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Sunday, June 16, 2013

More on Combat Modifiers

Charles has some comments on my combat modifications post that I felt were worth a longer answer than a mere comment would allow for.
I know you don't care about historicity or verisimilitude much, but polearms, spears, maces, and axes were the weapons of choice against a heavily-armoured man.
It's not so much that I don't care about historicity or verisimilitude, but that I don't believe many of the claims about what's "historically accurate" and I don't care about making mechanics that fit those claims. I'm mainly looking for combat mechanics that fit these criteria:
  1. Weapons seem different,
  2. Each is good at different times,
  3. There are hardly any rules specifically implementing 1 and 2, and
  4. They're easy to remember.
Hence, what I suggested involves swapping two numbers and occasionally adding +/-2.
Disallowing polearms and spears from having a bonus against armour removes one of their main historical benefits from the game system.
Tom Hudson said almost the exact opposite on a previous post about this. "poleaxe = good against plate, but spear = not so much". This is because my previous post had a straight bonus equal to weapon length, so a seven-foot spear turned plate armor into leather.

See, that's the thing: Every time someone tells me that historically X is true, there's someone else telling me X is not true. So, unless I've seen an actual experiment comparing penetration effects of various weapons vs. armor, I go with my own gut instinct. And my gut instinct is: a spear is a knife on a stick. Stabbing/slashing weapons don't have increased force if attached to a longer shaft; they just have a longer reach. It's the hacking/bashing weapons that have increased force.

On the +2 vs. shields modifier for Axe, Flail and Chain weapons:
So if I'm fighting someone, and they have an axe, I'm better off dropping my shield than using it? That can't be right.
This modifier is based on the mathematical analysis that Simon Bull (waysoftheearth on the ODD74 boards) did on the Weapon vs. AC table. Ax and Flail are basically +2 vs. shields on those tables. This is also loosely based on the idea that axes were popular because they chopped through wooden shields easier than a sword did. Also, you'd certainly be better off focusing on dodging an ax than trying to block it with a shield that's going to be hacked to bits. That's a minor in-game justification, but since the goal is something minimalist that's in between the traditional Weapon vs. AC system and "all weapons are the same", it seems reasonable.

You do have other options, though. What about a shield bash? What about striking to disarm?
On the shortest weapon going first if Dex scores are tied:
This kinda assumes that the combatants are too stupid to keep at their weapons preferred reach - unless you're grappling or in an enclosed space, it's always going to be better to have a spear than a dagger.
But on the other hand, are we assuming that combatants are too stupid to try to get inside an opponent's reach? Too stupid to knock the spear aside with their shield? It balances out. We're talking one minute rounds with multiple attacks and feints represented by a single die roll. Smaller weapons are faster, so they go first if Dex is tied. Longer weapons are slower, but give the option to try to maneuver outside the opponent's reach.


  1. One way to look at is that the warrior is using the weapon b/c he is good with that weapon. When he wants to kill someone he uses the weapon he likes to kill with. So the Viking with the axe and the Norman with the longsword are both killers armed with their weapons of choice. They are both going to kill you - or one another. Only their relative skill (and luck) can determine who kills whom.

  2. From years of beating people with marttial arts weapons and fake fighting with padded weapons: At the start of a fight the ready combatant has the advantage. In the open the combatant with the longer weapon has a strong advantage. Shields are much more useful then they are in D&D and related games. Polearms and spears are hard to use indoors (flails and large swords tend to hit wall and ceiling when you don't want them to also). Weapons are targets for weapons strikes also Shields are a decent offensive weapons up close. Get a man off his feet and you win. Close fights go to ground quickly. Hitting people with force tends to knock them down or knock them away. Accounting for all of that with specific rules could be cumbersome. Getting players to recognize and utilize conditions 1 and 2 above would be great.

  3. JDJArvis makes some good points, but I think based on your original idea of having a variety feel in your campaign PLUS your idea that certain weapons should be used at certain times is better when you look at the historic uses of weapons.

    First, Most weapons in medieval times were a direct modification of farming implements. A great example is the flail, it was used to thrush (beat) grain to separate the germ or some shit. The advantage of the flail is that you can not block it, so if a fighter with a flail would definitely make a shield worthless. Because, of the way the flail was used when a person raised a sword or a shield to block the flail they would usually would block the main club and the flail would then whip around and strike them anyway. this is why taped sticks are illegal in most states, because when they break they become a flail, and cops cannot block a flailing weapon with there baton.

    Second, the spear was used mainly against the Calvary charge, as were most pole arms. JDJArvis makes a good point a 15' halberd is not a very good weapon to have in a dungeon with say a 10' ceiling. However on open terrain the spear (or pike) can be used to great effect coupled with slingers/bowman. A great example of this is the bayonet. when the musket became the weapon of choice for soldiers a new formation called the pikeman's square was made, it alternated 15-20' pikes with a rifleman. The pikes were set to take the charge and allowed the musketeers to fire semi-unmolested. Some general thought if i could mount a blade at the end of my muskets i could double the number of muskets and pikes. And Bam! the bayonet was born.

    And finally an axe can be made to have a cutting/slashing head (google the bearded axe for other uses of the axe), and the opposing side can have a pick. This makes the axe a somewhat more versatile weapon then say a sword, as the slashing cutting side can be used against leather or softer armors, and the pike can be used to pierce plate armor like a can opener.

