Monday, November 27, 2017

Swords & Axes

I occasionally question the relevancy of some of my posts, given that I continue to live in a world affected by Advanced D&D from the late 70s, in a world full of players who know nothing except 4th and 5th edition.  So when I think of something like today's topic, I have to pause and ask myself, does this problem even exist now?

Still, it doesn't hurt to write to the three or four people who live in the past, like me.  So here goes something irrelevant.

One detail that always bothered me about long swords and battle axes might immediately leap to the reader's mind.  Given that both weapons do the same damage (original game), and given that the long sword can be used with a shield, because it is a one handed weapon, while the battle axe cannot, needing two hands, why would anyone ever choose a battle axe as a weapon?

Oh, of course some people will think that it's "cool," that swinging a battle axe in a fight gives a certain joie de vive, something that can't be gained from an every day weapon like a sword (in the opinion of some). Still, it would be preferred if there was a practical reason that made one weapon a better choice than the other.  The long sword clearly favors armor class.  What does the battle axe favor?

I could increase the damage done by a battle axe, say to a d8+1; but though I've often thought of that, it feels like wrong thinking.  The sword was ultimately a better weapon, being developed later and being more widespread.  Arguably, the battle axe ought to do less than a sword ... with the caveat that it seems like a terror weapon in the hands of the Vikings because most of those on the move would have been more hearty than their average victim.  The comparable damage of the battle axe to the long sword could just be a user strength bonus.

Still, let's not change the damage done by either weapon.

For years, I've been using a system of breaks and fumbles, so that a weapon can break at an inopportune moment in a combat, much to a player's distress.  At first, I used a system that weapons would break on a 1 in 6 ... but a few years ago, with my wiki, I adjusted some weapons so that they had a superiority in how likely they were to break.  For example, I adjusted the club so that it would break 1 in 4, reflecting a cheaper weapon with little or no craftsmanship.

I had the long sword/battle axe quandary in my head then, as it has been in my head since I began playing this game ... and because of that, I adjusted the battle axe so that it would break only 1 in 8, compared to the long sword's 1 in 6.  The justification?  There isn't one.  I just wanted an advantage for the battle axe.

Oh, we could pretend that the handle of the battle axe is springier than the sword, or that using two weapons means that it can be controlled better, or that it will land head first, protecting the handle, but this is all nonsense.  I can't give a viable argument at all and I won't pretend.

Something had just occurred to me yesterday, however ... which shows how scattered my thinking is half the time.  I'm writing about coins and working on a development/infrastructure system, yet my head jumps into an annoying problem that has been bugging me for years.

Here's my thought.

The weak point on a battle axe is the point where the handle meets the head.  If the weapon breaks, it ought to be the handle; the heavy blade of the battle axe ought to endure the bounce it takes on stones, or from hitting the opponent's armor, or whatever causes it to break.  Then, because of the way the head attaches to the handle, this is an easy fix.  During a respite, the head can be lashed to another handle in less than fifteen minutes, making the weapon combat effective again.

A sword's weak point is, again, where the blade meets the handle.  However, a sword is made so that it includes a metal protrusion that extends into the handle, which is then bound in wood and leather, making the sword and handle a single piece.  When a sword breaks, the weak point is where the working blade narrows into the part that makes the handle.  It is the metal that breaks.  Then, without that protrusion that enables the blade to be fitted into the handle, there's no easy way to repair the sword, not without a forge and a good deal of time.

I ought to reverse the chance of breaking ... make the sword harder to break than the battle axe.  Remaining would be the logic that when providing weapons to a lot of fighters, it's the battle axe that ought to be considered over the sword.  In the long run, it's cheaper.

Let's say a skirmish between two companies runs about twenty rounds before they break off.  Each company is a hundred men.  Twenty rounds of a two hundred combatants swinging is 4,000 rolls ... but what with people dying off and falling unconscious, lets say the two sides manage to roll half that number (I don't want to calculate an exact average).

That's an average of 100 drops and fumbles.  If 1 in 6 breaks, that's 16 broken weapons (so favors the average).  Likewise, 1 in 8 would be 12 breaks.  Divided evenly between the two companies, of course.

If the combatants are all using swords, and swords cost 20 g.p. apiece, 6 breaks a skirmish will count heavily against the company.  If every skirmish costs 120 g.p. (and worse, from weapons left on the battlefield from the dead), that's going to mount up over a season.

But if the company can recover its battle axe heads, they lose considerable less in capital every time they fight.  Wooden handles are cheap.  Even if the battle axe does break more often, and does need two hands, it has a considerable fiscal advantage over the sword.

Of course, now that I've written something about weapons, I can expect to be vilified for having all my facts wrong, that in fact battle axes and swords break differently than I've just explained and that it actually takes months to fit a new handle onto a battle axe head, or some other happy horseshit, as that is always the case with people who fight flame wars over weapon posts.  It's the risk I take when I blog on this subject.


S'mon said...

I think it's just BX/BECM D&D that has d8 damage 2-handed battle axes? The 1e PHB doesn't specify how many hands. The BX axe is clearly an inferior weapon since there is also the d10 damage unspecified polearm which could be a bardiche or halberd - and an axe is of course a pole arm, being a weapon with a pole.

