Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Length Doesn't Matter

There are several old-school Dungeons and Dragons combat rules that have become redundant.

Initiative. Weapon vs. Armor tables. Cavalry rules. Weapon speed. Weapon length.

All were integral features of early DnD. And all was jettisoned or rendered essentially meaningless as newer versions of DnD were published.

The elimination of weapon length rules seems particularly obscene, considering that superior weapon length provided a palpable advantage to those who possessed it. There is a good reason why spears, pikes and other polearms were employed in ancient and medieval combats: the man with a spear was more likely to inflict the first wound, when faced with an opponent weilding a sword or dagger. And the first wound was often fatal, or at least eliminated that opponent as a serious threat.

Unsurprisingly, considering that the original DnD designers and players were wargamers, OD&D -- employing the Chainmail combat rules -- provided first-round combat advantage to the opponent with the longer weapon. All things being equal, the spear attacked before the sword, which attacked before the mace.

Weapon length was particularly important where your opponent could be eliminated with a single blow. Not only could you eliminate your opponent, but you avoided being wounded yourself. Therefore, that first-round weapon length combat advantage became significant. In OD&D combat rounds after the first, weapon speed became more important than weapon length, so it was critical for those employing longer, slower weapons, that they make their first attack count.

But now, in new versions of DnD length no longer matters. Length, speed, initiative, high ground, formations, battle tactics, manueverability, planning ... all are replaced with artificial powerz and player-to-player synergies. Weapon length no longer matters because today's game designers have decreed that we need system-imposed cinematics. We need endless combats and hit-point attrition that simulates the resource management design of the latest video games.

Should weapon length matter in our tabletop roleplaying games? Of course. The historical development of weaponry is in large part the story of extending one's combat reach and lethality. Daggers to swords. Swords to spears. Spears to Bows. Bows to rifles. Rifles to missiles. But you'd never know that, based on the role-playing games i've seen lately.


Jason Zavoda said...

When I first started playing with toy soldiers that didn't have guns (the MARX viking vs. knights playset) I paid no heed to the type of weapon or armor of the combatants. As it happened my brother needed an opponent for his wargame Gettysburg and I was introduced very early to the concept of dice and rulesheets to simulate combat. When D&D appeared it seemed a mix between the simple days of plastic death and the more complex cardboard warfare.

In that happy medium I found that the armor those knights were wearing was a number and the huge axe or sword wielded by the vikings were dice. The knight with a lance meant that the viking was going to have to get inside of it to strike. Inside dungeons spears were a pain to use, you needed space to wield a greatsword, etc...

Todays version of gaming appears to have taken a step backwards to the simpler days, but personaly I left those simple times when I was about six or seven and have never had a wish to return.

I think any teenager and any adult will find things like weapon length add so much to the simulation of combat that they will find much more enjoyment with it and only a very small addition of complexity.

Simon Forster said...

Curious to what you mean by initiative being also made redundant? Do you mean that it becomes more a case of your turn/their turn, rather than a meaningful advantage?

I agree completely about the lack of tactics for later games, in respect to the origins of warfare and the game. Now tactics are more about, as you say, player synergy and combinations of powers playing off one another; D&D meets Mortal Kombat.

Things like that were the reason I've moved back to the Old School way of playing. Good post.

Jaap de Goede said...

If you want a very quick fix, you should give first round initiative to the longest weapon (missile weapons always being longer), and initiative in the rounds after to the fastest weapon (often the shortest) OR the highest skill / DEXterity.

Not entirely realistic, but a lot better than we have it now in most games.

Cheers for bringing up yet another old but true issue after the shields :-)

Gaptooth said...

I like Jaap's idea and it's similar to the way Tunnels & Trolls works: Missile weapons go off first (after spells), and then melee is joined. People with longer weapons in T&T are more likely to inflict damage and repel the attacks of their enemies.

I've never played any kind of 3rd edition D&D, and my 2nd edition AD&D experience was too long ago to remember, but weapon reach *is* something that provides a concrete advantage in 4th edition. It doesn't give you a numerical bonus to initiative or damage, but it does give you the ability to hit enemies who may not be able to hit you. In 4th edition, the reach of your weapon can exercise some control over the battlefield, forcing your enemies to stand farther away or coordinate to nip in for quick attacks.

Powers do take up a lot of bandwidth in 4th edition, and the equipment list is minimized, but weapon reach is still a factor. I'm not sure what gave you the idea that it's missing.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I was hoping someone would challenge me on initiative. Unless someone gets to it before me, I was going to wade into why initiative no longer matters.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Gaptooth said...
Powers do take up a lot of bandwidth in 4th edition, and the equipment list is minimized, but weapon reach is still a factor. I'm not sure what gave you the idea that it's missing.

I appreciate your comments. Weapon reach has never been a factor in attack order and preemptive opponent elimination, in the limited number of 4E sessions i've played. Conversely, it was integral to the early versions of DnD.

