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Exceptional Weapons (from 2nd to 5th edition!)

There was a mechanic I loved from 2nd edition that concerned ‘Weapon Quality’ and it was introduced in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, a wonderful splat book that had rules for every martial aspect of the game from weapon specialisation and combat maneuvers (possibly giving rise to 5e’s Battle Master maneuvers) to warrior ‘kits’ that look a bit like 5th edition’s ‘archetypes’.

The handbook’s section on Weapon Quality introduced the idea that, as well as the ‘average’ weapons whose stats and prices you could find in the Player’s Handbook, the world of Dungeons & Dragons was real enough that you could also purchase ‘exceptional’ ‘fine’ or even ‘poor’ quality weapons, and that their differences in craftsmanship was enough to warrant mechanical differences in your attack bonuses.

As you can see from the table below, exceptional weapons granted a +1 attack bonus to both to hit and damage rolls, fine weapons granted a +1 attack bonus to either your to hit or damage roll, and poor weapons lumbered you with a -1 modifier to both rolls.

The Complete Fighter’s Handbook guide to weapon quality

I still love the concept. Firstly, because of the countless films and stories that feature legendary weapon smiths (like Kill Bill’s Hattori Hanzō), important family heirlooms (D’Artagnan’s rapier, handed down from his father), and especially-forged gifts (Arya Stark’s Needle, a present from Jon Snow) that cry out to me for nonmagical weapon bonuses to be a thing. And, secondly, because superior weapons give players some agency and a way to spend the countless hordes of treasure they tend to amass, which otherwise often serve no purpose at all. Whereas you can never be sure of stumbling upon a magical sword, glaive or axe, DMs that allow exceptional weapons by extension give players the great satisfaction of being able to buy one that is worthy of their abilities, and get rid some of those pesky piles of gold pieces in the process.

Within the scope of my latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure (which is in the final stages now… available in February 2021 I hope!) I reintroduce the concept of fine and exceptional weapons, but remixing them slightly. A playtester friend of mine pointed out that if it was possible to forge +1 nonmagical weapons then every magical weapon would use such an arm as a starting point. I don’t 100% agree with that, as such master craftsmanship might be incredibly rare (how many Hanzo swords are there out there?), and besides a wizard (I’m assuming its wizards who make them!?) crafting a magic weapon probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a +1 nonmagical weapon and a flashy/beautiful, but rather poorly functioning arm. They might see a pretty hilt and go ‘ooh, that’ll do’. Weapons don’t come with their bonuses printed on the hilt, and only an expert picking up such a blade and practicing with it might see that such a weapon would give them an advantage on combat.

But, anyhow, my friend’s comments weren’t ignored, and I’m going to flesh out these ideas a little differently that I would have otherwise, separating the fine quality of 2e into two distinct properties and making exceptional arms truly rare.

Weapon Quality Properties for 5e

I’ve come up with five positive properties for ‘well-crafted’ weapons that are based on the quality of the materials used and the skill of the crafter (plus two negative ones for those times you have to loot a goblin’s corpse for a blade). They are:

Balanced. A balanced weapon offers its wielder superior poise on the battlefield. When you roll a 1 on an attack roll with a balanced weapon you may reroll the attack. Once you’ve used this property’s feature, you must complete a short rest before you can use it again. Where available, balanced weapons cost 5 times as much as their standard equivalent.

Graceful. A graceful weapon is expertly forged to be lighter than usual, without compromising its strength. When you select the Attack action using this weapon you may add +1 to your initiative score during that round. Where available, graceful weapons cost 3 times as much as their standard equivalent, and weigh 25% less.

Keen. A keen weapon is typically forged from harder material than usual, and delivers a bite beyond the norm. Attacks made with this weapon gain a +1 modifier to damage rolls. Where available, keen weapons cost 5 times as much as their standard equivalent.

Superior. A superior weapon is the result of the best materials and craftsmanship, offering a combination of great handling and an edge at slicing or smashing through armour. Attacks made with this weapon gain a +1 modifier to hit. Where available, superior weapons cost 10 times as much as their standard equivalent.

Exceptional. Exceptional weapons are as rare as they are coveted, the craftsmanship of the world’s finest smiths working with only the best materials. Exceptional weapons offer a +1 modifier to both attack and damage rolls. Where available, exceptional weapons cost 25 times as much as their standard equivalent.

