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Say I have these weapons, both with a +1 bonus to hit (the number doesn't matter, just that they are exactly the same in all other respects but damage):

5 damage on hit

1d10 damage on hit

IMHO all numbers in an RPG need to translate into a characteristic or feature of something in the game world. But I'm having trouble trying to figure out exactly what randomization in a weapon's potential damage represent. The weapons are off equal power and will average essentially the same amount of damage (If the 5 vs. 5.5 difference bothers you, just assume we're using the statistical equivalent of a d9), but what's really the difference we'd see if we were a weapons-master critically observing them in the game world?

  • Would a club perhaps have a large potential range of damage to indicate its dependence on whether it hits a critical area or was swung well? This seems to be the easier situation to understand, as it simulates the potential range between an axe hit barely scraping someone's ankle vs. slicing deep into their neck or another critical area.

  • How does that compare to a weapon without randomization in its damage calculation, or just with less randomness? Perhaps a dagger might have a fixed amount of damage to indicate that it can't really make a critical hit, but can't really make a weak hit? This just doesn't seem to line up to anything in the game world as its highly unlikely that a weapon would always do the exact same damage on a hit.

The issue doesn't just turn up in weapons either; it's also present in monster attacks. If a goblin does 4 damage on a hit, does it mean that it's incapable of making an inept hit that doesn't hurt the target much but also incapable of making a masterful hit that does more damage than normal?

I'm probably just looking too deeply into this. I suppose static damage values can be used to simplify the damage process, and they really do make things easier than having to roll dice all the time. But I still thought I'd ask to see if there's a deeper meaning behind constant weapon damage. :D


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I think you can safely assume that a system that gives a weapon a simple flat damage (i.e., no other randomising, like wound tables) doesn't subscribe to the philosophy that "all numbers in an RPG need to translate into a characteristic or feature of something in the game world." – SevenSidedDie Jun 17 '11 at 7:29
In the real world there is no such thing as a constant-damage weapon or effect, so looking for real world meaning for one isn't likely to work. e.g. The nearest weapon I see right now is a ballpoint pen. I could rap someone over the knuckles with it (harmless) or ram it through their carotid artery (lethal). In a real fight with real weapons results are less predictable than that. This is one major reason RPGs tend to abstract damage. (I was trying to turn this into a full answer, but I can't, so I'm adding it as possibly-relevant comment.) – Tynam Dec 31 '11 at 20:11
Note that most often, these two don't coexist in the same system. In D&D, rolling weapons damage represents degrees of success that are absent from the "to hit" roll (which just gives you miss / hit / crit). Fixed weapon damage values tend to appear in systems where they are added to an attack's margin of success to produce different damage levels. – Alex P May 18 '12 at 2:37

10 Answers 10

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I'm shamelessly quoting from 4e here, but I think the following applies in most (non-mechanized) RPG's at least to some extent.

Hit Points

Over the course of a battle, you take damage from attacks. Hit points (hp) measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hit points represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s skill, luck, and resolve—all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation.

If Hit Points are abstracted in this way, then damage must be too. Static damage doesn't necessarily mean the same exact slice or the same exact bruise inflicted on the target. The first 5 damage might be a club swing that bounced off the fighter's shield, but weakened his arm a little bit. The next 5 damage could be an actual connecting blow that left a mark. Really, 5 damage could even be a complete miss. The fighter could avoid a swing altogether, but got a stitch in his side as he wrenched out of the way. So even "inept hits" can do "damage".

Again, I'm using 4e here, but the issue of randomization is covered in which dice are used for the damage roll. Two dagger wounds aren't going to vary much from one another, hence a 1d4 is used. Two greataxe wounds could be very different, and thus we have the 1d12 for greater variance.

I guess what I'm saying here is that static damage doesn't really differ from variable damage in terms of what you'd see happening in the game world. It's just a rule difference to make combat go more smoothly for certain repetitive attacks, and more exciting for those important hits.

EDIT: I was thinking back to my time playing AD&D. I don't know how many RPG's use this model, but AD&D used 1 minute rounds. This also abstracts how static damage would be perceived in the game world, though in a different way. We can remove the Hit Point abstraction altogether and assume that 5 damage really means 5 "points" worth of physical harm to your body.

So sure, the critter might do the same amount of bodily harm to you each round (on average), but we are dealing with minutes here. That indicates that it wasn't from just one blow, but rather a series of glancing blows, solid hits, and misses. The weapon properties don't necessarily have anything to do with it. It's just the cumulative amount of punishment that went out over the minute.

