I’ve been waiting for months to use this article title, don’t give me that look. Today I’m diving into 13th Age’s fighter class. Incidentally, I played my second full session of 13th Age at GenCon 2018 and had a great time playing a wizard. It’s a super good game, though its player-contribution style and One Unique Things are a challenge to handle well in a one-shot. Also, here’s a link to the fighter in the game’s SRD, in case you want to read along.
Okay, I don’t want to over-sell this, but when it comes to establishing a class’s narrative, there’s a lot to be said for the three lines that start with “Possible Backgrounds include:”. That’s 13 types of dramatic, interesting people to be within the fighter class. Now to the features:
- +2 to Strength or Constitution, that can’t stack with your ability score adjustment from race.
- You take no attack penalty for any weight of armor, or for wielding a shield. Not exactly surprising, but it distinguishes you from other classes; also you have an extra point of AC in light or heavy armor compared to many classes. Paladins have worse AC in light armor and better AC in heavy than fighters. Definite (and unsurprising) shades of 4e’s armor-proficiency system, but so much simpler.
- They have a wide range of weapon options, but realistically their damage die is going to be d8 or d10. I have a hefty bag of dice, but I don’t know that I own enough d8s to play a high-level fighter. (Remember, in 13th Age, weapon attacks deal a number of dice of damage equal to your level.)
- The fundamental class mechanic is Maneuvers, which generally improve your basic weapon attacks. You start with 3 maneuvers and build up to 8. I’m hoping to cover every maneuver in the SRD.
- You also get feats and class talents just like every class.
- Your hit point base is 8, which adds up to probably having either 30 or 33 hit points and first level and scaling up generously. Base 8 is the top tier of hit point scaling.
- Your melee attacks deal a splash of damage (points equal to your level) on a miss. By default, your ranged attacks don’t. You can improve these with Class Talents and such.
- Extra Tough is one of your two core features. It gives you an extra recovery (essentially a 4e healing surge or 5e hit die).
- Threatening is your second core feature (as separate from Class Talents and Maneuvers). With this feature you make it harder for enemies to disengage from you, so it’s straight-up defender stickiness. If you improve this with feats, you automatically dish out damage on a failed disengage attempt, and later on create a permanent opening in its defenses on a failed attempt. What I see is a fairly lightweight mechanic handling an enormous amount of potential complexity.
I think we’re off to a fine start on selling the combat role, at least. Similarities to 4e, especially Essentials, are not an accident. Next up, Class Talents – much like Dungeon World, these are a la carte features. You can improve them further with feats. You get three of these at 1st level and a fourth at 6th. Several of these come from 13 Fighter Talents and Maneuvers by Richard Moore, from Jon Brazer Enterprises. I’ll be tagging those with (RM); if this secondarily serves as a review of that work, so much the better.
- Bravado (RM) is an intimidation-like debuff against a nearby enemy or mob of mooks. The baseline debuff applies to AC and PD (Physical Defense), and scales up to a damage debuff with a feat. Another feat steps the staggered condition up to hampered.
- Cleave lets you make an extra attack when you drop an enemy, once per battle. With feats, that steps up to let you move between the triggering attack and the payoff attack, make a second cleave attack per battle, and finally a hefty attack bonus on cleaving attacks.
- On-kill triggers are a real tricky thing to design, but because Cleave only lets you do more of the thing you’ll otherwise spend your next action doing anyway, it doesn’t matter nearly as much if another party member “steals” the kill from you. As a result, Cleave has always kinda been the feel-good feature of the year.
- Comeback Strike is basically a backswing after a miss. At base, it has a small attack penalty and is limited to once per battle; with feats it flips to a sizable attack bonus and a second use per battle. I like reliability, and I think this is a fine feature.
- Counter-Attack is a half-damage attack with a complicated trigger:
- The escalation die is even
- The enemy attack roll is a miss
- The enemy attack roll is a natural odd number
- Naturally, feats relax some of those restrictions and bring you up to full damage.
- Deadeye Archer is, of course, the must-buy feature if you want to play an archer fighter. It improves your damage die size and grants damage on a miss. With feats, it improves your damage on a miss. It has an annoying once-per-battle expansion of your crit range, which you have to declare before the roll. On any roll less than 16, you’ve thrown away your shot. The final feat option is a permanent 1-point expansion to your crit range (so 19-20).
- First to Arms (RM) is about seizing the initiative at a cost. I’m not sure how I feel about a recovery being that price, but fighters get more of those than other classes. When enhanced with feats, this goes completely bananas – improving AC early in the fight, then improving PD early in the fight (realistically, most of the fight), and finally letting you take a whole extra turn before the initiative order begins. That last one sounds like a step too far to me, in terms of the amount of spotlight time it lets one player get, but I certainly haven’t seen it in use at a table.
- Heavy Warrior is a classic mitigation feature and requires heavy armor – at base and with feats, it’s all about reducing incoming damage. The last feat option is about getting more mileage out of magic heavy armor.
