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D&D 5E Getting Rid of Variable Weapon Damage- An Immodest Proposal

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Today, I want to discuss one of the ideas that is so ingrained in Dungeons & Dragons that it often escapes notice, yet it is as hard-baked into the identity of Dungeons & Dragons as such concepts as the d20, classes, and levels.

I am, of course, talking about variable weapon damage. If you are blinking your eyes in shock and amazement at these words, with a look of incomprehension, this is the concept that different types of weapons do different amounts of damage, and that this is captured by giving different weapons different dice for damage.

For many that play D&D, this is just common sense! If I stab someone with a fork, or I whack them with a giant Conan-esque sword, those will have different effects on the sweet, sweet bags of experience points that I am trying to kill, right? And yet ... I will say that not only does it not have to be this way, it shouldn't be this way. I am going to point out why we shouldn't differentiate damage by weapon type. Moreover, I would like to propose an idea for a new and improved way to conceptualize weapon damage!


1. The History of Variable Weapon Damage in D&D.
If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.

You thought you'd escape without a history lesson? DO YOU KNOW ME? My posts are as regular as the April showers, the soporific rhythms of a Ken Burns documentary, or the twee details of a Wes Anderson film. All that is past is prologue, and we're going to take a detour into ancient history that very few people will care about because of my extreme and incurable case of keyboard logorrhea. As always, this is an abbreviated history that simplifies things, and I suggest looking into this more if you're really interested!

In the beginning, there was formless void. And from the heat of this formless void, we had galaxies, and stars, and then, the Earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs came, but they got too big and fat, so they all died and they turned into oil. From these lovely petrochemicals, eventually arose primordial OD&D. OD&D was famously confused and confusing with its rules- notably, it based its combat system on Chainmail (which was a fantasy wargame). The original OD&D had all weapons doing d6 damage- and this came from Chainmail, which also did not differentiate weapon damage (Chainmail just had a certain number of hits-to-kill, and effectiveness of different weapons against different armor). However, by the time of the publication of the Greyhawk Supplement (1975), we see the first variable weapon damage with the alternative combat system- with both damage by weapons (daggers do d4, swords do d8) and damage against opponent types (different damages against different sizes of opponents). The question is ... why? What caused this change? Why did Gygax switch from static to variable weapon damage?

Because in CHAINMAIL different weapons have different numbers to kill. And I thought it would be cool if different weapons in D&D had different effects. Gary didn't like the idea, but I didn't give up, and ultimately he did. That's right, variable weapon damage is included in D&D because a 17 year old kid thought it was a neat idea and harassed the writer until he gave in.
I (expletive) you not.


That's Mike Monard, explaining why we have variable damage included. From that time, we basically have two forks in the road-

The Advanced D&D (1e) line, that continued with 2e, 3e, 4e, and 5e. Although the various versions mentioned complicated the differentiation of weapons in various ways (such as to hit v. AC, or heavy/light/finesses etc.), or simplified them (such as 4e's balancing) they all used the variable damage dice by weapon type.

On the other hand, when Holmes went to create Basic D&D by simplifying and clarifying OD&D, he went back to the d6 original d6 damage dice for all weapons. This continued in Moldvay/Cook (B/X) where all weapons did d6, unless the optional variable damage was used (p. B25). This continued through Mentzer's BECMI (which also had the optional rule, but IIRC recommended switching to variable weapon damage?).

In effect, the Basic line kept on with the static damage, while the "Advanced" (or mainstream) line kept the variable damage. And with the Basic line discontinued, so, too, went the static damage ... well, except for some retroclones.


2. A Brief Summary of Arguments for and against Variable Damage by Weapon Type.
Smoking cures all weight problems…eventually.

You might be saying to yourself, "Self, should I be worried that my lips are moving when I am engaged in an internal monologue?" I can't answer that question, but I can address something more relevant- why do people care about variable or static weapon damage?

Since the vast majority of people reading this are familiar with variable weapon damage, I'm going to be quick on the advantages- if you like "realism," (or simulationism) then, for certain values of that approach, it can seem more realistic. If you enjoy having more "choice points" for your character, then having weapons with different damage dice allows for yet another area that you can choose from (and/or optimize).

With that in mind, why even both with static damage for weapons? Why have a system where every weapon does the exact same damage- you know, d6 ... or d12 (THE KING OF DICE!).

