28 December 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Stick

Even more venerable than the spear, the stick is almost certainly the first weapon used by humanity. Only the stone is possibly older.

But, much like the spear, the stick suffers nothing in usefulness for its advanced age.

Master George Silver, writing ~1600, was of the opinion that the stick (the quarterstaff, in his case, a monstrous 8' ash shaft) was the "best weapon against all manner of weapons".


The form of the stick varies perhaps the most amongst weapons. In its simplest form, it is simply a section of tree branch, perhaps two feet in length.

At its most advanced, we have the English quarterstaff (also known as the short staff), 6-8' in length, with steel or iron caps on the ends.

Other variations are the long staff, 12' in length; the walking stick (an exemplar being the Irish shillelagh), 2-3' in length with a weighted handle; and shorter staffs such as the 4' stick used in Jogo do Pau.

So, there is a great deal of variation in the stick - probably more than any other weapon.

Luckily for us, each type of stick weapon is similar to another weapon we've already discussed. The quarter staff is very similar to the spear. The shillelagh is similar to a mace. Short staffs are like inferior swords. The long staff is like the pike (which I have not discussed, as it is only relevant to formation combat). So, we can simply treat the differences between each type of stick and its closest relative.


The Quarterstaff

The quarterstaff is superficially similar to the spear, and there are similarities in their fighting techniques. However, the quarterstaff is typically somewhat longer than the spear, and it is typically gripper near the back end (as opposed to the more typical "half-staff" grip used on the spear, similar to the "half-sword" grip on the longsword).

The primary attack of the staff is the thrust, and for those doubting the power of a thrust from a staff, imagine a punch with more than double the power behind it being concentrated down to a steel or hardwood disk half the size of a fist. It's clear that a blow from a staff can be easily four or more times harder than a punch - easily enough to KO someone, collapse their windpipe, stun them, or rob them of their balance.

The staff can also strike, whipping the end quickly to hit the head, using the hips to generate power. The longer the staff, the more powerful the strike (but also the more power needed to generate the strike). The staff can perform all of the strikes the swords can - downwards, upwards (useful for groin shots), and side-to-side.

George Silver recommends using a combination, especially against a swordsman, as he finds that a swordsman has trouble defending against a thrust followed quickly by a strike (or vice versa).

The Shillelagh

A shillelagh is basically a big mace.

The Shorter Sticks

The main thing to remember when dealing with short sticks (2-4') is that, while they may be used much like swords, their capability for wounding is much less, and more attention needs to be paid to the continuation of the fight after a blow, as one blow will almost certainly never end the fight.

Silver is a big fan of the quarterstaff, and he is of the opinion that a man with a staff could best two equal opponents armed with swords, due to the massive reach advantage.

As with all weapons, an important part of staff fighting is grappling, perhaps even more so with stick weapons, as they lack the sharp parts that discourage the opponent from grabbing the end of the weapon. If the opponent grabs your staff and you can't get it back, you need to be immediately prepared to close to the grapple or flee. Or draw another weapon, although now your opponent has your staff, which is likely to be superior to anything else you are carrying!

26 December 2013

Castle Cost Calculator

I have linked the Excel file for calculating the cost of building castles in the sidebar for easy reference.

In case you missed it, I wrote a paper for Burgs and Bailiffs volume 2 on how to calculate the labour and materials used to build your dream castle.

The Excel file will allow you to type in the wall volume of the castle, and it will spit out the number of man-days needed to build it, how much cropland you'll need to feed all those labourers (or how much you need to pay them to buy their own food), and how much raw materials you'll need.

8 December 2013

Talking about Initiative Again

Initiative is floating around the blogosphere again. As far as I'm concerned, it's a closed matter.

Initiative belongs with alignment and the one-minute round in the dustbin of D&D history.

I've written previously about the futility of an alignment system, and how I run combat here:


I've never seen a convincing explanation for why initiative is required. I'd like to deal with some of the reasons people think you should have an initiative system, and debunk them.

It allows for additional depth in character building - you can build a character with the advantage of always winning initiative!

First off, I decry the whole notion of "Character Building", but we'll leave that aside. This argument is typically seen from proponents of "board-game" systems like 3e/Pathfinder or 4e.

The real fallacy here is that having a fast initiative is somehow an advantage. As I've shown before, after the first round, initiative order is largely irrelevant, the turn cycle becoming cyclical with no well-defined start or end point. If you're re-rolling initiative every round, it becomes even more arbitrary.

