Friday, January 29, 2016

Assessing Damage

Jonathan N. posted the following comments on Wednesday's post regarding the B/X battle axe:
Huh. I would have made the battle axe just do 1d4+4 damage instead. Actually, 1d6+2 is probably more fair. Same average as 1d10.

Indeed, it IS the same average damage. But it's not the same range of damage, which for my game is the important part of the design model.

Back up for a moment. Recall D&D's original roots in CHAINMAIL, a tabletop war-game. It included a man-to-man element, but it was still of the "one hit equals one kill" variety: with a war game we are much more concerned with the movement of armies as a whole, not individual melees. Weapons were on a human scale, and humans (with the exception of some fantasy hero-types) of the "grunt" variety, regardless of arms and armor. One man = 1 die roll = 1 hit absorption...the standard unit of play from which all other units derive.

[a "hero," as an example attacked as four units, i.e. four humans, capable of rolling four dice to attack and absorbing four hits of damage. A "superhero" was the equivalent of eight units]

When you get to Men & Magic (volume 1 of OD&D, from which B/X is, more or less, directly derived), this standard unit mentality is still present. Heck, CHAINMAIL is the default combat system (with the "roll-D20-versus-AC" being an "alternative" option). The new game, however, is concerned with a smaller scale of action...heroic individuals operating at the skirmish level...and thus a more granular approach to combat is needed. Players aren't using armies in D&D, but individual characters...and losing one's character is the equivalent of losing one's entire army.

Enter hit points: the granular solution that fits the war gamer's paradigm. If your character is your "army," than each hit point represents a "grunt."  On the battlefield scale we're concerned with how one force attacks another force, and standard units (i.e. soldiers) are removed depending on the results of the attack. On the small scale we look at attacks on an individual (man-to-man) basis, to see how many hit point "units" are removed as the result of an attack.

Now, as I said, weapons are based on "human scale;" originally (in CHAINMAIL) a successful attack resulted in the removal of one unit, i.e. one soldier. But now that we are looking at a granular scale, we need to determine just how granular (that is, how many hit points) are possessed by a "standard unit." And the OD&D answer to that question is D6. That is how many hit points a one HD human soldier has in OD&D.

[remember that the D8 hit points per HD thing in B/X was a later adjustment in Supplement I (Greyhawk) that was carried over to Basic, AD&D, B/X, etc.]

One unit has 1 to 6 hit points. Thus, one human scale weapon inflicts 1 to 6 hit points of damage...this is the origin of the "all weapons do D6 damage" rule of OD&D and its descendants: Holmes, Moldvay, etc.

Once you know the "standard" elements involved, you can tweak and adjust. You can say that a heroic fighter PC (who starts with the lofty title of "veteran") can have MORE than the standard HPs: in OD&D it's 1D6+1; in B/X, it's 1D8. You can say that a 1st level magic-user only has 1D4 hit points (no doubt due to being a pasty academic) but that an experienced 2nd level magic-user has 2D4...she's been hardened by adventure and hiking in the wilderness. You can say that an ogre, a creature capable of sustaining damage enough to kill four men, receives 4 dice worth of hit points.

And you can adjust weapon damage appropriately as well. A dagger is capable of killing a sedentary citizen within 10 seconds (the length of a B/X combat round), but generally takes longer against a trained fighter, except under extreme circumstances (the fighter is weak and/or injured, the weapon is enchanted, etc.).

SO NOW (having got the preamble out of the way), let's look at the battle axe again. An attack roll is a check to see if an opponent can inflict damage in the round; the damage roll provides an indication of HOW that damage was inflicted based on the amount of the result.

