If one is to discuss combat in RPGs, one might as well start with the medieval fantasy genre that still dominates the industry. For many games, hand-to-hand (or hand-to-tentacle, hand-to-claw, hand-to-mouth . . . ) combat is a central point of the game, hearkening back to the origin of fantasy RPGs in wargaming.
This column will look at several classic weapons that might be brought to bear on foes. A relatively inexpensive set of weapons that are mostly for brawlers and massed militia: the club, axe (weaponized), and a spear. On the other side of the coin, we have more classic weapons of war and status: a one-handed sword, a mace, a warhammer (which is really an armor-piercing pick), and a pollaxe.
Just to establish a common ground, here are the weapons.
Club: a lightweight piece of wood, perhaps even found lying around. In its refined form, it might be the handle of a tool, or its evolution into the roughly two-foot baton. Just a few feet of wood used for bashing. Clubs often lack a good concentration of weight, and are lighter than equivalent swords (usually they’re just wood).
Axe: A single-bitted axe on a handle that will often range from about 27” to about 33”. This is a weapon, rather than a woodsman’s tool. It can be used one or two-handed, and often the axe blade is a bit hooked (a “bearded” axe) which allows it to hook shields or limbs. Terrible chopping blows with the weighted blade.
Spear: A shorter spear, perhaps six to eight feet long with a pointy end that goes into the other man. This is neither a long spear of eight to twelve feet in length, nor a pike, nor a javelin designed for throwing. More of the length used in Viking reenactments. Strongly reinforced spears are good for delivering penetrating wounds and keeping a foe at bay.
Sword: Something like an Oakeshott Type XVII, which is a hand-and-a-half sword with a blade that might be 34-40” or so. These blades featured a strong hexagonal cross-section and a point engineered for a strong thrust – claimed to be for armor piercing. Most weigh in at the usual sword weight of about two pounds, but some extant samples can be as much as five, very heavy for a real sword. Against an unarmored foe, especially, swords can deliver huge, gaping wounds.
Mace: This would be a footman’s mace, which is basically a baton-length piece of wood or metal with a heavy, weighted end. They tend to weigh about as much as swords (two or three pounds), but with the mass strongly concentrated at the tip. The concussion would do a number through most flexible armor and could dent and buckle certain types of metal armor.
Warhammer: If you’re going to stand a chance against heavy metal armor, go with a weapon with the weight and balance of a mace, but put a giant freakin’ spike on the business end. In modern days it would be called a pick, and D&D calls it a “military pick.” One of the only handheld weapons that even stands a chance at punching through properly made plate armor.
Pollaxe: When you can’t settle on a spear, a mace, an axe, or a warhammer, you might as well put them all together. Usually man-high, they were designed to help face men in full plate. They usually bore two of a mace/hammer-head, an axe blade, or a warhammer pick, and then mounted a dagger-like spear point on the tip, and a short spike on the butt end. It was a footman’s weapon.
In D&D, the damage that is done to a foe is given by the weapon in the main, but modified for both hitting your foe and doing damage by the user’s STR, which for fighter types will usually be a bonus from +0 to +5 (for STR 10 through STR 20). For hitting, not only does the STR bonus get added but you gain a proficiency bonus as well. The damage type is useful when attacking certain types of monsters.
The club and mace are cousins, doing 1d4 and 1d6 bludgeoning damage. A typical fighter will often have a very high STR bonus, so a club is very nearly an accessory to a fighter’s strength, while a mace does 1d6. Against a 6-10 HP low-level foe, one or two blows will suffice to drop an opponent. The axe described above is called a Battleaxe in D&D, while the warhammer is a “war pick.” Both do 1d8 damage, either slashing for the axe or piercing for the war pick; the battleaxe does a bit more damage at 1d10 when used with two hands. With proper strength, any of these is pretty much a one-blow fight-ender against a mook.
The knightly weapons of sword and pollaxe are translated as a longsword (1d8 slashing) and either a halberd or glaive in D&D. A glaive is a poor fit (as is the pike, for that matter) which leaves the halberd, identical to the glaive for stats at 1d10 slashing. The longsword can do 1d10 in two hands, while the glaive and halberd are both two handed weapons that give an extra five feet of reach.
Of interest is that even weapons that historically could be used for multiple attack methods – especially weapons like the pollaxe, which traditionally will have a piercing stabbing mode, and possibly a swung hammer and axe. One weapon with three potential damage types. The longsword can only slash; it does not have a thrusting mode (piercing).
There are no true weapon skills, but there are categories of weapons with which certain classes may be proficient. This allows you to add your proficiency bonus (+2 to +6 depending on level) to your hit roll, but has no impact on damage (unless paired with a Feat like Great Weapon Master which allows trading -5 to hit for +10 damage; the proficiency bonus here allows that penalty to be more easily absorbed).
A fighter in Savage Worlds is likely going to have something like a d10 in both Strength and Fighting, or a d12 in Fighting and a d6 or d8 in Strength. The attack rolls are made versus Fighting, but damage is a combination of your Strength die and weapon damage adder. And given how Savage Worlds dice explode, rolling two dice is a very, very good thing.
