Stick them with the pointy End
Join Demiplane Community Member Kyle Taylor (Stormchaser) in Homebrew University: a recurring blog that explores practical frameworks and perspectives to evolve popular Tabetop Roleplaying games to best fit you and your table’s tastes!
Hello Game Masters!
Last time on Homebrew University, we talked about how armour can be enhanced to be more engaging and what design principles a homebrewer needs to take into account when writing these kinds of rules. Today, we’re going to examine the other side of that coin – weaponry.
Cutting Edge Technology
The list of weapons in the Player’s Handbook for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is… spartan, to say the least. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, depending on your philosophy when it comes to game design, you might be fully in favour of a short and simple weapon list. However, this is Homebrew University, so we’re going to pick that list apart and take it a bit further.
One of the most commonly heard criticisms levelled against the weapon options provided by 5e is that your choice of weapon is often fairly meaningless. It doesn’t affect how you fight or allow you to do different things. The two best examples of this are longsword/battleaxe and glaive/halberd pairings. The weapons in each pair are functionally identical to one another. The battleaxe is slightly cheaper and heavier than the longsword, but both are 1d8 (1d10 versatile) slashing weapons. This is even more gratuitous in the case of the glaive and halberd, which are identical in every way. It begs the question, why have two different options on the list at all, when the PHB encourages the reskinning of weapon mechanics with different names on page 78 anyway?
Reskinning is often the simplest form of homebrew, but it can also be the most profound. At the end of the day, the mechanics are there to balance damage output. As long as this is maintained, it’s entirely reasonable to have those numbers represent another weapon of a similar size. This is epitomised by the melee weapons presented in the roleplaying game Stars Without Number by Kevin Crawford, which, in fact, only has three main types of melee weapon; small, medium and large. The player (or GM) is free to describe the nature of the weapon however they want – it simply doesn’t affect the mechanics. A similar approach would also be a perfectly valid way to streamline the vanilla weapons of 5e into something more elegant. However, it doesn’t achieve our goal of introducing diversity of use between weapon types.
Choose Your Weapon
To make weapon choice meaningful, we first begin by dividing weapons into groups. For example, blades, axes, bludgeoning weapons, polearms and so on. To each of these groups, we assign a signature weapon property that conjures up the feeling evoked in the wielding of such a weapon. For polearms, this is typically already included in the form of the reach property. However, in the vanilla game the other weapons groups mentioned here have nothing to differentiate them from one another. In my own rules, which are also included in Grit and Glory, these are parry, sweeping and sundering, respectively. Parry makes swords superior in the arena of defensive sword play, sweeping enables axes to make wide swings that can hit more than one target and sundering makes bludgeoning weapons the superior choice when facing a heavily armoured opponent. Of course, this is simply one interpretation of what characterises these weapon groups. If you’re looking to brew your own similar system, then consider the following:
- What is the unique selling point of each weapon type?
- How does this provide additional utility in combat?
- Does your mechanic step on the toes of existing feats or class features? (common mechanics may bump into features of D&D 5e’s battlemaster martial archetype for the fighter class)
Weapon properties are a powerful tool to add utility to weapons, but too many can also bloat and overcomplicate the weapon options. Another aspect of the weapon design space is, naturally, the damage die itself. For larger weapons, there are two ways in which an ‘equivalent’ damage die can diverge to differentiate two weapons of similar size. Multiple smaller dice produce a more consistent result. However, that comes at the cost of a lower chance of rolling high. The single die produces a more ‘swingy’ result.
Coming back around to the above example of the different weapon groups, this can also be used as a way to distinguish weapons that fulfil similar rolls. Consider the greatsword, maul and great axe. All three are big two-handed weapons that pack a punch to a maximum of 12, but by varying the damage probability distribution between them, we can change the style of each.
Several small dice give a result without much variation and this approach synergises well with great weapon fighting style, but one larger die synergises better with critical boosting half-orc racial and barbarian class features for crit-fishing builds. This emulates the difference between the more precise blade and the more savage axe and brings this flavour into the game mechanically.
Beyond the Mundane
Last time, I mentioned that 5th edition rebalanced the scaling of combat difficulty in D&D to primarily revolve around how many hit points you have and how much damage you can deal, as opposed to attack bonus and armour class. A symptom of this is the rapid increase in the number of hit points that monsters have with increasing CR. Sometimes, this can lead to martial characters like fighters and barbarians falling behind spellcasters in terms of their damage output at higher levels, unless they have a scaling class feature like a paladin’s smite or a rogue’s sneak attack or are particularly well optimised. One option that a GM has at their disposal to help remedy this, is awarding the character with a customised magic item to help them keep up. However, the simple +1-3 provided by a standard magic weapon rarely suffices for this purpose. While magic items can also come with a variety of powerful abilities that can be far more interesting and far reaching than a simple damage boost, let us concentrate on this aspect for the moment.
Here, I take inspiration from Pathfinder 2e and adjust +X weapons to grant +1 to hit and an additional die of damage, such that a warhammer that normally deals 1d8 bludgeoning damage now deals 2d8. This not only helps to combat hit point bloat, but is also a more rewarding experience for players, who generally enjoy rolling dice! This bonus damage need not be of the weapon’s base type, but could also be elemental if appropriate and the approach can also be applied to arrows. Arrows that explode for an additional die of fire damage are not only fun, but also help to balance ranged combat, which is often at the upper end of the power curve in 5e, by making their magical damage boost a consumable. This works by removing damage bonuses from bows and attack bonuses from arrows, such that an archer needs both for the equivalent of a +1 weapon.
If any of these ideas have grabbed your attention and you have further questions, then please reach out to me on Demiplane’s Discord server. Have fun with your campaigns and I’ll see you next time on Homebrew University!
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