Thursday, June 7, 2012

5E Musings: Fighting Men

Image owned by WotC
In my first ever Dungeons and Dragons game, I was killed by a fighter.

It was 2004, and my friends through Magic: The Gathering just got hold of new "3.5" core books, which were an update to the original rules as far as I could tell at the time. A certain subgroup of my Magic buddies have already been playing the previous rules (3E) before, but I did not really see the appeal of writing on a bunch of graphing papers and cross-referencing books as fun, especially since I was doing that anyway as a college student. But hey, they had new books, and it just so happened that I had spare time. So with two of my more experienced buddies (and the dungeon master), I decided to give it a go:

We have just dispatched a group of monsters. I don't remember if they were goblins or kobolds, but I do remember that they were small enough to be taken down by my spear. Not that I was better off, myself; as a half-orc sorcerer with a 12 in constitution, I only had five hit points at first level. But anyway, the fighter and the cleric started arguing over who should get what portion of the loot. As it seemed like they were about to come to blows, I decided to cast a Sleep spell on the two of them to calm them down. I didn't really expect much from it with my -2 penalty to charisma, but due to some stroke of luck, they both botched their saving throws. Contented, my half-orc decided to sit down on the snow and wait for my two teammates to come to.  
When they did come to, I had a spiel prepared about how a little sleep was good to calm the nerves. That apparently was not true in Dungeons and Dragons, where monsters typically died in their (magical) sleep via something called the coup-de-grace. So, following his logic on how magic worked, he whacked me with Power Attack, and that was the end of my half-orc sorcerer. The cleric and the fighter then continued to adventure together like the best friends that they were.

(I later learned that killing first-time players was some kind of tradition for the group, and in later games I even took part of it. In retrospect, that tradition was horrible.)

Are Swords Only For Simpletons?

Perhaps it was a psychological effect of that first fateful day, but I found that I would never touch a fighter as a PC throughout the life of 3.5. Sure, I would multiclass into it sometimes for that free feat dip (or for those times when I fancied an eldritch knight), but I would always favor spellslingers or binders or even barbarian rage mages to an honest to fighter with a weapon. Back then, I justified it by maintaining that spell choices on a per level or per day basis challenged me intellectually. In contrast, according to myself from those years, fighters just whacked things with a stick.

Of course, some of my friends challenged that notion and continued to love the fighter. Over the course of those oh-so memorable college years, I have seen fighters that tripped giants, I have seen fighters that shattered their opponent's weapons, and I have seen fighters that struck down githyanki by the tens with great cleave. 

They did tend to lag behind at higher levels, especially as I learned to use schools of magic other than evocation. But in that regard, they usually compensated by having story reasons to become Death Knights, or Saints if they were good aligned. It all worked out I guess. 

But I still wasn't about to use a character class whose defining feature is to get feats at a faster rate. At least the barbarian had rage, and the paladin had a steed. Clearly, the only way I'd play a fighter is if it was designed with more stuff. So on that note, I started scouring the Internet for variant fighter progressions. Heck, I even tried to design one, myself. But none of those worked, really. That is, until the warblade showed up, complete with nine legendary swords.

The Book of Nine Swords

There are two kinds of D&D 3.5 fans - those who hated the Tome of Battle: The Book of Nine Swords with a passion and those who sing praises to Pelor for having the sourcebook land on their doorstep. From those who disliked the book, some said that it was because it invalidated the fighter, while others maintained that it was too wuxia for their games. A minority of players who liked spellcasters also felt that their role in the party was being stepped on by "blade magic." On the other hand, the other half of the fanbase praised its subsystem, which allowed weapon wielders to finally be on par with spellslingers. 

For my part, I was on the side that loved the Tome of Battle. As a quick review, the book introduced a new subsystem that allowed a character to master maneuvers, which are special "weapon spells" that belonged to one of nine fighting schools. Maneuvers, in turn, were divided into three. Boosts allowed the character to augment its upcoming attack. Counters wait for a specific action, and are executed in response to that action. Strikes are the most straightforward, for they are essentially melee attacks with funky effects.

Each of the nine schools also have a repository of stances, which are fighting poses that alters the effects of some of the characters attacks.

