Friday, December 3, 2010

Time For A Break

Why would anyone ever use a battle axe as a weapon?  Forgive me, I ask because the rules in AD&D show that a battle axe does the same damage as a long sword and it needs two hands to wield.  It actually does less than the long sword against L-sized creatures, if you use that rule (I don't).  Therefore, for no gain at all, you're losing an opportunity to use a shield.  Why use a battle axe?

The tendency would be to repair the problem by A) increasing the damage caused by a battle axe; or B) giving the battle axe other power, such as being able to throw it, or that using it as a two handed weapon somehow increases your AC.  Either of which is a problem, since the battle axe is not the only weapon that has problems in the system as written.  No, rather than revamping the weapons damages (its been done), or the combat system to reflect two handed weapons (which must have been done somewhere), it would be nice if the battle axe had some intrinsic quality that made it practical to use as an option.

And I have it.

For a long time I've been playing a house rule that a 1 on a d20 'to hit' was a dropped weapon.  For a time I played it so that if you dropped, you spent the next round recovering the weapon ... but I don't play that anymore.  You lose part of your next turn recovering it, but not your whole turn.  I've considered a modifier so that sometimes you dropped your weapon farther away than at your feet, but not so far.

What I do play is that if you drop your weapon, you roll again to see if you break it.  For years and years, this meant rolling the d20 again on a 'drop,' and if you rolled a 1 a second time, the weapon was broken.  Then the group I played with wondered if you rolled a third 1, and we decided that you would break your arm.  On a fourth 1 in a row, you'd somehow accidentally kill yourself.

We didn't worry much about how the weapon broke, or as I said, how far it bounced.  The modifier I mentioned before could have it that if you threw a 2 on the second d20, the weapon landed five feet away.  Or ten feet.  Or a 2, 3 or 4 on the second d20 had different consequences.  But as I said, I haven't decided about that yet.

Incidentally, during the mass combat I ran earlier this year, I had two broken arms occur from three 1s rolled, and 1 death.  But those weren't quite 1:8,000 and 1:160,000 odds.  Because last fall, a bit more than a year ago, I changed the breaking rules.

Rather than the second roll being a d20, I changed the die to a d6.  I did this so I could reflect the value of cheap weapons vs. really valuable weapons, those which didn't happen to be magic.  An ordinary, crummy weapon, I reasoned, would break 1 in 6 upon dropping.  A 'hard-forged' weapon would break on a 1 in 8.  A 'blessed' weapon, one that had been hard-forged and both lucky and loved in its construction, would break on a 1 in 12.  And a 'mastercrafted' weapon would be the kind made by an artist ... and it would break on a 1 in 20.

The odds of a weapon breaking in any given round 'dropped' from 1 in 400 attacks to 1 in 120.  At once, weapons started breaking as part of normal combat.  Not just for the party, obviously.  Most every weapon used by a goblin or an orc is ordinary.  I thought the party would start shelling out for better weapons, but no.  A hard-forged weapon is three times as much as an ordinary one; a blessed weapon six times as much and a master-crafted 18 times as much.  The party's practice has been to simply double up on the weapons they have, and if they break one in mid-combat, they'll fight with a dagger or whatever secondary weapon comes to hand.  They'd rather be without the weapon and save money, than pay a bit extra to reduce the chance of their weapon breaking.  Go figure.  No one has yet figured out that in the long run it increases the chance of breaking their arms.

But the rule does allow me to make the weapons of high-intelligence races all of better quality, so they don't break as easily ... and it lets me give less breakable weapons as a treasure that differs from another magic weapon.  Granted, it isn't +1, but that beautiful sword I got from that Elven princess doesn't break on me.  Plus, it strongly creates a purpose for characters to build up an armory.  The attrition rate on weapons in a large battle over 20 rounds is considerable.  Overall, this breaking thing has been a successful rule.

I realized, as well, that it also redeems the lowly battle axe.

The gentle reader may never have noticed that there's no price for javelins or quarterstaffs in the books.  No doubt some well-meaning soul has corrected this, thinking it was a stupid oversight, but in fact no.  Either weapon is quite easily fashioned from a stout sapling - taking longer for a javelin than a quarterstaff, granted - and in fact there is a literary source that proves it.  Robin Hood has no staff when he encounters John Little on the bridge (he isn't 'Little John' yet).  The tale goes, he asks for leave to go 'cut one,' and John patiently waits while he does so.  It doesn't take long.  And when Robin announces he's ready, his staff is every bit as good as John's.

