Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Addendum to Axe Meanderings (New Rules!)

So out of curiosity as much as anything else, after yesterday’s post regarding the paltry mechanics of the axe (in comparison to the sword), I reviewed both my Players Handbook weapon charts and my copy of Hackmaster (I don’t own the 2nd edition PHB anymore) to see when would the “axe man” have an advantage over a normal sword.

Turns out: never.

The broad sword, with a better base damage than the battle axe, has an equal or better attack advantage against ALL TYPES of armor (as well as a better base damage). The long sword has nearly as good an attack advantage as the broad sword, and much better damage against size Large creatures. In addition, both the broad AND long swords are significantly faster (Speed Factor 4 for each versus the battle axe’s Speed Factor 7), and the battle axe outweighs the long sword for encumbrance calculations (it is equal to the broad sword).

In all respects, the one-handed sword trumps the axe.

[as a side note, I don’t see anything that lists the battle axe as a two-handed weapon in AD&D. I don’t know why I have always thought that, unless it was carry-over from learning to play with B/X which explicitly states the battle axe is a two-handed weapon]

In Hackmaster, the difference is nearly as significant. Both swords do more damage and are faster, speed-wise. While there are no Weapon vs. Armor charts, swords and axes are both rated as “Hacking Weapons” and thus carry the exact same bonus versus armor. So assuming your 1st level character has enough money to purchase a sword, there’d no reason, mechanics-wise, to ever choose an axe. At least if one’s character is a human (dwarves in Hackmaster can purchase an “axe bonus” talent that might make it a better choice…I haven’t bothered to crunch the numbers).

Anyway, I was considering doing my own “weapon versus armor” chart for B/X play (19 weapons and only 4 options for armor? Yeah, that’s a bit less ambitious than re-vamping AD&D). But the more I consider it, the more I think “this way lays madness.” Because it kind of defeats the whole purpose of having a simple abstract combat system.

Early on in this blog’s history, I praised the abstract combat system of D&D. I find it simple and elegant in the extreme, as long as one provides a bit of imagination and doesn’t think it is literally representative. That is, the numbers represent something more than their “face value:”

  • One dice roll does NOT equal “one swing.” An attack roll represents one’s ability to do damage in a round, based on class (training) and level (experience) versus enemy’s AC (defensive ability). A character with multiple attack rolls has the ability to find more than one opening for doing damage…or may simply have more opportunities of rolling damage dice (i.e. those three attacks might still only represent a single, well coordinated, well aimed blow for greater (multiple) damage).
  • One damage roll does NOT represent one stab of the blade or bite of the axe. It represents the damage that has been inflicted in the round by the character. Maybe a low roll indicate you hit with the flat of the weapon or thumped the person with the pommel. Maybe a high roll indicates you kicked your opponent in the gut, knocking the breath out of him, while setting up a killing blow; maybe high damage represents multiple bleeding lacerations.
  • Hit points do NOT represent anything more than a character’s ability to remain active and engaged in combat/adventuring activity. They do not necessarily represent health or fitness or size or anything else…only how much damage it takes to kill the character. A magic-user with 3 hit points may be in prime health, gets full nights of sleep, eats a vegan diet, meditates, does yoga, and has the potential to live 200 years…but is not savvy enough to avoid being stabbed through the heart by the alcoholic, chain-smoking, syphilitic mercenary.
  • Armor class represents MORE than “how hard it is to land a blow.” It represents the potential chance for an opponent to REDUCE HIT POINTS via an ATTACK ROLL. This can mean the armor’s ability to absorb damage from blows that land, the maneuverability of the character wearing it, the adjusted perception of one’s ability to dodge incoming fire due to a helmet, etc. All of these factors are boiled down into a single armor class rating. Based on extensive field research, I’m certain. ; )

So while I could possibly create a table of bonuses and penalties for various B/X weapons against armor class, do I want to start down that particular road of complexity? After all, there are other reasons for choosing some weapons over others For example, a weapon’s speed and ease of use…am I going to add Speed Factor to my B/X games? Sturdiness…should I institute rules for weapons breaking? Do I need to look at weapon attacks versus different types of shield materials (wood, hide, metal)?

Should I look at the DEFENSIVE VALUE of weapons? After all, it’s easier to block a blow with an axe or hafted weapon than with a dagger. Or maybe I need to check defensive value of weapons against OTHER weapons…a hafted weapon is great for blocking an over-hand chop or side-swing, but fairly useless against a thrusting spear or sword. Of course, the ability to use one’s weapon in a defensive way should probably be tied to class and level just like one’s ability to attack.

Finally, let’s not forget that most combat encounters in the average D&D game is against non-humanoid monster, for who none of these rules apply. Is it worth the time and energy to work up these tables for the occasional NPC or humanoid encounter? And does there need to be SEPARATE tables for different humanoids? Does a bugbear wield a pole-arm faster than an orc? Does an ogre use a two-handed sword like a short sword? Might a mace fail to dent a fire giant’s armor while a long sword slips easily through the chinks?

Opening this can of worms can easily devolve into crazed micro-managing rule drafting…something I’m really not too interested in for B/X play. Personally, I think the best way to handle the whole “lack of love” for the axe and the war hammer and the spear, etc. is to make all weapons EQUALLY DEADLY. They were, after all, designed to kill people. Stabbing someone in the throat with a dagger, crushing their skull with a club, or eviscerating them with a sword stroke all return the same result: dead, dead, dead. A player (or character’s) personal weapon preference should be based on that: personal preference, NOT on how effective (mechanically) the weapon is.

