Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Adjusting Swing Damage in Dungeon Fantasy

Inspired by a comment I made in response to "Noodling around with DR in Dungeon Fantasy."

In every edition of GURPS, there are two major types of low-tech damage: swing/cutting, representing swung swords and axes and other weapons that act as levers to multiply the user's strength; and thrust/impaling, representing spears and rapiers and other sharp weapons that do not have the same leverage effect. Armor absorbs damage, and the resulting value is (usually) multiplied by x1.5 for cutting weapons and by x2 for impaling weapons to produce injury. (There are other types of damage, but most weapons are one of these two types).

In theory, thrust/impaling weapons are better against unarmored targets, and swing/cutting weapons are better against armored targets. In practice, the base damage for a swing/cutting weapon is at least 50% better than thrust/impaling weapon, so swing/cutting weapons almost always do more damage. 4th edition's revision of Weapon Master (to add per-die bonus damage) and addition of Injury Tolerances (representing various things like doors or skeletons that are more resistant to impaling attacks) magnified the superiority of swing/cutting weapons: a ST13 Weapon Master gets +4 damage when swinging his sword, but needs to be ST19 to get the same bonus damage when thrusting. And if that Weapon Master has to face skeletons, golems, and other common monsters of Dungeon Fantasy, then not only does his thrust/impaling blow do less base damage, it does even less injury than normal. His swing/cutting blow does more damage and gets full x1.5 injury past armor.

In serious DF games, all this has the unfortunate tendency of homogenizing weapons to swing/cutting weapons like swords and axes, with the occasional flail. Spears are not cheap, versatile weapons; they're the weapons of people who don't understand how the game mechanics work. All swashbucklers end up using Edged Rapiers, as these versatile weapons combine swing/cutting damage with fencing parries and a flexible 2-hex Reach. All serious fighters need ST13, if not ST17, and need to be Weapon Masters to get that bonus +4 or +6 damage.

All that has some weird secondary effects. A ST17 Barbarian does 3d+2 (average 12.5) with his oversized ax, while a ST14 knight/weapon master does 2d+7 (average 14) with his broadsword and gets better parries and Rapid Strikes. Second line combatants, like thieves and clerics, can't begin to compete with the DR necessary to challenge the strong weapon masters. Monsters with reasonably low DR that can be penetrated by a ST12 cleric's ax have effectively 0 DR against the knight. And on the other side, monsters with high ST and swing/cutting weapons (such as stone golems or ogres) become extremely swingy: very few delvers wear enough armor to absorb or meaningfully reduce a 3d+6 cu attack, so delvers either get through a combat unscathed or get splattered.

The entire situation is very unsatisfactory.

What's the Real Problem?

The swing damage chart goes up too fast compared to thrusting damage. Each point of ST increases swing damage by 1, but it takes 2 points of ST to increase thrust. So while a ST10 guy with a broadsword does 1d+1 cutting and 1d impaling, and has some reasonable choices for strike type to make depending on his target's armor, a ST17 guy does 3d cutting versus 1d+4 impaling, and there's rarely any reason to thrust. Up to about ST14, and without Weapon Master, the ST table works. Past that, it rapidly spirals into unreason.

What are Some Solutions?

There's been a lot of suggested fixes for this: limit striking ST for humans to 14 (unsatisfactory); create a very complicated ST table (too complicated in play); doubling DR for armor (complicated and unsatisfactory). None of them have been very successful. Most of these solutions require even more rules fixes and carve-outs, such as adding armor divisors for spears or special rules for dwarves or whatever else. They don't address the fundamental problem, which is that swing damage goes up in value too quickly as ST increases.

Reducing Swing Scaling

The solution I'm proposing is fairly simple: get rid of the +1 to swing damage for every +1 to ST. Instead, the swing damage table goes up at the same rate as the thrust table: +1 to swing damage for every +2 to ST. Use the following table:


The progression should readily apparent: +1 to swing damage on even ST scores, and +1 to thrust damage on odd ST scores, with Xd+3 converting to (X+1)d-1.

How does the new table work in practice? Here's the damage for an ordinary thrusting broadsword for various STs, without and with Weapon Master:

Broadsword Damage for various STs, using the old and new tables

Old Swing
New Swing
Weapon Master
Swing Damage
Weapon Master
Thrust Damage











And on on the high end, here's the amount of injury past armor for a ST17 attacker versus various DRs, again without and with Weapon Master.

Broadsword Damage past armor by DR for ST 17
DROld Sw/cuOld Thr/imOld Sw/cu WMOld Thr/im WMNew Sw/cuNew Thr/imNew Sw/cu WMNew Thr/im WM
92.25011.25100 0.751

This last table brings out some of the points I mentioned above: under the normal rules, there's almost no any reason to use an impaling attack, since cutting attacks always do more damage. The new table makes thrusting attacks much more valuable: they're higher damage in almost all instances, though with the usual caveat that targets with Injury Tolerance rapidly reduce the value of impaling damage.