    And finally in the 1st edition rules all weapons have adjustments by armor class (type) to reflect that sometimes its better to bash a plate mail wearer with a hammer then smack him with with a sword. a dent in armor is just as deadly as if you penetrated it with a blade. Plus it allows for the lost of dexterity bonuses due to the discomfort of ill fitting armor, etc.

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  5. I commented on this, but it started getting really egregiously long - this is a really great post, Talysman - lots to unpack.

    Part 1 (this clearly struck a nerve) of my response can be read at:


    But to address the commenters:
    "Most weapons in medieval times were a direct modification of farming implements."

    False. Most weapons were special purpose implements - the sword, the battle-axe, the spear, the mace, the poleaxe, etc.

    The military flail (i.e. ball on chain on stick) has very limited evidence of being an actual historical weapon, btw.

    Even weapons like the Bill, that started out as farm implements, were quickly specialized and adapted to be pure weapons.

    "Second, the spear was used mainly against the Calvary charge, as were most pole arms."

    False. The spear was a versatile and powerful weapon, as were most polearms - definitely superior to the sword, for instance, in single combat.

    " JDJArvis makes a good point a 15' halberd is not a very good weapon to have in a dungeon with say a 10' ceiling."

    While polearmes are indeed pretty useless in a dungeon, a minor point - a halberd is only 6' tall, not 15.

    "This makes the axe a somewhat more versatile weapon then say a sword, as the slashing cutting side can be used against leather or softer armors, and the pike can be used to pierce plate armor like a can opener."

    But you sacrifice defensiveness - the axe is more difficult to move around and less nimble than a sword. And a sword has a tin-opener point right on the end, too - you just have to move one hand up to the blade to get full use of it.

    Also, some swords were made with sharpened crossguards, to facilitate either quick punches with the guard close-in, or reversing the sword to swing it like an axe by gripping the blade with both hands.

  6. This is my opinion as someone who actually studies the use of medieval weapons in the context of killing a man in armor.

    The following will primarily deal only with the context of attacking a body that is in plate armor, mail is defeated mainly though brute force, plate requires more finesse mixed with brutality.

    Weapons aren't used to punch through plate armor, unless you are mounted and that is only because HORSE.

    The armpits, groin, eyeslit/face, palms of the hands and back of the gauntlet were the targets when in armor.
    Spears were great on foot.
    Swords were good on foot.
    Pollaxes were better on foot because it has two spear points, a hammer for percussive blows, and either an axe blade or a bec de faucon, used for hooking and tripping, the axe blade was also good for chopping less armored people on a battlefield.
    Daggers were good on foot.
    Most single combats between men in plate ended on the ground, grappling about to pin your foe down so you can jam a dagger someplace nasty.

    Hafted weapons, spears and pollaxes, were wielded in thirds, the common, if erroneous, manner quarterstaves are depicted as being wielded, when in single combat.

    Pollaxes are surprisingly nimble weapons that don't really make you less easy to defend yourself with, bearing in mind that historically a pollaxe was wielded by a man who was armored head to toe in plate and were thus depending on both his armor and his skill to defend himself.

    As for a spear being superior to a sword in single combat, if this was the case why was it frequently depicted as being hurled at the beginning of a judicial duel before closing in with the sword?

    And all of this only really applies to single foot combat from the late 14th to 15th centuries. It is a much too narrow scope to try to apply it to a game that covers from migration era to the age of exploration.

    What does this mean for a DnD-clone? Not really all that much. DnD combat is so abstracted in so many different ways that it would a monstrous undertaking to shoehorn realistic single combat into it, instead of trying to keep things simple and more heroic.

  7. I feel Thomas made a great point, you can not judge what may have happened in the 15th century as to what happened in 12th, or even the 17th. Weapons changed as the armor changed, if you look at the formations of the roman legion circa the first century AD. they use large shields, short swords, and spears in a phalanx formation. The formation did very little to withstand a Calvary charge that's why the Calvary was so devastating until the arquebus and then the musket.

    But as I mentioned in my post, in the 1st edition PHB i have, there is a table on page 38. this table shows the various bonuses a weapon gets by armor class type. Here is an example the spear is -2 against AC2 -1 for AC3 to 5 and 0 to all others. Contrast this to Two Handed Sword which is +2 to ac 2 thru 5 and +3 to AC 6 to 8 and +1 to AC9 and 0 to AC10.

    Each weapon was designed for a specific purpose, the Pole Arm in general was used to fight opponents on horseback, that is why they have the hooks like the Guisarme that were used to pull a rider from his horse.

    The original post was stated to try and make weapons more interesting and less like window dressing. Why spend gold on a weapon that will do the same damage as a club? because that weapon may be better at slaying specific monsters. a 23 foot awl pike is a much better weapon to use against a flying creature then a long sword or even a two handed sword. The spear was a devastating weapon that was not necessarily meant to be thrown (the javelin is a different story), but the Pole arm was an improvement on the spear. Also you must remember that if your trying to keep things "historically accurate" which was NOT the point of the original post as I read it. Spears were easier and cheaper to make and they were invented before the pole arm and even Plate mail. when the spear was made people were running around in scale armor and chain mail, hell the Greeks may have even use linen as an armor material.

    I think the original post had a great idea to make some weapons have a purpose that was overlooked in the OD&D rules, My post was to show that in the 1st edition Gary Gygax had agreed and actually added those modifiers.

    1. I actually think trying to come up with ways to make the weapons different, interesting and worth using for those differences to be a good idea. DnD is after all a game, and one that generally rewards players for making interesting choices.