As we come to the end (for now, the future is unwritten) of the History of the Fighter, it’s been an interesting run. I’ll get into what I see as the arc of the fighter’s development over the last forty-four years at the end of this article. For now, 5e waits – and the fighter is one of my favorite classes in this edition. Sure, I said the same about 4e fighters, and I meant it then too. In addition to the Player’s Handbook class and subclasses, I’ll also cover the Purple Dragon Knight from SCAG; look here for the XGTE subclasses.
The two pieces of art in the fighter’s class entry (pp. 70 and 73) are some of my favorite in the whole book. The first is one of the best character looks in the whole book, and the second evokes Beowulf wonderfully. I’m not here to be an art critic, but the art is a little part of how the class first got a death-grip on my imagination in 5e. (That, and finding their development over the course of D&D Next pretty compelling.)
- d10 Hit Die. I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
- Proficiency in all armor, shields, simple weapons, and martial weapons. 2e remains the weird outlier by granting anything less than universal proficiency in all common weapons and armor.
- Proficient in Str and Con saves. This maps to what other editions meant by good Fortitude saves. At launch, Str was an under-used flavor, but continuing development has made it almost as important as Dex/Con/Wis.
- Two skill proficiencies from a list that is shockingly robust, by the standards of other fighter classes. History? Insight? Perception? That’s… great. I’m genuinely happy with how many more scenes this lets the fighter participate in, if they pick skills for variety.
- Fighting Style is the first choice point within the progression, and it’s as influential as a warlock’s choice of Pact. This is also the only “weapon specialization” around. I’ve talked before about how much I dislike fighters specializing and thus losing interest in a lot of potential treasure. Someone who picks Great Weapon Fighting still won’t care about a magic mace, but it’s more breadth than full-on specialization.
- If you want to get much more in-depth with Fighting Styles, Colin has done the work.
- The list of Fighting Styles is nominally expansible – there was a UA that tried to add two new ones – but it’s hard to do well. I don’t know of anything else that has entered official release, though there are any number of third-party/fan offerings.
- Archery grants +2 to attack rolls with ranged weapons. Not, unfortunately, ranged attack rolls. Javelins, daggers, and handaxes are all melee weapons that you can make ranged attacks with, so Archery is no help. That extra accuracy is a huge help offsetting the -5 of Sharpshooter. A net -3 for +10 damage, and ignoring cover? Hot damn.
- Defense is the most style-neutral of the Fighting Styles. If you want to leave all your options open, +1 AC whenever you’re wearing armor can’t be beat. “When you’re wearing armor” is here so that not every unarmored build needs a 1-level dip in fighter, but I still kind of wish it helped normally-armored fighters who are temporarily out of armor for storyline reasons.
- Dueling is another very strong option. A lot of folks misunderstand this one at first glance, thinking that your offhand has to be empty – but no, this is also for weapon-and-shield users who want more offense over more defense. A longsword’s 4.5 (d8) damage, with a static +2, comes to 6.5, or the average damage of a d12. To put that another way, you’re kicking out greataxe damage without sacrificing AC, or while keeping a hand open for grappling.
- Great Weapon Fighting is likewise incredible. If you want raw damage, this fixes the swinginess of big weapons, and gives you a damage edge over Dueling. Between Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master, your feat options are also very attractive.
- Protection is… well, I have some problems with it.
- Two-Weapon Fighting is, at most, 5 more damage per round. Much stronger at lower levels than at higher levels. This should probably work differently than it does, but at most common levels of play, it’s fine.
- Second Wind is an in-combat self-heal. This is their survivability answer to barbarian damage resistance, and rangers and paladins having cure wounds. It’s incredibly important to low-level play, and stays nice-to-have at higher levels. As a note, this scales by fighter level, not character level.
- Action Surge at 2nd level is one of the main reasons that so many multiclass builds are “two levels of fighter and…” You just… decide to take another action, once per short rest. That’s amazing. I might go so far as to say incomparable. Getting a second use at 17th level is great too, because that’s a colossal amount of damage (probably) early in a fight.
- You start into your Martial Archetype at 3rd level.
- You get two more Ability Score Improvements than most other classes. (6th and 14th levels, incidentally.) That means a lot of different things, depending on where you go with it: an extra 4 points of ability scores, getting to 20 in your attack stat earlier than other classes, or just pulling off awesome feat combos in early or mid-levels rather than later on. When 5e first came out, this bothered me – it sort of says that fighters are good at getting good at things before other classes. Now? I guess I’ve gotten used to it.
