Balancing Weapon Mastery How to include Weapon Mastery, but still keep your combat encounters challenging.

Classic D&D weapon mastery is awesome. However, it can also lead the unwary GM down a deep dark rabbit hole where over powered PCs make mincemeat of combat encounters. Suddenly the epic boss fight is done so fast that even the players are feeling cheated, because the game isn’t a challenge any more. Part of the issue is that weapon mastery wasn’t introduced until the Master Set, and modules prior to the Master Set were not written with weapon mastery in mind. Also, by now almost the entire creature catalogue was made prior to the introduction of weapon mastery. Add to that the fact that weapon mastery is an optional rules set, with a huge game changing impact which sort of demands the rest of the system is adapted to allow for it. In short, Mastery was bolted on inelegantly and was never properly incorporated, despite how awesome it is.

What is Weapon Mastery

The rules themselves are simple enough if you have the Rule Cyclopedia (RC), just turn to page 75 and have a read. In fact, if it’s been a while since you’ve read the rules you should refresh your memory before reading on.

If Hit Points represents “[your characters] ability to survive injury” (pg 7 RC) then weapon mastery is your ability to stop your opponent from surviving injury. The damage output from weapon mastery can be massive, especially in the hands of a Fighter. With just the humble Sword, a fighter of sufficient level can hit an opponent for 30-40 HP damage multiple times in a round. This can reduce the most fearsome beasts into bloody giblets pretty damn fast. It makes the role of GM much harder if you want players to feel challenged by combat encounters.

Weapon mastery is not just about damage either, there’s the special abilities which can deflect blows, stun opponents and improve Armour Class. If you are playing a hack and slash style of game, such as a typical Gary Gygax module, weapon mastery empowers PCs far above the normal HP exchange system in D&D. In fact, I love that combat is no longer reduced to HP exchange, but you have to be ready for such a fundamental shift in game mechanics.

What follows is a few tips and tricks you can use to include weapon mastery in your game without breaking game balance. I will also include tips on a few things you should avoid in trying to balance encounters.

Tip 1: Play it by the rules

Make sure you read the rules for weapon mastery properly. For example, the Deflect ability seems incredibly powerful as you can avoid damage from a blow by making a save vs Death, which is the easiest of saves for most characters. The visuals and thematic feel of a fighter parrying aside blows is awesome. It’s one of the things I personally love about the Mastery system, as a battle between two great swordsmen often comes down to one or two actual blows being landed. However, parrying aside the attacks of a dragon suddenly reduces the dragon to being a kitten. Yet, if you read the Deflect rules carefully, it says, “the wielder of this weapon can deflect a number of melee and thrown weapon attacks” (pg80 RC). Clearly you cannot deflect a dragon attack, or any monster attack unless that monster is using a melee weapon. There’s a very good reason for this logic. Yes, you can assume a claw is the melee weapon of a dragon, but if you look at the types of weapons with Deflect, I do not think that would be an accurate interpretation.

Make sure you use these rules as written, including fussing with Primary and Secondary targets, as it’s not just useless stats, it helps balance things and it gives weapons more individual identity. There’s a reason a monster hunter might use a two handed sword or a battle axe over the normal sword. There’s also a good reason to use a staff or a short sword. Suddenly, picking the right weapon for the right situation is a part of what makes a good fighter a great fighter.

Tip 2: Make some creatures immune to weapon mastery

This might seem to contradict tip 1 but I think it was more an oversight. Increased damage from weapon mastery reflects the character’s additional skill, which allows them to pick their attacks to take maximum advantage of their weapon. In theory, this means attacking vital points of their opponent. When facing something like a Gelatinous Cube, where are its vitals? Weapon mastery does not mean you hit harder, it means you hit more skilfully, but against certain types of monsters, skill doesn’t really seem to apply.

Make monsters without discernible anatomy immune to weapon mastery, reducing the character’s skill effectively down to Basic knowledge. This includes taking away their bonuses to hit. Creatures which are automatically immune are all forms of Slimes, Oozes, Jellies and Swarms. Creatures which are also insubstantial or are made of constantly shifting matter such as Elementals should also be included. And Earth Elemental isn’t a constructed anatomy, it’s a flowing mass of pure elemental force.

Optionally you might want to exclude constructs, but constructs actually do have an anatomy required to function, so I personally think they should still be subject to weapon mastery. If you desperately need your Huge sized monsters to be scary, you might exclude them from weapon mastery rules, after all, how effective can you be with a tiny little sword against a dragon leg the size of a house? However I think that’s prone to inconsistency and, as I’ll explain later, there’s other ways to balance that out.

Subdual damage should also exclude bonuses from weapon mastery. A weapon master is trained to kill efficiently, not slap people with the edge of the blade. I cannot imagine any dragon accepting a subdual having only been hit once with a weapon, no matter how hard they were hit.

Tip 3: Play Monsters to their Intelligence

In most D&D modules I’ve seen, the dragon is scary only because it has scary stats. What should be scary about dragons is that they are powerful foes, but they are also intelligent foes. In most cases, the PCs are coming directly into the dragon’s own home to kill it. Now, if you had an Intelligence of 15 (Huge Red Dragon), and you knew people of exceptional skill were regularly trying to break into your home to kill you and nick your stuff, would you be satisfied with laying on your treasure to sleep as your only means of security? Hell no!

