Old School Hack: Weapon Types and Arenas

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 04 February 2012

Recently, Rob Schwalb wrote a post on the D&D Next community site asking the community if they thought weapons should have damage types.

[T]he game has handled weapon damage in different ways over its long life. In the early editions, tables reflected how weapons fared against armor types and if a monster had a special resistance to the damage, the information lived in the monster’s description. Later, to unify the tech, weapons dealt damage of a particular type (bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing), and the most recent incarnation treated all weapon damage as being effectively the same.

Schwalb, Robert J. Weapon Damage Types

While I realize that D&D Next probably isn't about creating new solutions to old problems, the discussions around this post reminded me of a mechanic I really liked in Old School Hack. In that game, instead of tying weapons to particular kinds of monsters, the most weapon types are tied to the different arenas. The two exceptions are very heavy weapons which are a special benefit in themselves and the neutral arena.

Weapon Type Bonus Arena
Light Weapon - Examples shortswords, rapiers, one-handed
maces, daggers, truncheons, nunchucks, clawed
+2 bonus when used in Tight Arena - Narrow places that often limit
your mobility somehow.
Reach Weapon - Examples quarterstaff, poleaxe, spear, flail,
net-and-trident, sword-and-chain
+2 bonus when used in Hazardous Arena - Places where footing is
difficult or visibility is limited
and requires care.
Ranged Weapon +2 bonus when target is in Open Arena - Stark, wide-open areas where
there is little to no cover.
Heavy Weapon +2 bonus when used in Dense Arena - A crowded environment that has lots of fiddly but smashable bits that might get in the way

Robinson, Kirin. Old School Hack Beta v1.0, p.12.

In my experience, the ties between weapon type and arena made combat more dynamic and made it easier for me to determine my first move in an encounter. If I had a weapon with a connection to a particular arena, I chose opponents in that arena first.

The other nice thing it did was spread out the group and provide natural spotlights. Instead of four or five PCs bunched in one area, we spread out a fair bit more. So even if a bunch of us were just making melee attacks, we were often doing it to different targets in different areas.

Unlike having monster traits that resist or are vulnerable to certain types of damage, this is likely to matter in each encounter. It gives players choices whereas players often don't have a choice in what monsters they face. While I'd have to test it out to be sure, my gut tells me that it's less likely that players will load up on a golf bag full of weapons in this system, since they won't be penalized for not having the right kind of weapon and they are likely to see some benefit in most encounters unless the DM isn't doing a good job of setting up arenas.

As someone who might run the game, I like how it naturally lends me to think about setting up diverse arenas within one encounter. It forces me to think about terrain and to include different terrain types, especially if I want to reward my players' decisions. However, it doesn't give them or me so many choices that I feel overwhelmed as a relatively new DM.

It also encourages thinking about what demarcates the various arenas, leading to richer descriptions in my experience. One example would be a theater. Much of the building is taken up with seats which can be thought of as either dense or hazardous. The stage would probably be either open or neutral. Backstage, with its wandering passages, could be tight.

Finally, the arenas lend themselves to an easy way to physically represent the encounter without drawing out a grid-based map. This is important to me because I often have a hard time remembering things for the short term, especially things that were spoken to me and I didn't write down. I could easily use differently colored pieces of paper or index cards to represent each arena and use everything from minis to glass beads to represent the various characters.

I think, with a little work, this could be layered on top of D&D. What do you think?


If nothing else all the buzz about dnd next has sparked some looks at other systems and some excellent discussion about what could be. My own list of possible house rules for any edition has grown thanks to the discussion seemingly everywhere. Though I will most likely never implement them they are there in a spreadsheet for those times when a player says I wish dnd edition x had more like this...

I like this idea alot but then again it does add to the time it takes to prep an encounter. I like how it rewards weapon choice while not penalizing a player. It does make a justification for the guy who wants a bow, short and long sword but doesn't go so far to require that player to also have an axe and a mace. There would still be a few golf baggers but their scope would be limited.

I still like the idea of weapon type vulnerability as a way too validate weapon selection but as a tabletop RPG like 4e I understand dm's not wanting to be burdened with an additional thing to ask for or remember. It's off putting as a player to be asked searing lance is that fire or radiant for an extra 5 HP of damage? It breaks immersion and to ask what type of weapon are you using with that, has the same problem. With VTT's this is less of an issue but does add to the video game feel.

Your example of a theatre is interesting but I would go as far as to say fighting in the same aisle is also narrow where as fighting between rows is hazardous. There again are potential arguments to arise but no system can settle all disputes though.

Applying it to D&D does sound like it could be fun, in the right context.

For starters, I'm thinking that it would work best in a low-magic campaign. I think that's generally true of tweaks to weapons and armor, since magic tends to make them less relevant. More importantly, though, I think that in order for mechanical differences based on weapon types to really shine, you need the party members to, you know, use weapons. After all, if you have only one major melee weapon user (an extreme scenario, but possible), then it'll be less "fun variety between weapons" and more "the fighter gets +2 sometimes."

But if you've got a sword-and-shield paladin, a (nerfed/unoptimized) mace-wielding cleric, a greataxe barbarian, a dual-shortsword rogue, and a bow ranger -- well, now you've got some interesting things to work with. It doesn't have to be quite so melee-focused, but the point is that less magic = more weapons = greater importance of weapon rules.

Another thought is that this might play well with other homebrews that address weapon-reliant classes -- the first one that comes to mind is my personal favorite fighter fix.

Since it's not at all obvious that those last few words were actually a link, here's the homebrew fighter I'm referring to:


Absolutely. This type of rule would work great in a modular system. It's easy to ignore if you don't want it. The argument you make in favor of it also works quite well for the original weapon vs. armor type. Certain weapons has advantages disadvantages against certain weapons. This did much what you describe here. It gave players choices and if the DM was doing her job, nobody would ever feel useless. Unfortunately, there were a few too many to remember but the concept was the same, whereas in this case, there are just four and they are more easily memorized.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

Resources for FAQs



Syndicate content