Well, the first reason is that differentiating weapons by damage dice is often arbitrary. I don't want to bore you with long digressions into combat simulations, but the received wisdom about the effectiveness of different weapons by damage dice is often more gamist that simulationist. Which is a fancy way of saying that some weapons that are truly effective in some situations (like a spear against a sword) are simply discounted in terms of damage dice. The actual advantages of most weapons are incredibly situational- dependent far more on the armor of your opponent, the weapon your opponent is using, whether your opponent is mounted or on foot, whether you are skilled with that weapon, etc. Most weapons do a sufficient bit of "killing" when in the hands of a skilled person. Moreover, given the ... well, let's say the interesting nature of hit points, it's unclear why we are using differentiated dice at all.

The second reason is that it allows for better weapon-choice for a conception of a character. While variable weapon damage presents choices, as many of you know, you quickly run into the Rapier/Model T problem. Famously, you could have any color Model T so long as it was black. In a similar fashion, there might be a lot of weapon choices out there, but there also seems to be a lot of Dex-builds with rapiers. There are only a few "real" choices out there in any given category (I take this basic dex build, I take this with basic str build, I take this with PAM build, and so on). If you have an idea for a character using a "cool weapon" that isn't optimal and doesn't have a supported feat, you're often outta luck without the DM's allowance of homebrew. Static weapon damage avoids this issue- your character does the same amount of damage, and you can pick whatever weapon makes the most sense in your head for this character.

Now, I am sure that people can (and will!) come up with even more arguments, and more details for the arguments ... both pro and con, in the comments, but that's a good nutshell.


3. What if Weapon Damage was a Function of the Wielder, not the Weapon?
To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

So now we get to the important part (SO SOON?). My immodest proposal. I think we've all seen or read fiction about some awesome character who is really good with some sort of non-standard weapon; heck, Oddjob could kill you with his hat. Why not design a weapon system around the skill of the wielder, and not the weapon used? In a way, this would be similar to the way cantrips "scale" with level. But ... better. Because cantrips suck. Ahem. Sorry, that's a different post.

I'm spitballing here, so I hope people improve on this in the comments, but the basic gist would be something like this (for melee only, but I'm sure people will come up with something similar for missile weapons)-

Weapons start with a basic damage die. Like, d6.
If you state that it's a two-handed weapon, you get a bonus to each damage die (+1 or +2) to make up for loss of shield.

Certain classes or abilities within classes (for martial classes) will increase the damage die for wielding a weapon- d8, d10, d12.
In addition, there would be feats that would also allow you to increase the amount of damage.

In effect, all weapons will do the same damage, but you can choose martial classes, abilities within classes, or feats that allow you to increase the damage die of the weapon. In that way, you can ensure that players can both choose weapons that they think matches their character conception the best, while also allowing meaningful choice between increasing the damage die and other abilities; moreover, you can also make it such that martial characters have significant advantages, which is something that is lacking in 5e currently.


And that's it- I'm sure other people will have much better ideas; that's what the comments are for. So have at it!

Possible Topics for Discussion

PLEASE NOTE- Static weapon damage means you roll the same die, like a d6, for all weapons. It doesn't mean that you do a standard amount of damage with no rolls.

A. Do you prefer variable weapon damage or static weapon damage?
B. Would we be so uncaring about cutting trees down if they could scream? Maybe, if they screamed all the time, and for no good reason?
C. Would you like a system that made variable weapon damage dependent on the wielder, and not the weapon?
 
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Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
A. Do you prefer variable weapon damage or static weapon damage?
I'm very solidly in the variable weapon damage category.
B. Would we be so uncaring about cutting trees down if they could scream? Maybe, if they screamed all the time, and for no good reason?
"He sat up and looked at the trees. Rincewind was a city wizard and, although he was aware that there were various differences among types of tree by which their nearest and dearest could tell them apart, the only thing he knew for certain was that the end without the leaves on fitted into the ground. There were far too many of them, arranged with absolutely no sense of order. The place hadn’t been swept for ages.

He remembered something about being able to tell where you were by looking at which side of a tree the moss grew on. These trees had moss everywhere, and wooden warts, and scrabbly old branches; if trees were people, these trees would be sitting in rocking chairs.

Rincewind gave the nearest one a kick. With unerring aim it dropped an acorn on him. He said “Ow.” The tree, in a voice like a very old door swinging open, said, “Serves you right.”

There was a long silence.

Then Rincewind said, “Did you say that?”

“Yes.”

“And that too?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” He thought for a bit. Then he tried, “I suppose you wouldn’t happen to know the way out of the forest, possibly, by any chance?”

“No. I don’t get about much,” said the tree.

