I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Minimalist D&D VIII - Stripping the Fighter (and barbarian)

The champion fighter is one of the simplest classes in 5e D&D. Maybe second simplest after the berseker barbarian

So, if I were to make a point about how unnecessarily complex 5e is, champions and berserkers wouldn't be the best candidates. However, I'm not just trying to make a point; I am writing my own version of 5e and I found out that even those classes are too complex for my tastes.

Let me show you.

Fighters don't need much... (art by Angus McBride).

This is what the fighter gets:

Hit Dice: 1d10 per fighter level
Armor: All armor, shields
Weapons: Simple weapons, martial weapons
Tools: None
Saving Throws: Strength, Constitution
Skills: Choose two skills from Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, History, Insight, Intimidation, Perception, and Survival

I'll skip this part since I've written about skills before. Suffice to say: the fighter's weapons, armor, hit dice, skills and saving throws are all easily replaced by higher ability scores - mainly Strength, Constitution and Dexterity. A few "mental" skills are the only exception, which I'll discuss later on.

Anyway, the fighter also gets this (the champion features are bold).

Table: The Fighter
LevelProficiency BonusBonus Features
1st+2Fighting StyleSecond Wind
2nd+2Action Surge (one use)
3rd+2Improved Critical
4th+2Ability Score Improvement
5th+3Extra Attack
6th+3Ability Score Improvement
7th+3Remarkable Athlete
8th+3Ability Score Improvement
9th+4Indomitable (one use)
10th+4Additional Fighting Style
11th+4Extra Attack (2)
12th+4Ability Score Improvement
13th+5Indomitable (two uses)
14th+5Ability Score Improvement
15th+5Superior Critical
16th+5Ability Score Improvement
17th+6Action Surge (two uses), Indomitable (three uses)
19th+6Ability Score Improvement
20th+6Extra Attack (3)

I'll briefly tackle them one by one.

Fighting Style -  a collection of small (often too small) bonuses for fighting with certain weapons. Wrote about them here. I like them in play, but they could easily be replaced for something simpler and more balanced (archery is too good and GWF too weak).

Second Wind - in practice, this means the fighter gets about a bit more than 1 extra HP per level. Easily replaced by higher Constitution.

Action Surge - once a day, the fighter gets two actions instead of one. I'm not even sure this is thematically appropriated for a fighter (it is often used to multi-class and cast two spells), nor do I think it is a great idea to give a high-level fighter eight attacks before anyone else can move. I'd rather fewer, more powerful attacks.

Improved Critical - A critical hit on a 19 or 20 is a good idea, if only because it allows you to add more meaning to the number you rolled (instead of just hit/miss). Nothing particularly "fighter" here (I could see it in a Rogue or Barbarian, for example), but good feature nonetheless.

Extra attack - This is ok IMO.

Remarkable Athlete - this lackluster feature is easily replaced by higher Constitution, Strength and Dexterity.

Indomitable - not a bad idea, thematically appropriated, I like it - despite maybe being easily replaced by higher ability scores.

Survivor - well, not bad for a high-level, "epic" feature.

So, about half of the fighter features could be replaced with better ability scores - especially Constitution, Strength and Dexterity. 

But we are left with the "mental skills". It makes sense that a fighter might be good with Animal Handling, Perception, and Survival. Which could be replaced by good Wisdom... and that would ALSO improve their saving throws. I like the idea of requiring some Wisdom for a fighter - it represents willpower, awareness, etc., things that even a dumb fighter should have.

History and Insight, I see no reason for the fighter to have. Intimidation shouldn't be a skill in the first place, but if you use the popular "intimidate with Strength" house rule, this is easily replaced by higher Strength.

BTW, berseker barbarians are very similar. d12 for HD, Unarmored Defense, Danger Sense, Feral Instinct... all easily replaced by higher Constitution, Strength and Dexterity

You basically get a fighter with some interesting rage features. 

He gets unarmored defense instead of heavy armor, but I don't see why a barbarian wouldn't be able to fight in Chain Mail if he found some (IIRC Conan wore armor sometimes), nor do I see why a Fighter wouldn't get some small bonus to AC even when unarmored (when compared to a wizard, for example). BTW, if the barbarian is carrying heavy armor on his back, he might have better AC than wearing it, which sounds insane. Maybe some advantage for unarmored fighting is a good idea... but that's not it.