Additionally, due to artifacts of a turn-based system, it can actually be a disadvantage to act first in certain situations.

It adds excitement to combat.

Personally, I don't find this, but I suppose that's a matter of opinion. I find it's an arbitrary and unrealistic rule that leads to thinking about the game rather than the game world. Personally, I try to make things as fast, fluid, and realistic as possible so that the game is always about the game world rather than the game rules.

It allows you to differentiate between weapons.

I suppose this is true, but it's not particularly realistic at the level of abstraction present in D&D. Over the course of a 10-second round, there's a lot of movement, and it's just totally irrelevant that you can make two or three quick, light slashes with a knife in the time it takes to make a full swing with a poleaxe.

And there are better ways to differentiate weapons - namely by function.

It allows you to differentiate characters.

Again, I suppose this is true, but not really realistic. I find it hard to believe that over a ten-second round, someone could be so much faster than someone else that they could consistently move first every time.

And since initiative order doesn't actually matter (or make sense), it's a distinction without a difference - it's a false differentiation.

It's more realistic.

This is just absurd. Again, at the level of abstraction in D&D, there's no meaningful "first" actor in a round. Ten seconds is just so long and so much can happen in a fight in that time, that a you-go I-go turn system is patently ridiculous from a realism perspective.

As a necessary component of a you-go-I-go turn system, there's nothing realistic about initiative.

3 December 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Poleaxe

The poleaxe (aka pollaxe, polax, poll-axe, pole-axe, pole-hammer, two-handed warhammer) was one of the most popular weapons of the high middle ages. Combining the virtues of the warhammer, axe, and short spear, it was a versatile weapon designed primarily for defeating plate armour.

A hammer/axe poleaxe and a hammer/backspike poleaxe.

The classic poleaxe, to my mind, is a six-foot square hardwood shaft with a hammerhead, backspike, topspike, buttspike, and sidespikes.

There are a few variations on the poleaxe, all of which revolve around the head. All will have some variation of axehead, hammerhead, and backspike. It could be axehead/hammerhead, hammerhead/backspike, or axehead/backspike. All have a long heavy-duty spike on the top, and a short spike on the bottom. Most will have a short, round hand-guard a foot or two below the head, and most will have short spikes on either side of the head.

One of the main differentiating features between the poleaxe and the very similar halberd are the langets on the sides (the metal strips running down from the head in the pictures above). A halberd head is typically forged out of a single piece, and attacked to the shaft like a spearhead via a tube and pin. The langets made the end of the weapon significantly stronger and more durable. They were part of the modular forged design of the poleaxe - each piece of the head was forged separately, which allowed a stronger construction than a single piece stretched and flattened out.

A poleaxe with an axehead would also have a smaller blade than a halberd, the better to defeat armour.

Similar Weapons

The halberd, lucerne hammer, and bec de corbin are all pretty much the same weapon as the poleaxe. The differences are basically just in head design - halberds always have axeheads and backspikes, lucerne hammers and bec de corbins always have hammerheads and backspikes.

For game purposes, I believe it's totally reasonable to treat all of the "complex" poleweapons as poleaxes - glaives, voulges, bills, partisans - all of those wacky stick/blade combos Gygax loved so much. Yes, they're all different, and all have different fighting styles, but there are distinct similarities that set them apart as a category.


The complex polearms, as exemplified by the poleaxe, are generally good for both utterly devastating two-handed swings and powerful thrusts. For an idea of the force involved, imagine smashing a melon with a baseball bat. Now imagine the baseball bat is twice as long and has a metal hammer head on the end.

The poleaxe can easily pulp the skull of an unarmoured man, the axehead can sever limbs, and the topspike can easily force its way between the links of chain mail. The topspike even has a chance of piercing through a breastplate.

The guards and actions of the poleaxe are something of a hybrid between the longsword and the spear. Its use is also something of a hybrid of the two, the main difference from the longsword being the extended reach and the ability to trap the opponent's weapon with the complex head. The main difference with the spear is the equal focus on striking and thrusting.

This guard is shared by the longsword, poleaxe, and major league baseball. Fiore calls it the "Guard of the Woman" (Posta di Donna). Much like a baseball player, the master is prepared to swing the axe around with a hip rotation, imparting devastating speed and power to the axehead.