“Fairly boring life, I imagine,” said Rincewind.

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never been anything else,” said the tree.

Rincewind looked at it closely. It seemed pretty much like every other tree he’d seen.

“Are you magical?” he said.

“No one’s ever said,” said the tree, “I suppose so.”

Rincewind thought: I can’t be talking to a tree. If I was talking to a tree I’d be mad, and I’m not mad, so trees can’t talk.

“Goodbye,” he said firmly.

“Hey, don’t go,” the tree began, and then realized the hopelessness of it all. It watched him stagger off through the bushes, and settled down to feeling the sun on its leaves, the slurp and gurgle of the water in its roots, and the very ebb and flow of its sap in response to the natural tug of the sun and moon. Boring, it thought. What a strange thing to say. Trees can be bored, of course, beetles do it all the time, but I don’t think that was what he was trying to mean. And: can you actually be anything else?

In fact Rincewind never spoke to this particular tree again, but from that brief conversation it spun the basis of the first tree religion which, in time, swept the forests of the world. Its tenet of faith was this: a tree that was a good tree, and led a clean, decent and upstanding life, could be assured of a future life after death. If it was very good indeed it would eventually be reincarnated as five thousand rolls of lavatory paper."
C. Would you like a system that made variable weapon damage dependent on the wielder, and not the weapon?
Not in the slightest.
 

A. I have been thinking of this a lot lately, especially after reading some OSR stuff (I started with AD&D 2nd Edition, and never played any of the TSR-era non-Advanced games). After the initial shock wore off, I began seeing the sense in it, especially since daggers leave vicious wounds. I think I like the idea of weapon damage being non-variable, but only based on class, by which I mean that a Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock would do 1d4 despite weapon type, Rogue/Monk/Bard would do 1d6 despite weapon type, and so forth.

B. The Screaming Trees are still awesome. No death for them.

C. I answered this in A, because I got ahead of myself.

I've been talking to my wife, our teenage daughters, and my best friend about possibly putting together a Birthright (my non-urban fantasy tastes run towards fairy tales, medieval romance, and swords & sorcery) campaign, with me serving as DM.

I've pretty much ruled out 5e for it; while I loved Next (and the fighter in the packet I have, back when fighters all had maneuvers which they basically came up with themselves, which worked great with Theater of the Mind style play), what ended up being released leaves me cold. I was debating using OSE after reading some of the excellent posts here, or using 2nd edition with my PoD books.

One major advantage of using older systems is that they're dead. That means, I can tinker with them to my heart's content. Additionally, the mix of optional systems in 2nd used to drive me nuts, but now I see them as neat little ways to differentiate classes and easier to modify without breaking the whole underlying system.

My reasoning for sharing this here is that non-variable weapon damage by class might be a nice way to customize things further and make this campaign more unique. In other words, thanks for the idea (and extra work it will cost me)!
 
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Cadence

Legend
Supporter
On the other hand, when Holmes went to create Basic D&D by simplifying and clarifying OD&D, he went back to the d6 original d6 damage dice for all weapons. This continued in Moldvay/Cook (B/X) where all weapons did d6, unless the optional variable damage was used (p. B25). This continued through Mentzer's BECMI (which also had the optional rule, but IIRC recommended switching to variable weapon damage?).

I played B/X for several years, and there is nothing in my head that recalls it being static damage. I believed you, but even so had to go pull up my .pdf copy of the book to check (my original not being here at work).

Possible Topics for Discussion
A. Do you prefer variable weapon damage or static weapon damage?

I think I still prefer variable. But that could be 40 years of self brain-washing. It still feels like some weapons should be intrinsically more dangerous than others.

And now I have the image of some horrible matrix of weapon vs. armor damage to hit and damage information, and weapon vs. weapon defense information.

B. Would we be so uncaring about cutting trees down if they could scream? Maybe, if they screamed all the time, and for no good reason?
Don't they already. But the world is so full of screaming trees, so crowded with these horrors that they become commonplace and we forget... I forget. We listen continually to the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from Snarf's vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away.

C. Would you like a system that made variable weapon damage dependent on the wielder, and not the weapon?

Could one do both? Base die type that can be modified by weapon efficacy/quality and user skill?

---

The mere human on the right not realizing that Snarf has a 20 strength and could wipe that smirk off like no one's business.
1642705110114.png
 
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el-remmen

Moderator Emeritus
Meh.

I don't really care. I am not about to do the work of homebrewing such a system but if I played in someone else's game that had weapon damage based on class-type or other abilities rather than weapon type I'd be fine with it.

