Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Axe Meanderings

Welp, its Tuesday again which (for those in the astrological know) means it’s a MARS day. Tuesday, is of course the English form of “Tyr’s Day,” Tyr being the closest equivalent to the Roman god of war. According to Wikipedia, it was considered bad luck for the 13th of the month to fall on a Tuesday (probably due to the intersection of Martian and Uranian energies). Great…I was born on a Tuesday the 13th. That’s probably why I’m considered an “Earthquake” in Mesoamerican (Mayan/Aztec) astrology.

And I seem to be feeling the Martian pull today. Perhaps due to having Frazetta on the mind, I’ve been researching axe cultures (Viking and otherwise) all morning, as well as the technical differences between the various types of axe used in warfare, past and present (apparently the U.S. Marines dig on an updated version of the Amerindian tomahawk…go figure).

The axe is probably the most under-appreciated weapon in pre-D20 Dungeons & Dragons. Well I know I failed to appreciate it in my youth. Once one gets to D20, you have all sorts of players signing up to wield the weapon due to A) size rules allowing it to be wielded one-handed, and B) increased critical damage. Sure, there’s a trade-off as the axe has a lower crit threshold than the sword (only talking martial weapons here), but as far as the ability to do huge amounts of damage at random, the axe became king in D20.

Which, of course, makes it the ideal weapon to stick in the hands of monstrous (ORC) hordes if you’re a not-so-nice DM.

To explain, one has to understand that randomly rolled critical hits favors the DM side of the screen. Why? Because of the numeric superiority of the DM’s infinite monster list. No matter how many foes are slain, the DM can always whip up a new batch of encounters, all of the appropriate level. BUT level means little when one is only worried about rolling a 20.

BAB +1 versus AC 20…needs a 20 to achieve a critical threat with axe.
BAB +5 versus AC 20…needs a 20 to achieve a critical threat with axe.
BAB +9 versus AC 20…needs a 20 to achieve a critical threat with axe.

See how that works? The trick is to get as many attacks rolling as possible to increase that chance of the critical being met (i.e. to increase the chance of a 20 being rolled). Then you get that big damage multiplier (nice when accompanied by a high strength humanoid like, say, an orc).

Anyhoo, I don’t play those new-fangled versions of D&D anymore, so fortunately I don’t have to give a shit about the math involved. Let’s talk about the “old-fangled” version.

In OD&D, all weapons do 1D6 damage, so whether you want an axe or a sword, you’re doing pretty much the same thing.

In B/X (my game of choice) almost everyone uses the Variable Damage by Weapon rules. Here’s how the axe breaks down:

Hand Axe, 1D6 damage, can be thrown
Battle Axe, 1D8 damage, two-handed (no shield, strikes last)

Compared to:

Normal Sword, 1D8 damage

Now since any class in B/X can use the normal sword (except clerics and magic-users, neither of whom can use axes either), Why O Why would anyone choose an axe over the straight-forward blade?

Style? Maybe. In my experience, no one does. Like it or not, B/X facilitates a gamist creative agenda which means “winning” (or “overcoming challenges”) is a serious component to game play, and people will spring that extra 3gps from their wallets for a normal sword over a battle axe EVERY TIME. Sure some fighters might pick up the two-handed sword or pole arm (pole AXE) for the extra damage, but dwarves and halflings never pull a 2-handed battle axe over a 1-handed sword…why the hell should they?

Because dwarves are depicted with axes? Well, yeah, they’re depicted as short Vikings…and the Viking axe was ubiquitous because it was cheap and available compared to swords. Swords were status symbols as much as they were tools of warfare…if you could get your grubby gauntlets on one, you would.

Which I suppose makes it appropriate that all adventurers carry swords. After all, adventures are NOT “Normal Men.”

Still, while swords may have been the weapon of status in the “old days” they weren’t always the weapon of choice on the field of battle. The English housecarls of the 11th century used the battle axe as their primary weapon and the axe was (in general) a better weapon against heavily armored opponents than a standard arming sword.

[of course, the mace and warhammer were the melee weapons of choice to use against an opponent in plate armor…something not really modeled in B/X Dungeons & Dragons either]

1st edition AD&D does provide tables showing increased/decreased effectiveness of various types of weapon against different armor types. But I’ve met plenty of folks that pay no attention to these tables (hell, I don’t even know if they’re present in OSRIC), and I know that I, too, have been guilty of ignoring/forgetting to check these while “in the heat of battle.” And if they’re not being used (along with speed factor and weapon length/space required) than what’s the point of looking at anything besides the damage roll? Again…is “style” the only thing that makes a difference in the PCs choice of an axe?

