30 August 2012

Armour (or, more accurately, Defense)

Armour has one function: to mitigate the damage you take when you get hit. In D&D, though, Armour Class represents difficulty to be hit. This is because D&D has this weird language where "hit" means something other than "hit". To me, if you are hit, the opponent's weapon has struck your body. In D&D, hit means the opponent's weapon struck your body and penetrated your armour. A "miss" in D&D will often have struck your armour, but not penetrated or transferred enough force to hurt you. I play B/X D&D these days, so I'm going to talk about descending armour classes when I reference D&D. Deal with it.

Armour Class combines a few different things in D&D: dodging, parrying, and armour. I could be AC 5 because I have a high Dexterity (dodging), or I could be AC 5 because I'm wearing chain mail (armour). I don't recall the specifics, but I could also lower my AC in some editions by spending the round only defending (parrying).

One thing which can't make your AC better is skill. Wait, what? That's right - in D&D, it is equally hard to hit Billy the Baker's Boy or to hit Lady Nonesuch (who has been training at arms since childhood). Bizarre, to say the least.

The other thing which should have a huge effect on your AC, and which doesn't, is your choice of weapon. Look me in the eyes, and tell me with a straight face that it's equally difficult to land a serious blow on a person holding a sword and a person holding nothing. It's farcical. The first job of a melee weapon is to keep you alive. Killing the other person is a secondary concern.

Anyway, this is all a long way of saying that there are two factors to the defense: hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt.


Not getting hit comprises skill, weapon selection, and natural ability. Lady Nonesuch (who you will recall has been training at arms since childhood), should be very skilled indeed at evading blows, parrying, blocking, ripostes, counterattacks, etc. Even so, if she doesn't have a sword, and Billy the Baker's Boy does, her odds of coming out unscathed don't look so good.

I covered the relative defensive merits of various weapons in my previous post on Weapon Behaviour, and I'll cover skill in an upcoming post about Levelling.


Damage reduction typically comes from armour (on a human), but could also take into account the thick hide of a dragon, the impervious nature of a stone golem, or the difficulty in hacking down a solid oak door. I realized while writing this that insubstantial creature don't fit this model - they should have damage reduction, but it shouldn't be mitigated by using a mace. I'll think about that, and come back to it later - for now, we'll only look at totally corporeal targets.

There were three main types of armour in use in the Middle Ages: cloth, mail, and plate and mail. We can rate them simply as 1, 2, and 3 (with normal clothing being 0) as far as their damage reduction potential. We can also carry on up the scale - I could see a stone golem having an armour rating of 5 or 6 - it's just really hard to make a dent in stone!

Armour Type Armour Value
None or Normal Clothes 0
Cloth or Leather 1
Mail 2
Plate and Mail 3

As an aside, from what I can tell, many of the types of armour commonly listed in D&D are not historical. Studded leather, splint mail, banded mail, scale mail - none of these seem to have historical antecedents (not in medieval Europe, anyway). Early medieval armour consisted of cloth, cloth and mail, or cloth, mail, and plates (either as whole plates, or coats-of-plates/brigandine).

Leather doesn't seem to have been commonly used in Medieval Europe, but it was common elsewhere at the time. From the evidence I've seen, it has generally similar properties to cloth armour.

29 August 2012

Weapon Behaviour

As I see it, there are five main attributes of melee weapons. They are:
  • Attack
    • How easy it is, generally speaking, to land a blow
  • Defense
    • How effective the weapon is at blocking or parrying
  • Damage
    • How devastating it is, generally speaking, to be struck by it
  • Vs. Armour (Penetration?)
    • Some weapons are better against armour than others
  • Hands
    • One-handed, two-handed, or variable
With that in mind, it is possible to make a matrix showing the major weapon types in relation to each other.