Now for people that don’t like the idea that a knife-fighting wizard does the same 1D6 damage as a barbarian dishes out with a two-handed sword I can suggest only this:

- Strength bonuses (and perhaps add double the bonus for a two-handed weapon), and/or
- Use my Variable Damage by Class tables (so warriors do more damage than wizards when it comes to wielding weapons).

Regarding the former (two-handed weapons): I’m not sure I like the idea that a character does inherently more damage with a two-handed weapon than with a one-handed weapon. In general, two-handers are more difficult to use and slower (which means fewer opportunities to swing and strike a “telling blow”). That being said, a STRONG character has the muscle to use these weapons more effectively and can put a LOT of force into a two-handed blow. I say just DOUBLE the strength bonus when using a two-handed weapon (strength penalties are un-affected). So when Conan (Strength 17 in my B/X world) two-hands his broad sword, he adds +4 to damage (instead of +2). His attack roll is still only made at +2 (remember that an attack roll does not indicate a swing, but rather the potential ability to do damage, and a high strength character can use muscle and leverage to over-bear and beat-down opponents in melee…but it doesn’t matter whether he’s doing this with a great axe or a sword & shield combo).

If you choose this option, you might want to modify the Variable Damage by Class table as follows:

Clerics/Halflings: 1D6 Damage, 1D4 Damage for small, Light weapons (daggers and such)
Dwarves/Elves/Fighters: 1D8 Damage, 1D6 for Light weapons
Thieves: 1D6 Damage for all weapons
Magic-Users: 1D4 Damage for all weapons

This is only applicable to MELEE weapons. Missile weapons damage is un-changed from my earlier tables.

[NOTE: in B/X play it is assumed that characters have had training in any weapon they can use (there are no weapon proficiencies) so they are already using the weapon to its “greatest potential.” A character using a sword against a foe in plate armor, for example, will two-hand his weapon by gripping the blade and try to drive the point into an arm pit or under the chin, rather than bouncing slices off the breastplate. A character with a war hammer will know whether it’s better to land a crushing blow with the flat, or reverse the weapon to hit with the point. The random damage roll determines how well the character succeeds at these tactics with the opportunities presented in combat; these opportunities represented by the characters ability to succeed with an attack roll, based on training (class) and experience (level). Hope that all makes sense!]

Oh, one more thing for those not playing B/X or Labyrinth Lord: for the sake of completeness, bonuses to melee based on Strength are:

STR 3: -3 to hit and damage
STR 4-5: -2 to hit and damage
STR 6-8: -1 to hit and damage
STR 9-12: no adjustment in melee
STR 13-15: +1 to hit and damage
STR 16-17: +2 to hit and damage
STR 18: +3 to hit and damage

So with the optional “two-handed damage bonus” a character would receive either a +2, +4, or +6 bonus to melee damage ONLY when using a two-handed weapon (as long as his or her strength was greater than 12).
: )


  1. Simple, yet elegant. Allows for sword swinging wizards and staff wielding warriors. I like it!

  2. Although I'm going to dispute the complexity of Weapon vs. AC, if you don't go that route, then I plump for Damage by Class. I've always liked that idea.

  3. Is it such a sin to use 1d6 per weapon (and almost all monsters), and 1d6 hit dice for almost all classes?

    Also, "stabbed through the heart by the alcoholic, chain-smoking, syphilitic mercenary" is pretty evocative!

  4. Oh, and you could differentiate weapons by using a critical hit table.

    Swords, used more for slashing and stabbing, have a mix of the Pierce and Cleave table.

    The Pierce table does things to internal organs.

    The Cleave table cuts off body parts.

    The Crush table breaks bones and occasional knockouts, knockbacks, and knockdowns.

    The Entangle table pins limbs and strangles, and occasionally trips or entangles.

    I doubt you need many more. You could tack on a Burn table (fire and acid), a Shock table, and a Freeze table.

    And these would be rolled only if someone got a critical, which doesn't happen that often.

    The differentiation here is that creatures without organs don't have much to Pierce. Undead / golems can't be knocked out. Oozes and ghosts can't be tripped or pinned, and they don't have bones to break.

    It makes critical hits more interesting, and doesn't add too much to the rules-load at the table so long as those crits happen 1 time in 20.

  5. That's neat and very well thought out. I don't think distinguishing weapons in a balanced way has to be as clunky as the old AD&D tables, and came up with something different, over here. Let me know what you think.

  6. Instead of full hog weapon vs armor giving a handful of weapons some benefit is happy middleground. Esp when combined with damage by class. Things such as flails and morning stars negate shield bonus. Polearms have reach. Spears can be set vs charge. Pick does double damage vs heavy/hard/plate armors.

    Two-handers and damage: I agree two handers shouldn't do more damage. They should be more effective at getting through heavier armors. Since armor is an abstraction of absorbing damage via making it harder to hit. It's reasonable to abstract 2h armor penetration as additional damage.

    I like linking 2h increased damage to having the strength to take advantage of it.

  7. @ Everyone: Thank you very much for the positive feedback/reinforcement...the more I think about it, the more I want to instigate these rules ASAP. Now I just need some B/X players....

    @ Norm: (RE 2handers being better at penetrating armor) But how do you rate 'em against (non-armor wearing) monsters? It feels problematic. And yes, I've seen the video of the dudes hacking up pig carcasses with a dopplehander...that ain't the same as attacking a living, moving opponent (I used to break multiple boards with hands and feet when I was heavy into Tae Kwon Do, but it is extremely difficult to break large bones in a person that's moving away from a punch/kick...I sure couldn't do it!). I'm inclined to leave out bonus/penalties vs. armor altogether, but that's me.