The role of realism in RPGs part 1

History and Historical European Martial Arts in the Codex Martialis

The role of realism in RPGs part 1

Postby Galloglaich » Tue Oct 28, 2008 2:49 am

The role of realism in RPGs part 1

written by Jean Henri Chandler.

An attempt to define and quantify the mechanics of hand to hand combat to better support its more realistic portrayal in role-playing games.

With the immense popularity of the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and Matrix films, and the subsequent upsurge in interest in the Fantasy and Science Fiction MMORPGs, there has been a major resurgence in the popularity of role playing games in the last three years. With the advent of the D20 license, a tidal wave of variations on DnD flooded the gaming community.

With all this activity there were some interesting developments in the industry, but for the most part the representation of combat remained depressingly crude. In fact, from the simple portrayal of equipment through the actual dynamics of fighting, realism has basically gone out the window.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Frustration with the previous bungled attempts by designers to improve realism has fostered a general hostility toward historical grounding, and the conscious articulation of what has become the recognizable trend toward "anti-realism".

As a result, the line between cinematic or cartoon like rules systems versus those ostensibly meant to be realistic has become increasingly blurred, and sadly, there has been a general “cartoonification” of the technical aspects of both tabletop and computer based RPG’s in general. What we are left with by default is more influenced by popular films and TV than history, mythology or the old fantasy literary tradition; a kind of a Hollywood version of the medieval world, a “Disney dark ages.”

Fantasy armor

Historical armor

There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that, because people have different tastes and many folks have gotten a lot of enjoyment out of the way things have been done. Some people like to watch Football, some people like Professional Wrestling and some like MMA, some people like all three. For those who like the more violent sports, there always will be a fan base for Professional Wrestling, and there will probably always be an audience for MMA, but blurring the lines between the two may end up leaving both groups unsatisfied. We are at a point now where most gamers are so suspicious of realism in RPGs that they reject it on principle, and we really no longer have an MMA.

But many of the underlying assumptions of fantasy RPGs are based in history, and most if not all RPGs make some effort to have combat systems based on real world physics, so even if you don’t care that much about realism it isn’t completely crazy to do a little reality check on some of those fundamentals. And there are a few of us old gamers who still feel that if handled elegantly, nuanced, realistic combat and a solid historical grounding can improve internal consistency, allow easier immersion, lead to better suspension of disbelief and contribute to a more enjoyable gaming experience overall.

Though some people may assume it, there is no rule that reality is boring, or even that it’s harder to base things on reality than on pure whimsy. In fact, it could be argued that it takes a true genius to invent a purely imaginary world which is more interesting than a hard look into even the most puerile aspects of the real world, (witness the unfortunate growth of ‘reality’ TV).

It should also be pointed out that realism doesn’t automatically mean byzantine complexity or tortuous detail either. There are several war-games for example which are very realistic while simultaneously remaining quite abstracted. In these cases, the question is, are the abstractions based in real dynamics, or something totally spurious?

But I’m not really here to argue in favor of realism, this article does a better job than I ever could of explaining why it’s important
the bottom line is, I’m not going to convert anybody so if realistic means crappy to you, just quit reading now.

One of the reasons the false dichotomy between realism and “fun” exists is that the previous attempts to improve realism in RPG’s were done by people who didn’t really understand melee combat. In the 70’s when most of the first generation of RPG systems were being designed, there weren’t many people around who had any idea what melee combat really was. Today that is no longer the case. There is currently a major revival of interest in what is now called “Historical European Martial Arts” (or HEMA for short ), and there are now dozens of martial arts groups around the world which focus on classical, medieval and renaissance combat . As a result there are now considerably more people available who are personally familiar with the reality of armed combat of the pre-industrial world.

Furthermore, that close cousin of the RPG world, the war-gaming industry, has managed to reach an unprecedented level of realism in recent years which has been as popular in the market as it is intellectually admirable. During the height of the D20 bubble there were even a few war-game companies such as Avalanche Press who have attempted to bridge the gap between the high standard of historical grounding in war-games and the relatively bereft level of the RPG community. Avalanche and a few others released outstanding historical based D20 supplements (which disappeared like a stone down a well), but so far only a select few of the indy games among the infinity of RPG systems extant (notably The Riddle of Steel and Burning Wheel), really tried to bring realism into the realm of combat. It is for those who are interested in the possibilities of a constructive role for realism in RPG’s that I’ve written this essay.

I should reiterate realistic games are not the only fun games. There are many great RPG’s where realistic combat or historical grounding are neither appropriate nor necessary. Cinematic oriented games, superhero games and various other specific sub-genres have combat systems modeled after their own unique settings. Comedic and super hero games can really do away with realism altogether.

And ultimately, if you are happy running your hard fantasy campaigns in a world of chainmail bikinis or double bladed spinning boomerang axes, then you will be quite well accommodated by the current industry trends. The road toward an interest in martial arts, combat realism, or historical grounding is a rather sharp detour away out from the mainstream of today’s gaming world.

There is no denying that chainmail bikinis can be sexy

But the historical version gives you that elusive air of mystery, and also protects you from sword cuts

But for those of us still interested in going off the beaten path, the task at hand is to identify the fundamental areas in which most RPG’s are deficient in portraying combat. These seem to me to boil down to seven basic categories: Accurate Kit; Weapon Reach and the Defensive use of Weapons; Initiative, Momentum and Movement; Realistic Injuries; and finally, Combat Tactics and Special Training.