Weapon Attack Defense Damage Vs. Armour Hands
Dagger 0 0 1 1 1
Arming Sword 1 1 1 0 1
Long Sword 1 1 1 0/1 2
Axe/Mace 0 0 1 2 1
Spear 1 1 1 1 2
Poleaxe 1 1 2 2 2

Some notes on the weapons I'm looking at here:
  • A dagger is actually surprisingly dangerous to an armoured footman - in a grapple, it can be shoved through the eyeholes of the helmet, forced through the mail, the aventail (mail collar below the helmet) can be lifted and the dagger stabbed into the back of the neck...
  • An Arming Sword is the typical one-handed sword of the Middle Ages.
  • A Long Sword is a two-handed sword. It can be used much like an arming sword, but two-handed, or it can be used "half-sword", with one hand on the blade and one on the hilt, which delivers powerful thrusts which are useful against armour (slashing at an armour opponent does little). The 1 for armour penetration reflects using the weapon "half-sword".
  • I figure axes and maces are pretty much the same. Probably, in real life, an axe is a little more devastating to be hit with, but not enough to worry about, I don't think.
  • Spears are your basic spear - 6-8 feet long, 1 1/4 inch thick ash shaft, leaf blade on the tip, and short spike on the butt. Spears aren't just used for thrusting - a solid whack with the shaft can also be very effective.
  • The poleaxe was a favoured weapon for armoured footmen fighting armoured footmen, and it was a vicious weapon - 6 feet long square ash shaft, hammer or axe head on the front, spear tip on the top, hook on the back, spikes coming out the sides, and another spike at the butt. It can be used to punch through armour, trip, bludgeon, parry - it's pretty much a jack-of-all-trades. Most polearms would fall into either this category or the spear category.
I'm sure people more knowledgeable than I would have their own ideas about this chart, but I think it's a reasonable place to start from. It fairly accurately represents the historical roles of each major weapon type, and all medieval weapons could be slotted into one of the categories on the chart.

The spear is clearly a good choice, cheap and effective, and it was historically one of the most important weapons of the time. Poleaxes, maces, and axes are what you want if facing an armoured opponent. Swords are a prestige item, and primarily useful against unarmoured or lightly armoured opponents. This all sounds about right, and is modeled by the system.

Later, I'll look at translating these numbers into game terms.

28 August 2012

What's Wrong With D&D Combat

First off, what is good about combat in D&D? Well, the older editions had pretty fast-paced, free-wheeling combats with a lot of room for rich description. I like that. And I think that might be about it. The main nuts and bolts of the system - weapon behaviour, armour class, hit points, power curves, and (in 3E) feats are all deeply flawed.

I'm going to touch on each of these mechanics in this post, and expand on solutions over the next few posts.

Weapon Behaviour

Weapon choice in D&D has always been a no-brainer. Since the only differences are: one-handed or two-handed, 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, etc. for damage, there will always be a best choice, and that choice will hold for all situations. The Weapon-type vs. Armour Class chart was an attempt to deal with this, as was the Slashing, Piercing, Blunt categories in 2e AD&D. I don't know of anyone who uses them, and they don't seem to increase verisimilitude (but they do increase complexity!).

What I see in reality is that some weapons are good at dealing damage to unarmoured opponents (swords), some at dealing with armour (maces, axes, poleaxes), some are better at defending yourself (swords, spears, poleaxe), and so on. Categories based on purpose make sense to me. A mace is blunt and an axe is sharp, but they both have the same purpose - defeating armoured opponents. The game system should reflect that.

Armour Class

Armour class in D&D seems to describe some combination hard-to-hit (dodging, blocking, parrying) and hard-to-hurt (armour absorbing damage). Some of your hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt is also modelled by your hit points (increasing hit points as you level are often explained by the character learning to dodge better, roll with punches, evade thrusts, etc.).

This causes problems with modelling weapon behaviour, especially with regards to weapons like the mace (which can bypass armour to some degree). One ends up with awkward mechanics like, "if the target's Touch AC is hit, add +4 to hit". It is far better to separate hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt into their own stats.

Hard-to-hit comes from a mix of your skill at fighting, your natural abilities, and your weapon. I parry with my sword, not my breastplate. If you hit my breastplate, but don't hurt me, you still hit me! It's just that my armour absorbed all of the damage.

If I drop my sword, I've lost my main means of defending myself. How hard it is to hit me should reflect that. If I'm surprised in the night, and don't have time to put on my breastplate, it's going to be much easier for a solid blow to cause grievous harm, but not any easier to hit me.

