“How dare you! The choice of 1d8 bludgeoning vs. 1d8 piercing damage couldn’t be more important! That’s the difference between smashing skeletons and *checks notes* popping gulper behemoths!”

Well I have good news. You can go to bed tonight knowing you’re technically correct. There are indeed minor mechanical differences between most weapons in 5e D&D. (Though notably not all of ’em. Looking at you morningstar / war pick!) I think we can admit that those differences are pretty friggin’ marginal though. And that in turn leads us to a more interesting design question. When it comes time to flesh out your RPG armory, how do you go about making all those pointy sticks different enough? 

Let’s start with a few touchpoints. At one end of the spectrum you have the rules-light offerings like Lasers & FeelingsWith this one-page RPG’s abstract approach, the contents of your arsenal matters not at all. Lasers has you attacking with your “lasers” stat no matter what, and that means a pistol and a rocket-mounted assault poodle are functionally identical.

Going a step up the complexity ladder is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (WFRP). Ask the internet for an example of “gritty fantasy” and it usually makes the list. As an outgrowth of the tabletop game, sidearms like swords, axes, hammers, maces, and clubs are all classed under the umbrella of “hand weapons.” While options like “big weapon,” “reach weapon,” and “shield plus weapon” are still on the table, all the subtle variations are erased, making a “great club” and a “great axe” the same mechanical beast.

Our opening example of 5e weaponry offers the next tier of complexity, with a relatively shallow pool of damage dice and special properties distinguishing a glaive (1d10 heavy, reach, two-handed) from a rapier (1d8, finesse).

After that you get into the crazy-pants progression of Starfinder (Mach III Swoop Hammer, 14d10 B & F Knockdown 2 Powered [capacity 40, usage 4], reach, unwieldy) and the literal tome o’ guns over in Shadowrun. 

No doubt you can think of any number of other systems that fall along this continuum. But if you start scratching your head and trying to figure out what is best, you run into some interesting contradictions. For every forum thread complaining of 5e’s lack of significant choice, there’s a corresponding thread bemoaning option exhaustion in Starfinder. How are we supposed to parse this biz?

Let’s start with this: Personal preference is 100% valid. If you know what you like, that makes you a savvy consumer. But in moments like these, I find it’s important  to remember there are no “best solutions” in design.  As a designer, you’re looking for the best solution for this game. The question is whether you want to emphasize fluid play, crunchy play, particular genre, or some other element. Do you want one shots that ease you into a single-serving experience, or long campaigns that favor progression?

In all cases, the flavor of “sword guy vs. axe guy” remains on the table. But whether that mechanical difference is nonexistent (Warhammer), minor (5e), or silly (Starfinder), is all about the experience you’re trying to create.

That of course brings us to our question of the day! What is your favorite weapons systems? What hits that sweet spot for your personal preferences, and what kind of gameplay does it support? Conversely, is there a system out there with a mismatch between its gear and its design goals? Shout out with all your favorite flails, hammers, rapiers, and flail-hammer-rapiers downs in the comments!


ADD SOME NSFW TO YOUR FANTASY! If you’ve ever been curious about that Handbook of Erotic Fantasy banner down at the bottom of the page, then you should check out the “Quest Giver” reward level over on The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. Thrice a month you’ll get to see what the Handbook cast get up to when the lights go out. Adults only, 18+ years of age, etc. etc.