Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 9, 2010
My education on medieval weaponry began with the Dungeons & Dragons weapons tables. My education on modern weapons began with the Twilight: 2000 weapons tables and supplements. I say began, as since then I’ve come to own quite a few medieval weapons of my own, study books on weaponry and warfare throughout the ages, and fired several more-or-less modern firearms.
I mean, okay, maybe the M1 Garand, a World War II era rifle, isn’t exactly modern, but it was very instructive to fire a weapon of that caliber. And between firing a 12-gauge shotgun and the M1, lemme tell you: The M1 has significantly more power and recoil. Ouch.
The thing is, D&D’s weapon tables kinda-sorta made sense in terms of the abstract, wargame-y combat system from which it was derived. A combat round represented a full minute of fighting and represented multiple attacks. Gygax even suggested that weapon damage might not even represent actual injury so much as “near misses” representing the defender’s luck running out. (The abstraction went even further afield with armor reducing the chance to hit, rather than reducing damage on a hit).
But of course, players usually treated it as literal damage. And later games did the same. And while a big ol’ bastard sword might represent a bigger threat than a dagger over the course of a long fight, an individual hit is a different thing. With any lethal weapon, damage comes down more to being where it hit than the size of the weapon. Whether it’s a .45 bullet or a crowbill hit to the head, the lethality chance is pretty dang high. And then there’s the whole added factor of how people (and animals) can continue to fight or function after being mortally wounded. Even in a life-or-death struggle, it is about taking the fight out of the opponent rather than causing instant death.
R Talsorian made a valiant effort in the late 80s to create a weapon damage system for various firearms based on bullet force over various ranges. The end result was kinda messy, complicated, and still didn’t make for very interesting combat in the original release of Cyberpunk. When they revised it to make Cyberpunk 2020, they dropped the “Friday Night Firefight” system for one that was much simpler. And more fun. And which, surprisingly, actually felt more realistic.
Over the years, the colliding influences of real-world knowledge and expectations with the absurdity of trying to reflect that too carefully in RPG combat systems has eventually resolved itself into a pretty mellow attitude towards realism in combat systems and weapon stats. Yes, I expect a 5.56 N round to do more damage and penetrate armor better than a 9mm bullet. I expect a pike to be far more unwieldy to use than a shortsword. I get miffed when game designers make handguns do significantly more damage than a battle axe. And I just have to grin and bear it when some games (jRPGs, I’m looking at you) have swords made of valuable metals that do orders of magnitude more damage than their cheaper cousins in the starting village.
But within those generous realism constraints, I’ve really gotten to the point where I really just care about interesting gameplay. Meaning:
1. At least somewhat believable constraints, as mentioned above.
2. An interesting progression of items – I should be able to “upgrade” over the course of the game. (Why? Because it’s fun!)
3. Strengths and weaknesses of different weapons to make weapon choice and upgrade decisions non-trivial (for example, is it worth losing the stun effect to hit 10% faster?) This is another area where realism can provide a hint, but otherwise get out of a way. Exaggerating otherwise minimal design differences to provide real gameplay advantages can make the choice interesting.
4. No late-game surprises that cripple earlier weapon specialization choices. For example, making almost all late-game enemies immune to bullets when I’ve specialized in firearms, or providing no higher-level axe upgrades for my axe specialist. It’s okay to have specialization be an occasional handicap (that’s the sacrifice you make when you don’t remain a generalist), but it should not neuter your character for an extended period, especially if that’s “the last 25% of the game.”
Now, some RPGs may not provide any real weapon / inventory system at all – it’s common, but not mandatory – but if it does, these are the kinds of things I look for.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 9 Comments to Read