Have you ever wondered why a D&D longsword does 1d8 damage? Or why slings are a simple weapon but repeating crossbows are an exotic weapon? Well, wonder no more, because this week we’re talking about all things related to weapons in roleplaying games. How much damage should they do? How granular should their stats be? Why does balance even matter for these weapons? All that and more, plus a lesson about how you can wield your very own catapult.
Generously transcribed by James. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Oren: This episode was produced thanks to our patron, Kathy Ferguson, professor of political theory in Star Trek.
Wes: Hello and welcome to the Mythcreants podcast. I’m your host Wes. With me today is
Wes: Today we are going to be talking about weapons, weapons, weapons, weapons, weapons, in roleplaying games.
Oren: So many weapons.
Wes: So many weapons.
Chris: It’s really, what else do you need to worry about in a roleplaying game?
Oren: Yeah, it’s all weapons.
Wes: I’m not going to buy a book unless it’s full of pages and pages and pages of weapons that are definitely different.
Oren: Wes, did you like make Spycraft the game? Because that was definitely their philosophy.
Wes: You found me out. [laughter] But seriously though, I mean we’ll get into it and kind of talk broadly, but I was thinking about this. This is kind of a tough topic because I feel like the whole concept of how weapons work in roleplaying games, it just seems like DnD locked down some basics and I have yet to see anything different.
I hope that maybe we can invent something today or maybe you guys have something better, but it’s just, there’s some very solid standards for what they are and I still find them lacking generally.
Oren: Yeah. So, first of all, weapons are inextricably linked to combat. Combat is hard. There are very few systems with what I would consider a good combat system, but even within that, there are some pretty serious issues.
We were just mentioning the pages upon pages of nearly identical weapons where its like, ugh, I don’t wanna do this, because you know that there is one of them in there that, if you look long enough, you’ll eventually find the one overpowered one, right?
Chris: So you’re that type of player.
Oren: Right. But that’s one issue, in general, that is fine if your system is not deep enough to offer a meaningful difference between an Armenian sword and a Carolingian. They don’t need to have different stats. You can just call them swords, it’s fine. Just do it.
Chris: Yeah, and I mean, I joke about if you need to look through and find an overpowered weapon, but I’m definitely the player who has to look at every single option in the book when I’m doing character creation, because it’s like, what if that thing is really cool, you know, and I don’t necessarily power game at the same time. I feel weird about making any choices for my character until I see what all of the options are. So if you have a book full of pages and pages of weapons, I would feel compelled to look at all of them.
Wes: I’m kind of similar, but like almost by accident. I’ll get a character concept and, I really try to do a roleplaying choice and avoid optimizing, but the result is as much as I try, whatever is on the page would convince me otherwise.
I’m like, yeah, I’m going to be a gnome and I’m going to use a great axe because that’s awesome and that breaks type and that’s cool. And then I’ll look at it and I’ll be like, ah yeah, I can take these abilities and stuff, but oh my, well you know, the great axe is a 1d12 but the great maul is a 2d6 and you know what, a maul, that sounds cooler and that’s better for my roleplay – I’m just suddenly optimizing. I’m compromising my character.
Oren: Although here, hang on, hang on, you might not want to abandon the great axe so quickly because let me tell you, you could get into a situation where it’s your party of level one DnD adventurers versus a were-rat with seven hit-points, but with enough damage reduction that none of you can hurt it, except for the barbarian when they roll a 12 on their axe.
Wes: Oh dear, yes.
Oren: At which point you’re going to want that d12 because those fluke 12 rolls are more likely. [laughter]
Chris: So what you should do is if your party decides to use the maul instead, you should just punish them by sending a bunch of were-rats?
Oren: Yes, absolutely.
Chris: [comical outrage] That’s it all the time? [laughter]
Oren: So this leads into another very common roleplaying game problem, which is weapons that are identical, except one of them is just better. And this happens all the time.
It’s very common and it’s particularly common because roleplaying games are usually not very good at simulating all of the aspects of a weapon. That would just take too long. It would be ridiculous to try to simulate all of those. So instead, they focus on the ones that seem most obvious. They’re like, well, this gun is bigger than that gun. Its bullets have more kinetic energy, so it will do more damage.
