The first times I personally encountered the term “Warlord” were indeed as a title for certain very heroic figures in fiction. These being first John Carter Warlord of Mars. And the DC comics character the Warlord. In the TV series Xena we see explicit Warlords and what I identify as a gender shifted version -aka- Warrior Princess. Admittedly these characters did not necessarily exhibit the tactical genius or small company leadership that even Aragorn** in the Lord of the Rings does let alone what we see in characters like Itka Solork of Alderamin on the Sky (known as the lazy general).
In Avatar the Last Air Bender we have Soka who though he begins more like comedy relief eventually manifests in true Warlord fashion demonstrating he is definitely a brilliant heroic mind.
Matrim Cathoun from the Wheel of Time Chronicles - began the story as a likeable rogue, but became many things partially through reincarnative memories and fate, such as Marshal General of the Band of the Red Hand, husband of the empress of the Seanchan empire and probably his worlds greatest general. He reflects a melding of both of the mythic characters Odin and Loki. (Warlord and Trickster).
In recent fiction the very popular Game of Thrones arguably features a cast of characters prolific with those who fit the bill as Warlords Noteably Tyrion Lannister and Lady Stark and Khal Drogo which in 4th edition terms they might be Tactical Lazylord, Inspiring Lazylord, Bravura - Tyrion Lannister(and his father), Lady Stark and Khal Drogo. If you are a fan I am sure you can name many more.
Then we also have characters of legend such as those brought to life in Disneys Mulan. Both she and her adversary Shan Yu are Warlords it is tactical acumen and mental adroitness that made each significant though also capable in physical warfare they are definitely great demonstrations of the clever warrior.
Myth brings on noteworthy examples as well. Ullysses/Odysseus is certainly a significant case of ancient mythic warlords ( a perfect Archer Warlord and Clever Warrior). In fact patronage of Athena (wisdom and battle) as opposed to Ares might be seen as flag in greco-roman warrior archetypes indicating Warlord. Ie demonstrating a percieved split between a more raw warrior and the wise one (This could even be an archetypeal pull for distinct classes).
Arguably the semi-historical Arthur of England in spite of the very little known about him seems very much in this category as well. Not to mention actual historical figures (but the Players handbook of AD&D 2e most certaintly does mention them.)
**If to you it seems odd that I mention Aragorn in his Warlord role (or should I call it Captain) rather than Ranger if you think in 3.x terms consider it him having levels of Ranger and Warlord/Marshal and if you think in terms of 4e classes you probably understand without explanation
The Warlord began as a very bright twinkle in the eye of the fighter. Although the AD&D 1e fighter had the title of Lord by 9th level and gaining followers were sort of intended to be a feature – the angle of followers being integral to game play has rather never really gelled for most D&D play. This nod to the Warlord pales compared to the flavor text of the first description of the 2e fighter which also included the word tactics.
“The fighter is a champion, swordsman, soldier, and brawler. He lives or dies by his knowledge of weapons and tactics.
Note that doesnt say Weapons OR Tactics. AD&D 2e further during the more elaborate description of the fighter class very much includes tactics and strategy as well as examples of characters many who obviously very much are Warlords!!! Noteably Beowulf, Alexander the Great and a number of others.
The fighter is a warrior, an expert in weapons and, if he is clever, tactics and strategy.There are many famous fighters from legend: Hercules, Perseus, Hiawatha, Beowulf, Siegfried, Cuchulain, Little John, Tristan, and Sinbad. History is crowded with great generals and warriors: El Cid, Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, Spartacus, Richard the Lionheart, and Belisarius.
Arguably one could say the 2e fighter WAS intended in no small way to encompass the character concept we have with the Warlord. However just as the 1e fighter was intended to defend his less hale/hearty allies yet lacked any real game tools for doing so the 2e fighter lacked the tools to follow through with his promise as tactician/strategic leader.
3/3.5e was an ambitious change to the game itself in comparison to anything which came before as well as systematizing the over all D&D Design itself as D20 (and simultaneously altering the core manner of simultaneous resolution from 1e and 2e ) was perhaps the first to bring mechanics in to play to attempt to bring the ideas invoked earlier at least for the Warlord while the implicit defender role didnt get more than a smattering eventually we see the Marshal class and White Raven maneuvers from The Tome of Battle in the hands of either Warblade or Crusader either effectively taking up the Warlord banner. In spite of its fairly radical changes in the base game the first of these invocations of the Warlord was a very tentative addition to the 3.x game.
The Marshal class from 3.x was a specialized class with not overly flexible nor really active abilities also seemed underfed in potency it was a VERY tentative design, considered by many a resounding failure. By contrast the White Raven maneuvers might be seen as inspiration for much of what was brought forward in 4e, and could allow one to decide how much one specialized in that arena and could impact multiple classes. Regardless neither of these were designed in a way that subjectively felt at all “core to the game”.
