Fixing The Problem With Fighters
Let us begin by speaking hard truths: There is a problem with Fighters, and it’s not just the perennial concerns over how they balance against spell-casters in the long term.
It’s in the very way people think about them. If someone says that they are thinking of playing a Wizard or a Cleric or a Paladin? There are immediate implications about what type of person those characters might be and where they might come from, because even if a particular character has a non-standard origin we tend to imagine that it takes some particular training or mind-set to join those classes.
But to most people it seems that Fighter is at best just an unflavored description for a character who will be able to hit things, bring your own spice (“former soldier” “Samurai” “duelist”), and at worst describing someone who was too stupid to pursue a more demanding career.
Why? Many reasons, some of them having to do with the fact that Dungeons & Dragons has become something of its own fantasy subgenre, but the most obvious is that unless calling on a specific well-known tradition (like samurai) we don’t tend to understand or appreciate that the warriors & soldiers who inspired the class were as much dedicated experts in their craft as any scholar.
Which is not only unfair, but pretty boring.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
You Killed My Father, Prepare To Die
The greatest fighters from history, legend, and popular culture did not just spring forth into adulthood with a sword in their hands. Ok, maybe a few from legend did.
The point is that if you set aside the image of a generic knight on horseback or untrained peasant soldier with a stick who somehow becomes king, you’re left with a good number of people who either came from cultures that instilled the basics in them from a young age or otherwise dedicated their lives to perfecting the art of combat. People whose defining features were incredible skill, and relentless dedication.
And that makes sense, because in real life they basically had to be born with the opportunity (and grab it) or develop a level of nearly insane diligence to have a chance at allowing them to compensate.
What kind of person does that, to the point of becoming famous for it?
Maybe that’s too a simple answer. Ok, let’s look at some potential motivations for that level of dedication:
Duty – Many cultures, or positions in a class system, carry with them an expectation that certain members will be willing and capable of fighting when called upon to protect or serve. These would be knights, samurai, all young people of an age in certain ancient societies, and certain types of soldiers. Certain family lines may also carry a sense of personal duty to the traditions of their parents, such as if your mother was a famous fencing instructor.
Revenge – It worked for Inigo Montoya, eventually, though perhaps “revenge” is too small a word. The point is that something happened in the character’s life that forever altered their priorities and put them on the path to mastering combat. Even when this means that they must live on the street, or hone their forms – with a mentor or all alone – at odd hours, they will sacrifice whatever it takes.
Glory – Some people, usually those with the means to choose whatever specialty they’d like, just want to win. The idea of being unprepared to face a foe, of losing at their chosen art, of meeting an enemy who knows something they do not… it galls them. Or at the very least drives them to work even harder at their studies, to a degree we often only see in Olympic athletes, ultra-marathon runners, and professional fighters.
Any member of a Class with a martial focus – Barbarians, Rangers, Paladins, Monks, even Rogues – can reference similar qualities in refining the idea of their character, but it’s Fighters who represent a single-minded focus on mastering the tools of combat to destroy their enemies or protect their allies.
But that versatility takes so much more work than many imagine.
Insert Montage Here
A few months ago author, re-enactor, and amateur historian Christian Cameron wrote about the difference in physical ability that grows from a lifetime of diligent practice. Specifically he talked about how recent experience training two young life-long dancers to sword-fight changed his understanding of the way medieval combat involving true experts played out. He was already aware that classical instructors – from the Humanists to Ancient Greece – suggested that children swim, do gymnastics, and dance before they undertake training with arms, but watching these young women go through an entire 12-week basic children’s corpus in an hour and a half drove the point home.
But both Hannah and my own daughter, (an eleven-year old fencer who has been dancing since age three) do not need to repeat body postures more than twice. If they are shown a drill, they learn it. They don’t discuss, they do not posture about their own knowledge (displaying a lack thereof). They do not complain. Most of all, however, they exactly mirror what they see. So, for example, Hannah mastered the long lunge the first time she did it. There was no casting about for balance at the end of her reach, and no fumbling recovery. The amusing corollary to this is that if you, the teacher, have a bad habit, you can assure yourself that it will be instantly transmitted.
And what sort of training does this dancer do in her primary vocation?
“I practice 10 3/4 hours a week. I’m going to estimate I spend 7 hours a week thinking about dance. (That sounds crazy!) Occasionally I find practice boring, but there are always an infinity of things that can be improved and tweaked, and perfected, so it takes a lot to make something actually boring.
My favourite form of practice is probably how I do it with my private coach. We’ll take a variation that I’m learning and just work on every little detail for an hour straight, or we’ll start with a small exercise and build it up and keep working on it until it’s practically an entire piece. This way of learning is great for everything, technique, presentation, stamina, conditioning….”
The point being, this isn’t something you just pick up and expect to get right (as a side note, check out the quote near the bottom about what a well-trained princess was expected to be capable of) and there’s a reason that being big, confident, and athletic is a mighty leveler in many a confrontation.
When a samurai or a ninja or a kung fu master appears on screen in a film, everyone implicitly understands that this person didn’t just pick up their skills by going to class three times a week for the last three years. The effect is similar when two super-spies square off against one another for a final throw-down.
And it’s because we know where they came from has made them dangerous.
In Practical Terms
It’s important to remember that Fighters are, on a concrete level it can be hard to grasp when they are surrounded by spells or divine castings, uniquely dangerous compared to the common people around them.
So, in that spirit, how long does it take to learn sword-fighting as a modern person? This obviously depends on the person’s natural ability, their instructor, and their commitment… but let’s say that 6-12 months would cover the fundamentals, 2-4 years in order to become a true novice practitioner, followed by a lifetime of study as techniques are refined and new ones learned (often the hard way).
That’s about 5 years for what’s arguably just Proficiency, the ability to use a sword comfortably in combat, to use D&D 5th Edition’s terms (although you could be kind and say that the first 6-12 months is getting Proficiency, and the rest is covered by being Level 1 in a martial class).
Even understanding that the power curve as characters develop in these games often outstrips any realistic training period that’s an investment of time and effort that isn’t to be sneezed at, which makes it all the more impressive when you realize that it’s nothing compared to the true professionals of the past.
The Way of the Warrior
So who, exactly, are Fighters? Dedicated, talented, scarily prepared combatants who are going to consistently encounter and master new skills as they develop.
They can be Olympic competitors in Kicking Around Your Enemies, elite soldiers with ridiculous levels of training, savants who play a blade like Lemke plays the piano, and everything in-between.
These people weren’t stereotypical dumb soldiers who slowly found killing people more easy over time, or street brawlers who just got better. Most of the people we would consider to be prime candidates for a Fighter lived more like professional athletes or Special Forces operatives (who are distinguished in large part by the fact that they must maintain the highest possible level of combat capability, always on call, for months at a time) if they had the means and like intense amateur competitors if they were from more modest origins.
But what they should never be, is boring.
“On Fighters & Fighting: Part Two” will focus on using a simple Variant Rule for Combat Styles and some optional Characteristics to add flavor, and a bit of intrigue, to the lives of Fighters.