Weapon speeds in D&D – expressed as modifiers to initiative rolls – have always bothered me. I was delighted to see them removed in D&D 3.x after having stuck around through AD&D.
In my experience and observation, both of which I will admit are limited but are verified by people with much more experience, there is little difference in speed of attack when using melee weapons at appropriate reach and range. Yes, it is possible to accelerate a dagger faster than you can accelerate a sword one-handed. This is a big part of why you can throw daggers but not throw swords. However, anyone who has seen sword fighting comes to realize pretty quickly that swords are pretty damn quick too, and more to the point can be brought to bear in an attack at least as fast.
Greatswords? They’re used two-handed, and the increased leverage goes a long way to making them ‘fast’ as well. Factor in that they are most often used in a fashion similar to a spear or a staff (including clubbing the opponent with the handle) close to the body rather than swung like a baseball bat and the attack speeds, for those proficient with them, are pretty comparable.
I am reluctant to grant inherent speed modifiers to initiative based on melee weapon size.
In this post I do not discuss ranged weapons. In particular I don’t discuss the advantage knives have over guns at short range because that advantage comes from different circumstances than I discuss here.
Rules as Written
However, D&D 3.x does offer several ways in which a dagger or other light weapon is superior to a larger one.
First, less proficiency is required. A person gains proficiency with daggers just by taking Simple Weapon Proficiency, and most classes get that for free. Even those that don’t tend to have proficiency with daggers. Proficiency with swords and most other weapons requires martial or exotic weapon proficiency.
I would be willing to consider an initiative modifier for nonproficient use that proficiency removes, even though the effect of nonproficiency is usually modeled with a penalty to hit.
Second, a light weapon may be used while grappling (with a -4 penalty to the attack roll). RAW, you can’t attack with a larger weapon at all.
Third, light weapons work better as offhand weapons than larger weapons.
Even though I think D&D 3.x rules are reasonably true to life, as far as the abstractions are concerned, there may be a more accurate way to handle things.
Add a new range to weapons: immediate range. This range comes into play when a combatant can close with his opponent. If you are using a grid, they enter the same square. The progression for melee weapons now goes “immediate range”, “standard range”, “reach”, and “out of reach”.
Light weapons are usable at immediate range without penalty. They may be used at standard range at a penalty, since they are disadvantaged against the longer reach – for the purpose of attacking. They may be used defensively without penalty.
Most one-handed and two-handed weapons are standard range and can be used to attack creatures at standard range (“5’ away”, adjacent square) without penalty. They may be used to attack creatures at immediate range (same square) at a penalty – even if I can’t swing my greatsword at you normally, I can pound you with the handle for a fair amount of hurt.
Reach weapons (such as many polearms) may of course be used at reach range. Many reach weapons cannot also be used at standard range at all.
Some weapons may be usable at two melee ranges, at least with sufficient proficiency. For example, in my campaign I treat short swords as one-handed weapons by default, with proficiency allowing use as a one-handed weapon or light weapon as desired.
What this Means
There are now four melee ranges. If we are both armed with swords, we’ll probably maintain a fairly stable distance, appropriate for both our weapons. If I have only a dagger I am at a disadvantage – at the range that best suits you. I’ll want to close as much as I can to give myself the advantage. I want to move to immediate range (“into your square”). This is moving in combat, so I take a five-foot step or provoke an attack of opportunity. I now have the advantage of weapon reach, but you can readily kick or punch or bite or still attack me with your sword at a penalty.
Yes, if you’re trained in “real close combat style” that penalty would likely be removed and I’m going to lose some teeth now.
If you don’t have that combat style, you might want to back off to get back to your preferred range – I caused you to move by getting in your face.
Mind you, if you’re fighting Florentine with a rapier and dagger, my crowding in just gave you a better opportunity to sink your dagger into me. Ah well. If you didn’t have the dagger you might instead drop your sword and grapple me (which I think I would rule does not provoke an attack of opportunity because I’m in your space.
I like to run fights using theatre of the mind, so the abstraction of adding ‘immediate range’ works a little better than if working from a grid.
Melee weapon speeds never really worked for me because they fail to model reality particularly well. I can accept them as a game construct, but even then they bug me. I’d rather see relative benefits for different weapons come from circumstantial differences – a dagger works better than a sword when we’re up close and personal than it does at even slightly longer range (which is fairly realistic) – than numeric in a way that is not realistic (a bonus that does not match how it really happens).