The iconic 4 classes in D&D are the Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Wizard. A typical party in an old-school game would include multiple fighters and at least one each of the Cleric, Thief, and Mage if at all possible because that was the best mix for handling typical old-school adventures. Other mixes and approaches were certainly possible but this was the baseline. Let's look at how this has changed up through the new edition and why.
Fighters: The core of any party - you had to have at least one fighter to make a party really work. Oh it might be a ranger or a paladin or might be multi-classed into something else too but most parties of 4 or more characters included at least one straight-up fighter.
Role: Supreme physical combatant. Most specialized in melee combat but they could also handle ranged combat too. Outside of combat they were no more limited than any other character and they usually had good physical stats for the occasional strength-check, or open doors check.Strength was the primary attribute, usually followed by Con and maybe Dex. They had the best chance to hit in combat, the best hit points, could use any type of weapon or armor from Day 1.In a classically combat-heavy game, they were the best combatants.
- "Fighters are Boring" - they didn't get any spells (except for high-level rangers and paladins getting a few), they didn't get any nifty skills like the thief, and the magic items they typically go for (+3 sword, Gauntlets of Ogre Power) simply add bonuses to what they already do rather than giving them more options. For players who liked fighting, this wasn't an issue - being really good at something isn't always boring.
- Fighters also tended to look alike at times - Plate mail, shield, longsword - because they were equally good at all weapons a fighter usually used the most effective weapon for the situation. So even if your 10th lvl fighter has used a longsword in every fight since level 1, another fighter could pick up a longsword at level 10 and use it just as well as yours.
- Also, fighters being used as the baseline for many abilities implanted the idea in players' minds that fighters were "normal" and everything else was exciting and different - to some degree it was a perception problem. Also their excellence was largely limited to combat. In a city adventure wizards and clerics and thieves all had some interesting options mechanically, but fighters usually did not. Some thought this was a problem, some did not.
- Unearthed Arcana added Weapon Specialization to make fighters different from one another. It did help. Some considered it power creep or over-complication but in a long running campaign it was a nice little bit of differentiation. Fighters lost nothing in this update.
- AD&D 2nd edition added Non-Weapon Proficiencies to the system so that characters could be good at something besides fighting but unlike 3E's skill system, 2E fighters weren't gimped! Wizards and Clerics were given 4 NWP's while Fighters and Thieves were given 3. This was a pretty even-handed approach that gave fighters more versatility without compromising their combat ability. I still see 1E's lack of a skill system as a feature, not a bug, but if we're going to add a skill system then keeping it fairly even between classes is a good move IMO. So fighters gain something comparable to other classes and give up nothing.
- D&D 3rd edition revamped NWP's into a skill point system which was more flexible but fighters were given a measly 2 skill points (effectively 2 skills to pick, down from 3 in 2E) the lowest of any class in the game and physical and sensory skills -what they should be good at - were rather finely divided. This crippled fighters in non-combat situations as suddenly other classes who still retain their spell and thief skill elements now also have 2-3 times the skill points of the typical fighter. Rangers and barbarians were given higher skill amounts but the straight-up "Fighter" was now significantly behind everyone.
- 3E also added Feats as a subsystem for all classes which made it easier to individualize characters even more on the mechanical side Fighters benefited from this probably more than most as it replaced the weapon specialization from 2E and gave even more options than that. Fighters as a class also received more feats than any other, making them the kings of versatility in character building, if not in play.
- Mechanically 3E gave fighters the best attack progression and the most attacks as they progressed in levels. They still retained their flexibility with armor and weapons. So in combat they are still "the best" but they are still sometimes perceived as "boring" because they lack spells, skills, and special powers like Rage, Healing, Dual-Wielding, etc. This was a much lessened complaint though as one could make a 3E fighter that could out-archer a ranger, out two-weapon a ranger, excel at unarmed combat, specialize in breaking weapons, and pretty much excel at any kind of physical combat one wanted. Multiclassing could solve most of the other problems in making the character you wanted to play at the cost of some of the pure fighter's peak combat ability. With certain feats a rogue could get close to a fighter's damage output but most of the time the fighter was still better. At high levels a wizard could out-damage a fighter, but that had been true since 1E and eventually the wizard does run out of spells...
- D&D 4th edition has taken a different approach to almost everything in creating a character. One of the goals was to balance all classes at all levels and this changes quite a bit of the mechanical element. Fighters still have the highest hit points but attack progression is the same for all characters and there are no multiple attacks as standard. This is a huge conceptual change - no character can be better at combat than any other as that would be unbalanced. This means that fighters cannot be the kings of combat any longer. They can still take more damage than anyone else as they have the most hit points and the most healing surges. They can use the most armor types of any class other than Paladins, who get one more surge as well. They can use the most weapons. They even get a comparable number of skills when compared to other classes. So far, this isn't looking too bad, but what about the loss of offensive excellence? What replaces that? Marking.
Now I have some issues with marking as I noted yesterday. I think it's not something the game needed but it is also in no way a replacement for offensive power. Where before Gutboy Barrelhouse might have +3 to hit and a +3 to damage and 2 attacks per round with a battle axe at a fairly low level and this would get better, now I can...make this guy take a -2 to hit if he attacks someone other than me - wow, that's impressive. Let me charge the dragon so I can lay down that -2 on him. Even better, it doesn't stack so that if we did have 2 fighters in the party, we can't double-team the dragon - a solo in 4E terms - the most we can give is a -2. This is a piss-poor ability for what was once the mightiest combat class and all Defender types get this! Fighters have somehow morphed into the guys who are good at taking a beating at the expense of being able to really dish one out. Now they aren't helpless and you can take more offensive builds like two-hander specialists or two-weapon fighters but they are always second to the Strikers (Rogues and Rangers etc) who are built to excel at offense while being less durable on defense. It's the first time we have really seen this split in D&D and it's a questionable decision in my opinion as it elevates some classes at the expense of others.
In the end I'm still left with one question: Who decided that the concept of "fighter as prime combatant", a concept that worked through at least 3 editions of the game, was no longer valid and needed to be changed, and why did they decide this?
Hopefully I've illustrated how the OD&D/1E concept of "Fighter" was basically the same through 2E and 3E until suddenly with 4E it's split into "Defender" and "Striker". This has gotten a little long so I'm going to split up the classes into different posts over the next few days, including a look at the ranger since that seems to be the genesis of the "Striker" split.