For millenia, people have been choosing between a wide variety of weapons for various purposes and occasions. Some are clearly better in some circumstances, other cases are ambiguous. However, when it comes to playing RPGs – and particularly if any of you pay any heed to the weapons mechanics rather than choosing on purely roleplaying grounds – the distribution of weapons rarely matches what you might hope to see with an eye to realism.
Why is this? What affects the power balance between weapons in reality, and what makes it so different in games?
Disclaimer: I am doing no actual research for this, so all statements are based on vague memories of history books and wild extrapolation. I'm also not looking to criticize anyone's choices of weapons or systems. It's just I was having a conversation with Dan about this.
Probably the most classic example of this problem is what I will call the Assaxein. Dan ran into this issue only the other week during our Numenera game. Narratively speaking, an assassin should mostly wield small blades, perhaps a garotte, a blowgun or a handful of throwing knives. However, small blades are in almost all games mechanically very poor at killing people. If you want to be an effective murderer, your best option is to grab the biggest weapon you can get your bloodstained mitts on.
In Numenera, a light weapon inflicts 2 damage and grants a +3 to hit. A medium weapon inflicts 4 damage. A heavy weapon inflicts a whopping 6 damage. Even allowing for the Glaive power that grants +1 damage (and thus reduces the discrepancy), there are precisely two very unlikely situations when it's worth using a dagger instead of a greatsword:
- When you would otherwise need an 19 or 20 to hit (assuming there aren't auto-hits on these, which seems hard to work out with the Minor/Major Effect rules)
- When you know you need to inflict 3 damage or less
In AD&D, a dagger typically inflicts 1d4 damage with a possible Strength bonus. A longsword inflicts 1d8 damage and Strength bonus, whil a greatsword will do around 1d12 and in most cases gets a bigger Strength bonus because it's being wielded two-handed. Rogues (our assassinalike) can multiply this damage by either rolling more dice, or multiplying the number by some factor. Unless rogues have their weapon choices restricted, this actually serves to make it worse, because the difference between 5d4 and 5d12 is really very significant. On the plus side, using weapon speed does slightly compensate by allowing first strike to light weapons, and with the generally low hit dice of creatures and PCs in this system, this can be vital.
Later editions of D&D improve on matters by having fixed-size bonus dice, so that as level increases the original weapon ends up much less important than the sneak attack bonus. However, that doesn't actually solve the problem, which is that the sensible weapon choice is generally the biggest one you can carry. They compensate somewhat by offering Weapon Finesse so you can wield light weapons using Dexterity, which is usually a slightly more accurate choice.
You also commonly end up with one weapon or other being flat-out better than anything else in its category, usually by dint of simply having a higher mean damage output. Occasionally, where hit points are low and heavy weapons usually overkill, something else will challenge them by being highly accurate or by providing some additional benefit like a defensive bonus.
So why is it that historically people used such a massively variable array of weapons compared to the common choices in games? Well, I think it's largely down to games modelling some attributes much more effectively than others.
Strength in numbers
Some weapons were intended primarily for mass use, and others for individual use. A greataxe or rapier are both formidable weapons in a one-on-one fight, but pose problems in mass warfare, because one calls for swinging room and the other for manoeuvrability. When engaging in serious tactics, people turned to weapons like the spear or sword, which can be effectively used en masse. Some of these weapons become far effective when used as a group, allowing for defensive strategies like the Tortoise, or for harmonised strike-and-recover tactics that allowed soldiers to protect one another by compensating for weaknesses.
In game terms, adventurers tend not to worry about this kind of thing because they're not fighting en masse. I'd say that the distribution of weapons tends to be more or less appropriate for one-on-one skirmish fighting.
A rapier is a highly effective weapon in a duel against another person with a rapier, even more so against someone with a knife, and I hate to think how nasty it'd be against a hammer or anything else with a short range that needs a bit wind-up and has little defensive capacity. On the other hand, I suspect a rapier is completely pants against someone with a spear, or in virtually any situation where you're called on to defend against a weapon any heavier than another rapier. It can hit a small target accurately and react quickly to strike or defend, but it doesn't have the weight to block attacks or to punch through armour. Similarly, if someone gets within dagger range, a long rapier isn't likely to be much help, while a club or another dagger offers you more protection. This was an additional reason for rapiers to be used with a dagger, as was apparently common. Of course, the threatening range and psychological effect of weapons also come into play here - you have to be fairly confident in your dodging to rush someone with a longsword.
