D&D Next playtest suggests D&D may be headed back to simulationism. Seemingly unrelatedly, the “fighter linear, wizard quadratic” issue is being brought up, as it also seems poised to return. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, it describes the rate of power growth of those and similar classes, which leads to wizards completely overshadowing fighters at higher levels. However, simulationism is at the core of a faulty assumption which leads to linear fighters. A faulty assumption that fighters have to be non-magical, mundane, well-trained people.
Let us start by stating that there is nothing wrong about playing a game where wizards eventually are the best – as long as that’s the explicit assumption that players accept. For instance, in Ars Magica main player characters are all mages. But often players also make mundane servants called grogs, and take them on adventures with individual mages when plot calls for it. There is never a doubt that mages are more powerful and more important (not necessarily capable of feeding themselves or finding their arse with the map drawn on their trousers, but that’s where grogs come in). But that is not the game D&D promises. It promises we can all be heroes. Warrior kings and archmages. Sword and Sorcery. Not Luggage Carrier and Sorcery.
If that is what the game promises us, if that is what the game designers aim to achieve as they sit down, where does it go wrong? With mundane fighters. Wizards, or at least D&D wizards, break the rules. They don’t do simulationism. They don’t do conservation of energy or any other stupid physics laws. And we can’t take that away from them – that’s their core purpose. But if fighters do obey some approximation of simulationist physics, they have no chance. Ever. If fighter design starts with “well, what can a man do with a sword?”, they are doomed. Because wizard design starts with “How soon should the wizard be able to change the world with a snap of his fingers?”
Thankfully, we seem to have avoided the atrocious “balancing” principle of wizards being dominant later on somehow compensated for by them being weak and useless at the start. All but the most hardcore oldschoolers seem to agree they don’t miss wizards stabbing enemies for 1d4-1 damage with their dagger because their 2 spells have run out, so I won’t beat on this dead horse here.
But back to our fighters. They’re not going to be on par with wizards in their ability to influence the world by themselves. No teleportation, no mass fly, no control weather. Instead, in order to compete with wizards, they need to be able to occasionally overcome them. They need to be able to shrug off the dominate they’re hit with, break through the wall of force, and wrestle the aberration into which the wizard turns themselves. In short, they need to be supernatural.
This is what Book of Nine Swords did in 3.5, and the reaction to it was very telling. Did it invalidate the core, mundane fighter? Sure it did. Mundane fighter’s idea of advancement was learning how to trip people up, or, more often, gaining a small bonus to attack or damage. Incremental and very rarely exclusive – others could learn same tricks if they cared to. Warblade’s idea of advancement was learning to parry spells with their sword. Which one is high-fantasy fighting man, capable of going toe to toe with wizards?
If they’re not supernatural from the start, fighters should become so by the time they turn paragon. There are a myriad ways to frame this: divine lineage, divine patronage, other firm’s lineage or patronage, sword magic, channeling chi, force of will… Artifact weaponry, if nothing else. Why artifact? Because merely relying on equipment is not sufficient, as wizards also have their allotment of magical stuff. No, if a fighter is still mundane but armed with a mighty sword, said sword should be a part of their class, i.e. kensai from 3.5 (terrible mechanically, but right idea).
Only by acknowledging the fighters as supernatural in their own right, and encouraging the DMs to do the same, can we avoid the issue of linear fighters in a simulationist game.