Welcome to December, everybody! Sorry about not posting a Friday Feature last week. It was Black Friday for us retail-slaves, and that meant that my week was especially hectic and crazy. I’ll do my damnedest to avoid that from now on.
This month, I’m talking all about stuff. Weapons, armor, shields, and magic items. Because that’s what this season is all about. Materialism. And to a large degree, that remains the same in Dungeons and Dragons, where the jokey tagline is “killing monsters and taking their stuff.
Hell, my blog is named Loot the Body.
So, let’s talk Masterwork Weapons. Masterwork weapons, armor, and tool sets were one of my favorite little mechanics in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. You know the funny thing, though? I also hated those same mechanics with a deep and abiding passion.
I should note that 4e had a masterwork system, as well, but it was kind of weird and I don’t have enough experience with it to really speak to its efficacy.
In theory, masterwork items are a fantastic idea for a fantasy RPG world. A masterwork weapon or suit of armor is literally a smith’s master work. It is proof that they are a master of their craft and that they are able to craft items of exceptional quality. And this translated into game mechanics, as well. Masterwork weapons gave you a +1 bonus to attack rolls, armors reduced armor check penalty by 1, and tool sets gave you an additional +2 on all skill checks made using that tool. It was a cool little mechanic that gave you an edge early in the game without explicitly granting the players magic.
However, there are a few problems with this system. First, there’s a cost issue, and there’s also the issue of inconsistent benefits, and the fact that a masterwork weapon’s mere existence can make magical weapons seem annoying and trivial by comparison.
A Problem of Cost
First, let’s talk about the cost issue. In 3.5, it’s assumed that a group of level 1 characters gain around 300 gp per encounter. Granted, this is supposed to be divided between gold, random treasures, and special equipment. However, it assumes that characters gain roughly 300 gp each encounter. If a group goes through 5 encounters per day, this means roughly 1,500 gp each day. Let’s say 2/3 of this is actually random items and such, and only 500 of that is actually useable gold without going to a buyer. This means that a group of level 1 characters can purchase one masterwork weapon, up to three masterwork armors, five sets of masterwork thieves’ tools, or ten other masterwork tools after a single day of adventuring. And the scale of gold acquisition only increases every level. I personally played in a game where my level 11 warlock was able to outfit every one of his followers with a masterwork weapon. And he had a LOT of followers.
See, D&D is a high-yield game when it comes to money. Of course it is. It kind of has to be, doesn’t it? Why the hell else are you killing monsters and taking their stuff if that stuff isn’t valuable? It’s been said that the smart adventurer stays home and runs a bar or a farm, acquiring gold without any risk of failure. There are entire blog posts and tables and graphs talking about how you can gain vast amounts of gold through the profession skill. Except it’s all crap. All of it. Because you might be able to gain 1000 gold in a month with high profession rolls, but you’ll never find a pirate’s secret treasure. You’ll never plunder a dwarven mine and take its stacks of platinum. You’ll never take home the dragon’s hoard. So many boring RPG players use the standard motivation of “I want to get rich” for their character because it makes so much damn sense.
The dwarves say that they wanted to take back Erebor because it was their ancient home, defiled by the dragon. But the fact that they were going to make fat stacks of cash definitely wasn’t an inhibiting factor.
But why is this a problem, you ask? Because a “masterwork” item is literally a masterpiece. That sword you picked up off the hobgoblin overlord? It’s the sword equivalent to a Van Gogh or Manet. It’s an item of spectacular quality. So why in the hell does it only cost 300 gp? Why can you COMMISSION masterwork items from the local smith? Why can you carve a goddamn masterwork spear in your spare time marching through the swamp of whocaresanymore? These things should be marvels, but are instead simply trifles.
“I want to buy 10 masterwork daggers,” says the level 5 rogue.
“That’ll be 3,000 gp,” replies the GM.
This is a problem. Now, I’m sure many of you will give the answer of “a “GOOD” GM wouldn’t allow that. They’d limit the amount of masterwork items in order to create a sense of rarity and mystique around the items.”
Except they still only cost 300 gp. Now, don’t get me wrong. I get it. The reason masterwork items are cheap when compared to the exorbitant prices of magical items is because their benefits are lesser and they’re intended for low-level characters. That’s true, but inconsistent with what these things actually are. Now, if these were instead “high quality” items, that wouldn’t be an issue. But they’re not. They’re masterworks. A carriage and two horses costs more than a masterwork weapon.