Because active defense tends not to feature heavily in games, the relative benefits of different weapon pairings don't get much attention. Even in those with a parry system, you tend to be looking at intrinsic bonuses for a particular weapon, rather than the interplay of yours and your opponent's. The implications of this depend on the system. In general it tends to mean there's little incentive to take weapons that are useful in defending yourself, since they generally don't provide this mechanical benefit.
Some weapons are more effective against some degrees or types of armour, as Gygax knew well. Faced with a stark naked enemy, something like a bullwhip would be quite a sensible choice - range, very painful - but it's not going to be hugely effective against someone in plate. Some armours can be cut, others need to be crushed. A slicing blade may be most effective against a lightly-armoured target that can be badly injured or killed, but if they're wearing metal plates then not only will they ward off the worst of it, but you might damage your weapon. On the other hand, a big ol' lump of iron can send them reeling or trip them. A small, piercing weapon can find a chink in armour where a longsword won't. Restrictively bulky armour leaves a target vulnerable to quick stabs even while protecting them from heavy swings. Many armour designs leave hands and legs relatively exposed, good targets for rapid cuts and pokes to weaken and impede your enemy.
Some games do apply penalties for restrictive armour, but these tend to be across-the-board, without accounting for specific vulnerabilities. Others distinguish forms of damage but not the effects of accuracy or impact.
This blanket approach to armour tends to favour relatively slow and powerful weapons, since you can't benefit mechanically from weapons designed to exploit weaknesses in armour.
People are really not that tough. Whatever games may say, very few people get up again after being hit full-on with a longsword. A lot of people don't survive their first encounter with a knife. Admittedly some of these injuries take a while to be fatal, but they also tend to be crippling in the short term - and of course many injuries are crippling in the short term even though they won't be fatal. A straightforward whack to any number of vulnerable spots can leave someone helpless.
What this means in game terms is that to be honest, most weapons are (relatively) underpowered. Of course, different systems model different things, and arguably hit points represent things other than direct physical injury. But does dodging a slow axe swing take more out of you than dodging a flourishing dagger? Particularly when a dagger is so suited to striking quickly, reversing and generally otherwise gives you a lot to worry about. A knock-on effect is that people and creatures are remarkably blasé about injury, and so you can't generally rely on pulling out a knife to scare off bandits who know they can take three or four hits with zero risk of death or long-term injury. Similarly, pain doesn't generally exist in games.
Different types of injury also come into play. Stab wounds are liable to cause long-term damage, be very difficult to treat and often fatal, but they may not immediately stop someone fighting. A slashing wound can sever muscles or tendons, and cause a lot of blood loss, but may be less lethal. Impact weapons can knock over, stun and wind a target even through armour, since much of the force may carry through when a blade's impact would be stopped; they are also liable to break bones and cause internal injuries.
This tends to favour the use of large weapons that inflict the maximum possible direct damage to a target, both for killing potential and because it slightly improves your chances of scaring someone off.
Of course, there are definitely some cases where a bigger weapon is better. A spear is much better for fighting tough bears or boar than a dagger - in fact a spear generally seems to be the weapon of choice for just about any kind of hunting, possibly because so many animals are fast, strong, and otherwise likely to bat your blade aside and bowl you over while you're trying to swing hard enough to get through all that fur and hide. Spears offer range, can be braced against charges, pivoted quickly, and crucially you can keep the pointy bit aimed at the animal and backed up with two hands - swords are harder to hang onto if a heavy weight crashes against them. On the other hand, a dagger is easy to use in close quarters to stab at vital points while you're ducking or hanging onto something's back. Swords are, fundamentally, designed for fighting other people with weapons.
