All About That Mace

Tuesday, September 18th, 2018

One of the things that always bothered me about D&D-ish games were the “variable dice for weapon damage” rules, not necessarily because of concerns about “realism”, but because there didn’t seem to be any particularly meaningful trade-offs in not picking the biggest weapon you could. I’m looking at you, two-handed sword.[1]

It always made me wonder:

  • Why would a fighter take anything but a two-handed sword (d10)?
  • Why would they take a shortsword (d6) instead of a sword (d8)?
  • Why fight with a dagger (d4) at all if you didn’t have to?

The most obvious reason is that Fighters get access to the big d10 weapons while no one else does. That’s reason enough for them to focus on those and ignore the smaller stuff…

except there are built-in reasons not to: d10s are two-handers, meaning the wielder doesn’t get to use a shield, or have anything else in their other hand, and their initiative is always last-in-round.[2] So fighters might pick a d8 weapon thinking a little more damage is simply not be worth the loss of a shield and a serious initiative penalty.

That doesn’t help with the other questions, though. So I’ve expanded this further to try and make weapons at all damage levels attractive to the various classes.

First, some establishment: weapons are categorized by damage die, from d4 to d10.

  • d4 weapons are small, light weapons, or of an improvised nature.
  • d10 weapons are two-handed, heavy, long, and useless to the untrained.
  • d8 weapons are a professional warriors’ weapons, large, heavy, but not unwieldly.
  • Finally, d6 weapons are everything else, the weapons of the commoner and cleric.

The weapon list from the Basic box is pretty short, and that is the foundation our group is using. Here’s the breakdown:

  • 1d4     Dagger, Club, Sling, Torch
  • 1d6     Bow, Crossbow, Shortsword, Mace, Handaxe, Spear, Warhammer, Staff
  • 1d8     Sword, Battleaxe
  • 1d10    Polearm, Two-handed Sword

Now, what changes have we made? Let’s talk about you first, two-handed sword.

  • All d10 weapons have reach. This means you can strike at and flank nearby opponents without actually having to close with them. That isn’t necessarily a huge tactical advantage–you’re always last in round. However, they also give the wielder a little bit of space: unless you are flanked or the opponent is also using a two-hander, an opponent must be within 10′ and use a dedicated move action in order to close.[3]

The next question is why would non-Fighters take anything but a d8 weapon?

  • Here’s what we came up with: non-Fighters get a -4 initiative penalty[4] when they use weapons larger than d6. So Fighters remain good at what they do best, and non-Fighters receive a small trade-off in speed if they want to match them damage-wise. This means fighters are most likely to focus on d8 weapons…

…but is there any reason a Fighter might choose d6 weapons instead?

  • Well, spears and handaxes have a built-in reason: you can melee with them, and throw them for ranged attacks. And bows, of course, are for ranged combat before the enemy closes. But also, when Fighters melee with d6 weapons they gain a +2 bonus to initiative–common martial weapons are lighter than d8 weapons but have similar reach (unlike d4s).

Finally, what would be attractive about daggers and other d4 weapons?

  • This is the fun part: the trade-off is not only can you melee with them, you can throw them (sure, not far…but far enough!), and you can switch to or draw them without having to take an action to switch weapons. The only weapons with which you can do so. Which is a good reason to always keep a dagger or two on your person!

[1] Well, there were some serious trade-offs, but I and the groups I was a part of missed those rules our first time around with the game, thirty-plus years ago.
[2] This would be the big ruling we never noticed or just never used. Oops.
[3] Similar to how getting up from being knocked prone requires a dedicated move action.
[4] We are also playing with the idea of making this: roll two dice, take the lowest result. And roll two, take highest, for Fighters using d6 weapons. Because rolling dice is fun.

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