We’ve talked before about overpowered character abilities, but that was only scratching the surface of all the balance issues that roleplaying games wrestle with. It’s one thing to have character options that are more powerful than they should be, but what about the weapons those characters wield? Most systems still place a heavy emphasis on combat, where having an overpowered killing tool will hugely influence the game. If one weapon is clearly superior to similar options, that’s a problem. PCs who don’t choose the overpowered option will have less impact on the game, leading to less fun. Even worse, every PC may end up picking the same weapon because of its superior stats. A story becomes harder to take seriously if all the characters use identical equipment.
The bad news is that these weapons are far too common, but the good news is that they can be fixed once you know about them. Also, they’re usually hilarious.
1. The Great Sword, 3.5 Dungeons and Dragons
Ok, I lied. This one isn’t hilarious; it’s just full of math! 3.5 D&D and its various spawn are obsessed with combat to a frankly unhealthy degree, and in that sort of environment a PC needs every edge they can scrape out. Enter the humble greatsword and its glorious 2d6 of damage.
The greatsword is found in the two-handed martial weapons category, and there it reigns supreme. Nothing else does as much damage – at least, nothing that’s readily available from the core books. You can never be sure what twisted creations lurk in 3.5’s various supplements. The greataxe comes close, with 1d12, but a little figuring will tell you that the greatsword is still superior. 2d6 averages at 7, while 1d12 only scores a 6.5. Not a huge difference, but other factors being equal, the choice is clear.
There are other weapons that do even less damage. The halberd does only 1d10, and the guisarme a measly 2d4. Both of those weapons are supposedly balanced by their longer reach and ability to trip combatants, but in D&D combat those miscellaneous perks don’t matter much. You need to have a very specialized character for tripping to be viable, and reach is easy enough to negate by mastering the dreaded five-foot step.
To be clear, it’s possible to take specialized character options that will make other two-handed weapons preferable to the greatsword. Also, some classes don’t have the proficiency to wield this 2d6 length of pointy iron, or they prefer to go with paired one-handed weapons.* The problem is that for any PC just looking to make the most efficient two-handed weapon choice, as many are, a greatsword is the obvious winner. That PC can then spend their feats making the greatsword even more powerful rather than bringing other weapons up to its level.
As with everything else about the greatsword, the trick to balancing it is a little mathy. I’m a fan of reducing its critical hit score or slightly increasing the damage of other weapons to make them comparable. At the very least, the poor greataxe deserves an upgrade. With its current stats, it’s just a greatsword that does less damage.
Edit: This section originally claimed that the greatsword’s 19-20 x2 critical score was better than a x3 critical score that required a 20. The math on that was incorrect.
2. The Axe, Mouse Guard
In a reversal from the last entry, this time it’s the axe that nudges out its competitors through the power of math. Mouse Guard is a great roleplaying game, possibly my all time favorite, but its combat system is easily solved.* Skipping all the inside baseball calculations, the “attack” action is far more powerful than any other option, and the best way to win is to choose “attack” over and over again.
Combat Actions Explained
As such, choosing defend or maneuver opens you to a feint. Choosing feint opens you to an attack. Choosing attack opens you to nothing. Even if your opponent correctly predicts that you’re going to use attack over and over again, that knowledge grants them no advantage because nothing gets bonuses against attack.
What does this have to do with the axe, you ask? It turns out that the axe gives a hefty bonus to the “attack” action, greater than any other weapon. While it has penalties for other actions, just using “attack” is more effective anyway. As a result, the axe’s balancing weaknesses never come up, and it becomes the one weapon to rule them all.
This is a real problem because Mouse Guard is a story heavy game. Characters in the setting are supposed to use a variety of different weapons; it’s part of the atmosphere. You can tell a lot about a mouse from their choice of weapon. Spearmice prefer to keep their problems at a distance while they consider every option. Daggermice get in close and don’t hesitate to use dirty tricks. Axemice charge bravely forward, heedless of danger.
Unfortunately, the game’s mechanics say that every mouse should be using an axe. Players are put in the unpleasant position of choosing the weapon that makes the most sense for their character or the one that’s most mechanically effective.
This is an easy fix, and it doesn’t require a change to the axe itself. Instead, focus on retooling the “attack” action in combat so it’s not an overpowered win button. I’ve had good results with giving “defend” a +2 dice bonus against “attack,” but you should experiment and figure out the best method for yourself.
3. The Nodachi, 4th Edition Legend of the Five Rings
Oh, wow, that’s a really big sword. The nodachi* is essentially an overgrown katana, and according to Legend of the Five Rings, it’s the most powerful weapon a samurai can lay their hands on. To understand why, you have to know how L5R divides up its various weapons.
L5R has a number of different combat skills, each with its own associated weapons. Using a tetsubo or ono requires Heavy Weapons, a bisento or naginata requires Polearms, etc. It’s been this way ever since the game was first published, but the fourth edition took an unusual approach to balancing its weapons. Namely, they didn’t bother.