There’s a reason that The Starry Night costs more than my car.
Masterwork armor reduces armor check penalty by 1. This remains true whether or not a piece of armor is magical or not. In fact, it always remains true, because 3.5 explicitly states that all magical weapons and armor are masterwork.
Masterwork weapons grant a +1 enhancement bonus to attack rolls. That’s pretty cool, right? 300 gp for a +1 bonus? That’s pretty sweet. Too bad it’ll cost you another 1,700 to get a +1 bonus to damage in addition to that. What’s that? Oh, right. Enhancement bonuses don’t stack, so the +1 enhancement bonus of a masterwork weapon is superseded by the +1 enhancement bonus of a magic weapon. This is really a matter of preference, but I have had multiple players get disappointed upon learning this fact. It means that magic weapons don’t start getting interesting until they have an effective enhancement bonus of +2.
Which itself has a cost of 8,000 gp, meaning that it’s quite a wait before you gain a +2 weapon, or a weapon that has any kind of cool effects (because a weapon MUST have at least a +1 enhancement bonus in order to gain special abilities). Again, you could argue that a “GOOD” GM could figure out a way around this and ignore the rules to the benefit of their players. Any weapon can do anything in the hands of a “GOOD” GM. A “GOOD” GM could also just play a different game with less prohibitive magic item system.
The point here is, of course, there’s a thematic inconsistency between the benefits gained here. Masterwork armor gains a specific bonus that sets it apart from being magical. It’s a bonus that lasts throughout the armor’s career. Weapons, however, must sacrifice their masterwork property in order to become magical. It creates a disconnect in what masterwork means in game terms, and makes magic weapons seem unreasonably expensive.
Anyway, let’s stop wallowing in the past. It’s time to look at how masterwork is treated in 5th Edition. I can’t wait to see what they’ve done with the concept!
Masterwork in 5e
Nothing. They did nothing with the concept. There is no masterwork in 5e. And that’s really too bad, because like I said above: masterwork is a really cool idea. There should be storied masterpiece weapons and armor in your games. It just makes sense.
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s make some masterwork equipment.
The way I see it, there are three major ways to make Masterwork function in 5th edition. I call them the Old Way, the New Way, and the Right Way.
The Old Way
This one’s easy. Treat masterwork items in the same way you would in 3.5. Masterwork weapons gain a +1 bonus to attacks, and negate disadvantage on stealth checks in any masterwork armor you’re wearing. Simple, right?
Except, it’s not so simple. The armor thing sucks, right? It has no effect on armors that don’t impose disadvantage on stealth. And weapons…well, we run into a few problems with this version of masterwork weapons.
First, let’s talk about stacking. Does the +1 bonus gained from the masterwork property stack with the +1 bonus gained through having a +1 magic weapon? Based on the standard rules of 5e, it should. This would mean that a masterwork +1 weapon would give you a +2 to attack rolls, and a +1 to damage. This seems kind of all right. Except, it’s ass-backwards. 5th edition combat operates on an assumed bounded accuracy. Creatures’ AC does not exceed a certain point. There is no monster in the game that has an AC over 25. This means that that extra +1 to attack rolls actually ends up equating to more damage than the +1 to damage rolls. It’s actually always been that way, if you know the math, but it’s especially noticeable in 5th edition, where ACs stay low throughout the game. In order to compensate for this, hit points and damage in 5th edition get a major boost. The fighter gains 4 attacks, paladins gain massive burst damage with their smites, and rangers gain damage boosters through spells and their subclass features. This is even reflected in the entry for magic weapons and armor in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. A +1 weapon in 5e is an uncommon item, while a +1 armor is rare. Contrast this to 3.5, where it cost twice as much gold to enhance a weapon as it did to enhance an armor. In 5th edition, improved AC has a high price, while boosted offense is a far less weighty benefit.
There is, of course, a simple solution to this. Masterwork weapons do not add a bonus to attack rolls. They add a bonus to damage rolls. Personally, I would rule that masterwork weapons allow you to re-roll damage on a 1. This does three things. First, it effectively boosts the average damage of the weapon by 1 point, since its lowest roll becomes 2. Second, it maintains the idea that masterwork is something unique, and not connected to magical bonuses. Third, it gives the effect of +1 damage while also letting the player roll more dice. AND it lets them re-roll 1s, which is a great, cathartic experience on its own.