Finally, these maneuvers and stances are mastered primarily by three new classes: A crusader, whose fighting styles are flashes of divine inspiration, a swordsage, whose mystical abilities with the blade come from years of monastic training, and the warblade, which is the purest fighting man of the three. The warblade, in particular, fit the mold of what I thought a fighter should be able to do. Its maneuvers were superhuman, but not supernatural like some of the swordsage's moves. Also, moves such as Death From Above, Finishing Move, and Time Stands Still reminded me of attacks that the Battousai could do. Was it too wuxia because of this? Perhaps, but I don't see that as a bad thing. If you are reading this blog, then there's a good chance that you are aware of how I advocate using non-western inspirations for my D&D. Yes, some of the maneuver names sounded Eastern, but others, like the Girallon Windmill Flesh Rip, screamed D&D.

Death From Above. Yeah, it was like that. The level 9 version,
Feral Death Blow, was an actual save-versus-death. And that
was at the equivalent of what is known now as an encounter power.

But was the warblade an alternative to the fighter, or did it aim to replace it entirely? The Book of Nine Swords included the Martial Study feat, which allowed someone who wasn't a crusader, swordsage, or warblade to use one of the maneuvers presented in the book. It was also a fighter bonus feat, so a fighter who is running out of tricks to use can take these instead. However, the effective initiator level of a fighter or any class not in the book is only one-half of their actual level, which basically means that they will only be able to access the lower half levels of the martial maneuvers and stances. So yes, the fighter can use the tricks in the book. But he will always do so at a level inferior to the warblade. The warblade simply kicked more ass; the fighter has been replaced.

But the fighter would still get the last laugh.

Killing the Warblade and Taking His Stuff

I can't find a dead warblade, but
I did find a dead Regdar.
In my opinion, the success of the Book of Nine Swords could have been expanded upon had 3.5 lasted longer in the hands of WotC. But alas, that will not come to pass. Barely a year after it was introduced, WotC announced the now infamous 4th edition of the game. Gone was Vancian spellcasting, and gone was the fighter's ultimate goal of getting to +20/+15/+10/+5 BAB. In its place was AEDU, which is short for At-will, Encounter, Daily, and Utility. Immediately, the parallels between this system and the fighting system of the Book of Nine Swords were drawn: It seemed as if Maneuvers turned into encounter attacks, Vancian spells turned into the much more limited dailies, and the Boosts became utilities.

Of course, that's not entirely accurate: 
  • For one thing, the martial adepts of the Book of Nine Swords never ran out of maneuvers: The crusader kept receiving random inspirations from his deity, the swordsage can replenish one of its multitude of attacks by recalling the complex maneuver as a full-round action, and the warblade can regain his composure (and maneuvers) by showing off with his blade. Only the non-adepts who took the Martial Study feat are truly constrained to using the maneuvers once per encounter.
  • Utilities as boosts also isn't entirely correct. Anything that isn't a strike became a utility, and that included counters, boosts, and even some stances.
  • On the issue of stances, some stances were utilities, while others have been designated as Daily attacks. In either case, changing them from at-will fighting poses to things that you forget was weird. (They would later fix this, at least. More on that later.)
Nevertheless, the inspiration was there, and this time, the whole system revolved around it. In 4E, everyone was a martial adept with a few "spells" in the form of daily powers. Balance was achieved. 

Not everybody liked it, of course. In the case of the fighter, with the other martial classes, they found it increasingly hard to justify attacks that the character seemed to forget in between fights. Sure, the Player's Handbook for 4E made an effort to explain how a daily martial exploit is akin to reaching into the deepest physical reserves of a character to pull off an amazing strike, so much so that you can't repeat it again until you rest for a long time. I'm personally fine with that explanation, but admittedly it made a lot of people scratch their heads. For one thing, why is the expenditure of such reserves contingent on hitting when it comes to powers with the reliable keyword?

Even encounter powers, once known as maneuvers, were suspect. The Book of Nine Swords at least explained how the timing, motions, and overall execution of the attack were so complex that the motion had to be repeated or at least studied again. And yes, the martial adepts had a way to regain them, even in the middle of combat.

I, for one, think that the PHB fighter for 4th Edition was well-executed. It was a solid enough as an option to convince me, a wizard lover, to step out of my comfort zone and use a fighter as my first 4E character. But the similar feel (at first) of the fighter with just about every other class turned off a lot of people, enough to stick to 3.5. And unlike previous edition wars, the other side of the coin also had a company that was willing to embrace those that felt left behind. But I won't get too much into the industry side of things; other people have reported on it in a way that I could never match.