As the poleaxe is typically used by a fully armoured man against another fully armoured man, grappling is integral to defense, as even with a poleaxe it's not always easy to down a man in full plate harness. It's not uncommon for two combatants with poleaxes to get their axeheads tangled on the ground and abandon their poleaxes and switch to their daggers or to attempting a throw.

A combination axe/grappling play. The scholar (on the left) has obtained a key (a type of arm hold) on his opponent, immobilizing him for a counterstrike.

Otherwise, much like with offense, poleaxe defenses can be similar to spear or longsword plays, either seeking to knock the opponent's weapon offline and thrust, or to beat aside and land a strike.

30 November 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Spear

The spear is, without a doubt, the most popular weapon of all time. From the dawn of time until WWII, the spear was issued in vast numbers to the common soldier. Surprised to hear that WWII soldiers were issued spears? Well, a rifle with a bayonet on it is functionally a short spear. Bayonet techniques owe a heck of a lot to medieval spear techniques, which, I'm sure, owed a lot in their turn to Stone Age spear techniques.

The reason for this is simple, and two-fold: the spear is cheap and easy to make, and it is extremely effective. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: it's not for nothing that the spear is the King of Weapons.


I'm not sure this is really necessary, but...

The most basic spear is simply a sharpened stick, 5-8 feet long. At it's most advanced, the spear has a steel bladed head, 18" long, with lugs at the bottom of the head, a sharpened steel buttcap on the base, and a polished and lathed ash shaft 6-7 feet long.

The butt cap is an important point - many people don't realize that medieval spears have a sharpened steel spike covering the bottom. This makes the spear significantly more dangerous than if it only had the bladed head at the top.

A spearhead and buttcap.

The lugs allow some more parrying options, but they're certainly not necessary. Fiore's spear treatise doesn't show them except in the bit on a spearman vs. a horseman.

Spearhead with lugs.


Offence with the spear is really fairly simple - insert the point into the face of your opponent. Keep in mind, though, that the spear has a point on both ends. Since any defence against the spear will involve knocking the spearhead offline, a common tactic is to absorb and use the energy from that knock to spin the spear 180° and attack with the buttspike instead of the head.

Much of the stuff that applies to the halfsword (discussed in my earlier post on the longsword) also applies to the spear, as halfswording is really just turning your longsword into a 4-foot spear.

There is currently debate about whether the spearhead or spear shaft were used for striking as well as thrusting. There is little direct evidence for spears being used for striking, but arguments can be made for it. Viking sagas speak of "hewing spears" which were used for cutting. What these are is unknown - it is possibly just a normal spear, a spear with a long head, or something more like a glaive or naginata (i.e. a sword on a stick, as opposed to a spear, which is more like a dagger on a stick).

From handling spears, I can safely say that being bashed with the end would be pretty awful. I have little doubt that a solid hit from a spear could break bones in an unarmoured target.

There's also the fact that in Fiore's medieval fighting system there's a certain universality to the techniques - since the sword can be used like a spear, it's not unreasonable to see the spear sharing some techniques with the sword.

Wiser people than me disagree the the spear is used for bashing, though, so take the notion of bashing with the spear with a grain of salt.


Striking sideways with the spear definitely comes into play on the defensive. Most of Fiore's spear guards have the point off the line, pointing up, back, or to the side. The point-forward guards, while having the point forward, can still generate significant sideways force with a passing step.

The master (in the crown) stands in a typical defensive guard. His point is facing away from his opponent so that he can swing it around forcefully to knock his opponent's spear aside. Note that the combatants are depicted much closer than they would really be standing in combat!

The basic defence with the spear is to turn and swing your spear to strike the opponents weapon aside, ending up in a position where your point is directed at the opponents face or neck and your spear is between you and the opponent's weapon. If you over-parry (i.e. your spear keeps swinging past their face), you can keep that energy going and turn the spear right around and strike their face with the butt spike.

The master has successfully parried from the previous position. The momentum of the opponent's attack has carried him right onto the master's spear.

20 October 2013

XP for Gold: Clearly Defined Lines

After wrapping up his Watchmen stint, superhero/evil genius Ozymandias was kind enough to leave this comment on my post about XP for Gold: Reputation and Confidence:
How do we delineate when gold acquisition counts for experience?