Games frequently feature axes and swords used against wild animals and beastial monsters, but these don't seem to feature in real-life hunting. I've never seen a ruleset detailed enough to tackle things like the difficulty of bringing swords to bear on a wolf, the fact that animal fights will tend to end up with you rolling on the floor rather than circling six feet apart, and the impact of a charging bear knocking weapons out of your hand.
This tends to favour the use of large, warlike weapons that inflict a lot of damage, and those designed for fighting armed humans, over hunting weapons.
Weapons, and armour, vary wildly in cost. You can get hold of a cudgel for nothing in almost all circumstances, knives are plentiful and cheap, and staves or crude spears can be fashioned with cheap materials. Axes, hammers and other items than need worked iron or stone are more expensive because of the skill and labour needed. Swords made of any decent material are expensive, and so are decent bows, because they take a lot of work to make. The fancier or more technical the weapon, the more expensive it's likely to be, whether you're paying in money or simply in time. There's also the question of what materials are available, with some areas having large iron deposits, others plentiful obsidian or strong wood, and some short of any very sturdy materials.
Cost is definitely a factor when you're equipping an army, which is an expensive enough undertaking in the first place. As well as the pure cost, an army-raiser will want to consider more complex factors: is the marginal benefit of longswords over spears worth the additional cost? What about the cost of training the recruits to use them? If your troops are green recruits, will they get any benefit from good equipment? If you expect heavy casualties anyway (perhaps you're sending them on a suicidal holding action or a forlorn hope) can you afford to pay for all those weapons that'll be lost with the troops, and likely captured by the enemy? If you're raising an army of worthless peasants to hurl at your rival, do you actually care what they have to fight with? What about the cultural factors, if your society expects individual soldiers to buy their own equipment?
Individual adventurers, of course, will want the very best they can get. While money's an issue, it tends to be more on the level of mundane vs. magical sword, rather than the handful of gold it takes to buy a slightly bigger sword. Adventurers are rarely short of cash for small mundane items, and especially for those they'll use constantly.
This tends to favour the use of expensive, high-quality weapons that are honed for a particular task. I don't think this is a problem. Those are exactly the sort of weapons adventurers should be using.
Many weapons require a lot of time, aptitude and fitness to learn. Most soldiers probably didn't have the luxury. Peasant conscripts tended to be trained with a couple of simple weapons, possibly by laws requiring them to practice regularly. Sometimes peasants were deliberately not allowed weapons outside wartime, to prevent them rebelling. In these circumstances, you pick something that's relatively quick to learn rather than a far more lethal weapon that takes a lot of training to use effectively.
As PCs are typically trained warriors, and training to use a weapon is rarely a major concern (it's either simple or impossible), this doesn't tend to apply in games. Again, they're also a much smaller group and have fewer logistical problems than armies.
I think this tends to favour the use of military weapons, and often of the more dangerous ones, since the difficulty of learning to use them is handwaved. If it's no more difficult to learn to use a flail than a club, why use a club? In reality, once you've become proficient with a particular weapon it's logical to keep training with that and improve further, rather than turn to a new and larger weapon. Games often allow you to learn a new weapon over the course of a couple of adventures, becoming just as proficient with it as you were with your original one. Some have characters proficient with all weapons, which is handy from a gaming point of view, but tends to distort the choice of weapons.
Some weapons are simple to maintain or replace, while others call for delicate components or constant attention. Metal weapons need oiling and cleaning. Strung weapons will fray and need new strings, which may be hard to source on the move. Latches and triggers may jam, swell or bend. Wooden components may need rubbing down, oiling or replacing entirely after they've been cut about. Hard but fragile materials like bone and stone may mean weapons need replacing after every fight, or at least that spikes or blades need replacing. Blades need sharpening.
These are relatively simple (if annoying) if you're an army with a substantial supply chain and weaponsmiths, but for adventuring parties they would pose problems. Carrying spare bowstrings, oil and toolkits adds to a load, and PCs don't necessarily have any relevant skills (it depends a lot on the genre). However, games rarely model wear and tear on gear so this factor is largely ignored.
This will tend to favour the use of high-maintenance weapons that would historically be a pain, since it's no more difficult to keep your obsidian-bladed sword on the go than your big stick.
