“Fighting Man” was the first version of the fighter. The name, like fighter, is pretty clear about what such a character is all about. The meat and potatoes combat monkey. When something nasty rears its head the fighters step into the breach with sword and shield to trade blows with horrific monstrosities to guard the magic users with the help of a cleric. Despite all its fiddly bits the surface is an elegant system. One class focused on combat, one on magic, and the cleric a bridge class capable of holding its own in combat and using limited divine magic.
Subclasses were added for the fighter in later supplements and editions. The fighter could now specialize in a certain style of combat or even be a Fighter (Paladin), further specializing the class. Fighters could now play very differently. A ‘Sword & Board’ Fighter Paladin was a different beast from a Fighter Barbarian with a two-handed ax.
Metaclasses were introduced and the fighter was placed as a subclass of the Warrior alongside paladin and ranger. Subclasses transformed into classes in their own right. Third edition did away with the metaclass idea and its roster touted 11 base classes in the Player’s Handbook. The Fighter now shared its martial glory with the Barbarian, Monk, Paladin, and Ranger classes. Third edition also introduced a much simpler and pervasive multiclassing option. Now PCs often dabbled in two or more base classes as they progressed becoming piecemeal amalgamations.
By the 4th Edition of D&D, the fighter had lost much of its clout. It was no longer had access to the best armor at 1st level, lost its versatile mastery in weapons. Fighters no longer did the most damage in weapons combat or have the best fighting defenses. Fighters were now just people who wore armor and swung swords but lacked the extra flair of the paladin, ranger, warlord, battlemind, and warden classes. Fighters appear to have been included for posterity only.
D&D Next is again changing what a fighter is all about. The fighter will be regaining the martial feats of 3.X along with a new mechanic of expertise dice. Fighters expend their expertise dice to use combat maneuvers such as using a shield to protect themselves or nearby allies from ranged attacks. This mechanic is completely separate from other classes but shares some similarities with the Monk’s Ki abilities.
While the fighter is a class and concept I love it seems, with D&D at least, to have run its course. The fighter was initially conceived to be the guy who was trained in using arms and armor. As soon as other classes were introduced who also relied heavily on the use of arms and armor the fighter lost its niche. Other classes essentially Fighters+, they use arms and armor plus do something else. I hate to think of killing the fighter, but I would rather it be buried than watch D&D drag its broken body through the mud for the sake of posterity.
One thing I would like to see in D&D Next is the return of Opportunity Attacks. I would scrap the convoluted Expertise mechanic and make opportunity attacks an exclusive Fighter class trait. To me at least that would in a simple mechanic cement the combat superiority I expect from the class.