Weapons and Damage

A crossbow says what?

This week sees some thought-provoking discussion about non-variable weapon damage. In his write-up, Coop champions the original D&D mechanic whereby all weapons do the same damage (i.e., a successful hit does 1d6, regardless of the weapon used). In later editions, this convention matured into the variable weapon damage that we're perhaps more familiar with.

Variable weapon damage always—intuitively—made more sense to me. It seems reasonable to expect that getting hacked by a long sword could do more damage than getting stabbed with a dagger. In the attrition-based combat abstract that is D&D, where hit points mean something slightly different to each group, variable weapon damage establishes one logical constant: some arms have the potential to take out opponents faster than others.

I have always been a staunch fan of this maxim, and, after reading Coop's well-reasoned argument, I still am. But the blog-talk on the subject leads me to consider why, and its proper place in the multiverse.

The Awful Truth

Variable weapon damage provides the most obvious differentiator between weapons. In turn, it promotes the idea of weapon restrictions for different classes. Fighters, who are good at fighting, can use any weapon, and thus have access to the full range of weapon damage potential. Magic-users, who are not good at fighting, can use only wimpy weapons, and thus have low weapon damage potential. But magic-users have spells, and fighters do not, so, in the heavy-handed way that establishes most D&D game balance, it all works out. On the plus side, it does an excellent job of preserving the archetype each class is meant to portray.

Coupled with each class' "to-hit" progression and the inherent limitations of hit points, which don't reflect the "wearing down" of a foe, stereotypes come easy. Fighters hit often, and they hit well, so they gravitate toward big-ass weapons that dole out much damage. Magic-users are Fantasy Nerds who can barely sheathe a dagger, let alone use it; when they do manage to connect, the next guy is already reaching for the d20. Better to use a spell, assuming they haven't all been forgotten.

The argument I'm stealthily forming here is that variable weapon damage actually reinforces class stereotypes. Without it, there's no mechanical way to equate class with damage potential.

But Gandalf Used a Sword

He did. It's true. And I endorse it. I also like the idea of clerics using whatever weapons their fighting order sanctions, or a thief using a crossbow. And, truth be told, it's dull when fighters choose weapons because of damage instead of style.

For reasons outlined above, these allowances were essentially purged from D&D with the adoption of variable weapon damage. From a story-telling, campaign-flavour perspective, that's unfortunate, because giving players a mechanics-free excuse to arm their characters with character-defining weapons is fun. It requires a bit more roleplaying, but that's the point.

And He Can Keep Using It, Too

While I like variable weapon damage, it's only within the context of what I perceive to be D&D's forced game-balance mechanics. Variable weapon damage doesn't solve any problems, but it does works well with the disease that is D&D combat.

But Gandalf did use a sword, damn it. And I want someone other than wizards to use the dagger again. So, what is the proper place for non-variable weapon damage?

Chimera, I think.

In Chimera, as in D&D, "to-hit" is based on the character's skill in fighting, but armour modifies damage taken, not the attack's success. When you score a hit in Chimera, you inflict a wound only if the damage roll is greater than the target's protection. Since there are no hit points, the accelerated attrition caused by variable weapon damage is no longer a factor.

Something in Coop's article struck me as highly right (paraphrasing): only the final blow is lethal. It's the same in Chimera. Your character can get all sorts of beat up, but when he falls, it's the final blow that seals his fate, determining his chances of being knocked out or becoming dead. In this sense, non-variable weapon damage works well: instead of chipping away at a foe's hit points (as in D&D), all you need to do is overcome your opponent's armour. It might take you a few rounds to bring down your foe (as in D&D), but by eliminating the baggage of variable weapon damage, you're freed up to give Gandalf back his sword.

How It Works

In the Crunch Department, Chimera weapons shake out thus:

  • Small weapons: Damage 1d4, Initiative +2; dagger, short sword, stiletto, javelin, club
  • Medium weapons: Damage 1d6, Initiative +0; long sword, mace, spear, short bow
  • Large weapons: Damage 1d8, Initiative -1, no shield; two-handed sword, polearm, boar spear, long bow, crossbow

To make the weapon damage model work well, here are the armour stats (PV is Protective Value, which is analogous to AC):

  • Light armour: PV +1, Encumbrance +0; leather, hide, furs, padded
  • Medium armour: PV +2, Encumbrance -1; chain mail, scale mail
  • Heavy armour: PV +4, Encumbrance -2; plate mail, ring mail

Note that armour protection is pretty much non-variable, just like weapon damage. Used as-is, this means that small weapons (Damage 1d4) are not effective against heavy armour (PV +4). However, there are ways around that in special circumstances (e.g., a Critical hit allows an extra die of damage, and there are certain character traits that increase damage as well).

Use the same damage model for other sources of hurt, like traps, burns, and beasts: small things do 1d4 damage, medium things do 1d6, and large things do 1d8. You could apply the same to spells, by having low-, mid-, and high-level spells do 1d4, 1d6, and 1d8 damage, respectively.

Final Words

I'm seeing some value to non-variable weapon damage, but not in the D&D space. When I dust off my RC campaign, I'm likely to keep variable damage.

But, I am going to incorporate non-variable damage into the upcoming Chimera Fantasy port, which will be a fertile proving ground for mechanics of this sort. If it works out, I'll ret-con the Core Rules.

What do you think?

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