Off topic, but the idea of having damage be abstracted rather than hitpoints is fascinating. All damage would be static damage, but you'd roll some probability based on your total damage taken to see whether this one hurts you, or bleeds you, or incapacitates you... – Sohum Jun 17 '11 at 13:05
@Sohum isn't it already? Damage is just negative hitpoints. If one is abstracted, so is the other. Though I see what you're saying - a reverse model where you are focused on warding off blows and disallowing your enemy from doing the same. Interesting concept! Makes stunning (auto-damage!) much more fun. – dpatchery Jun 17 '11 at 13:11
@Sohum Man, my brain is rambling with ideas. A game where you automatically take X damage per round. Mitigated by Dodge (DEX), Combat smarts (INT), Resolve (CON), armor, etc. Tank PC's would be a ton of fun, reducing damage for themselves and allies. Damage-dealers could sunder/disarm a shield to increase monster damage taken per round. And a great opening line to the combat chapter of the book: "In general, it is assumed that two opponents will kill one another in X [units of time]. Your job is to... tweak that balance in a more favorable direction." – dpatchery Jun 17 '11 at 13:27
D&D-style "abstract damage" is actually not the norm or even common among games, and rationalisations of the concept aren't really meaningful outside of D&D and its descendants. Many early games inspired by D&D aimed to "fix" HP by making them concrete, and more recent games overwhelmingly use a variety of non-HP or concrete HP systems for which "abstract damage" is meaningless. – SevenSidedDie Jun 18 '11 at 15:51
@GMNoob I believe it's 6 seconds in both 3.x and 4e. – dpatchery Jun 20 '11 at 13:01

I could see a magical hit having potential to do a constant damage. Same with an explosion. A burst that's going to effect an area the same each time could have a constant damage.

Something that's based more physically on where and how it lands on the body would have a greater variation of damage.

Edit - I've had some time to think about this... I don't like the idea of a static amount of damage. Nothing is constant. For example, the explosion might go off too slow, the magical energy could get intercepted by the lingering mana between the caster and the target...

Simply put, there is no expectation of constant numerical effect. If it is done, it is done purely for speeding up a calculation, not to represent a real world effect.

+1 for using "magical energy intercepted by lingering mana" and "real world" in the same answer. :-) – Kristo Jun 17 '11 at 11:37
And what does this have to do with the question? Ok, at least some randomness, fine. The point of the question was what should be used to decide how much randomness to put into a damage roll. – o0'. Jun 22 '11 at 10:38
I don't see that as the point of the question. The question is not a matter of how much randomness, but rather what causes an ability to either have or not have randomness. It's not a matter of scale, it's a matter of existence. And my answer is that realistically, everything should have a random aspect to it, but for purposes of speeding up gameplay, sometimes we just let the randomness be the attack roll and never change the damage. – corsiKa Jun 22 '11 at 15:00

I would interpret "5 damage" as coming from something that was a very stable and predictable effect (being on fire, or in a torture device of some kind), while "1d10 damage" would be for things where there's a certain random element (swinging a sword - do you hit cleanly, is it blocked a little or a lot, etc.)

Also worth noting that static damage can also be used solely as a time-saving measure (minions in 4E, for instance).


Constant damage is, IMHO, a little boring. It makes it very predictable.

If we look at it realistically, the more mechanical the weapon, and the less external factors, the lower should the variance be. A mounted gun shooting at an stationary target in a room with no wind should have a variance close to 0 (constant damage).

If however the same gun is used by someone running through a forest with rain pouring down, an unpredictable number of external factors influence the bullets trajectory, making it unpredictable where it hits it's target, and how much force it looses on it's path. Similarly, replacing the gun with an less mechanical weapon such as a bow, makes the accuracy and force applied less predictable. Both these cases would realistically increase the variance of the damage.

Also, to simulate real-world variance, there should probably be some bell-curve involved, E.g. 2d4 is preferable to a constant 5 or 1d10.

Of course these are primarily gamist (the very first sentence) or simulationist (pretty much the rest of the answer) arguments. In a narritivist game, what's important is likely just "is this attack dangerous enough to hurt or kill someone?", and the exact effects is determined as appropriate to the narrative. E.g. mooks die, while the hero survives (at least until the final scene...)


Although realistic is not a term I like to use in a game discussion, there is no realistic means of damage (maybe except a life force drain using magic or something) which would to each time the same damage, when we use a human or normal animal or anything with a physiology which is more complex than an amoeba as target. And possibly, I do the amoeba wrong in this case.

Even your example with a dagger has a very wide range of damage: From a stabbing hitting the rib cage (so it can't penetrate very far) to a stabbing right in the heart is an extreme range in damage.

If you use something like a ghost or a slime blob as target, there you could argue for a fixed amount, depending your understanding of the physiology of a ghost/slime blob, because there are no more or less vital areas, no bones who break depending on the angle you hit etc.


