3.5 Memories: Fighting Backwards

Dungeons & Dragons 3rd edition was an interesting system with a lot of good ideas. In a big, top-level mechanistic way, it had some good ideas, like making standardised rules for how categories of things worked. Some abilities were spells, some were spell-like abilities, some were supernatural, some were extraordinary, and if it didn’t fit that category, it was generally unique, but by making these categories meaningful there were a lot of rules that just got tidied up. Things were complicated, and the rules system wanted to cover very complicated things. 2ed had some very complex monster abilities, and 3ed wanted to be able to run things that looked a lot like them. Not quite compatibility, but certainly to carry some of that same ‘oh, this can fight like this OR it can be a spellcaster OR it can teleport at will,’ kind of design.

Thing is, this kind of top-down design idea was done as a half measure, and also didn’t preclude the system from bringing in some real problems of its own, like the way that all the melee classes were garbage and the wizard and druid were overpowered. There had to be a big balance enema, and that enema was called 3.5. It was an opportunity to get you to buy all the books again, but also a chance to do some really comprehensive, holistic errata, onboard new players with the better rules. This could address those balance problems, too, by reigning in the wizard and druid and maybe the cleric as well, and then giving a good shot of power to those weakest classes, Everyone Else.

How’d that work out?

Uh.

Well, the Druid got Natural Spell in the core books, so it became even more powerful. The cleric didn’t get the slightest bit of reigning in. Wizards lost one of the most powerful spells they had and were still otherwise completely as busted as before. The bard, ranger, barbarian and Paladin all received improvements that didn’t really address the categorical problem of how they worked, but certainly made them less boring. What about the fighter…?

Well, and this is going to sound unbelievable, they made the fighter worse.

As designed, the third edition Fighter was a simple class. The game had a system in place where at first level and every third level, a character got a thing called a feat. Feats are small packets of extra mechanical changes to your character, letting you change the way your character worked, and differentiating them from other characters. If you wanted to be tougher and have more hit points, or be better at some skills, you could usually use a feat to do that.

Feats were wildly variant in power; some of them, like the aforementioned Natural Spell meant that a druid could cast spells while shapeshifted into an animal form. Wizards could take feats like Maximise Spell, which would let them turn all the damage from a spell into their absolute maximum value, and that was really strong, too. And then there were feats like Toughness, which gave you 3 more hit points, which is to say ‘no meaningful difference to your HP.’

What I’m saying is ‘feats are not created equally.’

The Fighter, a character who was just meant to represent being trained to fight got one thing as a class: At level 1 and every even level, the Fighter got a bonus feat. In 3rd edition, the way this worked was that you received a feat from a pool of subtitled ‘Fighter’ feats. That meant the feat had a tagged subtype, and you could add to the fighter feats pool when you made a new feat. Just give it the subtype, and bam, fighters had access to it, the same way clerics had access to new spells whenever those were introduced.

In 3.5, they got rid of the subtype, and now every single feat that had been a Fighter feat now had Special: A Fighter Can Take This Feat As A Bonus Feat. Now, setting aside that this just made every single feat in this category gain a line, they now also all lost a subtype that could be referenced.

This meant that you, for example, couldn’t make a feat that said, say, for each fighter feat you have, you get +2 hit points.

Or you can use this once per day per fighter feat you have.

Or this can effect a number of enemies equal to the number of fighter feats you have.

Did they ever do this kind of referential design? Well, no, they didn’t, but I did.

Here’s an example of the design space I was working on for my own stuff, design space that doesn’t work without the ‘fighter’ subtype on feats.

HEAVY TROOPER [Fighter, General]

You’re comfortable moving and fighting in heavy armour; while some are confined overmuch by the weight and restricted movement heavy armour offers, you’re more than able to compensate.

Prerequisites: Base Attack Bonus +1, Con 13+.

Benefit: You suffer no penalties to movement for wearing Heavy Armour. The maximum dexterity bonus of the armour you’re wearing increases by 1 when you’re wearing heavy armour, and the armour check penalty is decreased by 1.

Special: For every four Fighter feats you have (including Heavy Trooper), provided you are in Heavy Armour, you also gain DR 1/-. Therefore, if you have eight Fighter feats, you would gain DR 2/-.

The player’s guide to Cobrin’Seil, around 2007

This kind of design space is right there, and what makes this decision more confusing is that the problems the fighter had was that getting lots of fighter feats wasn’t really worth much in the mid to late game; there were some unique abilities that you unlocked by buying four or five feats, but a fighter who wanted to really book it to those abilities could have that by level four… and at that point you were kinda done, unless you wanted to give up and pick a different feat chain that worked in different ways. Your basic options were ‘get all the good archery feats’ or ‘get Whirlwind Attack’ and… that was kind of it.

The fighter feats more or less were good for everyone who wanted to attack things with weapons and some others who didn’t, which meant that everyone could pick up one or two of them; that meant that if feats were made that scaled up, it could be done as almost an entirely free addition to the power level in the game and only really benefitting the fighter!

It’s an amazing thing because I still can’t see a reason to do this. I can’t work out what was fixed or helped by this rules change aside from it closing design space that would make things better for fighters.

This is one of the most impressive things about the fighter as possibly designed. It really was just a question of what if you make them better — the ceiling on power was so low, and the things a fighter could do to improve itself was so simple. If the whole class was meant to be incredibly flexible and reliable, just give them a lot of feats that make them more reliable and flexible.

Oh, 3.5 also made it so wizards paid half price for their spells now.

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