When you get down to it, the mechanics of D&D are firmly based around combat.
This was a truer in the earliest versions of the game, where there were very few other mechanics, but there’s still a kernel of truth to it. The relationship between hit points, armour class, attack bonus and weapon damage is so key to the game. The relationship has been expressed in different ways over the years, but saying, “I swing my sword” has basically worked the same way in every version of D&D.
You roll 1d20, you compare it to a target number (based on attack bonus and armour class), and if you roll high enough you deal a random amount of damage to your opponent. They die if they run out of hit points.
The strength of the system is that it is so simple. You don’t need to learn much to fight in D&D, as opposed to the rules for spell-casting. For a game that could be played with up to 20 players per DM, this simplicity was key.
These days, players tend to play a single character each, and there are perhaps four characters at the table. It’s a long way from the horde of adventurers who might descend on the dungeon in the early days.
As the number of characters in the dungeon has been dropping, the options available to them have been rising. 4E possibly allowed the fighter the widest range of actions (at least with a chance of success). 3E gave a huge deal of customisation options, following on from where 2E was going. And all of these options have had problems.
The key point is that allowing any character to make special attacks whenever they want and with a fair chance of success has a good chance of making the game not entirely fun for one side or the other. You can see this in two special manoeuvres that the 3E and PF fighters could execute: Trip and Disarm.
Trip was written so that a fighter could knock an opponent prone. This was good because a prone opponent has problems attacking and defending. However, 3E took it further: when you stood up, everyone around you could attack. In additional, the Improved Trip feat allowed you to damage them when you knocked them prone. With the way combat manoeuvres work – especially in Pathfinder – your chance of failing on this attack is incredibly low unless the monster is built to resist it. So, the opponent gets tripped every single round. In every single fight.
Disarm is even worse. Because most editions after AD&D have invested a lot into specialising the fighter into really good fighting with one weapon and few others, taking the opponent’s sword away moves them from “I’m a threat” to “I can’t do anything”. In theory, they can just draw another weapon, but you’ve got them being disarmed every single round!
4E saw these problems and was brutal about fixing them: Disarming just wasn’t allowed. Tripping? Fine – it’s actually very common in 4E – but they reduced the penalties to being significant without being game-breaking.
(4E also tried to address another problem that occurred with lower player numbers: How could the fighter protect the wizard without five friends to help form a wall? Its solution was marking – something that while it worked, felt quite wrong as far as D&D goes. It made sense for a paladin to challenge opponents backed up by divine will. For the mundane fighter? Not so much, and it felt very much like something from a video game.)
The question really is, “What can the fighter do that is interesting, but won’t be so effective that is used in place of any other attack?” As far as D&D Next goes, we’re still waiting for the definitive answer.
The D&D Next playtest has a couple of solutions in its Combat Paths. The Path of the Weaponmaster allows the character a certain number of combat manoeuvres while fresh, which are restored by taking a rest. Basically, Feint, Spring Attack and Trip are 3rd level tricks, Daze, Push Back and Slow are 7th level tricks. The Path of the Warrior just makes attacks more effective and deadly – nothing special, just improved chances of inflicting critical hits and their effects. It’s for those players who just want to hit things harder.
Apart from that, combat in the D&D Next playtest has characters moving around, being able to grapple to drag or restrain opponents, and to knock people over. (The difference between this and the fighter’s ability is that the fighter gets to damage them as well). Disarm is, I’m glad to say, nowhere in sight.
Combat has felt fairly free-flowing in the games I’ve run; although there are penalties from disengaging from an opponent without taking an action to do so, it has introduced the interesting idea of able to move around an opponent freely. (The trick doesn’t work so well with two opponents, as you’ll always be leaving one’s area.) However, those who enjoyed the great number of manoeuvres one could perform in 4E, especially as regards to the battlefield, may find it lacking. So much of what made fighters special in 4E will rely on the tactical module, which will be one of the optional modules you can use to change how D&D Next runs.
If my description of D&D Next playtest fighters sounds a bit wishy-washy, it’s because I’m really undecided on whether the playtest fighter is going the right way about it. It doesn’t seem as broken as the 3E fighter with respect to manoeuvres, nor as limited as the AD&D fighter, but I really haven’t seen enough of it. One thing is certain: the way the fighter works will be key to the success of the new edition. What might look as the simplest class is not the simplest to design well!