Walk through a hardware store and you’ll find a row of hammers, a row of saws, and a row of power drills, all priced differently. So which one is better? The most expensive one, right? Why?
Let’s concentrate on the hammers and saws and other hand tools, because they are going to make a better analogy when I switch this conversation over to weapons in a fantasy game, which is clearly my intent. Why is one hammer more expensive than another? Most likely, it is in those things that are not immediately noticeable, at least not to the untrained eye. Is the grip better than the other one, less slipping? Is the steel a higher grade; is there less chance of it breaking? That’s the one we normally concentrate on. In our early supplement Legend Quest - Optional Weaponry (RPGNow or e23), we established four grades of weaponry: ornamental, standard, tool, and combat ready. Ornamental covers those “weapons” that were never intended to be used, like the swords old men wear at church functions or a “knife” that is actually a letter opener. The standard grade is what you would expect to find around a normal house - the knife you use to cut your steak. Tool grade is where they start to get tougher: the high quality knife a butcher or chef would have around their kitchen. Lastly, the combat ready is those knives you would expect Seals to have strapped to their thighs during a mission. The only major difference here is the sturdiness of the weapon - how well it resists damage. Let’s face it - a sharpened letter opener could be stabbed through someone’s heart and kill them almost as easily as a Seal’s blade. Damage isn’t the question - durability is.
We get back to the eternal “So What?” question. Why do you as a GM care if a weapon is standard or combat ready? First off, I have used these grades to help in loot. Do you want to arm some poor commoners, but you don’t want to hand over a treasure trove of resale steel to your PCs? Give them bows and hand axes that are of standard grade. No self-respecting weapons shop would take used, low quality weapons. Plus, it makes sense. Need to help your PCs get their weapons and equipment for those first few missions? Let them buy sub-standard weapons. They can always upgrade after they start to be successful. Should all their weapons be “combat ready”? No. Tomahawks and cudgels would almost never be “combat ready”. More likely tool grade. Not only is a cudgel made out of wood, making it weaker than a sword, but it’s barely crafted at all. Similarly, swords would almost never be crafted at standard grade, unless by con men in a traveling show.
Why else? Well to keep your adventurers on their toes. These guys are supposed to know what their doing when it comes to the tools of their trade. Have they neglected to train in skills like Appraise and Weaponcraft? Adventuring is not the same as fighting. Adventurers should be rounded in a way that soldiers and sentries never have to be, and even some of those guys would have the skills required to judge weapons. It’s really not about screwing your party over; it’s about maintaining an element of surprise and reality.