I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Saturday, October 15, 2022

Old school weapons are terrible (armor too!)

This is a rant... as you noticed from the title.

I complained about 5e weapons, fixed them, and even wrote a couple of books on the subject. Now that I'm playing OS and OSR games, I must say they are equal or worse than 5e when it comes to weapons.

Let's get "unrealistic" out of the way, since "realism" is really hard to get and to measure. Weapons are too heavy, armor is too cheap, everything is too expensive (and that might be a good idea), but let's leave that aside. I'll not even dwell on the fact that plate armor costs the same as 12 garlic because I believe this is a typo (that nonetheless gets repeated in OSR clones).

The problem is that many weapons are useless or redundant (e.g., the short sword is identical to the mace in every aspect, except it is more expensive and cannot be used by cleric, while the spear is just better and cheaper; the battleaxe is slightly cheaper than the sword but it is slow, two-handed, a terrible weapon in comparison... and it's lighter, which is baffling). This is from B/X, BTW.

I think the problem has a lot to do with the evolution of D&D. I explained it here (and now I notice I'm repeating myself a bit. You know what, you can read THAT post and skip the next four paragraphs if you prefer).

In chainmail, all weapons dealt 1d6 damage, but you had a weapon versus armor table to differentiate weapons and make some weapons different better in some circumstances. also, when you're dealing with troops, price might be important (when you need 2000 gp to get to level 2, price is definitely not important).

Then you have Holmes, which showcases all the problems in a glaring manner. All weapons deal 1d6, but some of the biggest, heaviest, most expensive ones are also slower, for example, making them not only entirely pointless but also detrimental to characters that do not want to use a dagger.

B/X has an optional rule to allow some weapons to deal more damage, so it fixes some issues: expensive, heavy weapons are more effective.

AD&D uses different damage dice too, but tries to keep other traits to make weapons diverse, including  speed, space, and a weapon versus AC table with glaring arithmetical errors that not even Gygax used. AD&D 2e has a better, somewhat simpler table, IMO.

3e and 4e are not my favorite editions, but their weapons work a lot better than old-school D&D. Even 5e with all its flaws is better than any of the TSR editions in that aspect.

And I'm not even saying that you need much complexity. On the contrary. It is obvious to me that removing the "slow" aspect from Holmes or B/X would improve the game. You might use 1d6 for all I care - this is just an abstraction, period.

So, I'm done complaining. Should we try to fix it?

It shouldn't be hard. First, let's make slow weapons only gives you -1 initiative. This is a rule I added to my (free) OSR Minimalist document. Add a "fast" tag for some weapons and voilà: even someone with a dagger can occasionally have an advantage over a mace. With a couple of words and a single digit (slow 2, fast 1) you add another dimension to the system - and I bet I don't even need to explain you what slow 2 means!

[Notice that this is not perfect, either, as longer weapons should have an advantage at least on the first round. Unless you're backstabbing, as it should be - in fact, adding speed bonus to back-stab would be great, as it gives thieves a reason to use daggers. There is an entire post to be written about how weapon speed and initiative do not work together for precisely this reason, but we'll leave that for another time]

As you can see, we could go either way: easy or complex.

This is from Dark Fantasy Basic (OH means off-hand, etc. - see below):

There is a lot more to it, but basically heavier/expensive weapons deal more damage. That might be enough. The rest adds fiddly bits that I enjoy but increase complexity a bit. I'll paste the entire page below so you can judge for yourself.

Of course, you could go even deeper, with an usable weapon versus armor table and various special effects for each weapon. This might even justify a Manual of Weapons for OSR games. Of course, it would be shorter (probably including weapons and armor) and simpler than my 5e manuals. What do you think?

For now, I'll be using The Basic Fantasy Equipment Emporium for my B/X-like games. It is free and awesome (it even corrects the price of garlic, lol), which makes me reconsider if it is worth writing another book on the subject. But I might try. A "fixed" version of 5e has simple weapon tags that could work for OSR games. We will see.

Click to enlarge.


