Sunday, 9 January 2011

The 1st Level Fighter's Survival Guide

Okay, so you've got your high strength, your ten hit points and the biggest weapon you can buy. You can almost taste second level and you haven't even been in your first dungeon yet, right?

Wrong. Statistically speaking, you've got almost as much a chance of dying at first level as the party magic-user. Here's why: when the fighting starts, you're always the first in line. Here's how to minimise the odds.

The typical fighter has four weapon proficiencies and, in most cases, the novice player in question will blow them all on a dagger and a couple of different types of swords, maybe with a longsword specialisation. No, no, no, no. Here's why.

First off, a dagger is a crap weapon for a fighter. Sure you'll probably own one, but as an eating utensil, not a serious weapon. Even medieval knights didn't consider a dagger a worthwhile backup weapon. They carried a sword and something else. So first: Don't waste a precious slot on something as useless as a dagger. Sure, magical daggers are quite common, but be reasonable. What would you rather fight with, a normal longsword or a dagger +1. How many magic-damage only enemies are you expecting to be fighting at first level anyway?

Secondly, do take a proficiency in either longsword or broadsword. They're extremely versatile weapons and just about the most common type of magic weapon you can find. They also do great damage and count as a fashion accessory. Even in towns where carrying weapons is outright banned, the sword is often an exception. Why? Because it's considered the weapon of gentlemen and trained soldiers, too damned expensive for your common riff-raff and troublemakers. Folks who see a man with a sword on his belt think he's either high-born or a disciplined soldiers unlikely to cause trouble. Folk who see someone march through town with a great big bloody axe strapped to his back think they're looking at a nutter. Be warned.

You should ALWAYS choose a ranged weapon as your second proficiency. There will always be the (hopefully, not too common) occasions when you find yourself under attack from a foe you can't melee. Whether this is because they are shooting at you from a boat, your opponents can fly and you can't, because you really don't want to let them touch you (level draining or disease causing undead for example) or because you were dumb enough to get ambushed in a steep sided gulley is irrelevant. You're still going to feel damned stupid if your big bad “Fighter” can't bloody well fight back. Even a simple throwing hammer or sling (which also covers the “blunt” weapon requirement) is better than nothing at all.

The remainder of your choices really depend on how many slots you intend to spend on specialisation (you should always spend at least one on this manner) but if you don't intend to double specialise then one should probably be spent on a secondary melee melee weapon. If you've already taken a sword as your main weapons, then don't take another damned sword. Or an axe for that matter. Swords can stab and swing, but they don't tend to bash too well. And bear in mind that several of your most common types of foe at early levels (e.g. skeletons, animated objects) take little or damage from slashing and puncturing weapons. With this in mind, you can't go wrong with a blunt weapon, such as a mace, flail or warhammer, as a secondary weapon.

Depending on the rules set your using, half damage from your main bladed weapon might still be more than a single handed blunt weapon can dish out. So if that's the case (and you have the strength for it) consider selecting a two handed blunt weapon as your backup.

However, if you expect to be part of a large party (either because your have a large number of players or plan on taking on hirelings) it might be worth your while considering a pole-arm for your secondary weapon instead. Yes dammit, you heard what I said: a pole-arm. All right, it's not the first sort of weapon westerners think of when they picture a hero, but what about Hector and Achilles? The ancients didn't fight primarily with a sword; they used a spear. Hell, according to the writings of some ancient Hellenistic Greek generals, the Greek's didn't bother to train a man how to sword-fight at all. They expected sword-fighting to come as naturally as punching. It was spearman-ship, not swordsmanship that was the measure of a warrior.

Now consider this. The favourite foot weapons of English and French knights during the latter half of the Hundred Years War were the humble poleaxe and the lucerne hammer. Fact is, the pole-arm, any pole-arm, is an extremely useful proficiency to have. For one thing, if you know how to use a pole-arm (even something as simple as a long-spear) then losing half your first level fighters hit points when the cleric's out of cure spells isn't the end of the world (or the adventure). You can simply slip back into the second (or even third) rank of the party and continue to fight from there.

