Weapon Speed in D&D

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.

Real Life

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.

Changed Rules

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.

Closing Comments

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).


  1. David Lamb

    Immediate range sounds like a good idea at first glance. How does the offensive disadvantage against an adjacent tile work? -1 penalty?

    But if I were reading D&D combat at all I’d want to restructure into “optional rules” and “standard rules” with the latter being the basic, simple stuff. Immediate range would be in the optional part.

    • I’m thinking much the same as you would face if trying to use a regular weapon at immediate range. RAW, when grappling you can use a light weapon at -4 and cannot use a one-handed or two-handed weapon at all.

      I’m inclined to use the +2/-2 rule for advantage/disadvantage. If you’re outside your optimum reach (either too close or too far) but can still attack, you take a -2 on your attack roll. Light weapons work best at immediate range, the penalty when grappling is -2, and the penalty at standard range is -2. A long sword works normally at standard range, suffers a -2 at immediate range, and is not usable while grappling. A greatsword is the same as a long sword here (and might, with sufficient skill, be usable as a reach weapon at -2).

      An argument could be made for a -4 penalty as “nonproficiency use” (just as a bastard sword is usable one-handed at a penalty with martial proficiency, unless and until you have exotic weapon proficiency (I’ve never liked how that rule is worded RAW). I think that might be too harsh.

      I agree that having multiple ranges at all is reasonable to make an optional rule.

  2. If you know what you’re doing, longer bladed weapons can be grasped in different fashions depending on the style of combat required at the time. If you faced with a dagger wielding enemy who wants to move in close, just shift the grip to allow quicker maneuverability of the blade, but at a cost to damage dealt. There are plenty of ways to fight that render the weapon speed a bit useless. http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=246

    • Yes, I remember going over this with my kids’ martial arts instructor (they were signed up for taekwondo, but he’s also a black belt in hapkido and has studied a number of weapons forms). He demonstrated several sword techniques that can be used at what I am describing as ‘immediate range’. It can work, but it’s still less effective than at the weapon’s natural range — you mention reducing damage, I mention a penalty to the attack roll. I think either approach adequately models the behavior.

      And I agree with what you say on your page. What most people think sword fighting looks like, as informed by fencing and modern martial arts, is not an accurate representation of how it was actually done.

  3. Pingback: Simplification and Complexity: Range | Echelon d20 - An RPG framework based on the d20 system.

  4. Related observation from boxing: when I (short body, short arms) am sparring with my friend (tall body, long arms), the session mostly consists of me trying to stay close in where I am most effective, and him trying to back off to a range where he is most effective. As you observe, he can still hit me when I’m up close, but it’s more awkward for him. Contrariwise, if I’m too far away he can take potshots at me when I approach.

  5. I’d like to agree with the initial comments here by K j Davies in respect of weapon use. I’ve been a renaissance and medieval period swordsman for around 6 years and am trained to varying levels of experience with daggers, quarterstaffs, spears and swords ranging from the Roman Gladius, medieval broadsword / longsword through to their larger two handed brethren and 16th – 17th C rapiers, backswords etc. I’m also a co-founder of the Historical Fighting Academy and we teach the above weapons at a variety of levels.

    In my experience? The comments above are absolutely true: weapons effect reach, not speed. Look at the treatises from the late medieval (Talhofer, Fiori) through to Silver, DeGrasse, Capo Fero etc and they talk about reach, distance and timing. There is a use for dagger fighting but using almost any weapon against an opponent armed with a weapon with longer reach, and you have to get past that reach first. Length determines who strikes first, not speed. There are exceptions of course, but in the main, a competent person with a longer reach can hold an opponent at bay. We’ve tried it with two handed spear (6′) vs broadsword and whilst I was able to eventually knock the spear aside and strike my opponent, a) it wasn’t easy, b) he’s my student and I’m more experienced, and c) he blocked me (nearly had me half a dozen times too) for at least 90 seconds of full on combat!

    So weapon speeds affecting initiative? I agree they should go. If someone wants to factor weapon speeds into a parry system, that might be a different argument and I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on the matter.

    But at the end of the day, D&D is a game, and the rules aren’t supposed to get bogged down in unnecessary attention to realism: you try getting past a trained guy with a heater (normal sized) shield and let me know how that goes! +1 to AC? And the rest!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top