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Modeling query: What's the difference between a dagger and a shortsword?

Tadatsune

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Short answer: about a foot of sharpened steel.
Long answer: ...its complicated.

So, I'm working on sort of sword&sorcery-esque setting and accompanying system, and I've run into a bit of difficulty regarding weapon modeling. In a lot of games (D&D, for one example) differentiating between different weapons is largely a matter of differing damage dice (e.g., a "dagger" does 1d4 damage, a "shortsword" does 1d6, a "broadsword" does 1d8, etc). This sort of differentiation is quick and simple, and roughly delineates the relative combat effectiveness of these weapons albeit at very high level of abstraction. However, given that you only need a good inch or two of penetration in the right place to cause a lethal wound, this system can be unsatisfactory; dagger wounds can be just a lethal as ones from a greatsword, which is something that really isn't captured well by this model.

So, what I was looking to do is to get away from the variable damage dice model with it's fiddly (and often arbitrary) dice assignments for individual weapons, and replace it with a system that utilizes tags and categories, where by pretty much all weapons in a similar category do the same damage, but have different tags attached to them which allow you to do different things with them. Melee weapons would come in "light" "heavy" and "great" (i.e., two handed) varieties, and also be organized into different "families" for proficiency and tagging purposes.

For the most part, this works very well. It does, however, run into problems when you get to weapons that don't fit neatly into the provided categories. So, for the "axe" category, you have a "battleaxe" (the heavy 1h melee vesion) and a "hand axe" (the light 1h melee version) - both get "axe" tags and a "slashing" damage type, but one gets the "heavy" tag and the other the "light" tag, so you can exploit those in different ways. Similarly, in the "bludgeon" category, you have a "mace" (heavy) and a simple "club" (light). What about swords, then? Well, at first things seem fine: the "blades" category contains a "sword" (heavy) and a "shortsword" (light). But it also contains an additional entry for "dagger" (light). Under the current proficiency scheme, both "shortswords" and "daggers" are classified as "light blades" so you can do a lot of the same sort of tricks with either weapon. However, there are a bunch of advantages that the "dagger" possesses that the "shortsword" does not: it's smaller, lighter, cheaper, easily concealed, easier to throw, etc. And what does the shortsword have? Well, it's a foot longer. Only my current combat system doesn't really account for small differences in reach, so what in real life is potentially a very important advantage simply doesn't translate over to the game world. What I need is some sort of tag here that allows the player to do things with the shortsword they can't with the dagger.

Let's talk about reach for a moment. In really life reach tends to be a really big deal, so why not model it? Well, there are a couple reasons. For the purposes of the game, a "dagger" is any blade around 1' in length, as "short sword" around 2' and a "sword" aroun 3'. Using the example of D&D again, that system models the difference in reach by adding "damage" in the form of progressively larger damage dice, such that a shortsword is roughly 50% more effective than a dagger, and a "sword" is roughly 100% more effective (not accounting for proficiency or attribute bonuses). That actually sounds pretty reasonable, at least as far as unarmored fighting is concerned. Problem is, IRL the relative advantage gained from extra reach decreases as shields and armor are introduced into the mix. The best example of this is the Roman legionary, who's heavy armor and oversized shield allowed him to close to a distance where the shorter length of his gladius was actually an advantage. Similarly, a short thrusting sword or dagger is going to perform better in an enclosed space where swinging a longer blade might not be practical. The other issue is one of "fiddliness" - I'm not a huge fan of excessive "crunch" in rmechanics, so keeping things relatively simple - and thus fast and easy to execute - is an important goal for me. I could add set of relative reach categories for every weapon, such that a character with a longer reach would gain an advantage over one with a shorter reach, but that would mean everyone would have to remember or look up reach values for each combatant and compare them for every attack, which is a huge increase in labor. I'd much rather handle this with a simple tag that gives the shortsword guy a capability or bonus that the dagger guy doesn't have and be done with it.

So, that brings us back to the original question... namely, what can the guy with the shortsword do that he can't do with a dagger? I'm thinking some sort of parrying bonus to guard values that you can get with "swords" and "shortswords" but not with "daggers." I'd be curious to hear what other have to say on this matter, so if you have any ideas please let me know.
 

samuel.penn

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Why not, rather than give every weapon a reach value, give daggers (and knives) a 'very short' tag, which gives them a penalty when used versus all other weapons? Then all the player needs to remember is that they have this tag, and the other guy doesn't. If no-one is using daggers, then no-one needs to worry about it.

