How to arm oneself is one of the most important decisions that a young adventurer will ever make. For a caster it may not mean much, but for a warrior? It literally could mean life or death. For a feat heavy melee specialist (i.e. fighter) it is even more important because they will probably have to commit to a weapon type in order to take advantage of all those Weapon Focus and Weapon Specialization feats out there. So what’s it going to be? Greatsword? Longsword and shield? Whip? I’ve decided to look at the weapons out there and try to decide what, if any, is the best weapon available. I’ve also decided to stick with core (though I don’t think that limits things all that much).
In order to evaluate what’s out there I decided to break weapon traits down into a couple of categories; base damage, critical, and special features. Right off the bat I eliminated a whole bunch of weapons, I don’t think any reasonable person is going to argue that the greatclub is the best weapon around. It has inferior base damage and critical, and no special features to speak of. Is it without value? No. It only costs five gold and looks pretty cool, but for our purposes we are going to rule it out. A trident is okay since you can throw it, but an adventurer can do better. Leave it for Poseidon.
Perhaps the classic weapon of D&D, the longsword is very popular for a reason. It has good damage for a one handed weapon (1d8), a standard critical range (19-20x2), and allows the wielder to couple it with a shield or a second, smaller weapon if that’s your thing. However, that’s about all it does. And the truth is that base damage is not nearly as important as some other factors, so I think it is an inferior weapon compared to the scimitar and rapier, it’s brethren in the one handed department. Both of those have slightly worse damage (1d6), but an improved critical range (18-20x2). Plus, the rapier can be used with Weapon Finesse, which has to count for something.
It’s hard to separate the greatsword and the greataxe from each other, they are essentially the same weapon. The greatsword has a slightly higher critical range, whereas the greatsword is the home run hitter with the x3 critical multiplier. The base damage are essentially identical, so I think it’s really a matter of preference between the two. An interesting argument could be made for the scythe though in this category. It has an inferior base damage (2d4), but that matters less and less as the game progresses. What it does have going for it is the ability to make trip attempts, can be slashing or piercing, and a critical multiplier of x4! Choppin’ heads.
I have no idea why the Heavy Flail is not more popular, it seems as if gnolls are hoarding them all for themselves. For starters, they are sort of cool. You can spin them around and make a menacing whirling noise and they are pretty good at smashing heads. The base damage is slightly subpar for a two handed weapon (1d10), but that doesn’t matter a ton. The critical is standard (19-20x2), but is has some extra features that are real good. It gives a +2 bonus on disarm attempts and it allows the wielder to make trip attempts with it. We all know that tripping is among the most effective fighting techniques out there. However, it is really the weapon of a skilled warrior since it requires a handful of feats to really take advantage of it. Combat Expertise, Improved Trip and Improved Disarm allow it to shine, but is an investment of three feats worth it? Or could those be better spent elsewhere?
The bastard sword is sort of an interesting option, though not nearly the powerhouse it was back in 2nd Edition. The main drawback is that is that as an exotic weapon it takes a feat to use it one handed, which is the only way to use it. As a two hander it’s pretty crummy. As a one handed weapon it is a slightly more powerful (1d10) version of the longsword. Is it a good weapon? Sure. Is it worth a feat? Not really. I’ll pass on the bastard sword, despite it’s badass name.
And now we come to the spiked chain. Personally I think it’s a lame weapon. It looks sort of weird and is associated with all sorts of cheese, but it’s hard to deny how good of a weapon it is. The damage is not very good, only 2d4 but it is two handed so you do get the bump up from strength. So why is it so good? Well, it has 10’ reach, but can also be used on adjacent opponents. I’m not sure of any other weapon that has that, it basically is like giving the wielder Quick Draw for free since there is no need to switch weapons when opponents close in. It also gives a +2 bonus on Disarm attempts, can make trip attempts, and Weapon Finesse applies to it. Wow. That is quite a package. It does cost a feat to learn how to use it since it is Exotic, but that seems like a decent trade off for what it offers.
Of course, weapon selection all comes down to a personal preference. I would hate to see a slight numerical bonus determine what a fighter carries into battle. And the truth is that for all the grief that WOTC gets for lack of balance in D&D, the weapons are actually fairly balanced with each other. It really comes down to the type of character and what they would want to use. There are enough good weapon options to fit the need of any adventurer, so the choice is really what type of warrior do you want to be?