Looking at the Warlord Class

The Warlord Question is one that regularly pops-up on older Dungeons & Dragons forums. Forums populated by experienced gamers and grognards of all sorts who have played many past editions of “the world’s greatest roleplaying game.”

The warlord was a class in the 4th Edition of the game that isn’t in the 5th Edition. To fans of 4e who feel slighted by the sudden end of that edition, this felt like a deliberate omission pandering to h4ters, and there have been repeated calls for an official warlord class.

This interests me. With so many potential class ideas, why is the warlord brought up so often? Typically, discussions about the warlord bring up the fact it was in the first Player’s Handbook for 4th Edition, and thus deserves to still be a class. Which is fair, but the same could be said for the assassin from 1st Edition, which was also a class in Original D&D. And as a reason, “being in the first PHB” is largely arbitrary. You could just as easily say the shaman deserves to be a class because it was in the most prior editions (at least 4 editions, even getting its own book in 2e.) Heck, you could even argue the archivist deserves to be in the game because it comes first alphabetically. 

And yet the warlord still gets a lot of attention…

I’ve argued on both sides of this issue multiple times. It was a regular topic of debate for me, but one I’ve never blogged about at length. And I need a mental distraction during the holidays, so here we go…

What Is a Warlord?

Starting by defining terms. What is the warlord? Obviously it’s a full character class, that went from level 1 to 30 in 4th Edition, and would go from level 1 to 20 in 5e. It’s a “leader” class, which was the dedicated healer role in 4th Edition—like the cleric, bard, and druid. It also used the martial power source, as did the fighter and the rogue, which means it didn’t cast magic spells. It’s primary ability score was Strength, which it used to attack with the vast majority of its powers, but depending on its build, warlords could use Charisma or Intelligence for their secondary ability score.

This leads to the big paradox of the warlord. It’s equally the charismatic and inspiring leader that motivates troops through personality and charm and the intelligent and cunning leader that wins battles through strategy and tactical maneuvers. 

There were six or so subclasses of warlord. Leadership styles if my memory serves. The inspiring and tactical warlord in the Player’s Handbook and the bravura and resourceful warlord in Martial Power, and the insightful and skirmish warlord in Martial Power 2. There was also the unofficial fan-build known alternatingly as the “princess warlord” or “lazy warlord”, whose power choices focused on granting extra attacks to allies rather than personally attacking. (Because this meant you could dump your primary Ability Score and boost your secondary score higher than expected, it was a potent build, and thus popular.)

Could the Warlord Be a Class?

Is it physically possible to make a warlord class? Sure. I did one myself. (Almost by accident while participating in a forum discussion, where I stumbled upon a couple tentpole mechanics.)

I’m rather pleased with how it came out.

Many other attempts have been made. Robert J. Schwalb—famed 4e designer and creator of Shadow of the Demon Lord—did his own attempt, which is by far the best selling 3rd Party warlord.

And there are others that have sold decent numbers of copies over the years. This one is fairly popular.

But there are lots of ideas that make decent ideas for classes. The psionicst/ mystic is a commonly requested class, with a legacy of multiple editions. Pathfinder has shown you can make decent alchemist, witch, and summoner classes (in addition to multiple others). A dedicated shapeshifter would be a cool idea, as would a shaman. And this is without getting into D&D exclusive classes that existed in previous editions like the assassin, runepriest, dragon shaman, spellthief, and the like. Or popular fan-made/ 3rd Party classes that could be given “official” status like the blood hunter or pugilist. Heck, a “jester” class could also be cool. Why doesn’t that exist?

So the question isn’t “can the warlord be a class?” but “should it?” So let’s ask that instead.

Should the Warlord Be a Class?

This is often the question that is raised in discussions of the warlord. Does it deserve to be a class? 

This is a tricky issue because there absolutely needs to be a bar for classes. Too many classes causes bloat to a game system, so new classes should be rare. Classes need to be heavily playtested since they affect balance at so many different levels, with class features coming into play in every encounter of every game session of an entire campaign. They’re not something that should be hastily designed, tested for a few weeks, and thrown into a book.