I'm sure I don't even have to mention the pleasures of facing a charging foe when you have a pole-arm set to receive the charge. Every gamer out there has been stupid enough to charge a halberd wielding orc at least once. Only you know your DM (and your campaign) well enough to know what you're likely to need more: a pole-arm or a blunt instrument. I would not recommend taking one of both, as then you would lose the chance to specialise (and you MUST choose a ranged weapon for one of your slots). However, long-spears and clubs are dirt cheap. You might consider equiping your character with one of each regardless of your proficiency choices. Minus 2 to Minus 4 (depending on rules system) to your attack rolls for non-proficiency should you find yourself in a situation where you positively have to use one is still a lot better than winding up in that situation and not having one at all. On the other hand, IF you can afford it, there's always the prospect of the lucerne hammer. An excellent proficiency choice: pole-arm and blunt weapon in one. You can't say better than that.

Always specialise. And what's more, specialise with a melee weapon. You already get multiple attacks with most ranged weapons and they cost a lot more slots to specialise with. Unless the party already has a surfeit of melee fighters and you really want to play a Legolas clone, don't do it. The big question then becomes: how many slots do I use to specialise with? One or two? The extra bonuses for sinking three slots into a single weapon are excellent, but you must weigh up the pros and cons. For one thing, you get a lot less benefit from giving up that third slot than you do for giving up the second. If you do choose to sink three slots into a single melee weapon, then you really should use your fourth (and final) slot for a missile weapon. However, be warned: not all DM's (or rules systems) allow you to double specialise so check with the DM first. The same comments I used above regarding non-proficiency penalties, blunt weapons and pole-arms might seem to apply to this choice as well (at least at a casual glance) but trust me, they don't. Regardless of how often you expect need a blunt weapon or pole-arm, you'll likely use a ranged weapon more. If you really think you’re going to need a blunt weapon or a pole-arm so badly and still want to use up three slots on a specialisation, then your better off putting all three slots into the blunt weapon or pole-arm in question. As an optional compromise, choosing a sling or throwing hammer or is a good option for your fourth slot, as this will provide a blunt weapon and a ranged weapon in a single package.

Finally, remember that some weapons work just as well as ranged weapons as they do in melee – spears, javelins and hand-axes are good examples. If you’re going to sink three slots into one specialisation (especially a blunt specialisation) then be sure to consider one of these versatile weapons for your final slot.

This is a tough one. At early levels, your job is every bit as much about dishing out damage as soaking it up. A shield means you're less likely to be hit, which will keep you alive longer (especially at low levels). Even with full hit points at first level, you're unlikely to take more than one or two hits (without healing) before going down. That shield gives you a 5% greater chance of avoiding a hit each time you’re attacked.

On the other hand, a two handed weapon gives you a better chance of making sure the opponent goes down the very first time you land a blow. A foe that's unconscious or dying can't very well strike back (unless you're both acting on the same initiative segment that is). In many ways, it comes down to your character concept and your play style. However, if you chose a two handed ranged weapon for your ranged weapon proficiency you may as well select a two handed weapon as your primary melee weapon – you'll have only one weapon to drop and one to draw when the enemy get close.

Likewise, if you chose a one handed ranged weapon (such as a sling, javelin or hand-axe) then you should probably choose a shield. Again, it means you only have one item to drop and one item to draw when your foes close to melee range, and even when the enemy are at range and shoot back you'll still have that shield to help keep you alive.

I know, I know. You're young. You want the glory of swinging your sword left and right, felling enemies in neat rows like the wheat from your daddy's farm at harvest time. But don't just go charging in. Attacking is never the best policy. For one thing, you won't do your friends much good if you charge straight at the orc's, and fall head first down a pit you didn't know about, will you? If you don't know the ground, don't charge along it. You're packing a missile weapon (you should be, anyway) arn't you? Shoot at the buggers first. There'll be plenty of time for swordplay later. Every foe you drop before reaching melee range is one less you'll have to worry about taking damage from later. On top of that, you'll often have more attacks per round with a missile weapon anyway.

