Monday, April 12, 2010

Weapons and 4E

Going to be nose to the grindstone this month, so odds are good that April is going to be full of fairly sparse posts. I'm still committed to writing every weekday, but my available time is going to finally force me to the kind of brevity I've been trying (and failing) to deliver.

So, today here's a small trick for 4e. By now, everyone knows that you can get a huge amount of mileage out of the existing material by reskinning monsters.[1] Similarly, it's not terribly hard to reskin races, powers or many other elements of the game. Because the mechanics are the bedrock of the game, you can make any change you want to the game provided you keep the mechanics unchanged.

So with that in mind, let me propose one fairly drastic reskinning: weapons.

Obviously, it's pretty easy to just invent new weapons that use the stats of existing weapons, but which look and feel different. I'm thinking of something a bit more profound: you can replace weapons entirely with weapon styles.

The idea of weapon styles is pretty simple: you describe them in terms of their color - dirty fighting, martial arts, schools of combat or anything else that seems appropriate. When you do, pick a particular weapon, and use those stats to represent the style. Whatever weapon they use, they'll use the stats of their base weapon.

For Example: The Pirate Style is based off the Rapier (D8/+3, Light Blade) and covers the range of pirate weapons: cutlasses, knives, hooks and belaying pins. Any time the character who is proficient in this style uses one of those weapons, it uses the stats of a rapier.

There are as many potential styles as there are weapons, and a character can use any style that uses the stats of a weapon he's proficient in.[2]

One of the real virtues of a system like this is that it allows a lot of diversity in a game where there is more uniformity of weapons (think Samurai, Roman or Martial Arts stuff) because it still allows a wide range of fighting. Plus, in terms of sheer fun, you get players able to pick the weapon they think looks most cool for their character (or best suits their mini) without stressing about the right weapon being one they don't like.[3] To my mind it also does a nice job of underscoring that it's the warrior that's dangerous, not the weapon.

Handling Special Cases
Dual Weapons - So you have a style in each hand. So long as that style is valid in the off hand, so be it.
Rogues & Daggers (and feats) - If a bonus applies to a weapon, it applies to the style based on the weapon.[4]
Magic Weapons - Given that magic weapon abilities are just layered on top of the weapon stats, there should be no real problems with that.[5]
Changing Styles - An interesting question: Can the character change styles midfight? I would totally say "yes" and just make the action equivalent to drawing a new weapon.
Kung Fu - Yes, you could do this to make an entirely martial arts game. Yes, that would be awesome. Yes that would also kind of undercut the monk. In my mind, that is too bad for the monk.

1- For the unfamiliar, this means using the stats of a monster but changing its description entirely to suit your needs. You need creepy shadow cultists? Use the Displacer Beast's abilities, and just describe the attacks as bolts of shadow or something similar. If you're not doing this, you'll be amazed to see how much easier it makes the GM's life.

2 - This means that characters can swap pretty freely among simple and martial weapons, and most of the interesting stuff is in the domain of Exotic Weapon Proficiencies

3 - That, by the way, reveals the really simple way to do this. When a character grabs a weapon, he picks its stats from anything of the same category. You want your dwarf to have an axe but with longsword stats? Done. You pick up an exotic weapon proficiency for your staff fighter and make staff stats match Bastard Sword stats? Done.

4 - Yes, this means dwarves and elves and other folks with those cool racial weapons get a little more flexibility, but honestly, they're already pretty twinky.

5 - A more ambitious model might be to tie the magic to the style (which is to say, to tie it to the character, so that the character learns "+2 Flaming" and anything he picks up bursts into flame and gets a +2 bonus. Instead of finding new weapons, he finds the runes to let him learn new "magical styles") but that's the tip of a MUCH bigger iceberg.


  1. Pretty much every time you write game theory and even little "fixes" it is fascinating. I haven't played D&D since it was AD&D, but this idea strikes me pretty golden. It seems to be the direction some other games are going, such as Mongoose's RuneQuest 2, and it is catching D&D up with more flexible games like FATE and PDQ# that already, in general, make it the warrior and not the weapon that gets the focus. I am pondering the limits of these kinds of styles as a matter of balance and credibility. On the one hand, I can see a brawler type wanting to have a style that is "Fight with anything", which, on the one hand, might seem to game the system. On the other hand, the fix might be to have the weapon "base" be something simple like a club or knife (broken bottle?), so while our bruiser could pick up the two handed great sword and swing it credibly, it responds differently than when swung under the deadly grace of a swordmaster and instead is just a real big club.

    I don't know enough about the ruleset in 4E to really visualize how it all works, but I really appreciate your explorations here.

    Great thoughts.

  2. @evan The brawler thing is a really interesting question, and I think it points to a key underlying question: how often will a character be separated from his weapon of choice?

    Now, certain classic modules depend on this idea (Slave Lords, I'm looking at you) and almost any game which includes robust disarming or weapon-braking rules assumes its a possibility, but 4E seems to have moved away from that thinking. Disarming and Sundering (both of which could be found in 3e) are now pretty much off the table.

    Mechanically, this makes a lot of sense - since 4E attack bonuses _assume_ that players have been getting magic items of the appropriate level, taking away a character's weapon (and the appropriate bonus) is much worse in 4E than it was in previous editions.

    So, yes, it can still happen in the rare case - Some monster abilities, for example, can remove weapons, and the question then becomes "In these rare situations, should the character be able to keep fighting at peak efficiency?"

    Given that we're talking D&D, the answer should be "Probably not", but we don't want it to be too big a penalty. After all, when this happens in fiction, the hero grabs a piece of debris and keeps fighting - that's what we'd really want to capture.

    Given that, I would probably suggest a sort of graceful degrading of styles. If your style operates as an Exotic weapon of type X, then using something outside of your style should be based off a martial weapon. If you use a martial weapon, then base it off a simple weapon. If you only have a simple weapon, then may keep using simple weapons because, hey, you suck enough as is.

    This does demand a little more rigidity of styles and definition of their boundaries, but for players who enjoy that sort of thing, that's probably more of a feature than a bug.

    -Rob D.

  3. I think the key thing I always take away from your writing is that simple mechanics and fun are paramount. Trying to "skin" secondary weapons or detailed modifiers for unfamiliar weapons used as substitutes seems more trouble than it's worth. If you work in a game where the general expectation is that you have your stuff when you go to the fight, the rare and dramatic occasion when that is not the case can be handled by some on the fly modifiers.

    I went to a DunDraCon many years ago and saw a talk by Larry DiTillio and he had a very different philosophy. He advocated always taking away the characters' stuff. He had most recently written for Chaosium then and using Stormbringer as an example, he said the players always came with characters loaded with enchanted demon weapons. His philosophy was step one if an adventure was send them to a demon plane where all their equipment escapes and the story is how to survive. Pretty adversarial, but if you had the expectation of doing a Slave Lords style adventure pretty often, it could be fun.

    I am more pleased with the advice packaged in S7S, SOTC and (here comes the plug) Dresden Files (as far as I have read in the reorder PDFs) that the game is about thw stories everyone wants to tell and play together. Still a DiTillio curve ball from time to time is no bad thing.

    Keep up the commentary and good luck with the busy month.


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