Saturday, November 19, 2011

Why I Use Unearthed Arcana's Weapon Groups

Since purchasing the Pathfinder Core Rulebook earlier this year, it has almost completely replaced Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 in my affections. So many of the overcomplicated mechanics in 3.5 have been reduced to rules which are simple to memorize and enact. And many areas in which 3.5 was lacking (there were many times when "leveling up" only meant more HP) have been beefed up by Paizo. Resulting in, I think, a much more balanced and entertaining game. Pathfinder is not perfect, by any means. It even created a few new problems which 3.5 didn't have to begin with. But the point stands that Pathfinder is an improvement.

So much so that I sometimes forget Pathfinder was designed to be compatible with Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 content. With a little tweaking, most of which can be done in the GM's head, any D&D 3.5 supplement or adventure module can be used to enhance a Pathfinder game. So while Paizo is busy doing such a good job recruiting new players into our fine hobby, many of those new players may be interested in what D&D 3.x books are worth purchasing to add to their Pathfinder collection. It would perhaps be beneficial to construct a list of the best & most relevant 3.5 supplements. I would need to read the handful I missed before doing so, but I have no doubt that Unearthed Arcana would be damned near the top of my list.

Named for the AD&D first edition supplement of the same name, Unearthed Arcana is 218 pages of optional & alternate rules for D&D. You may recall the book from yesterday's Colorful Characters 6. The Gestalt system I used in that post comes from Unearthed Arcana. Every page of the book is worth a dragon's horde. It holds mechanics and fluff for anything from variations on race and class, to systems for reputation and sanity. A more descriptive title for the book might be "The Big Book of House Rules," but it's just not as snappy. It's the book so nice, I got it twice. For serious.

One of my favorite segments of the book is a three-page alternate rule nestled in chapter three, called Weapon Group Feats. It has been included as an optional rule in every game I've run since, from D&D 3.5 to Pathfinder. The exact text of the rule, pulled straight from Unearthed Arcana, is available to read on HypertextD20 SRD, but I will sum it up here for clarity's sake just the same.

Using the standard rules, all weapons are classified either as simple, martial, or exotic. Most classes begins play with proficiency either in simple, or simple and martial weapon types. Characters who attempt to use weapons which do not fall into a group they are proficient with take a -4 penalty on attack rolls. Exotic weapons are a special type which are normally more powerful than other weapons, but each specific exotic weapon requires a feat be taken in order to wield it without penalty. On the face of it, the system makes sense. Fighters obviously receive more weapon training than wizards do, so they're able to wield more advanced and deadly weapons. Unsurprisingly, I have a number of problems with this arrangement, but I'll go into them in a moment.

The weapon group system appears somewhat more complicated, but is ultimately quite simple. Essentially, the 3 weapon classifications are replaced by more specific ones which identify the weapon's basic group. Examples of groups might be Axes, Bows, Heavy Blades, or Spears & Lances. Mindful of the increased effectiveness of exotic weapons, characters are still considered non-proficient with such a weapon, even if they are proficient with the weapon group it falls into. Characters must take Weapon Group (Exotic) in order to gain access to those weapons. Thus, instead of each class starting the game being proficient in either one or both primary weapon groups, each class begins play with the option to select a number of weapon groups they are proficient with. Barbarians can select three, Bards can select two, etcetera.

I resolutely believe the latter system to be superior for the following reasons:

Increased Realism & Increased Simplicity Almost without exception, increased realism means increased complexity. Sometimes, this is an acceptable exchange, but with games like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder, complexity is already high. And while the weapon groups rule would seem to be more complicated than the basic proficiency rules, it's much more intuitive. If a character who has been using a dagger up to now finds a +2 hand axe they may be tempted to switch, but in order to determine whether or not they are proficient they need to crack open the rulebook and find the chart which details which weapons fit into which proficiency group. Using weapon groups, the player need only look at his character sheet to know what types of weapons he or she knows how to use.

Allowing Player's their Weapon of Choice You don't have to be a GM to realize that players care about the weapon their characters use. It's often one of the first parts of the character concept they come up with. "A dwarf paladin who fights with a trident," "an elven rogue who is a master of the kukri," "a halfling fighter who specializes in spear fighting." If players are so interested in the weapons they get to use, why should the game pointlessly restrict them from using it? It's not as though a wizard who uses a longsword is going to suddenly rival the fighter in melee combat. The wizard still has a -2 strength and the worst base attack bonus in the game. He's never going to hit anything. There's no reason to add a -4 "screw your character concept" penalty to that.

Makes Weapon Specific Feats Less Lame
There are a number of feats in the game which require the character to select a weapon to take them with, such as weapon focus, or weapon specialization. These are great feats which avoid all the pitfalls I hate about feats, players should be encouraged to take them. However, when you take Weapon Focus(Longsword), there's always the nagging worry in your mind that you're going to find a +5 Vorpal Scimitar in the next treasure pile. Replacing that with Weapon Focus (Heavy Blades) goes a long way towards reducing the player's worry.

Treasure Hordes Don't Seem Tailored
Often, partially because of the previous point, GMs feel obligated to include direct upgrades to a player's weapon. If a player has invested a lot of time in their battleaxe skills, then eventually they're going to want +1, +2, & +3 battleaxes. But it starts to feel painfully contrived when players just happen to find treasure hordes which include those things. If players can switch freely between types of axes without penalties, this becomes much less of an issue.

I do have one minor issue with the weapon group system as written in Unearthed Arcana. The number of proficiencies listed for each class to select at first level is far too low. There are 17 potential proficiencies listed there, yet the highest number of first level proficiencies is four for the fighter. And Druids, Sorcerers, and Wizards benefit from the system not at all. I prefer to add 2 additional weapon group choices for each of the classes. This allows everyone more freedom. Classes with a small number of proficiency selections, such as the wizard, can still know how to use an exotic weapon (which they'll still never hit with.) And classes which are supposed to be martial masters, such as the fighter, gain some depth to their weapons mastery.

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