Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Golf Bag Tactician

There's an interesting question over at Rob Schwalb's D&D blog about whether weapon damage should be typed. In practice this would mean that weapons might do, say, "slashing" "bludgeoning" and "piercing" damage, and implicitly removing entirely the idea of "untyped" damage from the system.

This is, on the surface, a kind of compelling idea (and fans of GURPS and some other games are going "Well, DUH!"). It adds another dimension to weapon selection so characters stop gravitating to the same sets of weapons. Heck, it could even inspire play: when your fighter is faces with an oozy opponent who ignores his slashing attack, he might be forced to grab an improvised weapon to finish the fight. That's cool, dramatic and thematic! A total win!


The reality is that the fighter is just going to carry around 3 weapons, one of each type.[1] The opportunity cost of doing so is fairly low (encumbrance? for a fighter? I laugh!) and the payoff is high enough to allow it. Or if the payoff isn't high enough, then it hardly matters, does it?

This is one of those unfortunate design traps that I like to call Golf Bag Tactics. The idea actually has its roots in D&D, back in earlier editions when the vulnerabilities of different creatures were sufficiently wide and varied that a common solution was to carry an array of weapons. Even if you didn't count magic items, a well equipped fighter had his normal sword, a backup sword, a silver sword, a cold iron sword and a non-metal sword, and that was just for starters. It meant the fighter could choose just the right weapon for the fight, which theoretically felt clever and tactical. Unfortunately, all it really felt like was a golf bag full of swords. That idea of the vulnerabilities as drivers of RP and excitement existed, but never really materialized in the face of this.[2]

All of which is to say, be careful of anything that looks like it adds interesting tactics and decisions during a fight which can be trivially short-circuited by choices outside of the fight. Otherwise, you might be one left holding the bag.

1 - Or he might carry some multi-purpose weapons, like an axe with a backspike. How the system handles mixed damage - like blunted edges or stabbing vs slashing with a sword - invites many options.

2 - Part of this was also the fault of a TERRIBLE understanding of the role of dramatic weaknesses in adventure design.


  1. Absolutely! It actually detracted from the game. You might get an intelligent weapon, or just a cool weapon you really identify with... you recovered it from Zalak, the lich-vampire, and it was crafted by fire giants before that. And yet, here comes this creature that needs DR magic +2/piercing and you have to put away your cool weapon.

    A far better system would be on the player side to encourage weapon swapping. A way to recreate what you see in movies, where you use a different weapon from time to time to basically perform tricks. You hold the magic weapon, but you throw the dagger as you close. You are an archer, but in close encounters you stab with your swords (or arrows... thanks, Legolas).

  2. I'm of the opinion that golf bag tactics came from punishing players rather than rewarding them for good choices. While every player wants to carry multiple weapons in case they fight a monster immune to slashing damage, only the most dedicated optimizers would carry an extra weapon to capitalize on a monster's weakness to slashing damage.

    1. I like this: it lets us get pretty much all of the advantages of the resistance system, without rewarding golf bags so heavily. It also helps get rid of the case where one character can't contribute at all.

    2. Yes! This! 100% this!

      I always kind of enjoyed messing with my DMs by having just the right weapon for the job, but it was never an effective system, and usually just caused annoyance for the character wielding a dagger.

      Should the Bludgeoning/Piercing/Slashing system of DR return to D&D Next, and should my group decide to go with the new system, this will probably be one of the first things I change.

      Though honestly, I'd still prefer what was done with a number of 4e monsters, where (for instance) radiant damage didn't do extra damage, but rather it shut off the monster's aura, or prevented regeneration for a round.

      But this seems like a good, easy house rule.

  3. And, conversely, it can add to the game in EPIC ways!
    It was going to be too unwieldy for us to bring all our henchmen, hirelings, and armies, so each of us brought only our main player character, steed, and familiars as required. Joanna brought her Paladin lady and her horse with the mithril barding, and managed to get special dispensation from her church (The First Temple of Wonder Woman) to bring all seven of her holy swords. Alan took his storm giant and mattock of the titans, and led the party alongside Jerry’s golden dragon character. Jerry griped a lot because he couldn’t take Farrah, Kate, and Jacqueline, his henchdragons, but Dan had been firm. Belinda got her brownie, her homonculous, and her two golf-bags full of wands, staves, rods, and scepters and saddled up her unicorn, riding beside George’s arch-Druid/Bard and Isaac’s elven Ranger/Cleric/Magic-User with the mutant horse (he called it a Brute Horse or something) he’d gotten on another plane. I tool out my caveman and +5 vorpal battleaxe and became the rear guard. Above us flew Margie and her Pegasus, serving as air cover and emergency medic (16th-level Clerics are much appreciated in our group). Margie works as a nurse in the hospital downtown, and she fit the clerical role well. Before setting out, we agreed as a group to hold down psionics and we swore not to summon any gods into the adventure; we’d been quested so many times that we knew the Abyss like the backs of our hands.

    it is like the Hunter S. Thompson of D&D descriptions!

