Worldbuilding

Choosing a Weapon for Your Hero

Tausug weapons

Every story revolves around some type of conflict, but speculative fiction usually prefers physical fights. Yes, the sword is the queen, and hand-to-hand is king, but why not be a little creative? Let’s dive into the process of choosing the best weapon for your protagonist.

What Is a Weapon?

As the old saying goes, anything can become a weapon in skilled hands, but by definition, a weapon is a tool designed to enhance the capability of the user to inflict damage. Humans have invented better ways of killing each other over the ages, so the selection is broad. There are amazingly creative and real weapons you can draw inspiration from. But how do you choose? We could come up with dozens of criteria to judge weapons by, but I’ll just mention a few to get you started.

Range

Let’s remain in the range classic triad: long range, midrange, and close range. Depending on your setting, these can vary greatly. In a medieval setting, a bow is long range with its 300 meters, while a javelin can be considered midrange with a 40-meter precision throw. In modern settings, a sniper’s 2000-meter range would take the place of the bow, while an assault rifle can stand in for the javelin with its 400-meter range.

To choose the right range, consider your characters’ abilities. When I create characters, I think about classic roleplaying stats. If my character is bulky and strong, they will probably prefer something that enhances their strength, giving them an edge. They could also use gear to bolster their weak points. For example, if they are weak in hand-to-hand combat, they may need some stilettos for when the enemy gets close.

Weapons for Fantasy Settings

  • Close range: blades, blunt weapons, anything you need to hold while the attack is in progress
  • Midrange: javelin, throwing stone, crossbow*
  • Long range: bow, siege weapons
  • Misc: a curse (range doesn’t apply)

Weapons for Futuristic Settings

  • Close range: taser, knuckles, batons
  • Midrange: guns, rifles
  • Long range: sniper rifles, missiles, laser weapons,* drones
  • Misc: quantum weapons

Damage Type

The classic damage types are cutting, blunt, or effect. You either hit hard, stab/slash, or use some substance (like poison). Start by thinking about your character’s adversaries. Cutting damage is effective against light armor. With a knife or sword, you would aim towards the limbs, hitting the fleshy areas. On the other hand, blunt damage is the way to go against heavy gear. The skull (the armored part of the body) is so hard even a 9mm bullet at point-blank range has just around 90% chance of penetrating the forehead area. But something strong and heavy, like a mace, has no problem making scrambled eggs out of a brain.

The third category is a little trickier. Which effects work and which are easy to repel depends on your setting. First try adding resistance to various effects to your story. Fighting tactics can get a lot more interesting. If you want to get wacky, start from the end. What effect do you want? Maybe their heart explodes? Their blood boils? Their thoughts get stuck into an infinite loop of nyan-cat soundtracks?

Weapons for Fantasy Settings

  • Cutting: edged weapons or anything pointy
  • Blunt: clubs, sticks, slings, maces
  • Effect: poison, fireballs, curses

Weapons for Futuristic Settings

  • Cutting: bullets, stabbing weapons
  • Blunt: hand-to-hand combat, batons, nonlethal projectiles, improvised weapons (a lamp, a brick)
  • Effect: radiation, bio or chemical weapons, psychic weapons

Damage Delivery

Damage is usually delivered by physical contact, but let’s get a little creative. If you’re bored with the classical touchy-touchy type of combat, use a system where physical contact isn’t necessary. The damage could be delivered through some sort of conduit, like water or electrical lines, or it could be a curse that goes directly from the point of casting to its target. After all, why ruin the exterior, when you can liquefy the insides? Less mess to clean up.

While new and creative ways to kill can add to your story, I recommend a mixture of all the categories you can come up with. Even if it’s a classic rock-paper-scissors type of system, the strengths and weaknesses can provide nice strategy-based combat.