In 1e we always treated the d8/d8 battle axe as a 1-handed weapon. IRL a 1-handed axe does more damage than a sword, typically, but is weak at parrying so only good with shield. 2-handed dane axe does massive damage, far far more than a 1-handed arming sword, so best to treat as d10 pole arm.

S'mon said...

Making swords more durable but harder to repair certainly makes sense; though axe hafts did not break often either. Having a poorly fitted head fly off is certainly possible, as is having a poorly forged sword bend. Both more likely than actual breaks.

Jomo Rising said...

We need to make sure that everyone understands and agrees that D&D should represent actual world history. I must justify my fragile ego and be right about something, to the wall. Kidding. It seems we have the full range to draw upon to make our game realities: The one-handed battle-ax that people we call Vikings sometimes used or the massive 2-hander that high-fantasy art gives us. We depend on the source-book or we make our own source-book. How much work do we want to do to represent our thoughts on the matter?

Giordanisti said...

I read this, and swore you'd posted about it before. 7 years ago:

Isn't this basically the same idea, with less concrete math?

Alexis Smolensk said...

You're saying that once every seven years is too often?

Just goes to show how much this original design overlook bothers me. And to be honest, it's not the exact same post.

David B said...

I'm not particularly familiar with editions of D&D before 3rd, but as of 5th, there is virtually no mechanical difference between a battleaxe and a longsword. I believe the axe weighs slightly more and the sword costs slightly more, but the difference is effectively stylistic. Other weapons (shortswords, spears, etc.) have different stats to differentiate them from battleaxes and longswords, which are the baseline go-to weapon for strength-based martial characters.

All this is to say: why not simply modify battleaxes to only require one hand, thus bringing them in line with longswords? The mechanical/balance concerns evaporate immediately, and, even with near-identical or identical stats, they both still have a reason to exist: it is a very different character who chooses an axe over a sword, and they may garner different reactions from NPCs depending on setting and genre. Swords could be associated with the aristocracy, axes with the peasantry; swords with civilization and axes with barbarism; swords with humans and axes with dwarves, and so on.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I like that the long sword and battle axe are different. Both need to have a positive and negative effect: if those effects are uncertain and can't be easily quantified, then that makes a GAME in itself. You say that it is a very different "character" who chooses an axe over a sword, but then we're basing the nature of the game on nothing more than player bias, not an effort to obtain a game improvement.

As you're making a familiar role-playing hand-wave argument, where the "different reactions from NPCs" is itself based on DM bias, I feel I need to post a quote on what "play" is:

"Play is an activity of freedom and openness and possibility ~ but it's one that arises from limiting our freedoms rather than expanding them. And it's why golf isn't just a nice walk ruined. Rather, as [Bernhard] Sweets put it, it's like asking us to accomplish something using only the means that are permitted by the rules of the game, where those rules prohibit us from doing so in a sensible way. They prohibit us from doing something efficiently, in favor of less efficient means ~ and in fact, where those rules of inefficiency are accepted, just because they make the activity possible. Otherwise, you just walk up and drop the ball in the hole."

Your comment basically asked me to walk up and drop the ball in the hole. Have you considered that this thinking is destructive?

Steven Grover said...

Typically in D&D 3.X and Pathfinder, bladed weapons have a higher chance of a crit while axes have a higher crit multiplier.

Thought: Change the 20 Critical system so the 2nd+ rolls are 19-20 for the some weapons to provide a mechanical benefit for not using a shield.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Way, way too much benefit! Double the chance of a crit? That's killing a mouse with a flamethrower.

Keltoi said...

Yep,19 -20 for swords and the like, and triple damage for axes and pick like weapons. The scythe gets a quadruple damage.

Jomo Rising said...

All about balance. I hate that.

JB said...

I've been told by a blacksmith (who specialized in historic weapons), that often when a sword broke the blade was filed down to make a smaller weapon. This is where most dirks and poniards came from...long daggers weren't (originally) manufactured as such but "recycled" from broken swords.

All weapons break with sufficient use. A battle axe has a fairly sturdy construction and straightforward application. Historically, swords have enjoyed a higher prestige than the axe (with the possible exception of the Dane axes used by the 11th century English housecarls), but their actual effectiveness is fairly equivalent...and mainly determined by the skill of the wielder.

[you can get to your destination with an Audi or a Subaru, but once gets you there with more style]

I've blogged this topic at least half-a-dozen times over the years myself, but while I've tried various fiddly rules to distinguish the individual nuances of weapons, in practice I've always ended up returning to some simple/abstract place...though admittedly that's probably due in part to me using a simpler rule system these days (when I played AD&D we always used the "weapon vs. armor" rules).

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

I'll admit that my first impulse was to say some "happy horseshit", as you put it in your closing paragraph, haha, but I'll spare you.

Instead I'll leave you with a tidbit the previous comment reminded me of, and that is vaguely relevant. I recently saw a reference to 850 old swords and 100 brigandines being given to some armourers to make a bunch of new brigandines out of. Good metal is good metal, and if something is wrecked, you can always reforge it.

Archon said...

+1; people said everything I wanted to.