This is the Desert Eagle scenario from games like Spycraft, where the Desert Eagle is just the most powerful pistol. It just does the most damage. And so every character uses a Desert Eagle because of that which is, you know, for reference, if you don’t know what a Desert Eagle is, it’s this enormous pistol that just looks kind of ridiculous.
If you try to imagine a spy story with like, Bond not using his little, small spy gun, and every spy having an enormous hand cannon it sounds kind of ridiculous. But the reason that happens is that the designers aren’t taking into account all the intangibles that explain why everyone in the real world doesn’t, or why every person in the real world who uses a gun, doesn’t carry a Desert Eagle. There’s a reason why police officers don’t use them and it’s because they’re really big and heavy. They’re ammunition is really expensive and it’s also heavy.
Also, in real life, gun violence doesn’t work the way the hit-points suggest that it would. Where you hit someone is way more important than the amount of stopping power your gun has in most situations.
Chris: Yeah. In fact, I would think that in real life, a powerful gun is almost dangerous, because it’s more likely to go through and hit something you don’t intend to hit.
Oren: Right. That also happens. That can also be a serious problem.
Chris: So what do you think about having a smaller list of weapons that are just for the starting characters? Because at least for me, when it comes to having analysis paralysis when I’m creating a character, it’s certainly a lot easier for me if like, these are the weapons you were allowed to start with and not the full list. And it would probably be okay if there was just a plain old better version of one of those weapons on the full list, because that would give you something to aspire to.[to Oren] I know you’re not a big fan of the gear grind though. What do you think?
Oren: Well, okay. So, getting better gear is not automatically bad. It’s just very hard to do properly and in like, DnD, I call it gear grind because it’s not fun. In DnD, grinding combat to get better gear is boring, but that’s also what the rules push you towards. But it’s conceivable that that could work. In Torch Bearer, getting better gear is a serious reward and it’s also fun.
The issue of having a small set of options just for character creation and then expanding to bigger ones, is that can work but you have to be careful with it because it tends to work better in video games where people don’t question the conceits as much. But to pick in a tabletop game, if there’s just a better version of this axe floating around, players are just going to ask, well, why wasn’t that axe available in character creation? Is it rare? It is a magic axe? Is it made of unobtainium? And if there’s not a satisfactory answer, they will feel cheated. They will feel like they were not given the options that they should have been.
If it is rare in magic, this is another problem that is just a general gear issue is that most games do not have a robust enough economy to actually regulate the amount of gear players have.
This is a huge problem. I see it all the time, where it’s like, well, this magic item is super powerful, and it doesn’t even have to be magic, it could just be a gun, and it’s like, it’s super powerful, but it’s expensive and that will stop players from getting it. And it’s like, will it though?
Oren: Yeah, because players are really good at getting money. If you don’t have a robust system for helping the GM figure out how much money to give them, then it’s like World of Darkness.
In every world of darkness game I’ve ever played, it ends up with everyone toting around the anti-material rifle because those do the most damage and the game says you need to have that, they’re this expensive, but it’s like, man, I’m a mage, I turn some rocks into diamonds and sell them. Now I have money. Give me my anti-material rifle.
Chris: Right. Or like the game should have built-in mechanics for things that cost money, right? So they get money, but then they have to spend it on things. Like Torch Bearer which has a robust economy and players have to actually spend money for their basic upkeep.
Whereas players can almost always can just hand wave that. It’s like, we don’t want to pay for the inn, we’ll just go camping outside. Whereas Torch Bearer actually has rules where it is actually dangerous to camp outside. Roll on an event table and a bad thing could happen to you.
It gives you a pretty good incentive to actually stay at an inn or a bunk house or somewhere. And so, because things cost money, it is really hard to just do one quest and then get a reward and then move on.
Oren: My favorite part of Torch Bearer is when you go to a town where your parents live and it’s like, wait, the rules say we can stay at our parents’ house and not have to pay rent on our hotel room. That’s amazing. A super powerful ability is having a friend who lives in town.