- Extra Attack grants your second attack at 5th just like barbarians, monks, paladins and rangers. The big difference is that you also get a third at 11th and fourth at 20th. (This has been corrected; many thanks to Mikey Kromhout for catching it.) The crux of being a fighter is getting to make a pretty simple decision (who do I want to hit with a stick?) more often than anyone else.
- Indomitable at 9th level is a saving throw reroll, declared after you know you’ve failed the roll. This is more or less a patch on not getting resistances or immunities to damage types or conditions from the core of the fighter class, and on how showstopping a lot of Int/Wis/Cha-targeting effects are at mid-to-high levels. It’s possible for DCs to scale out of reach, especially if you have an ability score below 10, but bounded accuracy supports the long-term relevance of rerolls overall.
That’s the core of the class. Self-sufficiency, resilience, and rapid displays of extreme violence are the core of class, and easily transfer to any style of fighter, whether we’re talking about a chivalric knight, street brawler, sniper, or… well, you get the picture. I think it would be quite a stretch to say that these class features tell any significant amount of story. I’ve said any number of times that the Champion and Battle Master are playstyles rather than themes too.
The Champion Martial Archetype is for people who don’t want more involved decision-making in their gameplay. Of the fighters in my own campaign, there have been roughly an even split of Champions and Battle Masters.
- Improved Critical at 3rd level lets you critically hit on natural 19s, though those aren’t automatic hits. In fairness, I haven’t seen a lot of situations in 5e where you could miss on a natural 19.
- Remarkable Athlete at 7th level makes you a jack of all physical skills (half your proficiency bonus in your non-proficient Str/Dex/Con ability checks), and a long jumper (adding your Str modifier to your long jump distance).
- Additional Fighting Style at 10th does what it says on the tin. Not having to choose between Defense and an offensive style is great.
- Superior Critical at 15th level expands your critical range to 18-20. I don’t need to explain that this is amazing; the only question is whether you’re dealing enough crits to compare to a Battle Master of the same level. (Not that D&D is competitive, but if Battle Masters get cool extra effects and same-or-better damage, that’s not a great look.) Several kinds of magic weapons favor the Champion over the Battle Master, though.
- Survivor at 18th level is also amazing: you gain massive rapid healing (5 + your Con modifier) at the start of each turn as long as you’re below half your maximum hit points. I mean, you’re probably taking more damage than that each round at 18th level, but if it takes more than 1-2 rounds to burn you down from 50% to 0 hit points, those 8-10 extra hit points each round go from good to unbelievable.
So damage output, an advantage in physical challenges, the spread of possibilities of another Fighting Style, more damage output, and one of the best pure survivability features in the game. I feel like this style might have been called “Survivor” in a D&D Next draft? That’s still a pretty good name for it. “Crit Machine” is also on point, but lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay here, but you need to bring your own story. I’ve had plenty of debates around whether “the book only provides mechanics, the player brings all of the story” is a good model. My position is that I want classes and subclasses to have some measure of suggested – but not obligatory – story, but there’s still room to reinterpret that to support other concepts.
One last thing – three fighter levels to get to Improved Critical is also a popular and excellent multiclass choice. Action Surge and Improved Crit go well with any weapon-wielding class. I can’t really say the same for Battle Masters or Eldritch Knights.
This is the Martial Archetype for fighters that want more involved tactical gameplay, with special attacks that deal both extra damage and effects. This is the gameplay I’m looking for, except for when I want to play an Eldritch Knight. Carefully choosing maneuvers can get you to a warlord-adjacent gameplay space, too.
- Combat Superiority (hereafter “CS”) gives you a base of 4d8 to spend on three maneuvers. These dice are per-short-rest, so smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. Most maneuvers you declare after the successful hit, which is great. Most also deal extra damage and an effect, though there are several that work completely differently. I’ll cover the maneuvers individually in a bit. Anyway, this feature scales up to 6 superiority dice and 6 maneuvers. The Martial Adept feat is a great buy, and kicks this up to 7 dice and 8 maneuvers.
- Student of War grants proficiency in one type of artisan’s tools. The point here is to support either playing a crafter (I’ve never not been in favor of this) or a warrior-artist (you know, like samurai). If this sets you up to play an alchemy-chucking fighter, well, that’s probably not what they had in mind, but it’s awesome.
- Know Your Enemy at 7th level is one of my favorite features. It’s not easy to use well, I’ll grant, because it’s information-gathering that takes a minute when you don’t necessarily get to decide how long it’ll be before the swords come out. I’ve been watching a lot of Leverage and Person of Interest, so this reminds me of the hyper-aware observation skills of Eliot Spencer, Reese, Shaw, and so on. You get a fixed list of questions, and only relative answers.
