Weapon Proficiency in AD&D

14 Nov

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  It’s been replaced by newer editions that have only a superficial tie back to the earlier rules sets.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


Posted by on November 14, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


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6 responses to “Weapon Proficiency in AD&D

  1. Matt

    November 14, 2013 at 7:09 PM

    I don’t think weapon diversification is the primary goal of any of the Old School Renaissance games. If that were the case, then the weapon limitations that comes with class choice would be the first thing to go as that lops off weapon diversification off at the knees faster than anything else so that all characters will fill a Tolkien-esque archetype.

    I have a fondness for the weapon proficiency as it gave your characters greater background and greater variance, especially GMs allowed for its use to escape class-based weapon restrictions so your character could be unique. The levels of increased mastery it often led to were also fun and gave the martial-based classes (especially the fighter) something to aspire to instead of just being able to hit things a little bit better with each successive level.

    I didn’t mind that most characters specialized on particular weapons as that reflected the way it would work in a real world. If a long sword does more damage than a broad sword, then the long sword would be more widely used in a world where the a large number of powerful and influential people lived and died by their swords. It would then be a natural reflection of such a world for long swords to be in greater use, for people to have greater proficiency with them, and for there to be greater numbers of enchanted long swords then broad swords.

    Since most GMs run games where all enemies fight to the death and there are seldom any society restrictions on weapon choices, it makes sense that players would want to get the most bang for their buck and not diversify. But if GMs ran a game where enemy knights and nobles would surrender if captured and could be ransomed off for large amounts of money, then weapons like the net, lasso, and man catcher suddenly become more viable. If the societies a character normally encounters require all large weapons to be surrendered to the authorities upon entering town, suddenly there is incentive to be proficient in small, concealable weapons. And if weapons like broad swords were more likely to be found in ancient hordes because it had been the weapon of choice for centuries before the improved long sword was developed, then fighters might have to pause and give that one some thought.

    With all that said, I understand why the Old School Renaissance has discarded the rule: it’s far more streamlined to restrict weapon choice on class so characters can be generated quickly than to interrupt and lengthen the character creation process as AD&D and later editions of Dungeons & Dragons did. And if people want to use the weapon proficiency, they can always fall back to AD&D or one of the later editions.

    • Fractalbat

      November 14, 2013 at 8:00 PM

      The character diversity is what I mean by weapon diversity. That’s what I think is lost by the proficiency system. I didn’t get into class restrictions, but I agree with your statements on that completely. Not having them in Lamentations of the Flame Princess hasn’t unbalanced anything. To the contrary, it’s been quite colorful!

      The idea of DM’s allowing proficiencies to skip class restrictions, I like that. Is that a house rule or did some edition incorporate that? That’s good stuff.

      There are no levels of mastery except for weapon specialization. At least not in 1st Ed and I don’t think 2nd, though I need to check my books. Was that a 3rd Ed thing? How does it work?

      Technically the fight to the death thing is a mistake. Morale rolls should happen as the fight goes on, but most DM’s, myself included, are a bit lazy about them. I only use them sometimes, but it has been worth it when I did. The ghoul prisoner was fun to play out.

      I think your summary about streamlining, and the ease of including the rules if you want to, are right on the money. Despite my problems with them, I’d hesitate to remove them if I was going to run AD&D or OSRIC. And I have considered running one of those sometime.

      • Matt

        November 15, 2013 at 1:04 AM

        While Lamentations does not restrict weapon choice by class choice, it does try to steer magic-users towards the traditional mage weapons by making them have two free hands or only be carrying a wand or staff in one hand to cast spells. It’s not impossible for a magic-user to work around these restrictions as our two-handed sword wielding magic-user has done, but I do wonder if that might become more restrictive for higher level characters.

        I wish the magic system allowed for schools of combat-oriented magic to give wizards who prefer to use their magic to charge into the thick of things with a sword in their hand spells to enhance their performance and make them on par or possibly better than a fighter (at least for the short term). However such would violate the archetype system, so it doesn’t exist.

        As for the weapon proficiency skipping class restriction, it was introduced to me as a house rule. However as I grew familiar with D&D, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the DM got it from one of the myriad of second edition books or an issue of Dragon Magazine. I do know that the point buy system introduced in Skills and Powers allowed for Wizards to become proficient with weapons normally restricted to them (provided they buy the proper ability of course), and 3rd Edition allowed for characters to use Feat slots in order to buy Martial or Exotic Weapon proficiency in weapons outside their class’s normal limitations.

        Before today, I thought Weapon Mastery had been introduced in 2nd Edition. I can’t recall which book those rules appeared in and I remember something about it being restricted to fighters, but it was my impression that rules hadn’t existed earlier than that.

        However when reading through my Rules Cyclopedia today, I was surprised to come up with rules for Mastery in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia for Basic on page 75. Basic concept is that you keep investing weapon proficiency slots into a single weapon, and gain greater bonuses and abilities with that particular weapon. It was great if it worked and you achieved mastery, but the downside was the lack of versatility might get you killed before you did so.

  2. Fractalbat

    November 15, 2013 at 9:01 AM

    Wow! I had no idea something like weapons mastery was in the Cyclopedia. I’ve only begun to crack my pdf copy. Coming more from AD&D than the Cyclopedia line I am often surprised by what turns up.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it was introduced in 2nd edition through the Complete Fighters’ Handbook. I remember that book had a few things, like kits with extra weapons specilizations, but it was one of the books that didn’t impress our group so we didn’t use it. Some of the Complete books we liked a lot, that wasn’t one of them. If I remember correctly we found the kits uninspired and unbalanced, but it’s been a long time.

    Yes, the magic system is still where I have the most love/hate relationship with D&D. I love the color and flavor of the spells and I really do like the power curve magic users are on. But a lot of the rules are designed to not let magic users use magic, and that’s a flaw. It’s probably the thing I’m most interested in reading about when I eventually pick up Dungeon Crawl Classics because it sounds like they may have found a good balance between the flavor of D&D’s Vancian magic and letting casters do more than fire off a handful of spells.

    I remember 2nd Edition introduced allowing magic users to focus on a single school of magic, but they kept basically the same spell lists. So some schools of magic had very short lists of spells. They might have filled that out more with some of the later books, but I was moving into GURPS by then.

  3. The Rambling Roleplayer

    December 24, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    You both make excellent points about weapon proficiency and its impact on weapon diversity. In regards to magical items, I have a couple of interesting things to add. Magical weapon bias in Second Edition AD&D, at least when talking about the number of swords that show up versus other magical weapon types, is built into the magical weapon charts themselves. There shouldn’t be as many magical military picks (you have about a 3% chance of getting one randomly) as there are swords (you have almost a 30% chance of rolling the generic ‘sword’ randomly, and an almost 7% chance of getting a scimitar specifically for some reason) because this bias is built right into the item tables. I assume long swords show up more than other types of swords because module designers pick them for the same reason we do when we’re making our own adventures: we know that’s the sword adventurers are using. What’s interesting is when you start to look at how common other weapons commonly used by adventurers are and compare that to the likelihood of getting one randomly. You have just under a 2% chance to get a magical battleaxe at random, but they are way more common than that, presumably because us DMs are such nice guys, and we want our dwarves to have magical versions of their preferred weapon too.

  4. Fractalbat

    December 24, 2013 at 4:28 PM

    Fascinating! I never noticed that about the treasure tables before. Great observation.


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