Roleplaying

Six Overpowered Weapons in Roleplaying Games

Image by Mark used under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

Yes, that certainly looks like a sword someone could use. Yes, that certainly looks like a sword someone could use.

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. The greatsword also has a better critical hit score then most of its competitors, just to rub salt in the wound.*

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.

2. The Axe, Mouse Guard

Those other mice are sad because they don't have axes. Those other mice are sad because they don’t have axes.

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

There are four actions in Mouse Guard combat: attack, defend, feint, and maneuver. It’s supposed to be a rock-paper-scissors type system, with the actions being strong or weak in certain matchups. The idea is that players need to predict what their opponent will do and choose their own actions accordingly. The problem is that feint is good against defend and maneuver, while attack is good against feint, and nothing is good against attack.

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

Zhanmadao Sword enthusiasts will point out this is technically a zhanmadao, not a nodachi, but the two are very similar.

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

These imperial troops have joined the ax out of fear. These imperial troops have joined the axe out of fear.

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

If Scaramanga had been using this, Bond would have been in trouble. If Scaramanga had been using this, Bond would have been in trouble. Image by Rama used under CC BY-SA 2.0

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

"Don't taze me, bro" is no laughing matter in RPGs. “Don’t taze me, bro” is no laughing matter in RPGs.

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.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Mike Pureka

    Might want to go re-read how +1S works in Mouse Guard, because it’s not actually any better than +1D in many cases, which would make the SWORD king of weapons. Also, it’s pretty much impossible to make a case for the axe being king when the Halberd does everything the axe does and has more options.

    Also, the problem with choosing “Attack” all the time is that you end up with a race to the bottom that always results in a huge compromise. It’s NOT actually a good way to win a conflict.

    • Rand al'Thor

      I don’t know what Oren thinks (however much I would like to know) I disagree. I think the king of weapons is not one sole weapon… but two! Dual swords!

      And the problem with choosing Attack all the time: If it’s a fight and all the mice have halberds or swords, they will win because the GM will not have their characters armed with axes!

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Well, dual wielding isn’t really a thing in MG. Like, you can say you’re character is doing it, but mechanically it carries no benefit.

  2. Rand al'Thor

    Number 7: Fireball, EVERY SYSTEM THAT HAS IT. I mean, come on! Burning Wheel I was rolling twelve dice. Because sorcery is open-ended, it wasn’t hard to roll ten successes. Killed a troll. Now, of course there is the casting time and the tax. Oh boy, oh boy, yes. And I thought I owned enough dice.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      It’s all about the White Fire. Lighting takes care of absolutely everything. Plus Turn Aside the Blade to make you immune to damage.

      • Rand al'Thor

        I made sure no characters had Turn Aside the Blade as a purchased spell.

        White Fire was the spell I was talking about. (That was a starting adventure, so I could have rolled even more).

  3. Oren Ashkenazi

    Oh, and I realize this is long overdue, but I want to address what Mike brought up about always scripting Attack in Mouse Guard and Torchbearer, because this is a common misunderstanding.

    It’s true that scripting Attack forfeits your own defense, and could be described as a race to the bottom, but all MG and TB conflicts are a race to the bottom. People have a false idea that scripting the occasional Defend will keep their disposition healthy, but it won’t. All it does is draw out the conflict.

    Remember, Defend can’t increase your disposition above it’s starting max.

    Attack vs Defend is a winning proposition for the attacker. Long term, they’ll eventually win, because very time they get more successes it reduces their opponent’s disposition, while they’re own disposition is at no risk. The best the defender can do is maintain the status quo. Eventually, a big swing in the dice will favor the attacker.

    This is easily fixed by giving Defend a bonus against Attack. That way, when your dispo is low, Defend gives up an advantages way to get some of it back, though at the risk of being Feinted. I’ve found that 2D is a good bonus, but your mileage may vary.

  4. Adam Reynolds

    On the issue of tasers, the biggest realistic limitation on their use should be one of accuracy. It is relatively hard to accurately hit a person with a taser, much worse than with a firearm. Especially when one takes into account the extreme range limitation and the fact that if the first and often only shot misses, you won’t likely be able to reload before you are forced into hand to hand combat. Whereas with a gun, you can keep shooting even as your opponent is on top of you.

    Another problem is that the ammo is extremely expensive. Worth it for something like a law enforcement agency, perhaps not for an outlaw vigilante or spy operating with little resources. For those outside the law, another problem could be that taser confetti is a forensic goldmine(by design). It is all but impossible to collect all of it and it is easily traced back to the source.