The benefit to both weapons is that they cost no money.  They are peasant's weapons for precisely that reason.

Keeping that in mind, then, what part of a battle axe do you suppose breaks, when it breaks?  Yes, that's right, the handle.  A sword or a dagger are both forged as one piece, and if they break, the handle and blade are both pretty nigh useless without being completely reforged.  But a battle axe's heavy blade isn't going to break, since the stress is delivered to the handle, which like the weakest link gives before the head does.  And when the handle breaks, do we need to go out and buy a new axe?

Nope.  We just need to replace the handle.  And the handle is free.

This makes it the perfect weapon for Vikings, or anyone who spends a great deal of time away from civilization.  There's a ton of mineable iron in Sweden, but not a whole lot of towns with blacksmiths to forge that iron.  Can't be making the three hundred mile journey into Stockholm everyday.  Once a lifetime will do, until finally the blade tarnishes and gives out.

And the same can be said for a number of other weapons, such as the flail, mace, morning star, military pick ... they all have easily replaceable handles.  If you want a good grip, and a good balance, they'll take more whittling than a quarterstaff, but we're only talking a good day or two of effort - depending of whether you like to carve your handles or not.

So the question arises for me, since I haven't considered this prior to a couple of days ago.  What's the cost on a mastercrafted axe handle?  Is it really a question of craftsmanship, or is it the wood that's used?  Does it require a master to carve and fit heavier woods - like ironwood or teak - or can anyone do it?

I don't know.  I haven't answered that yet.  Probably, a combination between a battle axe never being mastercrafted, but harder woods providing a 1 in 8 chance of breaking as opposed to a 1 in 6.  Remember, the strongest wood will break if swung hard enough, even against a baseball.

So in the end, if you can afford it, a sword is still probably better overall.  But if you're marching into the wilderness, make sure to bring an axe along.


I had meant to mention; magic weapons break on a 1 in 20, regardless of material.


  1. Have you based this at all on historic breakage rates or is this just a fun mechanic that's worked out well?

  2. Just fun.

    Didn't think I had it in me, eh?

  3. I agree that the axe's repairiblity is important. (Also quicker to sharpen than a sword, huh?)

    The Persians had all-metal axes (hollow tube handles). So there is room for hard-to-break axes, although the historical examples were generally one-handed (longer than hatchets but small enough to use in one hand).

  4. Considering the detail you've put into what I've seen of your world so far, Alexis, I'm surprised you didn't put more thought into this.

    Putting a new wooden handle on an axe seems like a little thing, but it isn't. Obviously, your gentle reader can go out into the woods and cut down the first tree they see and fashion it into a handle, but that would be no guarantee of a quality handle, nor one that is even usable.

    For starters, they'd be holding onto a handle of wet wood. Wet wood is much heavier than seasoned wood. It can be slick. It will eventually shrink when it dries (thus making any fitting to the axe head useless). There are most certainly situations when one might do woodworking with green wood, but building an axe handle is not one of them. It should be nothing less than seasoned wood (and air-dried vs. kiln dried, but that's probably not a concern in your world).

    As well, wood selection is a highly important consideration in undertaking such a task. There is a reason, after all, why American baseball bats are traditionally ash... and why recent use of cheaper maple bats has resulted in greater bat breakage. There is a reason why all wooden axe handles on our farm are made with air-dried straight-grained hickory.

    An unlucky adventurer with little knowledge of local trees might mistakenly replace their handle with one of basswood, aspen, or cottonwood. It wouldn't take very long, of course, because they are easy woods to work. But their structural integrity is pretty poor. Your adventurer would be better off holding the axe head in his hand or simply throwing it as a weighted object.

    And just because a wood is heavy, that doesn't mean it is a good wood for an axe handle. There are a lot of exotic wood species that will cause allergic reactions in your gentle reader, either in the form of wood dust (when cutting it) or the wood itself (e.g. A snakewood splinter in my finger turned the finger swollen, red, and throbbing within one hour). And you could get a wood that is TOO heavy, as well. Lignum Vitae is one of the most dense woods on record (upwards of 80 lbs/cu. ft). It sinks in water. But why would anyone want to make their axe handle weigh 20 more lbs than it needs to?