And even more importantly, if you charge forward, you'll ruin any chance your party Magic User had of casting a spell that might take down a swathe of them all at once. He's going to think twice about unleashing that sleep spell if there's a good chance you'll be one of the ones to keel over. He wants the enemy dead, after all. Not you (you haven't done anything to annoy him now have you? No? Good).

There's another darn good reason not to go charging every monster in sight. In fact, there's several. If you’re not faced with an opponent from a group you already have “history” with, you might even want to forgo shooting at all. After all, you don't want to be fighting against every faction in the dungeon at once do you? A few well placed alliances here and there (perhaps even something as basic as a safe passage greased with a few hundred silvers) can save you a great deal of trouble. Especially if the risk: reward ratio from combat is low, as with most wondering monster encounters for example.

Secondly, charging leaves you (and the rest of the party you’re supposed to be protecting) exposed. You're exposed because of the penalty to your AC (I dread to think of the results if they have pole-arms set to receive a charge). The rest of the party is exposed because their whole front fighting line just charged off, giving anyone who can get past them a free run at the weaker thieves and magic users in the middle rows.

Finally, if you do charge in to combat, then you've essentially hampered the efforts of every missile or ranged attack specialist in the party. They can't shoot at the enemy (or cast spells at them) if they risk hitting you too. That means you're entire party is fighting with one hand tied behind your back. Worse, you're encouraging the squishier, less heavily armed spell and ranged weapon types to close to melee to support you. There's a reason these types prefer to kill foes from a distance. It's because they tend to die rather easily (and quickly) when things go toe to toe.

And in any case, just think. If you let them come to you -and they are hostile- and you have a nice, long pole-arm, that means you do double damage on the set to receive. Gruesome, beautiful and ugly (for them) all at the same time.

Form a shield-wall: a line of fighters, clerics, hirelings and other high AC types that form a line (hopefully several ranks deep) between the enemy and the more vulnerable members of the party. Ideally, even the clerics should be in the second or even third rank, where they can concentrate on healing rather than fighting. But don't forget to put a few melee competent types at the back as well, just in case you get attacked from the rear during a fight. Clerics and Thieves are ideal for guarding the rear -as are a few, hirelings, if you have them.

Break the line, whether by charging, running away, or pursuing a fleeing foe and you’re no longer doing your job. What's your job? killing bad guys and keeping the bad guys from killing you (“you” also including your fellow party-members). Before chasing down that fleeing foe, think about what's more important: sticking your sword in this guy or keeping the squishier party members out of melee? Unless there is a real risk the fleeing foe might bring back more trouble than you handle, it's usually the second option. Besides, if you've listened to any of the advice you were given earlier, a fleeing foe is not a problem. Just shoot em. You do have a missile weapon, don't you?

In short: Explore aggressively. Fight defensively (and sensibly).


Battles are won by terrain as often as by skill or magic. Don't forgo any opportunity to use the terrain to your advantage. And beware of the enemy's attempts to do the same to you. Combat in a corridor or from one side of a doorway limits the number of opponents than can fight you at a time. Equip yourselves with pole-arms and the second and third ranks can fight the same foes as those in front (manoeuvring some of the longer pole-arms down a corridor can be tricky though). In fact, the second rank is an ideal spot to put those relatively fragile (but expensive) hirelings. Arming them with pole-arms and keeping the party fighters between them and the monsters might keep them sweeter for longer (and reduce their demand for higher wages or danger money).

However, when fighting in dungeon corridors always remember that your enemy will know the terrain better than you do. We've already discussed the folly of charging down an unexplored corridor. Bear in mind that a smart enemy will try to use the terrain to outmanoeuvre you and attack from the flank or rear. If you see one or two of the enemy at the back run away, chances are they are going for reinforcements. If you see more than that number break-away, chances are they are going to try and hit you from another direction while you are still fighting the ones in front. Either way, it might be worthwhile slowly retreating back to a more defensible spot -one where you know and can cover all the entrances and exits. If you can guard a flank with a trap you circumnavigated earlier or can reset so much the better. Make the enemies traps work for you as much as they can, not just against you.

