Sunday, 10 January 2010

OD&D Weapon Damage

(Written ages ago when I first played OD&D and recently found in an long-lost text file)

OD&D has all weapons do the same damage. d6.

On the surface of it this appears to lack all sense and is one of the things that seemed to vanish very quickly in the early days of RPGs. By the time I had the Red Box as a Christmas present things had changed - daggers and clubs did d4, hand-axes, maces and short swords did d6, swords d8 and two-handed swords and polearms d10. That always seemed more logical as polearms look more likely to do serious damage than a club does. We don't have the English term "poleaxed" for nothing...

WFRP adopted a similar-ish approach with it's Hand Weapon and Two-Handed Weapon concept, bundling weapons together based upon how many hands it took to wield. Hand Weapons did a base d6, Two-Handed d6+1 with a lesser class of daggers doing d4. Clearly WFRP's designers either didn't see a difference in the lethality of swords against maces or either didn't care or just didn't think it was worthwhile including.

We used d6 for all weapons in Friday's game [the first game of White Box we played - Coop]. Describe your weapon, it does d6. This led to a couple of house-ruled deviations from the printed rules. Magic-Users can only use daggers but since a dagger does the same as a greatsword, we ignored it and our Magic-Users equipped themselves with swords thus solving years of "But Gandalf was a Magic-User! No he wasn't he was a Cleric! Well they can't use swords either!" arguments in one fell swoop. Our Cleric decided to use a Lochaber Axe as well since mechanically it didn't make much difference.

(Actually that's not technically true. A blunt mace or hammer may strike for d6 and our Cleric's Lochaber Axe also strikes for d6 but it makes a difference when it comes to fighting denizens that resist sharp weapons or trying to break open a chest. A Magic-User defending himself will do d6 damage whether he has a little knife or a bastard sword but a knife can be used to try and pick a lock and a sword can't whereas prodding a suspect loose brick with a knife puts you much closer to it when the trap goes off than 5' of steel does. It's therefore important to know the dimensions and type of a PCs weapon but generally anyone can wield anything and it doesn't really matter. It also avoids the nonsense whereby a Magic-User, or Thief in later versions, stands there and dies because he couldn't pick up the fallen Fighting Man's sword because err... the rules forbid it.)

Maybe in the original Chainmail rules nobody cared. A footman was a footman and in a mass wargame set 1 hit = 1 casualty and there just isn't enough granuality possible there to suggest that a Roman gladius might be slightly less lethal than a landsknecht's dopplesword.

But I recently realised something important best phrased as a question.

What's more lethal - being killed by a dagger or being killed by a poleaxe?

To the corpse, it's an academic question.

But a non-lethal wound is worse from the latter than the former? So all the non-lethal blows should be worse from the poleaxe than they are the dagger?

Well not necessarily. Let's remember what D&D combat really represents. Hit Points are not a measure of bodymass and physical resistance to damage, at least not for humanoid characters. Huge beasts I accept will take many bloody wounds, each of which would topple a humanoid before they kark it. Only that last blow is important.

Hit Points instead measure the life expectancy of the characters "under fire". It's best viewed via a wargaming example. A battalion of 500 men of Napoleon's Old Guard will last longer under fire than 500 15-year old conscripts pressganged from French villages and told to stand on the border against the invading Allies. It's not that individual Grognards shrug off wounds better than the conscripts (cannon balls being no great respector of age or rank) but clearly the life expectancy under fire of the unit is greater. The Old Guard will take more volleys and charges than the conscripts will before that fatal blow to unit coherency happens and the battalion dissolves.

Hit Points work in similar fashion. Fredrich the Fifth Level Fighting Man has more Hit Points than Severus the Second Level Fighting Man. Fredrich's life expectancy under fire (which in our terms means melee and being attacked by the environmental hazards of the dungeon) is greater than Severus. He gets to make the dodges and turn little wounds into tiny nicks far longer than Severus. Perhaps the Gods favour Fredrich more for the months and years of adventuring that he has entertained them with.

As we know, only the last, fatal blow is the one that matters. And if it's fatal, it doesn't matter what weapon delivered the blow.

Imagine the Master Assassin facing his target armed with his trademark murdering stiletto. How many times does he need to strike the target before the target dies? In game terms probably only once. After all he's got a reputation to keep up. All but the last of his successful hits see the knife whistle past the target's ear, stab at thin air as the target leaps back, all the while lowering the targets "life expectancy under fire" (which we call Hit Points) but suddenly the target is hit, has nothing left in the tank and the single lethal blow arrives. 0hp.