Okay, so to go back to the original idea. When you’re making weapons with different stats, ideally those stats will actually matter somehow. Like you can only have as many different stats as your combat system in robust enough to handle them. If your combat system has rules for how quickly weapons attack, you can differentiate your weapons based on how quickly they attack. That’s a thing you can do. If your system is really robust and has cohesive rules for sneaking weapons into places, then you can have a weapon whose advantage is that it can be snuck into places.
If it doesn’t, then saying this weapon is easy to conceal is like, eh, if there aren’t any rules for it, any weapon is easy to conceal. So that’s one thing. Even in that situation though, you can still overwhelm new players with too many options. Even if every one of those options is viable and makes sense with the rules, there can still be too many of them.
In that case, it can behoove the designer to just be like, you are a starting character, and you start with a sword, and as you play, you can acquire the other weapons that are mechanically distinct from the sword. And by then, you’ll have encountered them over time. You won’t have just had to deal with all of that when you’re first opening the book.
Wes: Yeah, it’s just one of the most challenging things. I mean, I’m probably just going to keep coming back to this, because we talked about it from the very beginning, but weapons by their very nature, just brings such a challenging element into the game.
I think I’m on the record on the podcast as being much more in favor of descriptive combat instead of nitty gritty numbers and things like that. To each their own, that’s fair. But weapons are going to take you out of your immersion, right? Because suddenly there’s math, there’s ranges, there’s upkeep or there’s just so many stats put on each weapon for what it can do and when it can do it, that it does tend to take me out. I think I would be much more in favor of like, this is a broad weapon type, this is a broad weapon type, and this is a broad weapon type. And those have general attributes and then the character can get as specific as they want.
Chris: You could flavor what specific type of weapon that is?
Wes: Yes. What I was trying to get back at earlier with a gnome with a two-handed weapon is that weapons are a really fun way to customize your character. It’s cool. It’s cool to have cool gear. It’s cool to have cool weapons. But if that comes with a table burden, or an economy burden or a stand-and-deliver action-based turn system then maybe you have to wonder like, oh boy, can we streamline this at all?
Which is why I’m definitely in favor of limiting choices. And maybe for just saying, oh, that’s not available. We don’t make those here. Just something to just try to allow players to just get the satisfaction of having a fun weapon and not bogging them down with wondering about whether or not they’ve min-maxed enough. Streamlining is desirable in most cases for me.
Chris: And from the other standpoint, if you have a player that invests some kind of points or something in the beginning of getting a better weapon, and that weapon has fussy, mechanical bonuses that apply in combat, then the GM is like, okay, now I have to run more combats. Because this player is really into their weapon and if they never use their weapon in combat, it’s going to be disappointing. Or I have to make out completely new rules for how this weapon helps them outside of combat, because I’m not running combat.
Oren: So to sort of take this and flip it a little bit, there is another side to this where it’s like, okay, so you want to play a gnome with a two-handed weapon. It’s like that. That’s a statement, right? When you do that, you’re playing outside of the standard gnome type. But I would argue that in most games, especially campaigns, you can get by with less on one shots, but in most campaigns, if there is no mechanical difference between playing a gnome with a two-handed weapon and playing a gnome with any other kind of weapon, then that choice is not especially meaningful.
In some games, like Primetime Adventure because Primetime Adventure is so rules light, everything is flavor. But in most games, if the choices that you make are not mechanically represented, then they don’t matter a huge amount.
It’s the same thing with mages and their traditions of magic, where theoretically, every magical tradition is super different, and does things really differently, but they’re all mechanically the same. And so after the first session, pretty much everybody, well the drop-off rate is faster for some than for others, but they all eventually stop describing the cool magic of their tradition because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t actually do anything. They can just say, yeah, I stare at him and he catches fire. You don’t have to keep describing the ritual circles that you draw because that’s just a burden and there’s no reason to do it.
It’s the same thing with weapons. And not every system needs a difference between a gnome with a sword and a gnome with a great axe to be mechanically different, to be significant. But if you can manage it, that’s still cool. And we’re sort of talking about two different axes here because there’s the question of a deeper game that is willing to create some complexity upfront in order to get depth.
