Friday, May 13, 2011

On systems

Mendeleev used his periodic table of elements to make predictions about undiscovered elements based on the properties they ought to have. These predictions aided in the eventual discovery of those elements. The system presented by his table made the discovery process easier by focusing the attention where it was needed and offering a rough framework. Although several orders of magnitude less important, systems do the same for RPGs by making a bundle of complex rules easier to understand, evaluate, and fix.

Briefly, let's define system. RPGs have a meta-system (i.e. the d20 system) comprised of many sub-systems (i.e. hit points). From now on, "system" refers to a sub-system. We'll examine this idea through an existing system: 4e PHB Weapons.  First we’ll try and develop a system to explain the current state, then we’ll see what that system teaches us, and then we’ll see where it can help us go. 

Part One: Developing the system
Weapons initially belong in one of three categories: simple, military, or superior.  This category tells you how many “points” the weapon can be worth after purchasing abilities. 

Weapon points by category
Max points

Weapons also come in one of four types: off-handed, one-handed, two-handed, or ranged.  The type tells you the base attributes of the weapon which you can build on with “points.”  Many abilities are limited by either category or type.

General abilities
  • +2 points: Increase proficiency bonus to +3.  Requires military or superior weapon.
  • +2 points: Increase damage die (see table).  Increasing damage die two steps requires military or superior.

Weapon damage die schedule
Damage step
Military, Sup.
2d4 or d10

Off-hand weapons
Off-hand weapons begin with a base damage die of -1 (or d6). The following attributes are available:
  • +1 points: Brutal (military/superior)
  • +1 points: Heavy thrown
  • +1 points: High crit (military/superior)
  • +1 points: Ranged 5/10
  • +2 points: Range 10/20

One-handed weapons
One-handed weapons begin with a base damage die of d8.  The following attributes are available:
  • +1 points: Brutal (military/superior)
  • +1 points: Heavy thrown
  • +1 points: High crit (military/superior)
  • +1 points: Versatile
  • +1 points: Ranged 5/10
  • +2 points: Ranged 10/20

Two-handed weapons
Two-handed weapons begin with the base damage die of +1 (or 2d4 for simple and 2d4 or d10 for military/superior weapons).  The following attributes are available.
  • +1 points: Brutal (military/superior)
  • +1 points: High crit (military/superior)
  • +1 points: Increase d12 to 2d6
  • +3 points: Reach

Ranged weapons
Ranged weapons begin with the base damage die of -1 (or d6), a range of 10/20, and load free.  The following attributes are available:
  • -2 points: Load minor
  • -1 points: Ranged 5/10
  • +1 points: Ranged 20/40

Part Two: Learning from the system
And with that we can perfectly recreate a majority of the PHB weapons and help analyze the rest to see why they differ.  Three areas quickly jump out:
  1. Some weapons are just terrible. If a rule is bad enough that no one will ever use it, then it is just clutter.  Clutter in a game is expensive because you have to wade through it on your way to good rules and clutter makes it harder to make good decisions.
  2. Some weapons need a little boost. Most of the weapons that aren’t perfectly recreated just need a little something. They are barely mechanically inferior, but with a tiny boost could become exciting options. Although not really clutter, these rules tend to fall by the wayside over time as people come to recognize them as inferior. They still see play, but not as much as they would if they were in line with other options. The system helps us identify and fix these weapons.
  3. Ranged weapons are all over the place. The system falls apart on ranged weapons. This may be because the reverse engineering is poor, because there are so few examples, or the designers could have been a little heavy handed in designing ranged weapons.  This type of information is still useful, though, because it highlights that it is worth a deeper look.

We’ll return to those in the next section, but the system taught a bit more. The PHB and Adventurer’s Vault have ranges of 3, 5, 6, 10, 15, 20, and 25 (with the max range consistently being double).  In play, a range of 5/10 is basically identical to a range of 6/12. All things equal, sure you’d prefer the 6/12, it might even make a difference now and then, but most of the time it is irrelevant. It is not irrelevant, however, when someone forgets and has to look it up during combat. Standardizing ranges to 5, 10, and 20 lets people anchor on if the weapon is close, medium, or long range. It changes range to will probably come up, might come up, and probably will not come up. It also makes it easier on folks that play the game without a battlemat because they aren’t forced to draw miniscule distinctions.

The system also highlights that +2 points is about equal to a feat (i.e. military weapon proficiency or weapon focus). This gives us another data point to triangulate in on later when we are balancing feats or making new ones. Immediately, this discovery suggests that Far Throw (+2 range on thrown weapons) is too weak (10/20 à 12/22). If it is, it is clutter; make it competitive or take it out.

Step Three: Building on the system
The terrible weapons tend to be simple weapons that we’d expect to be terrible.  The club and quarterstaff score negative point totals and the sickle, great club, and scythe score point totals of zero (simple weapons are permitted one point). Because these are the most basic weapons, one solution is to create a fourth category of improviseable weapons with a score of zero or lower. This would replace the current improvised weapon rules which feel a bit wanting.

Since this rule is only interesting if it actually is used, allow them to be improvised as a minor action (permitting available materials).  This is unlikely to upset game balance because improvised weapons are mechanically inferior and the default rules assume you are equipped. It does, however, create the exciting opportunity for a player to fight with whatever is available without being unduly punished by the existing improvised rules.

The second category is weapons that need a boost. The premiere example of this is the greatsword. At +3 and 1d10, the greatsword is mechanically indistinguishable from the longsword at +3 and 1d8+1 when using versatile. The only difference is that the longsword has the flexibility to go back to one-handed when beneficial. Giving the greatsword high crit compensates for its lack of flexibility and is mechanically strong because of its above average damage die.

Lastly we return to ranged weapons. Again, it isn’t clear if the reverse engineering was poor or the 4e designers used the limited ranged weapon selection to shore up other parts of the game. It sort of looks like “the real world” influenced some of the decisions (“Well of course crossbows take time to reload”) but then introduced perverse incentives. For instance, the penalty for being a small bow user is -1 damage and a slightly reduced range. But the penalty for being a small crossbow user is -1 damage, a slightly reduced range, and an improvement from load minor to load free. In general, it seems like ranged weapons could be reworked.

The final thing a system helps you do is strike out farther. It is tough to balance a tangle of rules, but once you are confident in your system you can extrapolate and build upon it. It becomes fun to see what you can build with the system and although you may break it from time to time, you’re standing on a better foundation than if you struck off alone.

You can download a copy of the (modestly) expanded system here.


  1. Another thing to consider is feat support. The Staff isn't very good as a simple weapon, but when you consider that feats can make it into a double-weapon, and that it's also an implement, and how over-the-top powerful Staff Expertise is to weapliment users....

  2. Definitely a strong point. I think, however, that it is bad game design.

    If you intentionally develop underpowered weapons and then you later decide you want them to be viable options, the feats you add to support them have to be extra powerful to make up for the initial weakness. As you number of options increases, the chance that two of these (necessarily) overpowered feats synergize increases. So begins unintentional power creep.

    This (I predict) is sort of what is going on with ranged weapons. They are trying to balance weaknesses in other systems by making some ranged weapons too powerful. A better solution is to compartmentalize each system to be relatively balanced on its own merits.

  3. Because of the abilities of "controllers" in 4e, and the plentiful "slide" abilities available to everyone, ranged attacks are difficult to balance.

    I think it would be fine to standardize ranged weapons, even though that means they would either become more or less powerful overall. The DM still has the ability to make them (un)necessary, if he chooses.