Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Insular Fantasy Game Combat v. Actual Combat

One of my pet peeves about fantasy game combat is how it's almost entirely insular, that almost every iteration of fantasy combat is based on the half-baked ideas and 'balance/niche' objectives of Dungeons & Dragons, along with shitty movie logic.

Swords are king in mythology and fantasy. They certainly are good weapons, but what little I know about historical combat makes them less uber than they are typically depicted. Swords are expensive, difficult to make, and require more skill to wield than many other weapons. As far as types of swords - modern terminology is of course modern, but it generally seems that most swords could be used with one hand, including greatswords.

Most RPGs would have us believe that one must be a master super-specialized freak to use a greatsword with one hand, but IRL they're simply less agile than a shorter sword. Also the 'bastard sword' of history actually seems to be smaller/shorter than the 'longsword', the former being easier to use with one-or-two hands and essentially being a version of the latter for that end. The 'broad sword' and 'arming sword' are more one-handed weapons, which makes sense as their wielders tended to have a shield in the offhand. As armor became better and shields were discarded a longer sword used with two hands became more practical and more necessary. As I'm sure most people here know a man with armored hands can also use a long sword as a sort of staff, or a spear, as well as the traditional 'grab the handle and swing it' method. Most RPGs take no account of this, and treat the longer sword as essentially a big knife. This is especially irksome since the primary advantage of a longer sword is its versatility. If it were not for this versatility you would always be better off with a spear, a pike, an axe, a mace, or a slashing sword. The sword is a weapon of skill, both in its difficult construction and technique of use, and this is why it is associated with the professional warriors such as the knight. Even so, knights seem to have used spears, maces, and axes more than swords even when they were carrying one.

Short swords are ubiquitous in all ages, some having edges and others not. They are easy to use, easier to make than longer swords, and can be quite deadly against unarmored opponents. They are less effective against heavily armored opponents, because they're not as well suited for targeting chinks in armor (as opposed to the spear-like longsword or much handier dagger) or delivering heavy blows (due to a lack of mass and leverage).

Daggers, stilettos and so forth seem to have been regarded as perfectly viable weapons by professional killers in full plate armor, instead of being a joke weapon reserved for old bookish men as in certain RPGs.

Swords have less reach than a spear or pike. They can not have as much body mass put behind them, and even a two-handed sword does not allow the use of as much thrusting strength as a spear/pike does. Pikes with axe or hammer heads also have way, way more leverage than swords, allowing crushing 'can opener' blows to be delivered. The glaive type is basically a sword on a stick and while not as handy as a sword has all the other advantages of a spear.

The mace delivers a lot of inertia to target, and its sturdier construction means its better suited to direct blows against armor. The hammer is similar, though it lacks the flange of some maces they often had pick heads opposite to allow similar effect.

The axe is mechanically similar to the mace in how it lands blows, and has a large, curved cutting edge that combines the slicing action of a scimitar with the sheer inertia of a mace. Contrary to video games axes are not simply used in wood-splitting 'hacks' but are swung in arcs that allow one to keep inertia up without having to draw back after each blow. For this reason an axe is actually much faster in combat than Skyrim would have us believe, and also better suited for defensive use than video-game combat would have use believe.

Flails seem like a pain in the ass to use, but they are the king for delivering force on target. They can also help get around defenses due to their ability to bend (though most flails seem to have had MUCH shorter links than video games and fantasy art would lead us to believe - they were rarely a 'ball and chain' but more like a steel nunchaku).

As armor improved and shields declined two-handed weapons became more popular. There are also examples in history of warriors using a weapon in each hand. Contrary to video-game/D&D logic, this was not to give them an 'extra attack' - except perhaps in the case of knives. Actually delivering an effective blow requires you to use your body weight and leverage, simply swinging your arm is going to get you shit results and will likely be laughed off by someone in heavy armor. The point of having multiple weapons seems to have been:
  1. Versatility. If you have an axe and a mace you can choose which one to use in a particular circumstance.
  2. Lateral threat. Having a weapon on each side means you can threaten opponents further than if you had simply one weapon on one side, and they can be brought to bear faster than a long two-handed weapon.
  3. Backup, in the case of being disarmed.

Bows seem to have been rarely ever used as a primary weapon by anyone except massed archers. Slings are quite powerful, more powerful than bows in some ways, and were not (like the dagger) regarded as a joke weapon for weaklings. Also, a sling is extremely difficult to use. Certain role-playing games would have us believe they are a simple weapon for simple people. While it's true they are a shepherd's weapon the reason they are associated with them is because they are a specialist's weapon requiring intensive practice to use effectively. While a crossbow could be learned by anyone, a Hoplite or knight has very little chance of just 'picking up' a sling as another weapon to be used like a mace or spear. Whereas the skills from a mace transfer well to an axe, the skills of a bow, javelin or throwing axe are far more dissimilar to a sling.

Plate armor is the best form of armor in all respects. It is the easiest to maneuver in, the least bulky, the best protection, full stop, end of story. In any circumstance where the weight and bulk of plate armor would be a disadvantage you would be better off wearing less plate armor - no alternative form of armor (scale, leather, etc.) can compete in any respect while offering any degree of protection.

