Homebrew University Episode 4 Podcast: Cutting Edge Weapon Customization [5e Weaponry]

Post-brew podcast Episode 4: Cutting Edge WEapon Customization

Welcome to our 4th episode of Homebrew University’s Post-Brew podcast! This episode is a follow-up to yesterday’s Homebrew University: A Good Offence by Kyle Taylor (Stormchaser, @stormchaser6) in which he discussed how to customize weapons to give them a more unique feel. Today, Kyle sits down with Demiplane’s Peter Romenesko to talk 5e weaponry, tips for homebrewing custom melee, magic, and ranged weapons, and weapon properties!

Kick back and enjoy a brew with us – or read the transcript of their conversation below!


Peter: Hey Everyone and Welcome to another episode of Homebrew University. I’m here with Kyle Taylor, also known as Stormchaser across the homebrew worlds of tabletop role playing. We’re working on a blog post and podcast that explores practical frameworks and perspectives for tabletop role playing games. Kyle, great to have you here again. 

Kyle: Hi, Pete! What’s up? 

Peter: Man, I will tell you what is up! We are talking about homebrewing weapons. As soon as I saw this post and we started talking about it and thinking through what to do – we did armor last time – I was like ‘why did we not start here?’ because this is what everybody wants to talk about. So, after I’m sure everyone’s just been sitting in their seats, strapped in, just waiting for this exact moment we’re talking about weapons, it’s finally here. So, everyone, you guys can get up from your seats now and walk around with the podcast on, you can go back to your normal lives after waiting for a few months. 

But, it’s awesome. I love this. So, we’re going to talk through a few things today. First, we’re going to talk through a little about the post, because I think you did a great job of laying out the spectrum of how you could think about weapons in popular games, and how other systems do some things really well. And then you’ve also added kind of a unique touch on a few systems that you’ve been involved with that I wanted to highlight, too, and use that as kind of an offering for game masters who are interested in incorporating something into their own universes. So, with that, why don’t we dive in first on the two ends of the spectrum. You do a great job at the beginning of this post, which you can check out on demiplane.com, you talk about the simplicity of some systems, like Stars Without Number, and how straightforward it is. You have small weapons, medium weapons, and large weapons. The damage scales based on size, but everything else is totally up to being flavored. So, the players get to choose kind of what things look like. And then on the opposite side you have this sort of mechanical diversity based on the weapons. So, you tweak the dice that get rolled in order to achieve a certain – I would call it a more mechanical outcome, so that the outputs are derived based on how a character may think about their weapon. And so, I’m curious on two things. One, I’m just curious if you can talk a little bit more about it, add some meat to that skeleton, but then, two, I’m also curious where do you see – the most popular game right now is D&D 5th Edition and the 5th Edition system – on that spectrum, where do you see 5th Edition and what does that look like and how do you like to play? 

Kyle: Well, I mean we’ve talked a lot before about how 5th Edition is the most popular one around right now and D&D in general has often been the game that gets people into RPGs, right? And so, because of that 5th Edition is very much designed to appeal to a broad audience. It makes sense. It’s essentially what their business is all about, they want to get a lot of people playing D&D. It makes sense. And so, because of that it takes a very moderate path, right? It’s right down the middle. The weapons of 5e are relatively simple. I mean, I mentioned in the article how there are even some that, if you look at the details, are exactly the same really, they’re just two instances with two different names. But there is also a selection, as I say, with different names like, you know, battleaxe and longsword and so on, to kind of guide people into looking for what they’re thinking about, so it doesn’t force you to completely come up with scratch – from scratch – with what your weapon is. But it gives you that kind of guideline of what’s available, but at the same time it doesn’t make anything too complex. It kind of just tries to go in the middle road and to appeal to a wide audience. And that makes a lot of sense for 5th Edition, because that’s what D&D’s role is, really, in the industry of RPGs. But, you know, there are other ways. 

