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Proficiency in Martial Weapons Needs More Nuance

“This … showcases one of the problems I have with D&D. … the fact that the martial melee weapon category includes just about every type of weapon ever created … there are vastly different techniques in using a greatsword vs using a whip vs a warhammer vs a glaive vs a meteor hammer.”

These are the (redacted) words of a regular reader of Hipsters & Dragons on my previous post, and ones that had me question something I’d long ago accepted as part of the game. The idea that anyone proficient in martial weapons can pick up any weapon, from any culture, and swing it like they are Austin Powers in the 60s.

This jarred with me when I first got my hands on a 5th edition Player’s Handbook back in 2015, as it’s clearly nonsensical, and – now that it’s been brought back to my attention – it jars with me in 2022 too. At a stretch, I could perhaps imagine that the average fighter gets a well-rounded education in weaponry in some kind of military training school (although I am not sure that even Spartans got much further than training in bow, sword and spear). But how does a forest-roaming ranger learn how to use halberd, pike and flail while out in the woods? And when was the last time you heard of a barbarian, from either history or fiction, wielding a rapier or crossbow (while simultaneously mastering over 20 other specialist weapons)?

A little halberdie told me H&D is house-ruling martial weapon proficiency!

I think the reason I never revisited this little 5e disconnect is likely because it virtually never comes up in game. Rangers never use anything but their longbow and longswords anyway. The barbarian grabs their greataxe, and when the DM feels the time is right, a magical greataxe fortuitously appears in a tomb the PCs clear out.

There aren’t any rules in 5e for weapons breaking and few DMs consider (or enforce) realistic weapon loss in the case of players falling into a raging river or tumbling half way down a cliff: in practice, players very rarely have to loot a bandit’s corpse to grab a scimitar, or pick up a warhammer lying around an abandoned mine to fend off a cluster of grimlocks.

In other words, the fact that certain characters are unrealistically proficient in the scimitar or warhammer doesn’t come into play, because their favourite weapon is always strapped to their belt (- even at the most prestigious social occasions, which PCs like to attend in full plate armour, bearing polearms).

So what’s the problem? Well, PCs should lose their primary weapons on occasion! Or be forced to carry something more discrete than a glaive to fancy-dress gala. And, as the original poster pointed out, if a DM is using more realistic loot (i.e. random loot, instead of tailored-for-character-preferences loot), players shouldn’t necessarily be automatically proficient with the +3 warhammer in the dragon’s horde. They may have to get lucky to find a magic weapon perfect for them, or else train with a weapon they are unfamiliar with.

In short, I believe martial characters should have to choose a number of martial weapons with which they are proficient, and I would propose the following:

Fighters

Fighters can choose a number of martial weapon proficiencies equal to 4 + their proficiency bonus at 1st level, gaining a new proficiency whenever their proficiency bonus increases.

At second level fighters gain a new ability, Jack of All Blades, which allows them to add half their proficiency bonus, rounded down, to any weapon attack roll that doesn’t already include their proficiency bonus.

The fighter remains a well-rounded weapon user…

Other Martial Classes

Barbarians, paladins and rangers can choose 4 martial weapon proficiencies at 1st level.

All Martial Classes

When a fighter, barbarian, paladin or ranger gains a new level, they may switch out an existing martial weapon proficiency for a new weapon, provided they have practiced with the new weapon for at least one month.

Final Thoughts

This feels better to me, and also might encourage DMs to create a few more situations where weapon proficiency might matter. Additionally, players get to make another set of meaningful choices about their characters. The existing ‘proficient in martial weapons’ 5th edition ruling is, apart from anything else, criminally bland.

Disagree? That’s what the comments section is for…

************

Turns out, after reading your comments, those thoughts weren’t so final…

POST UPDATE: Competencies vs. Proficiencies

There’s always some good food for thought in the H&D comments section, and while I might need to digest some of those ideas some more, one thing that I feel convinced about already is that it’s not just Martial Weapons proficiency that is too catch-all and generic: Simple Weapon proficiency is also rather bland and convenient. While I definitely think that martial characters should get all simple weapon proficiencies for free, it feels weird that a wizard is proficient in five weapons, at least three of which I would consider quite tricky to master.