Note, my intention is that some of these properties could be combined in the same weapon, however in this case their price would be subject to the multiplier of both properties, divided by two (eg. a balanced, graceful rapier would cost 7.5 times as much as a normal one = 187.5 gold pieces). However, no non-magical weapon can ever achieve more than a +1 / +1, so you couldn’t combine exceptional property with the superior or keen one.

Those are the positive qualities, but of course it’s also possible find inferior weapons, which in a bind, might still be better than nothing.

Poor. Poor weapons are either made out of inferior material, badly made or are average weapons that have not been looked after properly. Attacks made with poor weapons suffer a -1 modifier to their attack rolls. Where sold, poor weapons cost half as much as their standard equivalent.

Worthless. Worthless weapons are rusted, broken, or otherwise compromised, and count as improvised weapons. The DM decides if you add your proficiency bonus to attacks with worthless weapons.

Availability of Well-Crafted Weapons

Being able to get your hands on a well-crafted weapon depends on so many factors, that my attempts to make a table for this have driven me to distraction, and been abandoned. I would argue that a good smithy in a town or city would have a few well crafted blades in stock (swords mostly, to sell to knights and nobles) and that a player in the market for a superior blade might get to see a small selection of higher end merchandise. The buyer might need to succeed on a skills check to ascertain whether the blade will actually benefit them, or if the smithy has overestimated their skills (or is taking the buyer for a ride).

Exceptional swords can be picked up in any good forest…

Similarly, a good smithy might be able to take an order to forge a well-crafted weapon. You can use the old 2e table I’ve shown above as a starting point for the time it might take, while success might not be guaranteed. I would maybe set the DCs for crafting a weapon as 5 for average weapon, 10 for a graceful weapon, 15 for a balanced or keen weapon, 20 for a superior one and 25 for an exceptional one. In some cases failure might still lead to a great weapon (failing to make an exceptional one, could lead to a crafting a superior one), while succeeding by 5 might allow the crafter to add another property to the weapon.

More Weapons Posts

I love weapons! Here’s what happened when I tried to make EVERY weapon in 5th edition unique.

And here’s what happened when I created 9 new weapon feats for your game.

And here’s what happened when I created 14 new Battle Master manoeuvres, inspired by action movies like Kill Bill and Indiana Jones.

Magic Weapons

Plus, I also like magic weapons… and I wrote a Platinum best selling book about them. Pick yourself up a copy by clicking the photo below and help support the blog at the same time!

Now available on the the DMs Guild

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14 Comments

  1. Rick Coen

    So, I had a whole system worked up for 3e, and a massive hodge-podge of a congolomeration for 5e (started small, expanded as I read others’ ideas). Same line of thought.

    I took it a step further, though, in concept, and decided that truly magical weapons *do* start at +2; any “+1” weapon is +1 because of its craftsmanship and/or materials. For example, the Imperial Guard are armed with “Argossian Bloodsteel” blades, which due to both material and craft provide +1 to hit, +d4 damage on crits, and reroll “1”s on damage.

    The PC currently have their hands on a finely crafted dwarven warhammer made from Argentium; the metal itself counts as silver and “magical”, while the craftsmanship is providing “ignores bludgeoning resistance” and +1 damage.

    The simepl version of my system had about 12 properties, with “cost”, and then you could find Fine, Exceptional, Masterwork, and Legendary weapons with 1pt, 2pts, 3-5pts, and 4-7pts of bonuses. A Hanzo sword, for example, might be Masterwork: +1 to hit, +1 damage, +1 keen, and sturdy (+2 item AC and +10 item HP). “The Murasama Blade”, a legendary weapon of roughly the same base quality might also have some “wilder” properties, like “chance to break any weapon used to directly Parry/Intercept it” (i.e. BM maneuvers, Fighting styles, Defensive duellist feat, etc.), or on a critical hit.

    On the other end of the scale, both Low & Poor quality weapons tend to break (wielder makes a DC 12 save vs. DEX or WIS to change the strike to save the weapon) on either 1s or 20s (after doing damage, if any), but Poor quality also usually is either -1 to hit or damage.

    • duncan

      Ok, sounds like something players would enjoy!

      I’ve got a question that arises from when you say:

      “I took it a step further, though, in concept, and decided that truly magical weapons *do* start at +2; any “+1” weapon is +1 because of its craftsmanship and/or materials.”