  1. When I started playing we only had the original D&D books, Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, and Wilderness Adventures. Those of us who were GMing at the time eschewed them for our own homebrew solutions. But we did skim those books for basic concepts. I remember looking at the weapons at the time and thinking there was plenty to fix there, along with a lot of other aspects, such as Experience rates required for leveling between classes, etc. My main problem with it all was that every aspect was hard coded into tables that made growing the system too hard. If I wanted to add a new class, or creature it looked awful and required a lot of arbitrary decision making and new tables etc. So nope. I created a much more modular system that lets me flex my worlds in whatever direction I want.

    When i created my rules I realized that there are a lot of balancing acts that go into it. Combat is no exception. Weapons need to balance a number of things. Armors, obviously, as a start. But speed and initiative, yes, damage yes, weight yes, etc. Lots of things to balance. So I came up with a system that works for me. I've been using it for a long time and one of the things I like is that it's simple enough to play off the top of my head without having to do lookups on tables. This is because the basic structures are simple and consistent so it's easy to remember. My rules for combat are in my (free) Elthos Core Rules Book in case you want to see them. But in a nutshell, baring details, it works like this:

    Light weapons damage: 1d6-1
    Medium weapons damage: 1d6
    Heavy Weapons damage: 1d6+1

    Light weapons give +1 Attack Level
    Medium weapons give + 0 Attack Level
    Heavy Weapons give -1 Attack Level

    Of course this has to be understood in relation to Armors which work this way (briefly):

    Each armor has an Armor Class, a Dexterity Modifier, Damage Absorption, and a Movement Modifier.

    So a typical Melee weapon:
    Sword: 1d6 Damage, AL Mod: 0, Weight: Medium

    A typical Armor: Chainmail
    Armor Class Modifier (ACM): 2
    Damage Absorption (DAB): 2
    Dexterity Modifier (DXM): -2
    Movement Mod: -1

    Weapons do bonus damage, but in addition there is a modifier to damage for strength that is added as well. So a strong fighter with +2 strength would do 1d6+2 with a normal sword.

    Another factor to understand in the balancing act is that characters tend to have low numbers of life points. It is simply Strength (1 to 6) x Character Level. That's it. So combats tend to be short and lethal. Which is my preference. Get it over with already! :)

    I created a video to explain how to think about Armors and Weapons here. It doesn't have super high production value, but it does go through the various options and considerations for weapons and armor in case you're curious: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlvYg07Fqb0

    My system is designed to present the player with trade-offs when considering armors and weapons. I think that's part of the fun of building a character. The trade-offs are designed to provide meaningful distinctions between armors and weapon (when looked at in composite). So while building the character some thought has to go into armor and weapons selections. After that, one no longer needs to really deal with those questions again during play, so it's a one-time decision making process (until you decide to get new armor or weapons).

    Anyway, it's been good for me, and my players have occasionally mentioned that the system is "not too bad", which I consider high praise from them. :)

    1. Interesting stuff! I really like this kind of minimalist take, giving some pros and cons to each weapon/armor, in a way there is no option that is simply "better" than all others.

      Also, the way crits work in Elthos (as a multiplier) make these small differences really meaningful form time to time. This is somewhat similar to what I want to do with my OSR hacks. Still playtesting some of it...

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I managed to "fix" the B/X weapons to my satisfaction with the below tweaks:
    * Axes reroll 1’s on their damage dice and add 1 to the final result for each 1 rolled
    * Blunt weapons have +2 to-hit vs plate armor and brittle enemies (skeletons, statues, etc.)
    * Crossbows deal d8 damage rather than d6
    * Hatchets (small axes) exist, cost the same as hand axes, and deal d4 damage
    * Mauls (two-handed blunt weapons) exist, cost the same as maces, and deal d8 damage
    * Polearms deal d8 damage rather than d10
    * The “slow” quality is removed from all weapons

    Every weapon is distinct and there's a situation in which one light want to pick each of them (except the small weapons - hatchet, short sword, etc, which you wouldn't pick unless you're a small character like a Halfling).

