Design Diary: The Amazon


I’m involved in a little project of creating a DMs Guild product that includes the updates of various character archetypes from earlier editions. One of those character archetypes is The Amazon, from the second edition Complete Fighter’s Handbook. You can see a work-in-process version below.


My hope here is to talk a bit about the process of designing these things as I’m going through them.


My  goal is to allow people who enjoyed the kit from the source material to realize the the archetype in a satisfying way in the current game. I prefer to use a light touch where possible.

Research & Analysis

The source material for this kit is weighed down with come good ol’ fashioned 1980’s gender baggage. Though it does an admirable job of confronting the gender bias that might have persisted in the audience, the very fact that there is a kit specifically designed for women warriors is…kind of remarkable in it’s ability to create the Other in game rules.

That said, the archetype is certainly a fantasy staple that persists into the modern age, and it’s an appealing warrior archetype – an outsider, dedicated to war, suspicious of the society she finds herself in…there’s a lot of juicy potential in that narrative.

I also consulted the Amazon monster entry from the 2e era, and derived from there a few more variations on the theme. I identified seven different “flavors” of Amazon described in the source material.These seven kinds of characters formed the core of my design.

Design Notes

To meet the primary design goal, I considered what was most remarkable and unique about the kit as presented. The “bonus for being a SURPRISE competent woman warrior” wasn’t something that made sense in the Forgotten Realms assumptions of D&D (where gender equality is the norm), and some of the 2e-era role-playing restrictions weren’t exactly something I wanted to tie into the mechanics of the class. I wanted it to be up to the players and the DM how this hero was treated, and to presume she was treated no differently than any other woman warrior in the Realms – though she may see herself differently.

I gravitated toward the proficiencies the character requires or receives as a bonus as distinguishing – the mount, the spear, and the bow. Adding on the flavors from the monster version of the Amazon, this came to mean seven significant kinds of characters:

  1. A charioteer
  2. A mounted archer
  3. A sailor
  4. An elven variant
  5. A dwarven variant
  6. A gnomish variant
  7. A halfling variant

The racial variants had significant deviation in their proficiencies and in their apparent playstyle, so they couldn’t just be rolled into One True Amazon very easily, without erasing some of their distinctive traits. These seven character types became “The Seven Sisters” in the current design – seven city-states that bear witness to the ancient ways of the Amazons.

In turning to the existing 5e rules to see how these characters would be realized, I saw a lot of support for most of these characters. Fighting on horseback, with two weapons, and with ranged weapons (thrown or bows) are all fairly decently supported. In my initial run, I created a subclass for an Amazon Warrior, providing seven different potential benefits all centered around that Amazon group’s particular style. However, subsequent drafts found this to be a bit unwieldy and unnecessary – there was nothing particularly special about being a horse-archer in 5e D&D that taking Sharpshooter and Mounted Combatant wouldn’t achieve, and a lot of class abilities, in trying to incentivize the style, were re-treading ground already tread by  other rules elements. In addition, I felt that fighting with a spear or a sling or chariot shouldn’t be something you “graduate” to at 3rd level – you shouldn’t start the game wielding a pike and then turn it into a spear after your first few adventures. That’s not an “upgrade.”

So I simplified. Looking beyond subclasses, I sought to build these characters using as few new options as possible, and especially in realizing their unique fighting styles from level 1. In doing so, I identified three main areas that, without new options, were a little anemic:

  1. There needed to be some reason to be a charioteer for that character type.
  2. For the spear-fighting “hoplyte” character type, there needed to be a mechanic that raised spear damage to the level of most martial weapon damage, while still letting them wield it in one hand. Fighting with a spear needed to be there.
  3. For the halfling variant, there needed to be a mechanic to raise javelin and sling damage to the level of most martial weapon damage.

These also didn’t strike me as exclusively Amazon in nature. To embody an ancient Greek spear-fighter or one who uses primitive weapons (or a chariot!), one needn’t necessarily be an Amazon. I did want to ensure that campaigns that didn’t use feats could still access these types.

The answer seemed to be fighting styles. Though these fighting styles are a bit bigger and more complex than the existing options in the Player’s Handbook, the concept itself allowed multiple character types – in multiple classes – to access these mechanics. It also addressed the need to power-up weak weapons from Level 1, which was important in achieving a feel for the character.

Ongoing Concerns

These styles are a little inelegant and wordy. They combine many benefits under a single option. Their lists of benefits feel more “feat-like” than “fighting-style” like. I think these are important in concert, but I also wonder about just creating new equipment to fill that void (a javelin, spear, and sling that count as a “martial weapon” in and of themselves?), though I think that would rob the Amazon of some of her “ancient” flavor. There should be some way to give every campaign (even those without feats) a first-level fighter who uses “simple” weapons as effectively as most fighters use martial weapons. I’ve got concerns about mounts and chariots that relate to how 5e in general treats mounts and animal companions – I don’t like how the charioteer isn’t at “full strength” without a chariot, and there’s not an easy mechanic to ensure they always have a chariot in a fight (at the very least, sometimes a chariot just isn’t appropriate for a fight you’re doing). At the moment, our charioteer is kind of a wasted option in a campaign that takes place in cramped kobold warrens or somesuch.

A Lesson Learned

The aesthetic of your character – the weapons and armor you prefer to wield – are fairly ground-level concerns. You should look the part of the warrior you’re embodying from basically 1st level on, even if you don’t have all the bells and whistles yet.