Thursday, September 4, 2014

Should All Weapons Do 1d6 Damage? Revisited

Almost three years ago I asked that question. I gave a short answer nine months ago, but I'd like to go into a bit more detail in this post. Here are the possible arguments. The answer, given the sum of them, is a qualified Yes.

1. Should all weapons do 1d6 damage?  Why not?  Combat is abstract.

This is not a good argument. Indeed, I find this kind of argument to be quite annoying. OD&D is a game. Therefore, combat must be abstract. Logically, there are an infinite number of possible combat mechanisms that will all be abstract, at least to some degree. So, the question is which abstract mechanism to choose. Thus, when defending one abstract mechanism against another abstract mechanism, it's obviously not enough to simply declare that it's abstract.

2. In a certain sense all weapons do the same damage in the end.  Being fatally stabbed by a dagger is just as bad as being fatally stabbed by a two-handed sword.

This is half right. It works if there is some other mechanism for differentiating the effectiveness of weapons. Thus, the damage might in the end be the same, but there may be different chances (perhaps based on a variety of other contingent factors) for two different weapons to end up actually inflicting damage. If you're stabbed hard in your Adam's apple by a fountain pen, you'll be just as dead as if your entire head was lopped off with an axe. But there is a reason why men marched into battle with axes (or swords or spears or pikes, etc. etc.) instead of fountain pens.

3. It’s simpler.

Also half right.  Simplicity is not always better. But it often is. On the other side, complexity can enhance the fun of decision making, can make the play of the game more interesting and can enhance the illusion of realism. But it can also detract from each of the above things. One of the main considerations of good game design--perhaps even the main consideration--is correctly judging which side of the scale is heavier in each relevant situation.
Simpler can be better
In this case, in my view, simplicity wins, partly for the reasons given in 4, below:

4. Rolling different kinds of dice (as well as different numbers of dice) for each weapon distracts from the “ballet of combat”.  Having all weapons do 1d6 focuses attention on the combat not on the dice.

This is wholly and precisely right. You don't want a boring "conga line". You do want tactics, maneuvering and in a word, thinking. Of course, having a good referee and good players is crucial. But it also helps if you rid the situations of as many additional distractions as possible.

5. Having some weapons do more than 1d6 damage introduces an annoying sort of inflation into the game.  If, for example, the damage done by a two-handed sword is increased from 1d6 in Men & Magic to 3d6 damage in Greyhawk (at least against large creatures), then to be fair (or rather, in the interests of realism or consistency), many of those large creatures must have their damage increased as well.

This also is precisely right, and the empirical part of it is borne out by the history. I guess the counter-argument is that all things being equal, inflation is supposed to be neutral. If everyone has an average of 100 hit points and all weapons do an average of 20 points of damage, then in theory that shouldn't really be any better or worse than if everyone has 10 hit points and does an average of 2 point of damage. But of course, having more points is worse. Large numbers of hit points amount to, again, just another distraction. The more hit points everyone has the more the emphasis is on, well, hit points, as opposed to the combat itself. Or, to the extent that hit points should matter, the less they do, if that makes sense. Perhaps there's a parallel with the more runs vs. less runs argument in baseball. People like it when their team gets a run (obviously), so (the argument goes) why not increase the number of runs for everybody? There's a reoccurring tendency to do this in baseball, with curmudgeons like me always saying "you think you're making it more exciting, but in fact you're making it less exciting."

6. Having all weapons do 1d6 damage introduces more diversity in the choice of weapons.  From the point of view of fantasy role-playing, this is a good thing.  If weapons do different amounts of damage, players will gravitate to only a few of them--those that do the most damage.  That’s a bad thing.

Half right. You could construct a rules algorithm that balanced extra damage against other considerations with negative effects, but in practice this is rarely done. Why it's only rarely done is an interesting question that I don't really have an answer to.

7. Having all weapons do 1d6 damage allows you to come up with other reasons (more fun and more realistic) to choose some weapons over others—some weapons you can charge with, others might be better at piercing armor, etc.  This is healthy.

Three-quarters right, although in practice such rules can become fussy and irritatingly discontinuous.

