How to Homebrew Fighters

--by Abio

Part of a series on homebrewing classes: check out the wizard too!

Fighter is the most popular class, at least according to data from dndbeyond. And for a good reason! Its apparent simplicity, excellent action economy, and consistent damage output make fighter a solid pick for your main class. Moreover, fighter gets access to the most ASIs among all classes, and with so many good feats to choose from, you will find a way to boost your character's strengths even more.

Given how popular fighters are as a playable class, it is not surprising that they are popular homebrew interests too! If you are thinking of a cool martial option you would like to pack in a subclass, fighter seems the obvious place to start!

Except.

Let us face reality: if fighter was easier to homebrew compared to other classes, we should get more fighter subclasses from Wizards of the Coast themselves. Instead, fighters don't get more subclasses than others, at least in official WotC products (in fact, they get fewer than wizards and clerics):

As you can see from the graph, official WotC sourcebooks contain (as a whole) the same number of fighter subclasses as they do for monk, paladin, and rogue. Compared to cleric and wizard (who get far more) and other classes (who get fewer), fighter seems to be about half-way through the ranks in terms of how many subclasses "graduated" from playtesting as Unearthed Arcana.

And no, it is not a problem of subclass distribution in the Player's Handbook: Warlock gets one subclass more than fighter in the PH, and yet the overall number of warlock subclasses is one fewer than fighter subclasses. The fact is:

Homebrewing Fighter is not Easy.

I want you to repeat it with me: homebrewing fighter is not easy. Do not assume you can make a fighter subclass just because you have a cool idea. Fighter is not a convenient wrapper for any random mechanic you can think of. I am saying this as a player (who gets to playtest them), as a GM (who gets to manage them at the table), as a creator (who gets to make them) and as an editor (who must look at what you made and tell you if it's good). Your awesome fighter subclass is probably not good at all.

With that out of the way, let's get into the more positive part of the post.

How do you actually homebrew fighter?

As I normally do for class homebrews, let's have a look at the class breakdown first. Here is the fighter class table from dndbeyond:

As you can see, the base fighter class gets a lot of features: exactly one per each level, except 1st and 17th level which have two. The levels are broken down as follows:

  • Four levels for brand-new class features (1st, 2nd, 5th, 9th)
  • Five levels for Martial Archetype Features (3rd, 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th)
  • Seven levels for Ability Score Improvements and Feats (4th, 6th, 8th, 12th, 14th, 16th, and 18th)
  • Three levels to improve existing features (11th, 13th, 17th, and 20th level)

It is clear therefore that martial archetype features are not the most important features. The base class is already quite solid, and has a clear identity and progression regardless of your choice of subclass. in other words, all fighters share a common "core" which is very similar in all cases: if you play fighter, you are mainly playing fighter.

A common mistake I see people making is to use fighter subclasses to change the base fighter class. I will say it clearly: your subclass should not change the way fighter plays. If you are aiming for something significantly different from a fighter, you should probably check out a class different from a fighter (such as ranger, paladin, or barbarian).

How does fighter play then?

Fighters are good at doing one thing: attacking. They are the only class who gets more than one Extra Attack, and none of the main class features use your main action. If you are playing fighter, your main action in each of your turns should be the Attack action. And you should use each attack to deal damage. If you are not doing damage, you are not playing fighter. A common mistake I see people making is to give fighters features that use their main action, or that take up one of their attacks to do something else than damage. Don't. If your fighter is not attacking, or not dealing damage, it is not a fighter. Consider paladin or ranger instead.

The other thing a fighter does is to build upon existing features. Whatever your fighter does, it should get better at higher levels. Instead of gaining a ton of new abilities, fighters are masters are getting better at what they do.

What do fighter subclasses do?

As I mentioned in other posts, the general idea of subclasses is that they should complement the main class's weaknesses, or enhance something the main class does particularly well. What does it mean for fighter?

  • Weapon attacks (the fighter's main damage output) deal less damage on average than spell attacks. Your subclass should increase the amount of damage each attack deals, in a way or another.
  • Weapon attacks only deal damage, while other spells and class features can also impose conditions on enemies, or support allies. Your subclass should make you able to debuff enemies, or buff or protect allies.
  • Fighters don't get any kind of skill-related abilities. Your subclass should give you some skill-related abilities.
  • Fighters are good at soaking damage, having excellent hit points and proficiency in heavy armor. Your subclass should make you able to sustain extra punishment.

