Weapon Mastery in Classic D&D

I know, I know. I keep banging on about how the D&D Rules Cyclopedia is the greatest edition of D&D the world has ever known yadda yadda, but there is a reason for this.

It is, and also much of what this veritable tome offers can be used in any other edition of D&D, including the Next edition currently in playtest.

Ok, that’s two reasons.

The Weapon Mastery rules are a case in point. What they offer is a way to make your hero stand out based on his (or her) weapon selection and skill with that chosen implement. Using these rules, a dude with a Mace isn’t just a dude with a Mace – it affects his whole fighting style, and that is a Very Good Thing indeed. Your choice of weapon is a relevent and important decision.

There is a problem though. The Weapon Mastery rules are just a little obtuse, to say the least. The whole system resolves around this two-page spread.

It looks like something you would expect to find on an Egyptian tomb wall, not inside the covers of a role-playing game. In fact…..

Much better. Ahem. Now where was I?

Intimidating at it might look, breaking it down isn’t that hard. Each part of the chart refers to a single type of weapon (Mace, Sword, Whip, etc) and describe what traits that weapon possesses in the hands of someone with sufficient skill.

Here’s the entry for the Warhammer.

The six levels of skill are Unskilled, Basic (BS), Skilled (SK), Expert (EX), Master (MS) and Grand Master (GM). Unskilled (ie, non-proficient) wielders do half damage on a hit, and if it’s a missile weapon they also take a -1 to hit too. A fool with a bow might still kill you, but it would take a very lucky shot indeed.

Basic level of skill conveys all that we know about weapons from any other edition of D&D; they do damage, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a sword, bow or lance. The only difference is the size (and possibly number) of dice being rolled. At 1st level, Fighters can choose four weapons to take to Basic level, and any other class can take two.

You heard it right. Fighters are not proficient in all weapons right from the start, but have to chose their proficiencies, and that could perhaps be based around cultural or societal tropes. Fighters don’t automatically get access to weapons they have next to no chance of ever having seen before (a chivalric Knight wielding a kukri? Really?), but instead have to put some thought into their weapon selection.

In our games, we allow non-Fighters to take any weapon regardless of class, provided they can justify it. It’s cool to play a Magic-User wielding a Sword. Just ask Gandalf. This opened up more room for character backstory (the Thief with Lance skill is a Knight fallen from honour, etc), and that’s something quite important to us. It also means Clerics can wield weapons applicable to their god, rather than being stuck with a blasted mace all the time.

Anyhow. Back to the Warhammer.

The first column lists basic information about the weapon [P=H] says that this weapon is most effective in Hand-to-Hand combat against someone else with a melee weapon. The alternative is [P=M] for weapons best used against monsters (ie, not using a melee weapon). Some weapons are effective against anything (a Staff, for example), and they are marked [P=A].

Below that, the icons denote that the Warhammer is a one-handed weapon, can be used with a shield, is rarely thrown, and is medium in size. The rest of the table shows what the Warhammer is capable of at each level of Mastery.

In the hands of a Basic user, the Warhammer does 1d6 damage, just as you’d expect. A Skilled user does more damage (1d6+2) and they also gain a -2AC bonus (this is Classic D&D, remember. Descending Armour Class) against the first two attacks by monsters each round. As they’re Skilled, they also gain an attack bonus too – +2 versus weapon-wielding foes, or +1 versus monsters (ie, using natural weaponry such as bite and claw).

So here we have a weapon that’s best used against fellow weapon-users, but is also pretty effective at stopping monsters from getting close enough to hit you. Picture a doughty warrior swinging his Warhammer to prevent the Dire Bear from getting close enough to claw him, and you’re there. Pretty bad-ass, right?

At Expert level, our Warhammer wielder gains a few extra tricks (along with another bonus to hit). He can throw the Warhammer (I am Thor!) and as it’s an unusual tactic, may get surprise from the attack. He does more damage (1d8+2), and is more proficient at blocking monster attacks (-3AC/3).

At Masters and Grand Mastery levels, the bonuses rise further, and our Warhammer wielding warrior becomes even more proficient at throwing his Warhammer and blocking monster attacks. The damage he does also increases, but how much he deals depends on whether the foe is a monster or a weapon-wielder. Against weapon-wielding foes, at Master level he deals 1d8+5 against armed opponents, or 1d6+4 against unarmed monsters. When faced with a swinging blade, the Warhammer wielder knows how to duck and strike the most vulnerable areas, and benefits from his years of training.


Let’s compare it with the Normal Sword (in post-Classic D&D terms, the Longsword).

Unlike the Warhammer (which has its uses stopping monsters from attacking you), the Sword is a weapon almost entirely focused on fighting other weapon wielders. Historically, that’s accurate. A trained Sword user becomes fearsome indeed. He can disarm his foe, deflect thrown or missile weapons, gains a bonus to Armour Class against weapon-wielding foes, and (like the Warhammer) even throw his Sword at foes if he wants to mimic scenes from a movie.