And as for armor? I think the answer is obvious. You just flip the effect and impose it on the GM.
For simplicity’s sake, here are the rules laid out in game terms.
When you are wearing Masterwork Armor and are hit with a weapon attack, the attacker must re-roll all damage dice that land on their maximum result.
When you hit an enemy with a Masterwork Weapon, you re-roll any damage dice that land on a result of 1.
Masterwork Weapons and Armor are considered Uncommon rarity.
Now, this system isn’t perfect. For one, it puts a bit of a burden on the GM in terms of remembering who has masterwork armor and who doesn’t. But, honestly, if the DM is doing their job, that shouldn’t be an issue. The second issue is the same I had before when it comes to cost. The only way to make this system work mechanically is to have masterwork items be Uncommon rarity, which caps at 500 gp. This means that even the most magnificent masterwork axe forged by the great dwarven smiths of Dwarfington is still only valued slightly above your average warhorse. That said, if you’re looking for a system that reflects the days of old, I’d go with this one.
The New Way
I’ve seen this idea floating around for a while, and have even tried my hand at making something like it in the past. I call it the “New Way,” but there are many who might call this the Dungeon World method. My other favorite pet name for it is the “Weird Shit” method.
How does this work? Well, it’s quite simple, actually. You create a table of special properties for weapons and armor, and when masterwork equipment shows up in the game, you roll to determine what features it has. Why is this “new?” Because it’s a pretty modern RPG idea to create a dozen distinct benefits for something as simple as masterwork weapons. We live in an era where tabletop games are very much focused around customizing your character to your whims. Pathfinder is an exceptional example of this, where nearly every class has a wide variety of choices to make throughout its level-up progression, and even the classes themselves are divided up by archetype. Even 5e makes room for the idea, using backgrounds, subclasses, and optional feats as a way to narrow down and clarify your character’s unique place in the world.
Therefore, it only makes sense to bring this level of customization into weapon crafting, doesn’t it? A masterwork dwarven weapon is going to be uniquely different than one forged by orcs.
So…what makes this the Dungeon World method? Well, dungeon world takes this idea and programs it into the core of its Fighter class. They get a signature weapon that differentiates them from other fighters, and it gains special properties that make it different from the normal weapons you might find laying about on the dungeon floor.
The benefits to this method are pretty obvious, I would think. It makes weapons special and unique. You kill the aforementioned hobgoblin overlord, and you take his spear. Not only is it finely crafted, but it has hooks and barbs along the shaft to deal more damage to enemies: +4 damage on criticals. Done. It’s a special weapon with a cool description and a unique bonus to go along with it. Similarly, the elven longblade that the elf king of elfheim gives you might technically be a greatsword, but it’s so well-balanced that it has the finesse property. Cool and unique, right?
It even has a built-in system to make things more or less rare, and give that rarity a tactile meaning. Simply add multiple effects to a single item. The dwarf king’s dwarf-hammer is not only especially heavy, adding +2 damage and giving it the Heavy property, but it also has spikes on the head, allowing you to re-roll 1s on damage rolls.
It’s like there’s nothing wrong with this method.
Except, there totally is.
The first problem arises with armor. See, there’s not that many things you can do with armor. Like I said, I tried making this system for my home games, and I only came up with six options at the time. Now, I’ve got a couple more ideas now, but as I look back, I see other issues with what I wrote. Three of the six are restricted to light, medium, or heavy armors. And four of them have per-day limits on their special features. That makes sense for magic weapons that can run out of juice, but these are just regular wood and steel. True, they are forged to perfection, but there’s nothing magical about them. Why can you only add +2 to your Dex or Strength save once per day? Why can you gain resistance to piercing damage once per day? Why can you only negate disadvantage on stealth three times per day? See the issues? Now this can be fixed. The point is that there isn’t all that much that Armor can do outside of the norm.
