Don’t Bring A Dagger To A Sword Fight

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on May 18, 2010

Dagger or long sword? Club or mace? Hand axe or executioner’s axe? Hand crossbow or great bow?

Which one should you select? What prompts you to select the weapon your PC wields in battle? Are you concerned with aesthetics? Or does the desire to roll as big a die as possible trump all other factors?

I must confess I’m often at a loss over what weapon to select. In the real world a dagger to my heart will kill me just as quickly as a long sword to the heart. Idea’s of d4s and d8s don’t really come into play. Granted a dagger cut to my arm is just that, a cut. A long sword on the other hand might take my arm off.

Of course in D&D, unless you are using home brew rules, we don’t worry about location specific damage. You don’t take aimed shots at a monsters head, you just attack, roll to hit and damage. The article from Wizards of the Coast last week about tactics and how many hits are required to kill the average monster got me thinking about just what weapons we should be using.

From a sheer mechanics standpoint, the bigger the damage die the better. After all we are whittling away at a pool of hit points and it is only the attack that reduces the monster to zero that really matters. All a party is trying to do is to get that hit point pool to zero faster.

Which brings me back to the question of weapon choice. Why would you ever pick a dagger as a primary weapon if your PC was trained in larger damage die weapons?

This is the element of D&D that really bothers me. I’d love to be a Rogue who clings to the shadows, springing out at my opponent when the least expect it and dealing a blow that will end their life. It happens in the movies and in fiction but D&D through its system bucks that convention. In the reality that is D&D I’m better off being a Rogue who clings to the shadows, but wields a great axe.

Let’s do some number crunching to see if I’m worried about nothing. Let’s compare a Rogue who wields a dagger and who has selected the Daggermaster paragon path at level 11 to a level 11 Fighter who uses a long sword. To make the illustration easier we will assume that the Rogue and the Fighter both have a 20 in their Dexterity and Strength scores respectively. The Daggermaster scores a critical hit on a 18-20 and so we will consider both critical and regular damage. We will assume 3[W] damage and a +3 weapon, however we will ignore the extra damage on a crit from the weapon as it is arbitrary.

Critical Damage

  • Daggermaster: 12 + 5 + 3 = 20
  • Fighter: 24 + 5 + 3 = 32

Regular Damage

  • Daggermaster: 7 + 5 + 3 = 15
  • Fighter: 13 + 5 + 3 = 21

Clearly we can see that the Fighter deals more damages than the Rogue in both instances. This isn’t a surprise finding. But remember that the Daggermaster scores a critical hit on 18 – 20 or 15% of all attack rolls and with a 10% greater likelihood than the Fighter. However, their damage (before including extra weapon dice) is on par with the average from a Fighter who is using a long sword. Now as a striker the Rogue should be doing more damage than the Fighter and when you consider sneak damage and the extra critical damage they clearly will on most combat rounds. However, if the roll of the rogue as a striker is to do a lot of damage, then the dagger is the last weapon that should be selected even if a paragon path allows for higher critical hit success.

One alternative might be to declare that all weapons deal the same damage. A dagger in the hands of a well trained Rogue is just as dangerous as a long sword in the hands of a Fighter. Of course this is also rather boring in trying to build the most powerful character possible, but it does level the playing field. Perhaps rather than different damage dice for different weapons other properties would be available. For example, all axes are brutal 1, or all swords have higher proficiency bonuses to hit. I have to admit that I’m not thrilled with an idea like this, but I also don’t see a better solution than what we currently have. Perhaps rather than dealing 2[W] or 3[W] damage all powers would do set damage similar to implement powers. The weapon would just be the flair surrounding the attack.

Should you forgo high damage in favour of a build that is more realistic? The idea of a Rogue who produces daggers from thin air, throwing them nilly willy at enemies has a lot of flair to it. However, from a game mechanic standpoint it isn’t very productive.

Where do you draw the line? For myself, I trained my rogue in the rapier when I saw how pitiful my damage totals were with a dagger and I haven’t looked back since. Have you found yourself in a similar situation, trying to reconcile the role playing aspect of the game with your lack of damage output in combat?

