Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Right Tool For the Right Job

Alt Title: "When All You Have is a Warhammer . . ."

The first character I ever played was a cleric named (I think--I've been trying to remember for weeks) Argos of Apollodan. I remember rolling him up at the tender age of 10, not even knowing what a cleric was, just that they could repell the undead, would later get spells, could wear whatever armor they wanted . . . and couldn't use bladed weapons for whatever reason.

"So what should I get instead?"

"How about a mace?"

I had a vague idea of what a mace was from having read The Lord of the Rings a few months before, so I bought that and off I went.

For the first several years of my gaming life, the mace seemed an odd weapon created solely for the use of clerics. If you were a fighter, you carried a longsword or two-handed sword (depending on whether you wanted to forego a shield), along with a spear for blocking charges and a dagger for backup. The mace did less damage and just seemed all-around less heroic than the sword.

Of course, as I got older and more knowledgible of history, I eventually learned why weapons like the mace, warhammer, and war pick were invented, and why they were mostly prevelant in Medieval Europe, where armor-crafting became a rather advanced science: They were for getting past plate armor.

In fact, the reason Europe stayed with the straight sword-blade instead of creating curved blades like the Middle- and Far-East was not because of a deficiency in their smithing abilities (as proved by armor-crafting so advanced that Japanese Daimyos were known to import plate armor if they could afford it), but because while a light, curved blade with a razors edge (like a katana, sabre, or scimitar) is wonderful against lightly armored or unarmored opponents but lacked the same ability to penetrate chain and plate that a straight-edged blade did (especially in precision thrusts into narrow vulnerable points in the armor).

OD&D (white box and previous) presents pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach to weapons, with everything inflicting d6 dmg. This is not actually a bad abstraction since all weapons have trade-offs, but it does mean that a clumsy mace is just as effective against a nimble, unarmored opponent as a light saber, while that saber can cut through plate armor just as well as the mace.

AD&D attempted to set matters to right by creating a complex set of tables giving not only weapon damage, but the space needed to effectively wield the weapon and bonuses and penalties to hit based on the target's armor class. While this may have added historical realism, it was so cumbersome that nobody, Gary Gygax included, used them on a regular basis.

Second edition tried to simplify these attack modifiers, but did so in an optional rule that was simply overlooked by many groups. It also failed on a certain front that 1st edition had previously: The tables gave to-hit adjustments included only humanoid armor types (light, medium, and heavy), so all weapons remained equally effective against all monsters except for damage.

Rather than add a new table into my game, I've simply assigned a few weapons minor modifiers to attack rolls: Maces and warhammers get a +1 to hit against medium armor types (e.g., chainmail) and a +2 against heavy (e.g., plate). Battle axes, longbows, and crossbows get a +1 against medium or heavy. Any kind of sword can be given a curve that increases its damage range by one die (e.g., a curved longsword uses a d10 instead of a d8 for damage), but which comes at a cost of -1 to hit medium armor and -2 to hit heavy.

No new tables, just a few notes on certain weapons. I wonder how many fighting-men will start carrying a mace or battle-axe as a backup weapon when facing armored knights or metal golems?

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