There’s a lot of back and forth on the question of damage resistance and the role of magic weapons in D&D. Many players are opposed to the antiquated +1 or better to hit mechanic. How can the damage rules provide an underlying mechanical skeleton that describes the physics of the game world without bogging the game down with unhittable monsters or unworkable complexity?
The first question should be who or what are we applying the damage rules to? It makes a big difference if we’re talking about a skeleton’s resistance to piercing damage, a gargoyle’s stone skin or a magical creature’s inherent inability to be harmed by non-magical weapons. Frankly the mechanics from all the editions are viable to some extent or another depending on the world you’re describing.
The D&D Next blog about damage resistance references the tried and true gargoyle. It has stone skin, which in earlier editions thwarted non-magical weapons entirely. That seemed a bit too much, but on the other hand, banging your sword against a rock is going to result in far more damage to the sword than the rock. By the same token, if you use a hammer or a pick or similar weapon derived from masonry tools, it’s the rock that’s going to lose out in the end. If the gargoyle has only a relatively thin skin of rock (rather than being solid rock), the masonry derivatives are going to be that much more effective. Maybe a sword even stands some chance of hurting it. How do we describe this in terms of game mechanics?
Operating from the assumption that the gargoyle has a relatively thin skin comprised of rock, and no other supernatural powers, it’s pretty reasonable to say that the skin of rock protects more than a human’s skin, against just about anything, including bludgeoning weapons, but it’s particularly effective against slashing and most types of piercing (that ‘most types’ of piercing is a sticking point that I’ll discuss more in a second). It’s not really a question of needing magic to hit the creature; you just need certain types of weapons that can handle rock. So a resistance of 5 bludgeoning, and resist 15 piercing/slashing describes the mechanics pretty well. A blacksmith type (18+ str) with a heavy hammer could easily do 5-10 damage to the gargoyle while the same character with a sword would have to hit it really hard to do any damage at all. Magic weapons might have enchantments simulating some sort of armor piercing effect, but otherwise not affect the mechanics.
The reason that hammers and picks were used by knights was because they could pierce armor in a way that swords really couldn’t, particularly plate. That offers another wrinkle and possible solution. 4E gave mundane weapons “qualities,” like brutal. A very reasonable one to use would be armor piercing (though armor defeating might be more appropriate, it doesn’t sound as good). The concept is that the same gargoyle has resist 15 physical (no differentiation between slashing/bludgeoning) and the character’s weapon determines how much of this is overcome. We’ll go with 4E standard of 5 point intervals for the example. A long sword might have no armor piercing while a hammer might have armor piercing 10, and a warpick might have 15. That also handily gets us over the problem of the pick being a piercing weapon where the previous example would resist all of its damage based on that keyword.
2nd edition (and 1st I think, thought’s been a long time since I’ve looked at my 1E books) had rules for the armor piercing effects of various weapons on various armors. No one I know ever used it because it was too much bookkeeping. In addition, it dealt with “to hit v. armor class” rather than effects on damage. I think this type of effect works much better, and incidentally (particularly if applied to armor of all types), it will increase the overall toughness of characters/monsters and allow hit points to fall back down to more manageable levels.
That addresses the gargoyle, but the creatures I always think of for “+1 or better” are werewolves and vampires. I immediately check every new edition’s monster manual to see how the rules deal with these monsters as benchmarks for the entire concept within the edition. Again, it gets back to the question of what world are our rules trying to describe? If you are going up against a werewolf, wolves’ bane and silver are your friends. Is there a vampire plaguing your town? Better get the holy water, wooden stakes, garlic and of course as much sunlight as you can muster. This is one spot where I think that 4E fell down.
For both of these monsters, they did away with traditional resistances entirely and instead gave them regeneration that could be thwarted by certain substances. So instead of a werewolf that cannot be harmed by an iron sword, you have a werewolf that is a little bit harder to kill with an iron sword. But you can still kill it without any silver at all. Its regeneration is 5, so if it took five rounds to kill it, the party would have had to do an extra 25 points of damage. That’s not really a lot, and the werewolf is a lot less scary. Far scarier is having to drop your bastard sword and pull out your silver dagger to go toe to toe with a werewolf. I did it many times in the old days and didn’t always live to tell the tale. Running into a werewolf meant something and the rules fully supported that meaning. Werewolves had character, and more importantly, the character I expected them to have.
That brings us back to the point of the rules. What are we trying to describe? I want my werewolves to be immune (or at least massively resistant) to damage from non-silver weapons. I want to be forced to consider buying a silver dagger on the chance that I might need it to defend myself against Lycanthropy. In that vein, I rather liked 3.5’s take on overcoming resistances – magic did not always trump other weapon materials, like silver or adamantine. That had more flavor backed by rules mechanics. When magic trumped everything and the whole party had magic weapons, the flavor was largely lost.
So, for a werewolf, I would go with DR 20/silver, or DR 10/silver and regeneration 10. 20/silver means you have to hit it really hard to cause any harm at all, and most people will be unable to harm a werewolf without a silver weapon. DR 10/silver with regen 10 works differently. It is still difficult to damage the creature without silver, but not impossible. In addition, the werewolf heals quickly, which fits the flavor that I like. That could cause complications with spells for instance, but again, I rather like the idea of werewolves that are very difficult to kill without silver. Imagine a werewolf on the trail of a party of adventurers. They keep hammering it down and it keeps falling back to the woods to recover, then harassing them again. If they haven’t got any silver, the lone wolf might be able to wear them down until it can take them all. They really need to do something to change the balance of power, quick. Imagine the tension. You just can’t do that with a 4E werewolf. Vampires are in a lot of ways the same thing writ large.
Now we’ve discussed a straight resistance (gargoyle) and 3E style DR (werewolf) — in what way is the old “+1 or better to hit” still relevant? Let’s look at elementals. Of the four basic types, only the earth elemental has a solid body. How about a fire elemental? How is a sword going to harm a fire elemental? Or a water elemental? Or air? You can’t reasonably say that it is. Ever.
That means that straight resistance is out. Hitting it harder is just going to go through it faster. It also doesn’t really make sense (at least without a lot of additional fluff creation) that they are susceptible to certain types of materials. The only thing that makes sense is that a magically imbued weapon somehow disrupts the magical bindings that keep them in this world. Honestly that still feels a little weak to me, but I think we want out fighters to be able engage elementals somehow. DR/magic doesn’t really fit the bill because it is still allowing for a mundane weapon to harm an elemental if it gets hit really, really hard. So, that leaves us with the old “+2 or better.” That was the old mechanic in 1E, though in 3E the original enhancement bonus needed to hit an elemental depended on its power/size. I think that’s still a viable mechanic, and one that I advocate for.
So here we have three different types of monsters using three different types of resistances to weaponry. All of them make sense depending on the type of creature/resistance the rules are trying to describe. Thus all three types, even going back to the early days of “+1 or better” still have their place in the game. I’m really looking forward to where D&DNext takes it.