- Improved Combat Superiority at 10th level bumps your superiority dice up to d10s. 18th level, d12s.
- Relentless at 15th level is your currency fixer, for when you don’t get a short rest for a long time. If the Champion was going to roll one natural 18 in a combat and crit off of it, well, the Battle Master has one CS die to match it.
So about the maneuvers:
- Commander’s Strike is classic (I mean, all the way back to 4e) warlord action. You sacrifice one attack within your Attack action sequence, and your bonus action, to let an ally attack (spending their reaction), and they add your CS die to damage. This is generally good for anyone but a TWF Battle Master, devastating if you have a rogue buddy, and a great move anytime your buddy has other substantial damage adds (hunter’s mark, Colossus Slayer, Divine Strike, whatever).
- Disarming Attack is one of the few explicit ways in 5e to strip a weapon out of an enemy’s hand. The CS die applies to your damage, and you force the target to make a Str save. Claiming the weapon before the enemy can pick it back up is a question of turn order, largely out of your control and significantly metagamey.
- Distracting Strike adds the CS die to your damage and hangs advantage on that target that one of your buddies gets to collect. This was used to great effect in my game this past weekend, setting up a chance for a paladin in the team to land a big hit.
- Evasive Footwork is about cranking up your AC when you provoke OAs. As a fighter, you’d actually rather provoke OAs if you’re going to be moving and you can boost your AC, since you’re trying to get enemies to waste reactions, thus letting your allies move freely.
- Feinting Attack expends your bonus action to let you grant advantage to your own next attack, adding your CS die to damage on a hit. It’s, er, a self-help maneuver? But it’s one of the only times you risk a CS die on an attack and might not deal its damage. It’s also weird to me that a feint is a bad choice for a two-weapon fighter. This maneuver becomes a small note in a broader argument that the TWF attack should be part of the action you spend to Attack, not part of your bonus action.
- Goading Attack is one of my wife’s favorites, as a classic tanking move. It forces a Wisdom save and, on a failure, imposes disadvantage on the target’s attacks against anyone other than you. Also, you get your CS die to damage. Great, great maneuver.
- Lunging Attack adds your CS die to damage, and adds 5 feet to your reach. There’s a time and place for this, particularly in circumventing some kinds of monster traits, but you probably won’t need it all the time.
- The Maneuvering Attack maneuver is a good argument for a thesaurus. It’s another warlord-like maneuver, adding the CS die to your damage and letting the ally spend a reaction to move. It’s also tanking-friendly, as the ally who moves doesn’t provoke OAs – read that as “bailing your friend out of a bad spot.”
- Menacing Attack is a short-term fear effect on a failed Wisdom save, plus the CS die on damage. This is good unto itself, but you’ll occasionally see mechanics that hook into the frightened condition that make this great. Since the creature has to fail its save anyway, this is “like Goading, but disadvantage on even more things, like attacking you.” On the other hand, immunity to frightened is widespread among monsters. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
- Parry spends your reaction to reduce incoming weapon damage by the CS die result + Dex modifier. Thematically, I love this; mechanically, the scaling could be a little more convincing. It’s okay.
- Precision Attack spends your CS die on the attack roll rather than damage. If your dice are cold enough, it’s good to have. It’s great that you can declare this after you see the d20 result.
- Pushing Attack adds your CS die to damage and forces a Str save, pushing a Large or smaller target 15 feet on a failure. This is generally better in a grid-and-minis scene than a theater-of-the-mind scene, depending on your DM, but in general I dig this.
- Rally is another big warlord-like maneuver. It spends your bonus action to grant one ally temporary hit points equal to the CS die + your Cha modifier. I’m not sure how many Cha-focused Battle Masters you’re going to see, but it’s ideal if you’re a paladin, Valor bard, or bladelock multiclassing with fighter. My father-in-law’s Battle Master has done cool things with this.
- Riposte punishes enemies for missing you. In combination with these other maneuvers, it’s a way to dump your CS dice in a real hurry, since it’s a reaction. You do risk missing with the Riposte attack and losing the die, but on a hit, you add the die to damage. It’s another of my wife’s favorite maneuvers, because it is just so. Much. Stabbing.
- Sweeping Attack lets you splash the damage around a bit more, which could be a great way to finish off badly wounded opponents or cut your way through mooks. Your weapon damage affects the main target, while the CS die affects a second target. I haven’t seen this one at the table, but I’d strongly consider it for my own Battle Master.
