Class is in session! If you’re looking for a straightforward bruiser, you’ve come to the right place. This week, we take a look at an archetype that allows even the least experienced D&D player to be an absolute terror with a blade. The Champion fighter archetype is power and simplicity in one package.
Story of the Champion
The fighter stood in the hulking shadow of her foe. The ogre snorted, slurping a long tendril of mucus back into its nostril, and spat a glob of phlegm at the fighter. His eyes twinkled with dumb, brutish mirth—but his expression quickly faded as the fighter brought her shield up above her head with remarkable agility. The viscous blob of spittle exploded in a shower of greenish-grey droplets, but the fighter stayed dry.
She lowered her shield and smiled at the giant before her, and drew her longsword from her hip. No fancy tricks. No acrobatic flourishes. Just a single, clean motion, and the sword was leveled at the spot just beneath the ogre’s paunch. Now, she too spit on the dirt at the ogre’s feet.
“Try to keep up,” she sneered.
The Champion is an incredibly flexible archetype that can encompass dozens of different character archetypes. At its heart, the champion is a fighter who wins fights by overpowers foes with raw strength, talent, and determination. This suits warriors without significant formal training, like farmhands-turned-heroes in the vein of Luke Skywalker. It also suits huge, musclebound brutes who have relied on their bulk and intimidating nature their whole life, like Gregor Clegane, the Mountain (from A Song of Ice and Fire). However, fighters who prioritize nimbleness and dexterity over brute strength are still well-served by the Champion archetype. Warriors like Alanna of Trebond (from The Song of the Lioness) began their journey as nimble Champions, using simple-but-effective combat techniques to defeat their foes and endure any hardship.
The Champion archetype represents the spirit of the fighter class distilled to its essentials. Everything in your subclass’s selection of traits is geared around making you hit harder, survive longer, and be the peak of athleticism. The fighter gains access to five subclass features in addition to their fighter class features, gained at fairly regular intervals at 3rd, 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th level. You can read all of the Champion features for free in the D&D Basic Rules. In summary, your subclass features allow you to:
- Deal critical hits more frequently
- Perform feats of athleticism with incredible ease
- Gain an additional fighting style
- Deal critical hits even more frequently
- Regain hit points while gravely injured
Benefits of Playing a Champion
One of the Champion archetype’s greatest benefits is its simplicity. Players who are new to D&D and want to jump right into the game without fretting over spell selection or complex rules subsystems are able to pick up this character and jump right into the fray. This is because most of the Champion’s subclass features are passive improvements to existing abilities, making them easy to remember. When you gain Improved Critical at 3rd level, you don’t have to use a special action to activate this ability, you just have to remember that you score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20 now.
The Champion’s subclass features ramp up gently in complexity as you level up. For instance, the 7th-level feature, Remarkable Athlete, grants a passive bonus to “Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution check you make that doesn’t already use your proficiency bonus.” This is a significant boost in skill power, but I’ve found that new players need to think about it a little bit to understand it. This is a huge boon if you’re playing a clever, worldly fighter and aren’t proficient in key skills like Athletics and Acrobatics. Take a look at your skill list; any skill that uses Strength or Dexterity that you aren’t proficient in will now suddenly increase by half your proficiency bonus. On top of that, there’s one special Dexterity check that comes up all the time in D&D games: Initiative. According to lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford, the bonus from Remarkable Athlete absolutely applies to rolling for initiative.
I love how, even though the Champion doesn’t have to make a lot of tactical combat decisions, the subclass still encourages you to think deeply about the rules and mechanics of D&D. And if you do want to add a bit of extra complexity to your Champion experience, the fighter class gives you two extra Ability Score Improvements that you can spend on feats, instead.
Drawbacks of Playing a Champion
Every strength that a Champion possesses has the potential to be a drawback. If you’re used to playing a wizard or a cleric in D&D, playing a Champion fighter may feel like switching from a manual transmission to an automatic. You no longer have the fine, granular control and tactical options that you once had. The bottom line is, if you like making decisions all the time in combat, and planning your actions two or even three turns ahead, the Champion archetype doesn’t have the tools to make you happy. Next time we return to Fighter 101, we’ll take a look at the Battle Master, a fighter archetype from the Player’s Handbook that has a fine selection of tactical options.
If you’re a D&D player that enjoys unraveling complicated webs of intrigue through deep, intricate roleplay scenes, the Champion archetype may suit you—or it may not, depending on your group. From a certain perspective, the Champion’s loosened focus on combat tactics and turn-by-turn decision making frees up a lot of your mental processing power to add flavor and roleplaying panache to your character, both in and out of combat. In my experience, many wizards and other spellcasters fall into a trap of being defined by what they can do, rather than who they are, since the player is so focused on their spell list.