The argument I've seen often goes to the extreme end right away: If I find a chest of gold on the side of the road (fell off the back of a merchant's caravan), do I get experience for it? Clearly the answer is 'no.' There was no danger. There was no trial. There was no test of the character's skills. But what about the party that avoids the dragon to lift a few choice items from its hoard? What about using diplomacy or trickery to get the orcs to leave their lair unguarded? What about a thief who spends a few days playing the crowd?

The problem with XP for GP is there's no clearly defined line when it comes to assigning the bonus. And I've been all over the 'net looking for justification or explanation; it seems the task is too difficult for people, so most of them just drop it.

If you're looking for no grey areas, play Chess. Or better yet, Go, as Go never ends in a draw (as so many Chess games do)

An RPG is a reflection of the real world, and just like the real world, there are grey areas. And the only way to deal with grey areas, whether in the rules, or in the real world, is to draw on your life experience and good judgement, and make a call.

The problem Ozymandias sees with XP for GP simply isn't a problem - the DM looks at the situation, and makes a call.

Remember that even in the most artificial and restrictive RPG ruleset imaginable, the *bulk* of the game still comes down to simple DM fiat at the end of the day (Why did that chest fall off the caravan? Was there a way to avoid the dragon? How many GP in that horde? Are the orcs willing to talk? How many orcs are there? Is the King a nice guy? Is the Vizier banging the Queen?).

The point is, *everything in the game* lacks a clearly defined line. How many orcs is too many? How many HD for the dragon are too many? How much treasure is too much? Why is the King *this* nice, and not nicer? Why is the Vizier risking everything to be with the Queen?

You can lay down endless guidelines for all of this stuff (and people try, I seem to recall 4e dictating not only how tough the monsters should be but also how many magic items the players should be getting!!!), but you can *never* get away from the fact that the DM is making the world, running the world, and that the DM is a human being, and therefore necessarily fuzzy, fallible, and not really designed for clearly defined lines.

I mean, you can ask that question about anything in an RPG. So you get XP for killing monsters. Do you get XP for killing a beggar? Maybe? What about a child? What about the blacksmith - he could defend himself. What about an orc if you're a level 10 character? The orc is certainly no more threat than a child is to a Level 2 Fighter. Where do you draw the line?

And please, don't suggest that the rulebook covers it. The rulebook can *never* clear up all of the soft edges. It can never leave a clearly defined line. There will always be grey.

And that's why we play RPGs - for the grey. For the fuzziness. For the *realness* that can only come from dealing with another human being and all the vast complexities of their mind.

That lack of a clear line isn't a flaw, it's the *whole reason RPGs exist*.

30 September 2013

My Experience with the OSR

I "grew up" (literally and metaphorically) playing Basic Edition with a little 2e mixed in and various rules-lite homebrews, ranging from completely rules-less shared storytelling type stuff to variations of D&D.

After a lapse of playing, I got a group together, and we got a Pathfinder game going. Well, long story short, it sucked. There were so many rules, character creation took sooooo long, and the zeitgeist of Pathfinder at the time was totally "dm-as-frustrated novelist" (meaning the DM writes a story and leads the players through it).

I felt like I had to prep so much stuff, boring stuff, statblocks, stories, npcs, blah blah blah. I worked so hard, and the game was no fun. Just little minis moving around a board.

If I'd wanted that, I could have played Monopoly.

Frustrated, I started looking around the Internet for what had gone wrong with my game, and stumbled upon the Old School Renaissance. Here were people that had "grown up" with the loosey-goosey old systems I had, playing dungeoncrawls and sandboxes. People who had kept the flame alive, while I had forgotten.

They reminded me that rules don't make it realistic or fun - the DM is better positioned to make common-sense rulings at the table than any game designer in their office could be.

They reminded me that prep doesn't have to be onerous - oldschool games rely heavily on improv, random tables, and because they have so few rules, statblocks are simple. A monster entry can be "Goblin, 1HD, AC5, they don't like tall people". That's enough to riff on or run a combat.

Most of all, they reminded me that the game is about the players and their choices. The DM is there to run the world, to make it interesting, and present interesting choices and opportunities.

Freed from rules, freed from onerous prep, freed from crafting a story, I was free to run the game the players wanted - whatever that might be. I was free to spend prep time on what matters - making a living world to present to the players.

I was free to fall in love with D&D again.

