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.
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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.
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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?
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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?