What I am not fine with is static damage like 5E implements it (the average damage). I not only roll every time, but I cross out or get rid of that damage number in stat blocks it is as a waste of space to me as when they list something as "piercing damage" - this is already the place where we see how much damage is done, so why repeat the word "damage?" Just 1d6 (piercing) or whatever, is sufficient text.
 

You are wrong. BECMI had variable weapon damage. It had a crazy complex weapon mastery system. Weapon Mastery was optional. But variable damage was not.
 

CleverNickName

Limit Break Dancing (He/They)
In general, I'm going to resist any attempts to remove/lessen the impact of variables from the game. The thrill of chance, the excitement of a lucky roll, the on-your-feet thinking that randomness brings, these are all big parts of the fun for me. So the closer we get to fixed and predictable numbers, the further away my interest will drift. This is true for ability scores (don't get me started on Elite Array or Point Buy), it's true for hit points (I loathe picking a safe number at every level-up), it's true for spell slots (I actually miss bonus spells), passive checks, "taking 10," et cetera.

There's nothing technically wrong with your proposal, Snarf. It's just drifting in the direction of "meh" for me.
 
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Possible Topics for Discussion
A. Do you prefer variable weapon damage or static weapon damage?
B. Would we be so uncaring about cutting trees down if they could scream? Maybe, if they screamed all the time, and for no good reason?
C. Would you like a system that made variable weapon damage dependent on the wielder, and not the weapon?

I love when your posts end with a multiple choice quiz about what you wanted to actually discuss. There is another potential debate about the use of a randomizer for variable weapon damage. In some systems (like Dragon Warriors... strangely underestimated...) you just had (I don't remember the precise value) 2 damage for a dagger and 6 for great sword. Damage was variable between weapons but static. The same is possible with the average given for monsters' attacks in the MM. Who use that? I get the, unsubstantiated, impression that everyone rolls damage for monsters attack.

Now that we think of it, D&D already has a variable weapon damage dependant on the wielder, but it's only available for heroes. Their cantrips do variable damage based on the level, so the weapon flamestrike or the weapon shillelagh mostly does damage according to the wielder. It doesn't apply to sidekicks that sometimes walk alongside heroes, as far as I know, neither to the inferior version of sidekicks that sometimes accompanies heroes... you know, the torchbearers... how are they called in D&D lingo?... ah yes martial classes!
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
There are plenty of games where damage is class, level, skill, etc. dependent. So, if you want to adopt such a system, I don't see any issue with it. A 10th level Rogue might deal the same damage with a knife as a 10th level Fighter can with a longsword. Once you get the hit, skill is a huge factor in damage IMO.

However, is isn't as "realistic" as you said--and since personally I like a more "real" game (so to say), I doubt I would adopt it implicitly. But we have adopted rules which improve weapon damage as you level, a kin to a monk's martial arts damage increasing. Opponents of this have argued that greater number of attacks, improved sneak attack, etc. was meant to reflect this, but not all classes have such features. 🤷‍♂️

The idea that your hit roll is not tied into your damage has never bothered me. The attack roll was meant to be binary: hit or miss (the exact interpretation has shifted in editions but that is still more or less it). The variable damage die was meant to represent how well you hit, by an increasing amount of damage. So, if you needed to roll a 13, it didn't matter if you rolled 13, 14, 15, ..., 19, or 20. But if you rolled minimum damage, your hit was hardly effective, if you roll maximum, it had greater impact naturally.

The concept of the Critical Hit messed up this simple system. Suddenly, people thought the closer to 20, the better the hit, but that is just patently untrue: damage determines the strength of the hit, its "deadliness" if you will, not the d20 result.

Once you understand that (whether you agree is a different issue!), the d20 roll really can be binary. As such, I have always preferred exploding dice to represent critical hits, but then you run into the issue of equal roll = more damage when the die exploded. For example, if you roll d4 and get a 4, then rolling another d4 results in a minimum of 5 damage, making a result of 4 impossible. If you adjust the exploding die to be 0 to X-1 instead of 1 to X, it works, but that is just another layer of complexity which I have never relished.

Now, nothing says you can't reverse the roles (no pun intended). Make damage static, but the d20 adjusts the damage. However, such a system would probably revolve something like:

For each point you beat the target's AC, you deal +1 damage. A light weapon might deal 1 point, a heavy weapon 3, and other weapons 2 before an ability modifier (if you wanted to include one).
 

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