  4. If the cost of switching weapons is high enough – perhaps in something like 4e, where your weapon must scale with your level – then damage resistance instead becomes a tool to move the focus around between characters. Piercing resistance means the Archer is going to be less effective, etc.

    But as Ian points out, special vulnerabilities are a more effective tool for this, with fewer bad side effects.

  5. I wonder if we can't come up with a better solution.

    GOAL: Differentiate monsters and the weapons that damage them WITHOUT ending up with a Golf Bag Tactician.

    What do we propose?

  6. Actually the problem is not one of switching weapons but of generally having the weapons in the first place. Unless you have a handy weapon's caddy to hand you your desired weapon ("A number 3 mace, please Geoffery") you aren't going to be carrying the different weapons in the first place. If you can, the game system is probably broken. [And if you've ever tried carrying weapons normally you'll find the fewer you have to worry about the better. They're cumbersome unless they are so small to be useless. For example swords and scabbards will catch on things, trip you up if they just hang, and are really quite inconvenient.]

    Golf Bag Tactics was a problem ascribed to many Old School Runequest games where the accusation was often levelled that players would carry multiple weapons and drop one and draw another as soon as they earned that "skill check." I'm sure it happened, but so did Monty Hall dungeon games, with much the same effect. In serious games it just didn't happen.

    What actually happens when you start having weapons with different characteristics is that you start adapting your tactics to the weapon you are using. Sure, sometimes you have to use it sub-optimally at times, but if it's the weapon you are carrying, well you don't have a choice, and the trick is then to change your tactics so your weapon is effective again.

    Greyhawk added weapon modifiers versus armour class (back when armour was a "class" and not simply a numerical rating). Not many people used it (it failed because monsters often had an armour class that was a numerical rating), but it added an interesting element. Knightly weapons came back in fashion when dealing with heavily armoured (platemail) opponents. It wasn't a case of simply choosing a military pick at the time of encounter. It was a case of choosing a military pick because you were also armoured and mounted and expecting to face your fellow knights.

    Personally I favour systems that uniquely identify individual weapons beyond a different damage die or even damage type. Pendragon does it nicely where different weapons have different special effects (with the default weapon being considered the very status-laden sword). The old version of Ironclaw did it by having each type of weapon have different Special results. The techniques for using various weapons in real-life are quite different; their application in the game should be quite different as well.

    1. On the other hand, and as counterpoint, Warhammer FRP gets along perfectly well with having "melee weapon" and not differentiating at all. It depends on how much tactical detail you want to include. In this case the specific weapon is just colour flavour and doesn't affect play. Instead it is the individual that makes the weapon dangerous (an approach certainly used in many martial arts titles, such as Weapons of the Gods / Legends of Wu-Lin.

      Assigning players "damage," rather than doing it with weapons, works well as well. It's a technique I've used more than once.

      [It's like the old weapon lists you used to (and still do) find in most modern RPGs which go into loving detail of every conceivable make, model, and variant of firearm, when the truth is, with certain exceptions (such as the G3 and P90), almost all firearms of a certain class are rather identical in terms of accuracy and kinetic energy, and any differences are generally a result of the prejudices of the author. And whilst these differences may be apparent on the test rig, they disappear in actual use, especially when people are firing at you. Even different ammo capacity tends to be irrelevant unless you've trained to use the weapon in combat, as usually you fire until it either hits an empty cylinder (if Old School) or the pistol locks back.]

  7. I believe that several issues lead to Golf Bag Tactics and by itself the weapon damage type does not do it.

    The risk is combining weapon damage type with not even being able to hurt a creature. If a creature is immune to piercing (i.e. a skeleton) everyone will want to carry many different weapons. If that creature is low level and characters encounter it often at low levels it will solidify the idea of having to carry the Golf Bag.

    But the idea of the cleric saving the day with a mace when fighting skeletons is great. An easy way to encourage this is to have low level monsters be weak to a weapon type. The skeleton could be weak to bludgeoning but all other weapons work just fine. Only higher level monsters should have DR to weapon types/material/magic. Only epic creatures should have any type of immunity, and characters should have a campaign to learn of their epic opponents strengths and weaknesses.

    On the other hand, look at the scene in Lord of the Rings when the heroes want to enter Theoden's hall. Gimli and Aragorn pour out weapons from all over. Even Legolas drops a few weapons. Gandalf even has a sword and his staff. Its not like each of them drop a Golf Bag on the floor, those weapons are carefully concealed all over them.