I think I’m going to change my approach slightly here (to what I’d already written) for my own set of House Rules, and create a new mechanic called Competencies. Being Competent in a weapon allows you to add half your proficiency bonus, rounded down, to attack rolls.

To keep this simple, you are Competent in all weapons that the Player’s Handbook says you’re Proficient in. But you are only Proficient in a smaller number, that you choose from within your Competencies, as stated below:

Artificer – choose 3 weapons from your competencies that you are proficient in. (Battle Smiths you can treat like Rangers). You gain a new weapon proficiency when you gain an Extra attack.

Barbarian – you are proficient in all simple weapons, plus 3 martial weapons. You gain a new weapon proficiency when you gain an Extra attack.

Bard – choose 3 weapons from your competencies that you are proficient in. (College of Blades you can treat like Rangers).

Cleric – choose 2 weapons from your competencies that you are proficient in. (Tempest and War Clerics you can treat like Paladins)

Druid – choose 2 weapons from your competencies that you are proficient in.

Fighter – you are proficient in all simple weapons, plus 4 martial weapons. You gain a new weapon proficiency whenever you gain an Extra attack.

Monk – you are proficient in all simple weapons, plus 1 martial weapon (I’m not actually quite sure what the ramifications are of giving a monk a choice of martial weapon [instead of just short swords as per RAW]… but I feel like as a pure martial class this is reasonable, and that a fantasy monk wouldn’t necessarily conform to our Shaolin stereotypes). You gain a new weapon proficiency when you gain an Extra attack.

Paladin – you are proficient in all simple weapons, plus 3 martial weapons. You gain a new weapon proficiency when you gain an Extra attack.

Ranger – you are proficient in all simple weapons, plus 3 martial weapons. You gain a new weapon proficiency when you gain an Extra attack.

Rogue – choose 4 weapons from your competencies that you are proficient in.

Sorcerer – choose 1 weapon from your competencies that you are Proficient in.

Warlock – choose 2 weapons from your competencies that you are Proficient in. (Hexblades you can treat like Paladins).

Wizard – choose 1 weapon from your competencies that you are Proficient in.

So there you go. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s weird how 5e cheapened weapon proficiency, and I personally enjoy these types of decisions and the chance to personalise my character a bit more.

I would retain my earlier rule that a character that trains with a new weapon may change up a proficiency when they level up.

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21 Comments

  1. Keith Case

    WOOT!! I’m famous, kinda…..
    Thanks for deciding to address this issue regarding proficiency.
    Your suggested changes are actually pretty close to the AD&D guidelines for weapon proficiency.
    There were no barbs back then but the fighters got 4 to begin and then one more every 3rd level and pallys and rangers got 3 to start and then 1 for every 3.
    If you have access to a AD&D PHB it is on page 37.
    Most of my games over the last 10 years have been a combination of AD&D and 5E.
    5E much better for some things and AD&D just seems more reasonable for others.
    And, as you mentioned, I use random rolled loot as it just makes it more fun rather than always finding something that the party can use. It’s always fun when random rolling to get a holy mace dedicated to a certain god and the cleric is not of that faith or a suit of armor that is awesome but is halfling sized and the dwarf just won’t fit into it. But on the flip side, I have had a level one character roll and get a Vorpal Greatsword and because of the agreement that whatever gets rolled is what they find made the next few sessions rough on me when the Level 2 barb killed a level 6 demon with one shot. That’s why I let the players roll so that there can be no favoritism.

    Maybe that is an idea for another article sometime. The fun and sometimes exasperation of rolling for loot randomly and having loot tailored to the party.

    As always, I truly enjoy your articles.

    • duncan

      thanks Keith for inspiring the post!

      Got the 2e handbook sequestered away at my parents’ home in London… might be fun to go through it one day!

      Just added some more thoughts to the main body of the post.

  2. Daniel

    I’m always suspicious of rules introduced in order to make players bad at things. There is nothing fun in finding a cool magic weapon that you can’t use.

    It’s also worth noting that you had to choose from a limited number of weapon proficiencies in earlier editions and that was eventually scrapped with 3e.

    Sure, limiting weapon proficiency might be more “realistic” but this isn’t about realism. It’s about what some people find immersion breaking – and this is a deeply personal thing depending entirely on an individuals imagination. For some people it’s gnomes, or monks or recovering on a long rest. Each to their own.

