Thursday, January 21, 2010

[Article] Weapon Class

As with many war games, the Chain Mail mass combat rules uses a troop classification system that governs fighting ability, movement speed, morale, and so on. The concept of discrete classifications appears to have been carried over into the man-to-man system with reference to the arms and armour of the individual combatants. Instead of a verbal descriptor of type, such as “elite heavy foot, each classification of weapon and armour conceived was allocated a number. In the case of armour, a number from one to eight roughly indicated the degree of protection afforded, with a higher number being generally better. The list of weapons follows a similar pattern, but size, and perhaps also speed, appears to have been the final determinant, with spears and pikes most prominently disrupting the low to high values. Gygax diversified the list of pole-arms in issue #2 of The Strategic Review, and in issue #4 he introduced three new weapons that no longer had one class, but rather separate length and speed ratings. With a view towards a more precise representation of the capabilities of a given weapon this separation is entirely understandable, but it was a step away from the simple abstraction and utility of weapon classification.

Neither the Original Dungeons & Dragons alternative combat system, nor the Greyhawk expansion featured any element of the weapon class concept, though the infamous inverted armour class rating was by contrast an integral factor, that of the defender being compared to the fighting ability of the attacker to determine the probability of his scoring a hit. The Greyhawk expansion does introduce one new feature, though, which is the space required to either side of the character to make effective use of his weapon. This idea is of more import in the Swords & Spells supplement, where it has an impact on the spacing between soldiers and thus the number that may fight in a given frontage. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons combat system took note of all of this and assigned each weapon an individual rating for length, space, and speed. As with the Chain Mail man-to-man combat system, length determined which combatant struck first at the point of contact, but weapon speed was reduced to a tie breaking mechanism, though there are vestigial rules and indications in the text that suggest it was at one point envisioned as having a more significant and wide ranging role; the effect of space was left unexplained beyond its inclusion.

One of the stated design aims of the second edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was to simplify the combat system and make it more dynamic. It included all of the many weapons available in its predecessor, but left out any rules governing their length or the space required to use them effectively. Each weapon was categorised as one of three sizes that determined whether and in what manner it was usable by differently sized creatures; as to space, it was simply stated as a general guideline that two fighters with long swords and shields could fight side-by-side in a ten foot space. Nonetheless, speed factor was kept as an optional rule, elevated in importance as an initiative modifier and ignoring any ramifications with regard to “first strike”. Detail was added in the Complete Fighter’s Handbook, the Arms and Equipment Guide, various other supplements, and articles in Dragon magazine, but little that addressed the shortcomings of the underlying rules, mainly having the effect of expanding the weapon list into an unmanageable, unbalanced, and undesirable morass. The D20/3e weapon tables were, by comparison, a much needed reduction, but that system eventually fell prey itself to the same phenomenon of addition.

For my ongoing Silver Blade and Dunfalcon campaigns I have been experimenting with the introduction of a basic weapon class system as a parallel to the armour class system previously discussed here. Initially the idea was to simplify the weapons tables to a short list of reasonably balanced choices, which was connected to my thoughts on weapon techniques, and appeared in the Castles & Crusades society electronic Domesday magazine, after being reasonably well received on the Troll Lord Games forums. The document itself seems to have been a relatively popular download and can be accessed here for anybody curious. However, after becoming somewhat enamoured of the idea of armour class as a numerical classification that described more than just the defence rating of a combatant, I began seeking ways to apply the same principle to weapon class and revised the document to accord with that idea. Initially there were something like twelve classes that broadly accorded with the speed ratings in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but a recent revision has reduced the number to ten, prompted by an aesthetic sensibility for symmetry, but in practice a suitable solution to what had become something of a design conceit.

During the development of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which has often prompted me to consider what lies behind my own assumptions, it became apparent that in swords & sorcery adventure games there is a frequent oscillation between the abstract and the specific, both in terms of design and in the course of game sessions. This creates a sort of “zoom in” and “zoom out” effect where, depending on the preferences of the participants, a specific interaction may be role-played out or a die roll used to determine the outcome in a more abstract way. A similar thing can be observed in the class and subclass system, where a fighter or magician encompasses a very broad archetype, but their subclasses concentrate on much narrower subtypes, such as illusionist, necromancer, knight, or barbarian. This principle is selectively applied to weapons as well, to the extent that Gygax could write that the short sword “includes all pointed cutting & thrusting weapons with blade length between 15” and 24”, and yet have separate entries for the long sword, scimitar, falchion, broad sword, and bastard sword. Once recognised, though, it seems possible to adapt these disparate levels of granularity to better serve the game.

The general observation that there are at least two levels of abstraction in traditional swords & sorcery adventure games suggests a potential design paradigm for races, classes, equipment, exploration, and combat. For example, at the lower level of detail a player character might be described as a third level elf fighter with mail armour, large shield, and long sword, whilst at a higher level of detail he could become a third level wood-elf ranger with mail hauberk, large kite shaped shield, and leaf-shaped long sword. Of course, it is possible to get considerably more precise, but the greater level of abstraction is both the least information required for play and the most portable between systems and campaigns. This concept has come to a degree of fruition in the current draft of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, which is divided into basic and advanced (or expert) rules, especially with regard to classes and combat actions, though we remain somewhat undecided about its viability with regard to equipment. Nevertheless, for your entertainment, I have put the basic weapon class system that I have been using in my own swords & sorcery campaigns into a form compatible with OSRIC that can be downloaded here.


Timeshadows said...

An excellent article, and I also appreciate what you have done in that .pdf. Great stuff. :)

*Subscibed* :D

Matthew James Stanham said...

Nice to see you here, Timeshadows! Thanks for your kind words and glad you enjoyed mine. :D