One of the biggest complaints I’ve seen about D&D 3.x/Pathfinder is the high-level power imbalance between casters and non-casters, particularly the Fighter. The core of the complaint frequently seems to boil down to the ramifications of player-directed game pacing: when players can rest and regain spells whenever they run out, the caster with powerful-but-limited attacks gets out of balance with the Fighter and his less-powerful-but-unlimited attacks. But, beyond the core, it seems to me there’s a wider periphery of issues: casters just get more cool stuff to do at high level than Fighters. And I think one of those issues comes down to weapon selection.
The Fighter has always been the class with the widest access to arms and armor (unless you count the Gladiator from Dark Sun). When other classes are trying to make due with daggers and maces, the Fighter can fight with pretty much anything. In the old days, this was a huge advantage: if you found a grossly powerful Trident, Bastard Sword, or Maul, it wasn’t going to the Thief, Mage, or Cleric. A huge portion of the most interesting treasure was reserved for the martial classes. A couple of things have changed since then.
The most recent and most significant is the increasing ease of item crafting. In the old days, if you found a +1 (+3 vs. lycanthropes) dancing bardiche, that might be the most powerful weapon the party had access to, even if it wasn’t as useful as a standard +3 flaming longsword would be. But with item crafting, there’s no reason not to give every character exactly the most commonly useful enchantments on their favorite weapon. Magical treasure ceases to be exciting when you can just make whatever you really wanted by selling it off. Fortunately, this is an easy fix: for my last couple of campaigns, I’ve completely removed player access to item creation. The treasure they have is what appears in the adventure, or a limited set of stuff that might be for sale.
Unfortunately, once you remove item creation, the more subtle change becomes apparent. Since at least 2nd edition, the game has been doing its damndest to make the Fighter’s choice from a variety of weapons a one-time choice. At first level you pick via your Weapon Focus: do you use a longsword, battle axe, greatsword, or longbow? That choice is only likely to become more locked in as you get Specialization, Improved Critical, and greater versions of the preceding. Once you’re a few feats in, a cool weapon drop has to be exceedingly good to compensate for the sunk cost of the feats in something else. If you have five feats in a weapon, you have a +2 attack, +4 damage, and double crit range; a +3 flaming, keen weapon is just a side-grade for you over a +1 weapon you’re specialized in. Once you count Pathfinder‘s Weapon Training (+1 attack and damage in one weapon type every 4 levels), there might not be a weapon outside your specialty that’s an upgrade over a +1 within it .
And, honestly, what does specialization achieve? It seems to have intentions in the realms of both genre emulation and balance. And, for the first, indeed there is some genre precedent for the kind of guy that’s had extremely focused training with a certain weapon. But why not leave that to prestige classes and let the Fighter be the guy that’s good with all weapons? From a balance perspective, sure it’s technically more powerful to give a player a bonus in every weapon than in one weapon, but players are pretty much going to use one weapon all the time anyway unless the situation specifically and dramatically calls for changing. Requiring specialization just makes the player intractable and ornery when the GM would like the player to use a different weapon (an infiltration scenario, escaping imprisonment, or just finding some really cool story-based weapon).
What do you really gain by not giving the Fighter commensurate bonuses in all available weapons? (No, seriously, if someone has a thought, I’d love to hear it in the comments.)
And, as a temporary fix on the problem that only minimally unbalances things if there really is a balance issue at play, I suggest:
Windfall Weapon (Fighter Special Ability)
At fifth level and every four levels thereafter (whenever Weapon Training is available), a Fighter receives a windfall weapon slot. A player may select a specific weapon and train with it for at least a week to assign it to one of these slots (and can “overwrite” and replace a previous windfall weapon in this way). This is literally a specific, unique weapon (e.g., the character could not select a particular +1 battleaxe and then immediately replace it with a different +1 battleaxe if the original was lost); the ability represents dedicated training with the unique balance, peculiarities, etc. of the weapon.
The character is treated as proficient with the weapon (if not already) and applies all bonuses from feats and special abilities that could apply to the weapon as if it were the weapon originally selected. The weapon must have been a valid selection for the original feat or ability (e.g., something that only applies to ranged weapons couldn’t be used with a melee weapon and vice versa).
For example, if a character had Weapon Focus and Specialization in Longsword, +2 Weapon Training in Short Sword, and Improved Critical in Longbow, his windfall weapons would receive a net +3 attack, +4 damage, and doubled threat range.