Weapons have different useful ranges, and this is a major concern for anyone actually getting into fights. Pick any description of a fight and you'll almost certainly read about people ducking out of range, or rushing inside the other's reach so they can't be attacked effectively.
Pikes are enormous weapons, great for striking at an enemy at long range. Unfortunately, if someone manages to slip past the head or approaches from your side, you're in a bad way. Daggers have a very short range and leave you vulnerable to most larger weapons, but if you get in close to someone with a larger weapon they'll really struggle to defend themselves, and that's a scary prospect. In a brawl, a knife is your friend. A sword or club is a decent compromise between these options.
Games rarely model reach in any kind of detail, which tends to offer a lot of advantage to largish weapons. Long spears sometimes offer a bit of extra reach, but I've yet to see any rules that put you at a disadvantage once a goblin gets within the swing of your longsword with their rusty dagger. It's also not usually possible to fend someone off in games using a longer weapon, whereas it's a sensible tactic in real life.
It's quite hard to say what the effects of this are, because it's going to depend on how you're fighting. On the whole, I think it will slightly disadvantage longer weapons that are both physically dangerous and psychologically worrying. It will also make life more difficult for animals and characters wielding small weapons who are good at getting into combat, because they can't use their proximity to impede opponents' ability to use their weapons. On the whole, then, it's likely to favour classic weapons like the sword and axe that cover the middle distance.
Some weapons let you attack and defend very rapidly, switching guards and redirecting strikes. These are generally light and often small. A larger weapon can become unwieldy because of moment, and there's also the risk that a long weapon is easy to knock aside because a small pressure at the tip will affect it strongly. If you have a good rhythm going, you may be able to swing a large weapon quickly, but you'll lose that if you hit anything. It's a lot easier to flourish a knife than a sledgehammer.
This kind of speed helps you to defend yourself effectively, and also to attack and bluff more frequently, controlling your enemy's actions. I've not yet seen a game where you got more attacks with a dagger than a longsword. Initiative systems are sometimes designed to help with this, but they typically just affect the order people fight in, rather than offering any long-term benefit.
This will, again, tend to favour slow and powerful weapons, since they can ignore their disadvantage. Lighter weapons don't get the benefits they would expect.
Weight and strength
Fighting is hard work. Wielding a big, heavy or long weapon calls for more strength, especially if you're going to be doing a lot of it. The heavier or more unwieldy the weapon, the stronger you need to be to use it effectively. Even something as straightforward as a spear will be a lot more useful in the hands of someone with the strength to realign it quickly. Heavier weapons that rely on swings and impacts will be very tiring to use, and are best avoided by weaklings.
Weight of weapons is included in most games, but rarely makes any difference to how effectively they can be wielded. I haven't seen any that feature general fatigue rules that would limit the length of combats.
This will tend to favour heavy weapons, which typically inflict more damage with an attack. If it's no harder to swing a sledgehammer than a fist, why punch?
Some weapons are extremely effective, but only in the right circumstances. Specialised weapons can be designed for all kinds of needs, from punching a hole through plate armour to delivering contact poisons, but these tend to be quite ineffective when their special requirements aren't met. A long, heavy lucerne hammer is great for taking down knights on horseback, but of limited use against almost any other target. A rapier is ideal for duelling against another lightly-armoured person with a rapier, and perhaps with an even smaller weapon, but much less useful if armour or hefty weapons come into the question. A pike is good for formation combat. In contrast, there are more generalised weapons like broadswords and spears that are relatively flexible. A warrior might want to choose between them based on what they expect to fight - and would probably train for a considerable time in those specific weapons.
This kind of thing can't be simply modelled in games, but depends on a number of factors mentioned already, such as speed, weight, and how they interacts with an opponent's arms and armour.
If you can find a weapon that provides a niche benefit, but doesn't suffer disadvantages in other situations, it's logical to use it. So this will tend to favour the use of quite specialised weapons.
Environment is very important in combat, and can make a useful weapon fairly ineffective. Tight formations, foliage, crowded rooms and narrow passages can seriously hamper your efforts to use a long spear or greataxe. If you expect to fight in conditions like that, from boarding actions to a kobold tunnel, you're better off with a small blade or mace that doesn't need so much manoeuvring room.
