Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cutting Edge Weaponry

A while ago my youngest son had asked me why it was that clerics were not allowed to use swords and bows. I explained, from rote memory, that this was part of game balance as well as trying to emulate a particular archetype. He cocked his head at me which usually means he's not buying it.

Frankly, I don't like my answer either. I was spoon fed this explanation after years of playing and haven't really questioned it for a long time. I decided to take a long look at it since I've been formulating my plans for Icosa. I'm taking the 'question everything' approach.

Obviously the original three classes in OD&D (fighting-man, magic-user and cleric) were meant to bring to life a particular type of character from swords & sorcery literature and/or medieval history. The fact that magic-users (wizards) were limited to so few weapons and so narrow an archetype has rankled players for decades. Clerics too seem to be too narrowly focused.

My original thought was to free up at least the choice of weapons. S&W White Box gives 1d6 as the range of damage for all weapons (+1 for large weapons and -1 for small weapons). With every weapon essentially having the same mechanical effect, why not abolish weapon restrictions?

This line of thinking stems from the belief that amount of weapon damage is tied to the various classes - high damage weapons to fighters, average damage weapons to clerics and low damage to magic-users. This doesn't hold much water before some of the revisions in AD&D. Still, the White Box rules, based on OD&D, seems to level the playing field, so why the restrictions?

I stumbled on the answer as I was looking for aspects of D&D that would support elements of the Cthulhu Mythos. I was flipping through the listings of magic items searching for magical tomes when it hit me - magical weapons. The magical weapons, as well as other items, were clearly aligned with specific classes. Fighters get the widest selection of magical weapons, but they are the sole users of magic swords, the most common item in fantasy literature. This is why clerics can't use edged weapons - niche protection. So if I want to open up weapon choices in classes, how do I remedy this without seriously unbalancing the game and keeping the fighter's niche intact?

The solution seems pretty simple. Weapons of a magical sort could be used by any class just like normal weapons - a +1 sword works equally as well in hands of any of the classes. However, a sword +1, +3 vs. Dragons will only grant the additional bonus (special ability vs. Dragons) when wielded by fighters. A +1 blunt weapon that destroys undead will only act as a +1 weapon in anyone's hands except for clerics who can call upon the special ability. This opens up a world of variety now. The possibilites are endless for magical weapons (or armor) that only grant special abilities when wielded by a specific class or race.

Now this is not really a new thing. The venerable Holy Avenger has special properties that could be tapped by Paladins in AD&D and there have been many, many items before and after it that have done the same thing. For me this realization is the completing of a circuit in my brain that will let me do what I wanted to do with S&W for Icosa and not break the game. Now my son can have a sword-wielding, arrow-slinging cleric and not steal the fighter's thunder. Personally I'm looking forward some sword- or axe-wielding magic-users slinging spells into the fray. Maybe next I'll look at letting the magic-users wear armor (sacrilege!).

Follow Your Bliss,


  1. Another option for niche-protection, which could be used in conjunction with the class-specific bonus system you describe, is to use class-based damage.

    For example, all one-handed weapons do the following damage:

    d4 when wielded by a Magic User
    d6 when wielded by a Cleric or Thief
    d8 when wielded by a Fighter

    This way, that generic +1 longsword in the hands of the Fighter will do more damage than it would in the hands of the bookworm mage.

    There's also the added benefit that when all one-handed weapons do the same damage, players feel much more free to adopt a weapon for flavor, rather than for the mechanical advantage it confers.

  2. Clerics not using edged weapons might have come from a historical background. Bishop Odo of Bayeux is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry wielding a mace like object and it's been proposed this was to keep from shedding blood or bearing the arms of war. But, his brother Duke William is also shown with a similar item, so the mace might just be a symbol of power/authority.

  3. @Flip, Great idea, a very elegant approach.

    I still like the idea of all weapons doing 1d6. This means even a magic-user can dispatch a normal human with just one hit. This could go a long way to giving low level m-u's more to do during combat.

    I like giving players more options and the fact that all weapons are mechanically the same would let players really choose something that fits their image of the character.

