Friday, February 3, 2012

Tags and Axes (and Axes)

Ok, so if you're not going to do damage types (or even more complicated things like weapon versus armor type tables) then how should you go about meaningful weapon differentiation?

Well, first off, why would you want to? Isn't that a pretty finicky idea?

Yes, it kind of is. And it's entirely possible (and reasonable) even, to create game with no weapon differentiation, or with nothing more complicated than light, medium and heavy weapons. This totally works, and it allows for dramatic differences in color without slowing down the mechanics. You have a longsword and I have a mace and he has a katana and she has something from a Star trek episode that only she can pronounce, but we all just roll 1d8 for damage, so it all works out.

But sometimes people like differentiation to have teeth. Sometimes it's a sense of 'realism' but more often it just the general desire to have system reinforce and support our choices.

If you're going to do that, you need to make sure that the difference between weapons exist on more than one axis. Now, damage will almost always be one axis, but the other might be speed, accuracy or something else. As an example, one of the baseline weapon choices you can make in 4e is whether you want a weapon that's +2 to hit and 1d10 damage or +3 to hit and 1d8 damage. Deep math nerds can tell you a lot of details about that tradeoff, but to jo reader, that seems about right.

Two axes (axis, plural, not the chopping thing) helps, but it still produces a pretty straightforward curve of tradeoffs that gets easy to calculate on. The obvious solution is to add more axes - speed and penetration and, yes, even damage type. Provide enough differentiators and choices become inobvious, which is desirable.

But that is, frankly, a pain in the ass. It makes weapon stat blocks complicated and unreadable, and virtually guarantees that some number cruncher will find some specific weapon that is just unbalancingly badass if used just so. The rewards of complexity are quickly bogged down by the drawbacks.

A good compromise is to use an exception-based system. That is to say, some weapons may have keywords which grant them special rules. Now, this may seem fancy pants, but this idea has existed for as long as there have been bastard swords. The introduction of a special rule (you can use it in one OR two hands!) made the weapon interesting and appealing in a way that was difficult to precisely measure against. You can add these special rules individually (as was the case with the bastard sword) but it's often easier to come up with a set of keywords for frequently occurring effects.

The joy of this method is that because these are exceptions, they don't introduce any more than the bare minimum of necessary complexity. Now, yes, this can spin out of hand - it would be easy to conceive of a system where EVERY weapon has multiple keywords (the longsword is "Versatile, Stabbing, Slashing" while the dagger is "Stabbing, slashing, nimble, concealable") but at that point you're just recreating the axes problem all over again.

Now, if that complexity is what you want, then totally go for it. My aversion to it is at least partially a taste thing (albeit a taste thing that the larger part of the market seems to bear out). But otherwise, look at creating simple differentiation with 2 axes, then layer just enough keywords on top to spice up the mix.

At least that's how I'd do it.


  1. "Das schwarze Auge" I think, the english translation is called "The dark eye" has some interresting mechanics to differntiate weapons beyond the damage die.

    Lets start with the breakage factor (freele translated) reflecting how easily a weapon breaks in extraordinary combat situations (criticals, fumbles, trying to intentionally break an opponents weapon, ...). I think 3e had something similar?

    Different bonus damage from strength. Each weapon has a pair of values assigned (like 12/3). they mean that starting at strength X(12) you get one point of bonus damage for each Y(3) points of strength. This is a bit unlike the D&D I know, where rapier and battleaxe will profit from strength in equal measure.

    Other things are weapon modificators to attack and defense actions or initative. They are ratehr self explanatory. And the best part they are optional. If a group decides these are too much of a hassle they can just drop them.

    Well, thats one way it has been(/can be) done. Anyway I like this approach. And I especially like the part where some of the complexity is optional.

  2. I am gonna throw out here a devil's advocate argument here if we are looking down the rabbit hole.

    A problem that pops up is that some weapons are just better and not because of special training. Thats hard to reconcile in an RPG, but lets look at the peacemaker. When it hit stores it became one of the best selling guns in the world, in part because of good marketing yes, but also because it was a damn good gun and just plain better then anything else on the market.

    Its incrementally tougher in a fantasy game where you have hundreds of years sword styles from tons of cultures that were designed for the context of the swordplay of the time. You just didn't use a rapier on dudes in Full plate. etc etc.

    So I mean you circle around to how can you strive for realism in weaponry a fantasy game? Thats a tough nut to crack and I don't really have the right hammer. Wait! Let me check my golf bag!

  3. Well, here's a counter - WHY should you strive to realism in your weapons beyond a certain point? Reality can be pretty unfun.

    That said, there is a very reasonable case that some weapons SHOULD be better than others in some situations. And I have some thoughts on representing that.

  4. Reality certainly can, and I mean the mechanical difference between two similar calibers of revolver? Eh. Give me a Light and a Heavy... and maybe make the details more fluid as part of character description.

    But I have some players that love the minutia of weapon difference the same way they love to know the amount food they are carrying and how much they eat at ever meal... and more, but nothing could bore me more. Now I don't know if you have this experience, but I've noticed that some people with that level of detail tend to be interested more in the details themselves then any game effect, content to fiddle with the minutia on their own.

    Whatsmore, I discovered by simply acknowledging their effort via that game world ("Man did you see that guy? He's got one o them there fancy guns! Bet that thing kicks like a mule) it solves some of the problem.

    But for me? I'll track Loots in DND because its just a big list of stuff but that as close to playing Accounting, the Figuring as I ever want to be. :)

  5. My system uses a Trait, Skill, Ability system, and keywords are used throughout. All rolls are Skill rolls, and Abilities have Skill level requirements.

    So, when I got to weapons, I made weapon skills, which bunch weapons together to allow for some versatility (similar weapons function kinda the same), but it allows for a character to have thematic weapon choices.

    When I played 3e, I always wanted to use a scythe. It was one feat, and you got a 4x crit! However, I wanted even more to have players create a character they wanted to play, regardless of the weapon stat blocks. So I push the mechanics to represent a character's skill with a weapon, rather than how good that weapon is.

    It works: if you picked up a Glock or a katana, how useful is it in your hands? Now give it to a gangsta or samurai, and it becomes something else.

    Then I take weapon attributes and push them into Abilities. Use a polearm? Then you can learn abilities that have reach. Using a Dwarven Hammer-Pick? Learn that ability that smashes, and then pierces on the back-swing.

    I am still working out the skills/abilities, since the weakness is that you have to make explicit powers for everything, but it will be really fun for individual players who get to really geek out on their character theme. ^_^

  6. This: "That is to say, some weapons may have keywords which grant them special rules."

    My favorite miniatures rules are at:
    The tags can occasionally get out of hand, but if the effect is kept generic enough then a combination of tags will grant extra detail without extra complexity.

    Tags that just describe a combat effect are a good start (Reroll, Reroll Other)... but you can also make the tag fit the genre and add to the ambiance of the rules.


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