    Just don’t expect your players to thank you when you tell them they can only choose x number of weapons they can use and then you “reward” them with a magic weapon that is not one of those things.

    • duncan

      Hey Daniel, I understand your concern, but being bad at things, is what makes being good at things fun.

      If everyone can wield that magic glaive, that’s a less cool situation than a character who chose ‘glaive’ finding the item.

      Also… you don’t need to be proficient to use something. Barbarians make Arcana checks all the times etc.

      Finally, I did build in the rule about swapping out a proficiency precisely to avoid that situation of having a magic item that no one wants…

      Will be interesting to see if my players like these rules when I introduce them during my autumn campaign. I hope so, although I’m a little old school in that if I invite you around for dinner I don’t expect you to present me a menu of what you want me to cook… 🤣 (I’ve been meaning to post about that actually!).

      • Daniel

        Hey, it seems like your mind is already made up so give it a go. Either your players will enjoy it, it will make no difference, or they will not enjoy it.

        Rules like this sit in the conflict zone between realism/immersion and game design and every person and every group will lean a different way.

        I do think there is a world of difference between an invited dinner guest presenting you with a menu, and a host making a dinner that is for their own enjoyment and not their guests. Either extreme will leave you with no DM or no players.

        • Steve

          I believe you are missing the point. In an attempt at making everybody special, nobody is special. This concept aims to remedy that. Any good DM will not put a highly valued magical weapon into a game that nobody in the group can use unless it is specifically tied to the plot (e.g. must destroy the Glaive of Woe).

          Sounds like you already made your mind up though, so don’t give it a go.

          • Daniel

            What you are saying makes no sense. So you are going to restrict weapon proficiency for certain characters, but then make it so that restriction is irrelevant by not giving them a reason to use different weapons anyway…?

            This isn’t about being “special”, it’s about game design and unnecessary rules

  3. Justin

    I’ve recently started reading and playing Pathfinder 2e, and I like how they deal with this through uncommon and rare weapons, and weapon specialisation for bonus critical hit effects (sort of like the critical effects from the 5e piercer, slasher and crusher feats). With the uncommon trait, this might be special ancestral or region-specific weapons, but another type is monk weapons like the bo staff or kusarigama, a similar weapon to the meteor hammer from your last post.

    It’s a balance between the simplicity of trained proficiency in ‘all martial weapons’ that you have in 5e, with mechanical benefits for specialised weapons and training.

    Which leads me to ask – given your house rules seem to pretty much entirely be about either balancing the broken things in 5e, or adding a little fun complexity, have you ever tried Pathfinder 2e out?

    I’m just getting into it, but I really dig it – and I’m finding it’s far less complicated or hard to learn as some people make out, especially for those of us who are already adding reams of house rules and homebrew content to 5e. As one person said on Reddit, “I found I have 10 pages of homebrew and house rules, and every single thing in it is already fixed in pf2e”.

    • duncan

      hey Justin, that’s a great sales pitch 🤣

      Will look for it next time I’m at the local geek store in Barcelona.

  4. Jose Garcia

    This is interesting, in a way, but I think that rather than limiting to 4 or 3 specific weapons, I think we would need to specify weapon groups rather than going one by one.

    I have played RPGs for a long time, and I did practice HEMA (historical European martial arts) during my 30s, a lot of archery in my late teens and early 20s, and I always have been intrigued by the martial side of RPGs. I understand we need to simplify the combat in D&D as to not drag things, and even though I may have my arguments (on how armour should affect not only your AC but also dampen the damage, that is another issue), I have to admit the D&D system manages to keep things simple, and that is not easy.

    From experience, a person that is proficient with single handed bladed weapons, after a couple of swings gets how a weapon can hit, if it is hefty or balanced more towards the hand. So somebody proficient with a sabre can be very quickly very dangerous with a falchion, an arming sword or a machete, as all of them may handle slightly differently, but they all have a lot in common.

    Otherwise, pole weapons all handle very similarly unless you add a blade to them (halberd, glaive, bill, partisan), so there is an easy split.