7 September 2013

Mortal Wounds and the Double-Kill: Towards Descriptive Damage

Something I've been wanting for a while is a *descriptive* damage system, as opposed to a simply numerical one. My reading in SPADA II about how damn resilient the human body is to damage has brought this to the forefront of my mind again.

One of my main goals with this experiment is to make the results of a combat more "role-play-y". This isn't about realism, it's about getting players to really be able to imagine what their character is going through. A result like "his thrust pierces your mail - your belly is all wet and sticky" seems a lot cooler to me than "he hit you for 5 damage". Currently, I rely entirely on my own imagination to generate results on the fly, but I always find random tables help with spurring inspiration.

I've included a bleed-out mechanic that adds a certain tension to combat and post-combat medical attention. I had been working on something when I came across this on Metal vs. Skin, which is a pretty elegant solution. I think I'm going to go with what I'd been working on (detailed below), but Metal vs. Skin's is pretty cool, and worth checking out.

So, what I've come up with here is pretty complicated - I'm working on simplifying it. I don't think many people will find this useful because of that, and that's fine. I'm mostly just spitballing here.

The game I'm running right now is a low-magic, low-combat game where fighting should bring devastating consequences for one or both parties, and for that kind of game, I think this might work well.

I'll be playtesting this over my next few games and refining it. If any combat comes up...
Hit locations
  • legs 1-2
  • torso 3-5
  • arms 6-9
  • head 10
Wound levels (i.e. severity) 

Use this table to interpret your damage rolls (explode your damage dice, so on a natural 6 roll another d6 and add that total. Continue in that fashion until you don't get a 6.).

1-3: Flesh wound (no mechanical effect, risk of infection, still requires treatment or risk increases a lot) - 1 wound level
4-6: Serious flesh wound (will bleed out without treatment) - 2 wound levels
7-9: Severe wound (bone, tendon - bleed out and disability without treatment) - 4 wound levels
10-12: Mortal wound (major organ or arterial involvement, dismemberment or decapitation - rapid death without rapid treatment) - 8 wound levels
13+: Instant death ( heart pierced, spine severed, brain stem destroyed, head cut off)


If you take more wound levels in one round than your Con score, you immediately collapse and are hors de combat.

Bleed-out time

Once you're wounded, you start the bleed-out timer.

Each wound level moves you one space down the bleed-out track:
7 days / 1 day / 12 hr / 1 hr / 30m / 15m / 10m / 5m/ 3m/ 2m / 1m (6 rounds) / 5 rounds / 4 rds / 3 rds / 2 rds / 1 rd / Collapse (Death in 1m)

Once your time is up, you collapse. You now have 1 minute until death.

First Aid

After a battle where you get wounded, you're going to need First Aid. This is handled abstractly, and requires someone with some knowledge of First Aid. Fighters and Burglars are assumed to have knowledge of First Aid.

First aid is sufficient to stop the bleeding of any Flesh wound, Severe Flesh Wound, or Severe Wound. Move back up the bleed-out track if you receive First Aid for a wound.

For Mortal Wounds, surgical care is required.

First Aid requires:

5 minutes / wound level
First Aid Supplies

First Aid supplies consist of things like clean water, rags, splints (if bones are broken), knives, fire (for cauterization).

Surgical Care

Surgeons were known in the Medieval Era, and knew much, much more than many would think. See my recent article on Medieval Battlefield Medicine for more on that.

If you've suffered a Mortal Wound, you will die unless you receive surgical care. This requires 1d6 hours, a trained Surgeon (training to be a surgeon in the Medieval era was much like today - it took about a decade of combined classroom and practical learning), surgical tools, dressings, etc.


You can heal 1 wound level per wound per 2 weeks of rest, if you're getting proper medical attention. Otherwise, you heal 1 wound level per wound per 4 weeks.

Obviously, some serious wounds will never fully heal - a chopped off hand is not going to grow back.

Infections / fevers

For every wound (not wound level) you have that hasn't received prompt proper medical attention, you have a 1-in-6 chance of getting a serious infection in the next week. So, total your number of wounds and roll a d6 modified by your Con bonus. If you roll is equal or less than your number of wounds, you develop a serious infection, are feverish, and more or less useless.

For wounds that have received proper medical attention, you have a 1-in-20 chance per wound of developing a serious infection.

More to come on infections and disease, this is an area that I want to do a lot more work on, so this is very preliminary.