Furthermore, an idea needs to be distinct enough to carry a concept over twenty levels while also having room for multiple subclasses, but not overlapping too much with other classes. And, ideally, it should be something you can’t do with the existing rules of subclasses, feats, or multiclassing. If you can make a character that remotely fits and handle the differences through reflavouring or working with your DM, then you might not need a full class. And the option should be generic enough that it fits the majority of D&D worlds, both official and homebrew. 

So how does the warlord fare against the above criteria?

Scale and Scope

On paper, the warlord stands out as a unique option not filled. While it can work as a subclass (such as the Purple Dragon Knight, Mearl’s attempt in Happy Fun Hour, or my attempt at a Commander) this spreads out the key options across many levels. 

You need to be high level before you can do all the things you expect your character to be able to do. 

Some feats can help with this (particularly Inspiring Leader, Martial Adept, and Healer), as could multiclassing into something like bard or paladin. It would be quite possible to play a fighter/ bard or fighter/ paladin and simply reflavour the character’s spells as martial powers. 

But having a full warlord class would still make it easier to play such a character. 

In terms of scope, is there room for multiple subclasses? Maybe. Without even considering flavour-based options, 5e doesn’t assume character classes have a singular role like they did in 4th Edition, so it’d be possible for a warlord style class to have roles in the party other than being the healer. War domain clerics can be tanks and light domain clerics are damage dealers, so it makes sense there should be alternate roles for the warlord as well. Tank, healer, diplomancer, princess… there are options

And as a non-magical class, the warlord would fit easily into most campaign settings with minimal impact. Effortlessly reality. In fact, it’d be easy to associate some classic characters as having a warlord level or two, such as Laurana of Dragonlance, Bruenor Battlehammer of the Realms. Warlords seem perfect for Dark Sun.

Okay, that’s a lot of checks in in the ‘pro’ column. Are there any problems?

Things get trickier when you consider the assumed role of the class. In 4e, it was the leader. The cleric replacement for people who didn’t want to play the cleric. But that’s a crap role for a class: if someone doesn’t want to play the cleric, playing a class just like the cleric without spells isn’t much better. No one should be forced to be the “healer”. People should want to play a warlord because they want to do warlordy things, and not because the party needs a healer. (Also, there’s already multiple cleric replacement classes in the game. The bard and druid work well, the paladin is workable, and there are subclasses for the artificer, sorcerer, and warlock.) Because classes have a finite number of options, cleric replacement options will come at the expense of unique warlord-style powers. 

This is part of a larger issue. When you describe what a warlord class does, the description focuses on leading the party into battle from the front line, cheering and inspiring its allies, pointing out weaknesses in their opponent’s defenses, and allowing strategic maneuvers and movement. None of that maps easily to healing. New players coming into the class will expect it to do one thing, and might be surprised when it’s a dedicated healer.

Which leads to the larger question of the narrative, including distinct the class is from other classes. Which gets problematic. So problematic it needs its own section.

Warlord Flavoured

The warlord has a lot of overlap with the fighter, both in terms of lore and presentation, but also visually. I’ve teased in the past that the difference between a warlord and a fighter in art, is that the warlord is pointing into the distance. Fighters attack, warlords gesture.

The difference between a warlord and fighter comes down to how they fight. It’s almost more of a Fighting Style. 

Similarly, the 4e warlord has a lot of overlap with the bard. In 4e, both were presented as Charisma-focused healers that used inspiration and motivation to “heal” and buff allies. Warlords were almost nonmagical bards more than nonmagical clerics. As the bard is meant to be the master of diplomacy and inspiration, having the warlord fill that same niche steps on their toes.

This isn’t an insurmountable problem. In 4e, at least one warlord subclass focused on Intelligence rather than Charisma. An intelligent fighter is a noteworthy gap in the game. It’d be nice to have a second class with a strong Intelligence in addition to the wizard. This can easily be done without affecting the warlord, by focusing on the niche of strategy and clever tactics over inspiring words.