You mentioned Stars without Number, I mean, Kevin Crawford has done great work on that and other games like Wolves of God and Worlds without Number, which he’s got upcoming. And he does a lot of OSR-type systems, so they’ve dialed it right back there and – at least in Stars Without Number – said you’ve just got your basic three types of weapons, right? You know, you’ve got these different sizes, but aside from that you can basically say, okay, is this an axe? Is this a sword? It doesn’t matter. Describe your game. It’s this OSR, old-school renaissance type of approach to the game. Saying that the story is whatever you make it, the rules are just there to be very bare bones and enable you to tell your stories. But as we’ve talked about with armor, sometimes that’s not enough for a certain type of role player. Some people want that detail, they want that grit, they want the information there where their choice of weapon makes a difference to how they play. And in a simple system like that it has its own advantage, but you don’t get that, you don’t get at the tactics of what weapon do you choose, what weapon do you use for a certain job. And, I mean, you can see something like this in as simple as what kind of physical damage type do you want to be dealing primarily. Do you want slashing, piercing, bludgeoning? And, you know, you could see this with old school undead, with the kind of things you have with skeletons and zombies in maybe D&D 3.5, where if you’re fighting a zombie and you’re using a piercing weapon or a bludgeoning weapon, you’re in trouble. 

Peter: You’re in trouble, right. 

Kyle: You need slashing, you need slashing to take it down. And then the opposite with skeletons, skeletons you need a bludgeoning weapon. And so the type of damage is the first layer of this. And even that is really available in 5e. And then you take it further and you look at kind of the different types of damage die you use the different kind of spread of how that damage falls out, whether you’re going to get a consistent average or whether you’re going to have more chance at hitting those high damage rolls. And they all feed into different play styles. I mean, some of them might work better with certain class abilities like the half-orc. Barbarian features give you an additional die on a critical and of course that is so much more effective when you have a weapon with a single large damage die like a great axe than it is or maybe a weapon where you have more or smaller damage die, because then you’re not adjudicating as large a portion of your damage potential. And so all of these features kind of come together when you want to have that more…that greater degree of tactical depth. And I think that’s what’s really valuable about having more detailed weapons, more properties, more variation in between them. 

Peter: Yeah. I’m curious, you know, this is just kind of a hot take. I think that 5e will be around for some time. It’s been around for a while, I think it’s got a lot of legs and they’re continuing to make great content for it – Wizards of the Coast is and the community is making great content around it – and you’ve got a lot of people who are playing it. I think…it’s also an introduction to tabletop role playing for a lot of people, so I’m curious, you know, what do you think if somebody comes out and says, ‘hey, what’s going to happen next? What do you think is going to happen next?’ Do you think that you’ll start seeing a more complex weapon system in, I don’t know…6th Edition? Or do you think you see something that stays the same or maybe goes a bit more…even more loose? Something more like Stars Without Number? What do you think? Where do you think this is going to lean as you’re looking at stuff that Wizards is publishing, and other people are publishing? 

Kyle: Well, when you look back at like 3.5 and Pathfinder and so on, weapons were more complex. You had things like critical threat ranges, which are completely absent from 5. And I think that Wizards on the whole are, as I said initially, looking to keep their game accessible. And that’s a decision that makes sense for them, but I also think that, because of that, you’re going to see a lot of people who’ve maybe started on 5e looking to platform out and broaden their horizons and get more perspectives on different types of games and see what else is out there to play. And that’s good for the industry in general, you know? You start playing multiple different types of RPGs, you start seeing different ways that things can be done, and it kind of broadens your own horizon and that feeds all the way back into homebrew. And I think the best thing to anyone who wants to do a lot of homebrew and write their own rules is really experience as many games as possible, because you see the different systems out there, you see the different ways that things can be done, you start to kind of compare and say what do you like, what do you not like, what do you want to keep, and you take and borrow these ideas and change them and see what works for you and you bring that into your own game. And that’s really valuable. And I think you get that by trying other things, you’ve got things like fantasy role playing and World of Darkness and Call of Cthulhu and there’s so many different systems that you can try. 

Peter: Absolutely.

Kyle: Or something like Shadow Run, which is a whole other level of complexity for people who are maybe used to D&D 5e. So I think, then, with regards to D&D specifically, it’s going to look to stay appealing to a wide audience, but then because of that, you know, that can in general lead to a flourishing industry for tabletop RPGs.