With that in mind, let us compare the features from the existing 9 fighter subclasses to figure out what you should have at each level.

3rd-level primary feature: more damage on some attacks

Literally what the title says: your main feature at 3rd level should let you add more damage to some of your attacks. This is typically achieved by adding extra damage to your damage roll, giving you advantage on the attack roll, or letting you make an extra attack. Crucially, this should not happen on every single attack (barbarians do that) nor every single turn (rogues do that). Rather, you should tie this feature to a specific condition (for example, when you score a critical hit, or when an enemy provokes an attack of opportunity from you), or give it a limited number of uses. If you give a limited number of uses, they should recharge every short rest.

Also importantly, your major feature should not use your main action or one of your attacks. This is true for all fighter features. Have it happen automatically, or by means of a bonus action or reaction.

3rd-level secondary feature: flavor and skills

In addition to the major feature, most fighter subclasses give you an extra, minor benefit at 3rd level. This can literally be anything: proficiency in a skill or tool, an extra mobility option, or a defensive buff. The important thing is, it should not impact the amount of damage you can deal in combat.

This does not mean that the secondary feature is less important than the primary one. In fact, the secondary feature may very well be the thing that makes your fighter different from any other. If you want your fighter to do something special, such as protecting allies or scaring off enemies, the 3rd-level secondary feature is the way to go. Just make sure it does not override the primary feature (in other words, don't make it use your main action or attacks).

In some cases, the minor feature can even be many different things at once! If you give this feature a limited number of uses, you can also give a choice between multiple effects. Just make sure you don't exaggerate with those bullet points: three or four would be a good rule-of-thumb. If you want to add more options, or if you have more than one flavorful thing you absolutely need to add, consider saving one for the 18th-level feature (see below).

7th-level feature: do it better!

Your 7th-level feature builds directly on top of your 3rd-level features. It should provide a straight enhancement or an extra option to something you can do already. For example:

  • If your 3rd-level feature has a limited number of uses, you can give out extra uses here
  • If your 3rd-level feature uses a die, you can make the die bigger.
  • If your 3rd-level feature provides a choice of options, you can provide more options here.
  • If your 3rd-level feature was all about skills or defense or mobility, give more skills or enhance that defense or mobility.

What if there are multiple ways you can make it better? Pick one for 7th level and move the other to 10th level (see below). And again, make sure you are not using a main action or an attack. Keep those free for, well, attacking. One common mistake I see people doing is to add a brand-new ability as a 7th-level feature, most commonly because they wanted their fighter to do something specific but could not fit it into the 3rd-level features. If this is the case, don't do it at 7th level! You have the 18th-level slot for brand-new things (see below).

10th-level feature: better still!

The 10th-level feature is based on the same principles as the 7th-level feature. Either it builds upon the same 3rd-level feature (choosing a different option from the bullet-point list above), or it enhances a different 3rd-level feature. It should only give you extra options if the 3rd-level feature it is enhancing was itself giving you extra options. And again, make sure it does not use a main action or an attack.

15th-level feature: rinse and repeat

Now seriously, you know the drill by now. The 15th-level feature should keep building upon your existing features, or the special thing that your fighter does. It should only give you extra options if it is enhancing a feature that by itself is based upon giving you options. And again, make sure it does not use a main action or an attack.

18th-level feature: guess what?

Do I really need to write it? Your 18th-level feature keeps building upon existing features. Just follow the same guidelines that you used for the previous features, and you will do just fine. In some cases, you can use the 18th-level feature to add a new, flavorful feature, but that should only happen if you have absolutely run out of options on how to enhance existing things. If you really want to add an extra thing that your fighter can do, this is the place where you should put it.

Conclusions

As you can see, fighter subclasses are actually quite easy to homebrew once you look at them properly. Still, one common mistake I see is trying to make individual features very different from each other, or even worse, writing features that use up your main action or attacks. Those are not fighter features: they are best suited for other classes (such as paladin, ranger, barbarian, or even rogue). Make sure your fighter subclass blends seamlessly with the main class, and that it grows nicely without major bumps. Trust me, your players will thank you later!

Wishing you a lot of fun,

--Abio

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