Shieldless - the merits of Two-Handed Weapons

This is the first in what may become a series of posts on a common theme across multiple sites. For other takes, visit Gaming BallisticDungeon Fantastic and No School Grognard for other entries in the Melee Academy.

They're iconic in so much of fiction - the barbarian warrior with the sword as long as he is tall; the berserker with an immense axe; the dwarven stalwart with wickedly pointed warhammer; the demon with the preposterously barbed spear - big, terrifying weapons with one thing in common: a requirement to use two hands.

Yet, when you review a GURPS fantasy game, you're far more likely to see a batch of warriors all with shields on their arms. It's a sensible move, given the mechanics - the Defense Bonus, adding to all of your active defenses, the ability to block missile weapons, the ability to block at all! But there must be a reason to want to forego the protection of a shield in exchange for a two-handed option, right?

Staff: Some options make more sense than others, obviously - GURPS has no truck with balance when it comes to the utility of one weapon over another - and the top of that list is the Staff. Weapon of choice of wizards since Gandalf and likely before, the quarterstaff and several of its brethren are the only melee weapons that sport a bonus to parry, going some ways to close the defensive gap from the lost protection of the shield. They're all friendly to low-strength characters, low in cost (under $20 each), and offer reach options that don't require Ready actions to shift between. It's hard to fault this choice, and it is probably the most common one for the non-shield wielding character.

Spear: Many spears can be used one-handed, but every one of them becomes more effective in one way or another when used in two. The spear, the long spear and the trident all gain a point of damage from the extra force one can put behind them with a second hand behind the thrust, and the spear and trident both gain an additional yard of reach. In addition, the heavy spear becomes an option, with a fearsome reach and damage combination, including a particularly vicious tip slash, in exchange for sacrificing the ability to parry after an attack.

These cheap weapons (all under $100) are the first to provide reach, in some cases, out to three yards or more - a feature which is often underrated. In all but the most confining of spaces, keeping your opponent at bay can help deal with the dearth of defensive options available to you. And let's not forget the pike, a truly fearsome weapon with a reach out to five yards. Combined with a compatriot who'll work the front line, you can stay back and apply thrust+3 impaling damage from short missile range. The fact that the weapon is 13 pounds is also a factor, allowing it to threaten breakage against lighter-weight weapons that attempt to parry.

Flail: You have to love a weapon that comes with its own ability to reduce the ability of your opponent to defend. The one-handed morningstar is nasty, but the two-handed flail is even more so, offering an additional point of damage and of reach. The three-part staff trades the extra damage for a third yard of reach, but demands an even higher level of skill to use effectively.

Axe/Mace: A perennial favorite of barbarians everywhere, these weapons are some of the most fearsome in the game, especially when the unusual eastern options are included. Many of the options from the one-handed table are included here as well, just with greater damage from the increased force behind the blow, though those are rarely the optimal choices - but when given no other option, that added bonus is welcome.

That said, items like the great axe adds additional reach - I can't stress how useful this can be - as well high damage (based on swing, and cutting), at the expense of requiring near super-human strength or a willingness to ready one's weapon after every attack. The maul provides a crushing option at swing+5, with the same reach option, the same strength requirements, and twelve pounds of sword-crushing weight. And the warhammer provides the same level of swing-based damage, only impaling, for truly frightening results. Add in the "ability" to get it stuck in your opponent - a blessing and a curse - and you can do half again as much damage just from the violent removal of the weapon on the following turn.

Most of the truly formidable weapons in this category all share the double-dagger indicator on their strength minimum, indicating that you will be forced to take a ready maneuver after every attack, barring truly outrageous strength (1.5 times the strength minimum - often over 20 as a result). This will grate on many players, who feel compelled to attack every second of the combat. The trade-off - increased damage, cutting or impaling, plus reach makes these weapons worth a second look.

Polearms: Similar in most ways to the axes, though in some cases with even more reach, and almost always more weight. In addition, a certain level of flexibility is provided, with most of these weapons offering both cutting and impaling options, and in the case of halberds and pollaxes, impaling damage based on swing, like the warhammer. Many will require that extra turn of readying after every attack, but the benefits - three yard reach, swing+4 impaling damage or swing+5 cutting, 12 pounds of bashing weight - do tend to balance the scales a bit.

Swords: The most expensive option in the game (after fencing weapons), two-handed swords offer the damage profile and the reach of one-handed axes and spears - both cutting and impaling in the case of weapons designed for thrusting - without sacrificing the ability to parry after attacks, and to attack every turn without a pause to re-ready. The two-handed sword doesn't trade much in terms of negatives for some very strong positives - the thrusting greatsword may be the most universally deadly weapon in the game, and at $900, it should be. You trade the shield for more damage, more reach, and the off-chance of shattering light-weight weapons.

Broadly speaking, two handed weapons offer some benefits that most one-handed weapons just can't match. Ridiculously increased damage, often leveraging swing over thrust; increased reach to keep your enemies at bay; and the necessary mass to threaten to turn opponent's parrying weapons into kindling. It's not that they're better than carrying a shield, not necessarily, but they most assuredly are worth consideration in the right hands.