Peter: Awesome. Well, I want to just call out something in the post, because the people listening haven’t read it yet, won’t see it, but you do a great job of breaking down three popular big weapons. The big hitters. You have your great sword, the maul, and the great axe. And I encourage folks that are listening to check it out. It’s a great example of how mechanically changing the die and the hit die is going to change the probability of getting average damage or consistent damage vs max damage. And so Stormchaser does a great job of just laying out how you can mechanically change this thing and I encourage you to see it. Now, you mentioned something I’m going to grab onto as you were talking, and it was properties. And we didn’t talk about properties very much in the blog post. But properties add a great level of utility to weapons. So it almost opens another avenue outside of, or maybe in addition to, the actions that you would normally have available to you. So the one I always remember is – in some of the systems that you’ve helped with – is disarming. So you go through, you get a critical hit and on a critical hit you have the opportunity to go and use sort of bonus action disarm and then it’s a save that that person has to make that you can choose to use. And then there’s all these different other types of properties that exist that can influence different types of weapons. So how do you think about those? Where do you like to put those types of properties with weapons into play? Are they more in common weapons, special weapons? And do you have any favorites?

Kyle: Well, I mean, my approach when designing and applying properties is always to look at kind of how a weapon would handle if you’ve really got it in your hand. And if you ever do anything like HEMA – historical European martial arts and stuff – you get to know how some of these weapons feel and how they move and different weapons are good for different things. You talk about kind of where you apply them. It’s also a question of whether they’re maybe classified in 5e as maybe simple or martial, so with simple you generally want to keep it basic and then on martial weapons you can have a more complex variety of options. And then you’re looking at kind of what this weapon is good for. And that’s why, I mean, for example, in my rule set we have the dueling sword, which is a bit of a variation on the rapier. And it has a defensive property, which means that it is better for parrying than maybe an ordinary sword, because that’s kind of the way it’s built to handle. It’s going to give you a more effective parry. And one of my personal favorites is the critical property. Which basically means that when you score a critical hit, one of those die – you know you’ve got your basic die and then the extra die from the crit where you’ve doubled – and one deals maximum damage. And that’s really fun, especially when you’re playing someone like a rogue or a paladin where that class is natural all about that burst damage, you know, you want to max your crit chance and then you hit that crit and you’re doubling up on your sneak or your smite or whatever. And then when you’ve got a weapon with a critical property and you’re basically getting half of that at maximum damage, it’s really fun when you get to do that big hit. That’s a lot of fun to play with. 

Peter: That’s awesome. You didn’t ask, but I’m the person that’s asking the questions, so I can ask myself a question, which is ‘what’s my favorite?’ So, my favorite is the disruptive property. And we see this in Star Wars 5th Edition. It’s a fun property. When you hit someone who is concentrating on a spell you add the full damage to the DC. So 10 plus the full damage instead of half. You tend to see that on lower damage die weapons, but I think that’s a super neat way of thinking about breaking concentration differently. So, I really like that, I can appreciate the thought that goes into that, the very specific utility that goes in there. It makes me feel like a mage-hunter magic weapon, you know, it’s a perfect addition for adding flavor for people that might not be applicable in every scenario, but when you need it it’s super handy. 

Kyle: Yeah, and I mean the ability to consistently shut down a caster like that is just extremely valuable. 

Peter: Right. 

Kyle: And of course it becomes all the more interesting when you get something like that going up against someone who’s maybe got the warcaster ability. 

Peter: Right. 

Kyle: And then, you know, who’s going to come out on top?

Peter: Yeah. exactly, exactly. 

Kyle: Sometimes, especially when you’ve got a class with a smaller hit die or something where, sure, they’re a control class so they’re keeping those concentration abilities up, but they’re susceptible. And so that, that can come in really nicely. 

Peter: Right. Awesome. There’s a third thing that you bring up, which is sort of a way to… you’ve kind of borrowed it from Pathfinder to address the power level of martial characters as they grow and the game progresses and as your characters progress. And I think the concern that you highlight is over time martial characters feel like they aren’t delivering as much damage as their peers in kind of a round-by-round or maybe turn-by-turn basis. And so one of the things you brought up was Pathfinder 2e has a way where you’re able to increase an additional die of damage, almost like a cantrip scaling, but for weapons is kind of how I read it. Talk a little about that. So, how do you like fitting that into the way that you think about playing with your players and where they are and how you kind of tell that in your story without basically just going out and handing everybody 3d8 warhammers. 