A battle axe has a good range of damage (1 to 8...enough to kill a trained veteran with a perfect blow). Let's break that down in granular fashion:

1 point - a blow from the weapon's haft, the kind that will leave a nasty welt or bruise.
2 points - a severe blow from the weapon's haft to a vital joint or organ (like jamming the butt of the axe into the diaphragm like a blunt spear).
3 points - a concussive blow, capable of stunning the person with pain or blunt force trauma.
4 points - a strike with the axe head, causing a major laceration and probable blood loss.
5 points - a strike with the axe head that tears muscle, breaks bone, and/or severs major arteries.
6 points - a deep blow to the body, causing massive internal damage and blood loss.
7 points - a severing blow to a vulnerable joint or a full-on strike to the skull with the business end of the axe causing immense damage and probable death.
8 points - a wicked blow to the neck causing decapitation and immediate death.

This is a good range of damage, easily scalable to an opponent. For example, a concussive blow (3 points) versus a normal citizen who only possesses 3 hit points, might be a blow that puts the guy into a permanent coma. On the other hand the 3rd level fighter on the receiving end of an 8 point decapitating strike can consider that she just dodged a bullet (or, rather, an axe) and that her luck (those extra hit points from her greater experience) won't last forever.
Darkwolf's rotoscoped axe-work is pretty good.

Decreasing the range from 1-8 to 5-8/3-8 as Jonathan N suggests decreases the range of possibility inherent in a weapon like the battle axe. What's worse, it's no longer "human scale:" a weapon that inflicts a minimum of 3 hit points of damage (let alone 5!) will automatically kill three-quarters of the "normal human" population found in B/X. It leaves no room for the possibility of a glancing, non-fatal blow from a weapon that has more attack surfaces than just the axe head.

The +1 attack bonus I gave in Wednesday's post ("Can-Opener") stems from the ideas that A) a wedge-shaped axe-head delivered forcefully is good at penetrating armor, B) a mass weapon like an axe delivers enough concussive force to inflict damage even when failing to penetrate armor, and C) the battle axe is light enough (compared to other two-headed weapons), that A and B aren't offset by the weapon's overall lack of maneuverability compared to light, one-handed weapons (5 pounds versus 15 pounds).

[a +1 attack bonus is also enough to offset the +1 AC bonus provided by a shield, and "hooking" shields was a well-documented tactic of axe-use by Viking warriors and others; however, I know there are more than a few people who disagree with the amount of protection offered by a shield in B/X]

These are justifications to my overall design goal of making the battle axe a viable weapon choice in B/X, based on the B/X system as it exists. Increasing the average damage doesn't fit into my particular paradigm, but increasing the range of weapon damage (via the use of the variable weapon damage table) does.

For me, anyway. Plus it gives me a chance to roll dice of other shapes besides the D6. I've got them on-hand anyway.
; )

By The Way: I personally don't think this is anything that needs to be pointed out in a game text. The designers of Monopoly don't bother explaining why you receive $200 for Passing Go, after all. I realize that it's kind of "the thing" these days to include handy little sidebars in texts explaining design choices (boy, role-players sure are an over-analyzing bunch, aren't we?) but is it really worth it to make a cramped layout and increased page count? Well...that's a rant for another day.


  1. Really interesting read. I had never really thought about how damage values for weapons were determined.

  2. Yes, very interesting! I'd still rather shorten the range than add additional rules but I can appreciate your reasoning in not wanting to do so.

    1. @ Jonathan N:

      There's definitely a balancing act between concept and playability that we all have to walk. If you are satisfied with the shortened range, have at it...though I'm not sure how that's easier than letting someone simply have a +1 attack bonus when using a battle axe.
      ; )

  3. Cool breakdown on damage. Want to beef up battle axes? Make them a throwable weapon (all but the clumsiest probably are throwable), all of a sudden 1d8 damage is pretty choice if you can chuck it at somone 30' away.

    1. I actually have a little experience when throwing axes, and while it's possible to throw something that big AND hit a target AT that range, it's more about technique...technique that I'm not sure one can replicate in the chaos of combat.

      But that's just me.
      ; )

    2. But when it happens in the movies, it looks soooooo cool. Not relevant to real life, but, to me at least, DnD plays more like an action movie.

    3. @ Levi:

      I admit, I'm hard pressed to think of a movie that features a "thrown battle axe." Maybe there's one in Krull...?

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