This is your Dark Souls type game. And even though Dark Souls does a very good job of creating depth with its complexity, Dark Souls is not going to appeal to everybody. Not everybody enjoys that experience. It’s like, I’m just not interested, and I’m one of those people who just does not enjoy Dark Souls. I’m not interested in learning the complexity of Dark Souls, even though it is very deep.
So that’s one thing. But then the other thing is a system that is extremely complicated and also not deep and bad. [laughter] Frankly, that’s more common in roleplaying games.
Chris: So something that’s just really overly complex, but actually doesn’t give you any value, there’s no nuance, no advanced strategies that you learn over time, that kind of thing, right?
Oren: Those are your 3.5 DnDs. Blue Rose was another weird example. Blue Rose was supposed to be a super roleplaying romance setting, but it’s mechanics are super grindy and crunchy but it has pages and pages of options and they all sort of do the same thing but in different ways. So you need to check all of them.
Chris: I’m assuming it’s not that weapons need to give bonuses in different ways. That it’s not satisfying if its just like, there’s a bunch of weapons, they give plus one, they gives plus two, this one gives plus three. Is having them get the same kind of bonuses but the amounts are slightly different, does that distinguish them or does that also make them feel like they’re the same?
Oren: I mean, a context sensitive question is sensitive to context. In most cases, the question is, does using this weapon change the way you play. If all it does is give you a different number bonus to the same roll, the answer is probably not. There are some exceptions. Riddle of Steel is a fine example.
In Riddle of Steel, you can have a weapon and, to take two swords for this example, they all have an armor penetration stat, a damage stat, and a speed stat. And by changing those values, you change how you use that sword. If you make the sword have a really high armor penetration stat but a low speed, then you’re going to play that sword very different than a sword with high speed, high damage, low armor penetration. You will choose different maneuvers. You will choose different opponents. You might even like to put that sword away when a certain type of enemy shows up.
So in that context, yes, that actually does change how you play. In DnD when it’s like, [old man voice] well, I could use a long sword, or I could use a long sword plus one, like no, it doesn’t change how you play at all, it’s the same thing. Doesn’t mean I don’t want a plus one long sword though. [laughter] I still like to see numbers go up. It’s still my thing.
Chris: So lets talk about guns a little bit, because I think one of the issues that happens is, in real life, when we got guns, we really stopped using swords. Because guns are just more powerful than swords.
If you’re in a fantasy setting or historical inspired setting, you can say that guns either just don’t exist or you can be like, these are really early guns that have a lot of disadvantages, guns are new. But if you’re in a sci-fi setting, players want to use the full range of weaponry usually. Including swords. But it’s just not really realistic to have swords and guns in fights, because one, normally guns would be more powerful.
Is there any game that actually handles that well? Is it possible to handle that well, or is that just a problem that won’t go away? As far as counting guns being powerful or in comparison to swords.
Oren: Mostly the second one. It’s a pretty hard problem to solve. And a lot of it depends on how well your game can convince the players to suspend their disbelief. Because every setting requires that to a certain degree and settings where you have swords in a setting full of laser guns require it to a higher degree. That requires a higher degree of suspension of disbelief.
So it’s important that your combat be fun and light and flavorful. Otherwise people are going to start questioning. Like, why do I have a vibro-ax? And why is it better than a machine gun? Seems odd.
Those are the first points of failure. If you’re not super on top of your story game, players will start wondering. It’s like, remember that time we charged that storm trooper and he waited until we were in melee with him to start shooting? That was kind of strange. You can also have issues where the reverse happens, where designers make rules that are more realistic than the setting actually wants them to be. It’s like, yeah, there are all these people with swords. Well according to the rules, I can just use a gun and shoot them all.
This is sort of a problem with Call of Cuthullu, where guns aren’t supposed to be the solution. But guns are really strong and they really help. And monsters are just made of meat, and so just shoot ‘em, it’s fine. No big deal. And of course, if your Call of Cuthullu game is really good, your players will politely ignore that. But if your players are either not super into the premise, or you just have a slow day or whatever, that’s a failure point.