I think the glowcoder's answer is correct, despite his re-thinking of it. A solid 5 damage, represents to me a magical affect, or a Character with magical luck. I.e. there is no variance in the damage. A possible (ok, a real stretch) real world comparison might be a laser or radiation. I.e., either damage is done, and it is known damage, or it is sufficiently blocked and no obvious damage is done.

Another way to think of it is that the lack of variable damage is an indication of the force required to cause damage. For example, a shock wave, or a non-traditional weapon like a piano or anvil falling on a person's head from a great height. Meaning, since gravity is constant, and the size of the object does not change, and it is not designed to be manipulated easily, the damage is just a constant based on said forces. Any variance in the damage done by said force or unusual object would be a variance based on the defenders damage reduction, or damage avoidance abilities.

"I think the first answer..." Which one? Since answers don't stay in order, if you need to reference another post, please use a direct link (click link under the post). Personally, I think your answer is fine without it. – yhw42 Jun 20 '11 at 13:28
thanks, didn't realize that. Stuck in a link. – GMNoob Jun 20 '11 at 14:10

Barring any other differences with rolled damages (such as open ending)...

a flat 5 is just that: no luck involved. It averages 5.0

A 1d10 roll averages 5.5, not 5.0, and so is, long term, half a point better. Further, there is a possibility of a 10 or a 1, so 50% of the time, it's better than a flat 5, and 40% of the time worse.

Plus, the 1d10 roll is better for hanging other mechanics off of, such as open ending or special damage effects.

Further, there is profound psychological effect of rolling dice, which is absent in flat damage. People are inherently prone to choose the riskier path if it has a significant chance of paying off; this is a known psychological effect, and is also true of primates, and most mammals in general. Once a reward is associated with a task, the use of a random reward award for the task increases persistence in both college students and lab rats, as well as dogs, cats, bonoboes, chimps, and gorillas. (Those are ones I've seen study data on.) Even if every so often it results in an adverse stimulus, the association with a positive stimulus makes the task hard to break.

"If the 5 vs. 5.5 difference bothers you, just assume we're using the statistical equivalent of a d9", i.e, the Q is framed such that the .5 is not of interest. – SevenSidedDie Jun 17 '11 at 7:25
I'm not concerned so much with why someone would choose one or the other, but what actually makes the difference happen in the game world, like the differences in shape, sharpness, weight, or whatever that you might notice while comparing the appearance of the constant damage weapon vs. the weapon with a wide potential range, but same average. :D – Gordon Gustafson Jun 17 '11 at 14:47

While the philosophy of this question is very interesting, allow me to clarify some gameplay effects.

If you have 11 hp, and are hit twice with a 1d10, you lose 2-20 hp. This means that you are dead about half the time. If you are hit twice for 5dmg, you are very much half dead, but also alive enough to run away. Thus the dice adds a factor of luck that you have to factor in. You might not want to engage a fight if you are unsure about your own survival.

@Jo-Herman Haugholt: As for the bell curve, getting hit twice by a 1d10 does give a bell curve ;)

This answer is completely correct and well-reasoned, but not exactly what I was looking for. I understand the consequences of choosing a weapon that has fixed damage vs. variable, but what I really want to know is what makes that happen. Is it because one weapon is very sharp, so perhaps it would do more damage if it hit a critical area than otherwise? Does the other weapon always do 5 damage because it's blunt, so it wouldn't really matter where it hits and always deal a flat 5? Really trying to dig down into why this difference is present in terms of factors present in the game world. :D – Gordon Gustafson Jun 17 '11 at 14:57
You need three hits to get a bell-curve, two gets you a triangle. – Pureferret Dec 31 '11 at 15:27

There is one system I know that uses flat damage, and that is my local LARP group. A one-handed weapon does 4pts of damage a two-handed weapon does 7pts. Then maths ensues, as you add up hits etc.

What characteristic of the weapons causes this difference?

This difference is because the random nature is you connecting the weapon with the monster. Which is, as others stated simulated by the roll of the die in a standard table top game.


It represents the differences in variables for combat. Not every sword strike against an opponent is going to be exactly the same. And not all wounds are equal. 1 damage is just a minor flesh wound. Not very serious, but a lot of them can add up and bleed you to death. Your max damage range is solid hit, that was substantial, but missed vital organs (which would be a critical). The middle range would be a solid cut to flesh, with a fair amount of blood loss, but not a deep to the bone hit that a full range represents.

As your Lvl/HP totals go up, so does the pain/endurance thresholds representing their ability to minimize the damage they sustain, so it requires more severe attacks to wear their endurance down enough to finish them.

It's fairly abstract, but once you get a good way to visualize it, it's not that hard to understand.

Hi! This doesn't answer the question asked. You may want to re-read it before the downvotes start coming in. Cheers! – SevenSidedDie May 18 '12 at 2:34
Too late, there's a -1 there already. – GMJoe May 18 '12 at 5:29

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