Accurate Kit
It seems logical that one should be able to form a relatively concrete basis for understanding Historical melee combat by studying it's component parts: the very weapons and armor which were used to fight and defend. One would imagine, since a lot of this stuff still exists, that most RPG’s would at least depict known military equipment accurately. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

The original designers of D&D made an attempt to quantify the information about military Kit which was accessible to them from medieval and classical era war games using lead miniatures. These simulations were generally based on good academic research and were at quite a high standard for their time, though the combat simulated was on a mass scale and not detailed down to the level of the individual or small group fight the way it eventually was in RPG's. What they actually came up with boiled down to the layman's state of the art for the time (the early 1970's) .

But rather than build upon these first halting efforts the new RPG industry seemed unable or unwilling to progress beyond what became the high water mark. As the decades went by and new generations of RPG’s were written, the old mistakes went unchallenged and new revelations were left out. As a result the portrayal of weapons and armor began to drift more and more into the realm of absurdity .

The basics
With regard to Kit, the biggest problems on a basic level are A) the ridiculous fantasy weapons which are patently unusable, B) distorted or semi- imaginary weapons and armor being incorrectly portrayed over and over again, and C) inaccurate representation of the properties of weapons and armor, especially weight, basic methods of use, and level of effectiveness.

For example, most RPGs portray swords as ranging from 5-10 pounds for a “long sword”, and 15-20 pounds for a "great sword" or a two handed sword. It is fairly common knowledge now that in reality, a typical single handed sword weighed around 2-3 lbs, and the big two- handers rarely exceeded 3 or 4 pounds. One wonders if any of these game designers have ever wandered into a hardware store and tried to heft a 12 pound sledge hammer? These distorted weights lead to all sorts of assumptions which disrupt the realism of combat, for example the speed and agility of these weapons, particularly “two handed swords ”, is assumed to be excruciatingly slow.

Fantasy longsword

Historical longsword

Another problem is the use of unhistorical terms which are continually put in the lists, while a variety of interesting weapons from the real world are left out. One almost never sees such interesting sword varieties as a scraemesax, a leaf blade sword, a gladius, a katzbalger, a schiavona, a langen messer, an estoc, a tulwar, or a true zwiehander, just to mention a few. Or for those gamers tired of swords, rather than a ‘double flail’, I’d like to see such exotic weapons as an German ahlespeiss, a Flemish guden-tag, a Viking hurlbat, or a Dacian falx once in a while!

schiavona (historical)

katzblager (historical)

hurlbat (historical)

Shields are generally portrayed as inch thick iron manhole covers, or as heavy oaken constructs of two by six beams like a picnic table. If consulted, historians would be glad to point out that most shields which existed in reality were usually made of combinations of such light materials as hide, bone, bark, antler, wicker, and wood, and the heaviest shields of leather and thin layers of ply-wood, sometimes reinforced with metal trim and boss . For example, two of the most famous shields in history, the round shield of the Vikings and the rectangular “scutum” of the Romans, were both made of laminated ¼” panels of Linden — wood, a very light wood comparable to balsa, with reinforcing struts of harder wood, a metal boss for the hand, and sometimes a metal rim. That’s right, they were a quarter of an inch thick. Try screwing a door handle into a two — by six inch board around with you for a while one day and you will understand why.

In accordance with Hollywood depictions, armor is assumed to be cripplingly bulky and to weigh hundreds of pounds. It's use within RPGs is based on all kinds of weird assumptions such as the idea that a suit of armor made of stiff, cured leather would be less bulky and cumbersome than say, a mail shirt or a fitted suit of gothic plate armor.

Unhistorical terms like “chain mail” are repeated, and doubtful to dubious armor types, such as ring "mail", so called “studded leather” armor , splint armor (i.e. a whole 'suit' of vertical metal splints) and banded "mail" are included, while such important types as the lighter Asian type mail, brigantine, lamellar, or the lorica segmentata of the ancient Romans, (to name a few) are almost always left out. Again this is all left over from the earliest equipment lists worked out in the 1970s.

Nuanced depiction of equipment
On a more advanced level, it is worth noting that one of the reasons equipment lists often so often truncated and comparatively boring is that the combat systems in the RPGs are generally too simple to portray the differences between various types of gear realistically.

One of the most glaring examples of this in many RPGs, is where a dagger is assumed to do a laughably small amount of damage, especially compared to a sword, an arrow, a mace, etc. I find this suspicious to say the least. While daggers cannot cleave or chop, and a sword might be able to deliver a more damaging wound in a quick cut or jab, a determined stab wound from a 12" blade is probably just about as lethal as the same impaling wound from a 24" or 48" blade. If anything, knives are usually sharper than swords, since they can be made of harder steel because they don't have to be as flexible. Once a blade has penetrated more than a couple of inches through your rib cage or your skull, you are basically dead. Similarly, a throat slashed by a four inch strait razor is just as badly cut as one slashed by a three foot tulwar.

1-4 damage? Really?

But damage is usually the only effective way most RPG's can differentiate the quality or value of a given weapon. Why bother getting a sword if, within the parameters and rules of the game, a smaller and cheaper dagger is almost as effective at killing the enemy? There is in fact nothing in the rules in most RPG's which give any real reach advantage for a sword, nor is the ability to defend yourself from or fend off attack using your sword included in the rules. But people think knights carried swords and not daggers so therefore, a sword must still be superior in some way, therefore in almost every RPG a sword does two or three or four times the amount of damage to a given target than a dagger does. (It’s worth remembering however, historically not every knight carried a sword but every single one carried a knife or a dagger)

This is because the only real way weapons can be differentiated in most RPG systems is by damage type, and yet unfortunately even here there is little actual discrimination between forms. Most systems make at least some distinction between bludgeoning and stabbing or cutting weapons, but this rarely extends into human to human combat. A realistic combat system should match up specific types of armor defense against specific types of attacks.