Games typically treat all weapons as taking up the same "space" as the character, be they brass knuckles or a naginata. This removes one of the significant advantages of smaller weapons.
This will tend to favour large, unwieldy weapons.
Concealment and carrying
Portability and concealability are also potentially important, especially for the typical gaming scenario where you're not part of a well-equipped army with baggage trains. It's all very well carrying a smallsword or dirk, but trudging many miles with a zweihänder is going to be extremely annoying, let alone a pike. They also make you very noticeable to passers-by, and it's difficult to hide while you're carrying one.
Concealment is another issue that's frequently relevant to adventurers - people in weapon-toting times and cultures tend to have rules for what you can do with them, and very often you're not allow to lug them around everywhere. Whether you're wanting to stay prepared for self-defence or planning an assassination, having a weapon that won't attract guards or offend your host's sensibilities is important. Here, little things like knives, walking staves, shuriken and brass knuckles are what you want. An assassin wandering around with a mask and a double-headed battleaxe is going to be asked some serious questions. Even if you're sneaking rather than impersonating, getting you and a knife into shadows is easier than doing the same with a big, shiny, clinks-on-stones weapon.
(That being said, I suspect most assassins tend to be a bit more direct than the popular image of sneaking around cutting people's throats, and instead probably jump people in a mob and hack them to death.)
I think part of the problem here is that while "some kind of assassin" is a fairly popular trope for RPG characters, RPG characters are quite rarely in assassin-like situations. It's unusual for you to be sneaking into hostile territory, trying to appear harmless or make minimal noise, and therefore for weapon concealment to be relevant. You're not often trying to kill a single target and blasé about the rest of their forces. Guards are inclined to be very paranoid, and people assume they'll run into trouble - and be unable to quickly finish off the guards in true Hollywood manner because the system doesn't allow it. Moreover, the weakness of light weapons and difficulty of one-shotting targets in many systems means that it doesn't really make sense to try and perform a classic assassination in the first place.
This will tend to favour larger, more dangerous weapons.
In fights, directly killing your target is only part of it. There's also manoeuvring to put people off-balance, send them reeling or knock them over so they're vulnerable. Pulling knights off horses so you could stab them in the groin, eye or armpit was a well-established tactic from what I remember. Goading someone into taking an unwise swing or manoeuvring them into a corner where their weapon's harder to use are excellent tactics. Castles had clockwise staircases so they'd be easier to defend with the right hand than to attack. A big axe will make a mess if it hits, but you may have trouble getting that chance when someone's pointing a rapier at your face all the time and you know they can hit you faster than vice versa. You might be able to grab that rapier or spear and yank the wielder off-balance or just hold it while you whack them.
This will tend to favour weapons that deal a lot of mechanical damage, since possible advantages of other types are not relevant.
Choice of weapon has a big impact on your defensive options. With a lightweight weapon, you're left relatively mobile, able to strike quickly and withdraw, manoeuvre freely and use your free hand to ward off blows; you can duck and dive relatively easily too. With a very heavy or unwieldy weapon, you'll need to use both hands either to wield it or to compensate for its swing, leaving you unable to use a shield and greatly reducing your manoeuvrability.
In practice, it seems to me that games tend to greatly underestimate the benefits of having a shield when you're defending yourself. Being able to deflect incoming attacks is fantastically useful, and no, you don't want to be doing that with your longsword. With shields typically offering quite a small defensive benefit, the maths tends to end up in favour of a two-handed weapon that inflicts more damage, so you can defeat enemies faster rather than trying to weather their attacks. There are very rarely any benefits to fighting with just a lightweight weapon, and so the advantage of mobility is lost.
This will tend to favour large, powerful weapons.
On the whole, then, I think there's a pretty clear pattern of "distortion" in what weapons make sense in games versus real life. You should take the weapon that inflicts the most damage over time. It's very rare that any other factor is relevant.
Because this is a big ol' heap of speculation and opinion, comments are very welcome.