There’s a new Fighter in town. The latest One D&D playtest – essentially a beta test of features ahead of the 2024 rules revision coming to Dungeons & Dragons – has dropped a new Fighter subclass, called the Brawler, and it’s a massive shakeup to the martial class in D&D 5E.
The Fighter is colloquially known as the ‘master of weapons’ in D&D 5E. It’s a purposely simple class, designed to be an accessible entry point to the game’s mechanics (without any pesky spell slots to worry about) and it is, according to D&D Beyond’s own stats, the most played class of the lot. So a major change to the class’ playstyle is very much worth paying attention to.
For anyone who hasn’t played one, the Fighter specialises in weapon combat, with proficiency in all weapons (even the big ones!) and features designed to enhance your performance in the heat of battle – up to three additional attacks (where others get only one), mid-combat boosts to your health (to improve survivability), and an ‘Action Surge’ to let you do a whole other round of strikes on your enemies, often ending a battle before it’s really begun.
The Brawler pivots the Fighter class from a well-oiled combat machine to a messy assailant.
The Brawler is, in some ways, the antithesis of the Fighter, in that it forgoes formal weapon training, trusting instead in the power of its own fists, and the ability to find something deadly in any environment.
The One D&D playtest says that “Brawlers focus their training and study not on swordplay and battle tactics, but on the skills needed to turn a punch or kick into a brutal strike and any innocuous object into a deadly weapon. Some Brawlers thrive in tavern scuffles and street rumbles, while others excel in espionage, wielding ordinary objects with the deadliness of an assassin’s knife.”
At Level 3, when you choose the Brawler subclass, you gain a boost to Unarmed Strikes, meaning you can do weapon-like damage with your fists, as well as proficiency in Improvised Weapons, which lets you wield found objects as if they were swords, hammers, clubs, or axes. Brawlers are natural bar fighters, and can hit someone over the back of the head with a beer glass, or take them down, WWE style, with a chair, in the same way a more standard Fighter would take a swipe with their sword.
It’s a subclass that’s full of flavour, and pivots the Fighter class from a well-oiled combat machine to a messy assailant likely found in an underground fighting pit, or causing trouble at the pub. (Given adventurers tend to meet in a tavern, there’s plenty of story potential here.)
The versatility of the subclass extends to the new Weapon Mastery feature introduced to all One D&D Fighters too, which provides additional, repeatable effects when you make an attack with a certain weapon – like knocking an enemy prone, pushing them back 10 feet or giving them disadvantage on their own attacks. As it stands, the Brawler is the only subclass able to pick and choose different Weapon Masteries on the fly, giving them a huge amount of versatility in how they fight enemy creatures.
The subclass really comes online at Level 7, by which time you have an Extra Attack per action, and gain the ability to make an unarmed strike (to punch, grapple or shove) as a bonus action, with a cornucopia of things to do each turn. Throw a punch, hit someone with a chandelier, grapple them to the ground – all in six beautiful seconds. And at higher levels, you gain advantage on improvised weapon attacks (Dirty Fighting) and the incredible ability to use two Weapon Masteries on the same strike (Improvised Specialist).
Some standardised damage for improvised weapons would do a lot to make the subclass easier to pick up and play – which is a big focus for the Fighter’s design as a whole.
It’s unclear at this point whether the Brawler will make it into D&D’s 2024 ruleset, though, or even a later playtest. That will depend on the feedback players give in the coming weeks – and there are currently few points of contention and confusion around the subclass.
There is an unarmed fighting style already that Fighters can choose at Level 2, but which is redundant if taking this subclass at Level 3, as it gives you many of the same features. The 1d6-1d8 damage done with your Unarmed Strikes, too, can mean you end up doing less damage per turn than you had a level previously – given that Fighters are proficient in 1d12 weapons – which feels a little unintuitive. Painfully, it takes until Level 18 to get any damage boost to your fists, which should really happen a lot earlier.
Improvised weapons are also difficult to run in a game. They technically take on the properties and damage of an equivalent weapon, but this is subject to a DM’s approval, and it’s a little dull to argue over whether a chair leg is more like a Club or a Quarterstaff in the heat of battle. Some standardised damage would do a lot to make the subclass easier to pick up and play – which, after all, is a big focus for the Fighter’s design as a whole.
The Brawler is a very exciting addition, and I hope to see it developed into something worthy of the 2024 D&D relaunch. The playtest says the new sourcebooks will include magic items specifically designed to enhance Unarmed Strikes and Improvised Weapons, mind, which suggests designers are serious about designing more for these playstyles. But ultimately, if players are going to pick a Brawler, it needs to match the power, and the simplicity, of the Fighter fantasy – and it just doesn’t do that yet.