Sometimes less is more.
This could be one of the mantras of the Old School Renaissance, right up there with “Loot the Bodies”. It’s probably why we see more Original and Basic edition clones than we do Advanced Dungeons & Dragons clones, despite the fact that OSRIC was one of the most important catalysts for the OSR’s birth. Basic D&D is “more” than AD&D in terms of accessibility and simplicity.
That’s not to say I don’t appreciate games with crunch. GURPS is one of my favorite systems and I would be quite happy diving into a game of Role Master. Conversely I can point to plenty of simple systems that hold no appeal. I’m looking at you White Wolf. Feel free to discuss “simple” vs “simplistic” among yourselves.
What the OSR has done, and continues to do, is use the benefit of hindsight to take a good look at what fired our imaginations when we first discovered Dungeons & Dragons. Back when it was new to us we were caught in the development whirlwind. Today is different and the Dungeons & Dragons we played back then is no longer an officially living line. It’s been replaced by newer editions that have only a superficial tie back to the earlier rules sets. That distance provides objectivity and a chance to examine what parts of D&D’s development resonated with us, what parts didn’t, and why.
One of those elements are AD&D’s weapon proficiency. In Basic D&D a character can use any weapon they pick up with equal skill, provided it is a weapon not restricted from their class. Thus a cleric is restricted by class from using a sword, but can wield a mace, flail, or hammer with equal ability.
AD&D introduced rules for weapon proficiency. A new character is given a number of slots to designate weapons that they have been trained to use. The number of proficiencies is determined by the character’s class and further proficiencies are obtained as the characters gain in level. Wielding a weapon without a proficiency gives a minus To Hit. A proficiency in a similar weapon does not help, so being proficient in a glaive or long sword doesn’t help with a volge or broad sword.
On paper this looks like a good rule. It represents the training adventurers undertake before venturing off into the wilderness. It gives advantages to the more melee-oriented characters, letting fighters have a wider selection of available weapons than clerics, thieves, or magic users. It offers another reward for gaining levels and, theoretically, offers more diversification.
In practice weapon proficiency creates less diversification as players pick the best weapons their class allows and the ones most likely to show up on the treasure tables. Fighters and thieves pick the long sword, clerics the mace, and magic users pick the staff or dagger. Other slots go to bows, spears, and other common weapon types, but the limited number of proficiencies means that if you look at two characters of the same class and level the majority of their chosen proficiencies will match up.
Published adventures also feed into this. Pick out any TSR module and it won’t be hard to find a +1 long sword, but a +1 bardiche or broad sword is unlikely. As a dungeon master I rarely used non-standard magic weapons when designing adventures, though I can’t say if this was from unconsciously following the pattern of existing adventures or because I knew what my players were proficient with.
In time other rules were built on top of weapon proficiency such as weapon specialization and non-weapon proficiency. These additions further embedded weapon proficiency into the foundation of the rules (and lead to other effects, as mentioned in my post on Shields and Power Creep). Eventually proficiency groups were introduced, which allowed a character to be skilled in a family of weapons and improved the diversity situation.
But the question remains on what weapon proficiency adds to the game. If looked at alone, without the later systems added on top of it, not much. It doesn’t enhance game play, it doesn’t add a notable advantage to fighting classes, and it doesn’t enhance character diversity. Arguments about realism can be made, as skill with a mace is different from skill with a spear, but that argument falls short when comparing a mace to a morning star or a long bow to a short bow.
Weapon proficiency is one of the systems that was conceived to fulfill a purpose but generated more clutter than value. This seems to be the judgement of the retro-clone movement, as few rules sets have made use of them, finding more elegant ways to boost the melee classes without the need of weapon restrictions or specialization.
It’s also a good reminder that the OSR is doing more than just enshrining the old rules in stone, it’s giving them a good hard look.
“At the start, your character will be able to employ but a limited number of weapons. The number is determined by class. When the character moves up in levels of experience to the next higher combat melee table, he or she is assumed to have acquired proficiency in an additional weapon. The new weapon is of his or her choice. Note that proficiency with a normal weapon is subsumed in using a magical weapon of the same type. If proficiency with any given weapon is not held by the character, it is used at a penalty as shown on the table which follows.”
AD&D Players Handbook, Pg. 36