    Of course, I have yet to play this way with my group, but I'm looking forward to it.

    Thanks for the comment.

  4. @Isaac, thanks for the background. I think the mace as a symbol of power is very cool and befitting the cleric. I think that for Icosa it is too closely tied to our history.

    Now I need to think about the an appropriate symbol of power for the various religions in Icosa. More food for thought.


  5. I would allow priests to use those weapons ordained by their deity; for example priests of Diana the Huntress would be allowed to use bows and priests of Ares the Warrior would be allowed to use the spear and the gladius.

    There are several reasons why I prefer weapon restriction by class:

    It is HISTORICALLY ACCURATE, in the past humans defined their role by the weapons with which they concentrated their training:
    Samurai specialized with the naginata, the katana and the bow,
    Medieval mercenaries excelled in the use of the crossbow,
    Renaissance infantry trained either with the pike or the musket,
    and Modern infantry are trained with assault rifles and light machineguns,
    while pistols are reserved for officers and
    submachingeguns are reserved for special forces.

    TRUE OCCULT LITERATURE does not support sword welding mages. The sword/ blade/ anthem used by traditional magicians is not a weapon but a focus of occult or spiritual energy; see Familiar Spirits by Donald Tyson, Finding the Third Eye by Vera Stanley Adler and Three Books of Occult Philosophy by Cornelius Agrippa. (yes, I have read all three – for education purposes- I am not a self-proclaimed magician or occultist).

    Authors like Jack Vance and Michael Morcock allow their spell casting protagonists to use swords; however, I do not consider Turjan and Elric to be true wizards, I would classify them as agents or jacks-of-all-trades (fighter/thief/mage) for which I have created a special class in my DnD campaigns to emulate these characters.

    Weapon restriction by class helps the GM to AVOID THE JERK factor; if I place a +1 battle-axe in my game, I understand it is going to be used by the fighter, the barbarian or the warrior. I do not want to sit through a 20 minute argument while the magic-user, thief or the priest tries to justify why their character would be best served by owning the +1 battle axe. If I want to power-up the non-fighter types I will added an enchanted staff, short-sword or mace to the treasure haul.

    NOW, instead of using weapon proficiencies (AD&D), I presume PCs will invest their down time between gaming session refining their skill with their current selection of armaments; therefore, characters are proficient with all weapons allowed to their class.

    I respect individual GMs right to create their own worlds and campaigns containing their own unique flavors and tastes; therefore, weapons available to a character class would be agreed upon or modified before game play commences.

    Now players being players, they always want to bend the rules or operate outside of their character’s expertise.
    I simulate the probability of a PC successfully deploying a weapon not standard to their class
    or attempting a skill for which they have no training by
    rolling d12 (instead of d20) allowing the normal modifiers.

  6. @Clovis - Thanks for that insightful comment. You did point out something that I neglected to mention in my post, probably 'cuz I'm streaming consciousness when I write.

    Icosa _is_ inspired by Elric. In fact the basic building blocks of Icosa = Elric + Cthulhu. So I'm not as interested in being historically accurate as I am of being true to the pulp fantasy feel. I have not decided yet how weapons will be associated with caste, but your reply has prompted me to explore more of the "deity ordained" weapons approach for clerics.

    Vance is also an inspiration, primarily because the magic system of S&W (and all of D&D for that matter) is based on his 'Dying Earth' series.

    In the end, S&W is a toolkit with which to build a campaign. I'm trying to get back to the root of the hobby to find out why I dig it so much. I think the do-it-yourself mentality of the hobby really clicks with me.

    Plus, I just realized another cool element of lifting weapons (and possibly to a limited extent, armor) restrictions with class: identification. If the party encounters a group of maurauders all carrying swords and spears, which one is the cleric and which is the magic-user?

    After typing the previous paragraph I realized that clerics may still be wearing or carrying something that identifies them as such, but not the case with the magic-user. This tactic may extend the life expectancy of mages by camouflaging them in the group. No more, "Kill the one in the robes!" Well, they would remain hidden until they cast their first spell.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking comment.