Many historians and archeologists recognize three types of attacks by humans with weapons: bludgeon, cutting, and piercing. It is probably useful to further differentiate the cut attack into chop (cut) and slash (or draw-cut) subtypes. Some weapons, such as an arming sword can effectively attack in four ways to a greater or lesser degree . Others such as an estoc, an axe, a mace, or a pike are more specialized. Certain weapons such as a tulwar excel at one form (slashing) while still capable of others (chopping or impalement)

Similarly, each armor type may be more or less effective against different types of attack, and this should be noted and incorporated into any combat simulation where possible. Cloth armor and hide or leather based armor types would probably be vulnerable to slashing attacks. Properly made riveted mail for example, is very effective against chopping, cutting, and slashing attacks . Mail is somewhat less effective in protecting against piercing, as from arrows or spear thrusts, and it is relatively useless against bludgeoning or crushing attacks, such as from a mace. Of course, mail was generally worn over a quilted textile coat which is now called a gambeson. Mail over a gambeson was fairly good protection even against a club or a mace.

Brigantine, lamellar, scale armor, and reinforced mail or leather armor all have their various strengths and weaknesses. And one need only examine the way weapons changed in the later 14th Century and beyond to determine which kinds of attacks are most effective against plate armor.
The combination of weapons capable of a variety of specialist attack types with various authentic types of armor, a full and nuanced inventory of Kit could if handled right become relevant and interesting in an RPG, perhaps even making the game more interesting and more tactically flexible. Furthermore, a more sophisticated understanding of period arms and armor becomes possible as a side-effect, which really does further enrich the gaming experience.

Speed, Reach and the Defensive use of weapons
Looking at a list of Classical, Medieval or Renaissance military equipment, and considering their various shapes and sizes, it is immediately apparent that there are more reasons for all the different varieties of weapons than mere damage type. Two of the most important key considerations are reach, speed, and potential defensive use. As an experienced stick fighter, I can attest to the importance of both reach and speed, offensively and defensively.

I know from long personal experience that a person armed with no shield and a small weapon (say, under 25") is at an almost impossible initial disadvantage from an experienced opponent wielding a long (say, 36" or more) weapon. I would personally be willing to go up against anyone in this position, and I would feel very confident of getting the first hit nine times out of ten before they closed the range, even if they were wise enough to attempt to rush immediately, (not to mention swift and experienced enough to ‘shoot’ effectively). Almost anyone with any experience of armed combat knows that in the initial moment of combat especially, reach is absolutely critical, and yet RPGs make almost no allowance for this.

Similarly, the size or reach of a specific weapon greatly affects its defensive value. First and foremost, the threat of counterattack is greatly increased as an opponents weapon approaches or surpasses the length of your own. Second it is generally easier to parry with a longer weapon (up to a point).

Again, if I am carrying a 48" bastard sword and contemplating striking someone who is defending themselves with a 28" short sword from beyond melee distance, I would feel extremely confident of striking them first. My primary concern would be to cause sufficient damage in my initial attack that they could not survive sufficiently intact to rush in and close the range.
Spoiler: show

The spear does have a slight reach advantage over the saber

Some specific weapons are more effective at active defense than others. You can parry with a sword, but a quarterstaff wielded by an experienced fighter is considerably more versatile. Some weapons are even specialized for defense in their basic design. For example, daggers were often used for parrying through the middle ages. During the Renaissance, specialized parrying daggers called "main gauche" (i.e. 'left hand') were developed with exaggerated guards and hand protection. These weapons were and are superior at parrying than ordinary daggers, both because they protect the hand better and because they have larger guards to catch enemy weapons with.

Weight and overall shape are important too. A mace can be a particularly effective parrying weapon because its weight and mass can knock aside lighter weapons easily. A rapier on the other hand finds its defensive value largely in its considerable counterattacking ability, it may be too light to effectively parry a very heavy weapon such as a mace or an axe. Some axes may be too clumsy to parry with very effectively, and those with wooden hafts would be subject to being cut through by a large sword or another axe, say. Also, due to the way one attacks with an axe (chopping), reach is not as useful as with a weapon which can also slash or stab.

Finally, speed is a very important factor as well. Weapons intended as such tended to be light and well balanced, whereas a farmers tool like a lumberjacks axe lacks speed but may still have the power to cut through heavy armor. On the opposite extreme a specialized weapon like a rapier sacrifices overall strength and cutting power favor of agility and reach in the thrust. Weapon speed also plays a different role in close combat than it does in and beyond melee range. In close, the shorter weapons such as the dagger or the shorter swords can be deployed faster to cut or stab again and again, while the longer weapon is normally less effective in such close quarters and cannot be deployed as swiftly without special martial arts training.

All of these factors, speed, reach, and both passive and active defensive ability could theoretically be factored into any simulation of melee combat. In general, reach, tempered by weapon speed and agility, should play a crucial role, particularly in the beginning of a fight when the opponents first come into range of each other, (where the longer weapon will have a great advantage) and again when and if a fight reaches grapple or clench range (where the shorter weapon will have a greater advantage). The defensive capabilities of weapons, both passive and active, should also always be incorporated into any melee combat system. It is at least as easy to parry a blow as it is to dodge or duck a blow, and it is still easier (and safer) to fend an opponent off with the threat of a counter-attack.
Last edited by Galloglaich on Sun Oct 31, 2010 6:39 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: The role of realism in RPGs part 1

Postby zarlor » Wed Oct 29, 2008 2:32 am

I would add one other consideration that D&D didn't always do so well with, two hands.