      What about the many magic weapons that don’t have any bonus in 5e?

      I thought about making some rules about well crafted weapons breaking less frequently but then there’s no official rules about weapon breaks to vibe off, so I kept this neat and simple in the end. I do have a ‘weapon break’ result on my fumbles chart, so I might give exceptional weapons a 75% of avoiding that, superior ones 50% etc…. but i will just improvise those.

      https://www.dmsguild.com/product/226294/Critical-Misses-Tables-5e-DnD?affiliate_id=1073077

      • Rick Coen

        In my campaign, to answer your question, the weapon’s quality overlaps with enchantment. So a “moon-touched weapon” (sheds light, irritates shapechangers, no actual combat modifiers) would stack with a Fine weapon’s “reroll a 1 on damage, once” property. So yes, if the mage took the time to acquire a weapon of non-normal quality then it *would* generate a superior version of the magic weapon. And I’m okay with that – it gives me the ability to customize each weapon.

        On the other hand, if a mage goes to the trouble to enchant a weapon to “+2”, then any bonuses it gets from being “balanced” (+1 to hit) or “weighted/serrated” (+1 damage) get overwhelmed by the magic. Those qualities are still there, though, as you said in your article, ready to resume importance in an Anti-Magic Field or deadzone.

        (Regarding weapon breakage, I allow Sundering as an action with disadvantage, or as a bonus effect on a Critical Hit -instead of extra damage to the target- but otherwise normal weapons don’t break. For all the reasons oft-quoted about “why should a 20th level fighter fumble four times more often than a 1st level fighter” (due to Extra Attacks), our “fumble” is just a moment of bad luck, imposing disadvantage on the next roll. No chance of weapon drop, weapon break, etc. Except for DM fiat to improve the storyline!)

        • duncan

          Hi Rick

          Ok, I could definitely live with an overlap system like that 🙂

          Weapon break as an alternative critical effect to additional damage makes sense.

          Fumble as disadvantage on the next roll feels like a solid ad hoc ruling. I am pretty happy with my critical misses table, but don’t always have it handy… (we say you can only fumble your first attack roll to get around the multiple attacks = multiple fumbles).

          Cheers for the input!

          d

  2. Michael

    There are plenty of reasons why a magical sword might not be of exceptional craftmanship. E.g. the weapon was enchanted by a magical accident or it came from a time when crafting techniques weren’t as sophisticated as they are today. In a world where magic items are very common then you might not expect all magic weapons to be exceptional – but some of them very definitely would be.

    Yes, a wizard intending to enchant a weapon might not be the best judge but he’s unlikely to be going to all this effort to own something he can’t use. A wizard with small modicum of intelligence is going to ask somebody he trusts (likely the intended recipient) to make sure the weapon is of the highest quality before he enchants it.

    If you take the truly legendary weapons (vorpal sword or holy avenger, for example) and imagine what happens to them in an anti-magic field. If the guy next to him with an exceptional but mundane weapon suddenly now has the advantage that just doesn’t fit with my concept of the craftmanship of those truly iconic weapons.

    There are a few ways you can make well crafted weapons better than average without making them as good as a +1 weapon. E.g. you can reroll an attack roll that misses by 1. Or for damage you get +1 damage in some circumstances, perhaps on a critical or if you hit by 5 or more of if you roll less than half on the damage roll. If you stick to something like that then you can get away with saying a +1 magical weapon is a +1 magical weapon regardless of the original qualities. (And your holy avenger can revert to those qualities if you’re ever careless enough to wander into an anti-magic field.)

    P.S. I think the initiative bonus would be too awkward.
    DM: OK Estelle, it’s you’re turn.
    Estelle: Right, I’m going to charge at the ogre and . . .
    Kitt: No, wait! I’m going to attack with my Graceful rapier and that makes it my turn first.

    • duncan

      There’s merit in all those arguments…. but some quick counterpoints

      Reroll a miss by 1, I guess is something like a +0.5 or slightly more to hit. Fair enough, but for the difference of a +0.3 to 0.5 I’d rather avoid another roll.

      I like situational advantages, but +1 to damage is already fairly meh… so having that particular advantage restricted is almost more bother than it’s worth.

      It’s important to remember that a +1 magic longsword is still infinitely more useful than a +1 exceptional weapon… try facing even a lowly wererat with the latter. You will be crying out for a +1 fly swat over a Hattori Hanzo katana.

