Polearms

Weapon Effects

In my continued nostalgic foray in Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy RPG gaming, I have visited the idea of weapons and their differences. This is something that D&D’s creators and designers have always struggled with. Why choose a mace over a longsword?

Basic D&D

And what do all those different polearms do? Gary Gygax was kind of obsessed with polearms and detailed scads of them but never found a satisfactory way to differentiate them mechanically. (The Unearthed Arcana of 1985 devoted its final six pages to polearms.)

But I think I have a satisfying solution: damage type effects. We all know a mace is good for bludgeoning and a spear is good for piercing, but that’s never actually meant anything.

Weapon Damage Type Effects

I identify four main weapon damage types: bludgeon, pierce, hook, and chop. D&D and Pathfinder use “slashing”, but knives and rapiers can “slash”, but that’s not the same as a heavy sword’s chop, which is more like an ax’s.

When you hit with a natural 19 or 20 attack roll, you get a weapon’s effect. Many weapons have more than one effect, and you can choose which one to use after you’ve hit.

Bludgeon

When you hit with a bludgeoning effect, you do normal damage and knock the opponent down (if of smaller size) or back 5 feet (if the same or one size class larger).

Chop

When you hit with a chopping effect, you do normal damage and rend the opponent’s armor or hide, opening a gap that causes them to suffer -1 to armor class. (At the DM’s discretion, this instead chops off a monster’s tendril, tentacle, vine, tail, or some other non-vital extremity.)

Pierce

When you hit with a piercing effect, you do normal damage +2 hp. Pointy weapons just penetrate further.

Hook

When you hit with a hook effect, you do normal damage and pull the opponent off balance, costing them one attack. If the opponent is mounted, you can pull the opponent off the mount (but horsemen in proper saddles with stirrups get a DEX check).

These mechanics spice up combat nicely and make weapon choice matter. Suddenly, choosing an ax over a sword means something. A bearded ax’s head forms a hook that was commonly used to yank at an enemy’s shield or arm. And a sword is nearly as good for chopping as it is for thrusting. Giving most weapons two effects allows some fun choices for martial characters in melee.

I suggest:

  • Bearded axes have chop and hook effects
  • Dwarven axes have chop and bludgeon effects
  • Swords have chop and pierce effects
  • Maces have only the bludgeon effect but do more damage
  • Warhammers have bludgeon and pierce effects
  • Picks have pierce and hook effects
  • Flails have bludgeon and hook effects; they do less damage but have a special effect all their own

You can now have a one-handed (1d6), hand-and-a-half (1d8/1d8+1), and two-handed (1d10) versions of each of these and have a pretty full catalog of unique weapons.

And, Gygax’s beloved polearms can have–as they had in real life–a variety of effects (altho not to the granularity he hoped). You may need to implement a simple item-based encumbrance system to keep every character from carrying one. (Three effects only works for two-handed weapons.)

Other Features

Here are other features weapons can have:

  • Ignore shield: Flails go over or around them.
  • Parry: Most one-handed weapons allow you to avoid a hit by spending a point of luck, as long as the attack roll was not a 19 or 20.
  • Agile: Apply DEX instead of STR bonuses for attack and damage, like finesse weapons in D&D.
  • +1 to Attack: One-handed and hand-and-a-half weapons being more maneuverable, they are more likely to hit than bigger weapons.

Making a List

Together, these all serve to nicely differentiate weapons from each other with something other than damage but which doesn’t happen too often (about 10% of attacks).

WeaponDamageEffect
Axes
Hand Ax1d6C, H, Parry, +1
Battle Ax1d8/2d4+1C, H, +1
Great Ax–/1d10C, H
Dwarven Hand Ax1d6C, B, Parry, +1
Dwarven Battle Ax1d8/2d4+1C, B, +1
Dwarven Great Ax–/1d10C, B
Dagger & Spears
Dagger1d4P, Agile
Short Spear1d4+1/1d6P, Parry, +1
Long Spear1d6/2d4P
Swords
Short Sword1d6P, Parry, Agile, +1
Broad Sword1d8P, C, Parry, +1
Long Sword1d8/2d4+1P, C
Great Sword–/1d10P, C
Rapier1d6+1P, Parry, Agile, +1
Maces
Small Mace1d6+1B, Parry, +1
Mace1d8+1/1d10B, +1
Great Mace–/1d10+1B
Warhammers
Small Warhammer1d6B, P, Parry, +1
Med Warhammer1d8/2d4+1B, P, +1
Great Warhammer–/1d10B, P
Picks
Small Pick1d6P, H, Parry, +1
Med Pick1d8/2d4+1P, H, +1
Great Pick–/1d10P, H
Flails
Small Flail1d4+1B, H, Ignore Shield
Med Flail1d6/1d6+1B, H, Ignore Shield
Great Flail–/2d4+1B, H, Ignore Shield
Polearms
Polearm–/1d10C, P, H
Poleax–/1d10C, P, B

Aside from missile weapons, you would want to account for the staff, for one, and maybe club, whip, spetum (a spear with parry capability), and a couple of other exotic weapons. I say a staff gives an armor class bonus and also acts as an arcane focus, making it a good weapon for wizards, despite being just a glorified walking stick.

Note that “broad sword” covers a lot of territory for one-handed swords: the arming sword, back sword, falchion, cutlass, scimitar…. The “longsword” is the same weapon as a “bastard sword” or “hand-and-a-half sword”. The traditional one-handed, knight’s weapon was called an “arming sword”.

“Polearm” covers all the halberd, glaive, fauchard, and bill variations and combinations. As Dave Arneson said of Gygax’s obsession, “It’s a pointy thing on a stick!”

I say the short sword and dagger have no encumbrance cost, so they’re a natural extra weapon to carry, despite their damage being limited.

My last factor is weapon length. In my game, if you have a shorter weapon than your opponent, you need to hit in the same round your opponent misses to get inside their weapon’s reach. You do no damage with this hit, tho, since it’s really only against their weapon. The opponent may fall back (+4 to AC but no attack) or choke up on the weapon (making it now of equal length to yours). Either way, you can now attack directly and do damage with a hit. But if the opponent has fallen back, the following round starts you over trying to get inside the opponent’s reach.

Putting It All Together

So, you’re in combat. You roll an 18, and you hit for normal damage, no special effect.

You roll a 19, and you do damage normally but also get the weapon effect. If you hit with a longsword, for example, you can decide if you want the pierce effect (+2 to damage) or chop (-1 to opponent’s AC).

You roll a 20, and you do critical hit damage and also get the weapon effect.

Alternative Rule

If you like the idea of the effects but don’t care about differentiating weapons or don’t want to figure out which weapons should have which effect, you can use them anyway. In D&D, weapons have a single damage type, so you could just use that.

And it’s not completely crazy to imagine any weapon having some or even all these effects.

When you score a melee hit and your roll is a natural 19 or 20, you can choose an effect based on your weapon’s damage type:

  • Bludgeon/slash: Force same or smaller size opponent back 5 feet (or unhorse them).
  • Slash/pierce: Rend opponent’s armor or hide for -1 AC.
  • Bludgeon/pierce: +2 damage.

In Pathfinder, this should probably cost an action and in D&D a bonus action.

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