Weapons for Fantasy Settings

  • Contact: swords, lances, attack hounds
  • Line of sight: bows, slings*
  • Conduit: water-born plague
  • Point to point: curses

Weapons for Futuristic Settings

  • Contact: chainsaw, speeding vehicle
  • Line of sight: Laser weapons, satellite-based guns
  • Conduit: electric weapons
  • Point to point: quantum weapons, wormhole-based weapons

Size

I am a big fan of realistic storytelling in fantasy. An intercontinental missile is an awesome weapon, but it won’t leave you much space for spoils in your backpack. A cannon is great choice for an army or a mech, but for a character traveling on foot, it becomes more of a nuisance than it’s worth. If you are set on using human-sized blades and heavy gear, come up with a meaningful explanation for how your 70-kilogram, sexy-skinny protagonist deals with a few thousand Newtons of recoil. Keep in mind both weight and size. A gun that’s powered by a black hole may be compact, but it won’t be easy to lift.

To find the right limit, experiment a little. A sword is around 1-3 kilograms. Swing around a 200 gram wooden stick for 10 minutes, and you’ll feel exhausted. Or if you think a 30 kilogram hand cannon is manageable in a backpack, go ahead, put 30 liters of water in a backpack and take a walk. It doesn’t matter if your characters are not humans; they still have their limits. Respect them.

Weapons for Fantasy Settings

  • Small: poison, blades, bow
  • Midsize: axes, hammers
  • Big: ballista and siege weapons

Weapons for Futuristic Settings

  • Small: nanomachines, antimatter particles, handguns
  • Midsize: big guns, rocket launchers, power armor
  • Big: tank, mecha, battleship

Destructive Power

I have a saying in martial-arts practice: if you use force and it’s not working, you are not using enough. This can be applied most of the time, but be wary of the exceptions. A classical example is explosives. Yes, they’re awesome. Yes, they’re sexy. But their usefulness is limited. They are usually expensive, heavy, can only be used once, and do area damage. Unless your character is shrapnel-proof and considers their comrades to be cannon fodder, these weapons won’t do in team battles or confined spaces.

When choosing your weapons, balance their destructive power while keeping your story in mind. Is your character fighting armies alone? Then high area damage is a good choice. Do they have comrades? Avoid area damage unless the range is really big. Your character may also want to do minimal damage, which can still be lethal. This could be because of their morals, because of their fighting style, or because they hate to litter mother nature with loose limbs and guts.

Weapons for Fantasy Settings

  • Small: punches, knives, arrows
  • Moderate: swords,* axes,* poleaxes*
  • High: ballista,* catapults, greek fire

Weapons for Futuristic Settings

  • Small: knuckles, knives, 9mm bullets*
  • Moderate: laser fire/swords,* hand cannons, machine guns
  • High: explosives, nuclear weapons, viruses, geoweapons*

Cost

Unless your character is a walking piggy bank, buying expensive ammo is a bust. Just for perspective, a chain mail shirt cost the equivalent of a one-year yield of an average village. There was a reason only nobles wore plate armor. Then there is the repair and maintenance cost. Saving the world is not always a paying job.

War ain’t for the poor. Yes, your poor farmer can find expensive equipment, but come on, what’s the chance? Instead keep it real, and maybe after they save someone important they can get a reward. In any setting, the cheapest weapons are self-made, followed by ones easily made from plentiful material. The more a weapon requires expertise and scarce materials, the more expensive it is. And if the seller can get kings to buy it, they won’t sell it to your hero, unless they have a very good reason.

Weapons for Fantasy Settings

  • Cheap: sticks, stones, bones, natural materials and weapons made from them like spears, bows, slings
  • Moderate: average quality steel weapons, one-shot magic items
  • High: famous gear like Excalibur, artistic gear, weapons made from rare materials (like a meteor)

Weapons for Futuristic Settings

  • Cheap: household items or anything you can get in the general store
  • Moderate: high quality handguns or rifles, or anything a civilian can get their hands on
  • High: military-grade, illegal, experimental gear

That’s only six criteria; I didn’t even get into details like clip size, piercing damage against heavy armor, or legality. You can think of countless criteria to include in your search. The more you take into account, the more realistic your choice will be.

