Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Weapon Stats in RPGs

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

  • Calibrator said,

    On a sidenote:
    I always thought that for people who loved Gibson’s sprawl series Talsorian’s “Cyberpunk” was a better approximation than the competition of the time (that I know of): “Cyberspace” (Iron Crown Enterprises) and especially “Shadowrun”, which obviously married cyberpunk with pure fantasy.

  • Greg Tedder said,

    Fun article on an interesting subject. I do tend to lean toward fun over realism in RPG weaponry, going even a step further, I don’t usually mind the JRPG material weapon power, but I doubt I have played as many RPG’s as you have.

    And I really enjoy weapon upgrades and that sort of thing. I can’t really put a finger on an RPG where the weapon and armor system wasn’t at least decent, but a few of the classic as well as NWN were a bit underwhelming in terms of selection. Probably my biggest peeve with weapon balance is simply put: having worthless weapons available doesn’t factor in to having a choice of weapons.

    And I think Balders Gate, Icewind Dale, etc, suffered from the same NWN problem, but since I was equipping multiple characters I didn’t notice it so much.

  • 10Kan said,

    I’d like to see a system where the applicability of different weapons changes more with circumstances of battle than just the quality of the weapon and the level/element of the enemy.

    Maybe this could work in game where the player character is assumed to be competent with a wide variety of arms and magical or otherwise superior equipment is rare. Instead of attaching to whatever type of weapon had the best hit dice and selling everything else, they’d go around constantly changing their loadout to meet different challenges.

    Instead of the player reasoning “I’m going to use this magic rapier because it’s made of mithril and enchanted with runes of flame, and my enemies are ice knights” I’d prefer “I’m going to use this steel rapier because I’ve become accustomed to its feel, my opponents probably won’t be heavily armored, and I expect to be fighting in narrow alleys where a cutting weapon would be difficult to wield.”

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’d like to see that as well, though it’s fairly difficult to communicate in games sometimes. You do get that occasionally.

    Actually, I remember something a lot like that back in the original Rainbow Six game. I loved the M-16 for pretty obvious reasons, when stealth wasn’t called for. But in really tight quarters, I learned to switch to a pistol, because it could be brought to bear much more quickly than a larger weapon. We’re talking a split second in a LAN game, but it made all the difference.

    I guess the question is – how would that be communicated to the player in an RPG without the player going into information overload?

  • Calibrator said,

    “I guess the question is – how would that be communicated to the player in an RPG without the player going into information overload?”

    If you show a weapon icon of the active character on-screen you could colorize its background depending on the location/whatever: Green for optimal use (default), orange for semi-optimal use and red for poor use.
    If you only have a character portrait then simply change the background color of it

    This would mean that either the map contains information about weapon use (most places won’t be problematic) or the engine calculates the corridor width (for example) on the fly. These values could be integrated into the hit probability calculations.
    I don’t know how much information you get out of a ready-made engine, though.

    The player, noticing that his weapon/character suddenly got a red backdrop, could go into the inventory/equipping screen and get request additional info about the problem or to equip different things.

  • Kelhim said,

    What I would find challenging is a totally new approach to combat, at least in RPGs with a medieval setting where the precision and the fast use of guns if any have their aquivalent in magic spells. Looked at it from a realistic perspective anyone who is critically hit by a dagger is dead, or seriusly wounded and unable to continue fighting, whereas in most RPGs one only loses a bunch of hitpoints and at the most gets slower. This is especially the case when the player has leveled up for some time and then returns to an earlier part of the game: apparently, even staying still and getting stabbed with a dagger multiple times hardly does any damage at all. Remember Morrowind and you know what I’m talking about.

    I suggest a system where the hero’s equipment plays a much greater role than his level stats, and if he was fighting in unsuitable armor and with bare hands then he would likely be to fail, wether LVL 60 or not. It could even be the opposite case and a heavy, but thick armor was a major disadvantage against a far more agile opponent. The gain of level-ups should rather lie in very small improvements of attributes, and in getting a handful of learning points which were to spend in weapon trainings offered by special trainers (the Gothic games come to mind).

    This would be especially useful in an open game world meant to be explored in no particular order, since the player could visit whatever region he wants and still find interesting combats regardless of his level – but instead be dependant on the kind of monster he is about to fight (mabye those giant spider creatures found in that wood are more dangerous than rats) and, most important, dependant on the equipment he is wearing and his fighting skills. Finally, goblins and other low-level creatures wouldn’t be such easy prey any longer and the hero no half-god.

    By improving their fighting skills and choosing the right armor/weapon for each combat, players would still experience progress, and combat would (turn-based or not) become a lot more tactical. Of course, terrain and the surrounding in a narrower sense, as Calibrator suggested, could easily be taken into account, too.

    (Please don’t mind my English, I’m writing this from Germany, but I am a regular reader of your blog. ;)

  • 10Kan said,

    Re: Rampant Coyote & Calibrator

    I’ve been thinking since I originally posted that, and yeah, it would end up being really complex, and probably causing players to doom themselves before combat even began if they made too many bad choices.

    The only ways I could see it working is either an action game with realistic physics where the consequences would play out naturally, or a grid-based strategy RPG. You know how those usually have terrain modifiers boosting defense inside a city or putting cavalry at a disadvantage in forests? It’d be like that, except for things like “twisty passage” (short weapons get an advantage over long ones) and “iron grating fence” (slender weapons can strike through, things like maces or halberds can’t.)

  • MadTinkerer said,

    I used to think #1 was important. However, Final Fantasy VII (PC version) changed my mind on that issue when they presented me with a character who has a chaingun attached to his arm and another character who wears various variations of brass knuckles and they’re more-or-less equally good in a fight assuming their stats and levels are similar. But then, if you’re going to blend genres such that swords and guns are equally valid choices (and everyone relies on bracelets in place of kevlar or plate mail… oh and there are stores where you can buy little red marbles that let you summon gods) you need to abstract the combat a little bit. And it was dang fun.

    So that’s when I decided that a game that tells me it’s going for relatively realistic constraints and then it does something contrary to it’s own rules is rather different to a game that tells you at the beginning that it’s basically making stuff up as it goes along.

  • Leopold said,

    Somewhat on a tangent, but:

    I like my 1911A1, I like *my* Mauser K98 w/ scout scope. I can’t see me (or my simulacrum in a Zombie RPG) tossing them aside because, say, I found a Kimber w/ a double-stack set up (and, thus, more rounds in the magazine). I suspect I am not alone, and people grow fond of (or at least trust they understand the ins-and-outs) of their weapon of choice.

    In our tabletop campaign, one of my characters has used the same rapier for 10 years of real time and 15 years of game time. Why? It is his. He won his spurs with it. Was the blade ruined once (by backstabbing an unseelie lord and saving the whole party)? Yes, but it became a quest to get it fixed. Now it has cold iron worked into it. Encounters have been resolved by my character partially drawing it (enough to be recognized) and saying, “Do you *really* want to do this?” That sword is now part of the story and definitely part of my character.

    My point? Whatever weapon system a designer settles on, one of the (usually) implicit decisions is that weapons are completely interchangeable within (at least) a given type. I’d like to see an incentive for not tossing that +3 over one’s shoulder because a +4 whatever became available. Maybe penalties to attack bonus, speed, and/or defense until a certain threshold has been reached (x experience gained while wielding that particular weapon), then bonuses thereafter. It should be a major decision to give up on your family’s ancestral weapon, not a given by level 5.