Each skill has a weapon that’s clearly superior to the others in that group. For Heavy Weapons, it’s the tetsubo. For Polearms, it’s the bisento. For Swords, it’s the nodachi. Each of these weapons does more damage than any of its competitors with no real downsides. This makes the poor Phoenix Clan bushi who wants to use his family’s ancestral naginata feel kind of silly. Sorry, but that weapon is objectively inferior. So sayeth the sacred stats. Even cost isn’t a factor because PCs can start with any weapon of their choosing.
All of these best in category weapons do approximately the same damage, so what is it that sets the nodachi apart? What makes it singularly overpowered in the face of such stiff competition? The social rules of L5R’s setting, the somewhat Japan-like Rokugan.* In this setting, there are numerous social complications that dictate what sort of weapons a samurai is allowed to carry and use in a given situation. For example, it would be highly inappropriate to bring a warhammer into a daimyo’s home. The offending samurai would be laughed out of town!
However, a samurai is almost always allowed to keep their katana. In fact, using the katana is often a requirement, especially when dueling another samurai. The upshot is that the katana and nodachi both use the Swords skill. This means a PC who invests in Heavy Weapons will be at a serious disadvantage in polite society, while those who spend points on Swords will always have a weapon handy. Game, set, and match; the nodachi is a Rokugani samurai’s weapon of choice.
Like with Mouse Guard, this imbalance is a problem because it conflicts with the setting. Rokugan is supposed to be a land where warriors use a vast array of different weapons, but the rules push all characters towards the same oversized sword. Unlike Mouse Guard, there isn’t an easy fix. Weapon balance was sadly neglected by the game designers, so leveling the playing field is difficult. One place to start is by giving penalties for larger weapons at close quarters. Most of the overpowered options are exceptionally large, so this would make sense. It’s difficult to swing a four foot or longer blade when enemies are packed in around you.
4.Vibro Axe, Star Wars Edge of the Empire
Somehow, an axe made it onto this list a second time, which is extra confusing because Star Wars is a universe in which laser guns exist. Surely directed energy weapons would be more viable than a vibrating bit of metal?
No, as it turns out. In the hands of a high Brawn character, the vibro axe does more damage than a blaster rifle. Brawn is also the stat that determines accuracy with a vibro axe. Most importantly, Brawn determines how much damage a character can soak up. So, in the process of hitting harder with their vibro axe, a character also increases their hit chances and ability to take punishment.
A few heavy ranged weapons do more damage than the vibro axe, but they require the wielder to increase their Brawn as well. This extra Brawn competes with the Agility a blaster character needs to shoot accurately, while the vibro axe-murderer needs only one attribute. As a final insult to all Han Solo wannabes, the Agility stat doesn’t make a character harder to hit, so it grants no added survivability the way Brawn does.
When a high Brawn character puts on some basic armor and picks up their vibro axe, they become a near unstoppable terminator, but at least they’re limited to melee. A blaster character will have the advantage if there’s some distance between them, right? Only a very small advantage, it turns out. Movement rules in Edge of the Empire mean that characters can close that gap very quickly. A blaster character will get one or two shots off, at most, before there’s a vibro axe coming for their squishy face, and that’s rarely enough to bring down a high Brawn opponent.
Even worse, most roleplaying game combats start with the characters close together. This is especially true if the combatants are indoors. Because of the turn-based combat dynamic, a melee character can cross a room in the same time it takes the ranged character to pull a trigger. Blaster characters get little benefit from their longer range, and vibro axe characters get to kill everything. Somehow, I don’t remember that happening in the Death Star escape sequence.
The simplest fix would be to reduce the vibro axe’s damage, although that’s far from a perfect solution. The real problem is the dynamic of turn based movement, how a melee character can get right up in their opponent’s personal space so quickly. A more complete but difficult to implement approach would be a realistic movement system. Something to make it clear that charging across open ground against blaster-armed enemies is a bad idea.
5. The Desert Eagle, 1st Edition Spycraft
Ah, the spy thriller. A genre of seductive intrigue, complicated deathtraps, and…oversized handguns? That last one is only true according to Spycraft, a game in which the PCs take on the role of secrets agents with Desert Eagles. Okay, the Desert Eagle isn’t strictly required, but it’s so powerful that a high percentage of players end up with one.
Unlike the other entries on this list, the Desert Eagle isn’t found in the core book. Instead, you have to crack open a copy of the Modern Arms Guide, at which point your eyes will immediately glaze over as you stare at the endless tables of nearly identical firearms you’ve never heard of. However, if you can get past that, you’ll find the hand cannon known properly as the .50 Action Express Desert Eagle.
