Using Weapon Specialization in D&D

Beedo of Dreams in the Lich House asks how many people use weapon specialization in D&D.

I have used, or allowed the use of, weapon specialization in D&D as long as I can remember.  For a while after D&D 3e came out I even played a PC that took it, in part because it was a Fighter-Only Awesome.

That didn’t last long, even though other players in my group (whether I was playing or DMing) would take it because it increased their damage capability.

Why?  Very, very simple, really: it is really, really boring.  +2 damage with attacks from a specific type of weapon. Yaywn… hardly awesome, just kind of useful and limited to fighters.

AD&D specialization was no better for excitement, though it seemed even more useful.

What I want, what I really wish D&D had and what I’m working on including in Echelon, is functional differences between weapons.

Dragon Magazine #185 had an article, “The Arena Master’s Arsenal”, about the weapons of Athas. Each of the weapons presented had a normal mode of use available to the proficient, and another that was usable only when specialized.  I’m not going to describe them all here, but this is the sort of thing I want to see.

That is weapon specialization I can get behind and want to take.  I don’t like boring-but-useful any more.  I’m ditching it in other places (no more enhancement bonuses on weapons or armor, but that armor will stop arrows — cowards weapons if there ever were any — from touching you).

Make it fantastic, even when it’s not magic.  Let me do something special, then I’ll consider it specialization.


  1. That’s the thing, though: There are so many varieties of interesting and engaging feats and class abilities that expand what a player can do with his actions. Sometimes, I don’t care about doing a backflip with my spiked chain – I just want to hit an orc harder with it, and Weapon Specialization just does that. While I also embrace feats that diversify the fighter’s options, I would go into a rage if someone removed the simple yet elegant “Weapon Specialization” that exists currently.

  2. I would go as far as to say that not only is weapon specialization not more exciting, it is actually less exciting because it makes fighters less likely to use a variety of weapons. And it adds bonus inflation. Bad effects all around.

    I want to see fighters carry a spear for setting against a charge, a mace for bashing in plate armor, a military pick for getting between the gaps of some monster’s carapace, and a stabbing sword like a gladius for close combat. Something like a fighter-only weapon vs. AC chart which is only made up of bonuses so that there is player incentive to not forget about it. Such a table seems hard to do well (I have tried to start making one a few times and have never finished).

    I have some more ideas about this here:

    It’s still a work in progress though.

    Being able to just hit an orc harder doesn’t really make the game more interesting or fun, it just means that orcs are going to have their AC and HP bumped to compensate. Numbers inflation is all a shell game.

    • I agree, Brendan. “Just bigger numbers” is something I don’t much care for — as shown by dumping enhancement bonuses and my recent post on Reducing the Impact of Ability scores.

      As it happens, I have prepared a post for tomorrow morning that demonstrates a specialization scheme that suits me fairly well. It doesn’t work exactly as I would do it, but overall it certainly goes in the right direction.

    • … now that I’ve had a chance to look at that link, Brendan, I’m going to have to come back and look longer another time — I need to get some sleep tonight.

      I don’t know that I would go so far as defining characteristics based on form as relates to armor type, in the general sense. I can certainly see looking for commonality of form and use to influence base weapon characteristics, though. I can also imagine having slightly different rules for various weapons… if you know well enough how to use them.

      Anyone can hit anyone with anything, for the basic damage. If you know what you’re doing, though, things get much more interesting and messy.

  3. I use a system in Openquest that lets you construct weapons and calculate their qualities based on a series of “Yes/No” questions which are tallied.

    I find it encourages diversity by allowing one to choose the characteristics of the weapons. There are no standard longswords that are better than standard axes, so PCs can choose multiple paths to realise a given weapon profile. I’ve been thinking of porting this idea into D&D for a while now.

    For representing a fighter’s skill and expertise with weapons I use a houserule that is specifically not a bonus to a single weapon, but to all weapons the fighter uses. Here it is:

    Hope those help or are of interest.

    • Thanks John.

      I looked into this about a year and a half ago when I started revising weapon guidelines (I never did get around to part 2). The gist of it was that all weapons of similar size and shape are used about the same way — I can (could, it’s been a long time) fence passingly well with a rapier or a sabre… but I would use them more or less the same way. Someone more experienced and skilled could take better advantages of the nuances of each weapon than I could.

      So, small weapons were one-handed, did 1d4 damage (and halved Strength modifier to damage — bonus or penalty, to encourage use by weaker characters) and could be used at ‘immediate range’ (same square). Medium weapons were one-handed, did 1d6 damage (with normal Strength modifier), and could be used at normal range (or immediate range at a penalty). Large weapons were two-handed, did 1d8 damage (with 1.5x Strength modifier), and could be used only at normal range.

      Pretty poor compared to normal, right? That’s ‘simple weapon proficiency’ (or non-proficiency, if you want — everyone got it and it was nothing special). Martial proficiency brought weapons up to normal (longswords did 1d8 damage and had better critical threat range, battleaxes did 1d8 damage and got better critical multiplier, and so on). Various weapons might have other effects.

      Specialization after that let you further modify the weapon effects. You might know a style that gives you more damage (d10 with a longsword and 18-20 threat range) or bonuses to specific attacks (sundering or disarming) or change your reach (use a longsword at immediate range — and I have seen a style that does this — or your greatsword with reach).

      I never finished fleshing it out, it ended up being more of a toolkit for my own use rather than player use.

  4. Pingback: Weapon Specialization I Like: FantasyCraft | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  5. Pingback: Links of the Week: March 26, 2012 | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

  6. tussock

    “That is weapon specialization I can get behind and want to take.”

    Nope. Swording a dragon to death is not boring, not even a little bit. People perceive it that way because it’s a simple, repetitive mechanic that no one has to describe any differently. If your specialisation gives any type of simple, repetitive mechanic, people will find it just as boring as the 3e Warlock’s eldritch blast or the 4e Wizard’s Magic Missile.

    If you want fighters to be “interesting” (not everyone does, I don’t), you need to give them complex and limited mechanics to use with their weapons. Bo9S.

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