Thursday, March 10, 2022

GIving the Spear its Due

It's been a while, huh?

I haven't updated this blog in a while for ... well, a lot of reasons, I guess. I haven't really been running an OSR game, Google+ went away, I've had mixed feelings about the OSR as a whole.

But, I recently started a Swords & Wizardry game up on Discord, so I wanted to write on this blog again. Go figure.

Today I want to go into some of the ideas behind a particular house rule I have in my game. It relates to one core notion: the spear is not heavily used in D&D and its clones. But historically, the spear was probably the most common melee weapon carried.

Some of this is purely functional. It's a lot easier to make a small piece of metal and put it at the end of a stick, than to craft a long piece of metal like a sword. And most people have an instinctive idea of what to do with a spear - you stick the other guy with the pointy bit. So it's both economical and, if not idiot-proof, at least it's easy to hand to a peasant conscript.

But there is scientific proof that spears have an advantage over swords. Particularly, they're very useful when you're trying to stop someone from coming into range to hit you. I think this factor is something that is significant enough to want to add into combat.

The specific rule is: if you have a weapon that has a longer reach than your opponent, you get the first hit when they're closing in on you. This applies generally to spears and two-handed weapons versus one-handed weapons, and to longer weapons against daggers. The basic principle is the same: in order to close on someone who has a reach advantage against you, you need to expose yourself to a potential attack.

To implement this, the opponent doesn't get an extra attack; they simply get the first strike when closing to melee. And it doesn't apply to someone who is surprised, or attacked from behind, or already engaged in melee combat. It mostly factors in when they lose initiative or make a defensive stand.

I like this because it makes spears an interesting weapon. It not only gives you an advantage when closing to combat, it also prevents other enemies from having the same advantage against you. And it allows you to have a character take up a defensive role - for instance, a fighter could stand guard in front of the party's wizard and prevent monsters from closing on them.

It's also an interesting tradeoff because generally reach weapons in D&D and its clones don't have the top-end damage. A spear does a d6 compared to a sword's d8, but you may decide it's worth it to fend off enemies and keep them from getting a reach on you. Similarly with a d8 polearm against a d10 two-handed sword. Both options do seem to increase the spear and the polearm in terms of viability.

There's also a good reason to limit it to the first strike in combat: once in close quarters, a person with a shorter weapon can get attacks in with relative ease. It's only when you first close in that the spear or polearm would have that first chop.

At the same time it doesn't really make combat overly complicated. It's a simple thing to decide: when closing in, does a character have the first attack? Only if the reach is the same. Once engaged, combat follows normally.

An interesting point to note is that spears and polearms are much less convenient than swords. You pretty much have to be carrying them, or securely lashing something fairly long to your back. This can be a trade-off in a dungeon situation, where characters need to choose between having a hand free and having advantage if attacked.

This rule is hardly new; the computation of strike rank in Runequest back in 1978 used a more complex variant that also takes weapon length into consideration, and there's a system in the Ready Ref Sheets that uses weapon priority. But I think this is quite a bit simpler than either of those, and it works in a simple initiative system like the ones found in most OSR type games pretty seamlessly. It would even work in a Holmes-style Dexterity based initiative system.

And since the name of this blog came from the fact that my OD&D crew always seemed to roll a 1 for initiative, it only seemed fitting to use this to break the ice on coming back.


  1. Very good rule, and very glad to see you post. Your blog series was one of the foundational tools for my return to old school rpgs lo these many years ago

  2. Nice to see something new here, Wayne!

    Been thinking about reach weapons lately too. Chainmail addresses the situation, with similar results, using weapon classes (25). The rules are convoluted in comparison to your rule, which, if I get it right, essentially says, spears strike first in the first round and last in subsequent rounds. You could use the same for other long weapons as well.

  3. I have used this rule practically since 1985 or 86, I guess. Additional rule: the spear wielding character can trade his damage for a "keep at bay" effect where he ruins his opponent's attack (by also not damaging him), somewhat like the "unarmed attacks against armed defenders" rule in the DMG1. If you roll a 20, you both keep the enemy at bay AND inflict damage.

  4. I use first strike for reach weapons, and incur a slow penalty when reach weapons are used base to base. I should also mention those properties are the only ones i use. I also introduced a half spear so to speak, which does not have reach but functions as a normal spear.

  5. In Olde School Wizardry, my OSR spin-off, I've introduced a couple weapon properties including "first strike" for pole weapons. Great swords have the ability to cancel "first strike", creating an interesting choice.

  6. how does this interact with "spears can attack from second rank"? do second-rank spearmen also get first strike during that first round, or do you not allow second-rank spearmen to participate in melee?

  7. Yeah I just have the person with longer reach when initiative in melees, basically the same thing.

  8. Diagast Ratnight says "Welcome Back" to the blogosphere.


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