- Trip Attack adds your CS die to damage and forces a Str save if the target is Large or smaller. Exactly as you’d expect, it knocks the target prone. As the opening of an attack sequence, it’s incredible, because now you’re looking at advantage for the rest of your attacks, and maybe those of more party members.
- I’ve created a bunch of additional maneuvers, which you can find in Harbinger of Doom.
Overall, I love what goes on here. Maneuvers are fun stuff and bring the right level of tactical combat to the Battle Master. I hear that archer Battle Masters are just hell on wheels, which is easy to believe. I love the support for tanks, warlords, and skirmishers all within this one subclass. It’s still light on telling one clear story, but there’s explicit support for a lot of different stories. If you’re looking for an unbiased view here, well, sorry folks.
I still want to write a whole history series on fighter-mages. It’s another concept that I’ve always liked, but seldom played. The fundamental challenge of the playstyle is that you’re good at two things that you can’t do at the same time, so you’re often choosing just the fighter side, or just the mage side. The subclass’s features beyond the core of spellcasting try to smooth that out, though.
- Spellcasting, of course. You’re an Intelligence caster, but with a fixed number of Spells Known (3, growing to 13) and a very limited number of Cantrips Known (2, eventually 3). Where the paladin and ranger are “half-progression” casters, this subclass (and the Arcane Trickster) are one-third progression casters, so you top out at 4th-level spells. Most of your spells have to be abjuration or evocation, though you build up to four Spells Known from other schools.
- It’s one of my idiosyncrasies, but I like spell collection gameplay enough that I dearly wish Eldritch Knights just wrote their prepared spells onto their weapons, from a more extensive grimoire. Oh well.
- Good spell choice is everything here, as with any spellcaster. The new cantrips (greenflame blade, booming blade, lightning lure) of the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide are a good place to look.
- Weapon Bond makes it so that your weapon can’t be taken away. Because, well, that would suck. It does have to be on the same plane, though, so if your enemy has a bag of holding, you might have a bad problem on your hands. (That’s a long way to go.) You can bond with a new weapon as part of a short rest, though.
- War Magic at 7th level is one of the big fighter-mage blending features: when you cast a cantrip as an action, you can also make a weapon attack as a bonus action. The SCAG cantrips work well with this, and Eldritch Knights are among the few good candidates for poison spray. Since it takes a bonus action, well, Two-Weapon Fighting is not for Eldritch Knights.
- Eldritch Strike at 10th level encourages you to switch back and forth between melee attacks and spellcasting by letting you impose saving throw disadvantage against your spells after a weapon hit. Getting people to fail saves against evocations is nice, but there are some enchantments out there (hold person!) that make this a fight-ender.
- Arcane Charge at 15th level tacks on a free short-range teleport to your Action Surge. This seems a lot like a 4e feature, where spreading around your attacks to as many creatures as possible would have mattered more, but it’s still nice to have.
- Improved War Magic at 18th level lifts War Magic’s restriction that only a cantrip lets you attack as a bonus action – now it’s any spell.
I love what goes on here, and I’ve enjoyed the first several levels of playing an Eldritch Knight. There are some problems – the action economy is overtaxed if you want to combine this with TWF or any number of feat options. I don’t like what Mearls has said about wanting to get rid of bonus actions, but I do think there’s some minor issues that crop up with too much dependence on them. Not enough to ruin the subclass, but enough that you need to approach your character building with a subtler understanding.
It’s worth noting that utility spells, especially if you pick up Ritual Caster, give the Eldritch Knight a greater variety of ways to engage with exploration and social interaction scenes than other Martial Archetypes. (My Eldritch Knight sometimes spends most of his spell slots casting comprehend languages as we wander the planes.) We see 7th level as a consistent place to put social, exploration, or investigation features, but the Eldritch Knight works quite a bit differently. Admittedly, the XGTE Martial Archetypes don’t stick to that trend quite as firmly.
Purple Dragon Knight/Banneret
In the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, there’s a Martial Archetype that is either the Purple Dragon Knight (if used by a Cormyrean) or a Banneret (if used anywhere else). Personally, I default to the latter name, as it suggests the subclass’s more warlord-oriented theme. If you’re not familiar with knight bannerets, well, Wikipedia is here for you.