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1 Snarls-at-Fleas May 18, 2010 at 9:25 am

You are a bit wrong in your calculations. Considering all the conditions you’ve mentioned:

daggermaster with a dagger has dpr = 21.10
and fighter with his longsword has dpr = 13.43

Big difference I should say.
.-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..4E slotted encumbrance rules =-.

2 AlphaAnt May 18, 2010 at 10:10 am

Your DPR calculations are using faulty equations. Chance of hitting needs to be factored in, and the rogue with a d4 dagger has a much higher chance of hitting due to Rogue Weapon Talent among various other things (80-100% Combat Advantage rate, Nimble Blade, targeting Reflex Defense, et al). You’re also not factoring in the extra damage that rogues get as a class feature, which is not insubstantial. If your rogue is not getting more damage on non-critical hits than the fighter even with the dagger, you’re doing it wrong.

A 6th level Brutal Scoundrel rogue can feasibly have a +18 vs Reflex to hit with Combat Advantage on Piercing Strike, and does D4 + 2D8 + 12 damage. An 8th level monster will have a Reflex Defense of around 20, meaning that rogue will hit on a 2+ (95%, as good as it gets) for an average of 23.5 damage. A similarly optimized fighter will not be trying to go for Combat Advantage on every hit, so we’ll assume he has it 50% of the time. That leaves him with a +15 vs AC with Tide of Iron, which does 1d10 + 8 using a bastard sword. That level 8 monster likely has an AC of around 22, meaning he hits on a 7+, a 70% hit rate, for an average of 13.5 damage. Taking the hit percentages into account, we’re looking at the following:

Rogue: 23.5 damage * .95 = 22.5
Fighter: 13.5 damage * .7 = 9.5

That’s a fairly substantial difference.

Even the rapier vs. dagger argument is missing something on a rogue. Upgrading to the rapier costs you a -1 to hit and a feat for an average of +2 damage per [W]. Rogues aren’t known for their multi-[W] attacks as much as their nasty status effects (daze at level 1, unconscious at level 9, stun at level 13, etc.), so those don’t play as large a factor. At heroic the rapier is worth something, but a lot of that is lost when you get to paragon (and get the heightened crit range with Daggermaster, or have them increased to D6 damage with Shock Trooper).

Just my 2 cents, as always, YMMV.

3 Wimwick May 18, 2010 at 11:10 am

@ Snarls-at-Fleas & AlphaAnt
Great comments from both of you and thank you for your insights.

Rather than using a fighter with a longsword I probably should have used a rogue with a rapier. This allows the class features to remain the same and the only difference is the bonus to hit with daggers and the extra crit chance the daggermaster paragon path allows. It wasn’t my intention to say a fighter does more damage than a rogue as that doesn’t normally happen. At least it never happened when I was playing the rogue =)

My purpose wasn’t to show dpr, rather just the damage on a successful hit. Your calculations show that sticking with the dagger is a viable option.

Thanks again for the input.

4 Kenneth McNay May 18, 2010 at 11:30 am

I can really get behind this thought. I’ve found too many discussions are aimed at the PC being able to do things that are not in the rules; alternatively, there have been questions about why monsters can do things that PCs cannot acheive.

a player at my table had already taken the feat for a fullblade and was interested in wielding a custom blade he had forged. we slowly worked out the bonus and the properties and several other factors, but he most wanted brutal 2 in addition to the 1d12 damage. as i looked things over, he could have taken the feat for a superior axe and decided to custom forge that with the same enchantments, so i finally allowed that this custom weapon could be a brutal 1 and we finalized the custom blade.

in the case of the dagger vs longsword debate, a rogue could choose to gain skill with a rapier or use versatile duelist to gain access to the longsword. that wouldn’t allow for the PC to take advantage of the daggermaster’s increased crit range in either case.

so, what about a compromise in honor of fluff. the PC pays the feat tax to gain access to a weapon that most resembles their desired mechanical benefit, in the character builder they pay the cost of the weapon by its mechanical name that best fits the afforementioned desire, and they get to tell everyone what their weapon looks like and even give it a special name.

that can be just fine for homebrew games (i.e. not LFR), but it requires a DM that is willing to work with a player to acheive a mutal level of enjoyment.