That is why all weapons should stick to d6 hit points damage.


  1. It's certainly a compelling argument, and it quite nearly has me convinced. Oddly enough, while 1d6 For Everything has always struck me as a bit odd, I've never minded it in WFRP.

    Is that the Lone Wolf weapons chart, by the way?

  2. Wow, this...this makes an unprecedented amount of sense to me.

    It also suggests to me a house rule wherein a character of suitably-high combat prowess bumps up his or her weapon damage from d6 to d8 (maybe higher later on in the levels) to represent his or her exceptional ability to kick the target's ass.

    I, as Kelvin, am nearly convinced.

  3. I agree, and use d6 for all weapons as well... well, those wielded by PCs (and NPCs) that is. A giants club may do more for instance.

    However, I disagree with the "magic-users are limited to dagger, but since dagger does same as sword, let them use anything" concept.

    The reason certain classes were limited to certain weapons has nothing to do with the base damage of the normal weapon, but rather to limit access to powerful magic.

    Swords are clearly given more power when magical than other weapons (Ego, Special abilities, etc. whereas "daggers" usually provide a mere bonus to hit/damage).

    If you give magic-users access to all magical swords, you would have to give fighting men access to all other magic. Really, having access to all weapons and all armor is one of the benefits to playing a fighting man.

  4. I'm kinda conflicted about across-the-board d6 damage. Sure, I love it in (proper) WFRP, but that system had all those odd little modifiers and exceptions that made weapon choice meaningful.

    I suppose I'm just habituated to the idea that daggers slowly papercut you to death in D&D...

    @Dr Rotwang: Sham's "What Price Glory" mod did something interesting with d6-only damage and additional dice. Something like "highest roll = damage, +1 for each extra 6 rolled".

  5. I do think polearms and two-handers should do 1d6+1 damage, to make up for the loss of a shield.

  6. I think I've seen the +1 for two-handed weapons adopted in some places; I think Philotemy uses it in his house rules.

    I also recall something about dual-wielding; it's still a d6 for damage as above, but you roll two and pick one.

  7. Good post. :)

    I'm using the variable weapon damage rules, but characters can use any weapon they like... but their class limits the maximum size dice they get to roll for damage. So the wizard can run around with a greatsword if he likes - but it only does d4 damage. That makes picking the dagger still qmake a lot of sense for him.

  8. @kelvingreen: That's what I'm using as well ( Basic D&D: Choose Your Weapon), although it's a reroll if you want but take second result even if it's lower.

    I kinda like the *idead* of all the weapons doing d6... but I like rolling all the different size dice. :)

  9. Excellent post. A very logical presentation for uniform d6.

  10. Hit points and weapon damage in D&D have vexed me for as long as I have played this game.

    Sadly, there is no perfect solution, which is why it is tempting to keep it simple and make every weapon do the same damage.

  11. There is the issue of the magical sword. In 0d&d all swords are intelligent! Someone has a nice house rule floating about--philotomy I think, to the effect that the ego of an intelligent sword (i.e. all of them) is doubled in the hands of anyone but a fighting man.

    Otherwise you have the party's magic-user debating with himself if he wants to risk an alignment change by murdering the party's fighter in his sleep so he can get his mits on the sword, Glamdring that was found in a treasure pile that afternoon...

  12. Your explanation of Hit Points is among the most cogent and simple I've ever seen, and I will be using it when explaining the concept to new players.

    We have all medium hand weapons do 1d6 damage in my campaign and it works excellently.

  13. I was always under the impression that weapons did the same damage because it wasn't about how much physical punishment a weapon did, but IF the weapon struck somewhere vital. A knife to the heart or a longsword to the heart your dead. How likely the weapon was to score a deadly blow was the "to hit" roll.

    Thus a dagger might get a negative "to hit" modifier versus some armour types, while a two handed maul would gain a bonus "to hit".

    A fatal blow is fatal either way, but it was easier to score such a hit with a maul against someone in plate, so the maul got a bonus to hit and the dagger a penalty. BUT, if you scored said hit, it was just as deadly either way.

    That was my understanding.