Kyle: [laughs]

Peter: Where does that fit in? 

Kyle: Well, I think cantrip scaling is a nice way of looking at it, but this is really exactly the kind of thing I meant earlier when I said the more different games you try and experience the more you get these ideas together you can borrow and manipulate in whatever way you want. And what Pathfinder 2nd Edition has basically done is they’ve broken down magic weapons into a fully-stated rune system. It’s really nice, it’s really clean. Every rune has a level, and a specific cast and you can basically modular build how your own magic weapon works. 

Peter: Cool.

Kyle: Well I saw that and thought this is great! So, I ported it to 5e. And you can take these ideas and play with them and adjust them. So, basically, it’s just as simple as saying hey, you might want to say your basic +1 magic weapon – it doesn’t have to be magic, you could reflavor that, you could say a +1 weapon is masterwork or whatever. It’s a finely forged and honed blade, you know, and then you get these blades where instead of getting +1 damage you get +1d8 or whatever the damage die of your weapon is. And then that’s of course a significantly bigger buff. It might just be +1 or it might be a whole lot more. And that’s a special weapon. I would not just give that out all the time to anyone. This is the kind of thing that you do when you’ve got a custom magic item that’s tailored to the story of a player. 

Peter: Right. 

Kyle: You mention warhammers. I’ve got in one of my campaigns a Paladin of Thor and he found an especially fine warhammer that is his absolute pride and joy. He’s running around with it dealing like 2d8 on every hit. And this is exactly the thing that this is the kind of weapon that has to be earned, right?

Peter: Right. 

Kyle: It’s got to be earned, it’s got to be part of the narrative, it’s got to be a unique special thing, this is not the standard item you’re finding in every dungeon. But you bring that into play, and it can make a whole lot of fun. And there’s a lot of – you talked about properties before – the same idea goes to magical properties. You get a lot of these represented in the runic system that Pathfinder has going on with different magical effects that you can apply to an item, be it a suit of armor or a weapon or whatever. And there’s a lot to be learned there for 5th Edition, there’s a lot that is useful. Whether or not you’ve got shadow armor or weapons that are especially effective against undead or whatever. Really nice to kind of take these different effects and you build them together into whatever combination you want for that magic weapon. And it’s not dissimilar to designing a mundane weapon, it’s just that’s got that higher power level and that magical flavor to it. 

Peter: Right. Yeah, think about, you know, anything to watch out for, you know, you talk about it in a unique way, treat it as unique. Anything to watch out for that you’ve experienced in your games as a game master who is like super jacked about hearing about this, thinks it’s a great idea, they’re going to incorporate it, any advice that you’d have? Like, hey, if you’re going to do this, be careful not to do X, Y, or Z. Anything that you would want to call out? 

Kyle: I think the biggest one is that you’ve got to be fair throughout the party, right? So if you’re seeing one player is taking a lot of the spotlight in combat and the other players start to feel a bit less useful, you might want to consider how you’re going to deal with that and whether or not you need to give out additional items to other players, which is going to ramp up the power level of your game, so you want to be wary of that, or if you need to take an outer-game perspective and maybe just have a word with the player specifically and how this is effecting our game, how do we want to handle this? Because you’ve got to be careful with unbalancing the game and this is why I say these very powerful items, they will take you up a notch, you know? They will affect, essentially, the CR of the monsters that your party can handle and so you basically want to be aware of that. And then also on the other side of that you’ve got things like attack bonuses are a much bigger thing to be aware of when you’re kind of giving out items with a magical bonus, because, like we mentioned bounded accuracy last week, and how the whole armor system works with 5e, and so you want to be cautious about giving out anything that gives too much of an attack bonus. Unless it’s compensated for on the other side. So, it’s always swings and balances. 

Peter: Right, awesome. This is really awesome. So, as we think about, for me, I think through the uniqueness of – melee combat’s been kind of a key focus here. I think for our last question today interested in your perspective on ranged combat and where things come in. Is there anything that you particularly like to homebrew with ranged combat, as that pops in? I know the human archer is kind of the classic vanilla can’t-stop-me-now fighter, so curious if you see any spots in particular with ranged weapons that you tend to fill in or like to fill in or maybe new things that you like to toss at your players and see how they react? 