i had another player that wanted to incorporate elements of Quintessential Rogue by purchsing a garrote and blowgun and a sleeve dagger. In that published material, rogues were given proficiency with those weapons. I had to rule that because WotC had published a garrote and blowgun which both required a PC to take a feat to gain proficiency, and that the spring-loaded sleeve blade was likely represented much better with the enchantment, ‘hidden weapon,’ that he’d have to stick with those rules regarding proficiency of rogue weapons. sure, that chaffed a bit, but he responded positively and we all moved forward.

well, that’s what i can say. i’m currently wondering whether i should bother gaining proficiency in the handaxe when the throwing hammer (which is already given) has the precisely same stats. Why not buy the throwing hammer and say that it is the handaxe since it would behave in exactly the same way.

5 skywise May 18, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Another thing you could add to the equation for the dagger master is the Vicious weapon option. I know that the Fighter can use one as well, but he simply isn’t going to activate as often as it does for the Daggermaster. Really, I can’t imagine making a Daggermaster with any other sort of damage.
.-= skywise´s last blog ..New Game! =-.

6 Chromed Cat May 18, 2010 at 7:12 pm

I see where you are going with this article (i think) and i understand the slight niggling regarding weapon damage and all.

Reasearch was done when a different RPG favorite of mine was being made. A swordmaster was interviewed and was asked; “How many cuts with a sword does it take to kill the average person”? The answer quite simply was; “One”! Which left the reaserchers stumped as to how to make combat realistic and fun.

There is of course the consideration of reach. A long sword is erm…longer than a dagger and more of the weapon is bought to bear on an opponent who may be using a dagger, therefore the different die values for damage. But there is nothing in the mechanics for Dagger v Dagger or Long Sword v Long Sword. Reflection of real life mechanics would invole plenty of stats that would be annoying to emulate during play.

It’s unfortuante, but i would like to have my Ranger using two Short Swords rather than the high damage combo, so i go with it. I wouldn’t mind how ever if some clever chap came up with a house rule that was simple to implement and gave the smaller weapons a more even playing field.

7 Grant Marthinsen May 18, 2010 at 8:28 pm

And from the reality standpoint somthings wrong.
When a rouge succeds on all his Stealth checks, has perfect postioning and has readied his action to jump out and kill the last orc in the patrol coming by, he should be able to kill it, not deal the 50 damage and have it alert the rest of the patrol, which then kills the parties stealthy entrtance into the citadel. This actually happened in my campaign, and thats when i realizied the rouge (and all PC’s, especially those like Assasins and rouges) need to be able to kill enemies with one well placed, well timed hit. The assasin in the movies kills one enemy silently, drags him away ant then kills the next, not alerting the patrol until its too late. Players want that kind of pwer, but even if you succeed on killing the first orc, that doesnt mean the second wont take your dagger to the spine (or longsword, the real point of this article) and yell out a warning.

8 ewn May 22, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Alternatively, just wield whatever weapon gives you the mechanics you want (e.g. a d8 instead of a d4), and just call it a dagger. It’s a roleplaying game, so your imagination and descriptions are the limit, so long as you stay within the core crunchy rules.

For example, my fighter could wield a greatsword on the character sheet. However, in game I say that he grew up in the mean streets and is especially dangerous with a stiletto, which he wields with frightening efficiency when he manages to strike.

Now I have the mechanics I want as well as the aesthetics or flavor I want. As a bonus, it was more fun to make than worrying about crunchy damage calculations.

9 Snarls-at-Fleas May 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm

Good point @ewn.
In the game I run, dampire rogue mechanically wields daggers, but it is RPed as retractable claws.
.-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..4E slotted encumbrance rules =-.

10 Grant May 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm

Thats a great idea, until you reach the mechanical problem of those enchantments that only apply to daggers or light blades.
I love the idea though.

11 Snarls-at-Fleas May 23, 2010 at 5:14 pm

What problem? Mechanically they are daggers. Of course she cannot find new set of claws in the treasure chest :), but I just do it as a new ability/power on apporiate level.
.-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..4E slotted encumbrance rules =-.