- Power Attack gives you an additional scaling-by-level damage die for the attack you make with it, once per battle. You declare a Power Attack before the attack roll. The feats make its damage more reliable, more frequent, and finally just more. Again, classic fighter option here.
- Resist & Endure (RM) is conceptually in the same space as the 5e fighter’s Indomitable. You spend a recovery for a reroll of a save. The feats improve its effectiveness and action economy. Without playing a lot more 13th Age, it’s hard for me to guess how bad of a problem failing saves tends to be for fighters.
- Skilled Intercept is about throwing yourself in the way of an enemy that is going after your much squishier friends. You also retarget the enemy’s attack onto yourself. There’s a failure chance to all of this. The feat options improve this in obvious and useful ways.
- Taunt (RM) uses Charisma to compel an enemy or mob of mooks to attack you. It does this by making your allies resistant and you more vulnerable. Bumping this up with feats adds retributive psychic damage and stiffens the resistance your allies receive.
- Tough as Iron improves your self-healing. Everyone gets a rally per battle in 13th Age, 4e’s second wind, and can get a second rally with a successful save. Feats bulk this up by letting you ignore the save for your second rally once a day, granting still more recoveries per day, and giving you a further use of this feature when you roll a natural 20 with an attack.
The Class Talents are strong building blocks for a variety of different fighters. There’s a strong emphasis on melee here. Not surprising, but it does leave Deadeye Archer out in the cold a bit for obviously desirable combinations. First to Arms from 13 Fighter Talents and Maneuvers is a good option, at least. Anyway, I like what I see here, though I’d be even happier to see some that share the tone of, say, the rogue Class Talents, which blur the lines of narrative control and combat-focused functionality.
Now, there are thirty-two Maneuvers in the SRD, so I’m keeping this coverage breezy. All of these have feat options for improvement, even if I don’t mention them. The general structure of Maneuvers is that you declare them after the attack roll. Many of them require an odd die roll that is also a hit, or similar trigger permutations, and feats may relax the terms of the trigger. Making triggers care about even/odd results has the effect of making you need to pick up more Maneuvers to cover your bases.
- Brace for It is good to have on hand if things are going bad and you need to stop them from getting worse – your miss downgrades an enemy’s crit to a normal hit. Since you always want to be satisfying the trigger of at least one Maneuver, this is a good option for when you miss.
- Carve an Opening is a build-up move to landing a crit, gradually expanding the crit range. It could be a lot to track, but it’s cool.
- Cunning Feint (RM) turns a miss into a future damage bonus. Damage values in 13th Age are big enough that I’m not sure this is worth it, I have to admit. When you’re rolling, say, 7d8 + (2 * STR) for damage, I’m guessing that INT + 3ish is just not a big deal to you.
- Deadly Assault improves your bad damage rolls, much like 5e’s Great Weapon fighting style. Good to have, especially when you’re looking at massive numbers of dice.
- Defensive Fighting lets you kind of hunker down behind your shield or defensively flourish your weapon. With shields as only one point of AC normally, I like this as a situational option.
- Grim Intent points at the same functionality as Cunning Feint, but for even misses rather than odd misses. Unless I’m missing something big, it has a much more substantial throughput than Cunning Feint.
- Heavy Blows is another damage fixer for when you miss on an even roll. It favors two-handed weapons.
- Pommel Bash (RM) imposes conditions (dazed, or confused with a feat) on an odd miss, if the target fails a save. Starting to wonder if hitting the target is considered useful for fighters.
- Precision Attack adds your DEX to your weapon damage on a 16+ hit, scaling up as with any attack stat. Adding this to a ranged attack costs a feat. Maybe it’s more common than I think for fighters to have good-to-great Dexterity scores in 13th Age? Because it sounds like this is permission to add a tiny amount of damage only a little of the time, and that seems silly.
- Second Shot is a maneuver for the Deadeye Archers in the crowd, adding a second attack at a -4 penalty if your first attack was a hit on a 16+. This is a big benefit some of the time, and I definitely see why you would want this.
- Shield Bash is not a damaging attack in itself, but it breaks off your engagement with a minimum of tears and recriminations, on an even roll. You’re probably gonna go get engaged with someone else, of course. Fighters of the world, have you no shame?
- Two-Weapon Pressure is an on-miss effect for the two-weapon crowd, paying off with an attack bonus until the end of your next turn. This has some good setup potential, at least.
Everything up to this point are the 1st-level maneuvers. Next up, 3rd-level maneuvers.
- Get Clear (RM) covers for an ally so they can escape, in a classic narrative moment. Requiring a hit on an odd number seems… not ideal, since you have so little room to guess when you’ll need something like this.
- Hack & Slash lets you make a second attack against a different target on an even roll; importantly, it can’t chain off itself. Sure, you can only use one maneuver per attack, but this opens the door to using a second maneuver in the same round in addition to its obvious extra-damage benefits.
- Left You an Opening (RM) converts your damage on a miss into a bonus to an ally’s attack against that target. This is a substantial accuracy boost at base, with some very nice benefits after feats. The damage increase when you do make the difference between an ally’s hit and miss more than makes up for any loss of your own damage output, though it’s harder to compare this to all of the other on-miss effects.
