Excerpts Archive | 5/7/2008
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Excerpts: Weapons
4th Edition Player's Handbook

In today’s preview, we asked Chris Sims to detail how weapons work in 4th Edition. His response:


Weapons are an essential part of the D&D game. They’re the "sword" in "sword & sorcery".

Older versions of the D&D game allowed you to be proficient with a few specific weapons, growing in the number of such skills you advanced in level. When you weren’t proficient with a particular weapon, you took a penalty on attack rolls with it. Weapons had varying levels of effectiveness based on size, speed factor, damage against targets of different sizes, and even against differing sorts of armor.

In 3E, the game embraced an appealing level of complexity. It did away with some of the esoteric weapon systems of older editions, but it kept enough nuances to define each weapon as specifically as possible. Weapon categories—simple, martial, exotic, and improvised—became the major means of defining proficiency. As the game developed, new rules as well as rules resurrected from older editions played on the differences and similarities among weapons.

The 4th Edition D&D game took all these thoughts about weapons and considered them. For the new game, it was decided that weapons had to be complex enough to be interesting, as with 3E. But the rules also had to be easy to use in design, in character creation, and in play—even easier than in 3E.

Here are some of the ways concepts evolved into what you’ll see in 4E’s weapons:

  • Weapon Categories: Just like in 3E, weapon categories tell you how a weapon is used. We retained the 3E concepts of the simple to exotic gamut (albeit with different names), because they’re very useful concepts for defining the broad levels of proficiency most characters classes have. Whether a weapon is melee or ranged matters for using powers. We also used whether a weapon is one-handed or two-handed to help define how weapons function for Small characters. Size matters, but not enough to overcomplicate the weapon rules.


  • Weapon Groups: We created these broad groups, which also function as keywords, to interact well with other game elements. It’s easier if a designer can rely on a group keyword to say, “This feat does X if you’re wielding an axe,” or “If you’re wielding a light blade, this power also does X.” You’ll care about these groups when you’re selecting feats and powers. The preview tells you that some powers and feats require a weapon from a certain group. However, other powers simply function better when you’re using a weapon from the appropriate group. This fact helped us create thematic feats and powers based on how we imagine weapons functioning in heroic fantasy.


  • Weapon Properties: If you try throwing this melee weapon, what are the considerations? Can that weapon be used in your off-hand? How long does it take to load this projectile weapon? What happens when you use that one-handed weapon with two hands? We created weapon property keywords to help answer such questions at a glance. For instance, the thrown weapon properties allow a weapon to cross the line between melee and ranged. The words light or heavy defines whether you use Dexterity or Strength, respectively, to throw the weapon. All that information is stored in two words.


  • Proficiency: The truism that skill matters met the idea that just about anyone can swing a sword and hurt someone. These combined with the 4E philosophy (unlike older versions of the D&D) that—whenever possible—lack of skill doesn’t penalize your roll; skill enhances your effectiveness instead.

--Chris Sims





When you confront villains and monsters in their lairs, you often end up in situations that can be resolved only with arms and magic. If you don’t have magical powers, you had better have a weapon or two. In fact, you might want a weapon to back up or even augment your powers.

Weapon Categories

Weapons fall into four categories. Improvised weapons aren’t weapons you train with—they’re objects you pick up to hit someone with. Punching or kicking someone is also considered an improvised weapon. Simple weapons are basic, requiring little more skill than lifting and hitting with the business end. Military weapons are designed for skilled users. Balance and precision are important factors when using military weapons, and someone without the proper training can’t use them effectively. Superior weapons are even more effective than military weapons but require special training to use. You can learn to use a superior weapon by taking the Weapon Proficiency feat.

Weapons in all four categories are further categorized as melee weapons, which you use to attack foes within reach of the weapon, or ranged weapons, which you use to fire at more distant enemies. You can’t use a ranged weapon as a melee weapon. A melee weapon with the heavy thrown or the light thrown property counts as a ranged weapon when thrown and can be used with ranged attack powers that have the weapon keyword.

