“My sorcerer is a conflux of wild, powerful magic loosed on the world. He also wields a sickle. No, my character doesn’t have a background in farming- why do you ask?”
Simple weapons as a concept bother me. In D&D there are three traditional classifications of weapons: simple, martial, and exotic. While I am sure most of you are familiar with the concept I’ll clarify them anyhow.
Exotic Weapons: Weapons not native to the general culture. These weapons may also require special training above and beyond a martial weapon for a user to use it competently.
Ex. Whip, Katar, Chakrum, Greatbow
Martial Weapons: These are the professional weapons of war for the general culture. You can expect a career warrior to be trained in its use and wielding one in combat.
Ex. Longsword, Warhammer, Polearm, Longbow
Simple Weapons: Weapons easy to come by and easy to wield.
Ex. Handaxe, Quarterstaff, Sickle, Sling
But simple weapons are difficult to classify. The four weapons used as examples are not originally weapons, they are tools. Each serves a different, primary purpose other than as a weapon. The handaxe? One of man’s oldest tools, used for chopping and even hammering. The quarterstaff is a walking stick or a tool for carrying loads such as the tenbin. The sickle: a common farming implement. Of the four examples the sling is the closest thing to a weapon and was a weapon of war for centuries. Eventually it was replaced in armies by bows, which could easily be used in tight formations without braining the guy at your elbow. But before and during its long and iconic career as a weapon it was used for simpler purposes like protecting herds from predators and hunting small game.
From that account it seems benign enough, simple weapons were originally tools. But there are examples of simple weapons that do not fit the mold. Weapons like the dagger, mace, and light crossbow were not borne of tools and farming implements. A dagger is a knife (a tool), but like squares and rectangles, not all knives are daggers. A dagger has very specific properties for its purpose and that purpose is to kill by stabbing. Likewise a mace is a weapon through and through. Perhaps the most egregious is the inclusion of the light crossbow. The crossbow is a common weapon of war, expensive considering its mechanical parts, and is split between simple and martial categories. Light crossbow: simple weapon. Normal crossbow: martial weapon. It is an arbitrary distinction in my opinion. Remember that simple weapons are commonly adapted tools. What about the whip? The whip is certainly a tool but it’s classified an exotic weapon for… reasons? I find it far more believable a peasant would have access and practice in wielding a whip than an expensive, mechanical crossbow.
Even with access to these tools could you consider them proficient in fighting with them? Think of the archetypal peasant mob, like the one from classic Frankenstein. A mass of people with pitchforks, and torches, hammers, axes. I would consider them lethal and definitely they are meant to be used as weapons, but would I confer the same weapon proficiency bonus to a peasant with a wood axe as I do a professional fighter with a longsword? No. That’s a silly idea. I don’t even believe a professional fighter (trained with all weapons simple and martial) should receive the same proficiency whether he’s wielding a morning star or a pitchfork. Sure he’s a skilled fighter, but there’s no formal training, no dojo in the way of the pitchfork.
And what of the common items and tools that didn’t make the cut? Cast-iron pan, kitchen knife, pitchfork, broom, saw, and wood axe are glaring omissions. Give me a choice where I need a weapon and have to pick between a scythe and a pitchfork. I’ll pick the latter every time.
There is one exception to the idea of tools being improvised weapons: freaking ninjas. Ninjas specifically trained in the deadly use of common farm implements and tools as weapons. This training was born of very particular circumstances. Mainly there was a higher social class (samurai & nobles) exploiting the peasant class and who were well within their rights to slay a commoner without reason or repercussion. Since the only people permitted to carry weapons were samurai and landowners, peasant ninjas created martial arts utilizing what tools they had.
Does your campaign have the right socio-political climate to create and support ninjas? If you answered no, then simple weapons make very little sense. If you said yes, congratulations, create a custom ninja rogue archetype that can sneak attack with improvised weapons because as is, simple weapons are still ridiculous.
This could be handled easily by two areas: improvised weapons and cherry picking in character creation.
Maybe your games have been different from mine but with all the different tables, games, and players I’ve encountered improvised weapons rarely make an appearance. I see no reason why improvised weapons cannot account for nearly all one and two hand tools turned simple weapons. The rules are already there, utilize them.
The other is to scale back on the idea character classes are proficient with an entire tier of weapons. Such a broad sweep makes sense for the fighter who’s the best trained warrior. But someone like a ranger? Probably not a big call for greatsword training in the high fantasy ranger trope.