- Make ‘Em Flinch is a bonus to your damage on an even miss. I’m not super impressed, because monster hit points scale up sharply in 13th Age.
- Punish Them is a special exception to the rule that flexible attacks – which maneuvers are – can’t be used for opportunity attacks. It adds the dazed condition (and, with feats, more dazed condition and so on) to your OA, on a 16+ roll and a failed save.
- Steady Now gives you temporary hit points on an even miss. I’m not terribly impressed with the number of hit points you gain, again owing to 13th Age
- Strong Guard is a lot like Defensive Fighting, but the benefit applies to one of your allies and it only triggers when you miss.
- Wounding Shot (RM) is for archers, and trades some of your up-front damage for ongoing damage. You’re making a pretty chancy bet that the enemy will fail several saves to end the ongoing damage. This doesn’t look like a good bet, to me.
- A Dozen Cuts adds ongoing damage to an even hit, for no tradeoff. Pretty appealing, but let’s check out the competition.
- Hero’s Skill is a chance to convert an even miss to a hit, in exchange for halving the damage. It’s a much better offer than your standard damage on a miss, but there’s only going to be two die results where a +2 bonus converts a miss to a hit, and only one of those is even. If you’re going to pour some feats on this, though, it gets more usable.
- Impaling Shot (RM) staples your target to a nearby wall with a ranged attack and an odd hit. Hindering an enemy this way could become short-term crowd control, and I’ve got to love that.
- Sword Master’s Anticipation requires Skilled Intercept and guarantees its function, if you have an even roll ahead of time. Sort of a tough sell for a purchase.
- Skullrattler (RM) is another ranged attack that turns half of your damage into a condition. I don’t know how big of a deal the hampered condition is for NPCs in this game, so I have a hard time weighing this option. Thematically, I like it.
- Heroic Sacrifice is a classic narrative move – the fight’s going badly, you’re bloodied (13th Age calls it staggered, but whatever), and it’s time for some high-risk moves. You trade dealing a bunch of extra damage for taking a pile of damage when you can least afford it. Potentially a great finisher? Also, the feat option here is awesome.
- Never Surrender is one of those extra-saving-throw moves that we saw a ton of in 4e, here triggered by an even roll. I imagine that save-ends conditions are all over the place in high-level 13th Age, so you probably want something like this in your bag of tricks.
- Reign of Missiles lets you shoot a target in the face, break engagement with them, and run over to stab someone else in the area. I feel like the maneuver name doesn’t quite sell that, but it’s a good trick to have up your sleeve. Maybe more important for rogues than fighters, though?
- Spinning Charge lets you jump into a fight already in progress and deal decent damage to everyone attacking your buddy, on an even hit. If you’ve emphasized building up a good Dexterity score, you could deal half your damage to a whole mess of targets.
- Sword of Destiny is a free self-heal on a crit. It’s not a new idea, but it’s awful nice to have.
- Combat Mastery lets you increase the escalation die on a roll of 16+. This is huge for the PCs – in case you’re not familiar, 13th Age’s math is tilted against the PCs, but as the escalation die increases (one point per round), it shifts in their favor. Plenty of features have a minimum escalation die value.
- Set ‘Em Up is like Carve an Opening, except that its expanded crit range grows a lot faster and doesn’t reset when someone scores a crit on that target. This is an unbelievable boss-killer, and thus is worthy competition with Combat Mastery.
Overall, I love what I see in the maneuvers. I think it’s really interesting how much design energy has gone into making you feel a bit better about your misses. Those maneuvers do risk getting samey. The range of options is robust without being overwhelming. As I suggested above, it feels like a more approachable 4e Essentials fighter.
The story of the fighter, as presented in these features, does boil down to stabbing real good. You don’t have to be a defender, but you can and probably should. I think there’s some breadth of styles that is missing from the Class Talents – compare this to the distinct kinds of rangers you can build. Support for more warlord-y fighters would have been welcome. (The separate Commander class found in the SRD is, well, separate.)
I’m not here to review 13th Age, though. In terms of the presentation of the fighter, the Backgrounds remind us of the many different contexts for martial prowess. The Class Talents and Maneuvers focus the player’s attention on the cut and thrust of combat, and fighters have a lot of gameplay options and some battlefield control even when they can’t buy a hit. I don’t think there’s a ton of 13th Age DNA in the 5e fighter, but if you want to see a connection between these Maneuvers and the Battle Master’s maneuvers, well, you could be right. I do remember a super-early D&D Next draft that had special triggered effects for each weapon type on a roll of 16+. It was an interesting development path that they abandoned, for whatever reason.
As for 13 Fighter Talents and Maneuvers, they come across very slightly less polished than the official content. It’s a good buy at $2; even if you’re going to use the material directly from the SRD, supporting third-party creators is a good unto itself. (I have a lot of self-interest tied up in that statement, but I stand by it regardless.)
Next time in the History of the Fighter: 5e, the finale, and a look back at the whole class concept. (Assuming no one suggests another game or edition in the comments that I just can’t pass up.)