The second problem is one of variety and consistency. Below, I’ve got two d6 tables in order to add some excitement to your games. It is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas for your masterwork equipment. However, I think even a person more creative than I probably couldn’t come up with more than six or eight more features each for armors and weapons. And a problem arises when dealing with variety, because there’s a tradeoff. When dealing with a single bonus, benefit, or path, one expects consistency. There’s also a kind of consistency expected when one is dealing with variety. They expect consistent inconsistency, if that makes any sense. When dealing with a variety, people want variety. Nobody wants to watch the same sketches over and over on Saturday Night Live. No one wants to read the same short story over and over in a book of short stories. And no one playing Pathfinder wants every Alchemist to be the same. The same applies here. When every third masterwork armor the players encounter has spikes, it makes spikes boring.
There is an argument to be made that such a system actually works quite well in a game like Dungeon World. However, I think part of that is due to the fact that it’s inherently tied to the class mechanic. Classes are, by their very nature, limiting. You have chosen the fighter class, meaning that you have committed to a particular playstyle. Therefore, when the game offers you a choice on how to improve your weapon with 5 different options, those options become important, because they define a part of your character in an otherwise limited system. They are class features, just like any of the others.
Of course, you could always run a game where players can commission masterwork items from local smiths, and choose whether or not they want Hooks and Spikes or a Huge weapon. But this runs into two problems. First, you’re allowing your players to commission a masterpiece, which is stupid. Second, you’re not restricting the player in any meaningful way when you ask them what they WANT their masterwork weapon to be. When a player asks for a razor sharp edge on their weapon, and you tell them that it isn’t an option, they wonder why. Why the hell can’t they have a razor-sharp sword? You could artificially limit them, of course, by claiming that no smith in town is good enough to make that kind of modification. But then you’ve presented them with a side quest, where they will eternally be searching for that legendary smith who can make their razor sword. It becomes a breakdown in communication, where you’re trying to tell the player that you don’t want to try to design and balance a razor blade, while what they hear is that you have simply placed strings on their desires. Inevitably, you’ll cave and give them their razor sword, and they will probably be disappointed after all the work they had to go through in order to gain +1 to damage.
Finally, this is a hard system to balance. Effectively, you’re coming up with magical weapon and armor properties without actually coming up with them. The above razor sword is easy to design, really. You just make it ignore resistance to slashing damage. Except that is WAY too powerful for a low-level masterwork item. You could, of course, make more powerful masterwork items with more powerful options. I did mention above the idea of layering abilities onto items in order to make them more powerful. However, by adding “rare” properties, in addition to “uncommon” properties, you add another layer of complexity to what should be a simplistic system.
In the end, it becomes a system that’s too complex for its own good, and one I would not recommend people use.
And honestly, I don’t know that it’s necessary. If you want to add special properties to weapons and armor, then just DO it! You’re the GM. What’s stopping you? If you want the elven leather to give a bonus to Dex saving throws, then do it!. If you want the orc battle-club to have spikes that deal +2 damage, then just add it! You don’t need rules to codify making weapons unique. Your players will think it’s cool, and they will thank you. I promise that.
That said, I did promise you guys a weapon property table.
The Right Way
If you’ve paid attention to my design work thus far, you’ve likely picked up on a trend. I’m a big fan of using existing mechanics to accomplish my goals. The less new stuff I have to invent from whole-cloth, the better. And that’s what the Right Way of masterwork is. It’s me using existing mechanics to my advantage. The mechanics we’ll be using today? +1 weapons and armor.
I mentioned before, in my Article on Magic Item Glut, that I dislike magic weapons and armor that are simply have a +1 bonus. +1 AC, +1 attack and damage rolls. Blech. BOOOORING! And, in my mind, it doesn’t even make any sense. Why, pray tell, does a +1 longsword give you a +1 to attacks and damage rolls? What magic is used to add this bonus? Is it an inherent True Strike spell, so that it’s attracted to foes? Does it expand in the wound ever so slightly to deal more damage? What is it? This concept has always been ill-defined since the beginning of the game back in the ‘70s. And all of the explanations I’ve heard are stupid.
Do you know what isn’t stupid? Letting the +1 bonus on weapons and armor be a catch-all for masterwork. Why does your sword grant a +1 to attacks and damage? Well, it was forged by the great smith Melkior, you see! It’s exceptionally-well balanced, has a razor-sharp edge, and the grip is fitted perfectly for my hands! See the way the blade curves right at the tip here? It’s to allow for a smoother cut, so that I can reposition more quickly to land another blow.
See what I mean?