Humans have four primary limbs, those bottom two affect your speed and reach to some extent, but those the upper two were ALWAYS used in a fight. You have a sword on one hand? The other arm has a shield, a parrying dagger, a buckler, another sword (and it did not at all have to be a shorter one than your "primary" weapon), a cloak, or even when there is nothing in the hand that hand and arm is STILL used in the fight to control the opponents weapons and limbs whenever it can be done. Obviously two-handed weapons keep both hands pretty busy as well, and provide a commensurate increase in striking force, generally, yet even then we both know of many techniques that remove one hand from the weapon to control the other person's limbs or take advantage of close quarters combat.
Lenny Zimmermann

"A soldier uses arms merely with skill, whereas a knight uses them with virtuous intention." - Pomponio Torelli, 1596.

- Systeme D'armes, New Orleans, Louisiana
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Re: The role of realism in RPGs part 1

Postby Galloglaich » Thu Oct 30, 2008 2:04 am

Note this is still a work in progress, actually a very old essay I'm trying to edit back into shape and update... please bear with me as I clean it up and put in some images and vids.

Realism in RPGs Part 2
Realism not detail

One point perhaps meriting additional emphasis, is that realism is not synonymous with detail or complexity. In fact complexity is really the bugbear of the effective use of realism in RPG’s (with computer games on the other hand more complexity can be modeled “behind the scenes” without disrupting play). It is always important however to make the distinction. A typical video game is pretty complex, but that does not make it realistic. Ultimately what is really important in an RPG is internal consistency, realism just helps a lot in making the gaming experience more logical and plausible by making it easier to achieve that consistency.

For example, a basic physics model is a good place to start with a combat system design. Weapons can be rated for length, mass, attack type(s) (many weapons have more than one!), balance, and composition (what they are made of, wood, iron, steel, wood haft, etc.). One can also consider other factors like hardness. Hardness is what makes a steel pipe more dangerous than a wooden stick of the same mass, and what really makes a katana cut much better than a cheap Wal-Mart machete or stainless steel eBay wall hanger: the highly tempered and carefully polished steel edge of the katana is much sharper than the machine-ground edge of the machete or the wall hanger, and vastly better shaped for cutting.

With this physics model in place, one can then decide what factors to include in the actual rules. Real world physics and history will always make their way into an RPG, if only through osmosis. To the extent that they will be part of the game anyway, it makes sense to do it right, to base things on real history and physics (or alternately, on a good internally consistent literary or cinematic genre) not on half thought out arbitrary notions with no real basis in anything.

That does not mean that game designers have to be slaves to the physical properties of weapons and armor, but working from a rational physics model can better allow a designer to make the necessary adjustments to fit the “Sims” aspect of the game into their own system more logically, however abstract or far-out the system may ultimately be.

Having realistic kit for example does not necessarily mean the high number of weapons in a game, the exotic nature of the weapons, or even the number of characteristics the system quantifies for each weapon type. There can be 200 weapons with twenty characteristics each, or 10 weapons with 2 characteristics each. What makes the difference between a realistic system and an inconsistent and unrealistic one is the quality, not the quantity of the data.

Using History as a Resource
Just because a society is low-tech by today’s standards does not mean it is necessarily simple, boring or primitive. Borrowing from the nuances and surprising twists and turns of real history can make an RPG come to life, for so often truth is stranger than fiction, and history can be an inspiration. In addition, in a systematic sense, incorporating a basic grasp of the social, spiritual, intellectual, economic, legal and martial aspects of ancient societies can help in developing the basis of a much better fantasy system. (That sounds very academic but in practice, it’s often a lot of fun!)

For example, understanding the basic dynamics of an Iron-Age farming village, can help one much more effectively tweak these factors to design the way a village of dwarves might live. Familiarity with the dramatic waxing and waning fortunes of a few real Bronze-Age city states, can make it fairly easily to tinker with the structure and make up a vampire city state, or whatever.

This is what the writers who inspired the first RPGs; Tolkein, Vance, Doyle, Leiber and Moorcock; did.

To Review
In the first part of this essay I covered equipment, reach, and the defensive use of weapons. Before moving on I’d like to briefly revisit these important areas of realism.

Accurate Kit
The point of discussing accurate kit is not to advocate greater detail or complexity as being necessary to the development of a good game. Rather, it is simply to re-establish a more consistent and realistic pool or library of data about period combat equipment from which to work. Whether designers and players take a lot or a little from it depends on the nature of the specific game they are playing. Getting the kit right is simply a fairly easy and painless way to improve realism.

Weapon Reach
This has also been amply discussed, but to sum up, all other things being equal, longer weapons have a major offensive and defensive advantage over shorter weapons when at medium to long range, and very short weapons have a huge advantage when in extremely short range and in grappling circumstances. RPG’s which have combat systems as complex as say 3E D&D should have a way of portraying this to some degree. It is also important to emphasize that superior reach not only allows the attacker to strike first, but to hit more easily as well.

Defensive Use of Weapons
Perhaps even more critical than reach, and even more frequently ignored in most games, is the defensive potential of weapons. Weapons can be used to parry and deflect attacks, and can also be used to fend off attack by the threat of counterattack. Both factors make it more difficult to strike an armed person with a hand weapon.