    And for ranged weapons, it is a lot easier to get the fundaments of a crossbow (and again, I’m not going to go to my main argument of you have no chance of loading a heavy one in 6 seconds, let alone 30 sometimes) than mastering archery, so there is another easy split.

    So, not to overextend myself, I would divide the weapons in D&D in groups:
    -Daggers and knives (another peeve of mine, how lethal they can be, specially in grappling, but this is material for another discussion)
    -Bladed weapons:
    -Single handed bladed weapons (favouring the cuts) (scimitars, arming swords, falchions, sabres)
    -Single handed bladed weapons (favouring tip work): rapiers
    -Single handed top heavy weapons (axes, warhammers, maces, clubs)
    -Double handed bladed weapons (longsword, katana, greatsword)
    -Double handed top heavy weapons (greataxe, morningstar, mauls)
    -Simple polearms (spear, quarterstaff, even a trident)
    -Complex polearms (glaive, halberd)
    -Throwing weapons
    -Bows
    -Crossbows

    If there are weapons that I would go for individually are things like flails, whips, slings or even sickles. They are awkward, and have very specific techniques. As well as very long weapons like a pike or a lance. But those I think are covered in the manual already.

    But somebody proficient with a scimitar cannot be a numpty with a shortsword. That is uncanny.

    • duncan

      Hi Jose

      That was my first thought actually!

      To group the weapons… but it soon got complicated, and required a bigger departure from the existing rules.

      In the end I came up with something a little bit similar to what you are suggesting, by creating Competencies and Proficiencies (check updated post).

      I do think grouping the weapons makes sense, but I would have to start from scratch to do that.

      Thanks for the comment 🙂

      • Jose Garcia

        I t does make sense to have that “half competency” I think that is a good solution. And I agree that the DM could decide to give full competency to somebody who actually decides to train with a new weapon when they level up. But obviously, while they do that, they might miss something else.

        Thanks for your reply, Duncan, I am pretty new to your site but I am thoroughly enjoying it.

  5. PK

    Traditionally (0e, 1e, 2e), the fighter (fighting man) had the central ability of being able able to fight well – this comes from a combination of features: 1) good hit points; 2) use of the best armor; 3) pick up and use any weapon; 4) good saves; 5) a to-hit modifier (or THAC0) that scales. There were no choices – it is all just built in. 3e & 4e got a bit complex with this and so 5e went back to basics.

    So to introduce a more specific weapon proficiency system where all characters choose their trained weapons wouldn’t be too hard.
    After all, a Wizard has to choose spells, so a fighter choosing 4 weapons should be quick.

    All character at level 1 choose their weapon training from the existing lists: Fighters, Barbarians, Rangers, Paladins: choose any 4; Clerics, Monks, Rogues: 3; Druids, Warlocks, Bards: 2; Wizard, Sorcerers: 1. You can only equip yourself with weapons you trained in at 1st level. And to scale it: allow martials to get a new weapon training every ASI, and other classes need to take a feat.

    Also, allow characters to swap 1 weapon proficiency when they level up for another weapon from their 1st level listed weapons (like a spell caster can change a known spell) will remove the problem with magic weapon lock out for all classes.

    And as an aside… although this works to fix the “jack of all weapons feature” – it doesn’t fix the problem of martials not scaling in 5e.

    The real issue for me is that a bard should not be as good at attacking as a fighter!
    If weapon training adds your PB to your attack roll, then every class is the same, and with the bounded accuracy system weapon expertise is out too – as to much bonus makes the game dull.

    But it could be worked the other way – break weapon proficiency into two types: proficient and specialised. When you are proficient you understand how to use your natural abilities with the weapon, and can add your ability modifier to attack rolls. Then martials could get simple and martial weapon proficiency with all weapons. Then introduce weapon specialization that allows you to add your PB to attack rolls. Scale this for martials by giving extra weapon specialization at 1st level and each ASI. This means martials are the only classes that scale their attack rolls.

    And finally, yes! To the extra Weapon Category for special weapons for cultural, strange, and complex weapons: Nets, Whip, War Pick, Blowgun, Lance, et al). Some campaigns already have the extra category of “firearms”, so extending for weapon selection for all character classes makes sense.

