Thursday, October 23, 2014

Weapons vs. Armor in Old School D&D, Part III

Author's Note: this is the long overdue third part of a series that I began over eight months ago (Part II was on 17 February). Those interested in the topic are directed to the first two installments here and here (don't worry, these posts are not long by this blogger's current standards).

To recap, some editions of Old School D&D (which I defined expansively as including all editions prior to 3.0) offer a mechanic to simulate how different weapons perform against different types of armor. In other words, they offer not merely a system where tougher armor makes the target harder to hit in general, but a system where some weapons will have advantages or disadvantages over others based on the type of armor involved—leather, mail, plate, shield or no shield, etc. The motivations for adding such a mechanic are to make combat more realistic as well as more interesting, while in the bargain adding more meaningful choices for players in their selection of weapons. I set out these criteria for evaluating the success of each effort (these are stated almost verbatim from Part II):
  1. Realism. You want to realistically simulate how actual historical weapons performed against actual historical armor.
  2. Playability. You don't want the system to be too complicated or fussy.
  3. Enhancing (or at least not impeding) weapon diversity. You want the system to give players more meaningful choices in weapon selection, or at least that the range of choices should not be narrowed any further. So, for example, if in the basic combat mechanic a sword is almost always better then a mace, then ideally the additional weapons vs. armor type mechanic would give players more of a reason to (sometimes) fight with a mace—perhaps blunt weapons are better than bladed weapons against really tough armor, or whatever. Enhancing weapon diversity is almost by definition more 'realistic' in that we know that historical medieval and renaissance fighters used a variety of different weapons. The criterion is also almost self-evidently true in that if all the new system does is to mimic or amlify trends present in the initial mechanic, it isn't clear that there is any need for the new system. For example, if in the original system a two-handed sword does 1-10 points of damage and a dagger does 1-4 points of damage (translating into the sword being more than twice as effective as a dagger), one might wonder whether there is really any point in imposing an additional mechanic stating that, say, against most types of armor a two-handed sword gets an average +x bonus to hit, whereas a dagger gets an average -x penalty to hit, etc. One could have just as easily have simply increased the basic damage of a sword and/or decreased the basic damage of a dagger.

In Part II, I evaluated the weapons vs. armor mechanic presented in the proto-D&D 'man-to-man' combat system of Chainmail, characterizing it apologetically and perhaps reluctantly as a 'failure', at least on balance. The first edition of D&D (the 1974 'three little brown books') did not offer a new weapons vs. armor variant. However the first supplement, Greyhawk, did. It is here that we resume...

Greyhawk came out in the Spring of 1975, only a bit more than a year after the first publication of Dungeons & Dragons—a time in which perhaps only a few thousand copies of the game had been sold. Among other new things, Greyhawk introduced variable damage by weapon--a combat option that was soon to be embraced by most players. In one form or another it would became the default for most subsequent versions of the game (the Holmes 'Basic Set' being the exception). It will be useful to consider this addition here:

Note how, at least if we ignore the ‘space required’ restrictions, these numbers seem to separate weapons into two groups—a small group of weapons that we would always want to use, and a much larger group of weapons that we would never want to use. The two-handed sword is the nuke. Though, there are a few other weapons worth considering if one wants one’s second hand free to hold a shield.  On the other side, many other weapons are relegated to oblivion in that they have 'twins' that seem obviously better, even if only a little bit better, than their alternatives. However, the table does for the first time highlight why the restrictions on normal weapons for Clerics and Magic-Users might actually be onerous. (In the 1974 edition, the onerous consequences had more to do with restrictions on what magic weapons Clerics and Magic-Users could or could not use.)

But from the point of view of historical realism there is much that is odd. For example, why are maces so ineffective? Knights and other accomplished soldiers often went into battle wielding maces (and almost never large two-handed swords—unless they were Scottish). This is presumably because they thought maces were effective in combat, not because they were prohibited from shedding blood, or whatever. So why are they presented as so ineffective here?

Of course, paying attention to the space requirements does modify the above assessment a bit. For example, maybe you can't use that two-hander in many dungeon situations. I think it's fair to say that most referees didn’t and don’t often take this into account. Perhaps they should. But I think it's also fair to fault the authors for providing no further guidance on this in an otherwise fairly detailed treatment of other combat matters. However, the space requirements don't remove all of the oddities. For example, it's still always better to have a sword instead of a mace or a two-handed sword instead of a halberd or flail. Also, the 'space required' caveat doesn't help with the knight counter-example (they usually went into battle in open fields).

In addition, the 1975 supplement introduced a system derived directly from Chainmail for giving bonuses and penalties on the d20 'to hit' roll for different weapons against different types of armor. Here are the relevant tables:

(Note the Arquebus, a holdover from Chainmail, which along with other gunpowder weapons was not included in the weapon lists of any of the early editions of D&D.)