The very open licensed 3.x almost required a dramatic new edition to establish new IP for the product line bringing an opportunity for the realization of ideas long a part of D&D but left undone. The 4th edition of D&D came forward with 2 distinct players handbook character classes giving us both the Defending Fighter mentioned in 1e (This fighter was very versatile even from the beginning and became even more so it could readily be built or end up in play providing striker functionality or with very weapon expert flavored abilities) and the Tactical Fighter of 2e mention came into its own in the Warlord Class.
The Warrior Lord and clever Fighter had arrived at last.
This Warlord could be clever in either the tricky/charismatic, tactically intelligent fashion or the perceptive/wise measure and use that to manipulate the battlefield almost like a chessboard. It demonstrated the ability to enable his allies to operate at their best even more profoundly than other leaders or it could be adjusted to be a decent inspiring healer and even portray a non-combatant in the form of a lazy lord build. It was one of the more versatile and popular classes of that edition, and if Martial Practices had been followed through on would have been a match for any in that regard.
Even the defender fighter could make Str/Int/Wis their main attributes adjusting their style nicely with a few interesting feats and function fairly well in that sense as a light armored fighter with a lot of decent boost from Wisdom and Intelligence, ie your clever fighter could work in a role other than the "leader" one with some striker/defender emphasis offering enemies a damned if they do and damned if they don't options.
In the latter stages of 4e the games developers brought back the Marshal name for the class and the title of Weaponmaster a name notably evoking the weapons expert mentioned in 2e as the other aspect of the fighter.
At some level 4th edition could even be identified as the Athena Edition of D&D
And then there was the Battlemaster.
It turns out that while 5e abandoned the Warlord / Marshal as a primary class the Warlord is incarnated in perhaps a more subdued form as the Battlemaster, ie “Battle” == War and “Master” == Lord. Additionally there is a smattering of Warlord else where such as in the Mastermind Rogue and Bard.
I find that a rather clever naming. The Battlemaster a fighter subclass uses directly the method employed in the Tome of Battle, ie it has a number of maneuvers that may be accessible by more than one class which enables creation of a tactical fighter.
Thing is it seems like there is no class specific benefit to Intelligence or Wisdom for the Battlemaster and only slight charisma benefit. Is the Battlemaster actually a clever character? It appears not particularly. But arguably you "CAN" be that one flavor of clever there remain a lot of design and balance elements that seem geared to discourage it -- ie to be a bit snarky it's like the mechanics say quit being uppity and play the dumb jock as that is the class you picked.
Further putting a damper on it zero of the Battlemasters abilities help the whole team. The type feels effectively a side kick when it does do its warlord trick - ok not really fair the multiattack ability the character has him like a ranger from 4e but who can pick minor support elements instead of minor control.
Additionally there are edition differences which make the Battlemaster with tactical tools schtick somewhat less valuable or feel less tuned, battlefield position is at least in theory de-emphasized in the edition. (no flanking for instance so the chess master feel, has less bite Even if you can use distracting strike for granting stronger advantage)
sigh the battlemaster seems to have lost the path,in spite of good name and structure.
Battlemaster Take II
Given the above promising starting point inspite of its meanderance and a relatively Open License there have been many subsequent homebrew takes on how to evoke a Warlord in 5e, and even the recommendation to simply multiclass the dickens out of various other classes mentioned previously actually isnt as bad as it first seems. Combined with elements like the feat Inspirational Leader and the promise of atleast the Charismatic Walord starts to have richer flesh
Add a custom homebrew fighting style which leads subsequent attackers to openings.
Add something to fix problems with initiative for any non-dex build variety of fighter (start with the Variant Fighter)
Use the Variant Fighter an elaborate homebrew that rebalances the fighter as a whole not just the Battlemaster and introduces its own Tactician
5E Warlord Take III aka the Mearls Happy Fun Hour (unfinished offering)
This is a better attempt to make an intelligent fighter and he is calling it a Warlord even it may have functional problems I am uncertain about but it's goals feel good AND I think it is worth perhaps listening to the whole sequence of design, and maybe even waiting for a final version, he mentioned the idea of a new warlordish fighting style (which he did not cover in the more detailed elaboration). He also mentioned it might be appropriate to release in a Darksun game expansion.
(arguably this may be the closest to an official published offering we may see, its another D&D designer Robert Schwalb and not satisfying at all.)
This is presented as a primary class not a subclass of fighter. Theoretically that should allow more flexibility than a fighter subclass might be however not sure i see it. This is a charisma build warlord and in that regards I would say it is not nor do the benefits even those provided by the strategem of the supreme tactician derive from intellect nor actually feel like those of a tactical genius, they seem like some raw number bonuses instead of enemy manipulation or any other interesting features from the tactical Warlord, with that subtype it has a patch so your history skill may not suck...Other reviews of this seem in agreement while it may have some structurally sound elements, I find it actually less satisfying upon examination than other options already presented and misses the mark over all.