    In terms of bad guys having them, that would be a relatively easy means to carry out the proverbial tap on the head as used in most noir fiction if you were so inclined. Though unless the bad guys are something akin to police officers, they would also suffer all of the same restrictions as listed above. If they are cops anyway, tasers would not be that large of an advantage due to the fact that engaging in violence against police officers is almost always a losing proposition in the long run. And even in that case, a limitation on police officers would be rules of engagement on when they can use things like tasers, something the heroes can exploit.

    For science fiction, there are less options in terms of restricting the ability. But as standard weapons would likely be just as effective as stun weapons with a single shot, it is not as if they would be overpowering. If armor is at all effective, it is likely that stun weapons would be less effective than lethal ones, given that shots powerful enough to penetrate armor would likely be lethal.

  5. Firechanter

    Looks like I’m a bit late to the party, having only discovered your blog this week, but while I’ve enjoyed a number of articles, here the Inner Nerd compels me to chime in.

    So, concerning D&D 3.5, the Greatsword is far from overpowered. It’s more what at WotC is called a Timmy card. Yeah it has the best damage die, but if you’re into 3.5 melee combat at all, you’ll find that the damage die is entirely irrelevant, because it is dwarfed by all the static bonuses you’ll gain over the levels. Crits are mostly irrelevant because about 50% of all monsters are immune to crits anyway. In 3.5, in the very limited realm of possibilities open to Non-Casters, Reach weapons are the King of the Hill.
    So, the _actual_ most powerful weapon in 3.5 is the Spiked Chain, hands down. It looks very unbecoming to the clueless layman, because he sees only “bah, pay a feat and get only 2d4 damage and 20/x2 crit?”, but that’s just stat camouflage. Yes, it costs a feat, but for that you get the possibility to attack at Reach _and_ Adjacent (something that no other Core weapon can do, and very few weapons from supplements, all of them Exotic as well), and on top of _that_ you can Trip with it _and_ get a bonus to Disarm attempts. Never mind it also being usable as Finesse weapon, because Strength is much better anyway.
    Note that there are also variants that deal Slashing or Bludgeoning damage, if that’s more to your taste.
    Combine that with Combat Reflexes and Power Attack and you’re a meatgrinder that shreds the enemies to bits before they even can get near you. Your average damage is a measly 2 points worse than with a Greatsword, but you have a wide array of options at your hand _and_ you’re likely to strike a lot of AoOs so that more than offsets the damage penalty.

    The one big drawback of the Spiked Chain (and variants) comes to light if you play a game without item crafting. It’s a terrible choice if you are dependent on gear looted from enemies or generated from random treasure tables. Here your odds are much better if you go for swords. But then, 3.5 is _the_ edition for custom-crafted items so normally this shouldn’t be an issue.

  6. Mike

    I’d be interesting to see the reverse of this article, Weapons Horridly Undermined by Role-Playing games.

    One nomination: the double-bladed light saber in OGL Star Wars. Not only do you not get better anything than with two regular lightsabers, you have to spend the same feats as for twin sabers PLUS one for specific proficiency with the double-bladed saber! Why would Darth Maul and other assorted Sith and Jedi in canon bother?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Oooohh that’s a great idea.

      • GeniusLemur

        I’m sure one of them will be a sling. Slings in the classical period had the range and hitting power to compete with the bows of the period, but I have yet to see an RPG where slings aren’t the absolute worst missile weapon in every way by a big margin.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        It’s also weird that D&D classifies slings as “simple” weapons. Simple to make, maybe, but between a bow and a sling, the bow is waaaaay easier to use.

    • GeniusLemur

      There’s a lot of nonstandard weapons in various RPGs like that, where there are all kinds of extra costs you have to pay to use, say, a three-section-staff, and get no actual benefit to doing so.

  7. Michael Dessain

    My favorite overpowered weapons are the Breaching Auger and the Heavy Bolter from Deathwatch. The Breaching Auger is broken as hell for being hands down the highest damaging melee weapon in the game (throwing a whopping 4d10+3+Strength in a game where 2d10+Strength can easily bisect people) and coming complete with the ability to ignore all but the toughest armor as well as rerolling the lowest die AND getting to roll ANOTHER 4d10 if ANY die comes up a 10. The balancing factor is that you can only use it if you play a Techmarine, the best armored class in the game. Yeah. Heavy Bolters are even crazier since they may only do half as much damage but they can hit 5 times as much at sniper range and get the same “roll again” shenanigans. They can even get custom ammo for armor penetration or high explosive rounds. The drawback to THEM is… nothing. They’re cheaply available to every class and even free for the Devastator, the best shot in the game.

  8. Ezekiel Roach

    I always thought that the balancing factor for tazers was that they did diddly squat against armor. Do some games just let them bypass that kind of stuff?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Most games I’ve read do not include a prevision that says tazers won’t work through armor. That’s a reasonable house rule, though even with it most systems will still have a situation where a tazer is a more effective way of neutralizing an unarmored enemy, and we all know that’s not true.

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