Chris: So, have you found that it helps if your setting is just a little bit sillier, or has less realism. That people can give more scrutiny to settings like Burning Wheel.
Oren: Oh yeah, absolutely. If your setting is super gritty and dark or realistic or whatever, they will absolutely pay closer attention, because you are inviting them to. You are advertising your setting based on its realness. And so then if you have people using laser swords in future combat, it’s like, hang on a minute, I thought this was a realistic setting. You told me it was.
Whereas if you are advertising the Marvel Cinematic Universe roleplaying game, people are going to give you way more slack. It’s like, yeah, realistically Tony Stark should just kill everyone with his super guns, but it’s fine, whatever. We’ll all agree to pretend that Black Widow can still fight in combat against people who are like Iron Man and Captain America’s strength level. We will all accept that polite fiction because we like Black Widow and she’s cool. And that’s the kind of universe this is.
So, we were talking about weapons at some point. In general in fantasy, most systems are not prepared to deal with guns. Guns just bring a certain level of realism, even if they aren’t mechanically real like in DnD. Nothing ruins my DnD immersion like someone pulling out a gun. I have a hard enough time accepting the DnD hit-point system when it’s swords. And then it’s like, I pulled out a gun and I shot you. And I did a 1d12 damage and it’s like, well, I have 60 hit-points, so…
Wes: Good job?
Oren: Yeah, I guess I just have a lot of bullets inside me now. [laughter] Because I’ve been shot a bunch of times, but I’m fine, I just have a bullet storage facility somewhere. And then the game tries to be like, oh, but it’s abstract. It’s not actually how much damage you’ve taken. And it’s like, then why is it called cure serious wounds. If I didn’t have a serious wound, what were you curing with that spell?
Chris: It’s all exhaustion points. You just get a good night’s sleep. Instant rest.
Oren: Right. As opposed to something like Seventh Sea, which actually is super abstract. And in Seventh Sea, I’m much more willing to suspend my disbelief and be like, Yeah, whatever. I got shot by a gun and took a bunch of flesh wounds. That gun grazed me. It’s fine. Guns do that in this setting.
Chris: Yeah, because Seventh Sea has an almost narrative flavor to it, where you get a flesh wound or dramatic wound, that’s how it works? So it’s almost like fighting is wearing down your plot shield. You’re a character who has plot shield because you’re important to the plots. You can’t die. But the more somebody shoots at you, the more you’re plot shield wears down.
Oren: So my favorite thing about plot shields is that enough designers know what those are now and they’re aware of the concept and they basically try to use it as an excuse for any time their damage system doesn’t make sense. It’s like, [desperate game designer voice] it’s a plot shield guys. Just, you know, it’s, it’s dramatic. You see – you know what a plot shield is. And it’s like, yes, I know what a plot shield is and I’m glad you know what one is. That’s not what’s going on here. This is not a plot shield. You have created a game where every combat round is six seconds and I can attack a certain number of times in those six seconds and I do damage based on how big my weapon is. You can’t tell me that this is all some like, abstract pool of plot shield points.
Chris: It’s like a super simulationist system.
Oren: Right. You can’t just use that as filler every time a crack appears in your combat system. Evidence suggests you can. I just wish you wouldn’t.
Oh man, my favorite. Okay, so some of my favorites. I don‘t know how to super solve the gun problem, but some of my favorite weird weapons are when they put artillery pieces on the weapons lists. The Mistborn game has stats for a dueling cane, sword, bow and arrow, catapult. There’s just a catapult on the list.
Chris: Can my character have a catapult?
Chris: Can I just carry it around with me and use it?
Oren: According to the Mistborn Adventure system, yes.
Chris: Take it to the ball?
Oren: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
Chris: Yeah, I duel with a catapult.
Oren: The way the weapon is statted, I can’t find anything to suggest you can’t just carry it around with you.
Chris: That’s amazing.
Oren: Right? It’s great. Fifth does the same thing. The dungeon master guide has rules for targeting players with trebuchets and it’s like, wow, this has gotten so cartoony, just imagining characters running around as trebuchets hurl rocks at them. That’s not how trebuchets work, but I still kind of love it.
