Direbane is an abode to share artifacts, simulacra, histories, and other items of note related to ongoing years adventuring.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

40 Years Later - Finally Figured Out Weapon Speed Factor


(Art by David C. Sutherland III)

Ha, of course I've stated many times our home group had it's humble beginnings during the winter break of 1977-78 when Dr. John PhD received the Holmes Basic boxed set for his birthday/X-mas present.

Holmes had these simple weapon speed rules depending on the heft of the weapon...

"Each round consists of an exchange of blows with ordinary weapons. Light weapons such as the dagger allow two blows per round. The heavy two-handed sword, battle axe, halberd, flail, morning star, and most pole arm can be used only once every other round."

Probably by summer of 1978 we began to get copies of the new AD&D Players Handbook. In the Players Handbook each weapon is assigned a "speed factor" which is only described in the PBH as thus:

"You have already seen information regarding the damage each type of weapon does, how heavy each is, how long and how much space each needs, and each weapon's relative speed factor."

That's it.

We looked at these numbers, and notice a dagger is speed factor 2, a longsword is speed factor 5, and a two-handed sword is speed factor 10. 

The numbers, a dagger twice as fast as a regular sword, and a regular sword twice as fast as a two-handed sword, aligned up quite nicely with what we had been gaming based on Holmes Basic (no Dungeon Masters Guide published yet). We figure that "speed factor" meant the number of 6-second segments it took for the particular weapon to get strike(s) in each 1-minute round.

Ha, that begat a twenty-five year run of segment-by-segment combat which in particular benefited our thieves what with 2-handed attacks (from high dex) and 5 swings each hand per round! ("La Machine" we called it if you remember that old kitchen aid...) By the time Dungeon Masters Guide was released in 1979 our game was set in its ways, so I don't remember anyone even bothering with the weird, esoteric explanation of speed factor in the DMG.

Our group, using the same rulebooks for 25 years with basically the same group of people, was pretty cloistered. We just gamed our own stuff and remained pretty ignorant of just about anything that was going on in the gaming world. When we sort-of regrouped in 2005 with 3rd edition (and the internet) I began to learn alot about D&D history and how other folks played. And basically everyone we ran into played each weapon gets 1 strike per round - no difference whether you had a dagger or a 2-handed sword. This didn't make any sense to us, but we went along with it as an aspect of the new (to us) 6-second rounds rather than the old 1-minute AD&D rounds.

Fast-forward to today where we've migrated over to Advanced Labyrinth Lord B/X and AD&D adaptation, we have had kind of a second look at speed factor, in an effort to incorporate at least a bit more flavor from our game of old.

The first thing I tried to introduce was the original rule from Holmes Basic, but that kind of fell with a thud because no one who would ever wield a 2-handed sword wanted to only swing every other round for sure.

Next, I went back to the Gary Gygax explanation (other than the esoteric initiative order) of speed factor from the DMG, Gary goes on to write:

"When weapon speed factor is the determinant of which opponent strikes first in a melee round, there is a chance that one opponent will be entitled to multiple attacks. Compare the scare of the lower-factored weapon with that of the higher. If the difference is at least twice the factor of the lower, or 5 or more factors in any case, the opponent with the lower factored weapon is entitled to 2 attacks before the opponent with the higher weapon factor is entitled to any attack whatsoever. If the difference is 10 or greater, the opponent with the lower-factored weapon is entitled to 2 attacks before the opponent is allowed to attack, and 1 further attack at the same time the opponent with the higher-speed-factored weapon finally is allowed to attack. Note that such speed factor considerations are not applicable when either closing or charging to melee, but after an initial round of combat, or in cases where closing/charging was not necessary, the speed factor considerations are applicable."

I pick up on the rule of extra attacks with initiative at the beginning of the round and suggest: "...the party with initiative may get additional attacks at the beginning of melee only, and only if the party with initiative is not closing in or charging (so the opponent must be within reach) according to this regimen: Light Weapon vs Medium Weapon = 1 extra attack; Light Weapon vs Heavy Weapon = 3 extra attacks; Medium Weapon vs Heavy Weapon = 1 extra attack."

Dr. John PhD pointed out however, "Which type of weapon works best largely depends on how much the combatants can move. If the combatants can move freely (such as single combat or group combat where the fighters do not defend a particular spot, such as the fight in the chronical room in Moria in  Lord of the Rings), then the combatants are assumed to be dueling as individuals, and they trade attacks 1 to 1, with the longer weapon getting initiative (unless surprised), or an initiative bonus? 

"If the combatants are holding position, holding a moving line, or otherwise not free to move freely (such as having the rest of the party right behind them), then the combatants will exchange 1 to 1 blows as they close, again with the longer weapon getting first swing, but once the two sides lock into place we then use speed factors to to count off attacks."

A-ha! To me this invoked the last part of Gary's DMG speed factor explanation, that I had treated as a non-sensical throw away, "but after an initial round of combat, or in cases where closing/charging was not necessary, the speed factor considerations are applicable."

It appears our group had it more right than anyone else I've heard (ha, please let me know if your group ever used speed factor like this), it is only that instead of using speed factor for every attack it is applicable only with initiative, only with a lighter weapon (lower speed factor) than the defender, and only without have to charge/close at the initial attack or subsequent attacks when the attacker with initiative didn't have to close."

Huzzah! What we did is incorporate in Gary's speed factor explanation Dr. John PhD's idea of heavier weapons being able to easily defend against lighter weapons when they have room to do so (defined as the space to retreat) and the lighter weapons get extra attacks against the more unwieldy heavier weapons when the defenders do not have room (defined as no space to retreat)

The new rule we've drafted for our Advanced Labyrinth Lord game (available with other juicy morsels in this free supplement here), slightly different than AD&D because nothing since used speed factors, but in the spirit of Homles Basic and AD&D, is as follows:

During a combat encounter, an opponent with initiative may get additional attack(s) at the first round of melee or when wielder of heavier weapon cannot retreat, and if the opponent with initiative is not closing in or charging (i.e. 1 step within reach):

Opponent with initiative Light vs Regular = 1 extra attack

Opponent with initiative Light vs Heavy = 3 extra attacks

Opponent with initiative Regular vs Heavy = 1 extra attack

Light = Light Weapon (e.g. dagger); Regular = Regular Hand Weapon and Monster Strike (bite, claw, jab, etc.); Heavy = Heavy Weapon (e.g. battle axe, flail, morning star, pole arm, two-handed sword).

The cool thing about this hack is #1 it adds a little advantage to ambushers, even when those ambushed aren't surprised so long as those ambushing gain initiative. And #2 the rule adds a little more flavor whenever PCs or their opponents get cornered, at least when those cornered wield heavier weapons.