Well, it did for me…eventually. Though I was drinking at the time and in a “devil-may-care” type of mood. The one time I played 2nd edition AD&D as a player (not as a DM) I was told to roll up an 8th level fighter and pick a “kit” for him using one of those brown books. I decided I would model the character’s look and feel off Frazetta's Death Dealer. I believe I used a “barbarian kit” (I really don’t remember) and as my “starting magic items” I requested (and was granted) a +2 battle axe and a great helm that worked like a ring of protection +1 (I think I also got a couple healing potions that were never used). With an 18/50-something strength and some sort of “axe bonus” from my kit (I really don’t remember the exact 2nd edition mumbo-jumbo), my fighter was a veritable whirlwind of destruction, carving through high level clerics and random driders/Drow-types in single combat, while the ranger plinked away with less-than-effective arrows and the thief hung back looking for something to steal (there were only three players and no NPCs).

It was actually one of the more fun adventure sessions I can remember playing.

And this despite using an “optimal weapon” or any inherent advantage in the weapon type (like D20’s greater threat range/greater crit damage deal). I honestly can’t recall if 2nd edition AD&D uses “weapon type vs. armor” but the DM on this occasion certainly did NOT…and there’s something that’s just viscerally satisfying about hacking someone down with a tool normally used for felling trees. Especially when folks are laughing at your choice of weapon.

; )


  1. This has always chapped my ass as well. The one case one could make for handaxe is versatility (as it can be thrown) but even the lowly spear outshines it with the ability to be set against charge.

    Another great axe-man - Bran Mak Morn, shamefully rendered in most cover appearances with a wimpy Gladius.

  2. Thank you for not spelling it "ax". I will forgive you Colonials much for what you've done to the mother tongue, but not that. ;)

    I've always favoured axes. In games, that is. I don't know why that is exactly, but I've always found them a more compelling weapon than the boring old sword.

  3. This is the point at which you have to take the whack-ass weapon stats from that version by the throat and shake them until they make sense.

    Two-handed AND strike last? Back to d6 damage, or forward to something that makes sense, I say.

  4. I spent a long time being irritated about King Sword in Ye Auld Game. I like swords as much as the next gamer, but it gets so boring. I never really could work through the weapon vs. AC modifiers in 1st ed and so, ignored them like 99% of any gamer I have ever met.

    I posted a analysis of various weapon matrices over the editions: [http://wheel-of-samsara.blogspot.com/2009/08/recreating-weapon-vs-armour-class-chart.html]. And building on that, I made a matrix that I'm really happy with now: it makes most weapons decent choices overall, but still distinct from each other. The key is the Weapon vs. AC thing; simply going by variable damage doesn't give enough scope.

    The chart is here: [http://wheel-of-samsara.blogspot.com/2010/02/melee-weapons-vs-armour-class-takeoh.html].

  5. @ Lord B: We definitely have to do something about that. Of course, I also think the spear is a highly under-appreciated weapon.

    @ Kelvin: You know how lazy we Colonials can be!

    @ Roger: I'm glad to know others feel my pain...D6 may be the simplest way to go (or use my Variable Weapon by Class charts...swords and axes do the same damage, leaving it a true matter of taste).

    @ Matt: Just finished reading it, thanks! I may have to do my own version of your chart (for B/X of course!).
    : )

  6. Back in the 1ed days, I was always the guy willing to play the spell caster (especially the cleric), so I rarely got the chance to play a fighter. The one time I did get to play THE fighter, I did something unexpected by everyone, especially the DM — my weapon of choice was the hand axe. I took advantage of weapon specialization and the fact that the hand axe was a small weapon, allowing me to use two at the same time. This meant that I had multiple attacks every round with a high bonus to hit. Add in the fact that they can be thrown, and you have a truly formidable warrior who puts the sword and shield wielding fighter to shame.

  7. The eventual availability of magic items also means that swords are typically more desirable, as magic swords are more common and the best magic swords are more powerful than the best magic axes.

    Although there is a benefit to carrying a tool-like weapon (axe, hammer, pick, crowbar) during the adventure. In fact, I make it a point to arm any hirelings or henchmen with such weapons, telling them that they're not expected to fight but sneakily handing them a pretty effective weapon anyway. It's more an issue of saving inventory space, as you don't have to carry a weapon AND a tool.

    So you could encourage use of non-sword weapons by including a lot more non-sword magic items, especially items that amplify the use of the weapon (such as an analogue to Bracers of Archery, but for axes and hammers whether thrown or melee).

  8. @ Father Dave: Man, I just have to say I would LOVE to play a game with you if your were playing a cleric...whatever weapon you want to wield is fine with me (cruciform sword or whatnot)! You just better be Lawful and act as the party conscience.
    ; )

    @ D30: I agree with the usefulness of a tool/weapon, but in my experience, few of my players have thought in these terms...it's a curious blind spot.