Anyone who has actually worn normal leather jackets knows that they:
  1. Offer almost no protection from direct blows
  2. Are in fact bulky and heavy.
While boiled leather is tougher than the sort of leather we make clothes out of (it's similar to very hard saddle leather) it is no competition whatsoever for steel, is just as bulky (or moreso) as a big leather jacket, and is in fact even harder to move in than a big leather jacket. For the same amount of weight in boiled leather you'd need to get any effective armor you could wear a light breastplate or a coat of plates and get 10x the protection. So 'armor types' is basically nonsense. The variations in historical armor are based on technology and cost, not 'trade-offs'. Metal offers far more hardness and strength than any other material (except some plastics), and this is fucking obvious to anyone who bothers to think about it for two fucking seconds (i.e., basically no one).

Now I know there are always the neh neh neh I dun't wanna realism, muhCinematic types out there, but I should make clear that:
  1. I don't care about balance or niche protection
  2. I actively despise most tropes in pop fiction and film. I don't think it looks 'cool' to have giant spikes, 3" thick armor, or to do break-dancing and backflips in combat. I think it's fucking gaytarded.
  3. I find actual historical combat far more interesting than anything most people think 'looks cool'.
One thing that I would like some input on (along with any comments y'all might have on the above) is to what extent armament would vary between the battlefield and the duel. Unarmored v. armored opponents is one aspect that I understand somewhat, i.e. a rapier is good against people in little or no armor but not much use in a melee press between plate armored opponents. But what about the typical RPG situation - where 1-3 men in full armor are fighting each other? I am not sure how often this happened in medieval times, plate armor and the like seems to have largely been reserved to the battlefield. Likewise, while a pollaxe has obvious advantages in formation fighting and mass melee would its sheer size and weight actually make it a bad choice in man-to-man combat (as opposed to using a shorter axe, for example)?


  1. I liked your essay! I will say that I think your comments on the superiority of plate armor hold more true for medieval combat in the 14th century and thereafter than for combat in earlier eras.

    My own game (ACKS) is set during Antiquity, and the trade-offs between armor coverage and encumbrance were real. In the sources it's often noted that troops would switch from bronze panoply to lighter armor, or would wear only partial armor, in order to be faster and lighter. And wearing the heavy armor of the time was exhausting. At the same time, all but one of the weapons tested (in the book From Sumer to Rome) was unable to penetrate bronze armor. So for that era, D&D's basic conceit that "armor makes you harder to hit" and "more armor means more protection but more encumbrance" do make sense.

    That said, in ACKS the best weapons are the spear and the polearm, not the sword; I couldn't agree more with your analysis. ACKS' in-world explanation as to why heroes use swords is that swords are more likely to be magic weapons; spears and other shafted weapons are easier to sunder and break, so they are less likely to be enchanted than sturdy swords.

    1. I think bronze plate is still better than any of the alternatives, but it is even more (relatively) expensive than steel plate armor. However, there are other considerations: large formations of professional warriors with pikes (i.e. Macedonian phalangites) are already better protected due to their sheer mass and superior combat skill. They were also used more strategically, and thus the improved marching speed of the more lightly armored man could be put to good use (half the time the Greeks just rode boats to wherever they were going, so marching speed was less relevant even aside from strategic prowess and professionalism). The citizen-hoplite was a much inferior fighter, with much more money in his pocket, and was thus inclined to wear as much armor as he could manage. Contractions in trade, due to the Peloponnesian War and similar intra-Greek and Persian-Mediterranean conflicts also made it harder to get specific materials and overall impoverished the region. The more lightly armoured thureophoroi of the Diadochi period also carried large shields to compensate for their lack of armor.

      Due to the difficulty of producing large blooms of metal which were not brittle you also saw much more use of scale armor in the archaic and classical period, especially among the oriental powers. But this was due in large to cost and technology, not because scale armor is in any way superior to plate armor. Scale armor is, however, superior to soft armor.

      Probably the strangest reversal in armor is the Roman, which went from 'banded' armor of the Lorica Segmentata type back to mail. The reasons for this were almost entirely to do with the difficulty of producing large blooms (above) and the ease with which chain armor can be repaired. As the legions grew larger and larger having highly skilled smiths able to make a peculiar sort of Roman splint armor became increasingly difficult. Chain armor, while incredibly tedious to make, is easy to make and easy to repair. Labor being more prolific than materials and skills, the Romans seem to have adopted mail over splint. It is noteworthy that by the late Roman empire, though, many steppe Goths were wearing what amounted to iron plate armor with almost total coverage. This practice of extreme plated armor may have been inherited from the Aryan steppe warriors such as the Scythians and Alans, who simply loved to wear as much body armor as they possibly could, and due to their possession of multiple horses the issue of weight was not significant.

      As far as the weight effects of armor a suit of full Gothic plate armor of the Maximillian type (the best as well as the heaviest armor ever produced) was comparable to the field pack that modern Western European armies carry, sometimes for several dozen kilometers a day. It does slow one down, but it is not necessarily exhausting to a physically fit man. Add in the resource of horses and pack animals (a resource RPG characters often inexplicably neglect) and the weight becomes even less of a factor.

      Personally if I was making magic items for my own use (or that of my soldiers or employer) I would focus on daggers and pikes. Daggers because enchantments would make this easiest-to-use, handiest weapon incredibly lethal (adding to its already existing advantages against heavy armor and great effectiveness against the unarmored person at the same time); pikes because adding enchantments to the easy-to-use and incredibly effective (and formation-friendly) armor busting weapon would turn it into a reaping machine. Just imagine an elite Makedonian phalanx with 18' long enchanted pikes, mowing down Persians like wheat.

    2. ACKS is one of the best versions of D&D, period. The Domains at War book alone blows all competition out of the water, even the handy systems in Dark Dungeons and 0-Edition Delta's Book of War have become dust-collectors since I got ahold of ACKS DaW.