Kyle: Something that I’ve shuffled a bit in my own rules is how ranged weapons get portioned into simple and martial. Because one of the big, historical things about the crossbow was that it was revolutionary because suddenly anyone could pick one up and shoot it. It’s a bit like a gun. It’s a point and shoot weapon, it does not require as much long training as a bow. And because of that I adjusted the proficiencies to make things maybe a bit back to 3.5 and said, okay, so your standard kind of crossbow, there’s your heavy crossbow and so on, that was martial weapon in 5th Edition, well, let’s make that a simple weapon. And suddenly that opens up to a lot of difference classes and you might want to have like a rogue sniper on a roof with an enormous, heavy crossbow and then they don’t need to worry about proficiency. They’re essentially set up to be a sniper. And at the same time then you’ve got, the standard bows then don’t have the reload issues that a crossbow might. And I’ve shifted some of them into martial, but then also adjusted kind of like the damage scaling, so then you’ve got bows that are scaling all the way up into d10, d12, because in normal 5e you’ve basically got your longbow at d8 and that’s where ranged caps out. So, then I’ve implemented higher damage-type bows, like a great bow or something, but then that comes with a strength requirement, because you need to have a certain amount of strength to be able to draw a bow with that kind of poundage behind its pull. So that’s other kind of properties then that are maybe not boosting properties, but properties that are pulling back and adding limits, saying you must be this high to ride this ride, you know?

Peter: [laughs]

Kyle: And that’s nice because it also stops builds from being so dependent on a certain single attribute and they might have an archer who needs to invest in both dexterity and strength to be effective. And sure, you’ve got this enormous bow, but it’s useless to you if you can’t draw it. And so that’s kind of some of these other approaches that you can apply to ranged combat to maybe add a bit more depth to where the weapons are coming from. 

Peter: Very cool, awesome. Well, thanks Kyle. As always, this is awesome. We’re looking forward to getting together in a few weeks and doing this again. Any other thoughts you want to leave listeners with on weapons or think about how to provide a sharper edge when you’re in combat with 5e or any homebrew work that you’ve been doing? 

Kyle: Well, I mean, I would just say people get very hung up on the classic, standard weapons that you, like you find a bazillion long swords all over the place throughout the course of a campaign. Try and throw in the more unusual weapons into loot. You might find your players picking them up and using something they hadn’t thought about before. Try different types of exotic spears and whips and flails and all these different, more interesting weapons – maybe not more interesting, but they’re something that’s different from the norm. And then if you throw on some different properties onto those, like, something I often give a flail, as a good example, is the ability to maybe bypass shield as it swings around and you get these different ways that a weapon can function differently. So, throw some interesting properties on that represent how the weapon works, put it into loot you might find your fighter picking up something they didn’t expect. 

Peter: Yeah, very cool. I think some really great systems got brought up today, so I think it’s worth thinking about those and sharing those with people as well. So, we had Stars Without Numbers as kind of the loose guideline of, you know, you pick a size of weapon and then the damage moves towards there, so very simplistic approach. You did talk about the Kickstarter that’s popped up for Worlds Without Numbers and that’s doing great right now, so they’re looking for a $40,000 goal, have $140,000 as of today. So that’s going to be quite popular. Talked about 5th Edition. We talked about going back to 3.5, we talked about Pathfinder. One that I’ll kind of just tack on for our listeners’ consideration is I had a fun time bringing in weapons from Mage Hand Press’s Dark Matter. So, it’s a sci-fi conversion for 5th Edition.

Kyle: It’s a great system.

Peter: Yeah, they do a good job of bringing in concussion rifles and blaster carbines and hand cannons. It actually can like literally blend perfectly with your high-fantasy world if you wanted to do something. So, in my example, the Githyanki were carrying – I know this is probably sacrilegious in some way – but the Gith were carrying blaster rifles. And that’s what they did. 

Kyle: I’m sure your players won’t forget that, right? 

Peter: Oh no, yeah, and the first thing they did was they wanted to loot it. I want one of those. Even if it’s not better. But that’s another great place to look for inspiration. Well, great. Kyle, thank you so much. Thanks for your time. And we will look forward to having you again and thanks for everybody out there listening. 



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