Friday, July 23, 2010

D&D Essentials preview: The fighter

D&D Essentials class previews

So we finally get to see the class preview for the Essentials Fighter (for more info about Essentials, check out previous articles) and, man does it bring surprises! For all the forum uproar they caused, the essentialized Cleric and Wizard were little more (and little less) than your regular 4E class build with a few simplified decisions, and a higher level class feature or two, to throw us off-balance. Remember all the talk about classes with different levels of complexity, shaking up the Encounter/Daily power system, and the like? It all makes sense when you see this Fighter. Also, it’s a good thing we were shown the “normal” classes in Essentials first, as this one is nothing but shocking! Let’s see why...

This isn't actually from Essentials, but it needed to go here.

The Essentials Fighter is perhaps the most radical departure from the basic 4E class framework to date. Forget about psionics and powerpoints - these were bold, and cute, and slightly broken, but at the end of the day you still have conventional at-will and encounter powers, even if you got some added flexibility in using them, and a few restrictions in taking them. This Fighter is made of different stuff. Consider the following paragraph from the preview:

Basic Attacks: As a fighter, you make most of your attacks using basic attacks. Some classes rely primarily on class-specific attack powers, whereas you typically make basic attacks enhanced by your fighter stances and other class features and powers.

Anyone remember the older editions of the game, where a fighter’s shtick was to hit the monsters with his standard attack, turn after turn? I sure do,and it was kind of monotonous, and boring, and not that strong compared of what the fancier classes could get... but wasn’t D&D 4E suppossed to bring the end of this mindless spamming? I get that they wanted a straightforward experience, but how can “Basic Attack every turn” become a compelling strategy with a minimum of variety?

Stances instead of At-Will Attacks

From what we have seen, the new fighter gets no attack powers. At least, not attacks as we are used to, with Attack and Hit lines. Just the good old Basic Attack. But do get something to emulate the effect of other classes’ at-will attacks, in the form of at-will stances. Conveniently, a first level fighter gets 2 of these stances (but more on this later), which add modifiers and special riders to all melee basic attacks. This way, instead of, for example, an at-will that adds extra damage, there would be a stance that boosts the damage of all basic attacks.

So far, we have a full writeup of two of these stances in the preview, and the name and general effect of a third. Battle Wrath is your straightforward offensive power, providing a flat bonus to damage that is decent at low levels, though it doesn’t seem to scale properly for higher tiers, unless we are missing something (and we probably are). Cleaving Assault deals damage to other adjacent enemies, as could be expected - a well-known mechanic for fighter players. Finally, Measured Cut seems to provide free movement (likely shifts) with your attacks. Overall, it looks like a fighter using these stances would perform very much like the current ones.

Nevertheless, this system has serious implications. The most obvious is that it feels different, and probably easier to swallow for players of previous editions. I’m perfectly fine with martial characters getting a series of powers that might resemble a spell list, but I’m also aware that this was a shock for some D&D players when 4E was released - making the game less enjoyable for them. On the other hand, a fighter applying modifiers to the standard attack does have precedent in previous editions, and thus looks more familiar.

But this is not just directed to veteran players. This kind of at-wills also has subtle advantages compared to the 4E default, for someone completely new to the game, or who just wants a simpler game experience. Because a stance effect lasts until you turn it off or switch to a different stance, a fighter player would no longer need to choose and declare a specific power each turn. Just saying “I hit the monster with my sword” works just fine. Of course, sometimes it would be preferable to change stances, from a strategic point of view, but you now have a decent default in case you don’t want to think too hard about it.

And I know, from experience, that this kind of things can be useful. There’s a player in our campaign that has been in the party since the beginning (almost two years, now), but who nevertheless doesn’t care much for the mechanical details - she’s just there for the company and the laughs. So, more often than not, when her turn comes, she points to a monster and throws the dice, while shouting “Attaaack!”. Which, of course, isn’t of much help when nobody knows exactly what kind of attack she intended to make - and deciding after everything has been rolled is kind of awkward, so we end up asking her to specify the power and reroll. All of this has happened before, and it will happen again. Well, guess what? The Essential fighter works just fine for this kind of players. And not just because of the at-wills.