Essentials: Not 4.5!

In its first attempt to recapture the stray fans that have been alienated by the sameness of 4E, WotC made new builds for their core classes that evoked what the they felt like in earlier editions. As the psionic classes of the third Player's Handbook showed, a strict adherence to the AEDU class design is not necessary for a class to exist in balance-conscious 4E. They decided to see how far they can push this philosophy.

Of course, I will mostly stick to the fighter here. There were two kinds of fighters present here; the knight and the slayer. The knight performed a role that was more or less similar to the PHB fighter (now called the weaponmaster subclass), while the slayer was more of the classic fighter that just killed stuff. But instead of using AEDU powers, the knight and the slayer only had basic weapon attacks.

In the place of at-will "powers," the fighter recovered the at-will style stances of the warblade. Like in the era of the Book of Nine Swords, fighters now have different combat poses that affected the way their attacks worked. 

In the place of encounter powers were more straightforward constant damage boosts, as well as Power Strike. A beginning Essentials fighter can choose to add extra damage to an attack that hits once per encounter; and as he becomes more experienced (ie, level up), he can do it more often. The fighter still did not get to replenish encounter powers as a warblade could, but for some reason, the ability to do the same thing more than once made more sense for what the industry now refers to as verisimilitude. (By Wee Jas, I hate that word.)

Most notably, though, the thing that separated the Essentials fighter from its predecessors was the absolute lack of daily powers. In didn't really need it, in my opinion: The slayer can match the pace just about every other striker in the game and then some even without it.

Was the slayer and the knight able to capture the feel of the fighter of the previous edition? I would say that they did. But at the same time, I have been able to run games with weaponmasters and slayers in the same group, and they have been able to co-exist. As such, despite the claims of those who felt slighted at Essentials, I don't think this set is 4.5 from the fighter's perspective. A closer analogy, then, would be to say that Essentials was the (reverse) Book of Nine Swords to the weaponmaster. To clarify:
  • The 3.5 fighter is to the 4E knight/slayer as the 3.5 warblade is to the 4E weaponmaster.
The analogy is not perfect. In 3.5, the warblade clearly outstripped and replaced the fighter. In 4E, the Essentials builds are able to balance themselves well with the weaponmaster. But the point I'm trying to get across is that each were subsystems, designed as add-ons to the existing rules instead of supplanting them. Which, in turn, leads us to today.

Modules: The Next Concept

Clearly, there are those that prefer a simple style of fighter as well as those that prefer someone that has about as many options as a wizard. I think the discussion on pointyman's blog expresses both sides well. Towards late 4E, WotC attempted to cater to both preferences. It was the right move, but at this point, 4E had already left a sour taste on many players' mouths. So despite the good concept behind it, Essentials failed to keep 4E afloat officially. (/IMO)

Today, we are undergoing the first round of playtesting for the Next iteration of D&D. As I have noted in this blog and on other pockets of the Web, I am pleased with the basic nature of the current fighter. It evokes the classic feel of the D&D fighter, but it also gains a few tricks that I feel like can be swapped out for something else. Reaper, in particular, might be replaced by other "stances," while the flat damage bonuses can be remodeled into other options.

Of course, this is assuming that the modular add-on modules are successfully implemented in the way that WotC intends. In one of their earlier panel discussions, they mentioned that they aim to have a very basic fighter brought by a player who does not bother as much with the rules coexist in the same table as the optimized fighter of someone who likes to fiddle with things mechanically. Will they be able to do it? Will it look more like a slayer and a weaponmaster in the same party, where simple and complex characters can have the same amount of fun? Or will it be more like the case of the 3.5 fighter looking on to big sister warblade, doing all the cool stuff while you thwack things with your toy sword?

Sorry, I couldn't resist. :D

As always, I am optimistic that WotC will be able to recreate late 4E's ability to let players have the fighter that they want. But in addition to that, I do have my fears that they'll screw it up - I suppose it comes with caring for the brand as a fan. My biggest reservation with the current fighter (and with all the others, really), is that they seemed to have completely done away with encounter powers. The maneuvers of the Book of Nine Swords is the subsystem that can exist alongside magic without being too much of the same thing, and if the fighter does not have encounter powers, adding that or an encounter module might make such a fighter too powerful in comparison to its "simple" counterpart.

Hopefully, playtesting will take care of that.