Monday, January 25, 2016

Silver Weapons

Silver weapons are a pretty good staple of myth and fantasy. Silver bullets disposing of witches and werewolves date to at least the 1700's. A silver dagger narrowly saves the day against a necromancer when all other weapons have failed for Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser in their origin story by Fritz Leiber, "Ill Met In Lankhmar" (here illustrated by artist Mike Mignola):

This may hurt a bit.

Now, I was somewhat surprised to realize what a relative dearth of silver weapons there are in classic D&D. To wit:
  • OD&D (1973): The basic equipment table in Vol-1 includes a "silver tipped arrow" for 5 gp, and nothing else; obviously this looks like Gygax's medieval analog to the silver bullet. A few of the monsters in Vol-2 require at least silver weapons to hit; for wights and wraiths this is phrased as "silver-tipped arrows will score normal damage", which may look like a weirdly specific restriction, unless you realize that's the only such weapon in the preceding equipment list. But lycanthropes refer to "silver weapons" in the more general phrasing.
  • Holmes Basic D&D (1977): The equipment list is effectively identical to OD&D; the "silver tipped arrow" is included an no other type. The restrictions for wights, wraiths, and lycanthropes use identical language as in OD&D.
  • AD&D 1E (1978): No change here: the silver arrow is included in the expanded equipment list, and it's still the only such weapon. Both wights and wraiths have had their vulnerability text changed to the more general term "silver weapons", even though only the one type exists in the equipment list. Some other lower-planes types have also been added that require at least silver to hit (ghosts, imps, night hags, and greater devils).
  • Moldvay Basic D&D (1981): This is the first ruleset that has more than the single silver arrow; Moldvay adds the "silver dagger" for 30 gp (a la Leiber above). This finally gives an option to characters in melee combat; note what a bad scene it would be in prior rules for a silver-required creature to close to hand-to-hand range when the only silver weapon available  is the arrow.
  • AD&D 2E (1989): Not only is the list of silver weapons not further expanded at this time, but they're actually entirely removed from the equipment list as far as I can tell. Absolutely no appearances of the phrase "silver weapon" (or "arrow", or "dagger") appear in my copy of the 2E PHB. Yet those wights, wraiths, lycanthropes, etc., in the Monstrous Manual still have the same silver-minimum requirement to hit them. The DMG has a section on "Silver Weapons", but in standard 2E style, this is entirely a rumination of optional limitations the DM could put on any such weapons (need entire blade of pure silver, broken with regular use); no prices or accessibility rules are given. Good luck, you princes of role-play, you characters of 2E!
  • D&D 3E (2000): Expanding the list for the first time in two decades, the PHB has a section on "Special and Superior Items" which includes the "arrow, bolts, or bullet, silvered", as well as the "dagger, silvered". The monster defenses have been jostled around a bit; lycanthropes have "damage resistance 15", bypassed by silver or magic weapons (i.e., normal weapons are not totally impotent, but have their damage reduced by 15 points), whereas wights and wraiths have had the defense removed entirely (although wraiths now require at least magic to hit, as they have become fully "incorporealized" at this time). 
  • D&D 3.5 (2003): The status of silver weapons gets even further shuffled around in this revision to 3rd Edition. Specifically, other weapon materials come into play for some monsters (like adamantine and cold iron), and now any weapon may be constructed out of silver or any of the other special materials. In addition, magic weapons no longer serve to trump those resistances. 

In my Book of War game, the silver-weapon restriction is a big reason why I've avoided adding monsters such as wights, wraiths, and lycanthropes (even if they are a staple in mass battles seen in Tolkien, say). Obviously, it requires the addition of silver weapons or else these unit types would automatically massacre normal men without recourse. And we basically need to price the lycanthropes (or whatever) such that they are sure to lose against men pre-armed with silver weapons (so as to balance against the fact that they automatically win if they face off against men without such weapons). But even if we price silver weapons at a minimum 1 of gold per figure, it then turns out that those men will be so under-powered as to generally lose against any other normal type (the Book of War prices are that sensitively balanced). So in playtests, if we include these options, the entire Book of War system immediately collapses into a game of rock-paper-scissors: the only relevant choice is whether one selects (1) lycanthropes, or (2) men with silver weapons, or (3) men without silver weapons -- and the game is effectively determined as soon as the players reveal what units they have brought to the table.