Creatures of higher intellect should use that intellect to defend their homes. They should also use it when outside their homes. A dragon should always do a flyover for a quick detect magic if it can, or maybe a second fly over for a full HP dragon breath attack. Then have it wait out the spell durations the party used for defence when they saw the dragon. Only after it’s sure the party can be handled should a dragon attempt a direct confrontation. If the party cannot be beaten, any smart monster would gather up what loot they could carry and leave. This would make stealth play a much more important role for the party.

Here’s a short list of tricks I’ve used before just for dragons:

  • Red Dragon having areas of it’s lair smeared with easy to ignite tar and barrels of oil.
  • White dragon which slept on an island in the middle of a subterranean lake. It used its breath to freeze over the lake in a thin layer of ice, not quite hard enough to support more than one person.
  • A Brown Dragon which disguised itself with a Statue spell while it slept during the day.
  • A Gold Dragon which created an illusion of itself in the lair while it rested in polymorphed form as a pretty damsel in distress.
  • A nest of Green Dragon whelps who had a network of underwater limestone tunnels to escape into, allowing them to come up in other places in the lair or to escape entirely.

One day I’ll have to compile and release my collection of dragon lairs, but any monsters of suitable intellect should easily be able to make preparations to avoid a fair fight. Even the humble kobold has the intelligence to throw flaming oil. I once ran an encounter with twenty goblins using a swinging log trap and wrestling rules to subdue a party of 36 level characters. Use your imagination for the benefit of your encounters.

Tip 4: Use weapon mastery against the PCs

Humanoid opponents should be some of the more fearsome opponents the PCs face. Breaking into the keep of an evil overlord should offer challenges like the Captain of the Guard who is a master swordsman, or the magister who is skilled with the staff. Also, it makes sense that martial races such as Orcs would have their own weapon masters who train their war chiefs.

Don’t be afraid to give any intelligent humanoid races a few extra HD and some basic weapon mastery. It makes logical sense that not all Orcs are 1HD monsters. In fact, if you look at the Halfling entry on the monster section, the Halfling is listed as 1-1 HD. Those listed are only showing the racial average. Most Halflings are only 1st level, just like most orcs are 1st level, but they can be so much more.

Tip 5: Move away from combat

If you’re writing your own modules, remember that not all adventures have to be about combat after combat. I won’t try to give a history lesson here, but Classic Dungeons & Dragons was never meant to be pure dungeon crawling and hack and slash, it was created as a medium for telling fun, educational and engaging stories. That’s why AD&D split from D&D, not because AD&D is more advanced, but because it has a different design philosophy behind it.

Use social skills, create puzzles and engage the imagination of your players. In essence, Role Play. If you entire idea of what role play is doesn’t extend past rolling to hit, then I’m sure weapon mastery will be fun for you, but you’re missing out on a lot of what the game experience has to offer.

In my experience a good adventure should include some combat, and I try to make sure there’s a little combat in every session. Just don’t let combat be the only focus. The combat should be dramatic and important. It should be the culmination of the player’s other activities, or a necessary evil in order to reach a grander goal. If you take the focus off combat, then weapon mastery will actually become more special, because it gives the fighter his moment to shine when the time comes.

Tip 6: Adjust older modules

Some of the later modules did start to use weapon mastery, but the inclusion tended to be limited at best. When you read over each module before playing it, have a good think about how weapon mastery can be included within the module, and how to balance for it. Some modules adapt easily, especially where opponents are human. Others might require a little rewriting to use the tips above. Most common sin of all you’ll find are lazy dragons who sleep on their treasure and think they are scary enough to avoid trouble. Just do a little interior decorating to make sure they can still be a challenge.

Things you should not do

There are a few common ways I’ve seen GMs try to counter weapon mastery, which will generally just leave players feeling grumpy. Here’s a quick list you can do on occasion, but don’t do them all the time:

  • Use magic as a counter. Not every bad guy has to be a mage or have some magical way to negate the fighter.
  • Just add more enemies. This only makes for longer and often more boring fights.
  • Take the character’s weapons away. A Rust Monster around every corner and pretty soon the party are fighting with their bare hands. Let the players use the abilities they’ve developed.

One final option

One of the most destructive elements I find with the weapon mastery rules is not so much the damage or the special rules, it’s the bonuses to hit. When combined with the Fighter Smash attacks and other abilities, it takes weapon mastery to a whole new level I’m not sure it was meant for. I haven’t play tested it enough to say for sure, but I personally think the bonuses to hit should be halved. I like that skill can be better than magical bonuses, but when both stack things get a bit silly. This would reduce the bonus from weapon mastery to a +4 maximum, which is still awesome, but not as overwhelming as +8 which makes any die roll a formality (Not a natural 1 so I hit).

In Conclusion

Weapon mastery is awesome, and I never play without it. In fact, in my optional house rules you can see where I’ve rolled it over into General skills. It makes Fighters especially valuable and even gives the mage in a party something to do when his spells are not needed. In fact, Fighters become the main damage dealers in the party instead of the magic user, allowing the magic user to take more utility spells rather than learning nothing but Magic Missile, Fireball and Ice Storm. All in all, I think it’s one of the best things about Classic D&D. However, just be aware that it can be a game breaker as well.

With a little extra logical thought and imaginative preparation, weapon mastery can enhance the immersive game experience. You owe it to your players to make sure they feel rewarded for their character development, yet still challenged by the game content. As a good GM it’s not your role to just roll dice, or work out how to ‘beat’ players. It’s your role to make the game fun for everyone, including yourself.

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