      I actually quite like the idea that a holy avenger sword in an antimagic cone is now a PoS… (side note: I guess holy avengers would be crafted by clerics, if not deities… in general I’m thinking clerics are a better fit than wizards for such work. Most weapons are forged with an im/pious purpose! Now that – post Tasha – artificers officially exist in the Forgotten Realms they would be strong candidates too).

      I realised when brewing it that the ‘graceful’ property’s initiative bonus could be a bit of an issue, but I felt it’s worth keeping it on the table. As a DM, would probably be the property I’d give out last, or to a character that uses their weapon virtually every round, rather than switching between melee and spellcasting for example.

  3. Dennis

    If I recall correctly 3.0 and/or 3.5 editions had master crafted weapons which provided some bonus (+1 to hit?) and said that magical weapons were all master crafted.

    I think bonuses and penalties based on weapon quality are a better match for a game with crunchier rules (3rd edition, pathfinder, or something outside the D&D family), the type of game where the difference between bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage makes a real difference, where it’s a significant choice between: a sword that does piercing or slashing damage, a war hammer that does bludgeoning or piercing damage, or an axe that does slightly more damage but it can only by slashing.

    In 5e I’d unburden my players of their gold by making it easy for them to buy and trade magic items. For a low magic setting I guess master crafted weapons could replace magic weapons.

    • duncan

      Certainly seems that the game designers wanted to keep weapons very simple…. with mechanical advantages coming from feats, class abilities and magic items.

      As you can see from my numerous posts on the subject, I don’t feel quite the same!

      • Rick Coen

        Me as well! Sadly, not my players.

        I personally like the difference between:
        “A dull blade with a poorly repaired hilt, clearly suffering from neglect over the years. Nonetheless, when you first draw it from its sheath, you surprisingly give yourself a really deep cut. The wizard confirms a powerful enchantment enhances the blade, despite its appearance…”

        vs.

        “You hold the silver-black blade of Ahz-Kaloom. Wavepatterns ripple through the exquisite unfamiliar alloy of the blade, and with just a moment’s handling you can tell the weapon is superbly weighted for lightning thrusts as well as powerful slashes. The hilt is extended and appears to be made from the same alloy as the blade, though wrapped in the hide of some exotic blue-skinned creature. Three runes are engraved in the base of the blade, just above the hilt, “Ahz”, “Kaloom”, and “Cut”. in addition to all this, the blade is undeniably magical.”

        Both are Vorpal Swords, +3 to hit and damage, with chance of insta-kill on a Crit. The first is of Poor quality, but the enchantment is overriding most of the penalties; it still has a chance to break on a 1 or 20, and sadly inflicts a bit less damage on a crit. Why is this weapon so poor, and bearing such a strong enchantment? Is it an “Iron Man Mark 1” attempt by a desparate mage? Or legendary weapon that is millenia old? Perhaps it suffered the wrath of a Dao, or won a pyrrhic victory against another legendary blade? One thing is sure – no one will expect great things from this blade, or its master!

        The second is clearly a Legendary weapon, powerful and exotic even without its enchantment. Stories have been told about this weapon – and perhaps it was famous even before being dipped in the blood of the demonic Bladeling Prince? Surely a weapon as fine as this will not leave its wielder wanting – perhaps the spirit of Ahz-Kaloom himself subtly helps an inexperienced wielder’s strikes, guiding near misses to strike true? After all, he wouldn’t want his legacy tarnished by Joebob the Baker’s Boy! Be wary, though — seekers will come for the blade… [This weapon is balanced and edged (overriden by the enchantment), as well as Keen (+1 crit range), and rerolls one damage die on any hit (keep either roll).]

  4. PK

    Hi Duncan,

    Sadly we see so few magic weapons in 5e WotC content.
    Even Adamantine (as per Xanathars) doesn’t even give a weapon +1; it gives auto critical when hitting objects only.

    I think this is because 5e already has power boosts (+X hit/damage, magical hits) baked into class progression with ASI’s and PB, which incidentally scale much faster for PCs than it do the stats for CRs (i.e. AC, Damage, etc).

