Out of all the classes, the fighter has proven to be the trickiest to nail down. Oh, it might seem obvious. The fighter is the class you hand to the new player who doesn’t know much about RPGs. And, the fighter masters weapons and armor. The fighter also protects his or her allies. And the fighter leads the charge, hacking down enemies with sword and axe, at least when the fighter isn’t sitting in the back ranks loosing arrows against gibbering horde. The fighter is the knight, the mercenary, the archer, and the warrior wielding two weapons. That’s a lot of real estate for one class, isn’t it?
Fighters (or fighting men) operated as the generic warrior, and the fighter’s defining characters tended to come from the weapons used and the armor worn. Unearthed Arcana drove home this idea with specialization and double specialization so that the fighter was the weapon and the damage it could deal. The advent of feats granted players a great deal more customization. Fighters, still retaining their reliance on weapons and armor, gained extra feats to construct fighting styles and combat maneuvers, although even with a slew of feats to choose from, fighters had only a few distinctive elements all to themselves, and, again, those elements involved weapon use: Weapon Specialization. What made the fighter interesting in the previous editions were the choices you made with weapons, armor, and, later, feats. Fighter players had a great deal of freedom to build the warrior they wanted to play, whether that warrior was a knight or an archer.
In 4th Edition, the fighter’s focus shifted from total customization and instead grounded the fighter into a particular niche—a role that would continue until the slayer came along in the Essentials products. Again, the class focused on weapons, distinguishing them into two broad groups: two-handed weapons and sword-and-board. Later supplements expanded the fighter builds to allow berserkers (battleragers), two-weapon wielders (tempests), brawlers, and so on. The big difference between the 4E fighter and previous fighters was that the 4E fighter incentivized players to focus on a particular weapon and style to the exclusion of all other techniques. While a 3E fighter might open a combat with a few shots from a bow and then draw a melee weapon and charge, the 4E fighter is very much an in-your-face warrior who keeps the opposition from attacking the fighter’s allies. By sacrificing versatility in weapon selection, the fighter gained a far stronger identity and place in the game.
This brings us to the new fighter. I find myself looking back to the 3rd Edition fighter with a great deal of fondness. I liked how a player could customize the fighter in any way he or she wanted. All the decision points helped fighters grow in an organic fashion, evolving through game play to match the player expectations. As well, a player who wanted to be a damn good archer could just go to the fighter without having to embrace the ranger’s narrative (and attendant features). Likewise, if I wanted to make a tough knight, I didn’t have to look to the paladin to fill that need (although, I know the Player’s Handbook 2 from 3rd Edition did have a knight class).
On the other hand, giving the fighter a strong identity means the class is more than just a menu of options. It means the class becomes a thing—an idea that has a place in the larger D&D universe. When you say “I’m playing a fighter,” everyone knows what you mean and what you can do.
And so, I kick the question to you, Internet. What do you think about the fighter?