The Hit Point Paradox

It’s not a discussion of the warlord without a discussion of hit points. Hit points are a terrible health tracking system, but one that works really well at the table as a form of plot armour. They do get weirder and weirder the more you think about them, though. 

Hit points are this weird abstraction of physical health, skill, luck, energy, and the will to live. But the ratio of health to energy changes based on level, the source of the damage, and the whim of the DM. In one fight, hp could be entirely energy as a warrior gets injured and worn down by numerous sword slashes. In another fight, hp could be all meat as the same warrior falls down a cliff and gets hit by dragonfire.

As a potential healer, the warlord runs right into the middle of this issue and draws attention to it. The warlord uses inspiration to restore sword cuts, burns, acid scarring, and severe bruising. And they can often do so even if the chosen target is unconscious and seconds away from death, and not able to hear said inspiring words.

Which is going to get problematic if the DM uses one of the options in the DMG that slows down healing. Ideally, the warlord class should work and be usable regardless of what rules models you’re slotting into your game.

Howerver, the warlord has to be able to heal unconscious creatures. Because that’s a mandated requirement from the fans.

Problematic Assumptions

When discussing a potential warlord class, in my experience the biggest hurdle is by far warlord fans. 

In discussing the warlord, I have been repeatedly told that a new 5e version of the class must be able to heal. All warlords in 4e healed, and so every warlord in 5e must be a healer as well. This is despite the fact that healing is optional for clerics, bards, and druids in 5th Edition: of the ten cleric domains available for 5e, only two grant healing spells. Not every cleric in 5e is a healer… but restoring health is mandatory for the warlord. 

Similarly, I’ve repeatedly been told that warlords need to be as complex as they were in 4e, with multiple powers and choices each level. Which seems counter intuitive to me: the advantage of a nonmagical cleric class would be one that is low-complexity for players who don’t want the hassle of juggling spells and powers. It shouldn’t play like a caster.

There’s also the issue of the lazylord/ princess warlord. Despite not being in an official book and less than a tenth of the warlords powers being focused on commanding allies to attack, the lazylord is apparently mandatory and any warlord class should enable players to give up their attacks at-will to prompt an ally to attack.

Which is a pretty big issue: it’s not enough for these vocal fans for a book to implement the class’ concept, but also the original implementation. 

I’m not entirely sure this is unreasonable. When updating a class or concept, you should take into consideration what the fans of that option want and how it was done in the past. If you’re reinventing the class from the ground up… who are you designing the option for?

Wrapping Things Up

At this point, an official warlord is unlikely in 5th Edition. Testing a class takes a couple years, so if they released one this spring, it would be 2022 before it saw print. That feels pretty late in the Edition. But not impossible. 

It might just be a question of numbers: 4e was a divisive and unpopular edition. Pathfinder outsold it, but likely had as much to do with as many people going back to older books and ceasing to play as swapping to Pathfinder. A third of the D&D audience stuck with 4e, and it would be a a sub-percentage of those fans who dug the warlord. A tenth of 33%. And of that 3.33%, not all will have converted from 4e to 5e: they liked 4e and were happy with that edition. Since the release of 5e, D&D has also had a reinissance. A massive swelling of new players, unfamiliar with the game’s past. The current audience won’t have the same affection for the 4e warlord, or willingness to put up with nostalgic design. 

This is somewhat of a shame. Everyone should have a class they enjoy playing and have vital options they desire in their favourite game. You can’t please everyone all the time, but the warlord feels as worthy of an update as the artificer or psionicist. 

But if Wizards of the Coast does decide to make a warlord, it will have to go through the same iterative design as the psion and artificer, and be judged by hthe general fan base, a significant majority of which will have no affection for 4e. How they see the warlord and what they want out of the class will likely be significantly different than what the 4e fans want. So an official 5e WotC-produced warlord will likely prove unsatisfying and divisive. And it sucks to finally get something you’ve been requesting for years and years, only to receive something that doesn’t actually do what you want.

With that in mind… maybe an official warlord isn’t the best idea. 

Thankfully, there’s lots of 3rd Party opbtions.

Shameless Plugs

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