    • duncan

      hey PK

      “So to introduce a more specific weapon proficiency system where all characters choose their trained weapons wouldn’t be too hard.”

      I took your point and ran with it, which you can see in the updated post!

      Also I did use a two tier system (you suggest proficient and specialised, but I’ve gone for competent and proficient… [I think if you use the word proficient btw, it has to include your proficiency bonus or you need to rename it!]).

      I’m actually not fussed about a bard having the same to hit as a fighter, because melee attacks on their own don’t do much. They only really become powerful when combined with a superiority dice, divine smite or GWM.

      Overall the fighter is significantly better at fighting than the bard, and it doesn’t matter to me that it was a different set of mechanics that achieved that.

      Cheers sir!

      • PK

        Hi Duncan,
        We converged near to the same pin!
        I started a blog last week and your post inspired me to write my first blog a couple of days ago as a more refined version of the comments I made here. Check it out: https://fantasy-frontiers.com/more-fight-for-fighters/. I link to your post in mine too …

        I too noticed the cognitive dissonance with the word “Proficiency” as per your comment. I had already gone with :
        – untrained = no bonuses;
        – trained (competent): ability bonus, and
        – specialized (your proficient) = ability bonus + PB.
        I didn’t use proficiency as its already a loaded term but mostly because I reduce the general loading of bonus onto all the rolls. And reducing the general skill mechanic this way might work out.

        Everyone can swap 1 trained weapon on level up. Non martials need to buy extra weapon training with feats. Martial classes get +1 trained weapon on each ASI, and specialized weapons progress equal to PB; and specialized weapons can be swapped on level up too.

        Personally I think the 5e designers saw the PB problem but only after PHB was released, as in Xanathar’s features often specify class name levels (instead of PB) – e.g. Hexblade’s Curse defines “warlock levels”, Accursed Specter “equal to half your warlock level”, Celestial Resistance “equal your warlock level + your Charisma modifier”. Sorcerer Heart of the Sea, and many more.

        • duncan

          Dude, congratulations on the blog! Subscribed 🙂 Fantasy Frontiers is a cool name!

  6. Rick Coen

    I’m late to *this* party, but I want to chime in.

    First – I had exactly these thoughts about a year ago. And – with your Competency idea – the same solution. But, I abandoned the whole thing because…

    Second – this does nothing but hurt Martial classes!

    My Sorcerer uses daggers, a staff, and a light crossbow. I don’t think he ever fired the LXB, and eventually stopped carrying it (due to weight, darned 8 STR) even though it was +1 magical and had poisoned bolts. I only use a staff because I’m carrying a magic one at all times. I used the daggers for the first couple levels; never since hitting level 5. They’re more for looks (or desperation in an AMZ). Would these rules affect me? No, because I’m going to use my cantrips 99% of the time I’m not casting a leveled spell.

    My Paladin uses a Warhammer (an upgrade to the billyclub he trained with in the City Watch) and Shield. If he finds a magical one-handed weapon, though, he’s gonna switch to it so he can remain effective. Using these rules, however, he might give up some – or a lot – of accuracy, just to be able to harm foes that resist nonmagical weapon damage? I mean, sure, that leans into a realistic world… but the warlock is going to be standing next to me (okay, *behind* me), spamming 10pt Eldritch Blasts with no issues, while I fumble around with this weird three-pointed stick I just found (because I’m not trained in Trident).

    In an “all Martials” game, I’m totally on board with these rules. Maybe in a hard-core Gritty Realism game. But in a core 5e game where casters already equal OR EXCEED martials? This only makes things worse.

    Having said that, perhaps if you tied this into some mechanic that *boosted* the character that remains true to their chosen weapon? A carrot to go with the stick? Like the old AD&D specialization, where you got increased accuracy, damage, and attacks. (Yes, yes, I know, not all of those!)

    “Hey Mr. Fighter! I’m taking away the majority of your weapon choices. It shouldn’t be too bad, you don’t use most of them anyway. Oh, but I’m going to make weapon loot random, so expect to see a lot more of those weapons you weren’t using. You’re only going to actually know 4ish weapons at core-rules effectiveness; with all the others, you’ll be a few points worse [at the one thing you do, which is “hit things”]. And, hah!, you’ve got it good compared to the other weapon-users, who don’t have Jack of Blades. Doesn’t that sound great?”