6 September 2013

Medieval Battlefield Medicine

It is generally believed that the Medieval Era was almost entirely ignorant of medical and surgical procedures.

This is simply not true.

By about 1400, medical knowledge included knowledge of the importance of cleanliness; suturing of wounds, blood vessels, and nerves; treatment of simple and compound (open) fractures, dislocations, amputation, cauterization to prevent excessive blood loss; anaesthesia; trepanning to treat skull fractures; gangrene and debridment of dead tissuel; etc. etc. Much of this knowledge dates to the Classical era, but some of it was developed during the late Middle Ages.

Medieval surgeons knew pretty much everything you need for battlefield medicine with the notable exception of antibiotics, transfusion, intravenous drips, and organ transplantation.

What does this mean? Well, if you can get to a surgeon and haven't lost too much blood, you're in OK shape. You might get an infection, and there's really nothing they could do about that, but if you don't (or if you survive it), you're likely to live.

Battle commanders of the Middle Ages were well aware of this fact. For instance, during the campaign that included Agincourt, the English army of 10,000 brought at least 24 surgeons - about one for every 400 men (incidentally, the current standard is about 1 surgeon for every 500-800 men).

By the 1200 or so, there were established medical schools you could go too, and the requirements for training were actually not that far from today's - you would take a 3-year college degree, a 4-year medical degree, then a year of practical study, and possibly another year of anatomy for surgeons.

The idea of getting your wounded Fighter to the Surgeon is definitely a lot less snappy than getting hands laid on by a Paladin or a Cure Light Wounds from a Cleric, but for a high-grit low/no-magic campaign set in a Middle Ages-like setting, consider having Surgeons available for hire in major centres to patch up serious injuries.

Regarding pricing, there's some evidence that medieval physicians and surgeons charged on a charge-what-you-can plan - i.e. make the wealthy pay through the nose, and give care away for free to the needy. So excellent medical care need not only be available to the wealthy.

Surgery will feature in my upcoming draft of a Descriptive Damage System, a gritty replacement for a hit point system that focuses more on roleplayable injuries and treatments.

4 September 2013

Noisms is a Great Guy, Whatever Our Differences

Some of you may have followed the spirited and at-times-heated debate between Noisms (of Monsters and Manuals fame) and I regarding rigid vs. flexible round lengths recently.

I just wanted to put out there, though, that whatever our minor differences may be, I've enjoyed Noisms blog over the years and we actually have a lot of common ground. I'd go so far as to say we agree on more than we disagree.

In that spirit, I thought I'd share and comment on some stuff I've really like from his blog, as a sort of peace offering.


I couldn't agree more with all of this. Especially the bit about recreating basic monsters - I realized some time ago that the "stats" of a monster are almost irrelevant. What they look like, what they want, what they do, how they think - that's the meat and potatoes of a monster entry.

One of the main monsters from the megadungeon I use for one-offs and con games "stat block" would look like this (using the BECMI rules):

1 HD (4 HD queen)

That's it. That's the "stat block". They're a 1 HD monster, their leaders are 4 HD. But what makes them different than a goblin or a skeleton is their "skin".

These little guys live in swarms. They're made of shadow made flesh. They hate light and their feces are darkness. Their lair houses a queen and bajillions of inky black eggs. No light can penetrate their lair - too much of their light-sucking feces adorn the place.

Stats don't matter much.


Leaving aside the one-minute round as a can of worms that doesn't need to be opened again, everything else in this post is rock solid.

The comment that most deaths of heavily-armoured men were execution-style slayings of men who had fallen or been thrown to the ground is something that plays right into my current thinking about damage and grappling.

Currently, as I play things, unless you bleed out or suffer a mortal wound, you can keep fighting. Bleeding out takes much longer than most fights (unless you've suffered many wounds), and mortal wounds are exceptionally rare for an armoured man.

Thus, the main way to actually kill someone is to throw them to the ground, and murder them while they're more or less helpless. Just like at Agincourt.


For a quick and dirt mass combat system, this would work just fine.

I've dabbled off and on with something similar, but it would probably end up being a little more complicated than this, and that definitely gives this system the edge for a game where mass combats don't come up too often.


I love noun verbing noun encounter tables, and I think this is one of, if not the first, that I came across.

I similar tables as one of the main encounter tables in the wilderness regions of my ongoing campaign.

