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 Ballistic, Dungeon 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.