Ah, the single-class fighter in 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons. What a beast!
As I related last time, I spent a large chunk of my 20s and early 30s messing around with the 3.5 D&D system, usually as a DM, but also as a player. When I was a player, I almost always chose to play single-class fighters. This was so that I could properly explore and playtest the various feat trees that the system provides for melee, in order to effectively use them against the players in my own campaigns. This led me to a couple of conclusions about fighters.
Firstly, as we explored last time, fighters quickly become a major liability when the squad is facing enemy spellcasters. That Will saving throw of theirs is a major chink in the armor. While it is also true that rogues suffer a similarly crappy Will saving throw, they are not typically made the target of spells requiring the save. Rogues’ potential damage output is just not high enough to warrant focusing on them.
The other thing I noticed about fighters as a player, is that playing one gets pretty boring in the higher levels. When an adventuring party is getting up past 12th level, the combats are largely settled at range by the spellcasters. The fighters have long since been trained out of the impulse to charge everything that moves, and have settled into their de facto role of bodyguarding for the mage. This means our bruiser spends an awful lot of time standing around waiting for something to get close enough to kill.
So, when a mage is looking to assemble a squad to back them up, what is there to do about this?
There is no doubt that fighters are the best solution to cracking the game in the early levels. As well, they are a lot of fun to play. Nothing beats the exhilaration of finally gaining that second attack at 6th level and paring it with the Great Cleave feat. Felling goblins by the bunch; swaths of body parts flying! Cleave!
Then we get up around 10th level, and things start to change. So, why not change with them? If a DM is suitably hardass, there ought to be plenty of opportunities to get our fighter killed in order to bring in a suitable replacement. Failing that, we can always just say the fighter has decided to quit adventuring in order to focus on his true passion of drunken fornication. After all, it is important to follow our bliss.
So, the fighter exits. But what to bring in to replace him?
I discovered the answer to this conundrum, quite by accident, while DMing a combat heavy war campaign with a relatively big group of players. They had gotten themselves to about 7th level, fighting mostly goblins, orcs, levelled-up goblins and orcs, and the occasional ogre. Fun, fun, fun.
At this time, the tank fighter dies after a sequence of very unfortunate dice rolls. Too bad, so sad: break out the d6s, buddy (roll up a new character). The player, who is new to the game, decides to try out the monk class. Once he had everything down on paper, he pulls me aside and quite wisely asks me what his party role is meant to be.
Says he: “So, when I was playing Hank the Tank,” (the character’s real name), “I had 80 hit points, my armor class was 19, and I was usually doing about eight points of damage per hit. Now, with this monk, I have 50 hit points, my AC is 16, and I’m doing about half as much damage. How the hell am I supposed to survive?”
As a responsible DM, at the time I really had not thought about how his new character was meant to survive, and couldn’t care less if she did. But I did appreciate the guy reaching out the way he did. So I gave it some thought.
At this time, the party cleric was really starting to be effective, as they tend to be at these levels (as we have seen). However the party had been getting in trouble when the swarms of goblins were getting past the front-line fighters to batter the shit out of the cleric. This meant that the cleric had to use his healing spells on himself instead of the fighters, and things went downhill from there. It was precisely this that led to poor Hank the Tank’s demise.
Aha! Methinks I see a solution in this.
Don’t think of yourself as a fighter, I tell the lad. You aren’t one. However, your character does have some very useful skills. Spot and Listen are class skills for the monk. (As are Move Silently and Hide.) This provides a clue as to the suitable role for this character class within a party. You are not a fighter; you are the priest’s bodyguard. Your duty is to stay right next to the priest and mess up anything that tries to get close to him.
Now, this particular player’s job in real life was a club doorman and bouncer, and he often worked as security for concerts and raves. So this was a role he could easily get his head around.
As a monk, his monk character performed the role admirably well. Monks have good saving throws, particularly Will and Reflex, so they are not a liability in this regard. With their Spot and Listen skills, they can usually see danger coming. And their grappling is the perfect combat skill for bodyguarding. An enemy fighter or rogue may get to within 5 feet of the mage, but once they are grappled, they cannot attack anyone but the monk. And they are in the monk’s world now. This buys the squad the time to deal with the situation, whatever it might be.
As the game progressed into higher levels, I noticed just how effective the monk class is in other situations. With the mobility feat and tumble skill, the monk is able to move almost at will through the battlefield. As are rogues. So, when faced with an enemy spellcaster, a monk and rogue duo can tumble through the enemy goons and get up in the spellcaster’s face. Monk grapples, thus denying the spellcaster’s dexterity bonus to their armor class, which gives the rogue sneak attack damage on all their strikes. If the party mage has time to hit both these bad boys with a haste spell (more movement and an extra attack), we have a real situation on our hands.
Now we have the vital core to any mage’s squad: the monk and rogue pairing. These two, working in tandem, are perfect as in-close bodyguards, or roving spellcaster killers.
So who do we bring on next?
Of course, the fourth member has to be a cleric. They have good hit points and armor class, as well as solid saving throws. While their vital role is party healing, they also have a decent melee damage output, and can effectively block for more vulnerable classes. Finally, their spell list, while not as offensively devastating as the mage’s, is no joke.
Then, for the fifth member, I always like to throw a ranger into the mix. Having a good ranged threat with a bow is always nice, particularly for disrupting enemy spellcasters in surprise rounds. They are tough enough to stand in toe-to-toe combat with almost anything, at least for a few rounds. And their ability to track comes in handy a lot more often than you might think. They also spot, listen, hide, and move silently. As well, with a high wisdom being important for their class skills, their Will save is always a lot better than a single-class fighter’s. They can also cast spells, including cure light wounds, and windwall to take the jam out of enemy archers’ donuts. What’s not to like?
And there we have it. This squad of five is nightmare fuel to any opponent. The lineup certainly could be padded with more members, but this is not necessary. As for further members, if a party is good aligned, a paladin is definitely in order. They are almost as good as fighters in combat and have great saving throws and some nice bonus abilities.
What is decidedly missing from the roster is the single-class fighter. Any mage who is able to hand pick their squad should never chose a fighter to roll with. With a fighter along, the mage is one dominate person spell away from being carved into pieces by their own battle beast. That brings way more potential risk than any possible benefit can make up for.
As well, we must remember that while D&D is a game, for the characters within it, this is their life. As in fiction, we will not explore every boring little detail in the characters’ lives, but that does not mean they are not living them. So interpersonal considerations should enter into the calculus for a mage when choosing squad members. In this regard, I should think it is a rare fighter that makes for pleasant company. Charisma is usually their dump stat, and their only interactive class skill is intimidation.
Why bring along a knuckle dragging oaf when we can spend our days with someone with some proper culture and ideas? Particularly when the goon is more likely than anyone else to get us all killed.
Ah, the single-class fighter in 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons. What a beast!