Power Strike instead of Encounters

Not content with overhauling the at-will attack mechanics, this version of the fighter also features a twist on encounter attacks. It’s clear that many details escape us at the moment, but one thing is for sure: there are no encounter attacks, only Power Strike.

Power Strike
Free Action
Trigger: You hit an enemy with a melee basic attack using a weapon.
Effect: The target takes 1[W] extra damage from the triggering attack.
The At-Will stances described above didn’t bring that much simplification in character building or game strategy, as you still had a similar number of slots to fill, and of decisions to make each turn. Power Strike is a different beast, entirely replacing a whole category of powers with a straightforward effect. Your encounter power will always be a plain 2[W] attack, easy enough.

Except that it isn’t just that. To begin with, Power Strike is triggered when you hit, so you don’t have to declare it beforehand. Not only is this much more friendly for non-hardcore players, who no longer need to think much before taking an action, but it’s also deceivingly strong. Our simple 2[W] encounter now works as if it had the reliable keyword, becoming a much more potent choice. Moreover, you are still making a basic attack with whatever stance you had active, so any riders of your pseudo-at-will power will also apply. Add to this the fact that it can trigger on opportunity attacks or charges, and our easy-mode encounter replacement doesn’t look so harmless, anymore!

One of the greatest mysteries of Power Strike is how it will advance as you level up. From the Knight advancement table, we see that at level 3 there is a feature called Improved power strike, which likely grants an extra use of the power, or something like that. And, though we lack information on those levels, I’d bet that the extra [W] damage increases at paragon and epic. But the thing that throws me off guard is the fact that there’s nothing like “More Improved Power Strike” at level 7! So you don’t necessarily get up to 3 uses of this, as other classes gain 3 encounter attacks. I wonder how that will work out? Maybe the level 3 feature isn’t a straight second use, and grants you some kind of recharge mechanic instead.

Also, it remains to be seen if we will be able to customize Power Strike through feats or class features. It would be a cool way to emulate the choice of different encounter attacks, but it might also rise the complexity to unacceptable levels (and I’m not just talking about beginner players, here). Again, this preview leaves us with many, many questions.

No dailies, lots of mysterious features

Speaking of questions, the advancement table shows a huge number of class features we still know nothing about. And, unlike with wizards and clerics, we can expect these to be very juicy, strong features, because Essential Fighters do not get Daily Powers. This had been anticipated, but I somehow expected there would be some kind of daily-like mechanic to boost powers, in fact very much like Power Strike. However, none of the features in the table looks like a clear match for that mechanic, so we might end up with something completely different.

At level 1, there are a whopping 4 class features (apart from stances and Power Strike), of which only one appears in the preview. Called Defender Aura, it seems like an interesting twist on the marking mechanic, without all the hassle of inflicting a condition on the enemy. Basically, any enemy adjacent to a fighter takes penalties to attack as if he were marked by him. This is worded so that it doesn’t stack or interfere with marks, suggesting that Essential defenders will probably not mark enemies. It looks like a fine mechanic, but it’s hard to say how effective it will be without knowing about the punishment mechanics.

The remaining level 1 features are Weapon Talent (no idea if it will picking the features with the same name from previous books), Battle Guardian, and Shield Finesse. Battle Guardian looks like the defender punishment, and Shield Finesse seems to be a knight-specific defensive feature. Note that none of these sound like a pseudo-daily feature.

As with other Essentials classes, you gain more features at higher levels. Level 4 brings Combat Readiness, which sounds like something related to Opportunity Attacks, and level 9 has Improved Combat Readiness (again, not daily-like at all). Level 5 has Weapon Mastery, and Level 7 Weapon Specialization. These could all be predefined features, but I expect at least a few of them to offer some choices down the line, to make up for the loss of different encounter and daily powers. Finally, there’s something called Shield Block at level 8.

Something remarkable in this list of features is the one you get at level 7: Extra Fighter Stance. This means that fighters get a third at-will as they level up, and potentially even more at higher tiers.


