On Meaningful Weapons

Posted: 11 January 2013 in Game Structure
Tags: ,

I’ve been thinking about weapons in RPGs lately.

At a fundamental level, how your game treats weapons says something about what’s important to the game. Some games have flat damage numbers so that all weapons do, say, d6 damage; in this system being armed or unarmed is more important than whether you have an axe or a sword. Other games have flat numbers based on class, so that a Fighter will do d12 damage and a Wizard does d4 damage regardless of what weapons they’re wielding; here it’s more important what role your character is playing as opposed to how you decide to fill that roll.

It’s also worth noting that where your game puts detail tends to be where your players will expect focus. This isn’t always true, especially if you have a regular group and everyone understands the intentions of the game and the group, but if you pick up random players for a game with a lot of nuance to the combat system don’t be surprised when they expect a lot of combat.

For my part, I like a system that differentiates between weapons and between wielders – that is, i want to see a system where there’s a meaningful difference between an Axe and a Sword, and a meaningful difference between someone who’s trained to use the weapon and someone who’s not. Dungeons and Dragons does the former pretty well. Almost too well, actually, when you consider that there are dozens upon dozens of different weapons with different properties (and feats!)… it actually gets to be a bit more complicated for my tastes.

Others have discussed what number is the right number to have meaningful selection without too much complexity, and I’m going to randomly pick 16 for my Fantasy games: dagger, staff, short sword, longsword, 1-handed axe, 1-handed hammer, 2-handed axe, 2-handed hammer, 2-handed sword, halberd/spear, whip, sling, crossbow, short bow, longbow, heavy crossbow. These are the weapons that came to mind off the top of my head, and I think that any weapon I’ve missed can be caste as one of these without losing a whole lot (the one exception being the spiked chain, I think…). Weapons can be differentiated by damage, critical multiplier, range, attack speed (ranged weapons need to be reloaded, maybe a dagger can attack as a Move action), how they fare against armor and resistances, and possibly bonuses they offer to the wielder (maybe to-hit bonuses, armor bonuses, etc).

The second piece is differentiating a trained wielder from an untrained wielder.  Originally D&D simply said certain classes *couldn’t* use certain weapons. I think a wise DM would read that as “certain classes can’t use certain weapons effectively, as weapons” because any slouch can swing a hunk of metal, but that doesn’t mean the results are going to be mechanically relevant. Later there was a penalty to hit for being non-proficient, and then a bonus to hit for being proficient, and that’s about the extent of it – training with a weapon affects how accurate your attacks are, and that’s it. If I had to do it on my own, I would probably make a trained wielder actually be more effective with the weapon, taking advantage of what the weapon allows, rather than an across-the-board bonus or penalty to accuracy. That adds a bit of complexity, I guess, but again it makes weapons meaningful: being proficient with a dagger is different from being proficient with a two-handed axe, and they lend themselves to different styles.

Under the cut I try my hand at a first draft of my 16 weapons.  What do you think about weapons, proficiency, and the complexity of making this stuff matter?

Damage: d4 piercing  Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: may attack with DEX instead of STR, attack as a move action, thrown range increment 10ft, Critical Range 19-20, Critical x3

Damage: d6 bashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: may attack with DEX instead of STR, may wield 1-handed, +1 AC when wielded 2-handed, 10ft melee range, thrown range increment 10ft, +2 to Trip maneuvers

Short Sword
Damage: d6 slashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: slashing OR piercing damage, thrown range increment 10ft, +1 to hit

Damage: d8 slashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: may wield two-handed, +STR damage when wielded two-handed, +1 to hit when wielded one-handed, thrown range increment 5ft

Damage: d8 slashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x3
Proficiency: thrown range increment 10ft, Critical x4

Military Hammer
Damage: d8 bashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: d10 bashing damage

War Axe
Damage: d10 slashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x3
Proficiency: wield 1-handed at -4 to hit, Range 10ft melee when wielded 1-handed, Critical x4 when wielded two-handed

Damage: d10 bashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: wield 1-handed at -4 to hit, Range 10ft melee when wielded 1-handed, d12 bashing when wielded two-handed

Damage: d10 slashing Range: 5ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: wield 1-handed at -4 to hit, Range 10ft melee when wielded 1-handed, +1 to hit, +STR damage when wielded 2-handed

Damage: d8 piercing Range: 10ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: May attack with DEX instead of STR, +2 to Trip maneuvers, free interrupt attack against charging or mounted opponents

Damage: d6 slashing Range: 10ft melee Critical: x2
Proficiency: May attack with DEX instead of STR, +2 to Trip maneuvers, +2 to Disarm maneuvers, +2 to Dirty Trick maneuvers, attack as a move action

Damage: d4 bashing Range: 10ft increment Critical: x2 Reload: minor action
Proficiency: attack as a move action, 20ft range increment, Reload as a free action

Damage: d8 piercing Range: 40ft increment Critical: x2 Reload: standard action
Proficiency: 80ft range increment, Reload as a move action, Critical range 19-20

Short Bow
Damage: d6 piercing Range: 30ft increment Critical: x3 Reload: minor action
Proficiency: 60ft range increment, reload as a free action

Heavy Crossbow
Damage: d10 piercing Range: 60ft increment Critical: x2 Reload: full-round action
Proficiency: 120ft range increment, Critical range 19-20

Damage: d8 piercing Range: 50ft increment Critical: x3 Reload: minor action
Proficiency: 100ft range increment, reload as a free action

  1. casewerk says:

    interesting take, and fairly reasonable, but historically IIRC longbows had longer range than even heavy crossbows before we got to dealing with modern technology. Also, a slight bit of a thing that’s a longstanding peeve of mine: the term “longsword”. Historically, a longsword was nothing like what DnD calls a longsword. the DnD longsword would have been an arming-sword, a knight’s sword or simply a sword. Longswords were two-handed or at least bastard affairs, hence the distinction. No idea why Gygax went with and popularized such an inaccurate terminology. 😉

    • Jack says:

      All true, and none of it news to me, but I tried sticking with Pathfinder stats as best I could. I think they make have a rule that crossbows are only effective to 2 or 3 range increments (240 or 360 feet) and a Longbow is good to 10 (1000+ feet) or something, but it’s been a while since I looked.

