May 20, 2009

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Part 3 - The Sword vs. the Sledgehammer

Towards More Cinematic Gaming: Part 3 - The Sword vs. the Sledgehammer

#1:   Two level 3 fighters square off:  One is carrying a longsword the other a warhammer.  Both are completely unarmored and equally specialized in their weapon.  Who wins?  the longsword, it does 1d8!

#2:   OK now the same but a shortsword vs a two handed warhammer, both remain unarmored. Who wins?
Definitely the great hammer! it does 2d4 and gets strength and a half!

#3:   Now the swordsman is wearing full plate armor, the great hammer remains unarmored. Oooh tough one. but full plate is awesome so that makes up for the less damage! The swordsman should win!

#4:   This time they both have tower shields and chainmail. One has a bastard sword and the other traded his greathammer for a shortsword. Well bastard sword is better so it woudl win.


FYI this is one of the issues that bother me most about D&D.  Please ignore any rhetoric I leak out. Lets go through the examples.

#1: Maybe.  Probably come downs to luck.

#2: Wrong. The shortsword is a much faster weapon, and the large hammer heavyer and easyer to dodge. Since they are unarmored, they are less vulnerable to the slow sledgehammer and more vulnerable to the laceration/penetration of the short sword.

#3: Wrong. In fact the heavy plate armor makes them more vulnerable to the sledgehammer since it makes you much slower. Hammers do all their damage as concussive crush injuries which plate armor is woefully too thin to stop.  All the heavy armor has done has made him easyer to hit, and have a harder time attacking, while doing little to protect him from the hammer.

#4: Wrong. The shortsword of the gladius makes a thrust the only effective maneuver; but doign so penetrates chainmail. Swinging a large sword is slower; chainmail and shield are ideally suited to stopping a slashing attack. 

So why is it that the longsword is so popular in D&D? Same reason it was with the Gauls and with nobles. Swinging a big sword looks cool and makes you feel powerful. In fact it was a fairly uncommon weapon in medievil history not only becasue of the cost, but becasue it penetrates armor poorly.

What does D&D do to balance armor penetration, speed, and damage of a weapon? Incomprehensibly very little.  Why is it important?  Doing so brings more diversity, choices, and cinematic outcomes into combat that are built into the rules and not the whim of the GM.  From a player perspective that ususal equals more fun.

Fortunately there are some very easy solutions that dont slow combat down significantly.  For the life of me I cant figure out why one of them was not implemented into D&D4E. These are just a few I have used in my games; please share with me what you have used in yours. Warning: this gets very house-rule-heavy:

Method #1 (easy, fast): You get wider critical hit range when your opponents armor is vulnerable to your weapon type. Similary, you cannot get a critical when your opponents armor specifically protects against your weapon type. No need to think it out ahead of time; but if a player rolls high, say 16 - 19, then the GM can consult a similar chart:

- Unarmored: WEAK vs: slashing and piercing. STRONG vs: very heavy or slow weapons.
- Chainmail: WEAK vs: blunt and piercing (historically true, despite hopes to the contrary). STRONG vs: slashing.
- Plate: WEAK vs: blunt, grappling, and pole-arms (they cant dodge well, and a polearm generates such mechanical energy no armor can adequately stop it). STRONG vs: slashing and piercing.
- Shields: WEAK vs: grappling. STRONG vs: slashing against a single opponent.
- Tower Shield: WEAK vs: grappling, STRONG vs: everything on a given facing.

Method #2 (a lot more 'real' but a bit slower): Armor is damage reduction. ie instead of chainmail being AC 4, it is DR4.  Specific weapons have individual Damage Penetration values, ---> Those that dont can make called shots, critical hit, or grapple to bypass armor.

Some theoretical examples:
- A warhammer would be d4, but have 8 points of damage penetration (DP), (thus it exactly negates plate armor.)
- A shortsword would be d6 with DP 3 if the player is trained/specialized in its use.
- A longsword would be d10 but without damage penetration.
- A player using a Shield can opt to force a single opponent to re-roll an attack, or give a bonus to parry.
* dont forget your strength bonus and specialization bonuses

(modern examples)
- a typical firearm has some degree of damage penetration
- a shotgun would be high damage without any damage pentration
- a sniper rifle would afford the user free called shots after a full round of aiming.

Although rules such as these seem onerous, they arnt much more data than is already lisrted in the extensive item charts in D&D4E. Since it all can be charted, it is just a matter for the DM to keep track of them.
Method 2 can be carefully balanced to any probability of outcome, but would require quite a bit of DM time to go through all the weapons, armor, and monsters. Method 1 is a lot more usable right away, however, so I would recommend that method first.

Of course there is also Method #3: Your Method. Please share with us!

- Tom W

Qualification: you'll have to trust me that my occupation gives me a lot of experience with injuries.


