Weapons & Warfare of the MMO

I’ve spent the last few articles looking at social and economical aspects of gaming, but with this installment we’ll be moving back into the bread and butter of the MMO: combat. There is no better place to begin this discussion than with the implements of warfare. Play any fantasy MMO and you will encounter a vast array of medieval weaponry. Yet the differences between the varying types of weapons are minimal and often seem arbitrary. For purposes of this discussion, I will be using AC and LOTRO as the building blocks of my comparison because these two games, while designed by the same company, have diametrically opposing weapon philosophies. Most games (including WoW, WAR, and AoC) align closely with the LOTRO interpretation while AC stands pretty much alone. The reason for these major differences is that varied armaments in games can cause all sorts of balancing issues.

The obvious case study for this problem is with Asheron’s Call because it took such a unique approach. Instead of following the character class system, AC provided for character customization through skill credits that could be expended to learn the dozens of various opportunities of the game. Each weapon had to be learned separately and the skill points varied based on the potency of each weapon. Swords and bows were the most powerful at 8, followed by axes, maces, and crossbows at 6, and spears at 4. Racial weapons like dagger, staff, and unarmed were trained for free. These skills could be specialized at double the cost (4 or 6 points for racial skills). This character building technique affected every aspect of the game, but in the combat sense, it meant that characters (at least well designed ones) learned how to use only one weapon. In a realistic sense, this seems logical. After all, medieval knights may have used a mace or a lance in specific circumstances, but their weapon of choice was the sword. The same applies for a Macedonian warrior fighting with a pike but switching to a short sword if the enemy broke through the formation or a samurai focusing on the katana but sometimes fighting with a yari or naginata.

Despite the logic, AC’s approach also served as the greatest weakness its combat system because of problems with balance. When it costs 16 points to specialize a sword, 8 points for a spear or 4 points for a dagger, how do you make all three combat types viable? No one seemed to know the answer. What happened came to be called various forms of “weapon love.” Early on unarmed was one of the most potent systems, then came “dagger love” which pushed it from the bottom of the heap to the top. Suddenly, everyone was playing a dagger character. I forget all of the stages, but every so often a new patch turned the balancing upside down. I was one of those rare spear warriors who never really got attention and, along with maces, were perpetually neglected (not that I’m bitter or anything). Every other weapon choice, however, had at least a brief time in the sun. This almost spastic shifting of combat values was a persistent source of annoyance and frustration for gamers and, I suspect, the game designers too.

So along came LOTRO whose combat system I like to think of as a reactionary response to AC. I’m probably wrong because LOTRO weapon mechanics are so similar to other earlier MMOs, but it sure felt that way to me. Unlike AC, in LOTRO there are character classes, each of which has a moderate sized pool of weapons at its disposal. The most strident difference, though, is a comparison of weapons themselves. Because of the differing skill costs in AC, damage output varied very heavily from type to type. In LOTRO, they are all identical. If you compare one-handed swords, spears, daggers and axes in LOTRO for a specific character level, the DPS amount is identical. I don’t mean they’re close… they match exactly. The only differences between the weapons are the amount of damage per swing vs. the time per swing and a small bonus such as an increased chance to hit with swords or critical with daggers. I did a comparison with WoW, WAR, and AoC and, while the similarities aren’t always as striking as they are for LOTRO, they do exist. Equal quality swords and axes of the same level have approximately the same damage amount. Have we really come so far as to make all weapons equal?

If the only point to having varying types of weapons is because some people think an axe looks cool while others prefer the appearance of a sword, I suppose it doesn’t make much difference what numbers are applied. I would argue, however, that this equalizing of the weapons cheapens the value that each has to offer. It also devalues those which are, without a doubt, superior. The most obvious of these is the sword. It didn’t grow to have, not only military, but cultural significance for the Medieval Knight, the Scandinavian Viking, or the Japanese Samurai just because it looked cool. It became significant because it was the best. The sword is one of the only weapons with which a person can both strike and parry. Swords are also incredibly versatile in that you can both slash or stab. The slash attack generates more power by focusing all of the energy of the blow on the center of percussion, but it is slower. Stabbing generates less power and only puncture rather than cutting wounds, but is very quick because the distance of the strike is much shorter than that of a swing.

Of course giving total superiority to the sword can be taken too far, causing all other weapons to be devalued and that is even worse. After all, MMOs are games and not strictly reality. Style does and should matter. There also may be cultural reasons for certain weapons to be eschewed. In Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” series, his Aiel refuse to touch swords based upon their beliefs. Many games have groups such as shamans, priests, or druids only using wooden or blunt weapons based upon their philosophies. These limitations are fine if explained sufficiently. However, greater value for various weapons can be gained by playing to their own unique strengths. For the remainder of this article I will look at some of these advantages. Keep in mind that this list is by no means comprehensive.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a medieval weapon master) to see basic strengths and weaknesses to different weapons. The axe, for example, is built for the same attack as the slashing sword. The axe head is placed at the center of percussion where maximum force can be generated. In contrast with the sword, the axe is heavier meaning more force can be focused at that point, but to get that it sacrifices the ability to parry or stab. Maces are designed with bludgeoning in mind. Rather than trying to cut through enemy armor, they rely on the shock of the weapon strike itself to transmit damage through the armor. Flails are similar in concept to maces in that they are generally bludgeoning weapons. But the chain has two other advantages. First, the concussion from the blow is not transmitted through the chain to the bearer like it is up a mace handle. Second, the chain allows the user to potentially reach around enemy defenses such as a shield. The price of these advantages is that the flail is much more difficult to handle effectively (and safely).

The use of spears varies based upon their design but the dominant advantage is their extra reach. Longer ones, such as pike are designed for employment only in massed formation. A pikeman is ineffective once his opponent gets within sword range. Shorter spears can be used on a more individual basis (such as is afforded in MMOs) where both the reach and the quicker attack time (much like a stabbing sword) offer advantages. Other polearms, such as the halberd or bill, were employed predominantly by foot soldiers to unhorse knights so they only have the greatest practical value in games which allow mounted combat. They also employ some of the advantages (and disadvantages) of spears or axes.

The knife or dagger had the most dubious value in medieval combat. The adage “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight” is nearly as valid when talking about a sword fight. The speed of a knife attack cannot overcome the reach of a swordsman, especially if he is wearing armor and carrying a shield. The value of a knife is for stealth actions against unarmored or unwary opponents. This is generally limited in MMOs to first contact with an enemy in large part due to the hit point concept (which is worthy of a whole article in its own right)… That being said, the mythos of the rogue is too dominant in the fantasy genre to dismiss it outright. This is one of those occasions where reality must give way to genre style.

Games have made some small effort to apply a few of these concepts. For example, the weapon bonus for the mace in LOTRO is that it may stun the enemy. Yet in general, these bonuses are mild and far outweighed by the gross equalization of their DPS. A little more application and depth to the various weapons would go a long way toward validating the different choices. Style is a valid motivator for weapon choices in games, but it shouldn’t stop there. The varied arsenal of medieval weaponry is too broad to neglect the many opportunities that each can offer in game play.

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