The Secret of Martial Power

Table of Contents

Ancient tricks to polish your martial heroes

Hercules, King Arthur, Achilles, Aladdin, Sinbad, Beowulf, Robin Hood. I’d be willing to bet that most of you recognize the deeds of most of that list. That might not sound very impressive but think hard about it, some of these stories are thousands of years old and from all over the globe but we still talk about robbing from the rich to give to the poor and the Achilles heel. There is a commonality to all these heroes beyond their enduring legend, they all survive by strength, skill with a weapon or wits. In other words, they are all martial heroes.

I am no expert on the subject, so take my proclamations with a grain of salt, but as a mythology enthusiast it seems to me like up until modern fiction the martial hero was the focus of most stories. Granted, the mystically imbued characters were still present but they were relegated to supporting roles as advisors and oracles to aid the hero. Often their magic was unnatural or suspect, sometimes they even served as the villains of the story. I’d love to spend paragraphs discussing the deep meaning behind why we historically enjoy brute strength defeating magic or why the flash of magic is now more popular, but this article has a more important purpose. I want to take all the tricks of ancient storytellers to polish up your martial characters.

Dressed for Success

I am going to commit some DM blasphemy here and tell you flat out, give your martial characters the coolest magic items. Note that I said the coolest, not the most powerful. Classic mythology is loaded with figures defined by their gear, from Arthur’s Excalibur to Aladdin’s ring and lamp. You can bring this same concept to your game with a few simple tricks. There’s plenty of cool items to be found in the Adventurer’s Vault, the battle standards are particularly nice flavor items for warlords and of course powerful arms and armor is always appreciated by any martial hero. You can ramp up the coolness factor of an item by making it more personal to the character. An item attuned to the character, by inheritance, circumstance or some accident grows in power alongside the character rather than continually replacing that piece with new items. There is also a classical precedent for the martial hero to make his own items out of his kills, as Hercules did to the Nemean lion and Perseus did to Medusa. A rogue could have a dagger carved from a dragon’s tooth, a ranger might enchant his arrows by feathering them with the remains of a Roc and a warlord may have a cloak made from the standard he carried at a bloody victory. For those not afraid to tinker you can always make your own unique items to provide some extra flash to the fighters. There’s one more trick to add a wow factor to a magic item, make it intelligent. All you have to do is add a voice, a quirky personality and some little touches for flavor and your martial hero has an item that’s the envy of the group and the whole group has a fun opportunity for roleplaying. This trick loses some potency every time, so use it sparingly.

A Grim Assessment

They tend to get watered down by time and retelling but in many of the classics you can find a very brutal streak. Greeks and Romans were fond of gruesome blindings and Germanic stories are full of lost limbs. The impressiveness of your martial fighters can be amplified by you embracing your dark side in your descriptions. With a caster everyone has an idea what “Ray of Cold” looks like how it is different from “Acid Arrow”, they can form that picture easily in their head. The difference between a “Twin Strike” and a “Two-Fanged Strike” takes more imagination from your players. You can really help the visualization along with powerful descriptions. Switching from “your twin strike drops him to 0” to “with a thrust and a twist you jam your first blade into his kidney, his mouth opens to let out a tortured scream but it is immediately silenced by your second blade driving into his exposed throat” will likely get a reaction from your players. As a rule of thumb I try to give a detailed description when the creature is brought to bloodied and again when it is killed. Of course, some players revel in describing their own victory so if they prefer you might just say “You bloodied the orc, tell us all how you did it”. Either way descriptions make a difference, martial heroes are breaking bones and flesh with a piece of steel, that should be appreciated!

Honorary Doctrine

Victorious figures in classic mythology are often showered with honors. The same way a wizard accumulates knowledge from his time adventuring the martial hero gathers titles and awards. Some heroes are given lands, sometimes entire kingdoms to rule over. They often gain titles of nobility such as lord or duke or a title of renown like “Protector of the Realm” or “Champion of Scarlet Wood”. A very successful martial character may find an adoring crowd around him when he enters the city, might have a festival devoted to his name or might find himself in a humble tavern overhearing a, perhaps slightly exaggerated, tale of his deeds.

As always, I want to hear from you. How do you martial characters stack up to their magic counterparts? Do you have your own ideas on how to polish up martial combatants? I want to hear them all!

6 thoughts on “The Secret of Martial Power”

  1. I really like the ‘you bloodied the orc, tell us how you did it’ because you can only think up so many descriptions, and sometimes a player is just dying to tell you what’s going on in their mind’s eye.

    Here’s another thought, why not engage more characters: “The fighter just bloodied the orc – ranger, tell us how he did it.” I think that has potential for bringing groups together. Too often as a player it can be easy to become a little ego centric, and not even try to imagine what’s going on for other characters.

    By the way, my favourite description for a monster death was when the barbarian managed to get a sucessful critical hit. Expecting something with blood, guts, and dismemberment I stood up and told him: “Your weapon arcs through the air but barely scratches the monster. A scratch, but it will do. It falls down dead.” – I thought he was about to rage on me after that!

  2. Great post, and I totally agree with you. So far, my observations indicate that players who choose to play non-magic wielder classes choose these classes because of the “style” of the character that they have in mind; usually they care less about the power, but care more about the style.

    However, a second article that deepens this one would be great

  3. Thanks for the input.

    Personally I also grant almost super-heroic powers if a player chooses an athletics feat like Long Jumper or Fast Runner.

    It’s just a lot of fun to let players feel good about their characters

  4. I really liked your post. I agree with all. Well, I try to describle and put a special flavor in the martial characters of my players. Their eyes glow when I describle a scene that exceeds their physical prowess. In my campaign of Legends of Aldaria – The Shadow Court, There is 2 martial players they like to personalize their characters, and I encourages them to it! This post reminded me to create or give magic itens that inspires them. I liked it a lot.

    Sorry if my english is not good, i’m learning yet ^^”

  5. I think you make some really good points. For Martial characters, it’s all about style. You’re already balanced to your caster buddies in 4e, so you have room to be creative. If the Wizard says his magic missile shoots a black disc, people would look at him funny. But a Fighter can swing his sword however he wants. Another thing Martial guys have going for them in 4e is that they can get the Mythic Sovereign epic destiny, which arcane guys can’t. It’s not cheese-tastic like Demigod, but it is so amazingly flavorful. Its basically the old school D&D “You get a keep and men-at-arms” class feature, but at the end of the destiny you become a legendary ruler of your chosen country!

    On an unrelated note – one thing I’m trying out for my Spirits of Eden campaign setting (a very high magic place) was to have Martial attacks that do some magic-lite as well. For example, a Fighter swinging a sword with such will and strength he leaves a streak of fire on an opponent (and weirder tricks) – such that instead of dealing ongoing normal damage, it’d deal ongoing fire damage, or it would ignore resistances to a point. Of course, this might be defeating the purpose by giving some magic to fighters, but in Eden everybody has spiritual power, so it seems fitting.

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