4e: Dangling Claws

The weapon system in 4e D&D is full of specific keyworded mechanical distinctions for each grouping of weapons in a way that’s designed to add depth to the play experience of any given type of weapon. While in earlier systems, axes and swords and staffs all could be reduced to a mathematical formula representing their damage output over time and therefore, inevitably, the greatsword won, 4e weapons have two different ways they can feel different. The first is just how the weapons work, period, where anyone who picks up a weapon of that type will notice this effect or feats that reference weapons by their category to indicate that the training for that particular weapon enables a different way for that weapon to work. In the first group you have weapon effects like Brutal or Heavy Thrown, and in the second, things like Hammer Rhythm or Axe Expertise. The result is that the weapon system is genuinely interesting to engage with and even though there is a clear hierarchy, the boundaries between the tiers of that hierarchy are not so steep, not so absolute.

There is nonetheless, an area where the weapon system does stagger, though, and that’s natural weapons. The base game features almost nothing with a natural weapon, and the one option you have for it in the starter set is the Gnoll, with a heavily errata’d mess of a feat to get your claws dirty. What’s more, the feat is a bit wonky and weird because, first, you’re spending a whole feat to get the weapon, but you’re also getting a weapon that is only about as good as a short-sword and it interferes with abilities that require you to not be wielding a weapon in your off-hand.

I think that’s dumb; I can treat my fist like a weapon at will, but the game doesn’t then say that I must always have a weapon in my off-hand even when that hand is empty. This indicates to me a simple hole in the way 4e handles natural weapons, and how it makes them available.

So I fixed them.

Glossary Note: Conventionally, the term used in D&D for this mechanical package is race. This is the typical term, and in most conversations about this game system, the term you’re going to wind up using is race. For backwards compatibility and searchability, I am including this passage here. The term I use for this player option is heritage.

Claw Fighter

Heroic Tier

Prerequisite: [Expand this list to include any and all beastly heritages you think should have some kind of natural claw attack]

Benefit: When you make a weapon attack, you can use your claw, which is a weapon in the light blade and unarmed weapon groups. This weapon has the off-hand weapon property and a +3 proficiency bonus, and it deals 1d8 damage.

You can choose to consider each of your hands having this weapon in them if the hand is not otherwise holding a weapon.

You can enchant and disenchant your claws. When you disenchant your claws, they do not turn to dust.

This is almost completely identical to the existing Claw Fighter feat, and that similarity is deliberate. The two main areas of difference are that this feat lets you consider the hand empty, or armed, if you want; this means that a character with this feat who took Swordmage is not deprived of a class feature when they’re not holding items, because of the technical wording of an ability caring whether or not they have a weapon in it. This is, no joke, a real thing that shows up in the rulings of the existing feat.

The increase in damage dice is important though because this brings this feat-requiring heritage-limited feat up to the standards of a longsword. This is not likely to produce meaningful advantages for anyone; a longsword is a good standard of weapon, the gold standard, really of its class, but it also is a weapon that almost anyone who wants to use weapons can get for free out of the basic military proficiencies. When you’re spending a feat to get a better weapon, you’re usually picking up an exotic weapon of some variety, or a weapon that is probably about as good as the longsword.

Now, there’s a case to be made for this to be made even more complicated, based on the monstrous people available in your setting. In Cobrin’seil for example, there are Gnolls and Abilen, people who both have claws… but the Abilen are probably not people who can fight with their claws. Like, you have a trust fund, Shar, don’t pretend you’re a mighty hunter. What about Fox’s Equitarn, giant stomping horse people? Should they not have a slam to represent their natural weapons? And if so, would it belong to the light blades category?

I don’t think this is something where a simple table showing correspondance should go, but I do think that it’s a good idea for these feats to represent not being worse than a military weapon of the same category. If you have a culture that make slam attacks, compare those to the hammer category; if a culture that have long vinelike whips, make them flails. I have an interesting edge case in that there’s a culture of ooze people I’m working on where I feel like they should have a slam, which means that the Equitarn and these oozes might both share a feat about ‘big slammer’ or something of its ilk.

The point is that this is an example where 4e’s setting-agnostic feat design (we’re not talking about Dragonmarks today) generates an open space that’s best filled not with specifics, but with a sort of mechanistic clockwork. Here’s how you word a melee natural weapon feat, and here’s how you should probably approach them. Consider their value as a weapon of a type, any keywords it should have, and then look for a military-grade weapon that has those traits and can also have the off-hand wepaon property applied.

This might make these animal cultures desireable for Rangers, who might see the chance to get two weapons larger than normal as a great deal for Dual Strike. This translates to 1 point of average damage better than just using the typical longsword/off-hand weapon structure as per normal, and they’re spending an entire feat to get there. This does not bother me, especially when the feat support for other heritages as Rangers is pretty damn stacked and Rangers aren’t hurting for good options anywhere.