Has any traditional RPG class suffered as much indignity as the humble Fighter? Defined literally as “one who fights”, the Fighter doesn’t get cool magic spells or deities to entreat, or even zen-like bodily focus or bloodthirsty rage. The Fighter just hits stuff with weapons until they die.
It’s sort of a definitional problem, in that the Fighter is, by nature, supposed to be a non-magical, tactical melee warrior. The Fighter is a mercenary, a samurai, a soldier, someone who knows their way around a battlefield and is defined more by their tactics than by any special abilities.
The problem lies therein: tactics are defined by player activity, not by any sort of in-game ability. Fighting with tactics in mind just means to fight smart, and ultimately that’s up to the player to use the mechanics of the game in an intelligent and effective matter, which isn’t really something you can put in an ability box.
Just look at the description of the Fighter class in Pathfinder. Given less than two pages in the book (compared to the Barbarian, who gets about double that) the Fighter’s Class Features are about as boring as they can be. Get a bonus feat. Get a bonus when using certain weapons. Get a bonus on Will saves against Fear. Not a lot of really cool options here, you can just do a bunch of stuff you could do slightly better.
5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons sorta fixes this. The Fighter gets three Archetypes, each offering their own boons, but the options still aren’t great. Champions get small bonuses to things they could already do, and their first interesting ability, Survivor, which lets them regenerate hit points, comes at level eighteen. Eldritch Knights are just Magic Fighters, but if I wanted to play a Magic Fighter, I’d play a damn Paladin.
That leaves us with the Battle Master, the Archetype of the Fighter I’m currently playing in my 5E campaign. I feel like the Battle Master is so close to being an interesting Fighter. Battle Masters get a pool of dice called superiority dice, as well as a pool of maneuvers, much like how spellcasters get spell slots. Using one of these maneuvers expends one of your superiority dice (which come back on rests), and lets you do cool things like counterattack after a missed attack against you, or disarm a foe.
This solves the problem of giving Fighters new, interesting things to do in combat with their Class Options, but it does so in an arbitrary manner. Why does doing one of these maneuvers cost a resource? What, in-game, do these superiority dice represent? Tiredness? That can’t be, because even with all of them expended I can still fight normally for hours. Also, how come I can only memorize a few maneuvers? You can’t just swap them out every rest like spellcasters can with their spell slots, you’re basically stuck with your picks for the long haul, meaning that my tactical swordsman who is a master of the parry and riposte doesn’t know how to taunt an enemy.
This leads to the fundamental problem of the maneuvers: they’re not adding new options, they’re just taking away a bunch of options you used to have and saying “no, now these are special Class Options”. All of a sudden, my Fighter can’t attempt to disarm a foe unless I have the special “Disarming Attack” maneuver. You’ve taken control over my own tactics out of my hands and locked them away inside the rules. I now need special Class Options to do something that arguably any human being with a sword could at least try to do.
There are games that do some interesting things with the Fighter archetype. Monte Cook’s Arcana Unearthed has a class called the Unfettered, which functions more like a Dexterity-based Fighter, or even a bit of a Rogue, and is heavily focused on dodging over attacking. An Unfettered gets to add its Intelligence modifier to its AC, allowing it to parry melee, then ranged, and eventually magical attacks, as well as gaining the Rogue’s Sneak Attack. While this is still just “you can do stuff that you could do before, just better”, the difference between the Unfettered and the Pathfinder/3.5E Fighter is that the Unfettered’s bonuses are focused on a single goal: maneuvering. The Unfettered’s ability to be hard to touch allows the player to take on riskier plays and positions, ultimately opening up the sort of tactics they can successfully act on in combat, giving them more, interesting choices.
Dungeon Crawl Classics has a similar mechanic to the Battle Master of 5E, where Warriors can choose to undertake “Mighty Deeds of Arms”, which are essentially identical to the maneuvers of 5E: declare a Mighty Deed, be it a disarm, a blinding attack, a defensive maneuver, or what have you, roll a special Deed die, and see how you did. The key difference is that DCC doesn’t arbitrarily limit the number of Deeds you can do as a Warrior: you can just sort of do them all the time. This allows the Warrior to be constantly performing these cool combat tricks. Sure, it still has the problem of artificially constraining these sorts of generic moves to Warriors (actually, Dwarves can do them too), but that’s far more fitting of an OSR game like DCC, where only Thieves can sneak and Dwarves don’t get to be Wizards.
I think the key here is that these solutions always give Fighters a set of interesting decisions that are unique to them. When you just give Fighters flat stat bonuses, you’re not giving them any new decisions to make, you’re just tweaking the odds of the ones they already have. When you give Fighters a small list of maneuvers they can do a few times, you give them a few extra decisions, but not a ton (not helping is the fact that a decent portion of the 5E maneuvers are reactionary, making them not tied to active decisions at all), and in the end they’re not nearly as potent as other limited-use abilities, like spells.
And that, I think, is the revelation. Fighters are never going to be able to do things as flashy and game-changing as spellcasters. If you don’t give them anything cool to do, they’re going to feel like picking a Fighter is a mistake from the start. If you give them some cool new options, but restrict them like spellcasters (who do need limitations, lest they break the game), they’ll still feel impotent. If you can’t have a Fighter do amazing things, have Fighters do things all the time. Let players who want to revel in the mundane combat of your RPG get access to the deepest and knitty-gritty combat your game has to offer.