  2. casewerk says:

    Wish I could edit prior comments to make them more coherent. Ah well. One thing about the DnD rules for weapons is that all the different variables, like type of damage die, different crit levels and so on can make assessing which is the best for a character’s needs rather complex. At least they through out the “versus armor class type” chart that first edition used. Holy mackerel that was obnoxious.

    • Jack says:

      Actually, I’d like too see something of that notion come back; arrows and the like should affect ringmail differently than plate or leather… But, yeah, extra complexity, more focus, different expectations…

  3. Brendan says:

    Nice work, though I don’t generally care for minor actions (too many choices per round).

    I really like the idea of daggers being able to use move actions for attacks, though I think this system would require using a grid for the trade-off to be interesting (it’s too hard otherwise to keep track of precise positioning).

    One problem though is that some of the options still seem to be objectively suboptimal. Example: short bows can fire every round, whereas heavy crossbows can only fire every other round. 2d6 damage (expected value: 7) compared to 1d10 damage (expected value: 5.5). Longbows are even better: 2d8 damage (expected value: 9) over the same two round period, and both short and long bows even have better crit multipliers. Why would anyone ever use a heavy crossbow, given those numbers? Unless it had some other interesting property, like totally ignoring armor or something.

    • Jack says:

      Action economy should be addressed in it’s own post, but I’m a fan of minor actions – “too many options” is a false problem for role-playing games, I think, and the problem only comes when the game tries to codify everything, adding in unnecessary complexity. Minor actions are good for small-but-significant actions that don’t interrupt the standard move-attack routine, but aren’t “free” like talking or dropping a weapon.

      I’ll admit that having a notion of a move action is easiest when there’s a grid, and arguably the most meaningful, but I’ve recently played in some 13th Age games and they have an abstract, gridless notion of position in combat: characters are either engaged, near, or far, and using Movement allows you to shift between those. Obviously if a move action is so minor that almost no one uses them then dagger-attacks-as-move becomes a lot more powerful because it’s essentially a free attack. Regardless, my point is that a grid can help but it’s not necessary per se.

      As I mentioned to Casewerk, yeah, there’s wonkiness in those weapon stats. This is because my default go-to system (currently) is Pathfinder, and I chose to stay true to their weapon stats in this draft just for convenience. Now in Pathfinder crossbows are “simple weapons” which means pretty much any slouch is proficient (or can quickly become proficient) with them, but bows are “martial weapons,” meaning most classes don’t have proficiency by default and it’s a bit harder to get proficiency (I think). This is another aspect of weapons that I didn’t address.

      That being said you’re question of why someone would use a crossbow over a real bow if there’s no mechanical advantage (and demonstrable disadvantages) kind of offends me sensibilities. Why would they? Because they aren’t looking at a stat sheet, they’re ‘real’ people in a ‘real’ world and have ‘real’ aptitudes, preferences, biases, experiences… Looking at D&D as a combat simulator where the object is to maximize average damage dealt and minimize average damage taken is fine, if that’s your thing, but I’ve got WoW and Warhammer and Skyrim and a couple dozen other options for that. What makes D&D meaningful is that it’s a role-playing game, and what makes role-playing games meaningful is the notion of taking on a persona… If playing a persona who’s militaristically inefficient or inept isn’t your thing that’s fine, and I’m not disputing that designing a game so that all choices can be meaningful both as game choices and as character choices is ideal, it bothers me when “as character choice” is casually brushed aside as meaningless or silly.

      • Brendan says:

        No reason to bring sensibilities into this. 🙂

        (Note that I didn’t say anything about suboptimal choices being meaningless or silly; I was just saying they were suboptimal.)

        …designing a game so that all choices can be meaningful both as game choices and as character choices is ideal…

        This is, actually, very important, I think.


        It also doesn’t preclude making choices based on metrics other than combat optimization.

        • Jack says:

          Sorry, you just struck a nerve; D&D-as-combat-simulator is what repelled me from 4E, and your comment was of a form I’ve come to recognize as an attack on role-playing per se (players berating someone for making suboptimal choices). I think we are of a similar mind here.

  4. LS says:

    This is some solid stuff, dude. It’s given me a reason to revisit my own thoughts on this subject with a fresh perspective.

    • Jack says:

      Glad to help! Looking forward to your thoughts.

      • LS says:

        Here’s one, actually. What if some of these weapons had interesting penalties for using them untrained, in addition to your interesting abilities for using them proficiently.

        For example, the warhammer. An untrained person is going to have difficulty balancing a weapon like that, and may suffer -1 to AC.

        A sling is a complicated weapon to use, so a dex check of some type might be required to prevent the sling from flying off in some odd direction.

        Of course, this would further complicate the system. It might be a step too far, but it’s a thought.

        Again, beautiful work here.

  5. Herb says:

    An interesting take is the “Weapons Feats” rules from Dark Dungeons. While they are meant for a BECMI game and a little too complicated for me (having five or six levels of proficiency) they fit the bill here. They give to hit bonuses, damage increases, and special abilities (AC bonus for a number of opponents, disarm, trip, etc). I’ve considered using them in a White Box game cut down to 3 levels or so.

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