    1. Sounds good. I'm trying to do something discreet like that: small changes, weapons are distinct but not too fiddly, etc.

  3. Gotta love the Equipment Emporium getting more love

  4. Good stuff! I tweaked my weapon lists to avoid obvious superior weapons too, although I usually run Whitehack and it does a lot of what you are suggesting. I do like your tweak for great and slow weapons though.

    Levi K recently came up with a fun process for constructing weapons which you might like: https://mobile.twitter.com/levikornelsen/status/1579380732585480192

  5. You should have a look at the free osr rpg called "Dark Dungeons", which is a retroclone of the rules cyclopedia + wrath of the immortals. And also "Dark Dungeons X", which is Dark Dungeons with more house rules. In each of them, there is an extensive chapter about weapons feats. Each weapon gets its specific table. It remains simple enough, but it adds interesting effects as our characters specialise in one weapon. For example, some weapons may disarm, stun, or have some cool effects.

    1. Ah yes, I love DD and the RC. A bit "too much" for me to use at once, but great for inspiration.

  6. It's been many years since you and I actually interacted, but at the time, you were asking what the additional tags on my altered 5e weapons table were for, and I said that I intended to make Fighting Styles and feats that interacted with them, and then did not follow up on that project for quite some time thereafter. I am happy to report, however, that that is no longer the case!

    At the very least, I have the Fighting Styles to accompany them complete, and am actually about to work on feats as of finishing my rework of the Ranger today (which I had been putting them off until the completion of).

    As such, I think I shall offer the document with the Fighting Styles up to you here, which also happens to have a link to the weapons tables (and a document containing Combat Maneuvers, which I am trying to make more universal, in a similar way to how spells are available to anyone with magic in 5e, essentially) so that you can see what I've done since then if you so desire. Do share your impressions with me, if you take the time to look them over. I would very much appreciate receiving criticism from someone I respect so much. Here:


    1. Hey! Hi Drakkoniss, long time indeed! Thanks for the kind words!

      I'm glad to see you managed to get this far with your system (and, indeed, it seems like a system in itself, with over 100 pages).

      As you might know, I'm no longer playing 5e; however, I can appreciate what you've done here. It seems both comprehensive and balanced. It includes all the things I'd want from such a system (improved TWF, differences between weapons - especially polearms, sword + light weapon, warlord stuff, betters STs, fixed the mace and quarterstaff, etc.).

      I wouldn't be able to analyze each part, but my overall impressions are:

      - Fighters apparently got more powerful which is good IMO;
      - OTOH it is too detailed for my tastes, it will require fighter players that are really invested in the system (I'm not sure even my players grasp all my house-rules TBH).
      - The variety of weapons and maneuvers is quite awesome.
      - I really like bringing back weapon groups and let PCs specialize in axes, swords, etc., giving a different feel to each weapon and technique.
      - I really like the hunting/farming/utility tags, clearly answer questions such as "who would use this".

      In any case, great work!

  7. "Fixing" weapons in D&D is actually a pretty tricky proposition, because any further differentiation than damage implies a complication of the rules. Combat is already slow enough, so I'm hesitant to add more mechanics. Believe me, I've tried a bunch of approaches.

    These days, I find it's easiest to fix weapons at the table. If a player describes using their weapon in a way that would take advantage of its particular characteristics, I give them a bonus to hit, damage or initiative. For instance, spears have a number of useful characteristics, if players think to use them. There are the traditional benefits of attacking from the second rank, or setting them against a charge. But if a player describes using their spear to keep an animal at bay, I give them +1 to initiative and +1 to hit.

    It's not perfect, but it's very flexible, and it doesn't complicate the mechanics. The main downside is that it requires some adjudication, so it depends on the GM's sensibility about medieval weapons. But hey, OSR is all about rulings-not-rules, right?

    1. I agree with some of your points. There are few small fixes that making things better AND simpler (removing the "slow" aspect from Holmes or B/X, for example), but differentiating weapons further requires some added complexity.