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  • Aaron K

D&D Edits: Proficiency, Part 1: Weapon Proficiency

Hey Reader!

For almost a year now, I've been playing D&D with some of the Zurnians, and over that time I've come to realize some of the things that I would change to give the game more realism. My list of edits is not long, but for our first post, we will be focusing on the Proficiency system in D&D.

I. What is Proficiency?

"Proficiency" in Dungeons and Dragons is defined as, "many of the things your character can do particularly well." In D&D, there are five types of proficiencies: armor, weapon/tools, skills, saving throws, and languages. We will go more in-depth into some of these in our next post, but there are a few things that need to be said about proficiencies. First, they are not all treated the same: no rolls are required for language or armor, for example.

But in general proficiency means that you get to apply a bonus (which scales up based on your character level) to some of the rolls you make. Some of these (skill and weapon proficiencies) apply to specific stats (ranged weapons boost your Dexterity when using ranged weapons), while others may apply to various stats based on the kind of action being performed (tool proficiencies).

I want to note upfront that I really like some of the ways proficiency is handled in D&D. It works for languages and saving throws really well, and is also decent for skills. This post will begin with a discussion of where I think weapon proficiency goes astray, attempting to make it more realistic.

Future posts will discuss armor proficiency, shield proficiency as a sidebar (because I really like shields, and if there is one thing that sparked off the creation of the D&D Edits series it's D&D's treatment of shields), and skills. But for now, we will discuss weapon proficiency only.

II. The Problem with Weapon Proficiency As-Written

First, let's define our terms. On Page 146 of the Players Handbook we read: "Your class grants proficiency in certain weapons, reflecting both the class's focus and the tools you are most likely to use....Proficiency with a weapon allows you to add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll for any attack you make with that weapon. If you make an attack roll using a weapon with which you lack proficiency, you do not add your proficiency bonus to the attack roll."

With this in mind, a concession: I know why proficiency restrictions exist: they are intended to balance the game so that fighters, for example, are better in close combat than a high-Strength, high-Charisma warlock.

But if a proficiency is supposed to represent things a character can do well, how does bashing with a war pick (martial weapon) differ from a mace (simple weapon)? How does the skill of stabbing with a shortsword (martial weapon) differ from stabbing with a knife (simple weapon)? And let's not even pretend that there is any difference between a pike (martial weapon) and a spear (simple weapon) beyond the length and weight of the weapon when it comes to attacking.

I can see the difference between an axe or mace (a percussive weapon) and a sword (a primarily slicing and stabbing weapon), but axes and daggers are simple weapons, while war picks and shortswords are martial weapons. So the bonuses for weapon proficiency make no sense from a realist perspective as-written.

And again, all of this comes down to game balance. And I like the distinction between martial and simple weapons from a cultural standpoint: you might get treated with suspicion (if not alarm or hostility) if you do not work for the local lord and you are carrying a martial weapon around town. So as a game designer, I understand the desire behind this. But that doesn't excuse a system that makes no sense, especially if that system has been around for about 45 years and is the preeminent tabletop system on the planet. And we haven't even gotten into answer the question, "Who gets to decide which items '[reflect] both the class's focus and the tools you are most likely to use' as noted in the definition of weapon proficiency" talk, as that will make this post longer than it already is.

So what is the answer? Ironically, it involves a turn toward another D&D approach.

III. Solution: Streamlined Rolling and Resolution

How D&D handles skills is good (though I may address skills in a future post): give a bonus to rolls you make based on your training. If you wanted your game to be more realistic, you would give bonuses to attack types not weapon types. So you might use the following proficiencies:

  • Bladed weapons (Swords, Daggers)

  • Percussive Weapons (Axes, Maces, Clubs, Flails, Hammers, Mauls, Halberds, Picks, Staves)

  • Piercing Weapons (Spears, Pikes, Lances, Tridents)

  • Draw Weapons (Bows)

  • Winch Weapons (Crossbows)

  • Hoist Weapons (Javelins, Darts, and weapons thrown from over the shoulder)

  • Precision Ranged Weapons (Slings, Nets, and other items that require non-linear approaches to preparing and "firing" the weapon)

  • Shields (more on this in a future post, but it is worth noting that shields are already their own proficiency)

This allows you to treat weapons the way that proficiency is described in the book: if you have skill in using an item a certain way, you'll be gifted in how to use similar items in the same way. And you could place some restrictions on these: perhaps crossbows in your world are considered to be a martial weapon only, and not used by huntsmen in their work, so maybe only a martial character (Paladin, Fighter, maybe War domain Cleric, etc.) can use them. But you get the idea: a person who knows how to use a light crossbow knows how to use a heavy crossbow (proficiency), even though one is a "simple weapon" and one is a "martial weapon."

In Zurn, we place no such restriction on weapons: if you want to pick up a sword, a person who is more coordinated will naturally be better at blocking and sliding it in to stab someone (a Finesse roll) than someone who lacks good hand-eye coordination. We don't see why weapon proficiency should be an issue, and definitely not a restriction, as that limits player creativity.

Now you may need to create new categories for blowguns and other unique weapons like whips. And for character creation, maybe instead of getting access to simple or martial weapons a character start with 1-2 weapon proficiencies, the fighting classes (Fighters, Barbarians, and Paladins) start with 3, and you gain all of them if you take the Weapon Master feat, which would make the feat far more attractive.

And if you want to go really crazy, you can be more accurate as to the proper base stat for an item. Draw weapons care more about Strength than Dexterity, so bows should be Strength-based weapons (whereas winch weapons use the strength of the winch to pull the string back, and require lining up and aiming the shot to be effective). Similarly, bladed weapons are a lot more about position of the cut or stab than they are about strength (as it takes only about a pound of force to puncture flesh, and the proper use of a sword is to aim where there is no/minimal armor), so they should be Dexterity weapons (and not just the option of Dexterity as "Finesse" weapons, as the shortsword and dagger are, but strictly use Dexterity all the time).


This means that players can choose weapons that create the image of the character in their mind, not just choosing an item because an arbitrary list of weapons says it's available. And that is what we want.

In our next post in this series (which may not be consecutive, as we'll be doing other posts on roleplaying, campaign creation, and tips for being a good player or game master), we will continue to discuss some of the proficiencies in D&D (including why I like some of them - this is not a hate fest, but constructive criticism), but we'll also talk about Challenge Rating, initiative, flanking, and special abilities, so keep watching this space!

Until next time,



1 Comment

Dec 05, 2021

"How does the skill of stabbing with a shortsword (martial weapon) differ from stabbing with a knife (simple weapon)?" Coming from a place of experience, there is quite a bit of difference in fighting with a shortsword vs. a knife. You really can't understate the importance of weapon length when it comes to actual weapon know-how. Weapon length really makes a world of difference in how one weapon is handled vs. another, regardless of other similarities they share. Same goes for spear vs. pike. There are just so many different ways to use a spear that you can't do with a pike. While handling a pike well takes a lot of practice due to its awkward size, but can be…

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