“In 5th Edition, we try to avoid mandating equipment.”
– Mike Mearls, Happy Fun Hour 2.6.2018
5th Edition D&D is great because it allows you the flexibility to build on top of the system. But, sometimes we rush to fill gaps that are empty for a reason. Designing good homebrew content requires knowing these pitfalls so you can jump over them or fill them in carefully.
Character features mandating equipment are one such pitfall. Most often, these come in the form of feats or class features that enhance a particular type of weapon. Mike Mearls has discussed both during his Happy Fun Hour streams. Let’s see what we can learn for our own designs.
When building the Weapon Master (Fighter), which then became the Slayer (Fighter), Mike Mearls developed a Flail Trip combat tactic:
In responding to whether a class feature was “too narrow to restrict to one weapon,” he responded:
“That is always the danger or challenge of specificity in design, especially for 5th Edition. As a designer, it’s really fun to make things feel really flavorful. Like, ‘wow, the flail is different and unique and distinct and it’s cool.’
“The challenge is twofold: First you could say, ‘let’s just put special rules on the flail,’ and that’s all well and good, but you have to look at that choice in the context of the rest of the game. Does every player want to worry about that stuff? Maybe, maybe not. If the answer is no, do you make some weapons that are just really lame–like have nothing special–so those players can just opt into them? And how does that interact with weapon choices when monsters have a flail? Do I have to worry about some special abilities for that?…
“Now I have to look at it in the context of the character class. How much power do I want to invest in a weapon? Because that power may have to come from character class. And then you’re starting to drain what’s really a very big identifier for players into something that might be more secondary…
“In 5th, character class is king for determining what your character is like and what your character can do. Then comes character race. Equipment comes pretty low on the list.”
– Mike Mearls, Happy Fun Hour 8.28.2018
There’s a lot to unpack here. Acknowledging that the flavor is cool, we have to balance that against making every weapon too crunchy that combat slows down at the table. Having crunchy weapons can also leave other players feeling underwhelmed.
Since class is so much more important than item choice to the narrative feel of the character, it doesn’t make sense to sacrifice your limited number of (sub)class features for an effect that only triggers with a certain item.
You may have caught the reference to investing power. On that point…
You might be thinking you can work around this by adding an extra feat outside the character class. This came up on the 2nd episode of Happy Fun Hour during the development of the Acrobat class, which is iconic in the D&D cartoon for bounding with a staff.
Mike Mearls said the following in the context of feats which enable extra functionality for weapons:
“It is tricky because we don’t assume the use of feats. And we wouldn’t want to put a feat in that enables that, because now you’re forcing players to kind of “hunt down” making that work and then rely on a DM who’s using feats. So we wouldn’t necessarily want to put that in there.”
– Mike Mearls, Happy Fun Hour 2.6.2018
This teaches a different lesson. You don’t want the full potential of a class locked behind a feat. The class should stand alone. The player should not feel hamstrung if they invest their ASIs elsewhere, or play in a game without feats.
When It Works
Since class feature design choices are ultimately driven by narrative, there are reasons why we might break this rule:
- Vestiges of iconic characters
- D&D cartoon’s Acrobat
- d12 being the “Barbarian die”
- To give a class access to something it might otherwise not have for thematic reasons
- College of Swords Bard: scimitar (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything p. 15)
- Hexblade Warlock: martial weapons (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything p. 55)
- College of Valor Bard: martial weapons (Player’s Handbook p. 55)
- Tempest Domain Cleric: martial weapons (Player’s Handbook p. 62)
- War Domain Cleric: martial weapons (Player’s Handbook p. 63)
- Elf/Drow Weapon Training (Player’s Handbook p. 23-24)
- Elf: Double-Bladed Scimitar (Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron)
After all, equipment requirements do appear in 5th Edition. There are also cases where a subclass will “spend” a class feature on an equipment proficiency, although this is often done as a ribbon ability.
Let’s take a look at some successful applications to see how to design in this space for 5e. We’ll keep the focus mostly on weapons, since that’s the most interesting aspect of the discussion.
Polearm Mastery Feat
Polearm Mastery (PAM) is considered one of the strongest feats in the game. In ThinkDM’s feat strength tier survey, one-third thought it was “broken” and half thought it was great:
Aside from being powerful, this feat is popular because it does a good job driving combat narrative. Even though powerful, it does a good job of avoiding the “hunt down” trap that makes players chase the feat to feel their character is complete.
First, since it’s available to any class as a feat, and was not specifically built to shore up a weakness in a particular (sub)class, it doesn’t run into the same issues that you might from making a jumping staff feat to supplement the Acrobat.
Second, because it allows the use of a Glaive, Halberd, or Quarterstaff (or your preferred re-skin), there are dynamic weapon choices that are available across a variety of character themes. This alleviates the player from feeling “stuck” to one weapon the whole game.
Building PAM Into a Weapon?
You may have noticed that the Double-Bladed Scimitar from the Eberron setting (via Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron) gives access to a PAM-inspired feature enabling an extra d4 bonus attack:
This is an interesting inverse take on the equipment restriction. Ultimately you are restricted not only in the weapon choice, but in the race who can benefit (elves only). Since this is technically still playtest material, we will see how this setting-specific item develops as players get more time in Eberron.
The Way of the Kensei (Monk) (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything p. 34) includes weapon requirements, but it does a three things right which make it a fun class:
- Builds around Kensei Weapons
- Maintains melee and range viability
- Allows a choice of many weapons
First, the entire class is built around Kensei Weapons. It doesn’t just include a weapon ability as a one-off. Even though the Monk only has four subclass features, they get Agile Parry, Kensei’s Shot, Magic Kensei Weapons, Deft Strike, and Sharpen the Blade to supplement their Kensei Weapons. The capstone feature, Unerring Accuracy, works for all Monk weapons.
Second, the class allows you to select a melee and a ranged weapon. This allows the Monk, who is a skirmishing class, to remain viable in multiple facets of combat.
Third, the Kensei Weapons mechanic permits a choice of many weapon type. It’s not the Flail Trip that only works with one weapon. The Monk is allowed to select any simple or martial weapon, so long as it doesn’t have the Heavy or Special properties. While this does not allow the player to swap weapons as with Polearm Mastery (PAM), this factor is somewhat mitigated by their access to a greater weapon pool overall.
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