  14. Yeah, I already came to the conclusion that having a bigger weapon does not improve lethality...skill by profession does! I use variable damage by class, rather than by weapon and anyone to fight with anything they want. But if I was NOT doing that, D6 by weapon would seem the next logical choice. It is the default game play mode for B/X play anyway.

  15. Otherwise you have the party's magic-user debating with himself if he wants to risk an alignment change by murdering the party's fighter in his sleep so he can get his mits on the sword, Glamdring that was found in a treasure pile that afternoon...
    Sounds fine to me!

  16. Yes, IMHO weapons were all designed to deliver the same lethality, but to different kinds of armor. Why would you want to do more than d6 against a human? If you use the wrong weapon against the wrong armor, you should have a harder time scoring a meaningful hit.

  17. The problem with all weapons doing the same damage is that the larger the weapon, the greater the liability.

    Why use a two-handed sword, and give up the chance to improve my AC with a shield, when a short sword does the same damage?

    For that matter, why a short sword?

    Daggers can be concealed, and can be thrown.

    In short, there is a fair amount of rhyme and reason to variable weapon damage.

  18. in my humble opinion,
    weapon damage not only measures the force of the blow, but the weapon's reach, quickness and parry ability.

    Hence a spear held in two hands (d8) is much more lethal than a club (d4) or a fist (d2)

    One could make special rules for parry, reach and 1st strike capacity, but it is easier to assign greater weapon damage to the more EFFECTIVE weapon.

    more weapon damage = greater survivability in combat

    if you dont believe me;
    grab a laddle (dagger) and challenge your friend with a broom (spear)to a pretend fight . . . then count how many times your friend hits you with the straw (spear tip) for each time you whack him with the laddle (blade)

  19. @Clovis
    That makes more sense if armour absorbs damage.

    However, in reality, the other chap's armour changes the way you fight; either you go around the armour, or set up a situation when you can deliver a much mightier blow. With both solutions, armour makes it harder to hit, and additional lethality is wasted.

  20. true zornhau,
    but weapon quickness & reach are still paramount,

    as this allows you to land blows that distract, unbalance and daze your opponent (reduce his hitpoints)before you land the final killing strike

    striking a helmet with a hammer is better than striking with a wooden club, as the hammer (more impact) is more likely to cause stunning or dazing even though there might be no loss of consciousness

  21. Ah, that's interesting. There were two handed clubs which were probably as good at *hitting* plate as polehammers - i.e. they don't glance and all the energy goes into the target. However, one would expect them to do less damage - tending to stun on the first blow, rather than slay. I'm guessing that they handled better than a polehammer.

  22. Using your own argument, Greatswords should do more damage than a daggers because your life expectancy while under greatsword attacks is shorter than when you are under dagger attacks.
    Really, if you are attacked by a fighter wielding a zweinhander, and you are a chump, you are probably dead after the first blow, cut in half or beheaded. A dagger blow wouldn't kill you instantly, on average.

  23. Yes it would! That's what they're designed to do. The snag is that you have to get very close and more or less wrestle.

    Getting close to the guy with the twohander is unrealistic, if you're in the open. In a confined space, things might go the other way.

  24. here are my thought's on the topic:

  25. I keep thinking that sometime I’m going to take the Chainmail man-to-man table and use that as a starting point. It needs to be expanded for some “natural” weapons á la classic Traveller. Some of the numbers could use some tweaking if you don’t use the “weapon class” rule too. I don’t care for the “weapon class” rule, but I’d like something along the same lines. (Seems like Hârnmaster had something good there.) I’d also be tempted to expand it to support two-weapon combinations being treated as a unit.

    For RPGs, though, I generally would rather gloss over all that stuff. To me, it then comes down cost:benefit. If weapons have different prices, then what differences are there to justify those prices? The hands issue plays into that analysis as well.

    The answer might not always be mechanical. (Like the parenthetical paragraph mentions.)

    Anyway, I like either universal-d6 damage or class-based damage, but I still struggle with the cost:benefit issue. I want to encourage the players to choose the weapons that fit their character idea rather than being tempted to go club-and-shield because it’s mechanically the best option.

  26. Zweihander intrinsically more lethal than a dagger? I don't think that's true. They were specifically designed for chopping off enemy pikeheads as a way of neutralizing enemy pike phalanxes, not as anti-personnel weapons--far too cumbersome and easy to avoid.

    If they were really so much more effective, every infantryman from Ancient to Napoleonic times would be wielding TH weapons.