- Rallying Cry improves your Second Wind by letting it heal some of your allies as well: you get d10 + fighter level, while three of your allies regain hit points equal to your fighter level. That’s a very nice upgrade to healing output – not enough to be a party’s primary healer (though in combination with the Healer feat, you’re starting to get somewhere), but some definite relief to the healing burden of the party’s spellcasters.
- Royal Envoy at 7th level is one of those rare features that greatly improves a fighter’s engagement with social interaction scenes. It grants a new skill, Persuasion or one chosen from a short list, and grants expertise in Persuasion. With even a passable Charisma, you can easily be the party’s face at this point.
- Inspiring Surge at 10th level shares out your Action Surge with one ally (one attack, not one action), much as Rallying Cry does. Compare this to Commander’s Strike, and use it in much the same way. Rogues are still one of your best choices. Your 18th-level feature is sharing this with a second ally, the level after you got another use of Action Surge – so you’re now looking at four extra ally attacks per short rest. Because it is just a direct upgrade, it feels a little lacking, but we’re talking about deciding even huge, high-level fights in the first two rounds.
- Bulwark at 15th level shares your Indomitable feature with allies, but only when you’re rerolling an Int/Wis/Cha save that you and an ally both failed. This is… okay. I feel like it really needs an alternate usage for when you pass but an ally fails, because… leadership? Let it still cost a use of Indomitable, no problem.
From what I’m hearing online, the Banneret doesn’t get a lot of respect. I think it’s all right, could maybe use some of the extra movement benefits that we see in Maneuvering Strike. Rallying Cry doesn’t seem great at first, but maybe it helps to think of it as being a twinned healing word that you cast with a bonus action you were using anyway? I think there could have been just a little bit more here without breaking the bank, to help it feel awesome. That there are no advantage-granting or Help-action-improving features is the big surprise, given the archetype concept.
This brings us to the end of the massive History of the Fighter series. Oh, sure, something could come up that compels me to add just one more article, in the same way that Matthew Colville is conspiring (ahem, without his knowledge or intent) to make me write another article in the Domain Rulership series. Done for now is enough.
The central trend of fighter design is the understanding that it’s so hard to say anything definite about the fighter beyond raw combat potential, more so than any other class. It’s still the nominal class for an Everyman Action Hero, for knights and soldiers and street brawlers and so on. I do think 5e’s choice to get rid of the last vestiges of alignment requirements for paladins alters the dynamic of the fighter – more of the knightly concepts get lured into paladin than before. (Also, the text does a better job of nudging paladins away from being Lawful Stupid or otherwise unpleasant.) Knights do still fit in fighter, but paladin doesn’t feel as forbidding as it once did.
From OD&D through 3.5, the fighter class rarely had any mechanics or class features beyond hitting often and hard, and assuming that would be enough. 3.0 brought in the era of fighters learning more of the tricks that everyone could manage. 4e gave fighters unique mechanics, chiefly in the form of their marks – the fighter’s attack powers were technically unique, but realistically just remixes of what was offered to everyone. They’re no longer a blank slate of weapon prowess – they’re defenders. The other big arc of the class’s design is the rise and fall of Weapon Specialization as a concept.
Bounded accuracy also means that, with the exception of Archery, classes are all roughly on the same footing when it comes to landing their attacks. You’re not looking at a fighters or warriors having 3-5 more points of attack bonus than everyone else. Giving them more attacks per round than anyone else, even other warriors, points all the way back to 1e and 2e. It doesn’t have the overtone of “I’d be a different class if I had better stats” that we saw in those editions, though.
Similar to monks with Flurry of Blows, but even more so, the 5e fighter is all of those action heroes that shift to bullet-time style and strike so much faster than anyone else can even watch. That superior number of attacks means that by 17th level, they have an untouchable lead in sustained and burst damage output compared to other warriors, balanced by the various tricks and defenses that other classes get.
Now that there are a wider array of Martial Archetypes, the fighter’s player can choose based on a gameplay model, an expression of theme, or a blend of the two. The Champion is always going to be there for players that want to keep it as simple as possible. This class has always been an on-ramp class for new players, and part of the Champion’s job is to maintain that legacy.
No class will ever be closer to my heart than wizards, but I’ve never been happier to play fighters than I am in 5e. (That means it’s equal to the excellent 4e fighter.) The linear fighter/quadratic wizard problem of OD&D thru 3.5 is not really in evidence here – there was plenty of reason to worry it would come back in 5e’s return to a more 3.x-like structure of spellcasting.
Thanks for coming with me through the History of the Fighter! The next History of the Classes will be a shorter series on marshals, warlords, and other nonmagical warrior-leader classes, subclasses, and builds.