8. It’s a feature of the original game.  How could Gygax and Holmes have been wrong?

Half right (!). This argument carries some weight with me, among other things because OD&D circa 1974 had already undergone extensive play testing for years with really good referees and players. They had to have been on to something.
A diversity of weapons-Jim Roslof from Keep on the Borderlands
So on balance I'm on the side of all weapons generally doing only 1d6 of damage. But I admit that the case is not cut and dried. You can have a perfectly acceptable old school experience with variable weapon damage. My goal is to persuade people to at least try uniform 1d6 damage--the message being that it can work.

For Seven Voyages of Zylarthen I adopted uniform (or almost uniform--see 3, below) 1d6 weapon damage. But I differentiated weapons in eight or nine other ways:

1. Each weapon has a different To Hit progression for the eight possible armor classes, which among other things allows for meaningful differentiation in terms of effectiveness against different kinds of armor (or hide, natural plating, etc.). Swords are good against no armor or light armor. Maces and blunt weapons are good against heavy armor, etc. And of course certain weapons are pretty good on average. Certain weapons are not, etc.

2. Each weapon has a weapon class, for the most part based on weapon size and length. Higher weapon class weapons are more effective on the first turn of melee. Lower weapon class weapons are more effective on the second and subsequent turns.

3. Some weapons have either a penalty of -1 or a bonus of +1 on damage inflicted against large creatures. This is one minor exception to all weapons doing 1d6 damage. But it makes intuitive sense. Against a large creature you want a weapon with good, so to speak, penetration power.

4. Some weapons break more than others (for simplicity's sake, this is almost entirely based on cost, but I think cost generally tracks breakability).

5. Cost. This is a factor at low levels, enhanced a bit due to the weapon break rules.

6. Weapons have different space requirements. Whether the referee decides to rigidly enforce this is of course up to her.

7. Whether or not the weapon is wielded with one-hand or two (thus allowing or not, the use of a shield or off-hand weapon). A few weapons--the sword and spear--can be wielded with either one hand or two.

8. Encumbrance. If you want to carry a battle axe (which in Zylarthen is pretty large), then you're going to move slower and sacrifice potentially carrying other weapons or useful items of equipment.

9. Other miscellaneous special considerations for certain weapons--"staves shall be splintered", fighting with an offhand axe or dagger, breaking wooden hafted weapons with large swords, etc.

10. Finally, whatever weapon is used, there is always the option of decreasing one's To Hit chances by 5 (out of 20) but adding an extra die of damage. Theoretically, you could add multiple dice by sacrificing 10, 15 or more To Hit numbers. In my view this potentially adds an interesting decision--you can "go for it" if your back is to the wall, etc. It also on average speeds up combat at high levels. (If your base To Hit is 10 or less, it's to your advantage to add sacrifice "To Hits" for damage, at least in terms of expected damage value). This is of course also a semi-exception to the "all weapons do 1d6 damage" rule.

I feel that the above may make Zylarthen's weapon and combat system seem overly complicated. But in practice I do not think it is. Many of the rules are optional. And in the more basic cases I tried to "bake things in" to a few simple tables as opposed to forcing players and referees to add or subtract eighty-five separate bonuses or penalties.

I'm interested in other opinions, especially from those who have played in or refereed campaigns under both systems.


  1. Gus L's current run of HMS Apollyon is using d6 as the basis of weapon damage. Some weapons such as daggers do half damage and two-handed weapons roll two d6s and take the higher result. Damage also explodes so rolling a 6 allows a second roll.

    To make it interesting weapons have qualities. Close allows a weapon to be used automatically when grappled, Cleaving allows a second attack if you kill your target, Preemptive allows a pre-initiative roll attack.

    I wasn't sure how I would like this system but I love! I really want to restart my ASE campaign and switch to these rules.

  2. I don't care for 1d6 weapon damage myself unless there are rules in place to differentiate some of the qualities of weapons. You got that ground covered in several different places with seven voyages.

  3. The hd for med size monsters/NPC's is d8 What do you think about using d8 for 5th ed basic damage dice?

  4. I'm not a big 5th edition person. But there is a certain symmetry in using the same die for damage as is used for hit dice. That certainly was the original conception.

  5. I am using d6 damage (and only fiearms do exploding i.e. roll again on hit) on my current game. I am doing it because I want combat to be quick and random, while small bonuses meaning a lot. With d6 damage a key is that HD are on the d6 as well, so it's low hp all around. This makes combat very unpredictable.

    1. Those are great points. I should have included the "with small bonuses meaning a lot" consideration on my list.