Now, I know what you’re about to say. You’ve seen this proposed before. There’s no official masterwork rules, so simply allowing a +1 item to be masterwork makes perfect sense. Except everyone usually stops there when they give this advice. And my question to them is: “what about +2? What makes +2 inherently magical if +1 is masterwork?” It’s the same problem I presented above. What justification are you going to use? An aura of sharpness around the sword? Magic crystals that deflect attacks? What?
I propose that we don’t try to come up with any of these justifications. I propose going all the way. Keep magic magical. Fire damage, lightning bolts, and spinning helicopter axes. Let masterwork rule the +1, +2, AND +3 bonuses. Because it’s a perfect system.
Every problem I’ve encountered above is solved within this system. Consistency? Come on. What’s more consistent than +1, +2, and +3 bonuses? Simplicity? I refer to the previous statement. It’s literally a number added onto die rolls. Excitement? Remember above when I talked about how the +1 bonus to attack rolls in 3.5 masterwork weapons inherently made +1 weapons less exciting? That is no longer an issue. When you upgrade your weapon in this system, there is always a benefit in all areas.
But what about thematic resonance? What about Van Gogh’s Starry Night being cheaper than my car? There’s even an inherent solution to this problem here. And the best part is that it makes sense! I can’t tell you how much this stuff gets me jazzed, guys!
See, a +1 weapon is considered “Uncommon” in the magic item rules. This means that it’s commonly worth less than 500 gp. I think of this as Borka the Blacksmith’s prized sword. She forged this sword in her prime, and it is the greatest item she’s ever created. It’s nearly perfect in every way: light, strong, and incredibly-well balanced. However, Borka the Blacksmith is the local smith in the town of Arseville. She didn’t train under a master smith. She never went to Blacksmith college. She isn’t forging on the ancestral Lava Anvil of the Goblin Queen. And, therefore, her best effort is a very impressive sword that will see you through any number of adventures, but it’s no Excalibur.
A +2 weapon? It’s considered “Rare”, which monetarily means it’s worth up to 5,000 gp. This is like the Six-Fingered Sword in the Princess Bride. It’s a weapon of incredible quality, far surpassing the best work of even talented smiths. It might take years to forge a weapon of this quality, and most have quite storied and bloody pasts. In most games, I would consider a +2 weapon to be the pinnacle of what a mortal smith can achieve without the aid of the mystic arts.
And +3 weapons? Statistically, they’re “Very Rare,” giving them a cap of 50,000 gp in value. This is Excalibur or Masamune. These weapons could be mistaken for magic, and are legends in their own right. They are perfect in every way. Truly flawless pieces of artwork. The cap is 50,000 gp, but I would consider these weapons priceless.
Taking a step away from weapons and instead focusing on armor, we find that they are all one step higher in value. +1 is rare, +1 is very rare, and +3 is legendary. From a statistical standpoint, I get this. Remember, 5th edition places a VERY high value on increasing your AC. This is why so many spells that traditionally granted an AC bonus have been retrofitted into this new system with different mechanics. Mage armor doesn’t give you +4 AC any longer. Now it gives you a standard AC of 13 + your Dex modifier. Barkskin ensures that your AC cannot go below 16, rather than giving a bonus. This means that giving armor an inherent boost to AC makes it far more mechanically valuable than a weapon that adds to attack and damage.
And this makes a kind of sense. After all, making armor is, arguably, a much more arduous process than forging a weapon. There’s simply a lot more to make. In addition to that, you have to go through constant fittings with the armor to ensure that it fits properly, and it must constantly be adjusted. There are more moving parts, and it just takes more work. Therefore, a +3 armor SHOULD be legendary. There might be one such suit of armor in the entire world. The dwarf-queen’s war plate from the battle of Valley Hills, forged on the back of an adamantine golem in a dragon’s fire breath is legendary. It probably took decades to forge. Her hammer? In all likelihood, it took much less time and effort, even if it does have a +3 bonus.
In the end, this system just makes the most sense. It has a natural scaling mechanic, placing higher value on rarer, more powerful items, and keeps benefits consistent and simple, allowing you to focus on other parts of your game. It also allows you to narratively differentiate between the skill of mortal men and women and the power of magic. It means that magic weapons and armor need not be masterwork, and powerful masterwork items need not be magical.
It really is a perfect system.