Why would anyone ever use a battle axe as a weapon? Forgive me, I ask because the rules in AD&D show that a battle axe does the same damage as a long sword and it needs two hands to wield. It actually does less than the long sword against L-sized creatures, if you use that rule (I don't). Therefore, for no gain at all, you're losing an opportunity to use a shield. Why use a battle axe?
The tendency would be to repair the problem by A) increasing the damage caused by a battle axe; or B) giving the battle axe other power, such as being able to throw it, or that using it as a two handed weapon somehow increases your AC. Either of which is a problem, since the battle axe is not the only weapon that has problems in the system as written. No, rather than revamping the weapons damages (its been done), or the combat system to reflect two handed weapons (which must have been done somewhere), it would be nice if the battle axe had some intrinsic quality that made it practical to use as an option.
And I have it.
For a long time I've been playing a house rule that a 1 on a d20 'to hit' was a dropped weapon. For a time I played it so that if you dropped, you spent the next round recovering the weapon ... but I don't play that anymore. You lose part of your next turn recovering it, but not your whole turn. I've considered a modifier so that sometimes you dropped your weapon farther away than at your feet, but not so far.
What I do play is that if you drop your weapon, you roll again to see if you break it. For years and years, this meant rolling the d20 again on a 'drop,' and if you rolled a 1 a second time, the weapon was broken. Then the group I played with wondered if you rolled a third 1, and we decided that you would break your arm. On a fourth 1 in a row, you'd somehow accidentally kill yourself.
We didn't worry much about how the weapon broke, or as I said, how far it bounced. The modifier I mentioned before could have it that if you threw a 2 on the second d20, the weapon landed five feet away. Or ten feet. Or a 2, 3 or 4 on the second d20 had different consequences. But as I said, I haven't decided about that yet.
Incidentally, during the mass combat I ran earlier this year, I had two broken arms occur from three 1s rolled, and 1 death. But those weren't quite 1:8,000 and 1:160,000 odds. Because last fall, a bit more than a year ago, I changed the breaking rules.
Rather than the second roll being a d20, I changed the die to a d6. I did this so I could reflect the value of cheap weapons vs. really valuable weapons, those which didn't happen to be magic. An ordinary, crummy weapon, I reasoned, would break 1 in 6 upon dropping. A 'hard-forged' weapon would break on a 1 in 8. A 'blessed' weapon, one that had been hard-forged and both lucky and loved in its construction, would break on a 1 in 12. And a 'mastercrafted' weapon would be the kind made by an artist ... and it would break on a 1 in 20.
The odds of a weapon breaking in any given round 'dropped' from 1 in 400 attacks to 1 in 120. At once, weapons started breaking as part of normal combat. Not just for the party, obviously. Most every weapon used by a goblin or an orc is ordinary. I thought the party would start shelling out for better weapons, but no. A hard-forged weapon is three times as much as an ordinary one; a blessed weapon six times as much and a master-crafted 18 times as much. The party's practice has been to simply double up on the weapons they have, and if they break one in mid-combat, they'll fight with a dagger or whatever secondary weapon comes to hand. They'd rather be without the weapon and save money, than pay a bit extra to reduce the chance of their weapon breaking. Go figure. No one has yet figured out that in the long run it increases the chance of breaking their arms.
But the rule does allow me to make the weapons of high-intelligence races all of better quality, so they don't break as easily ... and it lets me give less breakable weapons as a treasure that differs from another magic weapon. Granted, it isn't +1, but that beautiful sword I got from that Elven princess doesn't break on me. Plus, it strongly creates a purpose for characters to build up an armory. The attrition rate on weapons in a large battle over 20 rounds is considerable. Overall, this breaking thing has been a successful rule.
I realized, as well, that it also redeems the lowly battle axe.
The gentle reader may never have noticed that there's no price for javelins or quarterstaffs in the books. No doubt some well-meaning soul has corrected this, thinking it was a stupid oversight, but in fact no. Either weapon is quite easily fashioned from a stout sapling - taking longer for a javelin than a quarterstaff, granted - and in fact there is a literary source that proves it. Robin Hood has no staff when he encounters John Little on the bridge (he isn't 'Little John' yet). The tale goes, he asks for leave to go 'cut one,' and John patiently waits while he does so. It doesn't take long. And when Robin announces he's ready, his staff is every bit as good as John's.
The benefit to both weapons is that they cost no money. They are peasant's weapons for precisely that reason.
Keeping that in mind, then, what part of a battle axe do you suppose breaks, when it breaks? Yes, that's right, the handle. A sword or a dagger are both forged as one piece, and if they break, the handle and blade are both pretty nigh useless without being completely reforged. But a battle axe's heavy blade isn't going to break, since the stress is delivered to the handle, which like the weakest link gives before the head does. And when the handle breaks, do we need to go out and buy a new axe?
Nope. We just need to replace the handle. And the handle is free.
This makes it the perfect weapon for Vikings, or anyone who spends a great deal of time away from civilization. There's a ton of mineable iron in Sweden, but not a whole lot of towns with blacksmiths to forge that iron. Can't be making the three hundred mile journey into Stockholm everyday. Once a lifetime will do, until finally the blade tarnishes and gives out.
And the same can be said for a number of other weapons, such as the flail, mace, morning star, military pick ... they all have easily replaceable handles. If you want a good grip, and a good balance, they'll take more whittling than a quarterstaff, but we're only talking a good day or two of effort - depending of whether you like to carve your handles or not.
So the question arises for me, since I haven't considered this prior to a couple of days ago. What's the cost on a mastercrafted axe handle? Is it really a question of craftsmanship, or is it the wood that's used? Does it require a master to carve and fit heavier woods - like ironwood or teak - or can anyone do it?
I don't know. I haven't answered that yet. Probably, a combination between a battle axe never being mastercrafted, but harder woods providing a 1 in 8 chance of breaking as opposed to a 1 in 6. Remember, the strongest wood will break if swung hard enough, even against a baseball.
So in the end, if you can afford it, a sword is still probably better overall. But if you're marching into the wilderness, make sure to bring an axe along.
I had meant to mention; magic weapons break on a 1 in 20, regardless of material.