For hand weapons, then, what does the game provide?
Well, in Savage Worlds Deluxe, the simple club and mace are not listed. We can make a guess, though. A quarterstaff does Str+d4, and an axe does Str+d6. We can guess a club is either Str+2 or Str+d4, and an axe and a mace really only vary in damage type, which doesn’t seem to be addressed, so Str+d6 for the mace is probably not far off. There is a battle axe, though, at Str+d8, and what seems to be a proper Warhammer at Str+d6, but getting benefits to penetrate rigid armor.
As expected, the spear and halberd (there’s no pollaxe entry, though this isn’t surprising – differentiating between a true halberd and the pollaxe is just darn rare) get extra reach for both, Str+d6 for a spear, Str+d8 for the 15-lb (!!) halberd.
The knightly sword does Str+d8 (the Japanese katana does Str+d6+2, for the same upper end of damage but a higher minimum) and weighs 8 lbs.
An aside: I think many games tend to get weapon weights drastically wrong. Savage Worlds is not unique in this regard. The world seems full of 5- or 10-pound swords and other oddness. My wife’s Korean-style sword is something like just under 2 pounds, a modern replica of a type XVII is about 3 lbs, while a true two-handed Landsknecht sword can be between 5-6 lbs (and I’ve seen lighter). Practical battlefield weapons tend to be in the 2-4 pound range, likely due to constraints of human physiology and the needs of defense.
In addition to Str and the weapon’s damage die, if you successfully strike your foe with a Raise (four above your target number), you add a third potentially exploding damage die to the mix, but always a d6.
If you exceed your foe’s Toughness (2 plus half his Vigor), he’s Shaken, while each Raise (four over target number) causes a wound. A disposable Extra is removed from play as soon as they take a single Wound, but an important Wild Card (a PC or major NPC) is only removed after the fourth wound is taken. In either case, a Vigor roll is made, resulting in death, permanent injury, or temporary injury.
If d6 is an average trait, a typical foe will have Toughness 5. The probabilities of dropping a foe are such that an extra will be taken out (Shaken plus one Raise) in one blow 38% of the time with a d6+d4 blow (pretty feeble), and 65% of the time with a d10+d8. Toss in a Raise on the hit, for a third die (always d6), and our extra drops about 89% of the time. Against a Wild Card, two to four such blows will tend to fell the opponent, but you can actually one-shot the Wild Card (granted, three dice, and those being a high Str, a good weapon, and a Raise for damage) about one time in six.
In GURPS, your ability to hit is dictated by your skill, and damage given mostly by your strength, with the chosen weapon providing damage boosts. GURPS differentiates between thrust and swung weapons, with swung weapons doing more damage (more or less 2x). The damage type of crushing, cutting, and impaling modifies the rolled number (which is best understood as a penetration number, but delving into that concept is for another time) to get final injury levels.
Interestingly enough, the light club is related most closely to the knightly sword, in this case using the Broadsword skill – such is the case with all one-handed, balanced weapons including katana, cavalry sabers, and edged rapiers. In this case the club does either sw+1 or thr+1 if swung or poked at the foe. A typical warrior type is likely to have ST 14 or so (about twice as much lift capacity as Joe Average) so that will be 2d+1 (all dice are six-sided in GURPS) or 1d+1 crushing damage. The knightly sword is a Thrusting Bastard Sword, doing 2d+1 cut or 1d+2 impale. If you want just a tetch more damage, you can swing with two hands for +1 damage.
The way GURPS damage works, that results in an average of 12 HP injury on the swing (average of 8, x1.5 for cutting damage type) or 11 HP injury on the thrust. Why thrust? You can target the vitals on the thrust, increasing injury to about 18 HP. Any of those is enough to make an average (or not-so-average in the second case) foe start rolling for KO.
Axes, maces, and picks (the Warhammer) are likewise related by skill (oddly enough, the Axe/Mace skill), which is for unbalanced one-handed weapons. The classic medieval mace, with plenty of room for two-handed use, will do 2d+3 crushing damage for our ST 14 warrior, while an axe will do 2d+2 cut (a fearsome 13.5 HP on the average). A one-handed pick is 2d+1 imp, average 16 HP impaling damage, while a much larger two-handed proper Warhammer does a massive 2d+4 imp (and two yards of reach) for 22 HP per blow, enough to force a death check in one shot.
The pole weapons, the spear and the pollaxe, are also treated, with the short spear being 1d+2 imp in one hand, or 1d+3 imp and an extra yard of reach in two. The pollaxe is a special kind of badass in GURPS, with three attack modes, and all of them nasty with a one or two yard reach. The spear tip thrusts for 1d+3 imp, the beak can be swung at 2d+3 imp, and an axe blade hits at 2d+4 cut. Any can fell an unarmored man in one blow, and the swung modes, on the average, will start an opponent making death checks in one hit.