    Even in locally common species, like maple, there is great variety of structural integrity. Silver maple (the kind that don't change to pretty colours in the fall) is structurally inferior to hard, or sugar, maple. Any of the species of white oak trees will weather rot-free outside almost as well as teak or mahogany or cypress, while a red oak board would rot within a year.

    And then there is the whole question of availability. Just because hickory is the best choice for an axe handle doesn't mean your adventurers will have hickory available to them where they are in your world. You won't find a North American conifer or deciduous tree in any jungle in Central or South America - the local termites wouldn't allow it to last for a day. The aforementioned Lignum Vitae has a severely limited range and can only be found in an area of about 5 degrees of latitude (starting at about the southern edge of Florida) south of the United States.

    In short, replacing an axe handle is quite a bit more complicated than simply walking out into the woods and cutting a branch off of the first tree you find.

    (Incidentally, you never want to build anything structural with branch wood - you always want to use wood taken from the trunk. Branch wood grows under stress (gravity, mostly) and contains lots of tension. Branch wood put into a kiln can quite literally blow apart. And if it doesn't do that, it is almost guaranteed to warp.)

    In case you want to research further...
    The Janka Hardness chart:

    Wood species weight chart:

    Wood strength chart:


  5. Also, a decent axe head is rather easier to make than a good sword; I'd think you'd need to seek out a small city for a proper longsword, while you can get a new axe in a town.

  6. Well so much for me free history lesson on the history of weapon durability. However, I did get a free lesson on hardwoods. Do your magical weapons suffer the same breakage chance or do they have reduced or no breakage chance? Or maybe require an extra die roll for each bonus before damage occurs? (+1 one more, +2 two more..)

  7. So was Robin Hood lucky or did he just know his woods?

  8. Ethan,

    What in the hell is this 'first tree I see' bullshit? I can't pick from all the trees I see, and use the wood that works? I made mention of very specific woods, choosing them for very specific reasons. What in the hell is all this bullshit about other woods and whether or not they work as axe handles? Did I make any mention of these other woods?

    Regarding an axe handle fitting your axe head: have you heard of a wedge? Axe handle shrinks ... add another wedge. Do you think that axemen in the 17th century lived in a world replete with kilns? Did you think a woodsman could afford a city-made axe handle? Does a soldier marching from battle to battle give a shit about a rash, or allergies? What fucking shit are you talking, dude?

    Literature is full of descriptions of battlefields strewn with broken weapons. Just why do you suppose axe handles broke? Because they were made of the best wood that came to hand. Fucking DUH, dude.

    Hey, look, if you're going to just write the first dumbass answer that comes into your head, it's going to sound pretty stupid, buddy.

    And those are as many words as I'm going to waste on this answer. I know not one of them will be heard.

  9. Oh, hey, Oddbit? Don't take all his words on hardwoods too deep to heart. He does not know all he thinks he knows. Read a book.

  10. Heh I take all free lessons with a grain of salt, even yours. When it comes to crafting with wood (or most other materials), I follow an abstracted method generally. Assuming they succeed they got the right wood (whatever that may be) if they fail, I can now come up with a few good reasons for a fail, bad wood, warping and so on.

    As for book reading, I really do need to hit the bookstore/library, however I doubt I'll be getting one on martial woodworking.

  11. With my lessons you'll need more than a grain, Oddbit. Have them back up a truck.

  12. In systems which have different types of mundane damage, i have noticed that axes do most cutting/slashing and blunt/smashing damage. This makes sense to me. It makes them more useful than a sword against, for instance, undead and more useful than a club against a lot of other things. They provide the best of both worlds.

    Historically this also meant they were effective against heavily armoured opponents (only the heavy swords are good against armour).

    Also, you can use them to cut wood with. Very handy.

  13. I truly was trying to be helpful. It is unfortunate that you chose to receive my words as being overtly critical. And its too bad you chose to respond in such an uncivil manner.

    I agree with you on one count, however.

    if you're going to just write the first dumbass answer that comes into your head, it's going to sound pretty stupid...

    Although I'm not sure I'm the one who looks stupid here...

    But no matter.

    I do wish you a Merry Christmas and hope the spirit of the season eventually catches up with you and brings you a joyous one.

    Unfortunately, there is already enough hate in my world, so I'm going to have to remove your blog from my watch list. I'm sure my D&D gaming will suffer as a result, but that's a price I'm willing to pay.

    Kindest Regards.