I'd be interested to hear from other 3, 3.5 and 4E players, as to how much weapon reach factors into attack order and preemptive opponent elimination. That will help round out my perspective.

Gaptooth said...

I don't think weapon reach figures into attack order in 4th edition. It provides a big advantage if the weilder can keep some distance between himself and his foes with shorter weapons-- if they manage to close in on him, he's vulnerable.

I really like the weapon rules in Sorcerer & Sword by ROn Edwards. They take up just a paragraph, but they are more nuanced than any other game I've seen: Long weapons provide an advantage in combat at the appropriate distance, but using them after an enemy has closed in on you with a sword can confer a penalty, and in close combat anything larger than a dagger will confer a penalty; but a well-placed dagger can end the battle immediately.

Gaptooth said...

I'm not surprised that weapon reach didn't factor in to your 4e sessions-- only one long weapon is included in the Essentials equipment list, and it's easy for players to overlook it and pick weapons without that advantage. In the 4e sessions I've played, player characters never had a melee weapon with reach.

Nonetheless, I've seen it come up as a major factor. In one battle, the party faced an giant whose flail could strike enemies at a range of 15'. The entire battle became a tactical question of how to coordinate their attacks so that they could give the giant a wide berth and still manage to defeat it; the giant's weapon reach had a huge impact on controlling his enemies' movement and other tactical options, and they had to come up with an unconventional means to bring it down.

This wasn't based solely on attack order, although that did come into play. When the giant's turn came around and nobody was in range, he could "Ready an action", enabling him to interrupt the first attacker who stepped into the reach of his weapon.

I strongly favor games like T&T that don't require a grid for combat, but having seen the potential tactical impact of weapon reach in 4th edition D&D, I wouldn't dismiss it.

Martin R. Thomas said...

I'd be interested to hear from other 3, 3.5 and 4E players, as to how much weapon reach factors into attack order and preemptive opponent elimination. That will help round out my perspective.

I'm currently playing in a Pathfinder game, so essentially it's 3.X. Weapon length is not a factor in combat other than from the perspective of reach. So, with a reach weapon, you can attack an opponent who is farther away than the adjacent five-foot square. However, it doesn't mean that you get to attack first, and if your opponent manages to move next to you, then you can no longer hit him with your reach weapon unless you back up on your turn first.

When wielding a reach weapon, you do get to make an attack of opportunity if someone moves through your "threaten zone" - the area you threaten with you weapon. For example, with a polearm you have 10' reach in all directions. If someone attempts to move through that 10' area to get closer to you (so they're standing adjacent to you, for example), then they have moved through your threaten zone and you get to take an attack-of-opportunity against them, which I guess could be considered "going first" since you to to make the attack on your opponent's turn.

But, I agree with your original assumption - that weapon length has no "value" in later editions of D&D.

Lowell Francis said...

IIRC the original, 2e, and 3e of Runequest all had complicated rules for handling length, speed, flexibility, and so on all caught up in some stat about Weapon Speed. I glossed over those when reading them but I recall them being a source of much argument and discussion in the Glorantha forums before Hero Wars came out.

AndreasDavour said...

I started to type a long reply. It became a post on my blog instead.

Summary: there are some neat rules to steal to get those details back again.

Nobody said...

In 4e there is the ever elusive "Threatening Reach" which gives Opportunity Attacks as described by Martin above for Pathfinder. It's something of a mechanical holy grail, though. I can't think of any way for a player to get it off the top of my head. Several monsters have it.

More on topic, I would love to have reach and speed be a factor in my old school games, but I have a distinct aversion to Fiddly Bits, which drove me away from 3e/4e in the first place. I have yet to see a system simple and elegant enough to suit my limited amount of patience at the table.

Taketoshi said...

I would point out that Martin contradicts himself a little bit by suggesting that weapon length doesn't make much difference in 3.X while pointing out the attack of opportunity rules for longer weapons.

Essentially, a player with a spear gets a free attack before his opponent if the opponent attempts to move to a closer range to attack, which is definitely both an "order of attack" issue and an advantage.

Of course, the reach-weapon wielder is disadvantaged if they muck up their attack and can't manage to get back out to fighting at a useful range.

One of the most powerful "rule-breaking" character builds in 3.X was a chain wielder who could trip an opponent, move out of attack range without provoking an attack, and then get an attack of opportunity on them as they approached again, potentially tripping them, allowing another attack, and moving back out of range again. The attack range combined with the trip attack made the character type essentially untouchable by standard melee opponents as long as they could remain mobile.

Taketoshi said...

Oh yeah


rainswept said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Srith of the Scrolls said...

I'm doing the homebrew thing. And after all was said and done, I decided that weapon length was the only factor worth using in the system. I basically give longer or shorter weapons a combat bonus depending on how open or closed-in the fight is.

I also decided that when it comes down to it, combat is such a flurry of activity that combat should be simultaneous. No initiative for me, thanks.

But then again, that's just my preference.

Anonymous said...

Well ... here may you find my half-fermented homebrew. Your post catalyzed some stuff I had been mulling for years.