Hit Location and Realistic Injuries
Damage is the one area which is most often tinkered with in efforts to make RPGs more realistic, perhaps because frustration with the infamous Hit Point system is probably the most common gripe raised by players of the most popular RPG’s.

Systems which incorporate Hit Location and / or called- shots can be done well, but I personally believe damage systems can be over-emphasized, and I think a somewhat abstracted damage system is often a good idea. For the codex I basically retain the abstracted DnD damage system. But damage remains an important part of combat so I will touch on some of the key points in doing combat damage more realistically for those who do want to tinker with it.

Hit Locations
It’s difficult to do realistic injuries without Hit Locations.
The big disadvantage of doing Hit Locations is that it basically requires charts and an extra die roll or three, so be warned! (Or, lets just say it’s hard to do without charts and more than one. … but I wouldn’t want to inhibit someone from coming up with an ingeniously elegant way to do them without!) These extra charts and the die rolls especially are factors which can slow down combat and potentially disrupt the flow of the game, and this kind of thing has been the downfall of many ‘realistic’ game systems in the past. Remember, realism is pointless if it makes the game unplayable or tedious.

On the other hand, if a designer can smoothly integrate Hit Locations into their combat system, there are also some advantages. Perhaps foremost is the ability to bring “called shots” into combat. This lets the player attack that dastardly Wizards hand with the wand in it, or shoot the fleeing suspect in the leg so that they can be interrogated later. It adds a dimension of fun to the role-playing experience.

The nuances this allows for can enhance game play in many ways. Players can wear custom-armor for example which works with the way they fight. This ads another element of strategy: do you try to beat through the heavy armor in the easy-to-hit areas, or do you try to go for that more difficult strike in the vulnerable spot which is unarmored or lightly armored? Monsters can become more interesting this way, for example, a Dragon may have a thick hide on certain parts of its body (like its head or their back) and be more vulnerable in another area (say the underbelly?).

Called shots should be harder than an ordinary attack. It is harder to nail someone in a specific place than to simply waiting for any good opportunity to hit. Certain locations, say the groin or the neck, are harder to hit than others, and from experience I can testify that specifically aiming for any specific part of the body is harder than it might seem.

Basic injury types, by Weapon
Military historians and archeologists generally recognize three types of injury: blunt trauma (smashing / crushing), puncture wounds (/ stab / thrust / impalement), and "slashing", by which they basically mean any edged weapon attack.

The last “slashing” category may be insufficient. The way an axe cuts is much different from the way a strait razor does. If the cut category is divided into chopping-cuts and slashing-cuts, where slashing represents a draw cut and chopping a direct "hack' like cut as with a cleaver or an axe, then there are four basic types of wounds which can be caused by most pre-firearm weapons.

Still other damage types (such as of some kind of "tearing" damage for combination weapons like guden-tag’s and morning stars) could be incorporated as well, but the more types one has, the more these will cascade through the system as greater complexity, so designers must beware of adding too many. Again, an important part of game design is reigning in some of that detail. The ultimate goal is for the game to be fun to play!

Chop, Slash, Stab, Smash
Each of the four basic attack types can be further broken down into primary and secondary effects, if any, and a penetration factor, if any (penetration here meaning the ability to bypass armor, hides, bone, and etc., with little or no loss of kinetic energy).

A thrust in particular may simply go right through a barrier seemingly 'like a hot knife through butter', or be deflected and cause no damage at all. This is the way the physics works with some types of weapons and hard protective surfaces like plate armor. With other types of weapons and surfaces it can be ablative. An axe against the thick wood of a tree, for example, does damage pretty incrementally, while an ice-pick is a dangerous weapon only because of its excellent penetration. It has no edges, it's not heavy or even necessarily sharp, it goes right in through the ribs because it is stiff and narrow.

The primacy of piercing
Roman writers lauded the primacy of the thrusting weapon, considered piercing weapons to be the most deadly for their ability to reach internal organs, and claimed that Roman Legionnaires were trained rely upon the thrust in preference to cutting attacks. This later influenced 17th Century fencers who advocated thrusting weapons over cutting ones, finally leading to the demise of the cutting sword as a civilian weapon. The belief, still held by some today, is that a piercing weapon such as a rapier or a smallsword can kill with a thrust of but a few inches through the ribs, while a cutting weapon must hack through more flesh and bone to reach vital organs, and requires considerably more energy to wield.

So while a shallow puncture wound in a fleshy area has comparatively little immediate effect on a living target, a penetrating thrust to a vital area can kill instantly. A good combat system should be able to model this dichotomy with some combination of overall damage effect (width of the weapon, double versus single edged, factors such as serration etc.) versus its ability to penetrate through flesh and bone.

Combined with hit locations, realistic damage rules allow for a physically weak but agile fighter armed with a thrusting weapon to defeat much stronger but clumsier opponents; much as delicate aristocrats slew burly thugs on the streets of 18th century London with their elegant, narrow bladed smallswords.

Another possible factor to consider with piercing weapons is that certain types of weapons penetrate well against soft targets (like ice picks) while others are specialized for penetrating plate armor, like a military pick, an estoc, or the crows-bill on many pole-arms.

Korean fencing experts demonstrate cutting techniques

Chopping weapons are a bit harder to quantify than piercing ones. On one hand, it's well established that in duels and judicial combats which were fought to the first blood, 'broad' swords were historically considered safer weapons less likely to cause a fatal wound than thrusting weapons such as rapiers or smallswords, which caused piercing injuries.