Other weapons gain similarly iconic traits and special abilities such as entangle (the Whip), a second attack (using a Shield), charge (Lance), hook & disarm (Halberd), etc. It all serves to make your choice of weapon something which goes far beyond picking the one which does the most damage for the price.

Oh, and all weapons have a property called, rather ominously, “the Despair effect”. If the PC deals maximum possible damage, deflects all ranged attacks or disarms two foes in a single round, the opponent rolls Morale and may either run away or surrender at the display of such total awesomeness.

Not bad for a piddly little edition of D&D from yesteryear, eh?

So how do you implement this in D&D Next?

That’s easy. Exactly as written.

This is one of the strengths of D&D Next. You can pull rules and concepts from any other edition of the game, and drop them into place with the minimum of fuss. The baseline core rules from the playtest provide a foundation on which you can build exactly the game you want to play. I’m sure modules will be released which allow you to make parts of the game more (or less) like Classic D&D, AD&D, Third Edition or 4e, but in the meantime it is not difficult to do the work yourself.

All we need now is for Wizards of The Coast to release the D&D Rules Cyclopedia as a special edition. Pretty please?

Till next time!

10 Comments on “Weapon Mastery in Classic D&D”

  1. Nice breakdown.

    My only issue with proficiencies is the unskilled level, it’s pretty much redundant for everyone other than pacifists, mages or perhaps some townfolk. Given a standard quasi medieval setting, even the lowest born peasant would concievably have a basic level of skill with melee weapons, otherwise it would be difficult to form militia (we’re not talking seven samurai here). We’ve all seen those movies with children play fighting with wooden swords, they may be playing at Knights & Knaves, but they’re acquiring a basic level of skill at the same time.

    Likewise archery practice was mandated by law in 13th Century England because the villagers could be formed into militia by their Lord to fight in defense of England. Even if you don’t subscribe to that historical justification, small game (and therefore hunting) is likely to be a big part of a villagers diet, I would therefore expect most of my NPCs to be able to do basic weapon damage.

  2. Hmmm… It’s sort of interesting. Is there any crossover on weapons? If you are really skilled with a battleaxe, can you apply any of that to a hand axe?
    Like Tony above, I think that some weapons would always be skilled. I understand that you’d be really clumsy using a halberd or whip for the first time, but anybody should be able to pick up a club and swing it as a basic user.

  3. i’ll second the call for a special edition. the rules cyclopedia is one of the few tomes i don’t have in my collection, and the AD&D special edition books are really awesome. on the other hand, it’d be a really massive undertaking to rekey and clean up.

  4. Everyone else gets to choose two weapons, remember, so your peasants can use bows and clubs or young boys can practice in swords and explain why they aren’t unskilled.

  5. I’m trying to remain skeptical, but the flexibility of D&D Next is very promising, and the ability to elegantly integrate something like this is neat (actually, we’ve always been able to do stuff like this but I hope D&D Next is about explicitly encouraging/enabling it).

    I must confess that I don’t think these rules wouldn’t work for me, though. The ratio of rules baggage to gameplay differentiation is pretty high. Every attack roll is modified by both what the attacker wields and what the defender wields. Damage rolls can vary by attacker/defender matchup. And many weapons receive modifiers for only the first X attacks in a round, requiring extra tracking. Then there’s a conditional morale effect triggered in different ways.

    With the exception of the special abilities, most of the actual effect of weapon mastery is subtle tweaking of the attack, damage, and defense modifiers. I find a +/-1 here and there to be an underwhelming way of differentiating one style of fighting from another, especially at higher levels. When you are on your way to immortality and fighting gods-know-what, is there really any meaningful difference between 1d8+7 vs 1d6+7 damage, depending on what the foe is wielding? (Meanwhile, your neighbor is dishing out 5d6+5 with level 1 magic missiles.)

    All in all, it seems like a lot of gamestate tracking for marginal differentiation. Seems like there’d be a simpler way to highlight the different fighting styles and levels of mastery.

  6. I agree with snuh on this one. I think the cyclopedia chart adds too many complications and adds a lot of extra tracking to the equation. While I do like the overall idea presented here for weapon mastery, I do think an add-on module of this nature, if one is adopted, should be much more simplified and at least get rid of all the tracking.

  7. I don’t think that snuh has it right. The difference between (for sword) basic level doing 1d8 and grand master level doing a primary attack at 2d6+8 and a secondary attack at 2d4+8 and a +4 to your AC vs other weapon users is well worth tracking! And that’s BEFORE you add in strength mods. Possible max of 8 vs a possible max of 36? And as to the complicated tracking, the bonuses to AC, for example, only depends on what the other person is using as far as ‘are they a weapon user or using natural weapons’? I really encourage people to try it. I appreciate it has been years since I used the Cyclopedia but it is a brilliantly conceived system. With character gen in line with D&D Next, it would make a great reprint.
    (Declaration of bias: I own two near-mint copies of the Cyclopedia though and all the Gazateers so I am just a bit biased! Perhaps it’s a Sheffield trait!)

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