Bad Balance: The Problem With The Tome Of Battle (Which Isn’t What You Think)

Right at the tail end of 3.5 D&D, there was a book released that ruled.

There’s a lot of critical talk about the Book of Nine Swords. There were comparisons to Anime, as if that was inherently a dismissal point, as if Anime wasn’t regularly cribbing from D&D in the first place.

The Tome of Battle presented a solution to the problem of melee combatants in 3.5. As you levelled up, melee combat just didn’t keep pace with the kind of things spells could do. Spellcasters even in the early game had an edge on the melee characters, and increasingly, the game became about countering spellcasters rather than countering melee characters. You can view late-game combat as about trying to shut down the Wizard long enough that the Paladin could get some licks in.

But in Tome of Battle, melee weapon-wielders and armour-wearers got to stab things in the face real good. They touched on the core idea of 4ed, which is time spent in a turn is actually more valuable than hypothetical infinite options. It was a great book, created great characters, had a wonderfully varied lore you could use a little or a lot from, and mostly didn’t have total turkey prestige classes (as most books did).

Yet at the same time I am comfortable and confident declaring that Tome Of Battle is, as it stands, a mistake. Not because of anything the game did intrinsically, but because the book was released into a world with poor Tordek here. 

The Fighter in 3.0 D&D was a really rough sell. The fighter at level 1 was already comparable to another class’ class features, and their design scaled up very linearly. The best levels of Fighter were 1 and 2, because the class was frontloaded enough to let you rush up to some sort of mid-tier trick slightly early (like Whirlwind Attack, the game’s idea of an ‘End Game’ Fighter Feat). The next best one was level 4, because at that point you had unlocked access to everything the Fighter could get access to and you only had to take one level that Didn’t Really Do Anything to get there.

There were a lot of things wrong with how they updated it for 3.5, one of which is the removal of the ‘Fighter’ subtype from the way they presented feats in the Players’ Handbook. Back in 3.0, feats that the Fighter could take with their bonus feats had the subtype [Fighter]. In 3.5, this was removed in favour of the new line

Special: A fighter may select [this feat name] as one of his fighter bonus feats.

This was in my mind a blatant mistake. They could have made it so that Fighter feats had riders or bonuses if they could check the number of Fighter feats you had, but only if Fighter feats had a subtype.

Anyway, the thing is, the fighter was pretty weak and attempts to fix the fighter had almost all missed, usually because they approached the problem in the totally wrong way – Fighters got better on a linear, additive scale, while spellcasters and things balanced against spellcasters got better on a quadratic scale. A level 20 fighter could do a decent bit of damage to a dragon in one full round of combat, assuming he could close – but the wizard could disintegrate the dragon or take over its will entirely.

But if you wanted to play a character in armour, with a weapon, whose primary interaction with enemies was hitting them with the weapon in increasingly skillful ways, though, the obvious look for most players was that the Fighter was your jam. And the fighter, as a character class, was made totally unnecessary by the Tome of Battle’s inclusion. In some cases laughably so – the Warblade got some bonus feats, got Weapon Specialisation (formerly a Fighter-only benefit) and got all those maneuvers that let the Warblade hang at the level of the Wizard.

The Tome of Battle classes didn’t wholesale replace all the fighter-style classes. Paladins and Crusaders compared to one another. The Sword Sage could do a lot of interesting tricks, but the Monk could still do other things the Sword Sage couldn’t.

But the poor Fighter?

The closest thing the Fighter could do is spend their bonus feats to buy Maneuvers. Once you had Warblades there really was no reason to play Fighters beyond their simplicity. They didn’t quite measure up to threats the game thought of as reasonable, but you could cover that with your party. They didn’t give you the kind of options they thought they did, but you might never notice that either.

But when the Warblade sat down next to you, did most of what you did, and a host of exciting, additional extremely extra things as well, it was hard to not notice.

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