    Fighter: “Die, demonspawn, I will not accept your foul bargain!”

    “Buuuuuttttt….. I am also going to give you Specialization with 1 weapon (per Extra Attack) that you know. With that one weapon, you get [fill in the blank here]! and if you pick it again instead of a new weapon (when you get an Extra Attack), you get [another bonus? stacking bonus?]! Are you sold? Now?”

    Fighter: “Um… tell me more about these bonuses?”

    Could be as simple as +1 to hit or +2 to damage; or maybe a little more snazzy (thought triggered by your Meteor Hammer blog), a free Fighting Style (still +2 damage, lol!) or BM die and manoeuvre, or some other coolness.

    NOW the conversation is “Do I use the +1 trident I just found, but I lose 2 accuracy, or do I use my trusty Warhammer – and do half-damage, because it’s not magical – but I can use Feinting Attack to set up the Barbarian’s greataxe strike?”

    Also, you need to consider how multiclassing and feats work with your rules. Like maybe level 1 of the fighter gets the initial Specialization, and then all classes get it with an Extra Attack..whenever they get EA. Maybe the Weapon Master feat *also* grants the Specialization bonus with one of your known weapons – including the 4 new ones you just added, but maybe just stacked on an already-chosen specialization. (Might become a “must-have” feat for martials, instead of a trap feat for everyone!) Do these rules work differently for racial proficiencies? how about for class-gained ones like the Hexblade or Pact of the Blade? How does the Monk interact with these rules? What about all the monsters?

    • duncan

      Rick, you of all people should know that I LOVE bringing spellcasters into line above all!

      Please see my posts on Hypnotic Pattern, Banishment, Fireball, Counterspell, Shield, Conjure Animals etc. if you’ve forgotten 🤣

      But yes, I take all your well-made points on board and I will be the least surprised person if I end up dropping this… but I’m determined to learn the hard way!

      Hexblades, College of Blades, War Priest etc. get treated like martial classes (see second half of my post!). Monk is in second half of post too, although with less confidence.

      Racial proficiencies i hadn’t thought of, but fine to add them. Dwarves and elves hardly see play these days it seems!

      Specialisation… I’m reluctant to add more bonuses to attack rolls in particular. We’ve already got proficiency bonus and ability modifier, and potentially magic weapons. The most obvious boon for me would be for specialisation to allow you to add your PB to damage rolls as well, with that weapon.

      However, once you hand specialisation out, you’re basically ensuring the player never uses any other weapon (assuming you only allow one specialisation), and I’d rather they have 3 or 4 weapons for different circumstances. That’s also partly why I created my weapon properties… so there’s a reason to carry a dagger etc.

      https://www.hipstersanddragons.com/new-weapon-properties-5e-dnd/

      cheers!

    • PK

      Hi Rick,

      Yes – all your concerns are in this approach; what isn’t said here is the ripples that doing this creates – and the first obvious ripple is to crimp Cantrips.
      “[outrage] Noooo! you can’t nurph my 2 Level Fighter action surge Wizard, you’re going to ruin the game”.

      Perhaps – but the unsaid underlying issue with this entire discussion is that Weapons got nurphed in 5e. To restore weapons, you can boost them – or drop the other side of the equation, that being scaling cantrips.

      I think the Warlock’s Eldritch blast to be the only one different.

      And yes there is an undercurrent to make PB aligned to specifically aligned to class level, as seen in the works after the PHB.

      And now we get to 6e, or a low fantasy hack, and that’s why this is all homebrew and opinion.

      BTW – I very much liked your post, as it needed to be said.

      • Rick Coen

        PK, one thing I was considering last week (due to a reddit post) was exactly what you proposed: nerfing cantrips. No scaling. Firebolt does 1d10, period, ever. *maybe* at the scale up points, you add a single extra point of damage. Want to mow something down? Spend those precious spell slots! You’re a caster, be one! And you still aren’t “reduced to a crossbow after your one spell” because you’re always going to be more accurate with your cantrip than a weapon anyway, so nothing there has changed. On the other hand, you can’t rival the Fighter’s 4 Attacks – his whole shtick! – with your everyday atwill cantrips *in addition to* your spells….

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