Combat Realism - Weapons and Armor (5e Variant Rule)

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Combat Realism - Weapons and Armor[edit]

This next article in the series on Combat Realism options for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition will focus on a range of smaller options to improve the realism of weapons and armor. Each option is independent from the others - feel free to pick-and-choose the ones that fit best to your group.

Weapon/Armor Quality[edit]

Many campaign settings or fantasy novels have a land famed for their weapons and armor (often dwarven) or where materials are better (mithril, adamantium, Letherii, etc) or worse (stone, bronze, etc) and nobody’s armor or weapon works quite as well once it has picked up some major dents from a 30ft fall or a bruising battle with a stone golem. A simple way to bring this into your game is to give an item a +1 if it is expertly made, or a -1 if it is poorly/primitively made or damaged. If bought or sold, the cost of the item also changes (a minimum of double, or half price, respectively). An item that is -1 from damage can be repaired for half its new cost. Note +1 is the maximum bonus via expert manufacture or materials and is not magical. The maximum bonus from both expert manufacture and magic remains +3.

- Damaged or badly made weapon: -1 to Attack Bonus and Damage (and Defense)

- Damaged or badly made armor: -1 to AC / Defense (and -1 to Damage Reduction Damage Reduction)

- Expertly made weapon: +1 to Attack Bonus and/or Damage (and/or Defense)

- Expertly made armor: +1 to AC / Defense (and/or +1 to Damage Reduction)

Weapon Proficiency[edit]

A rapier fighter will be good with a shortsword but not as good as with a rapier. And everyone fights better with their own weapon than the one they just plucked out of a corpse on the battlefield. Some simple optional rules can capture this.

- Familiarity: One step down from proficiency. If the character rarely uses that subtype of weapon (even if proficient in the group), give them half their Proficiency Bonus until they have used it a few days or had some downtime to retrain.

- Not my blade: Apply a -1 to Attack Bonus and Damage (and Defense) if a character is using their usual subtype of weapon but it is not their own. Again, remove this when they have used it for a few days or had some downtime to retrain.

- Mastery: A feat for any named class/subtype of weapon. Get a +1 to Attack Bonus and Damage (and Defense) when using that weapon type. Can take this feat once for a class of weapon and once for a specific sub-type.

Weapon Pairings[edit]

There are a number of settings where the weapon a character is holding just is not appropriate to be used in the circumstances that they have found themselves in. Complex tables of mismatched weapons are just not viable so all the below scenarios should simply be left to the GM’s discretion.

Closing Range[edit]

It is bad news to try to close range on an opponent who has a weapon with a longer range. This has been a major driver of the evolution of battlefield combat weapons in our history and is readily demonstrated by reenactors and historical weapon specialist today.

- Closing: A combatant closing range on an opponent who has a weapon with a longer range, provokes an Opportunity Attack (note this mechanic is also seen in the Polearm Master feat). However, if the attacker has a shield then no Opportunity Attack is given. If the attacker wants to get within their opponent’s range and stay there to impede them using their weapon, then play this as an attempted Grapple. Again, this provokes an Opportunity Attack and if that attack lands then the Grapple automatically fails.

Note that when you do mange to close, and if the longer-range weapon holder cannot retreat to maintain range, the advantage changes (hence why all combatants bring along a short weapon for the crush of massed combat when armies have pushed against each other in formation). See below.

Mismatched Weapon Pairing[edit]

It is bad news to try to face off against a warhammer with a dagger. And a morning star is not known for its ability to parry. These will always be situation-dependent and the following rules should only be used if it is clear that they apply

- Attacking using an inadequate weapon - Don’t take a knife to a greatsword fight. If you do, attack at disadvantage (unless using a shield).

- Defending using an inadequate weapon - Don’t take a morning start to a rapier fight. If you do, defend at disadvantage (unless you are using a shield).

- Enclosed space - In an enclosed space (a dungeon corridor, or the crush of certain stages of an army melee), all weapons with >5’ reach have disadvantage to attack and to defence, unless they also have a <5’ range mode. Note the hapless attacker with the short range weapon above may intentionally try to pin his target into a corner or against another attacker to level the playing field - a halberd is not so scary when you can only punch out with the butt of it.

- Grappling range - In extreme enclosed space (or during a grapple), weapons with >5’ reach cannot be used to attack and to defence, unless they also have a <5’ range mode. Even using that mode, they are then at disadvantage on attack and defence (it would be wiser to drop the weapon and fight unarmed or with a knife). Even medium weapons have disadvantage on attack and defence unless using the pommel etc (d2 damage unless specially designed up to d4). This is when the dagger finds its true calling and creates space for the close combat / grappling specialist.


The shield is under-rated in 5e versus the impact it has in combat. Rules above highlight one of its advantages - allowing the wielder to close in on their opponent. The benefit in defending against multiple attackers is covered elsewhere. Below are additional optional rules for shields - all require proficiency in shields:

- Bracers and bucklers: Bracers (often built into armor) or bucklers (easy to carry round) give a +1 bonus to AC where a shield would give +2. They do not give the other advantages listed below. A +3 “large shield” is tempting but the reality is that shield size was largely limited by weight and bulkiness and would be harder to use actively in defense - however see below for its advantage as cover.

- Proficiency: When using a Defense rules variant, proficiency in a shield allows a Proficiency Bonus to be added to Defense even if otherwise unarmed or wielding a primary weapon that you are not proficient in.

- Closing: As above, wielding a shield prevents you from conceding an Opportunity Attack when closing on a defender with a longer reach weapon.

- Mismatch: Likewise as above, wielding a shield prevents you from conceding disadvantage when wielding a mismatched primary weapon.

- Outnumbered: A shield helps when apply the optional rules for being outnumbered by attackers.

- Cover: perhaps the most historically-important option to include. A standard shield when taking the Dodge Action outside of melee (no combatant within range/5’), can be used as ¾ cover (AC +5) instead of its usual +2 (from shield or from ½ cover). Arguably our squishy archer and magic user friends should make more use of this and it might be acceptable for a crossbow wielder or a warcaster to gain this advantage without using the Dodge Action (but then lose the Disadvantage to attacker’s roll). A large shield can be full cover (think Roman testudo).

Two-Weapon Fighting[edit]

Two-weapon fighting is over-represented in RPGs versus its historical use and 5e has done well to redress the balance between fighting styles. However, it is possible that the pendulum has swung a little too far with balance. A small second weapon was often used for defense, here it might have a similar role to a buckler, or when the fighting became closer-quarters. More closely matched light weapons were used in some fighting styles / cultures and there is clear historical record of rare highly specialized individuals using paired full-sized weapons. Below are some option edits to the current dual wielding rules:

- Routine use: Any combatant who is proficient in both of the light weapons they are wielding may chose to make a bonus attack with the off-hand weapon (without adding ability modifier to the damage) OR to have a +1 bonus to AC

- Fighting style: A character with the two-weapon fighting Fighting Style has both a +1 bonus to AC and may also make a bonus attack with the of-hand weapon (now adding ability modifier to the damage)

- Dual Wielder feat: +1 bonus to AC while dual wielding (if not already got through having the Fighting Style); the weapons must still be one-handed but need not be light; both weapons can be drawn or stowed; and the off-hand attack is now an Extra Attack rather than a Bonus Attack.


See Combat Realism - Defense and Armor Options for core rules to increase combat realism. _RM_

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