  1. Some interesting idea's here. I think 4e does take this into consideration with the proficiency bonus. While this system isn't perfect and doesn't consider what a mace would do to platemail vs what a long sword would do it does work. The problem with implementing systems like this is that they have a tendancy to slow down game play.

    However, I do think it would be fun to see the fighter sporting all sorts of different weapons depending on what type of foe he was facing.

  2. Cool ideas. I think you could also include movement rules with bigger weapons which might balance things out some. Huge hammers and swords have a lot of momentum meaning once you're swinging you're going the same direction the weapon is. Wheras with a knife, gladius, or hatchet, you can move laterally while attacking, go up, down, backwards... meaning the guy with the light weapon can sidestep and go spelunking for internal organs while mr big-axe is still discovering the down-side of inertia as his flank is exposed.

    Great ideas though I like to go one further and get rid of hit-points myself. They annoy me.

  3. An interesting step would be to make creatures vulnerable or resistant to damage from the different weapon groups.

  4. I like what you are getting at but I think that you have to keep it simple if you want to give it the mass appeal that WOTC require.

    I would be fairly easy to do something based on the concepts already in the game, like heavy versus light armour.

    For example:giving

    * hammers and picks a generic +2 to hit opponents in heavy armour.

    * staffs the defensive bonus

    * spears +2 to charge or receive a charge.

    * polearms slightly more damage or some DR penetration.

    They aren't big bonuses but they are enough to encourage players to take a wider range of weapons. Hopefully the bonuses in someway reflect the real world value of the weapons.

    Still what they have done is a big improvement over how it was in 3rd ed.

  5. "Qualification: you'll have to trust me that my occupation gives me a lot of experience with injuries."

    This is true, not many people know that Tom makes his living fighting hobos.

  6. Good Post. I really like AC as DR, but am worried how it would play out in 4e. I think it might work, but I'd love to hear some first hand accounts.

    One thing I do want to take exception with. "So why is it that the longsword is so popular in D&D? Same reason it was with the Gauls and with nobles. Swinging a big sword looks cool and makes you feel powerful."

    I am no historian, but I do not think that is why the Gauls and nobles used long blades.

  7. Very good points... a little balance of AC vs. DR as suggested may work, but to be honest the amount of fighting with unarmored, non-magicked human opposition in most games I read about is so small as to make this a non-issue. The ideas presented could lead to some very interesting choices when it comes to various classes...

    I actually had a group which relied on staff defense and heavy armor in one of my campaigns. It was... interesting to say the least :).



  8. Interesting Post. Most games seem to have this or a similar problem. What's interesting is that AD&D did actually address some this. Each weapon was give a a weapon speed, which was universally ignored. So much so, that I can't find a reference to how it was used. I know some optional initiative systems would use them in some manner. I also know that AD&D had an optional list of modifiers of weapons against certain types of Armor. Again, this was generally ignored. In both cases for better or worse people find these things too complex. Which is why I think most games tend not model such things.

  9. Interesting ... I'd like to know your sources for weapon vs. armor. I have been tackling some of the weapon balance issues from here on in my old school-focused blog.

  10. Unfortunatley I have one of the worst memories in existence so I cant give you specific book titles off of the top of my head, but I suggest ancient classical Roman writings, as well as writings from the dark ages after the fall of the western roman empire. I would start with Gibbon and go from there. He is a great historian and is excellent about pointing out his specific sources.
    Alternatively just get any picturebook on classical armor and weapons in the greek and roman period. There are countless descriptions about the benefits of the gladius over the long (calvary) sword, and of the mobility of a mobile soldier with a short sword vs the heavily armored phalanx pikemen. The Roman choice of the gladius after the Marius reforms was based on is its speed and armor penetration.
    Also on wikipedia look up body armor and bullet proof vests. many of the links join with modern attempts at combined bullet proof / stab proof vests which apparently is excruiciatingly difficult to do. They comment on how essentially the only thing that protects against a dagger stab is thin armor steel plate, which unfortunately is not bullet proof (AK-47's for example can penetrate 1/4' thick armor steel). Ceramic reinforced kevlar is bullet proof but cant stop a sharp dagger which actually is quite effective at cutting through the fibers.

    FInally just following the arms race of weapons vs armor through the medieval perior gives more food for thought; how plate was quite effective against most weapaons other than a crossbow, and how as armor got heavyer there was a rapid trend towards picks, hammers, halberds, billhooks, and lucern hammers as these were much more effective at penetrating heavy plate; (grappling aside ie the battle of aguincourt)

    Tom W

  11. Hey Tom!

    How about more of Your promised RPG mechanic's analysing?
    I've found Your posts extremely interesting and would love to read more (especailly as me and y friends are running similar discussions about a dream RPG mechanics).


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