Sunday, October 12, 2014

Basic Weapons

Most of my blog posts are fairly "off the cuff" (in case anyone hadn't noticed), something that gets me in trouble more times than I'd like. Of course, even when I do "plan out" posts, things don't always go as planned, so most of the time I'm, like, "why bother?"

Well, here's one of the times I'm bothering (just a little)...I wanted to talk about the weapons I'm including in the new "heartbreaker," but then I realized that just a little explanation might need an extra post or two, and then I thought, shit, I probably need to explain where these damn weapon list come from in the first place. Because, you see, I'm not terribly interested in including "design notes" in my publications. It's not that such design notes aren't useful or interesting (usually I find them interesting, when I'm reading other people's work), but A) I try to NOT pad page count (to keep costs down), and B) I have a blog to ramble on about why I do stuff.

[for instance, remember last month's multi-part discussion on chopping saving throws? See, that kind of stuff I don't want to have to explain in the game book itself. Putting it on the blog allows interested people to see my bizarre thought also provides a forum of sorts for feedback in the form of dissenting opinions expressed in the comments section]

ANYway...basic weapons. Let's talk about where these weapons come from.

Prior to AD&D (1st Edition) with its extensive list of diverse and different pole arms and swords, we had an extremely simple list of weapons to choose from. The list in Holmes Basic (published prior to the release of the 1E PHB) is the exact same as the list found in Men & Magic, LBB #1 of OD&D. For the sake of the post, here it is (exactly as it appears in OD&D):

Dagger 3
Hand Axe 3
Mace 5
Sword 10
Battle Axe 7
Morning Star 6
Flail 8
Spear 1
Pole arm 7
Halberd 7
Two-Handed Sword 15
Lance 4
Pike 5

[the number listed next to the name is the cost of the weapon in gold pieces. There's no difference between OD&D and Holmes, save that Holmes charges 2 gold for a spear instead of one]

I won't bother with the missile weapons but the list is the same in both OD&D and Holmes.

It's not a bad starting list but there are a couple interesting things to consider. First, it has separate entries for "pole arm," "halberd," and "spear," and "pike." Second, it's listed in no discernible order: the list is neither alphabetical, nor arranged in ascending order of cost, nor by grouping of weapon type (for example, axes together). There's also some conspicuous absences that we find in later editions (like the "short sword" and "war hammer"), yet it includes weapons that are missing from later Basic editions (morning stars, flails, halberds, and pikes).

So where does this list come from? I mean, sure, Holmes gets its list from OD&D, but where does the list originate? And why was this the list the one finalized for inclusion in OD&D?

As usual, we need to go back to Chainmail to answer these questions.

The weapons found in OD&D are the exact same weapons (and presented in the same order) as those found in the Man-To-Man combat section of Chainmail. Chainmail has, in fact, three different combat systems within its contents: a mass combat system for troops on the battlefield, a "fantasy combat" system (for fantasy types engaged with other fantasy types: hero versus dragon, etc.), and a "man-to-man" system for one-on-one fights between individual, normal folks.

[actually, it has separate rules for tournament jousting, too, but I'm not sure I'd count that as "combat"]

Note I'm saying normal, non-heroic types: "hero versus hero" falls into the "fantasy combat" system (a hero kills another hero on a 2D6 roll of 8+, regardless of weapons and armor...well, unless the hero's wielding a magic weapon), and "hero versus normal" is better represented by the standard battlefield system (as heroes and superheroes mow through groups of troops). Nope, the man-to-man is strictly for two normal dudes facing off in a duel. The man-to-man system is supposed to be used for "small battles and castle sieges" and it compares the attacker's weapon with the defender's "armor protection type" to arrive at a (2D6) target number for killing the dude.

The classes of "armor protection" will be familiar to players of the basic D&D: no armor, shield only, leather, leather & shield, chain, chain mail & shield, plate armor, and plate with shield. Each weapon has a different "kill" number depending on the armor type: for example, a battle axe only needs a 7+ against chain (even with shield), but an 8+ against lighter armor types, a 9+ against plate, and a 10+ against plate and shield. A dagger is great against "no armor" (6+), but it's chance of success goes steadily downward from there up to 12 for plate (with or without shield).

