain a scaling bonus to unarmed attacks and grab attacks. This is important because you’re not otherwise gaining the proficiency bonus or magic bonus of a weapon, so the defenses you’re targeting would otherwise scale out of reach. There’s some detailed handling around the spiked gauntlet, as well.
As a (filthy casual) fan of 7th Sea and the historical martial arts style that uses a heavy glove or gauntlet in the off-hand to deflect and trap weapons, I’m just so excited to see this. Though we couldn’t support weapon trapping for obvious safety reasons, Colin and I made a point of including armored gauntlets as a viable form of “buckler” when we wrote the Dust to Dust LARP, having already seen them work well in Eclipse LARP, our sister campaign.
Combat Agility is an alternative to Combat Superiority. Instead of you stopping your opponent when they move, you chase them down and knock them down. The problem is that they get to move however much they were going to move, while you only follow them a number of squares equal to your Dex modifier. So, you know, probably not 6 until quite late in the game. I’ve always felt like I was missing something in how this feature is supposed to work, even after reading the sidebar intended to clarify that. When this works it is super good, but I don’t think it delivers on its core promise. For whatever reason, it also doesn’t get any help at all from feats in this book, while tons of feats key off of Brawler Style. So give this one a miss.
The powers keep up the trends of the Player’s Handbook and Martial Power, with further support for the new builds of Martial Power. The new Paragon Paths are stylish, but there’s a surprising lack of support for Brawlers there. I’d like to see the Glorious Myrmidon and Steel Vanguard Master get updated, directly or indirectly, into 5e subclasses. I mean, you can kind of support them now, but I’d be curious to see what an unrepentant glory hound might look like as the mechanical centerpiece.
A later chapter introduces Combat Styles, which are feats that pay you a little for getting the right list of encounter powers. They’re only for martial characters, and they try to pull your attack powers together into a theme and identity. On one hand, cool; on the other hand, a lot of your power choices from that point forward are made all at once. In terms of getting you to think of your character as a member of a warrior order and feel a kinship or rivalry with other martial characters, it’s got some interesting things to offer. (Here’s me trying to do something similar for the 5e Battlemaster.)
That’s basically it for fighters in the “original” 4e – defenders with a varying amount of self-healing, creating opportunities for allies, damage output, debuffing enemies, and forced movement. As I would say for all of 4e, the mechanics start strong but soon become mind-numbingly fiddly – there is just too much data to track and resolve at the table. The gameplay loop is incredible, and you can do… possibly more than any other character to disrupt your enemies’ tactical plan.
4e Essentials: Heroes of the Fallen Lands
The super short version of “what is 4e Essentials?” might be something like, “4e’s presentation was too dissimilar to other editions of D&D for many users. Essentials is a return to form in some gameplay and stylistic elements, while maintaining the clarity of information presentation that is 4e’s hallmark.” By the time Essentials came out, we had ended our 4e game due to the Diaspora of 2010-’11, which won’t mean anything to you if you didn’t work for Icarus Studios and the Company That Shall Not Be Named or Remembered in those years. Anyway.
Heroes of the Fallen Lands offers the Knight and the Slayer as its two fighter builds. The former is a defender, the latter a striker; most classes have two different role options in 4e Essentials. Fighter gameplay is much more about stances modifying melee basic attacks than about using unique attack powers. As you advance, you gain new features other than attack and utility powers, so in that regard it looks much more like other editions of D&D.
Hit points, healing surges, and weapon and armor proficiencies don’t change from the base 4e fighter, except that Knights pick up plate proficiency. The Knight and Slayer have slightly different skill options, but no big surprises. As for the rest of the features, here’s the Knight:
- Defender Aura replaces marking. You radiate an attack penalty to targets within 5 feet that make an attack that doesn’t include you. There’s handling for multiple defender auras, and for marked targets. It’s confusing to read on the page, but sensible when deciphered.