One thing that I would recommend trying to design around or like trying to come up with a house rule for or get ahead of and explain is, and a lot of this can be traced back to DnD, but these weird proficiency limits where wizards can use knives like daggers and quarter staffs and it’s like, why? Why do wizards use daggers and quarterstaffs? Who decided that? A quarter staff is not an easy weapon to use. It’s actually very hard to use properly. It’s easier to teach someone to use a sword that it is to use a quarterstaff. Same thing with knives. Knife-fighting is hard. It’s one of the hardest kinds of combat there is.
Chris: Right. And I remember in, at least I think it was in 3.5, is that starting out as a rogue you get a dagger. The dagger does just a tiny bit of damage. Do you know what happens when you stab somebody? It’s bad. It’s real bad. It’s a real lethal weapon. It’s just dangerous to use. But DnD translates that to doesn’t do much damage.
Oren: Right. And even realistic systems have that problem. Like Burning Wheel, super gritty and realistic, has the problem where it’s really easy to just stab someone five times with a knife and have it basically do nothing. And I tried to make a knife fighter in Burning Wheel, and I realized I was just spitting into the wind. It was pointless. The knife is just a completely unviable weapon. And it’s like, man, you stab somebody to death with a knife. It happens. Knives are very common murder weapons.
Chris: How many systems have throwing knife mechanics? Are any of them good?
Oren: Umm, no.
Oren & Wes: Not a single one.
Chris: [laughter] Not a single one. That’s the other thing about knives is that they can be a ranged weapon too. Which give them an advantage over a sword, which you don’t usually throw.
Oren: Well there are weird, specific DnD builds that basically allow you to basically be a knife action hero and do a lot of damage that way. But they require you to be a really high level and take a very specific build that no player is ever going to figure out on their own.
Wes: And realistically, who wants to throw their weapons away? I’d rather keep it with me, please.
Oren: That’s another weird thing, where you get into what I call stand-and-deliver combat, which is your sort of standard DnD style where it’s theoretically abstract, but it plays very simulationistly where you’re moving around a board and it’s like, you can imagine narratively, there would be a reason why in this fight, you would want to throw your weapon, because it gives you a bit of range and you could hit them before they hit you and take them out, but it DnD, that’s basically impossible. So all throwing your weapon does is mean you don’t have a weapon anymore and even if you hit them, it’s like, well, I hit them. My 1d8 of damage. And now I don’t have a weapon. Now the attack me because we both have 50 hit points, right?
Chris: Yeah. I think in the movies, when somebody pulls out a throwing knife, they have one of those big trench coats and the interior of the trench coat is just lined with knives.
Oren: Just knives everywhere.
Chris: I mean, even like arrows a lot of times or are you supposed to keep track of your arrows in DnD?
Oren: I mean, you’re supposed too. But literally no one does.
Chris: But you know, you just abstract, like whatever, I have more arrows, I’m just gonna not count my arrows. You could do that with knives. It’s like, yeah I’m just gonna not. I have some knives. Not gonna count them. Just magically appears back.
Wes: Well, that’s straight up goddess of death, right? Hela’s real power is that she has infinite knives.
Oren: All right, so we’re pretty much out of time. So I think the end result of where I was going with this rant is that in general, if you don’t have a good way of representing different weapons, it’s better to just abstract them. If you don’t have a way to make crossbows worth using in your game, because you can’t have them do realistic damage, but your instinct is, well they should take longer to reload because they’re crossbows, and it’s like, yeah, but they don’t crush people’s sternums the way they do in real life, so they’re useless in your game, then it’s okay to just abstract them and call them all bows. It’s just fine. Just do that. They’re abstracted now. That’s better than offering a bunch of suboptimal choices that your system doesn’t actually have the robustness to represent properly.
All right, and with that we are out of time. Those of you at home, if there is anything we said that piqued your interest you can leave a comment at the ythcreants.com. Otherwise we will talk to you next week.
As your eyes open, a haunting melody fades to silence. Strange symbols circle the floor. And someone lying next to you is dead. Can you put the pieces together before you meet your doom? Find out by playing our stand-alone RPG, the Voyage. For sale on mythcreants.com.[closing song]
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