Personally, I do like the appearance of silver arrows as a witty stand-in for silver bullets; and the silver dagger gives an option to those in melee combat against the forces of darkness (e.g., otherwise our friends Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser would have had a very short career indeed!). But allowing larger types like swords and battle axes in 3rd Edition seems like lazy, mindlessly-abstracted, "we no longer care about the concrete details of our world" game design. That is: in reality a large weapon made of soft silver would instantly bend and break. And I kind of think that real-world detail of being reduced to a less powerful weapon adds commendably to the sense of desperation in fights against these kinds of supernatural monsters.

What do you allow for silver weapons in your games? Is it arrows-only as in OD&D and AD&D? Do you permit daggers like Moldvay (and Leiber) did? Or is it anything-goes like in 3rd Edition and later?

Edit: Several have commentators have pointed out that while early editions have no silver daggers in the starting equipment lists, there are numerous instances of them given as possible treasures. Zenopus Archives notes there is a silver-dagger in the Holmes Basic Sample Dungeon, and also Gygax's Caves of Chaos (B2). Marathon Recaps & Professor Oats note that a silver-dagger is included in the original robe of useful items from Dragon #26, and so reprinted with that inclusion in 1E AD&D DMG Appendix P. Excellent finds!


  1. Since I cut my teeth on Mentzer, I've always had silver arrows and silver daggers in my games.

    And now that I think of it, in the home-brew "D&D Mine" booklet I've used for the past few years, I'm not sure if I included the silver arrows on the equipment list...

    I liked how 3.5 added other materials for specific monsters, although I remember so many people griping about it back then. I don't have any other specific options on my equipment list, but there's always a possibility that the players may run into some monster that requires cold iron, or mithril or whatever to defeat, and they'll need to retreat, investigate where/how to find such weapons, get the weapons, and return to battle the foes again.

  2. I allow sliver arrows, bolts, sling bullets, daggers, and small hammers.

  3. I steer towards 3rd Ed style, complete with the Damage Reduction option. (That scene from Monster Squad with the blown up wolfman re-assembling always stuck with me)
    Any weapon can be silver(ed), but they are of lesser quality
    Were I to try to build it from scratch I would maybe approach it as: Silver Weapons etc. do extra damage to such creatures, and any such creatures are probably just powerful with enough HP, that you need that bonus damage to appear effective.
    Peasant vs Multi HD Werewolf, would probably seem ineffective even without the damage immunity.

  4. I've allowed a werewolf to be beaten to death with a silver teapot.

    I guess that puts me in the silver == lycanthrope kryptonite end of the spectrum.

    1. I've allowed a vampire to be bludgeoned with +1 chainmail.

  5. Growing up in the game with B/X, I always assumed silver weapons of the arrow and dagger sort. When I switched over to AD&D, I was taken aback by the exclusion of silver daggers, so imported them from Moldvay at the same cost or proportional cost (30gp, I think...?).

    Since my return to B/X, it's been a moot point...magic-users generally all carry silver daggers (in the Raistlin of Dragonlance vein), as do any others (fighters, thieves, demihumans) who can afford the things. Even so, no one is anxious to go up against a silver-vulnerable creature (i.e. they run from wights and weres-) and I'm not especially gunning to fill my dungeons with them.

  6. I usally include silverware as part of the treasures, but haven't yet seen my players try to poke a wraith with a silver fork !