    To me, DM’s need to add specials weapons to reward the fighting classes. But how to do this without accelerating the power creep more…

    I think the following is a good approach, where X = [1..3]:
    – +X to Initiative (Sharper, Balanced, faster)
    – +X Charisma (Intimidation, Persuation) Checks
    – +X to Renown (optional rule, but recommended IMHO)

    This approach deliberately avoids adding more to hit and damage bonuses. The bonus to initiative is a combat bonus that is non-trivial though, it can easily sway a battle, so there is reward for fighting with such a weapon.

    The Intimidation and Persuasion bonus gives the fighting classes some nice utility to avoid having to fight.

    And renown is such a cool mechanic that I think DM’s should include it within their world. It gives players in world progress, and helps to see PCs and NPCs as more than a bag of stats. Also great character building if they were to ever lose a renowned weapon *DM’s grin*.

    In this framework I would see a Hanzō sword as a +3 to Initiative and Charisma checks, and +5 to renown.

    regards

    Phil

    • duncan

      Hi PK, ok interesting you should mention charisma checks, because I very nearly added another property ‘ornate’ which was to give a +1 to Charisma checks (in civilised society). But then I was like… what about fancy clothes, fancy armour, jewellery etc etc. Players might start to stack any item that increases their social status by that logic and things could quickly get messy.

      Yes, letting people see the hilt of a sword by a master weaponsmith is good for your social status, but so are a lot of other things, and any advantage would really depend on the situation and who you were trying to impress or intimidate. So overall I felt a flat charisma bonus is too generous / problematic.

      Renown I haven’t played around with, but that could make more sense… if the weapon is truly exceptionally crafted at least.

      Weapons that grant an initiative bonus is something I included, as you see, but only just, for the reason that Michael states in his comment above. I’d be a little hesitant to have that as the main non magic bonus I give out to weapons.

      Actually, I specifically included the balanced property for those who wanted to give a weapon a benefit that isn’t a +1, as I understand why some people wouldn’t want to. (Although my personal preference is actually for the +1s. It’s simple and reflects the ‘edge’ I want a well crafted weapon to have).

      Anyway, thought I’d explain my thinking a bit more on those points!

    • duncan

      “Sadly we see so few magic weapons in 5e WotC content.”

      If only some savvy blogger would come along and create 120 new ones…. plus a generator so you can create 1000s more 😉

      https://www.dmsguild.com/product/258734/Esquiels-Guide-to-Magic-Weapons?affiliate_id=1073077

  5. Nathan Brown

    A few quick thoughts…

    Balanced – Add proficiency bonus when used in offhand (Or +X in offhand… I can see adding proficiency becoming ridiculous at higher levels)

    Graceful – Bonus Action to attempt a parry on an incoming AO (opposed attack rolls?)

    Keen – Reroll 1’s on damage dice (once per die, per hit) [Slashing Weapons Only]

    Weighted – Reroll 1’s on damage dice (once per die, per hit) [Bludgeoning Weapons Only]

    Superior – Add one weapon damage die

    Tempered – Weapon gains ‘Damage Threshold X’ or ‘HP/AC +X’ (X being PC level dependent) [Metal Weapons Only]

    Solid – Weapon gains ‘Damage Threshold X’ or ‘HP/AC +X’ (X being PC level dependent) [Wood or Stone Weapons Only]

    Artistic – Get +X to Intimidation, Persuasion, and/or Renown (i.e. Dragon-Head Mace)

    Exceptional – Any combination of 2 or more of the above

    • duncan

      Hi Nathan

      I like some of these, but I have a few reservations…

      I def. would not advocate adding proficiency bonus to an attack roll as a property, as that’s already included in the attack anyway. Even a flat bonus I don’t like… why would a weapon become better in one hand rather than the other? If you wanted to do something here, it might be add your damage modifier to offhand attack. Ie. a rogue might be very grateful for your version of a balanced dagger, as it saves them having to take a level of fighter just to get the dual weapon fighting style.

      Graceful – this feels like it should be a reaction, and that already exists in defensive duellist feat or the parry maneuver. Overall I feel like anything that affects the action economy should be a class ability or feat. I was looking for a much more subtle/slight benefit of having a slightly better weapon.

      Keen – I would be happy with that, but does involve extra dice rolls and also overlaps with a couple of other abilities (great weapon fighting style) / feats (savage), which could get irritating. So better just to have the +1 to damage IMHO. Less bloat.

      Superior – on a greataxe that would effectively a +6.5 to damage for a non magical weapon!

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