Thursday, June 11, 2009

B/X Variable Weapon Damage (Part 1)

Confession time: I have always used variable weapon damage.

Even starting with Moldvay’s Basic set (my first set of D&D rules) I either missed or glossed over the “all attacks do 1D6 damage.” In my defense, my 8 year old eye was most likely drawn to the shiny “variable weapon damage” table in the Encounter (combat) chapter…and it may very well be that I didn’t know the meaning of the words “variable” or “optional” at the time.

Anyway, by the time I picked up my copies of the Little Brown Books (from a certain used book store in Montana), I was already well into my use of AD&D with its non-optional variable damage tables. My copy of Men & Magic even has (my) penciled variable damage notes in the margin of the equipment list. Clearly, while I liked the idea of OD&D, rolling D6 for damage for all weapons seemed pretty rudimentary to me.

And yet…and yet…

Have you ever noticed how B/X monsters (probably AD&D monsters, too, though I don’t have my MM with me today) always lists a damage die for monsters? For example, orc damage is 1D6 or by weapon. Hobgoblin is 1D8 or by weapon. What’s up with this…an orc punches harder than a human? Well, not necessarily (unless you’re limiting PC damage to 1-2 points per punch a la Labyrinth Lord).

As Gary said, a proper sword thrust will kill a man. But won’t a proper dagger thrust? Or axe blow? Wasn’t Goliath felled by a sling stone?

Fact is, weapons kill...that’s what they’re designed to do (okay, okay…maybe not a lasso, net, or man-catcher, but for the most part…). Certainly different weapon designs are useful for opening different types of armor, but whether or not a weapon wounds/kills is dependent more on luck and/or skill than on shape and size.

The “luck” takes place in the random roll for damage inflicted (whether a blow is glancing or in a vital organ is modeled by the damage range from 1 on up). The “skill” is another matter and will be discussed in Part 2 of this post. Some people are natural born killers and others just aren’t.


  1. I missed the d6 damage for all weapons myself back in '81, probably for the same reason as you.

    Looking at it now, I see that this was included probably as a nod to the folks who had started with the LBBs. The only problem is that, before Greyhawk, which introduced the variable weapon damage concept, all Hit Dice were also d6. So it was possible to kill a ist level character or a 1 HD monster with a single blow.

    Moldvay offers the option of sticking with the d6 damage for all weapons, yet upgrade the Hite Die to a d8 and makes no mention of using a d6 for hit dice instead. So if you stick with d6 weapon damage, you're fighting monsters that have a slight edge on you and you've lost the chance of 1 hit/1 kill in some cases, even with 1 HD monsters.

    Had Moldvay included the d6 HD, non-variable damage might have had some legs to it.

  2. Check out parts 2 and 3 of this post. Personally, I think the "old way" was really onto something. There SHOULD be a distinction between different combatants, but instead of saying, "damage restricted by weapon, weapon restricted by class," let's cut out the middle man and say "damage restricted by class."