If one compares the Greyhawk table with the Chainmail table, one can see that the bonuses and penalties of Greyhawk were read off of the earlier chart almost verbatim, with slight modifications in only a few cases. So, for example, assuming a 'normal' Chainmail kill chance of 8 or more on two dice, a 7 translated into a +1 bonus, a 6 translated into a +2 bonus, a 9 translated into a -1 penalty, and so on. Now, of course, in Chainmail there was no extra downward slant in the table—a lack that no doubt looked odd to some. Thus, for many weapons in Chainmail you had about the same chance of hitting (and thus killing) an armored man as an unarmored one (indeed you had a slightly better chance in a few cases). But this sort of 'flat' progression in Chainmail translated into imposing the same bonus or penalty on an already downward sloping set of chances in Greyhawk, yielding results that seemed more realistic. Thus, armor now usually helps whatever weapon you are confronting, with different weapons merely having a different rate of change against certain types of armor.

On its face, this is of course an improvement on the Chainmail system, while also preserving many of its virtues. For example, the new system highlights how ineffective most missile weapons are against heavy armor, especially when fired at medium or long range. The option of effectively using a dagger or sword against a 'prone' target remains, although no rules are given for how to get an opponent into that position.

However, the same historical oddities and (in my view) mistakes remain. Two-handed swords and flails are still weirdly misdescribed and are too powerful.

But in my view Greyhawk’s effort was a failure for many reasons, and the evidence suggests that its system for variable weapon effectiveness against armor was rarely used in actual play (early players could help me out by confirming or disconfirming this).

First of all, the historical anomalies and misdescriptions of certain weapons remain. That's the last time we'll mention this, as we've beaten this point to death. (Imagine it being fittingly beaten to death by a modified threshing implement.)

Secondly, the Greyhawk scheme is too complicated and fussy. You start out by comparing your class and level with your opponent's armor class (the basic OD&D combat mechanic), but then you have to look at the new chart to see if you get an extra bonus or penalty (on top of any other bonus or penalty due to magic, tactical position, etc.). But you only get this bonus or penalty if the referee judges that the armor class of your opponent is sufficiently 'armor based' to warrant it. (Even at this early date, the idea of 'armor class' had diverged from being an actual class or type of armor—as it was in Chainmail—to often being at least partly based on other 'defensive' characteristics of the target—its parrying ability, speed, size or even just innate power or ability to soak up damage.) For the majority of melee weapons and armor types the bonus or penalty changes things by no more than 1 point anyway, so one might forgive the referee and players if they ask why the extra work is really necessary.

Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, the mechanic doesn't increase weapon diversity or player choice. Now, I admit that it might initially look like it does. So for example, it might be argued that with the new mechanic we can see a reason why a mace might sometimes be preferable to a sword—it's more effective against plate armor—or why a flail might sometimes be preferable to a halberd—it can reach around shields and penetrate armor better than a halberd can. But I submit that it suppresses weapon diversity, often in odd ways, if considered in total. For example, there is now even less reason for a Fighting-Man to even consider using anything but a two-handed sword. The mace might seem to beat out the sword against plate armor (though it isn't clear that this would make up for the sword's higher damage roll) but if one looks more closely, the new bonuses and penalties create new and worse problems. Why ever choose a mace when you could instead choose a hammer (which gets that extra unexplained +1 against AC 5)? Or for that matter, why ever choose a hammer when you could choose a military pick, which is much better against tough armor while inflicting the same damage as a mace or hammer?

Without sounding too critical, I honestly doubt that the authors of Greyhawk--Gary Gygax and Rob Kuntz--thought very hard about these issues or problems. After all, the to hit bonuses and penalties were so clearly taken from Chainmail, without really modifying them in the slightest, even though the underlying combat mechanics of Chainmail and OD&D were very different—a 2d6 curve is differently shaped than a 1d20 curve, to give one obvious example. Perhaps Jon Peterson or one of the players from those early days can tell us whether the Greyhawk weapons vs. armor option was ever really used for OD&D by the authors or any of their early players. The effort looks to me like it was merely another combat option offered to sort of fill things out in the apparent interest of enhancing 'realism', but composed quickly and without any playtesting. I might be wrong. But if I'm wrong, it frankly makes the result difficult to justify or explain.

So, I would have to say, unfortunately, that the variable weapons vs. armor mechanism proposed by Greyhawk was ultimately a failure.

On to discussing the AD&D attempt in Part IV...


  1. In the comments to Part I, faoladh just linked to an interesting set of posts by Zenopus. I hadn't seen those. I wonder whether the bad editing thing applies to Greyhawk as well as Holmes. I'm too lazy to figure out how to link inside of comments. One of these days...

  2. Thank you for writing this very informative post. I can hardly wait for the next installment examining the same for AD&D.