This preview leaves us with a good impression of what the new fighter is not like (i.e, 4E classes as we know it). However, there are enough gaps to make it almost impossible to guess what it will be like in play. It certainly might end up with a ridiculously low number of options to build and fight, but there’s also potential for a class even more complex than psionic ones (even if I’m almost certain that they won’t go that route). The not-quite-a-mark could be as good as Combat Challenge (which is to say, really good), or almost useless, for all we know (again, I doubt that will be the case). And the balance against classes with encounters and dailies? Your guess is as good as mine - personally, I think there are a LOT of things that could go wrong, but have faith in the game developers, psionic classes notwithstanding.

There is one final point of concern, though. There is an impressive amount of feats and enchantments in the game that can improve a character’s basic attacks, to the point that it is possible to build PCs with basics that outperform their at-wills, or even their encounters. This is worrying by itself (and in fact I was thinking on writing about it some day), but could become disastrous in combination with a class like this warrior that is completely based on souped-up basic attacks. I don’t think it’s possible to implement a fighter that is balanced both with and without these items, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find a massive errata following the release of Essentials.


  1. So weird; but I am actually excited for "Essentials" now, whereas previously I was very "meh."

  2. Hey, I don't know about you, but I kind of like the psionic classes. Not sure that the powers themselves are structured properly, and the way that power points interact with other game mechanical elements is problematic (no reagents for psionic users) and, most frustratingly, monks don't get power points, but I certainly liked the idea.

    Just wish I had more power versatility...

  3. I do like the concept of psionics: the power point system has some great ideas, and the battlemind is one of my favourite classes, after the errata. I just think they made a huge error with the power point progression, and the way they let you trade one epic encounter power for three heroic ones - almost always a losing proposition for the higher level one. Still, it wouldn't be too difficult to fix via errata, and I have faith that it will eventually work properly.

  4. I noticed that the Essentials fighter also gets plate armor for free.

  5. Haven't tried Epic tier yet, but I've got an Ardent and Battlemind in my party, and neither one of them is overpowered in the slightest compared to the Paladin, Rogue, Barbarian, or Wizard. Their double-augments outstrip encounter powers, sure, but they don't have the versatility the others do.

    As for Essentials...I want it to be cool, but I thought the idea behind Essentials was to bring new players into the game more easily, so why mess with the entire structure and design of the game to do it?? Unless they're considering ideas for a 4.5e or 5e, I am a little worried that they might muddy up the waters the way some of the splat books did in previous editions.

    I do like the idea of the at-will stances for making a simple but effective character, but the reversion to progressive class features worries me a lot. One of the best things about 4e (in my opinion) is that you knew what your class could do right out of the gate and didn't have to worry about the differences from a higher level version of the character except for feats and powers.

  6. > One of the best things about 4e (in my opinion) is that you knew what your class could do right out of the gate and didn't have to worry about the differences from a higher level version of the character except for feats and powers.

    On the other hand, getting features as you level up is a way to scale complexity, letting players have very straightforward first level PCs and slowly introducing more complicated mechanics as they level up.

    I agree that Essentials classes are a bit more difficult to evaluate in power level terms, because of their growing features, but that's more of a problem for advanced players. Those starting out will be content with knowing how each one works at level 1, and I think Essentials is better for that.

    It would be a problem if higher level features changed anything drastically, but this doesn't seem to be the case. For what I have seen, you have small improvements for previous features, ritual-like abilities, and the ocassional flat bonus to damage rolls or skills.

  7. Wow. So basically, stances are at wills and power attacks are encounters.

    What changed? Same game, different vocabulary?

  8. >What changed? Same game, different vocabulary?

    The most substantial change is the loss of daily powers. That is pretty significant. Other than that, the switch from multiple encounter powers to Power Strike is more or less a wash from a balance standpoint, but it does simplify choices in character creation and gameplay a LOT. Likewise, the Defender Aura performs the same function as a mark, but behaves quite differently in play.

    Overall, this 'new' fighter should be able to achieve more or less the same as the old - just in a different, more straightforward way.