On the other hand, there is historical, anecdotal, and forensic evidence that many chopping swords (and not just katanas!) actually could decapitate people and sever limbs. There was a skeleton from the famous 14th Century battleground on the Swedish island of Wisby in Sweden which had both legs severed by what is believed to be a single sword stroke. One can also test chopping weapons that are available. I've personally seen a dull machete barely able to hack through a half inch branch, but I've also seen a fairly cheap replica arming sword hack right through a two-by-four in one cut.

These test-cutting experiments done on deer carcasses with fairly realistic medieval sword replicas give you some idea of the cutting power of a medieval European sword. ... re=related
The effectiveness of these cuts has as much to do with the skill of the cutter as with the lethality of the weapon.

The way a weapon cuts has a lot to do with the shape of the blade (single edged versus double; flat, wedge, hexagonal or diamond shaped; fullered or not; tapering versus parallel edged, etc. etc.), but in general it can be stated that chopping has one major attack effect, with a secondary effect of blunt trauma, and it does not bypass armor or bone as easily as a thrust or stabbing attack, it simply destroys it or pushes it aside to get to vital organs and flesh underneath.

With the right blade shape, edge geometry, and sufficient force, Chopping attacks can cause catastrophic damage. Yes, the rapier will kill with a two inch thrust through the rib cage, but if your hand is cut off by an opponent with a long-sword before you succeeded in that lethal thrust, and you are standing their maimed and bleeding before your still-armed opponent, you are very likely going to die just the same.

And going back to the Romans again, it is interesting to note that their most famous and long-used weapon, the Gladius Hispaniensis short sword, was a heavy, broad-bladed weapon equally effective at chopping and thrusting. The first anecdotal evidence of the use of this weapon, in a battle against the Macedonians, featured descriptions of the severed limbs and heads of the Macedonian infantry. Perhaps the traditional body armor of the Macedonians made thrusting problematic, so the Romans reverted to chopping attacks against their limbs instead. It is no accident that the Gladius was a dual purpose weapon well suited to both cutting and piercing.

Sikh fencers from India demonstrate Gatka techniques with tulwars, hooked nets, staves, and other weapons

Slashing weapons can be much more effective than chopping against soft targets, but are comparatively ineffective against very hard targets such as metal or even bone. Slashing attacks can 'penetrate' or effectively bypass soft hide or armor, with the effect of a sudden catastrophic failure, where the slashing weapon will bypass the armor or outer hide seemingly with no slowing effect and cause truly devastating damage. Watch old footage of whales being cut up with flensing poles to see what I mean.
Generally speaking, curved weapons like sabers and tulwars (scimitars) are more suited for slashing than strait blades. Wavy bladed weapons may also be more suited for slashing or draw-cutting.

Smashers, Stunning and Knockouts
Bludgeoning weapons do not penetrate, though they do have a secondary shock effect which bypasses armor. The basic effect of a bludgeoning weapon is crushing or smashing, the breaking of bones and pulverizing of flesh. The precise dynamics of this has a lot to do with the mass and hardness of the weapon. The secondary effect of bludgeoning weapons is the transmission of kinetic energy which bypasses many armor types to at least some extent and can knock someone out, wind them, or make a limb go numb. This is a factor of weapon mass.

Some weapons like a club or a mace both cause crushing or smashing damage, and also have the ability to knock a person out or stun them. One example of where most RPG systems fail to make this distinction, is the Sap. A Sap is a small leather sack full of lead shot or sand. It is specifically designed to deliver a blow which will render a victim unconscious without killing or permanently injuring them. The Sap is a favorite weapon of thieves and kidnappers, is included in most RPG equipment tables, yet they are only portrayed as doing a minimal amount of damage, and are therefore rarely used in games.

Weapons like the Sap should be able to drop someone without necessarily caving in their skull and killing them. If using fatigue rules, this can zap fatigue points at an inordinate rate. In simpler systems, a knockout roll of some kind is in order. Similarly, falling from a great height can cause blunt injury – stunning damage, being winded from a strike to the abdomen, even through armor, and / or having an arm or a leg go numb from the impact of a heavy blow, again even through armor.

Armor penetration
Penetration rules for impalement / bypassing armor, hide and / or bone
The issue of armor penetration resistance versus various types of attacks is a very dicey one, due to the way weapons evolved it is if anything more difficult to quantify than damage types. It is one area where there still isn't a lot of easily accessible high-quality data.

Though historical references, and archeology are important, probably the best primary source of data on this is actual test cutting. HEMA groups like Schola Gladiatoria, the ARMA etc. are good research sites for information about armor effectiveness, as are many of the more serious re-enactor groups. Groups like these do a lot of test cutting with realistic weapons against various types of realistic armor. There are also several living history groups (some of the Roman and Viking re-enactor groups especially) which have done very interesting and useful experiments (and you can even do your own!).

The first rule of thumb about armor is that the best way to deal with it was generally to go around it. Full suits of head to toe armor only existed for a fairly brief period of history, say from the late 12th century to the early 15th. Before or after that the most popular way to kill an armored opponent was to hit them where they weren’t armored. This is why Vikings for example used to name their swords “leg biter” or “leg breaker”, the armor most people wore in the Viking era did not cover the lower legs. Forensic evidence from the famous Wisby battlefield shows that a high percentage of the skeletons which had evidence of trauma showed injuries to the lower leg (the lower left leg particularly)

Penetrating armor, any kind of armor, generally required a stronger than normal attack.

