Leafing through my original First Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manuals inspired by the upcoming limited re-release of said tomes, It always amazes me how perfect these old books capture the ideal D&D experience to me. They were not my introduction to the game. Like most people my age, we first experienced the game in its basic version, and then gradually moved up to the advanced game. Game and book stores in the early 1980’s featured both products side by side on the shelves, and that is how most of us played the game. Looking over the complete catalogs from that era, I can point to a lot of “Basic” adventure modules that we played in our “advanced” game – and vice versa in our younger days!
The beauty of the original dungeons and dragons products was the ease of compatibility between the two products. There really was little difference between the essence of the two games, other than the fact that advanced d&d added a thick layer of content and complexity over the quintessential basic system. In almost every case between basic and advanced, the underlying rules are the same, only the advanced version goes into more detail. Weapons are one of those areas where the rules are the same, though the AD&D PHB goes into vastly more detail. In the original basic edition, ALL weapons did 1d6 damage. An optional rule grouped them into categories of d4, d6, and d8 damage dice types.
(For those of you keeping score, by the time of Rules Cyclopedia in 1992, the optional rule had become standard and universal weapon damage was gone for good. And really, who can trust a game design that insists on calling a longsword a “sword, normal.” They even broke down and added the bastard sword by now, with its signature distinction of being the only weapon in the game with separate stats for one and two handed use.)
The AD&D Players Handbook (or PHB) was the ultimate player’s guide. It was all any player needed to play the game, and founded the archetypal character building choices that are as relevant today as they were when it first came out in 1978. Not everything was in the PHB, there were no magic items nor even the full combat rules, but it fulfilled all a player’s character’s needs. Besides laying out the basic framework of character classes and races and all the abilities and powers those characters used, like spells, the book was also full of weapons, armor, and equipment. The weapons table, or more specifically, the weapons tables, since there were four or more, depending on how you count, were exhaustive and full of rich flavor and mystique, as well as hard crunchy data.
The first weapon information is the cost table, on page 35 of the PHB. The next table, on page 37, is arguably the go-to table. This table is known as the WEIGHT AND DAMAGE BY WEAPON TYPE table, and it shows exactly that. 50 weapons, with the damage they do against small and medium vs large sized opponents. It also give the legendary alternate names off to the side, with evocatively named weapons such as the holy water sprinkler, cutlass, sabre, and sickle sword, or the lochaber axe, to name a few. I am still not exactly sure what a Jo-stick was, but I do know that the Bohemian Ear Spoon, or the partisan, as some partisans insist on slandering it in partisan fashion, is the only pole arm, nay the only weapon at all, to be completely neutral against all armor classes. Only a monster’s attack can claim the same, rowr.
One thing about this table is that it offered different damage dice when attacking large creatures. I always loved that little twist, for several reasons. First and foremost, it mixed things up for players, and gave them a chance to use different dice, and it gave a sense of extra oomph against big monsters, since they took increased damage from most weapons. I dunno, it was cool. It was also the best reason to have a two-handed sword – 3-18 damage baby!
On the very next page we get another full-page weapon table, this one has a title too long to bother with, but at some point it includes “GENERAL DATA” in the title. This table is actually full of the chunkiest bits of information about the weapons. Starting from left to right, the main headings for the weapons included: weapon length, space required, speed factor, and finally the much maligned armor class adjustment table. This table represented a weapons effectiveness against SPECIFIC armors, rather than armor class. In other words, this table shows that a mace is a better weapon against plate (+1) while a morning star is more effective against the lighter armors (+1 to +2).
Honestly, characters were usually fighting monsters, so it was not as important as it seems now. In our group it was mostly used for dramatic duels and other important fights, or really close calls.
Example of Play
“Oh wait my fauchard fork is +1 against leather, so it’s a hit!”
Then I would be like “Sorry dude he has leather and shield, NEGATED!”
Length and space required are obvious but interesting data, and the space required came up recently in a game I was playing. The player characters were caught in a confined space, and most had to resort to their bare hands due to this rule. Weapon length and space required give a large dose of realism to the game, since they force players to really think about how they are going to try and fight with their weapons.
The length of a weapon also plays a distinct role in combat: the charge. Weapon length determines who strikes first in a charge, and if the defender has the longer weapon, they an set their weapon against a charge, dealing double (or more!) damage. Lances were devastating, and spears too, were a great choice. “I set my spear!” was usually the first words out of spear-wielders, trying to get their voices heard before I call for initiative. And yes of course we had dismounted lancers. Heh heh.
Speed factor however, eh, that is another story. I can think of only two official uses for speed factor. When two combatants are squared off against each other for multiple rounds, the swifter weapon may get extra attacks between the slower weapon’s attack. This rarely happened, since most battles are big scrums, but it was awesome to see a battle between slow and fast weapons play out. Dagger vs Two handed sword, for the win.
The other use of speed factor came when determining an attack against a spell caster. If the weapons speed factor was lower than the amount of time it took to cast a spell (in segments, with a really confusing formula that involved subtracting initiative rolls) and if the weapon hit, it would disrupt the spell. Another really flavorful thing that only came up occasionally, but was incredibly fun. It is why wizards rightfully fear rogues over warriors.
All of these factors seem like over-kill, and most of them rarely came up. But rarity of occurrence is no fair measure of importance. A weapon’s cost only comes up once, but it is still useful information. More importantly, though, the weapon properties provide distinction for each weapon, and allow a player to focus on certain aspects, like speed or armor penetration, or to choose multiple weapons.
Another interesting aspect about the overabundance of weapon data is that it allows a much smaller diversity of the quality that really matters – DAMAGE. All the weapons in the PHB fall into a range of 1d4 up to 1d10 (with exceptions) No weapon does a d12 of damage in the Players Handbook, and similarly, no weapon comes with the prefix great-, war-, or (shudder) full-. No a hammer is just a hammer, or maybe a lucerne hammer, but whatever. Lower range of damage die distribution allows for the smaller differences to be meaningful, and allows a player real choice, based on real science. Interestingly, there are no weapon descriptions or pictures in the original PHB. The reader was expected to know what the weapon was, or to look it up. The above picture is taken from the Unearthed Arcana, an official supplement.
This might be the perfect place to mention that there are other “core” AD&D books that have different, expanded weapon lists. Oriental Adventures introduced the katana, ninja star, and the full panoply of Oriental Arms, while the Unearthed Arcana introduced a mix of instant classics and oddities. We all love falchions, but who wields a khopesh? It is also worth noting that in neither of these expansions was a weapon that dealt over 1d10 introduced. Now THAT is how one prevents power creep.Yes Gygax, you really struck a critical hit with you weapons tables. We won’t even mention the Gygax Pole Arm Fantasy chapter of the Unearthed Acana, not with a 23′ awl pike. Shown above.