Thursday, 13 May 2010

Weapons: Traits, not Systems

I'm a stone's throw away from ending the Text to Tabletop series with some discussion of player vs. character identification. But now the last couple of posts on JB's B/X Blackrazor blog have had my design thumbs twitching.

JB's gripe is the general lack of attention to balance among different melee weapons in D&D from the moment they were mechanically distinguished from each other, really right up until 3rd Edition. The focus is the battle axe as opposed to the longsword, a clearly unbalanced choice rules-wise in both B/X and AD&D. He eventually solves the problem by calling on the abstract nature of combat, proposing a system of damage by character class, modified only by the most general characteristics of weapons. I think this is fine, but I'm going to propose another way out.

One point of frustration that comes through in the posts is the clunkiness of systems that try to balance out weapons with a host of non-damage characteristics like speed factor, bonuses vs. specific AC, room needed to swing ... Why instead can't each weapon have a special trait or two, and maybe a special drawback, without every single weapon having to be rated on that trait?

A rough brainstorm, aided by borrowings and scrapings from old-school posts too numerous to recall, gives me this:

WeaponAverage DamageGood ThingsBad Things
Dagger-2Quick Draw, Throwable, Close, NarrowShort
Shortsword-1Quick Draw, NarrowShort, Expensive
Longsword+0Quick DrawExpensive
Two-handed sword+1+1 to hit ArmorWide, Expensive, Two-Handed
Mace/War Hammer+0+2 to hit ArmorWide, Unwieldy
Battle Axe+0+1 to hit ArmorWide
Two-Handed Mace/Hammer/Axe+1+2 to hit ArmorWide, Unwieldy, Two-Handed
Hand Axe/Hammer-1Throwable, NarrowShort
Staff-1Improves AC by 1 against facing opponentTwo-Handed, Unwieldy
Short Spear-1Throwable, NarrowUnwieldy
Long Spear-1Long, NarrowUnwieldy, Two-Handed
Pole Arm+0LongUnwieldy, Two-Handed

Armor Bonuses: Apply only to chain armor or better, or the monster AC equivalent, assuming this comes from armor/hide and not dexterity or magic bonuses
Close: Weapon has no penalty when used in grappling range; other weapons have -2 to hit and strike last
Expensive: Reflected in equipment tables
Long: Weapon strikes first against non-Long weapons (and unarmed monsters) unless in grappling range
Narrow: Weapon has no penalty in very tight quarters (3' passages or characters fighting 3 to a 10' passage); other weapons have -2 to hit and strike last
Quick Draw: Weapon can be readied and used in the same round, striking last; other weapons require a full round to ready.
Short: Weapon cannot attack a facing opponent wielding a Long weapon unless in grappling range
Throwable, Two-Handed: Self-explanatory
Unwieldy: Weapon cannot be used in grappling range
Wide: Weapon has -2 to hit and strikes last with even 5' frontage (needs 7' free to swing properly) and cannot be used with only 3'

Average Damage:
For example, with a d8 monster hit die basis, minuses refer to d6 and d4, and plus damage requires a d10.

(Closing to grappling range against an aware, facing opponent requires a full round without attacking, and without being hit by that opponent. Striking first and last overrides initiative determination, but opponents that strike at the same time by those rules still use initiative.)

These traits are easy to remember (for example, Unwieldy weapons are all blunt and pole weapons). They can even be implemented by the referee without the players knowing they exist, on a common-sense basis.

Another way to distinguish weapons is to note their different effectiveness against different materials and monsters. Blades are good for cutting ropes, cloth, and sheet-like monsters. Hammers and maces are good for smashing breakable things like jars and skeletons. Axes are all-around adventuring tools, good for hacking wood as well as limbs. Spears will puncture puffballs but harm little else.


  1. I spent a heckuva long time debating this issue. And one idea I had was that Greg Stafford's Pendragon has one of the most elegant solutions to this I have ever seen. It is essentially the same as you propose here, although much simpler. In the end, I found myself not quite able to implement that to my liking in D&D and I'm now more than happy with my very simplified Weapon vs. AC chart. But to get that to work, I had to radically simplify Armour Class (None-Leather-Chain-Plate) and then place weapons in corresponding Weapon Classes (Swords, Axes, Bludgeons, etc.)

    However, I still think the idea you have is a good one, especially if you are chart-averse. OTOH, I still think the axe comes off badly in this scheme. :)

  2. Heh, you may be right about the axe Matthew. I'll have to let this one percolate ... I'm feeling a simpler solution is somehow within reach.