- Battle Guardian keys off of Defender Aura to punish people who do the thing you’re trying to prevent. Your melee basic attack in retribution deals damage equal to your Str mod on a miss.
- Weapon Talent grants a +1 bonus to all of your weapon attack rolls. Fighters stab accurately.
- Knights gain Shield Finesse as a bonus feat. This feat lets you ignore ACP from shields.
- Fighter Stances grants you two stances from a list of six. These are all boosts to your melee basic attacks. Taken briefly, they are:
- Damage bonus.
- Damage splash to a secondary target.
- Targets you hit are slowed.
- 1-square forced movement, and you follow them.
- You shift 1 square.
- Attack bonus.
- Power Strike lets you deal another weapon die of damage once per encounter.
- At 2nd level, knights gain a utility power from a short list. They’re locked by your trained skills, so you’ll want to plan ahead.
- Power Strike improves at 3rd level, with another per-encounter use.
- +1 to 2 ability scores at 4th and 8th.
- Combat Readiness grants a +2 bonus to initiative, and increases to +4 at 9th
- Weapon Mastery at 5th level grants a +1 bonus to weapon damage rolls. I… suppose this feels pretty good when you’ve worked up to it, but it’s underwhelming to read.
- At 6th level, knights gain another utility power.
- At 7th level, knights gain a third stance.
- Weapon Specialization at 8th level grants you a pretty good benefit for either heavy blades or hammers, the two weapons the game assumes knights in this book are choosing between. (This is an aspect of making 4e Essentials much simpler and more approachable.)
- Shield Block at 8th level lets you mitigate damage to yourself or an adjacent ally.
- At 10th level, you get one more round of skill-linked utility powers.
After 10th, you move on into the Stalwart Knight paragon path and the Epic Knight epic destiny. I’m not covering them in detail, because I think you’ve got the gist of it: defensive fighter is defensive, with some leader-like options. This is substantially similar to XGTE’s Cavalier subclass, and aims to say most of the same things about the fighter.
Moving on to the Slayer:
- Heroic Slayer lets you add your Dex bonus to your weapon damage (on top of your Strength bonus, that is). It’s your striker damage kicker.
- Weapon Talent is still a +1 stabbin’ bonus. Slayers gotta stab just as much as Knights do.
- Fighter Stances for Slayers:
- Damage bonus.
- Speed bonus and attack bonus when charging.
- Bigger damage bonus, but only when you’re the only creature adjacent to your target.
- Extra movement whenever you hit with an attack.
- Attack bonus.
- Penalty to attack rolls, bigger bonus to damage rolls.
- A lot of the rest of the Slayer resembles the Knight, because that’s just 4e Essentials structure. Most notably, then, Heroic Slayer keeps improving, and Quick Swap lets you change weapons quickly – most important for switching between melee and ranged. Your Weapon Specialization effects are different, and generally cool. Inexorable Slayer is a +1 bonus to all saving throws (keep in mind that 4e saving throws are about purging ongoing effects, not initial resistance).
I have very mixed feelings about 4e Essentials. On one hand, the gameplay loop that I love so much in the 4e fighter is dead as a post. This approach to play is neither simple enough to be obvious to a new player (because no game designer ever understands just how daunting games are to new players), nor rich enough for those that already liked 4e. It doesn’t even escape being 4e, for people who had already decided this wasn’t their deal.
On the other hand, the 4e Essentials fighter is, hands down, the clearest class story the fighter has gotten thus far in this series. The utility powers do a ton of heavy lifting, and there aren’t a lot of samey attack powers watering down theme. To my mind, this is exactly the right level of tabula rasa to get new players thinking creatively. Knights are heavily-armored, defensive fighters; Slayers are high-risk, high-reward asskickers. Unless 13th Age or Dungeon World brings a scorchingly good story, it’s not even getting competition, because no matter how much I love 5e’s first three fighter subclasses, they’re at-best-middling on story.