The weapon types are classified by numbers, from #1 through #12 in the exact order presented in both OD&D and Holmes Basic:

  1. Dagger
  2. Hand Axe
  3. Mace
  4. Sword
  5. Battle Axe
  6. Morning Star
  7. Flail
  8. Spear
  9. Pole Arms & Halberd*
  10. 2-Handed Sword
  11. Mounted Lance
  12. Pike

[*halberds are indistinguishable from pole arms in man-to-man combat but provide an extra die in mass combat]

Here, the number or "class" of the weapon makes a difference in who hits first in melee, whether or not the defender has a chance to parry, and whether or not either party receives additional blows in the exchange. This is provided by comparing the weapon class of each opponent to one another. For example, the attacker (person who initiates combat) always strikes the first blow, unless the defender has a weapon "two classes higher" (say, if the defender had a spear (#8) and the attacker was using a morning star (#6) or lesser weapon).

This can get rather complex. For example, a person using a sword (#4), attacks a Swiss pikeman (or "piker," as I prefer to call 'em). The piker (#12) gets the first blow in the 1st round (defender with weapon two classes higher), but strikes second in all subsequent rounds (opponent with weapon class two classes lower than the other strikes first). However, because the swordsman is eight classes below the pike, "the defender gets the first blow and may parry the second or strike the second." Based on the text that follows, it appears that this only applies when the defender is the swordsman, although pikes still always receive first blow over lower class weapons if there is a charge. Furthermore, because the sword is more than eight classes lower, the swordsman is allowed to strike three blows every round. If the swordsman was wielding a flail instead, he'd only get one extra blow (two total)...though when exactly these blows occur (prior to the piker? divided before and after the piker's blow?) and how the parries apply are mysteries unsolved by the text.

The point here is that these weapons and (especially) their arrangement matters. They are classified by length and weight, because this is Very Important Thing in melee combat. Not damage (they all kill their opponents, though the degree of success they have is dependent on their effectiveness versus the type of protection utilized). Timing and distance, folks.

I used to hate combat in ElfQuest (the RPG) back in the day because its "strike rank" system based on combatant size and weapon length did not model the fighting found in the comic books. In the comic, Cutter and his short sword makes quick slice-n-dice work of trolls with their spears and pole arms, he's so fast on the the game, he'd have his arm cut off before he could strike a blow. What I didn't realize was that the Chaosium's combat system was taken from RuneQuest (I presume) which tries to model a more historically accurate form of combat. At least, that's what I've read (never having played RQ).
Prepare to die, shorty.

This is very different from how combat in D&D eventually developed, using the D20 roll and the "Alternative Combat System." The advantage the ACS has is that it's applied consistently...there's only one method of combat in D&D, whether you're dealing with man-to-man duels, man-on-troop brawls, or man-on-monster slaughterfests. One unified system. Unfortunately, the system leaves quite a bit to be desired (see prior discussions on ghost-fighting and dragon slaying, not to mention everyone's usual bitches about mass combat, armor reducing damage, etc.).

Moldvay's Basic game at least steps away from the Chainmail battlefield and gives us a weapon list more befitting what one might take into a dungeon setting. No pikers here, though even a spear is a stretch (and I'm with Charles on the 10' pole, too). Here (in Moldvay) we also see the advent of two-handed weapons striking last...not a terrible attempt to model the difficulty of fighting with a large weapon in cramped spaces. However, Moldvay has its own problematic parts, like short swords and "throwing hammers."

But we're going to talk about those in subsequent posts this week.
: )

By the way, one thing I do NOT intend on discussing is the extensive AD&D weapon charts...they're a hot mess because of their attempt to "patch" the realism that got dropped in the move from Chainmail combat to abstract combat. Yes, "realism"...Chainmail wasn't supposed to be abstract, it was blow-for-blow, only intended to model killing an opponent (anything that wasn't a "kill" - lesser wounds and fatigue, for example - are ignored outright). But all that space requirements and attack versus armor and speed factor jive...all that just served to complicate (and render absurd) the abstractness of the Alternative Combat System suggested in OD&D. For folks who love it...have at it. I don't plan on discussing in much in the coming days.


  1. Cool Chainmail related combat talk for D&D/RPG is always interesting. Looking back at it you realize there are details that were lost or poorly explained in the move to AD&D and Basic.

  2. @ JD:

    Glad I have something useful to contribute.

  3. I'm always fascinated by the historical perspective of the game through time, I really ought to get a copy of Chainmail!

    So many oddities in D&D and AD&D become clear when looking back at Chainmail.

    1. @ Charles: can be really eye-opening!
      : )