Basic injury effects
Again, injuries have been covered extensively in other documents, so I’ll only do a brief overview.

The basic injury types are killing (outright), crippling, maiming, incremental, and trivial.

Killing injuries are self explanatory. Most likely to occur from severe damage to the head, neck, back, and chest. Severing an individual’s limb, breaking their femur or back, or hamstringing them would count as examples of crippling injuries. It may be possible to eventually recover from a crippling wound but a crippled individual will not do any more fighting or even much if any moving for a long time if ever again.

Maiming injuries are differentiated from crippling wounds in that they cause partial and not complete incapacitation. Cutting halfway through a hand, breaking an elbow, cracking some ribs, or badly slashing open a leg are examples of maiming injuries. Maimed individuals may still continue to act in a more or less limited fashion. Maiming wounds are more likely to be caused by chopping, slashing and bludgeoning weapons and less likely by piercing weapons.

Incremental injuries are wounds which do not immediately kill or incapacitate but cause gradually increasing damage over time. A sucking chest wound (punctured lung) will kill or at least render unconscious, but not immediately, the lung will deflate over a period of several minutes. A badly bleeding wound is an incremental injury. Blood loss will weaken the victim and may eventually kill, though this may take from minutes to hours or even days. A person wounded in the gut will suffer slow death taking days or weeks. A badly broken jaw, untreated, can also eventually kill.
Trivial injuries are minor bruises, lacerations, and cuts, which do not kill or maim immediately can have a cumulative effect with enough quantity. Even contusions bruises can kill if you get enough of them.

There are also special injuries especially to the senses, from strikes to the face. Blindness, disfigurement etc. is the likely result of any severe trauma to the face.

Knowing how to hurt
One of the things I learned from doing HEMA and cutting with real swords is that knowing how to spar with sticks is a far cry from knowing how to do medieval fencing. One of the difference lies in knowing how to cut properly. Correct technique can make the difference between a tiny insignificant gash and a severed limb. It is equally important for penetrating armor. Skill in knowing how to strike should indeed affect damage.

Realistic injuries and Game Balance
One of the arguments against realism has been that due to the increased lethality of realistic damage systems, players will be much more hesitant to risk combat. I think this depends a lot on the particular game, after all, losing a character is not the same thing as losing your real life, and the idea of having nearly immortal characters may be just as archaic as the old weapons tables and the hit point system itself.

However, it is of course possible to have a reasonably realistic combat system and still maintain the same balance of near-immortality for players. After all, though for most people from the classical period through the Renaissance the cliché that life was indeed ‘nasty brutish and short’ had some truth in it, many exceptional individuals, good and bad, had great, even incredible adventures, fought in numerous battles in antiquity and lived to tell about them, at least for a while! (See Dilbert in the Dungeon for a list of many people who’s names remain famous because their deeds did indeed “echo through eternity”.)

The way people survived combat in real life was chiefly due to armor. Armor was much more effective in real life than it has been portrayed in films, computer games, or RPGs. (see my other essay on armor) The fact is, if people could afford it, a full suit of mail and a helmet could get them out of some very sticky situations indeed, and even enable them to survive multiple combats. Armor was also very expensive, much more so than typically depicted in RPG’s. Based on the rather skewed economy of D&D for example, a suit of plate armor should probably cost tens of thousands of gold pieces, literally a kings ransom (well, a counts ransom…), rather than just a few hundred. Of course, gold pieces themselves should be far more valuable but that’s opening a whole ‘nother can of worms…

So rather than having each player stacking up experience points until they become invulnerable due to being high level, perhaps the “immortal player” type RPG system could be nudged a bit so that instead, they spent their time accumulating money so that they could afford better and better suits of armor and learned better and better fighting skills. Armor can have a personality all it’s own, whether the stereotypical suit of field plate for a fighter or a knight character, the innocuous looking brigantine for the rogue, or that exquisite shirt of fine-ringed mail worn invisibly under the doublet of a courtly rake (ala Frodo in Tolkein).

Skill, cleverness and good planning can avoid a lot of trouble and stack the odds in your favor when you do have to fight, but good armor helps a whole lot in surviving combat repeatedly.

Initiative, Momentum, and Movement
A few basic points need to be made here. Combat movement in an environment of several combatants can be quite tricky, but having to resorting to maps and miniatures is something of a cop out. Miniatures are another throwback to those old war games. They have a place in RPG’s, but if they are used too much it takes away from the imagination which is the fun of the genre.

Who attacks first?
Basically, all other things being equal, reach weapons attack first. This is the reason why every culture on earth, of every technology level from Neolithic through Medieval, has developed hand weapons which are 4-6 feet in length or more. The secondary factors would be skill (training, experience) and speed.

This is the reason why the spear was preferred as a hunting weapon over the knife, or the axe, or the club. Not because it did more damage, but because it gave the hunter the opportunity to attack that boar before the boar could attack him.

The hit me / hit you dynamic is basically false.
Though it depends a lot on the types of weapons used, the fixed one attack per turn or even three attacks per turn (or whatever) dynamic of most RPGs is unrealistic, and IMHO also less dramatic and interesting than the dynamics of a real fight.

With offensive weapons such as longswords, one is much more likely to see the dominant fighter seizing momentum and holding it. Whether that individual retains the momentum until winning the fight depends on the skill of the defender at turning the tables.