On the other hand, the fighter class and the Champion archetype give you precious few traits to help your character in roleplaying scenes. If you need to succeed on a Charisma (Persuasion) to gain access to the queen’s audience chamber, you might be out of luck: your class doesn’t give you any bonuses to social skills. You have two avenues of recourse: you can choose to focus your skill proficiencies on non-Strength and Dexterity-based skills earlier on, so that Remarkable Athlete does more heavy lifting for you later on, or you can use some of your additional Ability Score Improvements to gain feats to improve your social skills. Speaking of which…
If you’re playing a fighter from 1st level, you should choose a race that improves Strength, Dexterity, or Constitution—or both, if you can. You can choose between Strength or Dexterity; fighters that focus in physical strength tend to wear heavy armor and wield large, two handed weapons or one-handed weapons and a shield, while fighters who prioritize in physical dexterity and nimbleness tend to wear light armor and wield ranged weapons or dual-wield finesse weapons. Constitution is important for all fighters, since a high Constitution improves your hit points, making you a hardier front-line fighter.
Half-orcs and mountain dwarves gain a bonus to both Strength and Constitution, making them hardy warriors. Likewise, stout halflings gain a bonus to both Dexterity and Constitution, making them nimble but durable skirmishers. Other races like elves, humans, and dragonborn make for resilient and adaptable fighters. If you want to make a highly versatile Champion, the variant human option grants you an additional feat at the cost of a few ability score bonuses, which we’ll talk about later in this section.
Once you’ve prioritized your physical abilities, you should consider which of your mental abilities are sharpest. Intelligence will give you a deep knowledge of history and academic topics, Wisdom will make you a canny and perceptive warrior, and Charisma will make you a personable or intimidating being. As usual, your character’s background is up to you. You can come up with all sorts of interesting stories and oddball characters by pairing unlikely backgrounds like Charlatan or Entertainer with the typically gruff and martial fighter class, or go for a more standard choice, like Soldier.
Choose EQUIPMENT instead of GOLD at the end of character creation. If you’re playing a Dexterity-based fighter, select light armor, ranged weapons, and two shortswords or scimitars, plus a light crossbow. If you’re playing a Strength-based fighter, select heavy armor, either a two-handed weapon like a greatsword, or a powerful one-handed weapon like a longsword, a shield, and two handaxes. Don’t forget that thrown weapons like a handaxe applies your Strength modifier to its “to hit” and damage rolls, even though it’s a ranged weapon.
You won’t choose your Champion subclass until you reach 3rd level as a fighter, so use this time as a 1st- and 2nd-level fighter to gauge how much fun you’re having. Do you need more complexity and tactical depth in your game? Do you want things to stay this simple and straightforward all campaign long? If simplicity is your thing, stay focused on the Champion. If you feel like you need more options, consider reading about the Battle Master and Eldritch Knight fighter archetypes in the Player’s Handbook.
Fighters have an understated trait that sets them apart from other classes. They have two additional Ability Score Improvements, at 6th and 14th level, in addition to the Ability Score Improvement every four levels that all classes receive. This allows fighters to max out their key ability score—Strength or Dexterity—faster than other classes, or become more versatile by selecting more feats. While the raw power granted by improving your key ability is always useful, you may want to add a controlled dose of complexity to your Champion by choosing feats. Here are some feats from the Player’s Handbook that fighters should consider.
Also, if you choose the variant human race, you can sacrifice some ability score bonuses to gain a feat at 1st level, as well.
- Alert. You gain a significant bonus to initiative rolls (on top of your bonus from Remarkable Athlete), and can’t be surprised while you’re conscious.
- Actor. If you find yourself lagging behind in a campaign with a significant intrigue element, this feat can help you stand toe-to-toe with bards as a suave impersonator.
- Charger. If you’re a melee fighter and find it difficult to get into melee range, this feat will help you Dash and attack on the same turn. Note, however, that this feat doesn’t let you use your Extra Attack feature while charging. Be sure that you need this feat before taking it.
- Defensive Duelist. If you’re a Dexterity-based fighter and you need some extra defense, this feat will help you parry incoming blows.
- Dual Wielder. Also for Dexterity-focused warriors, this grants you a slight boost to both offense and defense while wielding a weapon in both hands.
- Great Weapon Master. The ultimate feat for melee warriors, this allows you to take a penalty to accuracy in exchange for a huge damage boost, as well as allowing you to cleave through enemies.
- Heavy Armor Master. For the fighter that doesn’t want to die, this feat lets you reduce all incoming bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage by 3 while in heavy armor.
- Mage Slayer. For the warrior that hates magic, this feat helps you destroy spellcasters with ease.
- Mounted Combatant. Jousting knights and high-flying griffon knights want this feat, since it grants you an impressive suite of bonuses while mounted.
- Polearm Master. Fighters who prefer to fight at arm’s length get a boost to both offense and crowd control by taking this feat.
- Sentinel. If protecting your allies from harm is your bread and butter, then this feat lets you punish enemies for ignoring you: the greatest threat on the battlefield.
- Sharpshooter. Like Great Weapon Master for ranged fighters, this feat is a must-have if you fight from afar.
- Shield Master. Fighters that stand tall with both sword and shield in hand need this feat. Among other things, it lets you pull off the iconic image of using your shield to completely block your body from a jet of dragon fire.
- Skilled. If you feel like you’re just a brute with a sword and don’t have the skills or savvy that the rest of your party has, this feat will help you broaden your horizons.
If you want more advice for building a fighter, check out Fighter 101. Have you ever played a Champion fighter? What advice would you give to players that want to make a character like this?
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.