  7. Actually, there IS a Silver Dagger in A&D 1e... but not where you'd expect. Not remotely.

    In Appendix P, Gygax describes "Creating a Party on the Spur of the Moment." I personally see this section as a set of proto-tournament rules, I don't know about anyone else. But they have an unusual curiosity: an entirely different version of the "Robe of Useful Items" included in the standard magic items list.

    Not only is this version of the Robe more predictable (the DM or player gets to choose the items it produces instead of random selection), but the items themselves vary dramatically. And sure enough, one of the items on this Appendix P version of the Robe of Useful Items is a "DAGGER, silver."

    The Appendix P Robe also includes what might be my favourite D&D text of all time: "WASP NEST, normal," to which it feels the need to add "about 200 wasps."

    1. Appendix P was a reprint of an article from The Dragon #26. I could be wrong, but I believe that was the first appearance of the Robe of Useful Items, which explains the discrepancy — the Appendix P Robe was the prototype

  8. A thought on your BoW conundrum: why not just say that normal weapons can be used to beat a lycanthrope into submission, at which point they can be put to the torch - and every unit carries some means for making fire? Mechanically, this could be reflected in lycanthropes gaining a bonus against "normal" units, and a diminished bonus against slightly-more-expensive units "with silver" (i.e. carrying silver knives in addition to their regular arms, or whatever). That might still be hard for you to balance, but at least it wouldn't collapse into a rock-paper-scissors triangle of auto-wins.

    1. Well, interesting, but of course then it wouldn't be a simulation of any version of D&D on that point.

  9. While silver weapons are not in the equipment list in the PHB for AD&D 2nd edition, a provision for them is included in the "Money and Equipment" chapter of the DMG, pricing both weapons and armor made of silver at 2x the listed price in the PHB.

    1. I see that for armor only, not weapons (section: "Armor Made of Unusual Metals (Optional Rule)").

    2. A table is only given for armor, but just before that there's another relevant section:


      While ornamentation has no effect on the function of an item, it does increase the cost. Ornamented items can also enhance the status of the owner as a man of wealth and influence. Of course, it also marks the character as a target for thieves and robbers.

      Among the more popular types of ornamentation are jeweled mountings, engraving, embossing, inlaying, painting, plating, chiseling, chasing, etching, enameling, lacquering, carving, and gilding. Common items also can be made from rare and fantastic materials--perhaps as simple as silk or the wonderfully rare and incredibly supple hides of baby dragons. The cost of such items depends on the difficulty and skill of the work. It is best for you to decide a price (highly inflated over the original), although 10 times the normal cost can be used as a starting figure.

      The suggestion of plating would cover what some later sources would call "silvered" weapons, while the suggestion that "Common items... made from rare ... materials" would suggest the possibility metal items made wholly from silver.

      The suggestion of 10 times normal cost is also in the right ballpark compared to specifically-silver items from older editions. I don't have the Moldvay Basic book, but people seem to be mentioning 30G, which is 10x the 3G that a dagger costs in Men & Magic. A silver cross is 25G, which 12.5x the cost of a 2G wooden cross, while a silver-tipped arrow is rather more expensive, coming in at the same 5G that a pack of 20 normal arrows would cost. A tenfold increase is on the right order of magnitude, certainly.

      As for the "Armor Made From Unusual Materials Table," even though it's a bit of side conversation, one other thing to note is that it would cost somewhat more than the 2x stated because of the footnote stating that the material for these heavy objects must also be supplied at the expense of the player character. Thus, a 40 pound suit of mail would cost another 200G (40 lb. x 50 coins/lb. x 0.1 gold/silver) for a total of 350G, slightly less than 5x the cost of a standard coat of mail. Less than the 10x previously mentioned, but on the other hand, it suffers a penalty to the AC provided whereas an item using the "Ornamentation" rules isn't stated to suffer any degradation in performance.

    3. Well, generally speaking, this is my problem with the 2E AD&D rules; all of the new text is "maybe/coulda/shoulda" and basically throws it back in the DM's lap which I find unhelpful analytically.