Finally, weapons are classified as either one-handed or two-handed. A one-handed weapon is light enough or balanced enough to be used in one hand. A two-handed weapon is too heavy or unbalanced to use without two hands. Bows and some other weapons require two hands because of their construction.

Some one-handed weapons are light enough for you to use in your off hand while holding another one-handed weapon in your other hand. Doing this doesn’t let you make multiple attacks in a round (unless you have powers that let you do so), but you can attack with either weapon. Other one-handed weapons are large enough that you can keep a good grip on them with two hands and deal extra damage by using them as two-handed weapons.

Choosing Weapons

If you belong to a class whose powers don’t include weapon keywords, just pick weapons that you’re proficient with and that you’d like to use. If you’re a fighter or a member of any other class that has powers linked to particular weapon groups, you care more about weapons than other characters might. Be sure to consider the powers you’d like to use when choosing your weapons, and vice versa.

You want to have an option for melee combat as well as ranged combat, even if you’re not as effective at one or the other. Be sure to choose at least one of each kind of weapon. When that flying monster makes its getaway, you don’t want to be left standing around with nothing to do but hurl insults at it.

Weapon Groups

Weapon groups are families of weapons that share certain properties. They’re wielded similarly and are equally suited to certain kinds of attacks. In game terms, some powers and feats work only when you’re attacking with a weapon in a specific group.

If a weapon falls into more than one group, you can use it with powers that require a weapon from any of its groups. For example, the halberd is both an axe and a polearm, so you can use it with powers that give you an additional benefit when you wield an axe or a polearm.

  • Axe
  • Bow
  • Crossbow
  • Flail
  • Hammer
  • Heavy Blade
  • Light Blade
  • Mace
  • Pick
  • Polearm
  • Sling
  • Spear
  • Staff
  • Unarmed

Weapon Properties

Weapon properties define additional characteristics shared by weapons that might be in different groups.

Heavy Thrown: You hurl a thrown weapon from your hand, rather than using it to loose a projectile. A ranged basic attack with a heavy thrown weapon uses your Strength instead of your Dexterity for the attack and damage rolls.

High Crit: A high crit weapon deals more damage when you score a critical hit with it. A critical hit deals maximum weapon damage and an extra 1[W] at 1st–10th levels, an extra 2[W] at 11th–20th levels, and an extra 3[W] at 21st–30th levels. This extra damage is in addition to any critical damage the weapon supplies if it is a magic weapon.

Light Thrown: A ranged basic attack with a light thrown weapon uses your Dexterity. Light thrown weapons don’t deal as much damage as heavy thrown weapons, but some powers let you hurl several of them at once or in rapid succession.

Load: Ranged weapons that loose projectiles, including bows, crossbows, and slings, take some time to load. When a weapon shows “load free” on the Ranged Weapons table, that means you draw and load ammunition as a free action, effectively part of the action used to attack with the weapon. Any weapon that has the load property requires two hands to load, even if you can use only one hand to attack with it. (The sling, for example, is a one-handed weapon, but you need a free hand to load it.) The crossbow is “load minor,” which means it requires a minor action to load a bolt into the weapon. If a power allows you to hit multiple targets, the additional load time is accounted for in the power.

Off-Hand: An off-hand weapon is light enough that you can hold it and attack effectively with it while holding a weapon in your main hand. You can’t attack with both weapons in the same turn, unless you have a power that lets you do so, but you can attack with either weapon.

Reach: With a reach weapon, you can attack enemies that are 2 squares away from you as well as adjacent enemies, with no attack penalty. You can still make opportunity attacks only against adjacent enemies. Likewise, you can flank only an adjacent enemy.

Small: This property describes a two-handed or a versatile weapon that a Small character can use in the same way a Medium character can. A halfling can use a shortbow, for example, even though halflings can’t normally use two-handed weapons.

Versatile: Versatile weapons are one-handed, but you can use them two-handed. If you do, you deal an extra 1 point of damage when you roll damage for the weapon. A Small character such as a halfling must use a versatile weapon two-handed and doesn’t deal extra damage.


Be sure to return Friday for an extensive May Previews article that looks inside all three core rulebooks!
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