On the positive side:
  • More weapons are useful. Spears do competitive damage to swords and axes at all levels of ST, at least against living targets. Picks (swing/impaling weapons) come into their own for breaking into heavy armor.
  • More templates can usefully contribute to melee combat. The ST12 cleric swings for 1d+3 with his broadsword, versus 2d+4 for the ST17 knight with Weapon Master. The knight is still better, but his average damage is no longer nearly twice the cleric's maximum damage. Unarmed martial artists still have issues, but at least their damage is somewhat on par with everyone else's.
  • Armor is more useful since damage is lower. A ST20 ogre with an oversize axe does 2d+4 cu damage, which can be partially absorbed by heavy mail, instead of 3d+5 that can't be.
  • Lower damage means that one-shot kills are going to less likely. For the players, this means they have more time to get in over their heads without the first successful hit doing so much injury that the delvers can't move fast enough to flee. For the GM, since his monsters are going to last longer, he doesn't need to put as many foes into a given encounter to challenge the PCs, which means the game will run faster.
  • Armor behaves about the way it would realistically. Even a strong man with a broadsword has a hard time penetrating full steel plate. Light armor (DR3 or 4) protects against light weapons used by normal humans.
On the negative side:
  • ST, already probably overpriced at 10 pts/level with the old table, is almost certainly slightly overpriced with the new table. Bruno has suggested 8 points/level, which sounds about right (with Striking ST costing 3 pts/level).
  • Heavily armored foes, like dwarf knights in dwarven steel plate with Armor Mastery (DR11 + 2 tough skin) or sword-armor golems (DR17), are much harder to deal with in straight melee combat. These types of foes are going to have to be grappled, knocked to the ground, and all-out attacked for damage into vulnerable chinks in their armor. Arguably, that's how knights were defeated historically, but it's a bit of a change from the dungeon fantasy tradition. Not all groups are going to want to bring out the grappling rules for every fight.
  • Players who enjoy making one-shot kills on powerful foes are going to be in for disappointment.
  • Knights and barbarians lose some utility as the "big, powerful hitter" guys, especially against big, armored monsters.
  • GMs are going to have to modify the published damage values for monsters that use swinging weapons.
Swing/cutting attacks will stop being the go-to attack for all foes and all target locations. They will still be useful attacks, targeting weaker limb armor or fighting Unliving and Homogeneous foes. Thrust/impaling attacks will be common for attacks to the torso, vitals, face, and skull, which seems to match historical fighting styles.

On the balance, I think this is a change for the better. I do need to playtest it some time, probably after I get done replaying Dragon Age 2 again.


  1. Thinking about it, the one time I've put my players against Sword-Armor Golems, they didn't have super high damage hitters available. Instead, they had to lure the golems next to some nigh-bottomless pits and have the Martial Artist judo throw them over. Which was actually a pretty memorable solution.

  2. I don't much care for the flat increase over thrust. I'd prefer a lower value than x2, though. I'd prefer sw being +1 or +2 per die, which acts as a true lever arm, but is less than the +3.5 per die that you basically get now.

    Also, while I tongue in cheek put down the "ludicrously small damage increment table" to give every point of ST a slightly higher ability to do damage than the next point, there is nothing hard about ST/10 for damage. 0.3 gives +1, 0.6 gives +2, and then whatever the math is gives (N+1)d-1.

    Finally, giving thrusing weapons with sharp points armor divisors is probably accurate. In fact, it's the one small change you can make to the exsting rules to immediately put sharp pointies back in line with swings.

    1. Actually, the way I'd really do it is to have a per die bonus that varied by weapon reach, weight, and balance. So you'd just have a basic thrust damage, and if you swing a light club, you might do thr +1 per die cr; a similar weight broadsword would do thr+1/die cut. A maul might do thr +4/die or something similarly huge.

    2. I'm not entirely opposed to the idea, but:
      * per die swing damage bonuses can get out of hand, and you get back to the situation where spears are for idiots and everyone uses mauls and axes because the base damage is so high
      * Recoding the ST table for GCA is fairly easy; recoding the damage for every weapon out there is a huge pain in the tail. I'd rather keep things easy.

  3. It's interesting, but looking at the tables it seems like it makes Weapon Master even more critical for fighters. It's already a have/have not split in terms of how well you deal out, and deal with, multiple attacks. If you reduce swing damage you nail them, sure, but the guys who rely purely on ST need a lot more of it.

    Faced with this system, I think I'd go for a Knight and max out my skill as much as good to allow for skull and neck shots on things that have them. Impaling weapons, still, unless I expect to fight a lot of people with vitals I'd keep it as a secondary role (a sword, or a pick as a backup weapon).

    Just some thoughts looking at it; obviously I haven't playtested this either.

    1. Weapon Master is generally worth 3 points of skill on the offense and about 4 points of Striking ST. It's not so much mandatory as just a very good value for the points. I don't know a good way around that.

      I'm surprised that you'd stay with sw/cut weapons as primarily cutting weapons. I'd want the versatility of a sword, or an axe with pick head or spike, certainly, but stabbing humanoids would be my default tactic. Certainly the stock barbarian (ST17, no WM) can reliably inflict major wounds on typical orcs in DR2-4 armor this way.

      The DM has to co-operate some for this to work, by realizing that he has depowered the delvers some and that the foes need to be depowered some to match. Instead of throwing 2 dozen orcs against 5 delvers and expecting most of the orcs to die as soon as they reach the knight, throw a half-dozen against them and have a slightly more involved combat.

      It does need more playtest.

    2. The thing is that cut (Swing or not) is still useful against golems, skeletons, demons, and so on and so forth. Impaling gets reduced damage against limbs, and may be even further reduced against nonhuman or nonanimal foes. Crushing doesn't get the damage bonus, but shares the broad utility and lack of weaknesses, and sometimes gets bonuses against brittle foes (like skeletons).

      If you're playing in a low fantasy semi-realistic game, where most of your foes are humanoids, then that utility value isn't as significant.

  4. At ST 17, you've got sw at 2d and thr at 1d+4. That's an average of 7 for swing damage and 7.5 for thrust damage. I think you've swung to far in the other direction.

    But in general, I agree that swing damage is overpowered and a problem. I think the simplest fix may be something like you've done here, after some quibbling over specific values.

  5. I also agree that swing damage is too high. I've been noodling with a system where Thrust increases once every 3 ST, and Swing increases twice every 3 ST. Table at:

    I like the pricing of ST at [8] and Striking ST at [3], will probably steal that.