Hit Points 

Hit points always bothered me - they clearly didn't represent physical hardiness (as that would not change as you levelled), but it seems odd for hit points to describe some mystical ability to "get out of the way". D&D already has a mechanic for that - it's called Armour Class. Also, if HP represent some measure of skill why doesn't healing scale with level? For that matter, why don't you heal completely after a fight? Once again, the problem is that a stat is being overloaded by being asked to represent multiple things, and it makes it difficult to create reasonable, intuitive models of reality.

The other feature of hit points I don't like is the certain knowledge of how much fight is left in the character. If I'm fighting an orc, and I have 26 hit points, I know for a fact that I won't die this round. The orc can only do 1d8 damage! In fact, I can fight for four rounds with total impunity. I'd like to see a little menace to combat, even at higher levels. At the same time, I'd like some ability for players to push their characters in a dire situation.


The feats system in 3E is a good idea done badly. I like the idea of selecting perks for your character as you level up, but the problem is the mixing of combat and non-combat feats, the complex prerequisites and restrictions, the enormously long list of feats, requiring feats to do things you should always be able to do, complex mechanical interactions with other rules, and, most of all, the problem that some feats are simply much better than other feats, leading to min-maxing rather than role-playing.

I see feats as a great way to differentiate characters as they level up, but the key is simple, meaningful, balanced choices that work within existing mechanics.


In D&D, your ability to defend yourself better as you go up in levels is modeled by increasing your hit points, creating a weird disconnect between what they seem like they should be (ie. your stamina, blood pressure, wound level, etc.), and what they are, which is primarily (after first level) a measure of skill. Defense bonus should scale up, similar to the way Attack bonuses scale up.

In addition to the problem of defence, I've always found low level characters to be woefully underpowered compared to commoners. A Level 1 Fighter (a "Veteran", according to BECMI) has the same attack table as a normal man.

Myself, with a year of off and on martial arts training in swordsmanship, dagger, and grappling, would lose nineteen times out of twenty to an actual veteran swordsman. An untrained person would be killed every single time by the veteran.

On the other side, though, players can get insanely powerful. A 20th level fighter can wade through 1HD monsters like a horse through tall grass. In reality, I'd be surprised if the best swordsman of all time could take on six armed opponents at once. I feel like a lot of the fear and danger - and therefore, a lot of the requirement for thought and planning - is taken out of the game if your character is basically a one-person army.

I'd like to see experience and training count for more initially, but level out at a more human scale.

27 August 2012

Spells and Steel - My Goals

About a year ago, I got back into playing RPG's. Around the same time, I started studying medieval martial arts. Learning about what it's like to actually swing a sword, parry a thrust, throw a blow, and - more than anything - watching men in plate armour fighting with poleaxes, spears, and longswords opened my eyes to how little Gygax and Arneson knew about the nuts and bolts of fighting in the 14th century.

What I want is a system that reflects the gritty realities of low-magic medieval life and warfare, and I don't feel like D&D is quite doing it for me any more.

My plan for this blog is to lay out my design process. I'm going to start by stating my goals (which will be updated and broken down as I go), showing how the existing systems are flawed, and working on new systems that meet my goals.


Goals of the Combat System:
  • Simple and Fast
  • Verisimilitude:
    • Weapon Functions
    • Realities of Combat and Damage
  • Stats and Attributes with Clear Meanings
  • Battlemat Optional
  • Bonus: Easy to Drop Into B/X D&D as a Replacement System
Goals of the Leveling System:
  • Balanced Feats
  • Meaningful Choices
  • Customizable Characters
  • Minimize Min-Maxing, Maximize Flavour
  • Believable Power Curve
Goals of the Magic system:
  • Simple or Non-existant Resource Management (no memorization, no mana)
  • Make it Weird (no fireball or magic missile - more illusions, compulsions, trickery)
  • Balanced with Combat-focused Characters
  • Bonus: Easy to Drop Into B/X D&D as a Replacement System
Goals Overall:
  • Believability / Verisimilitude
  • Harsh, Gritty Flavour
  • Easy to Learn and Play
  • Fun!
  • Able to Take Players from Adventurers to Lords
  • Historically Reasonable Pricing and Economy