Saturday, April 18, 2015

Differentiating Weapons in Flat Damage Systems

One of the interesting things about the Little Brown Books of 1970's D&D is how weapon damage and Hit Dice were modeled with flat D6 damage.  The difference between weapons was non-existent until the game embraced it's "alternate combat rules" and added varied damage and varied hit bonuses against certain types of armor, corresponding directly to certain Armor Classes in 1975's Greyhawk - booklet number 4.  The now standard variable damage and Hit Dice a rather large change that has been adopted wholeheartedly by the game, while the more complex weapon vs. armor rules are largely abandoned.  

I enjoy the simplicity and low HP totals that D6 hit dice and weapon damage provide, as the low values make combat more risky for players and far quicker.  The system seems to hold together better into the mid-level game as well with flatter damage and lower HP, as any attack has a good chance of removing a full Hit Dice from a creature or character.  With variable HD and damage low-level characters are more fragile (many monster and fighter attacks do D8 damage vs. lower Hit Dice totals) while higher level creatures are far stronger with their larger hit-dice.  Additionally I have a suspicion that injury from dungeon perils was never adjusted to be in line with the variable damage and HD system, and that D&D has carried the ad hoc nature of this change ever since.  My only real evidence for this is the way falling damage remained set at a D6 per ten feet up to the game's second edition.  Whatever the game balance advantages (real or imagined) of flat D6 Damage and Hit Dice  the simplicity of it and the way it flattens power levels of both monsters and characters is very appealing.  

I want to make player weapon choice matter however, without the fiddly weapons v. armor table or the implied vanilla fantasy setting it creates with its armor types.  It's been popular in the OSR/DIY/old-school D&D blogging community to discuss how to do this, to maintain the spirit of the Greyhawk weapon v. armor table, while using more interesting and simpler rules for some time.  I endorse this idea, and have tried to work varied additional effects into play during my games with the goal of providing combat options and spaces for some tactical decision making in purely narrative (that is without game boards/combat maps or tokens) combat. 

Having played in my OD&D based version of HMS APOLLYON for some time now I have discovered that the weapon effects are often ignored by players (and the GM) in the excitement of the combat turn, and that certain rules are less convenient/intuative to use. I have made some changes to the weapon effects/classes (originally pulled from several sources and authors) below, and I intend to use these categories for monster attacks as well, so the pincers of a Crayhound (horrible 1/2 lobster 1/2 dog beasts) will be crushing while the tentacles of a Roper are certainly and entangling attack.  

All attacks aboard the Apollyon, like all Hit Die, are D6 based.  A dagger in the hands of a skilled user is just as deadly as an axe and both do exactly the same damage. Only two handed/heavy weapons do more damage, inflicting 2xD6 pick the highest (what some call the advantage mechanic).  However, to make weapon choice interesting I have created the following categories of weapon which each have a different combat effect.

Common Weapons Aboard the HMS Apollyon
 Heavy weapons suffer a one point initiative penalty and require two hands or monstrous strength to use. These weapons inflict 2xD6 take the highest damage due to their size and power.  This category includes two-handed weapons, pole weapons and rifles.

Light weapons are generally less injurious than normal weapons doing D6/2 damage.  This includes improvised weapons such as clubs, furniture and torches, but also includes most throwing weapons like javelins, throwing knives and tomahawks when used in melee.  

Reach weapons can be used from the second rank of combat and may be 'set' to receive a charge, giving up an attack but allowing a reactive attack that does 2x Damage to the first charging attacker to enter the weapon's range (i.e. the attack need to be directed at the character with the reach weapon). Pole weapons and spears are reach weapons.

Close weapons may seem weak at first but when in the hands of a certain style of fighter they are exceptionally dangerous.  Close weapons allow the wielder to automatically hit each round while grappling.  The winner of the contested STR check that makes up a round of grappling may elect to break the grapple preventing close weapon damage that round, but if both combatants are armed with close weapons and the winner of the grapple chooses to remain in locked in the grapple both participants will take automatic weapon damage.  This category includes daggers, claw weapons like bagh naka, and the natural weapons of some non-human species and most monsters.

Weapons that can be used to interrupt an attack.  When attacked while wielding a reactive weapon the defender will receive an automatic attack before the attacker can complete their own.  If a defender is capable of multiple reactive attacks (with a pistol or if they are carrying thrown weapons in both hands for example) each attack after the first is at a cumulative -1.  Reactive weapons are often held in the off hand and include throwing knives, tomahawks and pistols.  Indeed, a reactive attack is the only way a pistol can be used in melee combat, though the ability of a multiple shot pistol to engage multiple attackers makes them very dangerous.