Maybe that tag gives extra penalties (or only gives penalties) against shields, because it's too short to stab around the shield, whilst the short sword is just long enough to not get that penalty?
 

Nate_MI

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Why not, rather than give every weapon a reach value, give daggers (and knives) a 'very short' tag, which gives them a penalty when used versus all other weapons? Then all the player needs to remember is that they have this tag, and the other guy doesn't. If no-one is using daggers, then no-one needs to worry about it.

Maybe that tag gives extra penalties (or only gives penalties) against shields, because it's too short to stab around the shield, whilst the short sword is just long enough to not get that penalty?
There are even situations where it could be a bonus, like if you get into a grapple. If you're holding onto someone's shoulder, it's easier to stab them with a dagger than with a broadsword or a shortsword.
 

Tadatsune

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Why not, rather than give every weapon a reach value, give daggers (and knives) a 'very short' tag, which gives them a penalty when used versus all other weapons? Then all the player needs to remember is that they have this tag, and the other guy doesn't. If no-one is using daggers, then no-one needs to worry about it.

Maybe that tag gives extra penalties (or only gives penalties) against shields, because it's too short to stab around the shield, whilst the short sword is just long enough to not get that penalty?
There are even situations where it could be a bonus, like if you get into a grapple. If you're holding onto someone's shoulder, it's easier to stab them with a dagger than with a broadsword or a shortsword.
It's not a bad idea. Problem is, I might also want the shortword to share "close quarters" bonuses. Perhaps both get the bonus, but only the dagger gets a penalty. It would sort of be the inverse of the "reach" bonus given to spears and polearms.
 

Nate_MI

Hail Tzeentch!
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I would suggest you get some pieces of wood cut to the proper length, and a friend, and try poking at each other from different lengths. You might find that a shortsword is a lot more cumbersome than you'd expect.
 

Tadatsune

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I would suggest you get some pieces of wood cut to the proper length, and a friend, and try poking at each other from different lengths. You might find that a shortsword is a lot more cumbersome than you'd expect.
At grappling range, sure. The dagger would have an advantage IRL. In a narrow hallway, however? My money is on the shortsword.
Again the issue is the level of abstraction. I could have separate rules/tags for grappling and confined spaces, but I'm not sure how valuable that ultimately would be.
 

WillInNewHaven

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The first thing that matters when combatants approach one another is reach. Since the space between combatants keeps changing during a fight, reach may be important several times during a fight. It is good to realize that the disadvantage of a knife is not so much damage as reach. Sparring dagger against saber, I can only attack my opponent's hand and arm when he has a full range of attacks. Against a spear, I never get to attack most of the time.
 

Nate_MI

Hail Tzeentch!
Validated User
At grappling range, sure. The dagger would have an advantage IRL. In a narrow hallway, however? My money is on the shortsword.
Again the issue is the level of abstraction. I could have separate rules/tags for grappling and confined spaces, but I'm not sure how valuable that ultimately would be.
That's... yes, that's what I said. A dagger would be more effective in a grapple than a shortsword. So use the tags and the mechanics to point this out.
 

Tadatsune

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The first thing that matters when combatants approach one another is reach. Since the space between combatants keeps changing during a fight, reach may be important several times during a fight. It is good to realize that the disadvantage of a knife is not so much damage as reach. Sparring dagger against saber, I can only attack my opponent's hand and arm when he has a full range of attacks. Against a spear, I never get to attack most of the time.
Well, in D&D "damage" is a nebulous concept. Problem with that level is abstraction is its counter-intuitive for most players, which I one reason I'm trying to come up with an alternate system.

I'm curious as to how you would translate reach advantage into mechanics?

One idea regarding reach is that a polearm user would get a "first strike" perk when facing an opponent with a shorter weapon which would allow them to attack first for at least the first round of melee. I could do a similar thing for someone engaging a foe with a dagger or unarmed strike. Or, if I wanted to do a fully detailed reach system it might look something like this:

1. Unarmed
2. Dagger
3. Short Blade/Axe/Bludgeon
4. Long Blade/Great Weapon
5. Full Blade
6. Spear/Staff/Polearm
7. Lance
8. Pike

With you getting an initiative bonus for being two categories higher than your opponent. Again, though, all this is adding a major step in combat that I'm not sure is worth the time and effort.
 

Knaight

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The obvious parallel to a first strike tag would be a last strike tag, where you are guaranteed to attack last unless your opponent also has one. It's simpler, it usually doesn't come up, and it encourages some dagger appropriate tactics (ambushes where only you get to attack in a round means you get to attack first).
 
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