Sunday, October 12, 2014

Weapon Lists (Still not a bug)

I touched on this last post but had more to say after I posted, so here goes:

The only time you don't need any form of weapon list in an RPG is when combat with weapons is never going to be an issue in your game otherwise some differences between weapons should manifest themselves within the game and are easily expressed in the weapon list.

There is good reason armies of antiquity sent most to battle with spears and that is because a spear is far more effective in mass combat and skirmish than is a knife. A firearm one can discharge 6 times a minute presents one with many opportunities that one would lack if their firearm could be fired but 2 times a minute. A boxer would be at a decided disadvantage vs a medieval knight in full armor bearing a longsword regardless of skills in pugilism. Different weapons and skill with those weapons serve the combatant differently in different situations and one way to detail and expose these difference to the player of and RPG is the weapon list.

Let’s say you are playing a Soap Opera RPG in a standard soap opera t.v. universe, the differences between weapons are not going to matter as a weapon in such a game is a plot device and window dressing that is part of some other dramatic incident that is the important part such as a robbery, kidnapping, or even a murder.  A weapon list would be pointless in this setting as except for rare and dramatic situations the weapons are inconsequential and the drama could be driven as equally well with a shotgun, 9mm pistol, or a crossbow.  A weapon list only lacks merit in a setting where weapons are not used to resolve major elements of the game.

If you have a game with a wide range of potential targets for violence and violence is a fair possibility one is doing a diservice to players of the game by not having a weapon list.  If one class of targets is easier harmed by blunt weapons and another is less likely to be harmed with pointy weapons that simple difference itself is worth noting. If weapons with more than one characteristic are possible and present within the setting they will surely be of greater utility and higher desirability to players that are likely to engage in combat as well and those distinctions should be apparent in some manner.

Now let’s change gears and move to a game about grave robbing. Weapons are mostly useless here as well in a mundane universe but if the game milieu is one where treachery and violence rear their ugly heads now and again the differences between weapons become more important. But what is important in this setting in how a weapon impacts one’s sneakiness and how much loot-space it takes up (generally it’s weight). Effectiveness against armor deserves little if any attention as armor isn’t a feature of the game, different damage ratings don’t matter as the difference in vitality between target 1 and 2 don’t much matter as the weapon is use to force the actions of others as well as harm others. All we are really going to need on this chart is weapon size and attention one gets because of the weapon we don’t need many additional stats as it isn’t a game about tactical maneuvering. Games do not have to follow the same patterns as other games in expressing the traits of weapons within the game.

Next let us consider an RPG where combat is generally resolved in an abstract format that gives some vague handwaving attention to tactics by recognizing the use of ranks in combat, by ranks where i mean fighting lines. Weapons should differentiate themselves by hoes many ranks away they can reach and if they can be used past ranks of allies as either element would have impact on combats played between ranks. It isn’t unrealistic as combat between armies and even skirmish level battles did and can depend on formation and a simple rank ordering can simulate some more cumbersome and unnecessary details re positioning.

An important consideration in weapon lists is how long the differences will remain valid within the game/campaign. If a statistic eventually becomes meaningless as characters advance in weapon mastery was a specific score ever really necessary? If the details grow with the characters they most certainly should be expressed. The BECMI/rules cyclopedia versions of D&D had a style of weapon mastery where weapon statistics grew with characters and the role and effectiveness of weapons would shift to meet growing capabilities of the character. On the contrary however if weapon damage was tied mainly to character capability there may be no reason to express a difference between weapons re damage, if other aspects of the differences between weapons remain as a character advances some can readily be abandoned to reduce clutter.

What can be said about weapons any way? Length, Weight, Reach (tied to length but skill and tactics can alter the true reach of a weapon in combat), hands needed, attack speed, ammunition capacity, effective range, ability to inflict damage, armor penetration, ease of training,durability, defensive capability, recovery/recall, readiness, and cost  are all some that come to mind. That ’s a lot to say about each and every weapon and it’s unlikely a campaign would have to express all of those things (and I’m sure some folks can think of other things to express as well).  A weapon list should only include those features of combat that will be a constant (or near constant) in a campaign and those features should be made useable and meaningful within the game. Look at weapon speed in AD&D few people I know ever bothered with it as it was poorly understood and a barrier to quick play that was a detail cluttering up the weapon list because it’s application (as written) made little difference to the players.

I’ve noticed players are loathe to include details of weapons and equipment that do not offer them advantages or are seldom an issue in play. If a DM feels those details are unworthy of the campaign those details should be removed from the list. I had to lay down the law in a recent campaign and badger some of my players to keep track of Weapon Speed Factors in my campaign as the way the mechanics were applied and the offsets they brought along with them made weapon choices meaningful to how I wanted combat to run in the campaign (fortunately the majority of players agreed and the mechanic worked well as used within the game), if the mechanic wasn’t a constant issue and worked poorly it would have had no business being on there weapon list. Players should have clear access to all the meaningful details of the weapons in a campaign in one place without having to flip through multiple parts of the rules to keep track of multiple features and this should encourage accurate recording and use of those details.

So a bit of rambling but all in all weapon lists are not a bug in RPG if combat is a likely or meaningful portion of the game.  Yes if all you give someone to solve their problems with is a hammer a whole lot of problems are going to be treated as nails but if you give people the right tools to get the job done there will be stories that flow from that.


  1. 'I tell stories about my games, I don't use my games to tell stories.' I love that. But I confess to being slightly confused by the topic. Is there a movement to drop weapon lists from RPGs? When you say 'weapon lists' do you really mean 'lists of weapons that differ in ways that are meaningfully reflected in the rules mechanics' or some such, or do you just mean weapons lists? Personally, I think as an aesthetic element, weapon lists are sort of central to D&D or any related game, almost in the same way that classes are. After all, it's a game whose core is combat--even though actual combat should probably only make up a relatively small portion of game time, if that makes sense. But the weapons define the tone and setting as much as anything does. You want gritty medieval, here's a poleaxe. You want Elizabethan, here's a snaphance pistol. And so on.

    1. "Is there a movement to drop weapon lists from RPGs?"

      I believe it's a reference to John Wick's post about D&D not being an RPG

  2. Thinking about the soap opera RPG, even there you would have use for a simplified weapon list. Weapons would have two 'stats':

    Range: Melee, short or long?
    Lethality: Knocks out, wounds or kills?

    1. MaYbe for some modern soapy dramas but in traditional soaps character survival (and return to air time) is based on plot and character not the weapon used. A character in a soap can be machnegunned in a plane that crrashes in the amazon in a gant fireball and wake up the middle of next season in a hospital bed.

    2. That's just a matter of 'death' not being something that necessarily sticks.

      If you want to 'kill' someone, (which could mean 'put in a coma' or other long-term removal as an active character), you need to use a lethal weapon, (or go to extreme measures with a lesser weapon). Also, the lethality of the weapon matters for how fast/cleanly the kill occurs, (e.g. a shotgun gets a 'kill' on anything but a marginal success while fists require either many attacks or extremely high levels of success).