 Finesse weapons are handier and well suited to attack and defense.  These weapons allow the near effortless switch between styles of combat and allow a point for point trade of attack bonus and AC - making a offensive combat a +2 to hit/-2 AC and Defensive combat a +2 AC/-2 Hit rather then the normal +2 hit/-4 AC or +2 AC/-4 to hit. The ability to adjust these attack and defense values by greater amounts is increased by the "Duelist" sub-class available to fighters and Specialists. Stabbing and other light or medium swords, such as arming swords and sabers, are the most common finesse weapon (cleaver like weapons are generally "Overpowering" weapons).

 Heavy cleaving and cutting weapons allow a flurry of dangerous blows that will carry from one opponent to the next.  When a combatant lands a killing blow with an overpowering weapon they can immediately make an additional attack against a nearby opponent.  Boarding axes, cutlasses and falchions are the most common weapons in this class aboard the Apollyon. 

Crushing and penetrating weapons can mitigate the protection provided by heavy armor.  When attacking an armored foe these weapons reduce the enemy to a maximum AC of 16.  The effect of a crushing weapon will only work on opponents that depend on armor or armor like protection (shells, plating or chitin) for defense, and will have no effect on many otherworldly opponents such as devils and demons despite their lower armor class.  Maces and the ubiquitous 'war-crow' of the Scavenger's Union (a cross between a crowbar and a military pick) are both crushing weapons.

Entangling weapons are unpredictable and difficult to make attacks against as they slide around parries and allow unpredictable angles of attack.  Entangling weapons grant the wielder a +1 bonus to initiative to model their range and the difficulty of attacking an opponent armed with one.  Flails, chain whips and barbed nets are common entangling weapons - though monsters attacking with tentacles may also have this advantage. 


  1. @ GusL:

    Not sure I dig the "overpowering" category. It seems (please correct me if I'm mistaken) as a weapon-based method of modeling the "cleave" feat found in DND3...but the feat wasn't meant to model "flowing strikes," it was meant to model the comic book-y situation where the brawny warrior chops off two heads with one swing.

    "Reactive" weapons look a little problematic (i.e. "clunky") to use in actual play. "Finesse" looks like something to remain in the purview of the Duelist class, rather than ability possessed by anyone that picks up a saber (just my opinion).

    The "close" weapon rules look very interesting (and devastating!). I especially like how it would (potentially) change the look and feel of a knife-fighter. Do you have your grapple rules posted somewhere? Or is there a particular rule set/edition you're using for them?

  2. Overpowering is a cleave mechanic, but here I'm uaing it to provide a mechanical advantage to the most common class of weapons, it's a convienant benefit to remember and in a game with low HP totals I believe sufficently good. Skilled fighters will tend to have cleave skills from other sources, making axe use a thing for specialists, clerics and non-fighty fighters like engineers and rangers.

    Finesse is actually the only weapon trait that gets any use in the game currently and +4 /-4 is too powerful - in LOTFP or B/X I'd keep the higher bonuses. With very low atk bonus progression it's powerful enough I suspect. Remember also AC in OD&D as I read it maxes at 18/2.

    Reactive weapons are a bit clunky. Gotta see how they work.

    Close is good so far, but players have not taken advantage, except a flying monkey with natural close/light tooth attack. Need more monsters to grapple I think. Barbed Devils want to grapple I think.

    1. Oh my grapple rules are just developed from play. Defending party get free attack on grappler, grappler attacks. On success both parties lose any remaining actions that round. Next round roll contested strength, winner decides if the want to remain in grapple or not. Loser takes 1hp x rounds of grappling lost if winner is out to kill them.

      Stabbing into grappling parties is a hit on the allie with a roll of 8 or less.

      Everything else is ruled at the time.

  3. This is really cool. Why are pistols only reactive?

    1. Pistols are reactive, and like all guns do exploding damage. This is somewhat a mechanical limitation to keep them from overwhelming melee combat. The can be used at (short) range as well, but then suffer the 'firing into melee' penalty of injuring an ally on a '5' or less.

      I think I need to basically draft up my whole Apollyon combat system as unified document.

  4. Also - yeah I know the 'Boarding Pike' pictured is about 3' too short.