Friday, April 3, 2009

In Praise of Polearms

I love the vast array of different polearms in AD&D. That Unearthed Arcana has an entire appendix devoted to them only makes it all the better in my opinion.

A lot of folks make great sport of the huge number of different polearm options in AD&D. They are seen as an expression of Gary Gygax's "polearm fetish", and are usually completely ignored by both players and DMs alike. But I think this is a huge mistake, and the first time the DM correctly uses polearms in one of his dungeons, the players will be forced to re-evaluate their choice of weapon proficiencies, as well.

To be fair, the variety of polearm options only comes into fullest blossom when three rules are used that, from what I gather, usually are ignored; weapon speed factor, space required, and the dreaded weapons vs. armor class table. Pretty much all of page 38 of the original PHB. (Yes, I am aware that Gygax himself didn't use two of those factors in his own combats, but bear with me.) I happen to use all (when applicable), and have found that they really don't make combats go appreciably slower, once players are used to including another adjustment to their "to hit" rolls.

How I Do Initiative

At this point, I should point out that I houserule initiative in a way that makes the weapon speed factor a piece of cake. Everybody rolls a d10, adds their dexterity bonus (if any) and adds their weapon speed factor (or the casting time of their spell, in segments). I start counting out loud. 1... 2... 3... 4... when I hit someone's number, they say "I go now" and they proceed to tell me what their character does, roll "to hit", etc. It works really well and it at least approximates the effect of using a slow and clumsy weapon. Monsters using natural weapons like fangs or claws have an assumed speed factor of zero.

The Space Required column on that table (p. 38 of the original PHB) is key to using pole-arms and other weapons in a dungeon environment. Savvy humanoids will, of course, be used to their lairs. Those 10' corridors are that wide, and twisty-turny, for a reason. Remember the weapons types in the Monster Manual? How most of them include a large percentage of polearms? That isn't a mistake.

You can, for instance, pack five guisarme-wielding hobgoblins in a 10' corridor, compared to 2 humans with broadswords. Same damage as a broadsword, but it's 8' long and the second and third ranks can attack, so you have to go through 5 attacks just to even get a *shot* at one of the hobgoblins in the hallway (and the way I would work it, due to the reach of the weapons, the hobgoblins automatically get initiative if the PCs decide to attack). The hobgoblins just multiplied their effective attack strength by a factor of two and a half. Working in unison, they're as effective as a 5-HD monster.

And those invincible fighters with 400 g.p. burning a hole in their small belt pouch? Oh, big man with your plate mail and shield. AC 2. Invincible. Except when those footman's picks come out and the orcs get an effective 10% bonus "to hit" because they're wielding what are essentially can openers. You've got a +2 longsword? You're facing 30 humanoids with the effective equivalent of +2 weapons, "to hit", at least. And you're going to automatically yield initiative simply to close to hit.

Still think polearms are silly? They are the perfect dungeon corridor weapon when you've got a lot of troops to use them. And outdoors, if those goblins form a square, with sharp pointies facing outwards, the melee problems in a dungeon corridor are the same, just on a larger scale.

Don't write off the polearms.