It is possible to attack with the intention of just keeping the momentum going, keeping ones opponent on the defensive, rather than really getting a killing blow in. Striking with real intent to kill is something most safely done when the opponent is in a thoroughly vulnerable position, preferably one that you put him in.

Momentum, range and weapon type
The dynamics of this also depend on the specific types of weapons used, and the basic strategy (offensive and defensive) used. A shield or a blocking weapon allows the wielder to break up the opponents attack momentum, and can even make a fight slow down to something similar to the “I strike / you strike”, though only because the defense is so dominant. Shorter weapons generally have less offensive potential than long weapons (though there are exceptions to this such as with staves that are normally used from a defensive posture). A fight between two long swords will generally end much more quickly than a fight with two short swords.

A fight with realistic momentum is more dramatic, because you have the fortunes of the fighters rising and falling, with spectacular turns of the tables, desperate holding actions, heroic last efforts, and etc. All in all much more thrilling than the old I punch / you punch dynamic. This is why a lot of old swashbuckling movies portrayed fights with a very exaggerated sense of the shifting momentum, for the enhanced drama.

Combat Tactics and Special Training
Basic Combat tactics

I recently saw a rerun of an old movie called “future world” made back in the 70’s. It was the sequel to “westworld”, about resorts in the future where robots acted as servants and entertainment for tourists. There is one scene where two robot boxers have a fight, controlled by a couple of the characters in the movie. The combat in most RPG’s reminds me of that fight. Stiff, each fighter standing there waiting to be hit. No strategy, no momentum or flow, just the mechanical exchange of blows.

Defensive versus Aggressive
In a real fight, one of the decisions you get to make is whether to play it gung ho or squirrelly. The obvious tradeoff is that one is more likely to hit and hurt fighting aggressive, but less likely to be hurt fighting defensive. There is a second disadvantage to fighting defensively though, it also causes you to lose momentum or initiative and keep you reacting to your opponent rather than dictating the flow of the fight, which can be a big issue. This is why the fencing masters always advocated the primacy of attack.

In RPG’s having the option to fight defensively or offensively ads gaming nuance as well as simply making combat more real. Fending off the enemy horde while help is on the way becomes more tangible. Going for broke in that desperate last-ditch attempt to slay the bad guy now actually has some meaning… all because you can adjust your fighting style to defense or offense.

Some weapons are more suited to defense than others. Quarterstaffs can be used offensively but are often wielded from a defensive posture, while rapiers excel at attack (and counter-attack).

Jab versus Haymaker
At a finer level of nuance it should be noted that whether fighting offensively or defensively in general, one can attack just to get a hit in, and one can also attack with the intent to finish off the opponent once and for all. It is far easier to land a jab than a haymaker. But especially when fighting an armored opponent, the haymaker may be the only attack which causes any real damage.

The Rope-a-dope
If fatigue rules are incorporated, another interesting dimension to combat is the potential strategy of tiring out the opponent. Mohammed Ali was famous for his tactic of fighting defensively in the boxing ring until his opponent had worn themselves out, and then going for the kill. This is known as the rope-a-dope. Fighting with weapons, even just for fun (as opposed to fighting for your life) is an extremely aerobic and intense activity about as strenuous as playing basketball. Doing this in armor with heavy weapons is even more so. As energy levels decline, and they will quickly unless the fighters are in truly Olympian condition, the range of options should diminish. Fighting to conserve energy versus trying to win quickly can add another interesting strategic element to combat.

Another popular combat strategy especially when carrying a shield and / or facing a longer weapon, is to wait in a defensive guard or stance until the opponent attacks, then counterattack, sometimes including a rush. Some fighters become experts at this particular strategy, and it is actually fundamental to most Martial Arts systems involving weapons, including HEMA.

Two-weapon fighting
Two-weapon fighting finally made it to many RPGs. My main point about it is: don’t forget the defensive aspect and don’t forget that the off-hand can be an effective weapon in its own right, both offensively and defensively. Fighting with a sword and dagger or some other smaller weapon was a very popular technique taught in nearly every period fencing manual. But the daggers were used as much defensively as offensively. Most of the fencing manuals also teach methods for using things like hats, cloaks, stools etc. in your off hand. If they did it in real life, why can’t your PC’s do it?

Multiple Opponents
It is possible to fight more than one opponent in melee combat, but with each additional opponent the difficulty of facing them goes up exponentially. It becomes tougher and tougher to evade the attacks of the enemy. One primary factor which actually has been recognized by RPG’s now is the idea of flanking. When facing multiple opponents it’s a good idea to try to line them up in a row if possible. If they get all around you, you are sunk.

Two handed vs single handed, the effect of shields in combat.
Many weapons can be used either one or two handed. Fighting one handed versus two handed has different effects on combat. One-handed conveys better reach and flexibility, two handed conveys better speed, control, and power.

The primary downside of using a shield is the inability to use two- handed weapons. Two handed weapons allow one to hit much harder, they are also usually longer and have more reach. Lacking heavy armor, a shield is very valuable protection, but it is worth noting that as plate armor became more ubiquitous, knights increasingly abandoned the shield on most battlefields. Smaller bucklers did continue to remain especially for civilian duels and judicial combats, and in use by some infantry such as the Scottish highlanders in the 14th-16th century and Spanish tercios.

The key is basically armor. Against an unarmored to moderately armored opponent, a shield and a single hand weapon are ideal. Excellent protection, good reach and superb flexibility. When facing heavily armored opponents however, it is more valuable to have the added reach and striking power of pole-arms and two-hand swords.
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