The monk and ranger are not too dissimilar. The paladin has a few cleric features. And that's it. We could probably reduce all this classes to a single "warrior" class with a dozen to twenty features to choose from. Which is what I did in Dark Fantasy Basic and plan to do with my minimalist 5e.


  1. 5e is really simple. I have a feeling you don't have a lot of experience in rpg systems and haven't played the more complicated versions of d&d 3&3.5 or pathfinder.

    1. Well... okay I guess.

      FWIW I played a lot of 3e, 3.x, d20 derivatives, etc. (and GURPS, M&M, Rolemaster, etc.), but my favorite D&D is probably Moldvay's basic.

      Nowadays I like SotDL, DCC and some OSR stuff (I wrote about twenty reviews in this blog that you can check to see the kinds of games I like).

      I'll admit it is a matter of taste; in the books I published, for example, I tried to keep things simple, although you might argue that my Manual of Arms does the opposite, bringing some detail from 3.x and PF to 5e. But that's only because I really like melee weapons! ;)

  2. Yes, but in simplifying 3.5 to 5, there are a lot of redundancies baked into 5e that this person is trying to eliminate. If anything, this feels more inspired by AD&D than more recent editions, and I think there's definitely merit to scraping away the legacy elements of the game in favour of a more comprehensive and uniform system. I would love to see more individual options like feats from 3.5 or Pathfinder, rather than the baked in and repetitive class features of 5e. Personally, I really like 5e since it's allowed me to bring in more is my friends than would have wanted to learn 3 or 3.5, but I agree with OP that parts of 5e are just needlessly pulling from systems that are no longer relevant.

    1. Well put, that is exactly the goal.

      I like 5e too, I really do, but it is too complex for most of my players. They forget half of the features anyway, and the higher the level (and number of features), the worse it gets.

      I'm trying to do something simpler that keeps most of the functionality intact, by cutting redundancies and obsolete parts, as you've pointed.

  3. Check out Back to the Dungeon RPG. I simplified everything back to the Basic and Original level of simplicity and mixed it with very few D20 3.5 and 5E options.

  4. Honestly you only need 3 classes A warrior, a caster, and an expert. In those 3 you can have all others and there is no need for extra classes.

    1. Exactly! The sidekick rules for 5e made that very clear for me.

  5. I know I am pushing a design goal that you may not use, but if you use the roll under system with AC and saves creating a lower threshold to roll over, one could make the saving through thresholds higher than 'standard'. Not quite sure how I would do the bonuses to Wisdom skills without something that steps on an Expert. At least I like the idea of having a 'skill pool' to modify die rolls in a roll under system.

    1. Re-reading this is worded poorly. I'll give it a rewrite. It'll be a bit of a repeat of myself from other posts, but I think it'll make my point easier to understand.

      In a rebuild/simplification of D&D, I would have 4 classes: The Fighter/Mage/Scoundrel as the main 3, with the Mystic being the Cleric. The first three are basically the fighting pillar, spellcasting pillar, and skill pillar. The Mystic takes all the odd ball abilities (auras, Lay on Hands, Bardic Inspiration, etc.) The Mystic can be an adventurer, but just as likely they are the helping hand (think of the priest that holds the temple as a sanctuary), or a formidable foe (ex. the high priest from Apollo in the Iliad that curses the army).

      Abilities all use roll under of the relevant ability score you mention in minimalist write up. If you roll under your score on 1d20 you succeed. Saving throws are a number that the attack has to roll above in order to succeed. AC is either an additional save that can be boosted by better armor or a DR score (there are pros and cons to each idea).

      When I talk about dice manipulation, I am picturing that every PC has a pool of points that they can spend to turn a roll over into a hit, or a raise the value of a success to represent skill turning a near miss into a success. This generic pool could be a driver for all class features. A fighter uses raw power, an Expert uses their wit and clever tricks, a Spellcaster conjures some sorcerous solution. It's up to the PC. They run out of points, and they are spent for the day.

