Pirates and various seafaring renegades are a common character archetype in works of fantasy.
Their roguish, swashbuckling ways give birth to amazing roleplaying and a different kind of adventure than you’d get with your average wizards and barbarians.
But did you know we missed the chance to get a fighter feature that would let us make this character with so much more ease? Today, we’re talking about the Mariner Fighting Style in 5e.
We’ll be going over what exactly this feat is, how balanced it is, and what kind of characters it would work best with.
What Is the Mariner Fighting Style?
The mariner fighting style was an optional fighting style introduced in 5e’s unearthed arcana. It allowed fighters not using heavy armor or shields to get a +1 to AC and gain a climbing and swimming speed.
Unfortunately, this is one of the many exciting mechanics that have not made it out of UA.
If you’re not aware, UA is where WotC releases new playtest materials before actually publishing them. This gives them an opportunity to see how balanced they are and to see how well received they are by the community.
While mariner was relatively well received, it was found to not be balanced enough to get the official stamp of approval. So, let’s talk about what it really does and how exactly it works.
Fighting Style is a 1st-level feature for fighters, rangers, and paladins that show a character’s expertise in a particular style of combat.
The mariner fighting style was rather unique, offering us two special movement speeds meeting its restrictions. The inspiration for this feature was some form of seafaring character: a sailor, pirate, marine, etc.
This went away from other fighting styles because it offered us something that was useful outside of combat, two things in fact.
In 5e, climbing and swimming both require you to use an extra foot of movement speed for every foot you travel. In other words, you move at half speed.
If you have a climbing and/or swimming speed, doing these things doesn’t cost you any extra movement. In addition, a swimming speed allows you to use your normal weapons in water without incurring disadvantage.
Basically, both of these movement speeds give us some really interesting traverse options. Of the two of them, swimming is perhaps the more situationally useful since you need to be near water.
Climbing, on the other hand, gives you a lot of options if you’re in a city, cave, forest, or basically anywhere that isn’t a wide-open space.
Ranged combatants can benefit greatly from the ability to quickly scurry up to an eagle’s nest without having to roll for success.
Bonus to Armor Class
We get our +1 bonus to AC when not wearing heavy armor or using a shield. Since better armor is typically the way to go, this is actually a really nice way to incentivize a more dexterous playstyle.
While avoiding heavy armor and shields might sound like a setback, it actually opens up a lot of really nice abilities.
Sure, you won’t be rocking a 20-something AC without some serious help from other features, but you do get to engage in dual wielding.
Not having to consider heavy armor means a much higher chance of being stealthy as well since all standard heavy armor imposes disadvantage on stealth checks.
Chain shirts, breastplates, or any light armor make a lot more sense for a seafarer as well.
In fact, that’s where this requisite comes from. Few things in D&D are arbitrary decisions, and this is no exception.
Someone wearing heavy armor would clearly have a much harder time swimming around in the ocean or climbing around up in the rigging of a ship.
Why Didn’t Mariner Make the Cut?
WotC doesn’t often explain their decisions when scrapping UA material.
Some of it makes the cut, some of it doesn’t, and occasionally we get revisions for additional playtesting. To see why mariner didn’t make the cut, we’ll have to look at 5e’s design principle.
The tenet I see brought up most often in regards to this feature is that new material should never directly replace published material.
There tends to be an argument that this replaces the defense fighting style (+1 to AC while wearing armor).
The argument suggests that there would be no incentive for anyone using light or medium armor to take defense over mariner. All things considered, this is a really good point.
While the heavy-armor restriction distinguishes it a bit, mariner isn’t different enough to feel like anything less than an improvement.
An additional thought I would’ve had, had this been written back in 2015, is that fighting styles don’t offer benefits out of combat.
That has since been changed with the introduction of the druidic and blessed warrior styles, each of which let you choose a cantrip.
Mariner steps on some toes, but that doesn’t make it a bad feature on its own. The next question would be if this is balanced or not.
In the right hands and scenarios, this is an incredibly powerful set of abilities. Climbing speeds have so many potential benefits in and out of combat.
There are plenty of racial and class features that do little more than offer a special movement speed, so the addition of a bonus to AC seems to tip the scales a bit.
However, I would argue that this is really what makes for a balanced feature. Balanced features can be incredibly powerful – there’s nothing against that. If they are OP though, they need to be situationally useful at best.
Since you aren’t always going to be able to climb or swim and drastically change the course of events, this is a situationally useful feature.
Were this not to have a bonus to AC, it would’ve probably been overlooked, and we wouldn’t still be talking about it today. As it stands, the combination of two decent abilities in a feature is nothing to turn our heads from.
Mariner is a good feature, and while it has a lot of potential, it’s balanced from where I stand. At very least, it’s more balanced than plenty of things that have made the transition from UA to published material.
Bonus: Mariner Build
Mariner was introduced in an Unearthed Arcana set called “Waterborne Adventurers” along with the swashbuckler subclass of rogue.
It only makes sense to combine the two, so we’re doing so by picking up the Fighting Initiate feat and giving our rogue access to fighting styles.
Picking a race was fairly easy, as there’s one amazing race for working with movement speeds. The tabaxi racial trait, feline agility, allows you to double your movement speed for a turn.
Combining this with a dash action quadruples your movement speed, allowing you to swim or climb up to 120 feet in a single turn.
Pirate only makes sense as the logical choice for our swashbuckling cat. I picture a young tabaxi that was stowed away on a trade ship leaving the shores of Maztica.
When a group of buccaneers commandeered the vessel, they found our young adventure-to-be and trained them from a young age.
After all of that, the only thing I wanted to add was another good feat selection. Defensive duelist – let’s use our reaction to get a boost to AC when using a finesse weapon.
Putting all of this together gives us an agile seafarer that’s light on their feet and quick with a sword. We’ll call them… Jack of Sparrows. I love a good derivative character.
Hopefully, this has convinced you to allow this particular bit of UA into your next campaign. I love features that give us a clear theme to work with, and at the very least, this can get us thinking about our next high-seas campaign.
As always, happy adventuring.