Don't be afraid to kick over tables or stand behind barrels, pillars sacks or low walls either. Anything that boosts your AC or provides cover will help keep you alive longer. Just remember that you're better armoured than the party's Magic-Users and thieves. If it comes to a choice between you or the Magic User, don’t be selfish. Let the Magic User have the cover.

Finally, should you ever find yourself surrounded or cut off from your companions (it happens more often than you might think) you can do a lot worse than put your back to the wall. Don't stand in the middle of the room like a numpty. In the open, as many as nine creatures might attack you at once. With your back to the wall, you might be facing three to five (depending on how big they are). For best results, try to keep a doorway between them and you. If only one can get to you at a time through the doorway, you'll do a lot better than fighting nine at once. In fact, you're a lot more likely to beat nine opponents one at a time than to beat nine all at once. And by the way, this doorway thing works really well against lone, hard-hitting monsters such as ogres as well. It helps you keep the squishy magic users and thieves out of reach and you cycle in a fresh fighter every time the door-defender takes a hit. While the second fighter holds the door, the first fighter gets healed, ready to take over again. Meanwhile, everyone with a pole-arm who can gather round the door-defender can take a swipe at the ogre or whatever as well. But frankly, at first level, if you come across something as big and tough as an ogre, you should really be thinking about running away -or killing it from a distance, with ranged weapons. ESPECIALLY if you think it could be poisonous. Even giant centipedes are better killed at a distance than by fighting hand to hand.


Why? Because it's the clerics job to keep you alive. If you do your job right, he'll be more than happy to cast every healing spell he has on you and your fighter buddies. If you mess up, he's to busy healing the wounded thieves, magic-users (and even other clerics) you stupidly left exposed. Think of it as another incentive to keep the squishes safe: if you've kept them out of trouble, then that means the cleric has all the more healing available for you. And keep him (or her) safe. Dead clerics don't cast many cure spells. Come to think of it, any dead cleric you see that's still casting spells probably isn't going to be very friendly.

Keep the Magic User safe, preferably behind a steel ring of you and you’re fellow bruisers or hirelings. Why? Because he's your nuke, the ace-in-the-hole that will pull your fat out of the fire when things seem hopeless. When you're surrounded by a half dozen enemies and down to your last hit point, it'll be him that sleeps them all so you can escape. When you need busted out of prison because you got yourself into a brawl the night before, it's the mage that will charm the prison guard or magistrate into letting you go. NEVER leave the bad guys a direct line of sight to the magic user. And make sure that there's always at least one of you big bad fighter types close to keep anything from getting too close to the magic-user -or at least, close enough to get it's attention if it does. Your squishy magic-user friend may be a snotty nosed intellectual pain-in-the-arse (and probably deserves a good slap) but he's YOUR snotty nosed intellectual pain-in-the-arse. Even a scabby goblin with a dagger has about a fifty percent chance of killing your first level magic-user friend in the very first combat round. Even more so if the goblin had the brains to charge

Keep the thief safe. Why? Because if you're thief goes down, you'll be the one sent forward to spring any traps the hard way. Never discount the thief's ability to open locks without giving the monsters on the other side of the door a hint that you're there. Once you've been on the wrong side of a surprise round or two yourself, you'll understand how valuable their stealth and lock-picking skills really are. Sure you can kick or batter down just about any door you come across. But do you want the whole dungeon to know where you are? Finally, don't discount the thief’s ability to back-stab. Whether he's sneaking up on a sentry to make a silent kill or moving forward into melee once the shield-wall breaks down (as it inevitably will), that back-stab bonus can be a life-saver. Once he's killed the ogre that's killing you with a well-timed knife in the back, you'll come to think of him as more than just lightly-armoured fighter with wandering fingers. In other words, you'll be keeping an eye on him for more than just the suspicion he's after your coin purse.

As you can see, being the fighter means more than simply swinging a sword at something till it falls down dead. The fighter is easily the easiest class for a beginner to play, but, tellingly, it's also one of the hardest classes to play well.


Ian Coakley said...


Absolutely awesome.

Makes me want to play a fighter!

Dangerous Brian said...

Cheers WTF. Really glad you like it. Happy slashing!