  1. One of the many areas where GURPS matches reality is that this two-handed strategy starts to get really attractive once you can encase yourself head-to-toe in highly protective armor. When in many cases you can ignore defending against mooks because you have (say) DR9 (Fortify+1 or +2, Ligtened) plate armor (toss in some Hardened to defeat a level or so of Penetrating Weapon?) on every inch of your body, then you can usually go with Committed Attacks more often than not, and assume a failed defense is absorbed by your DR.

    (Note I go right by All-Out Attacks. These are Just Bad most of the time, especially if you have an appropriately evil GM)

    You still have to worry about being grappled and taken down.

    1. Yes, tell us more about this grappling, won't you? It's just us two here, nobody else has to overhear any details you might leak about how one could go about grappling, in a technical way...

    2. It's true. I won't overhear anything technical you have to say to Jason Packer on the subject of grappling. Nothing at all.

    3. Another very valuable thing to consider about two-handed weapons—and about the Staff, Spear, and Two-Handed Sword in particular (but also the silly dueling polearms) is their defensive ability against multiple attacks, if you're using that option from [i]Martial Arts[/i]. Halving the penalty for multiple parries makes them very potent defensive weapons in a melee even if it doesn't completely offset the handicap of not having a shield.

      Two-Handed Swords especially are also darn tootin' good for use in a Defensive Grip—another defensive boon for the two-hander—and since they don't take a damage penalty on thrusting attacks, that combines with the sword's ability to remove -2 of penalties for targeting chinks in armor to expand the swordsman's options (it also gives him the ability to mix things up at Reach C if the situation calls for it).

  2. Nice article. The double-dagger problem goes away with 1.5x ST, you only need 3x ST to use it in one hand.

    1. Good catch - and so edited. I wondered how I'd ever gotten around that, without having a 36 strength or more in the past. T'was just my fast re-reading of the paragraph on ST minimums biting me in the backside.

  3. If you are using LTC2 then the double-dagger problem goes away. An Axe with long-hafted is potent and, for the mighty, SM+1 can make it awesome.
    1H Axe, long hafted: dmg +3, reach 2, minST 13.
    2H Axe, long hafted: dmg +4, reach 2, minST 12.
    1H Axe, SM+1: dmg +5, reach 1, minST 15.
    1H Axe, long hafted SM+1: dmg +5, reach 3, minST 20.
    2H Axe, long hafted SM+1: dmg +5, reach 3, minST 18.

    Increased SM increases base cost but long hafted and small grip are both CF +0.5 and don't.

    1. I wonder if that was an unintended consequence. I mean, long-hafted is the reason most of those weapons are double-daggered in the first place. You use that sort of weighted lever and you're asking for the weapon to be hard to control in the first place.

      Though honestly, ST 18 is ST 12 x 1.5, so it's not that outrageous, and ST 20 is ST 13 x 1.5. Those minimums aren't that far out of line with what you need to avoid the penalty in the first place.

    2. Unintended consequence. I should have included notes about adding a double-dagger to long-handled unbalanced weapons that didn't start with one. I didn't notice that I didn't, and no playtester noticed either. Sadly, lots of rules munchkins did. But long handle was a way to lengthen some of the shorter weapons with a bigger handle, NOT to end-run around the weapon tables. The way to handle that is a logical GM ruling.

      A GM should look at a 1H axe with a long handle and think, okay, it's Reach 1,2* 6 lbs, ST 11 in two hands, and $75. Just like a Long Axe. So it's a Long Axe and use those stats. That's not by coincidence.

      I should have written it better, but really, GM judgment is required.

    3. That's true on the SM+1 versions but they also give you extra damage AND reach. That's amazing. The SM+0 version exactly matches a Great Axe but without the DD, and $25 CHEAPER.

      I'm not sure about the unintended consequence. The existing DDs are pretty crippled. I think a minST in the 8-10 range would be more reasonable. An average man could use one inefficiently, a strong guy (ST 12-15) could attack every turn, and 24-30 would allow 1-handed use.

    4. Look, I wrote the rule for long handles. It was meant to let you fill in gaps in the weapon charts or modify an existing weapon, not to show the stuff on the tables is wrong or useless.

      It's meant to augment, not replace, the tables.

      I'd add the double-dagger note if I could.

      For the SM mods, it's also a very broad rule - both the one in DF1, and the one I helped write in LTC2. Sometimes broad rules that apply to everything will produce some clunky results.

    5. If you have a time machine, Peter, would you just add the double-dagger to any long-handled 2H weapon, or would it also apply to other options from LTC2's rules?

    6. At the very least, I'd put a note about added double-daggers to long handle. I can't say that's errata, because it's not an error per se, but a later decision that it should have been included.

      The thing to remember about all of those customizations and scaling rules, though, is that they are meant to help create weapons compatible with the ones on the tables, and if possible duplicate them where they are the same. The issue is really this is a system, and the and the tables weren't made with a system, they were eyeballed back in '84-85. So you end up with oddities. GM judgment is critical in those cases.


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