Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Problem with Weapon Proficiencies

I was talking to a buddy the other day about how much I missed the classes of AD&D (brought on by showing off my fresh printed copy of OSRIC), and he asked why not just use that instead of S&W? One of the first reasons to pop into my head was my intense dislike of weapon proficiencies. Even back in the "glory days" of AD&D, I never liked this rule system. While it makes sense in some ways, I suppose by reflecting a characters "pre-hero" training with weapons, in so many other ways it just makes no sense at all.

As I ruminated on in The Folly of Realistic Rules, this is one of those little foibles of RPGs that, in my opinion, attempts to create a more "realistic" game environment, but fails. For one thing, there's no baseline to be advanced upon by weapon proficiencies. AD&D sets up a non-weapon proficiency penalty (-2 for fighters, -6 for magic-users, etc) that completely destroys the baseline of ability demonstrated by a level 0 nobody. Under this system, a fighter who picks up a polearm he is not proficient in is actually assumed to be worse with that polearm than a conscripted peasant.

If weapon proficiencies are thrown out the window, the relative power level between a first level fighter and a peasant make more sense. The fighter's better, whether he's had specific training or not. As he gains in levels, he gets progressively better than that peasant. By sixth level or so, you have a very sensible range of fighting ability: the 6th level fighter is better with a halberd than a 6th level magic-user, who's better with a halberd than a peasant. It makes more sense to me that characters get better at combat as they level, as opposed to having them slowly work off an arbitrary penalty. As Gygax stated, character background is what happens from levels one to six.

And what's that about magic-users using halberds? Well, another problem I have with weapon proficiencies is the assumption they make about "my" campaign. The standard class weapon restrictions as presented in AD&D (or in most versions of D&D) are presumptuous and arbitrary, in my opinion. As someone who's primary literary influence for D&D is pulp swords & sorcery, its far more natural for me to envision warrior-priests with tulwars and curvy knives, Vance-style magic-users with rapiers, and loincloth clad fighters scaling walls with daggers clenched in their teeth. Regardless of the weapon options given to the classes, a 10th level fighter is going to be more effective with a broadsword than a 10th level cleric, who's accordingly better with a broadsword than a 10th level magic-user.

Removing class weapon restrictions also broadens the range of available fantasy archetypes available when using a 3-class system like Swords & Wizardry. How many characters have actually multi-classed just to use a different weapon that those prescribed by their primary class description. There's nothing inherently *wrong* with class weapon restrictions, as I feel there is with weapon proficiencies, and magic-users with daggers and clerics with flails are sacred cows important to many gamers. I just don't feel it takes anything *away* from the game to remove them, while it can add alot of options that really don't unbalance anything.

Armor restrictions make a little more sense to me, as why would most adventurers even want to wear it? Its noisy, hinders climbing, jumping, and squeezing through small spaces, all frequently necessary activities in a dungeon. Especially an old-school "exploration" style dungeon. They travel alot, and armor is uncomfortable. Rather than make armor an option for all classes, it makes sense to me that there should be a system in place to decrease reliance on armor as a character levels. Maybe a bonus to AC equivalent to the character's effective bonus to hit? Should a 5th level fighter in leather be easier to hit than a man-at-arms in plate mail? Having more hp's resolves alot of that issue, but is it enough? Its something to ponder at least.


  1. Hi,

    A fully restrictive WP system (one that has different penalties levied against certain classes, restricts the types of weapons, and remains in place forever) is too much. It is very videogamey before even those VGs copied the RPGS.

    I do think, though, that someone picking up an African Throwing Knife has very good chance, apart from being inherently good through Abilities, of successfully striking with one at range. Nor an Atlatl, or possibly even knowing how to operate a Heavy Crossbow if they'd never seen it used.

    For that reason, I instituted a much less restrictive version of the WP and Armour Proficiencies for Urutsk: World of Mystery. One in which familiarity can be purchased, incrementally, to represent someone growing used to how a weapon works, or how one must adjust to wearing bulkier forms of protection.

    Since UWoM includes an optional custom-built point-design character system, there are no Class-based armour/arms restriction, because there aren't any classes. If class-based characters are ported over from LL, S&W, BFRPG, OSRIC, or 2e, etc. the individual play-group/Referee makes the call as to whether to then operate on the old system, or the new, 'trainable' system which in short order (in one-quarter chunks, to be precise) completely eliminates the penalty.

    For while I can pick up and fire virtually any firearm and have my typical 78% hit ratio (yes, I've kept copious records and targets to determine this), I very likely do not know how to maintain or disassemble them correctly in comparison to those I am 'proficient' with.
    True, maintenance and disassembly isn't the same thing as striking in combat --the combat bit, and its effects on the weapon operator, is often entirely overlooked. A simple mistake using an unfamiliar weapon can quickly escalate into a dropped weapon while a more familiar (even if less effective) one simply due to panic or the need to instantly defend oneself.

    I realise that firearms are at best compared to crossbows in D&D, but the idea remains the same, in my mind.

    All that said, however, I think Weapon Groups, or Related Weapons should offer less of a penalty, regardless of which restriction is used (eg., The difference between an XD and a Glock are negligible in combat and only slightly different in disassembly).

    Sorry for the long post.

  2. Or rather: "I do NOT think, though, that..."

  3. Great observations, Timeshadows! One option could be to impose a blanket -1 or -2 penalty to-hit with "unusual" weapons like atl-atls or man-catchers (assuming these *are* unusual weapons in that particular campaign setting). In my mind, this would adequately reflect that a clueless peasant would be hopeless with an atl-atl, whereas a 7th level fighter might intuit its function and use more competently.

  4. Thanks, Al. :)

    The problem of never not being at -1 or -2, though, still persists. :(

  5. You're right about the irritating absurdity of a fighter being less competent with a semi-unfamiliar weapon, than a baseline conscripted peasant.

    Did Gygax have any excuses for this clear error, or is it the usual "it's abstracted combat" = falsely assuming that simplicity of rules necessitates unnecessary and sloppy contradictions of logic.

    Gygax did admit that weapon speed rules were a mess and not to use them, long after the fact.



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