      Moreover, if it's not in the Player's Handbook Equipment List then we have to assume that, by default, most 2E PC's will not have that as an option.

    4. It's all in the eye of the beholder; to me, the tone of some other editions has said "this is a definitive list, you can't have anything that's not listed here" whereas 2E instilled a feeling of freedom to add my own material.

  10. I guess my question regards to Book of War would be would lycanthropes be a solitary monster type unit (which seems to fold in with fiction/legend) or are you supposing a team of were-creatures?

    One possible solution for silver weapons could be to treat them as kind of resembling a spell scroll. Price them by the attack. A unit of archers might have enough silver arrows for only a single volley. You want more "special" shots, you gotta spend the gp. That would make it less rock/paper/scissors, I think, if you make it a burnable enhancement to troops rather than an intrinsic quality of the unit.

    1. Yeah, the idea would be mass units (packs of werewolves, etc.), because they have less than the 10 HD cutoff to appear is individual heroes.

      Interesting idea with handling the silver weapons. Generally I try to avoid any resource record-keeping in BOW, but you're right that it is there for the spells; and this would synch up pretty well with the early editions that only have silver arrows. Although that would still be wasted expense if the opponent brings no lycanthropes to the table -- I think strategically it might still work out the same (game-theory wise).

    2. Well, umbrellas are an unnecessary expense until it starts raining. ;)

    3. I think silver arrows only is a good way to go for a couple reasons:

      A: You just don't want to go toe to toe with lycanthropes and/or un-hurtable undead.

      Continuing the thought of scroll, giving melee based units Scrolls vs. undead/lycanthropes to keep the beasties off makes a bit more sense than expecting a bunch of pikemen to drop their pikes and pull out silver daggers to fend off a pack of claw/claw/biters.

      B: A unit armed with silver arrows can provide cover for other units that might have the misfortune of meeting weres or wraiths on the front lines.

      Seems like there's some tactical interest there.

    4. It also makes it a more interesting army-building decision - do I want as many men as possible (ignore silver entirely), a few volleys of silver-tipped arrows (relatively cheap, but run the risk of running out before you slay all the beasts), or a cornucopia of silver armaments (putting you at a disadvantage against more numerous conventional foes). Also, if some units have silver and others don't, it will lead to interesting tactical situations in which certain units wish to specifically engage (or avoid) others.

      As an aside, another thought is to assume that any Hero or Wizard will be carrying a silver weapon; if the rest of the unit has no silver, then allow the character (only) to make an attack as though he were a single figure of the appropriate type (light infantry, cavalry, etc.)

      I know this is overstating the attack power of the single character, but personally I think it might be worth fudging that in his favor for two reasons:

      1) Even if the rest of the unit can't harm the lycanthropes, they could assist the Hero in other ways, such as by grappling the enemies or area-denial tactics.
      2) Such a hopeless situation is when you really need a Hero to be, well, heroic!

    5. It is baked into my rules that all of the Heroes and Wizards are assumed to have magic weapons already, so I do agree with that.

  11. A few points about the early editions:

    -The 1st printing of OD&D is missing the sentence about silver weapons in the entry for Lycanthropes. It was added first to a Correction Sheet and then incorporated into the text. This may explain the difference in wording from all of the other usages.

    -I think there was more of an expectation in the early rules that silver weapons (other than arrows) were a treasure to be found, sort of a lesser magic item. Holmes includes a silver dagger in Room G of the Sample Dungeon. It's without value in the manuscript but Gygax added a note that it has a 50 gp value. And then in B2 there's a silver dagger with gems in its pommel worth 800 GP in room 62 (Crypt) of the Caves. Of course this expectation is not met by the treasure tables themselves, though one could replace a silver coin treasure with one in the form of a weapon.

    1. Boy, those are super good catches, thanks for pointing those out.

      I would seriously stab a guy to get a PDF scan of the 1st printing OD&D; so much of this stuff keeps popping out of that analysis.