      To relate back to this article in particular, I like the idea that the Fighter instead of having sorcery or some trick instead has higher saves and a way to use those saves to passively succeed at tasks. Perhaps they can use a save in place of a roll where the other two classes adjust the roll. It starts out not overly impressive, but as they get higher level the higher save means that they just have an all around boost to the specific skills. Perhaps they are able to 'push through' effects but take damage (ex: Break a mind control but costs them stamina). Add on the 'Survivor' Regen at high level, and they become kind of terrifying in a different way.

      I hope this makes sense. Whether that goes in a useful direction is up to you.

    2. I really like the 3-class divided with an additional "optional" class. And the warrior feat of passing saving throws - a version of "indomitable" from 5e - is a good idea.
      My difficulty, right now, is how to deal with the expert. Maybe I let him use his "points" for skills, but I'm not sure this is the best solution. Unless I call it "luck" or something. Hummmm...

    3. My thought is that all Player get a pool of luck. I could see an Expert having a way to be more efficient with dice manipulation could work. If each luck point raises a roll by 1 point, perhaps an Expert can freely adjust a roll by 1 and can spend luck points to adjust the roll by 2 (in their field of Expertise). Reliable talent could take the 'save as a floor' from the fighter with regards to skills, but just not have as high of skills as the fighter.

    4. Clarify this last post: the Expert can take spend 'luck points' to adjust their roll using their save in that attribute (or something derived from it) as the measure.

      This is really a way to keep the different numbers one needs to track low, and make it something that gradually improves over levels. The issue with saves as I have presented is that you only have a 20 point spread to work with. Making them large enough to feel like they matter may end up making too many things trivial. Unless you start making things that 'raise the floor' which may invalidate this attempt at a simple system.

    5. Yes, that's a good idea; I call them "inspiration points" in my game. Right now, I am thinking of giving advantage or a re-roll for one inspiration point. Maybe everyone can have advantage, but the thief can have a re-roll instead.
      The warrior uses IP for saving throws and the spell-caster, for magic.

    6. Would spellcasters have mana points/spell slots to track as well as inspiration points?

      The inspiration points would then be a way to improve your odds before hand at the thing you do best. The Fighter has defense (I would count armour as part of it), the Spellcaster has it to improve spell casting, and the Expert to improve the skill they are attempting.

      I don't know the statistics well enough, but I think that a task having a floor similar to saving throws (essentially a trap having a saving throw to being disarmed) could work along with multiple attempts to simulate 'high DC' abilities (DC 20+ in 5e).

    7. "Would spellcasters have mana points/spell slots to track as well as inspiration points?"
      A: I'm struggling with that idea. I'd prefer a single pool. Currently, my spellcaster spends 3 IP to cast a 3rd level spell - I love how simple this is. However, there is not enough IP... maybe they have a "discount" when casting spells - especially if they get a critical hit. Still figuring it out.

    8. I guess the way I see it, if mages get IP enough to count for spell power, what do fighters and experts get for their specialty? I can see that you do the Fighter doesn't use IP for much compared to the Expert. Perhaps the IP system on a fighter is similar to the Battle Master maneuver or Monk's Ki system. Then you make all Level 6+ spells High Rituals that are not adventure feats but instead something planned and carried in (so spells are more like artefacts). Meanwhile the Fighter just stops gaining IP points and just gains other supernatural features. Perhaps they could raise stats higher*

      Thought: I mentioned earlier that traps/challenges the Expert can go up against can have a floor you have to roll over as well as roll under your ability score 9at least in this proposed system of mine). What if the difference from the Fighter to teh Expert is that the Fighter's 'bonus' to saves (beyond the other two classes arrays) is a value that counts in favour of the Fighter. So if the bonus is +1, the Fighter's save threshold is +1 greater than that of a 'normal' person in their position (same fitness and general experience). This also means that when they attack, while they are not adding +1 to every roll, if they come against a creature that is part ethereal (hard to hit) that treats all attacks against it at -1 (which impacts initiative as well as hit chance), the Fighter wouldn't notice it. This would make the idea of the lost swords and shields literally the remnants of a hero's legacy. Which is a fun metaphysics twist on magic weapons I guess.

      The Expert I like as something that using IP to make skills possible, which I like, as it's not just the rogue, but any magnificent bastard character as well. And they don't have this inherent bonus that makes them better, they just have their skills and luck, which can run out.

      *This would mean something different in a roll under game where from a roll under chance you always have a 19, but other elements can go above that.