In my never-ending quest to best represent my idea of fighters I have taken my thinking further back, and down stranger avenues, than ever before. In fact, I have taken it "back to formula" so to speak, the Fantasy Combat Table from Chainmail.
Man-to-man combat in Chainmail is straight-forward enough, as is Fantasy Combat. Hits equal kills (broadly speaking). Fantasy Combat is resolved by cross-referencing the fantastic combatants to arrive at the "to-hit" number. If the dice roll exceeds this number, the defender is killed.
(let me pause for a minute to apologize, for this will be pure stream-of-conscious writing)What I have found to be the most compelling is this fact: in Chainmail combat, no matter which level of combat it is, one hit equals one kill. This is very significant, as it relates directly with what seems to be a design philosophy that is central to D&D combat. In D&D combat all 1st level characters, as well as normal men, have 1d6 HP. All weapons inflict 1d6 damage on a successful hit, thus we have one hit equals one kill (with minor variation) where "normal" men are concerned.
There are certain unaddressed disconnects in the translation from Chainmail to the "Alternative" system. At first level, these are minor to the point of being inconsequential. It is only when the characters rise in level that they become more apparent. Specifically, the one that causes me the most grief is the fact that damage output, at least for PCs, remains fairly flat, while monster HD go up and up the more powerful the creature is.
Creatures that enjoyed fantastic status in Chainmail, such as Ogres, only deal 1d6 in the LBBs. Dragon breath and certain giants are able to exceed that, but by and large creatures that slayed adventurers with one roll in Chainmail are now reduced to a war of attrition with their formerly fantastic opponents. This is one of the things that slows combat down at higher levels: the ratio of potential damage output to creature HP.
Obviously, no player wants to invest the effort and real-world time necessary to get a character to 10th level, only to have an epic battle that comes down to a single dice roll. That's only marginally removed from a save-or-die situation. But, think about this: aren't there really only two kinds of combat, when you get right down to it?
1) The dice go cold, one side is far superior and/or better prepared, or fortune smiles on the other guy. Whatever the reason, one side beats the cold, living hell out of the other. If this can be accomplished in 3 or maybe 4 rounds, it is fun. If it takes 14 turns because the bad guy has 70 HP and you max out at 10 points of damage, it gets tedious. We play this game to overcome life-or-death obstacles and exist in dramatically heroic moments. The object of our gaming is not to force a dragon to be pivot man in our circle-jerk, with no dramatic tension.
2) There is a boat load of tension as the fight goes back and forth, each side scoring blistering success and suffering grievous set-backs. Until, finally, the party is down to the last fighter, who has 4 HP left, and the Stone Giant king, likewise down to 5 HP. Guess what? For all the great drama of the ebb and flow of the fight, it comes down to one roll.Admittedly, scenario 2 is preferable, but it still comes down to that one roll.
I'm not advocating a return to the Fantasy Combat Table. There, you can breath again.
What Makes a Fighter Better?
More to the point, what makes a fighter a more fearsome opponent? Is it that he can routinely crack your head? Maybe. But, if you have more than 6 HP, you know that no matter how good he is at connecting with your head, it will take him at least two rounds to split your head, magic and other bonuses notwithstanding.
What about more attacks? I think this gets closer to the mark, when you consider that an attack is actually an opportunity to injure your opponent. So, a skilled fighter will find more openings and opportunities in the span of that one-minute combat round to do some damage.
And that is where the nugget of truth lies for me. Damage. A really scary, capable fighter is one that lays waste and does so reliably. Not just "has the potential", but actually does more damage. If I know deep down inside that if that guy gets at me with that short sword he is going to end all my plans, I will leave him alone.
I propose a system of "hitting" like the one in Chainmail. Roll 2d6 on the table cross-referencing various weapons against various armor situations. If you hit, roll a number of d6 equal to your level.
Before you panic and cry FOUL! remember that the two most-desired magic-user spells, Fireball and Lightning Bolt, do caster level x d6. Of course, the target gets a save for half. Let's face it though, the threat of the possibility of a Fireball is enough to give most parties pause.