Friday, October 16, 2009


For my last post, I got a terrific response from Chris, who made several salient points regarding penetration, energy transfer and psychological effects. Zzarchov, too, made a good point, which Chris embellished. Before reading any of this, you should read the full comment. I’d like to say that I agree with every point made.

Chris is absolutely right when he says, more than once, that hard numbers on the net are hard to find. What is available comes from data which has been gathered from modern recreations of old siege weapons, as obviously there are no functioning originals anywhere. From an historian’s perspective, this is very much like going to a Renaissance fair – if you think your experience is anything like that of an individual from the 14th century, you have a high self-delusion potential.

In any case, regarding my failure to take into account such things as penetration and how much force from a ballista’s shot is transferred to the body of the victim, I am happily disinterested in producing anything like an ‘accurate’ account of siege weaponry damage. If we were to begin talking about accuracy where it comes to D&D weapons, I think someone could write a long and uninteresting thesis on the irrationality of short swords and clubs causing the same amount of damage to an unarmored opponent.

Once upon a time, my friends and I played with the Armor Class Adjustment table on page 38 of the Player’s Handbook (I don’t now, it’s just annoying). Later we tried we tried using the numbers and applying them to the amount of damage done rather than as a ‘to hit’ adjustment. Flails, halberds and bardiches got very popular. My point is that however you play the system, whatever system you play, inaccuracy is the inevitable ghost in the machine.

Granted, where it comes to my post on physics and siege weapons, the ghost here is a free-floating phantasm thirty feet wide and glowing in a scintillating array of three or four dozen colors. Yet I think we can all agree that the DMG is two pages of shit on this subject. I’m only searching for some measure that works ... and later on, as Chris suggested, if I feel the need to publish, I’ll seek out a professor. For now, we’ll accept our failings and try to move on.

Oh, I must address Zzarchov’s point. He’s also right, by the way. “You can have a weapon put a clean hole straight through someone’s arm and do little tissue damage.”

As I understand the combat system, the roll ‘to hit’ does not strictly specify contact between one’s weapon and the enemy. It is presumed that you are striking your sword against the enemy’s armor, against the enemy’s weapon, or harmlessly against the enemy’s horns, scales, bone plates or what have you, or harmlessly through the slushy or ethereal equivalent of the enemy’s ‘outer barrier’, where it applies to a number of jellied substances and magical beings.

At some point you reach a threshold in your die rolling that indicates that damage is to be done. But whether you hit the opponent by rolling exactly what you need to hit, or seven points over what you need to hit, the damage you do is precisely the same – that indicated by the weapon you are using. At that point, the accuracy of the weapon is no longer relevant. It is the damage die that determines if the weapon glances off the opponent’s helmet, dazing him slightly (minimum damage) or stabs him through the body cavity (maximum damage)

There are certain individuals and creatures in the game who never cause the sort of damage that can be described as ‘glancing off the opponent’s helmet’ where it comes to damage. A player with an 18/00 strength never does less than 7 points of damage against an ordinary opponent – so we must assume the player is habitually hitting the opponent’s torso, and not his baby finger. Obviously an iron golem doing 4-40 damage won’t be nicking your cheek with his weapon. It is inherent in the game that certain instances suppose that the weapon and the wielder are so massive that the damage done must be extravagant. There are no saving throws, no special skills or dexterity bonuses which will reduce this damage, once it has been indicated to have occurred.

I am presupposing that damage from a ballista, a catapult or a trebuchet would be subject to similar rules. My personal belief is that such weapons, due to the difficulty with which they are aimed, would be wildly, ridiculously inaccurate against one foe marching towards them. However, I believe that if it should happen that you are hit with a catapult, according to the premises of the game, then chances are your character is going to be, as Chris says, unrecognizable pulp. A monk may dodge the stone; a sufficiently high-level fighter might get lucky and stand the hit; but virtually everyone else will be quite simply dead. So sorry, thank you for playing.

This would at least justify the enormous cost of siege weapons, the difficulty in setting them up and hauling them to their targets, or building tailored castle hard points on which to mount them. Since they were mounted in reality, largely for the purpose of striking other, immobile siege engines (which would be easier to hit than a moving man), we should presume they presented some value in combat. As it stands now, in D&D, they aren’t worth the effort.

I would like to imagine that if a dozen ballistae were trained on a mass of men (easier to hit than one man), that the effect would be more than three hits and 21 total damage. I’m working towards changing that. Frankly, I don’t know precisely how.

But we will take some of what Chris says under advisement, and we will get to the points I promised to address: hitting fortifications and multiple soft targets. But this is a post already, so I will post it.


chris said...

Thanks for the references.

I suspect that siege weapon ammunition was tailored to the intended target. A single catapult stone would be almost useless against a group of foot soldiers unless you got lucky. Load one with a basket full of lead shot or burning pitch balls or caltrops or severed heads and things get more interesting. Ballista bolts could have been modified as well.

Knowing what you've posted before, I'm definitely looking forward to your solution. I agree with your interpretation of hit and damage rolls, as that is the only way it makes sense. It also makes sense that a hit with a solid catapult or ballista shot would be lethal. It would be possible to only lose an arm or a leg, but that's unlikely and still extremely damaging.

Alexis said...

Burning pitch seems practical, but the low 'muzzle' velocity of the catapult makes lead shot or caltrops seem less so. Severed heads have a nice psychological effect.

I think a shot that removed an arm or a leg would still have to be seen as lethal. Unless a cleric were present with the spell, 'cure critical wounds,' the argument must be made that in a medieval/Renaissance setting, virtually every amputation is lethal ... the medicine that enabled survivable amputations was conceived of during the Napoleanic Period. Peg legs don't figure prominently in Shakespearean theatre.