Sunday, September 11, 2011

"Can't" vs. "Typically Won't": A Minor Semantic Quibble

One of the criticisms of Old School D&D, and all class-based RPGs, really, centers around how well class restrictions make sense. Why can't a thief carry a two-handed weapon, or a magic user use a short-sword or an axe? Will one of those characters really sit there and use nothing but their fists if they find themselves in a room with an orc, a restricted weapon and nothing else?

Another point that dovetails with this is how often monsters can use certain attacks; the classic example is dragons, which can only use their breath weapon every few rounds. That really clashes with my intuitive vision of dragons as not only capable of breathing limitless spouts of fire but as unpredictable in battle, at least from their enemies' points of view.  The last thing I want to be worrying about when running a battle with a dragon is having the dragon use it's breath weapon and a player exclaim, "OK, move in; he's got four rounds before he can breath fire again!"

I think both of these objections can be dealt with by characterizing the character or monster in terms of "typically won't" instead of "can't." Sure, just about anyone, including a pasty, thin, physically inept weakling, can use an axe in combat without even basic training, and it really isn't a stretch to think that someone who's trained to use a longsword will be able to use a two-handed sword effectively. An out-of-shape magic user who's spent his whole life indoors studying, though, won't know the finer points of using a bearded axe to get past an enemy's shield, and also won't usually want to lug a weapon that weighs a few pounds around on long trips underground or across the wilderness. A thief, by the same token, will want to carry smaller weapons, as much of her job will involve being agile and not having long lengths of steel poking this way and that as she scrambles up a wall or squeezes through a window. She'll naturally prefer shorter weapons to longer ones. Both classes can use restricted weapons (though, and this is an important point, I don't let classes using restricted weapons do any more damage with them than their class weapons do, nor do I let them pack them with the intention to using them at the outset of an expedition), but choose not to unless there is an emergency. Not being able to have your magic user include a battle axe in his pack isn't so much a matter of physical impossibility, but a matter of what your magic user wants; he doesn't want to carry the axe, even if you want him to.

In much the same way, I imagine dragons (and other monsters with restrictions on how often they can use overwhelming weapons) as able to use their breath weapons as often as they want, but choosing not to. Why? Maybe they want to take stock of the battle and can't keep an eye on all those PCs and henchmen scurrying about when flame is bursting forth from their mouths. Maybe they're terribly arrogant about these things. Maybe there's some factor that makes them not want to use their breath weapon; maybe it's painful, or each use takes a day off their lives or something. The point is that what I'm willing to play as what a dragon will (at least usually) do in combats that I run should be what dragons choose to do, not what they are only able to do. It strips dragons of their magic and terror, in my opinion.

And if I ever catch wind that a player thinks that dragons only breath fire every few rounds, you can bet that the first dragon the party meets will breath fire for the first three or four straight combat rounds.


  1. Haha, yeah, when a player announces to the party that "the dragon can't use his breath weapon again for X turns", it's totally fair game to rain hellfire and brimstone down on them, just to punish them for metagaming. I would, also, let a wizard or thief try to use that battleaxe, but at least with a -2 to their attack roll on account of having no clue how to properly swing the damn thing in the midst of combat.

  2. I do something similar with restricted weapons. I currently divide weapons into Light, Medium and Heavy. Light weapons do 2d6, take the lowest, Medium weapons do d6 and Heavy weapons do 2d6, take the highest for damage. Magic users are restricted to Light and Scoundrels to Light and Medium weapons, so, if they use a restricted weapon, they can only do as much damage with it as they would if they were using an unrestricted weapon.

  3. I like to think of, in a movie, when the non-combatant tries to pick up the big heavy axe and the monster just knocks it out of his hand. It's not just that anyone should be able to swing an axe, it's that the axe is being swung at a monster who knows how to use its weapons.

    You could go the "nonproficiency" route and levy a penalty to hit for non-class weapons. If an M-U has a choice between -6 to hit with a sword (1d8 damage) or a normal attack with a fist (1d2?) he's far better off with the fist. Assuming he doesn't need a natural 20 to hit with anything anyway. I would actually give everyone the -6 for non-class weapons, not just M-Us.

    A secondary issue is that weapon and armor choice is a big part of classes. Your class was originally like your unit type. A skirmisher who wore plate and rode a horse, fighting with a lance and sword, suddenly becomes a poorly trained heavy cavalry instead. In some ways, your equipment is your class.

    25% of magic swords are intelligent, and swords are usable only by Fighters and Thieves, who are non-spellcasting classes. The intelligent sword was intended to give some magical power to non-casters. If you let a Cleric use a sword that can do Fireball once a day, it means a Fighter or Thief in the group doesn't have that sword.

    Finally, some of the benefit of being a Fighter is that you get a good choice of weapons. If you find a magic weapon you can use it, regardless of type, whle other PCs can't. This was perverted by weapon specialization rules which made it so unless the new weapon were vastly better you'd rather use a nonmagical version of your favored weapon. Which is dumb. How many people can use a magic long bow or two-handed sword? It's sure not the M-U, Cleric, or Thief. The Fighter is in contest with the Cleric for armor and shield, but otherwise not.

    This makes certain weapons, like a magic dagger, really cool because anyone can use them.

    Other magic item combinations, such as class-restricted magic items, Rings and Cloaks of Protection not working with magic armor, etc. all help decide who gets what treasure. If only one person can use it, it's easier to decide which item you want for your share. It's like the difference between three kids in a family all born a year apart and three kids born eight years apart. There's a lot less fighting over goodies because they all want different goodies.