12 Nate-Train May 24, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Hmm… Ewn, I like your idea. One thing though that might be getting overlooked (depending on your campaign) is that daggers are easily concealed (important in some city campaigns where larger weapons might be outlawed or regulated by the guard) and they weigh very little. Also, they are realativly cheap, easy to replace and can be thrown at a moments notice. So given those adavntages, a D12 “dagger” might not be very fair. You could “pretend” that your greatsword is a dagger, but that might lead to problems down the road. Just a thought.

13 Grant May 24, 2010 at 4:11 pm

@ Snarls-at-Fleas

no, mechanicly in ewn’s game they are broadswords, longswords, ect. This is only a small problem, but certain enchantments can only apply to light blades, so the “mechanical” longsword can’t be enchanted as the dagger would be able to be, but has the higher damage
does that make sense…?

14 Snarls-at-Fleas May 24, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Now I see your point. I guess that should be done on a case-by-case basis.
.-= Snarls-at-Fleas´s last blog ..4E slotted encumbrance rules =-.

15 Coda May 26, 2010 at 8:29 pm

When comparing a rapier-wielding rogue versus a dagger-wielding one, there are five important differences, all other things being equal.

1: The damage difference is 1d4 vs 1d8, or 2.5 vs 4.5 damage per [W]. This isn’t much on at-wills, but can become significant on encounters and dailies.
2: Rogues automatically get a +1 to hit with daggers, giving them +4 total to hit vs the rapier’s +3. This often lets them get away with using Sly Flourish instead of Piercing Strike to gain an additional +3 or more damage.
3: The Daggermaster path allows for crits on 18-20. This equals from 1 to 3 extra DPR, depending on your weapon.
4: The rapier requires a feat slot for proficiency.
5: Daggers are light thrown weapons, and magical ones return to your hand at the end of your turn.

All in all, the two builds end up being surprisingly even in damage-dealing potential. The dagger tends to be more consistent and flexible, while the rapier has higher nova potential and the advantage of being able to choose their paragon path.

16 btorgin June 9, 2010 at 5:21 pm

@Grant Marthinsen

Actually, in the movies, the assassin or what-not kills a minion. The rules are already in 4e to allow this.


17 Grant Marthinsen June 10, 2010 at 3:10 pm

But that still diminishes the feel somwhat. You do have a point, and a good one, but now from the gameplay standpoint (sorry to jump back-and-forth but its justified) what patrol is made up exclusivley of minions?

18 William C. Pfaff July 9, 2011 at 12:09 am

@ Grant
The key, imho, is that if you are trying to do a cool “setpiece” where a lone scout/assassin/rogue-type is sneaking through a maze of shadows and guards you definitely go all minions all the time. This is one of those times as a DM where you are setting up the player to do something cool and in flavor for his gaming style. Now, once you get past the underpaid/bored/minion mooks and get into the throne room? Heh heh- the king’s elite bodyguards await….

19 Sam January 31, 2015 at 2:37 pm

You forgot to mention Rogue Sneak attack. By level 11 the Rogue should have sneak attack +6d6. Not to mention if you take two weapon fighting and go with two daggers (only -2 to hit, which is obsolete if it’s a sneak attack, and by level 11 you should have greater two weapon fighting which for 2daggers will be penaltiless). So you’re doing 2d4 +12d6 damage to whatever. So in one turn max damage could be 80+(strmod*2). I wasn’t expecting this when I build the character, but at level 3 I put out the most damage of the party and in one hit have killed monsters doing 24hp of damage. So don’t laugh at the dagger wielding rogue.

20 Ameron (Derek Myers) February 1, 2015 at 1:14 am

All valid points for 5e mechanics, but remember that when this article was written we were still playing 4e.

21 Coffee November 7, 2015 at 4:09 pm

You are forgetting other variables as well. For example in a grapple you cant use a long sword, but you can use a dagger. Also rogues are better at out of combat things, like picking locks.

There more to dnd then damage out put, if every one is a barbarian with a strength of 20 swinging a great axe, then the fights would be over fast, until a group of wizards mind control the lot of you, murder you, then turn you into there undead minions.

22 Lincoln February 24, 2016 at 2:40 am

That’s true but as a rogue you would have low STR and daggers are light. They can also be used as a ranged weapon making them more versatile, and have a higher Critical.

Plus you can hold tons of them in case your disarmed or want to start hucking them from the shadows like I do.

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