  14. Yea, not sure why you responded to a well thought out post by cussing him out...

  15. Anthony,
    I know I can be wearing at times, that I go off on people, that I'm rude and inconsiderate and all that. But there are plenty of people who leave comments on this blog without my saying anything nasty. I'm not random in my bile and venom.

    When someone starts off with telling me that I need to put "more thought" into my post, then puts words into my mouth that I’m saying this or I’m saying that (which I’ve made no mention of), I’m going to take notice. And if that someone then uses my blog as a soapbox to write about random woods I did not mention, and random wood-making techniques that I did not mention, that don’t make sense in a medieval setting … apparently to take advantage of this blog, that is read by more people than his own … then yes, I'm going to take the motherfucker out behind the barn and beat his ass with a piece of snakewood.

    Because if its his intention to just go off in his own direction, with a post that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the time period of my D&D world, he can go write it on his own blog. Understand?

    The rudeness starts with his choice to make this his forum for his agenda. He’s chosen to come on here and be “Mr. Information” in such a manner as to not add to what I’m saying, nor provide arguments against what I’m saying, but to go off on his own tangent, period. What’s worse is that it’s a ton of misinformation. Armies on the path to war do not have ‘kiln-dried’ axe handles on their weapons. When wood shrinks in the axe handle, you add another wedge. Woodsmen do not pick “the first piece of wood they find.” They have the whole forest to pick from. The most common wood used wasn’t decidious at all, it was spruce and fir, because that was the wood most commonly available in Scandinavia and Russia. The sap that came out of the wood gave a good grip. But I didn’t talk about any of that in the original post because it’s not what the original post was about.

    When someone has been rude to me (hijacking my blog), I don’t give a flying fuck about being rude to them. I don’t return rudeness with politeness. And I don’t give a shit if that makes them feel superior or ill-used or insulted. Their greatest threat, that they will stop reading this blog, only means to me that I have one less self-involved shithead making time on my blog. There’s only room for one self-indulged shithead here, thank-you. I’ve written this thing, I’ve built up the readers, I’ve provided tons of useful information to justify my prickly, jump-down-your-throat behavior … he’s free to go do the fucking same. But not here.

  16. Alexis,

    What's the cost on a mastercrafted axe handle? Go back and read Ethan's off-track comment. He lays out half what you need to figure out the answer to your question, and your angry riposte provides the rest. kiln drying ... of select wood ... for a certain period of time ... you know, or can estimate, the availability of these things. And there you go: an accurate price for a mastercraft axe handle.

  17. I appreciate that response, Sigilic. But all those things are applied to modern wooden baseball bats - which is precisely why professional players don't use wooden bats. You can't harden wood so much that it won't break. There might be some argument for a kiln-hardened wood to break 1 in 8 rather than 1 in 6, but it wouldn't be mastercrafted.

    I'll also point out that you're making that argument, not Ethan. And I thank you.

  18. Fair enough. I can easily chalk it up to personality. I usually go with a well reasoned response, than proceed to cussing if that fails to hit the mark. You kind of went the opposite route :D

    Nothing wrong with that, but it was definitely entertaining :D

  19. When you're in a hole, stop digging.

    "which is precisely why professional players don't use wooden bats. "

    "In the American major leagues, Rule 1.10(a) states, "The bat shall be a smooth, round stick not more than 2 3/4 inches in diameter at the thickest part and not more than 42 inches in length. The bat shall be one piece of solid wood."[2] "

    I'm sure you'll respond with a stream of expletives that will, gosh, put me in my place.

  20. LOL ... no.

    Penalty paid for not following professional baseball: I'm guilty. I heartily confess to not knowing the facts about the rules of American baseball. I'm sorry. Is my apology accepted, Jon?

    I'm curious. Was there a point when metal bats were allowed?

    I will offer a statistic: "It is estimated in any Major League Baseball game that at least five bats will splinter and become lethal projectiles careening at players, coaches, and fans. As of this writing Major League Baseball is looking into the matter."

    This sounds like more often than 1 in 120.

  21. Never has an aluminum bat been used in pro ball. They don't break, so theyr are economical. This is why little league up through some (all?) colleges use them, but the problem is that they *kill* the ball.

    Hitters could essentially make a mistake at the plate, a misguided or slightly off swing and still hit a homer. Line drives would be much more lethal projectiles than any kind of bat splinter if aluminum bats were used.

    I would think that should MLB ever decide to replace wooden bats, it would be with some kind of polymer or composite.... something that could provide the same amount of force absorption as wood.


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