This enormous pistol does 3d6+1 damage. This is more than any other pistol and more than all but the most powerful rifles. It also has the Take Down quality, which can knock enemies to the ground. Why the Desert Eagle has this trait and other weapons with the same damage rating don’t is a mystery. In addition to its high damage, the Desert Eagle has two important factors going for it. The first is that every class has pistol proficiency, but some lack rifle proficiency. The second is that, as a spy game, Spycraft characters often can’t get away with toting bulky rifles around. Even though the Desert Eagle is huge by pistol standards, it can still be concealed according to the letter of the rules. At the very least, characters can stash it in a backpack, something they’d be hard-pressed to do with an AK-47.
The result of all these factors is a bunch of spies carrying around one of the world’s largest handguns, while James Bond’s famous PPK is nowhere to be seen. This is a bit immersion breaking, to say the least. It’s also more than a little annoying that a PC’s choice of sidearm is so obvious, especially when the designers went to the trouble of providing such a plethora of options.
Believe it or not, the Desert Eagle’s high damage score isn’t actually the problem. This is a monster handgun we’re talking about; it should absolutely pack a punch. The issue is that none of the reasons not to use a Desert Eagle are present. PCs almost never track bullets, so the expensive .50 AE ammunition isn’t a factor. Real Desert Eagles have such powerful recoil that many shooters find them difficult to aim properly, and rapid firing is all but impossible. None of this is in the rules.*
Finally, there’s the issue of hit points. They’re called vitality in Spycraft, but they’re effectively the same thing, and characters have lots of them. Any spy trying to use a Walther PPK to take down the big villain will find themselves futilely chipping away at a mountain of health. This creates a strong incentive to acquire more powerful guns because they’re the only way to defeat the boss in a reasonable amount of time.
As such, trying to fix the Desert Eagle problem is complicated. In the short term, don’t allow the Modern Arms Guide! There are plenty of guns in the base book. Unfortunately, this will only shift the problem onto whatever the next most powerful gun is. Long term, institute strength requirements for the use of more powerful firearms, or make it clear that there’s no way the PCs can carry around such a large pistol without it being spotted. Or you could always come up with an alternative to Spycraft’s D&D-style hit point system. Let me know how that goes.
6. The Taser, Nearly Every Damned System
A lot of roleplaying games adhere to the idea that characters should be able to take several hits before they get knocked out of a fight, and it’s not hard to see why. Combat would be pretty boring if characters got hit once, then died from shock and blood loss. To keep this from happening, games use abstracted health systems like D&D’s hit points or Spycraft’s vitality. When you get hit and lose 12hp, it’s supposed to represent a near miss or light graze.*
For some reason, this all goes out the window when non-lethal damage enters the picture. Tasers and their various cousins* can incapacitate a target with a single hit, even though it would take multiple hits with fully lethal weapons to do the same. I guess it would be unrealistic for someone to get tased and then not fall on the ground convulsing?
Lots of games have this problem, but one of the most glaring is Night’s Black Agents, a thriller game of super spies vs vampires.* The damage system in this game is abstract. It can take three or four gunshots to take down a reasonably tough character. The game advises GMs to describe these shots as zooming past the PC’s ear or grazing their shoulder. More often than not, damage is meant to represent a depletion of dramatic survivability, not physical health.
Not so with tasers. Any character struck by one takes a little damage and is immediately incapacitated for four rounds. FOUR ROUNDS. That’s four rounds during which they can’t fight back or retaliate in any way. Characters with really good athletics can shorten it a little, but they always lose at least one round. The efficiency on this is absurd. You can take an opponent out of the fight in one attack. It takes three or four attacks to do that with a high powered assault rifle. Granted, it’s temporary, but four rounds is plenty of time to eat through their remaining health. Or just slap a pair of handcuffs on them. The rules are somewhat blurry on that. Luckily, tasers don’t work on vampires, but the PCs will end up fighting human thralls as often as not. It also creates the terrifying/absurd possibility of a vampire using tasers against the party.
Traveller has a similar system, where it requires several shots from a laser pistol to take out an opponent, but a ‘stunner’ can do the same job in one shot.* This is a problem across systems: non-lethal weapons bypassing hit points and incapacitating people in a single attack. It creates a dynamic that absolutely no one wants. When things get serious, the PCs go for their tasers.*
Although this is easily the most ridiculous item on the list, it’s also easy to fix. Take away the taser’s special status. Make it deal damage like any other weapon – just damage that won’t kill a character when it takes them over the edge. Unless you’re running a hyper-realistic system like Burning Wheel, tasers have no business being able to incapacitate characters with a single hit.
A weapon is often overpowered because of the rules around it. If something is obviously more powerful than it should be, it usually gets caught and corrected by the designers. The problems only become clear as we play the game night after night, discovering where all the cracks are. This is most true of Mouse Guard and Edge of the Empire’s respective axes. Weapons like L5R’s nodachi and Spycraft’s Desert Eagle, which are more blatant, probably come from a designer trying for their idea of realism. “Well, it’s a HUGE sword, it should do a lot of damage.” They don’t realize that by only including a weapon’s strengths, they’re creating an unbalanced play environment. As players and GMs, we have to be on the look out for these problems, ready to fix them ourselves.