    Also, I think the players get a sense of entitlement when their character gets a magical weapon. They want to use it all the time because it is bad ass. This entitlement is not justified. Some of the best story telling comes from heroes having to overcome adversity. The hero who carries a +3 Flametongue should not feel that the sword is the best choice when fighting fire demons.

  8. My 2 Cents

    First, Why is it that when I fighter busts out his specialty monster hunting gear, its a problem, but when a Wizard busts out his specialty spell selection its not? Lets call a spade a spade. Its not necessarily only weapons that are the problem here.

    The reality is people prepare for problems they expect, and that's not a bad thing. If I use a rapier and I discover its does dick all against skeletons, and I am gonna be fighting a lot of skeletons, you bet your bottom dollar that I'll bring along something else. Same goes if I am fighting Fire elemental, I am gonna memorize Ice spells.

    It strikes me that the problem is the weakness and immunity themselves. In DND, for example, they often seem arbitrary or worse seem to screw one class or another. Oh Sorry can't sneak attack the undead... what this is an undead city? Sorry buddy, yeah I know undead have eyes and crap, but nope. no sneak attack. Why yes you can sneak attack that life from with the strange anatomy that you have never seen though. Go nuts.

    It seems to me that a weakness should be story driven complications, not just parts of their statline. Moreover, the resolution/overcoming of the weakness should be part of it. after a few encounters of getting stomped, hearing rumors of a pool that when you bath your weapons in it they will function and drinking from hit will give your spells power over the undead... or werewolves... or maybe just This Monster, for X amount of time... It seems a solution that is in keeping with my image of the weaknesses of monsters.

    Thats just my thoughts.

  9. SO, a few points:

    A) Yeah, encumbrance? TOTALLY BORKEN
    B) The comparison to spells is an interesting one, but it's worth noting that the wizard's spells are expendable (so there's opportunity cost to their use) and there atre tradeoffs made in spell selection (more opportunity cost)
    C) That is to say, the wizard is similar, but with am ore interesting minigame. Spells works better than encumbrance for enforcing tradeoffs.
    D) That crack about not knowing how to handle dramatic weakness can be most effectively summarized in a tendency to use resistances to punish players rather than to make play more awesome (because awesome would be "easier")

    1. But awesome is some much better!

    2. A) well, yes. But that is never not true. It's a hard system.
      B) The armour classes thing raised a point. Weapons actively changed based on the armour of the time. And the armour changed to the weapons.
      C) The lack of personal minigame is one of the biggest problems fighters have. Giving 3.x feats... Which is another discussion.
      D) Simple agreement here.

      Fighters need a minigame. They had one. It got ruined by people not wanting to think about it. The game then felt silly due to a few leftover bits of that minigame. Leftover bits of mechanics cause these kinds of problems a lot.

  10. Halo. Halo Halo Halo.

    Weapon selection is big in Halo. Drops and limited equips make weapon selection important. The variables for range, accuracy and damage, along with various SFX, make weapon selection important.

    To port this to D&D we need:

    1) A limit on carried weapons. We can make this a soft limit by making it a limit on quickly switched weapons. I'd set it at 3 or 4, including a shield.
    2) More "broadly special" weapons lying around, and more monsters vulnerable to them.
    3) A few more basic traits for weapons. Right now we have stuff like hit, damage, crit and range, as well as templated bonuses (+5 vs Narduwar!) and the odd special power. I've always thought bonus for hitting with the same weapon a three times in a row would be fab -- kind of like combo-striking with the needler in Halo! Will I stick with that dagger in the hopes that I get my 5d6 masterstroke?

    Funnily enough, strict 1e encumberance, weapon vc. AC, weapon speed and movement did a lot of this for my group. It just starts to get tedious compared to innate character ability after a while.

    The tough sell would really be limiting weapon selection and encouraging drops. Halo makes it worthwhile with ammo, but who wants a magic sword with 20 shots?

  11. I actually really like the golf bag, so long as the guy is absurdly strong, it's exactly the vibe I'd expect from people who often go monster hunting (I like it in the witcher 2 too), just like I'd expect people who go in dungeons a lot to have climbing gear (and immovable rods for emergencies).

    My solution to the problem in D&D 3.5/pathfinder is to make it one of the standard weapon legacy features that a weapon behaves like it has other damage types as far as damage resistance is concerned. So if you really like your bow, put some xp and love into making it a legacy item, and then you can puncture flesh golems to your heart's content.

    In my old games that was part of my more general attempt to fill the world with impactful and sometimes inconvenient detail, then have people pay to ignore it, which to me now seems a slightly bizarre way round to go.


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