I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Better weapons through crits: fast, unbalanced, and brutal (5e)

After writing this post, I've noticed I am repeating myself on some subjects. The reason is that I'm writing a Manual of Arms for 5e, so I'm constantly thinking about these matters. Thought it might be interesting anyway, but if you're not into my 5e weapon musings, skip this one.

I've said this multiple times already but: the 5e weapon list is idiosyncratic (some decisions don't make sense), unbalanced (some weapons are obviously better than others), and a bit boring (some weapons are just too similar to one another).

The main offenders, as seem in the link above, are the mace, the morningstar, the trident and the greatclub. There are other bad weapons (pike, glaive/halberd, etc), but lets focus on the worst four.

While it isn't hard to fix these weapons, it is not easy to different weapons without adding new weapon properties. But that would necessarily make the game a bit more complex, and combat could get slower.

Critical hits are also a bit samey and boring in 5e: just roll some extra dice regardless of weapon. 3e at least tried to differentiate them (despite the ridiculous "confiming crits"). 4e was faster, with a result not dissimilar to 5e: maximum damage. It also had different weapon properties. 1e did "weapon versus armor", good idea but bad implementation. The RC had a whole Weapon Proficiency system. And so on.

In 5e, as you know, weapons are not really distinct or interesting unless you pick the right feat; then you can charge, power attack, stop movement, etc.

It seems that altering critical hits is the easy way to differentiate weapons. It doesn't affect combat in most rolls, and when it does, it does so in an exciting way. I touched on the subject here.

A decent critical hit table could solve things. However, I have somewhat bad memories of the endless tables from my Rolemaster games (and good ones too - I just disliked the endless rolling every turn).

Instead, just give a few different criticals to go with each type of weapon.

Versatile morningstar in Dark Souls. - source.
Let's start with fixing the for main offenders: what do they have in common? Well, all those weapons seem to be... a bit clumsy? Maybe the reason they are worse is because they are farming/fishing implements used as weapons. Which, for many readers, might be reason enough to keep things as they are. I just think these weapons look cool and I want them to be useful!

GURPS would call most of these weapons "unbalanced"; weapons that, unlike a sword or quarterstaff, have one side that is significantly heavier than the other, and might be slower because of that (but, in GURPS, they often deal more damage).

One option is giving them extra damage on crits. I call this property "Brutal" to go with the barbarian. Maybe something like "on a critical hit, the first damage die die you roll deals maximum damage (for example, 6 on 1d6) regardless of the result".

[another option would be just giving all these weapons +1 damage. Yes, the mace would do 1d6+1 damage, worse than 1d8 because of crits, but still a lot better than 1d6. Seems like a missed opportunity for 5e that no weapon works this way, but 1d6+1 in a table full of 1d4/1d6/1d8/1d10/1d12 does look ugly... of course, 2d6 also looks ugly and is in 5e for no decent reason. But I digress.].

You could probably create an interesting property to all Unbalanced weapons, not only these four. Maybe adding the weapons weight (maximum 8 or 10) to damage, as I suggested before. Makes the greataxe a bit better.

How about Fast weapons? Weapon speed usually make games a lot more complex, but it wouldn't be much of a problem if it only matters on crits. In 5e, the only weapons that are actually "faster" are light weapons - a rapier is no faster than a maul, since the number of attacks remains unchanged.

To make a weapon fast in 5e we could take a page form my Dark Fantasy Basic and give it one extra attack on a crit. Or use something similar to the Great Weapon Master feat, allowing one attack with a bonus action... or give it advantage if you already can attack with you BA.

And, as I've said before, all these things tend to make heavier weapons (and specially unbalanced ones) good against heavier armor, since the higher the opponents' AC is, the greater the chance that this extra attack will miss.

You could even create a continuum between Unbalanced and Fast - dagger on one extreme, maul on the other, with longsword close to dagger and greataxe close to maul... While this looks complicated, it wouldn't be hard to implement with a single digit. Say, "Unbalanced (5)" means it can add 5 points of damage on a crit, but it would take a -5 penalty when you make an attack using a bonus action... Or maybe -5 penalty to you next attack, unless you use a bonus action to balance the weapon. Or go the opposite way and have a single Balanced property that would allow you to get a bonus when attacking with a bonus action.

Bonus points if you mesh this with scaling weapons... Finesse weapons would be faster, heavy weapons would be slower. Although using weight takes care of the issue: dexterity weapons are usually lighter anyway (except for the heavy crossbow etc.).

Being a fan of elegance in game design, I'm very tempted to solve all these issues with a single keyword, of course, instead of adding more and more mechanics.

It's certainly doable, but I'm not sure how desirable. I mean, there are multiple solutions - but since WotC didn't bother, I'm afraid most fans may ignore it as well.

Sigh. Well, what can I do? I just like medieval weapons.


  1. I think weapon choices improve in 5e with using speed initiative for weapons and spell attacks (1+magic bonus for Fast weapons, Magic bonus for regular, -1+Magic bonus for Slow weapons), and then giving an extra damage die or a maximum die for Slow weapons, and a bonus action attack for/adv. For Fast.

    Granted, I tend to more "throw more dice around" solution than static bonuses.

    1. Messing with initiative is a good idea indeed, and giving more attacks for fast weapons and more damage to slow ones seems to strike a good balance between the two... I like it!

    2. In addition, since this changes the dynamic of damage dealing, I make a shameless plug for the Vitality & Wounds system that you thought had potential on Gitp a few weeks ago.

      Mostly, I feel that my system also adds another dynamic to weapon choice, and I think the combination of getting an attack off quickly that does more vitality damage to more devestating wound damage.

      Not saying you need to use the idea verbatim, but I like your ideas, and would like to see if you have an interesting take on such a system.

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