This really, really isn’t the game to bring out medieval weaponry, in the main, but when you absolutely, positively need to sever the head of a vampire or one of their minions, you make a Weapons roll and that covers it.
In fact, all of the weapons listed fall under the same damage type except maybe the club, which is -1 to damage. A mace might be a heavy club at +0, and the rest are in the category of sword and axe, at +1. The roll being modified is a simple 1d6. It might be tempting to give the swung pole weapon a +2, but given the example for a +2 damage is a .50 BMG (a .50 caliber bullet with something like 13,000 Joules of energy), I feel pretty good in lumping all of the weapons into that +1 category.
A frightened civilian will have Health 2, a militiaman might be Health 4, and serious foes might be Health 6-8 on the human side (a Spec Ops solider is Health 8, for example). So any “real” weapon other than a light club or mace is likely 1d6+1 against a Health from 2-8. You need to get to -6 to really risk unconsciousness, which means 8-14 total Health depletion to drop a given foe. At 2-7 points per hit, one will need to score a couple of hits – or use the Called Shot rules to increase damage – to drop a villain that qualifies as a threat. The Night’s Black Agents mantra of letting the heroes be awesome (“Player-facing Combat”) means that truly faceless threats can simply be neutralized with a point spend.
Still, when push comes to shove, there’s very little differentiation in weapons, by design.
As with Night’s Black Agents, the focus is on the charaters and their story, not their gear – at least for the most part. The rules in Fate Core don’t really go into detail there – the damage you do on an attack is related to your Fight skill and any Aspects you invoke.
There is a rule tucked into the back of the book under Extras, which suggests that we classify the light club as a 2-shift weapon, most one-handed weapons as 3-shift, and two-handed weapons as 4-shift. In this lexicon, the mace, axe, sword, spear, and a one-handed Warhammer are all 3-shift weapons, while the pollaxe is a 4-shift weapon.
It’s hard to say how much damage one can do, because that depends on your skill and invoked Aspects as well as that of your foe. A “regular” attack by a Good fighter (+3) hitting with a +3 weapon (!) will on the average do 6 shifts of impact to the foe, enough for a pretty serious Consequence. Two of those, or even a good roll, and the foe is down and out of the fight.
Weapon characteristics beyond that are left to the narrative flow of the story. Weapons can notionally be treated as an Aspect, so a spear might have the Aspect “The Foe at Bay,” where you can use it to Attack at a Distance, or even Create an Advantage or Defend by claiming a benefit (and spending the Fate point) of the length of the shaft.
GURPS, D&D, and Savage Worlds all provide a strong equipment focus: what weapon you use matters. Interestingly, none of the three make it matter that much in terms of the weapon itself. A strong fighter in D&D (say, +4 or +5 to STR) cutting with a one-handed sword (1d8) or a more massive weapon (1d10) is still doing about 50% of their damage from the STR bonus rather than the weapon itself. If you want more damage, you need special feats, more strength, or the usual standby: more attacks per round as a virtue of higher level.
Likewise with GURPS, so long as you’re in “normal guy” territory, the +1 to +4 damage bonus on commonly-found weapons is less important than the fighter’s ST score (each point of extra ST is basically one extra point of swing damage, and a half-point of thrust), and maybe even more importantly, the damage type. Swung cutting weapons like axes (sw+2 cut) combined with ST 17 adds up to 3d+1 cut – a typical die roll of 11-12 points, for injury in the 16-18 range. Swung impaling weapons like picks are 20 HP per blow type weapons at that ST score. If you want more damage, you can use higher skill to target more vulnerable areas, such as the legs (cripple or sever!), vitals (extra injury), neck (extra injury, plus satisfying chance of decapitation), or skull (the brain is a x4 injury multiplier).
Savage Worlds blends Strength with weapon in basically equal measure, and you can do as well or better ensuring you get a Raise for the extra d6 that might explode as picking precisely the right hand weapon.
Night’s Black Agents and Fate take the opposite tack, where by default it’s the character action and narration that matter, with small shifts for weapon use. Using the optional rule in Extras in Fate (Fate Core, p. 277) provides differentiation . . . but in the box on the next page, the authors caution against the implications of providing so much detail, especially with high-shift weaponry.
Night’s Black Agents and Fate are well suited to cinematic realities where Natasha Romanov can go hand-to-hand with her electro-zapper things against an army of Chitauri and all that matters is how cool she looks doing it, or Jason Bourne is equally deadly with a rolled-up newspaper as he is with a .338 Lapua Magnum sniper rifle.
The other three games are, in essence, driven first by the character’s strength score. Weapon is about as useful as strength in D&D and Savage Worlds, while the big boost provided by weapon selection in GURPS is more about the damage type than the adds to STR . . . though that’s less true at low strength than high (at ST 10, which is 1d swing, an axe is a big deal, doing 1d+2 cut instead of a baton’s 1d cr (2.3x more injury).
In all cases, though, the designers have taken pains – mostly to wholly successfully – to put the character’s abilities at center stage, rather than their gear.