Examples of Picking Weapons

Let’s put to work all the info we gathered. I’ll put a few experiments together so you get the idea. Once you grasp the concept, the possibilities are endless.

Medieval Setting ­With Limited Magic

Now, we have our protagonist. Just to be original, he is a poor boy, from a poor family, but gifted with the physique of a bodybuilder, the strength of a bull, the stamina of a wolf, and the dexterity of a cat.* I highly discourage you from overkilling the stats, but let’s have this liberty for the thought experiment so we can choose whatever weapon we desire.

Let’s call him Aaron. He is a farmer, and one day he decides he’s fed up with the peasant’s life and embarks on a journey of adventure. He hasn’t had the chance to practice with weapons; he was too occupied trying to feed himself and his loved ones. Usually peasants weren’t allowed to carry weapons, so instead of bows, they hunted with rocks. They basically killed rabbits and birds with precise throws. They didn’t use swords; they fended off beasts with sticks, so he will probably be more comfortable with a medium to long blunt weapon or modified versions of his everyday tools, like a pitchfork or a scythe.

As he moves forward and gets access to better gear, he will probably put his faith in his already proficient abilities. He was deadly with a cheap rock. He won’t ditch this for a weapon he has no expertise in, like a bow, but rather he’ll upgrade it. He may learn how to make little explosives and start throwing these around. He may imbue his rock-projectiles with magic, speeding them up or coating them in fire. He won’t start using a sword, since he is not used to striking with a blade. Instead he’ll choose a small mace or a magical shaft that will discharge lightning bolts on contact. And for the pitchfork, a spear would be a dandy replacement.

I gave him three weapons, one for each distance, all resonating with his background and the world he is living in. They have a manageable size and weight, tailored to the adventurer’s always-empty pocket.

Urban Setting in Cyberpunk World

Our protagonist, a renegade police woman, left the force to go after an underground crime syndicate. She is skilled in most forms of combat and has access to illegal, military-grade weapons from her shady smuggler friend.

She needs firepower to fight her way to the top of the food chain, but she can’t go around as a walking arsenal. She needs concealed weapons. Because she is not a cold-hearted killer, she picks a nonlethal short range weapon: a taser. It’s almost legal, effective, and easy to charge. For midrange she may rely on her old friend, a handgun. It’s light, deadly, and easy to hide, and the ammo is cheap. But she can’t go and Van Damme her way to the boss with cheap toys like these.

Her long-range weapon? Let it be a military drone. It has high-end weapons and a cloak that makes it hard to detect. It also has a long range, so she doesn’t expose herself. The drawback? It’s one of a kind. If it gets destroyed, she won’t have a replacement.


Character and worldbuilding is an art like cooking. No matter how good an ingredient is, if you use too much or too little of it, it tips the balance and it just won’t feel right. To get the right mixture, do your research. Is the weapon overpowered? Too scarce to come by? Experiment until you find the mixture that has a unique but realistic touch.

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Comments

  1. Bronze Dog

    “Maybe their heart explodes? Their blood boils? Their thoughts get stuck into an infinite loop of nyan-cat soundtracks?”

    Reminded of the item description for the Neural Disruptor stun device in Invisible, Inc.: “Incapacitates its target by temporarily replacing their thoughts with sparkly lights.”

    • Cay Reet

      LOL … I guess next time I play that game, I should actually read the full description of the weapons.

  2. Sam Victors

    There is a book, by Valerie Estelle Frankel, titled “From Girl to Goddess; the Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend” which is basically the female equivalent to Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. In the book, Frankel explains how the Heroine’s weapons differ from the Hero’s. The usual weapons of the Heroine are talismans or tools of information and perception, such as slippers, rings, books, mirrors, potions, etc. Other weapons also include distance or yonic weapons; bows, whips, shields, wands, double axes (or the Labrys Axe, a weapon with two blades in the shape of a cocoon, another feminine symbol, and was once used as sacred symbols of Cybele, the Harvest Goddess), cauldrons and ovens (yonic symbols).

  3. Vazak

    Super well laid out, very technical with great examples, kudos!

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