    Thanks for the thread. This has helped clarify my own thinking on the issue: D&D's combat abstraction isn't well suited (in my mind) to try and model the situational tactical choices that would make variable wepaon dmg make real sense.

  27. its really very nice i like them all thanks for sharing this with us.

  28. @ Charles Ferguson

    By this argument we should just still fight with clubs. Easy to make, easy to hit, will still kill people.

    The argument boils down to armor.

    A Zweihander is unsuitable to fight an unarmored, unarmed oponent, because a longsword will kill an unarmored opponent just the same but easier, since you don't need to carry the extra weight, still have the reach advantage, and don't need the extra training. People used swords as backup weapons instead of knives until very recently. Nowdays they use knives because a soldier can't afford to carry all his equipment, his firearms, his ammo and a cumbersome sword on top of it all, but if it comes down to his knife and he faces off a guy with a sword he surely would prefer to be the one with the sword.

    As armors evolved certain weapons became lacking. Maces, Warhammers and Flails gained popularity in the late middle-age because they still delivered a good enough blow underneath a plate-chain-leather layer since they're weapons based on impact, not perforating flesh. The shortsword became mostly worthless against armored opponents and longswords gained weight to have a chance cutting through the metal and reaching the flesh.

    Against a knight in full-plate, virtually impervious to lesser bladed melee weapons, a Zweihander seems much more appealing. Polearms based on the added weight to the strike rather than the increased reach also became popular. You needed the weight of a Zweihander or poleaxe to cut through such an armor without it being a chore. Maybe D&D got it backwards, and armor should provide hit points while levels should provide AC...

  29. I think it also depends on having room to move. Lightly armoured guys with no room to dodge would be in trouble against heavy weapons.

    And, with heavier weapons, the heaviness only really becomes an issue after the first strike.

    You can't quite equate AC with hit points, because - for example - a pick might be better at penetrating armour but less likely to do as much damage as an axe.

    If you average out the fluctuations of advantage over time, you probably end up with weighted rock-paper-scissors interactions between troop types, where the distinction between weapons blur into categories.

    However, individual warriors are like financial day traders, exploiting these fluctuations.

    Suppose you have two weapons that do the same damage within a set period:

    Weapon A hits most of the time, but does little damage.

    Weapon B hits rarely but is devastating when it does.

    From a wargame perspective, these are functionally identical.

    However, from an RPG perspective, they should not be, since they can produce a radically different shape to the combat.

    For example, party is pursued down a tunnel. A sa ingle enemy blocks the exit. Only an instant kill will save everybody from being slaughted by irrate goblins. Good job the fighter up front has Weapon B....

  30. Longer discussion here:

  31. I found this through Grognardia. These are all good observations but I have something to add to it all. In OD&D a combat round was not actually one attack with a weapon but a minute of fighting. Sure the 2-handed weapon will deal a lot when it hits but a dagger will be able to hit more in that minute to make up for it. The idea of a round equaling an attack is a problem with the preconceived view of the granularity of fighting and not the system itself.

  32. Good point.
    However, shouldn't the weapons interact? The dagger guy has to get past my two handed sword - this will rather cramp his style.

  33. All very interesting arguments... It's been a long time since I played AD&D or 2E, i've been focusing more on roleplay-oriented RPGS (White Wolf, 3.5 and 4th ed D&D, BESM) lately. but really, in the end, it depends on your interpretation of hit points. Personally I think every class should have the same hit points, but get bonuses to dodging or countering attacks that correspond to their class. For example, while a mage may not be able to take as much physical punishment as a warrior, they are certainly more adept at countering spells and such, which makes it seem unbalanced if they have drastically fewer hit points than warriors, if spells and swords are damaging the same hit points. Of course, that's where saving throws and such come in, but it seems to make more sense to streamline hit points as well if you're going to streamline weapon damage.

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  35. Thanks for writing this, it was interesting and food for thought.

    I do like the idea of all weapons doing the same amount of damage -- that way you're free to choose a weapon you like, without worrying about how it looks (with a +1 damage for two handed to make up for no shield). However, I also think that a fighter should be better and *faster* at taking enemies down than a mage (it's not like they get much else apart from more HP and better AC), so I prefer to stick to the class die.

    The class die gives the fighter something worthwhile, it allows you to choose whatever weapon without worrying about how it works, and it gives you the chance to play with all those polyhedrals you bought and have lying round.