2 September 2013

Noisms and D&D Combat

Passages in italics are quotations from Noism's post D&D Combat is More Abstract Than You Think, which kinda got me riled up, so I apologize in advance for the acerbic tone.

...it's important to remember that the D&D combat rules evolved in a context of a 1 minute combat round: in OD&D and AD&D 1st edition, the combat round is a minute in length.

OK, but 1-minute rounds are just stupid. Just because it was in 0e or 1e doesn't mean it made any sense, or that it's good game design. There's any number of things in the old editions that are stupid and that have been houseruled away by generations of gamers.

One of the big parts of the OSR is our willingness to deconstruct the rules and modify them to suit us, not point to them as gospel.

...the famous idea of Gary Gygax's that a D&D fight should resemble the sword fight between Robin Hood and Sir Guy of Gisborne in the Errol Flynn iteration.

Firstly, the notion that Errol Flynn-style combat is worth emulating is far from a universal notion. It bears no similarity to reality, it has no real risk or danger, and is extremely ill-suited to a dice-driven system like D&D.

That kind of combat exists for one purpose only: advancing the plot of a film. It's more the kind of combat you see in a story game, where the relative advantages and disadvantages in the fight reflect and comment on the dialog of the characters, and no-one gets hurt or dies except for maximizing the dramatic effect.

It is literally the exact opposite of old-school D&D combat, which is random and messy - people die and get hurt with no consideration for what that might mean for the "story". The dice reign supreme, as opposed to the story.

D&D combat bears exactly zero similarity to that style of combat, and that combat bears exactly zero similarity to real life (except that there are humans, and they have swords). That Gygax said that says it was his inspiration says little about his knowledge of combat or game design.

So much for the idea of Errol Flynn combat.

You're rolling to see if, over the course of 1 minute, you manage to wear down your opponent's defences, either through actual physical damage or moral 'damage' or exhaustion or whatever.

Your hit points represent you capacity to stay in the fight, which slowly gets reduced over time (the higher your level, the longer this takes).

I covered this in my recent post on Hit Points.

Hit points exist as a proxy for your defensive abilities, not your physical or mental stamina, or physical ability to absorb damage. The notion in (0e, at least) was that a single blow would kill a normal person about half the time - that is to say, you essentially don't have any HP, you are simply killed by a single hit and have a base 50% chance of "save vs. death".

This can be seen as an evolution from the Chainmail 1 hit = dead every time, no chance to survive. The move to D&D gave you a 50% save vs. death built-in.

So HP are, in a real sense, nothing. Trying to map them onto stamina or morale or life force or blood pressure doesn't work, as they're a statistical increase to the average life expectancy, nothing more.

And your movement rate, which seems absurdly slow, represents the fact that you are scooting around and manoeuvring for position while avoiding blows, missile attacks, what have you.

There can literally be no defense of 0e's absurdly low movement rates. There is no way you can slice them that makes a lick of sense.

They are most likely an error in the move from Chainmail mass battle to D&D single combat.

The fact that only one or two shots are permitted in a 1 minute round indicates that the archer is waiting to pick his moment to fire.

There's probably a reasonable middle-ground between 1 arrow every 6 seconds to 1 arrow every 60.

If you're taking a minute for an arrow, though, that's definitely excessive. Your odds of hitting are going to be much higher sending more shafts downrange than waiting for that "perfect chance" that may never come.

I would question why there really needs to be even an arbitrary length to a combat round of 1 minute.

Yes, and - as I said before - I agree. If you interpret D&D combat as you clearly do, then do away with rounds altogether. Just make an opposed d20 roll to see who wins.

What is the purpose of a combat round? It gives a chance for everybody to decide what they want to do and then act.

Well, it's supposed to give a way to direct a continuous action in discrete steps. As such, you need to know how long the step is going to be so you can plan your action.

It doesn't matter: there is no credibility to stretch because we are not dealing with a system which has to make sense in the way that a less abstract one does. We are not rolling dice 'to hit', despite the name: we are rolling to see how far we attrit (that is a word: I looked it up) the opponent.

If character A can attrite (I've always seen it with the 'e', but apparently both are used) character B by an average of 3 'units' per 10 seconds, then yes - it does matter one hell of a lot how long a round is. If character B has 10 'units' to attrite away, then he can last 4 rounds of 10 second, or less than 1 round of 1 minute.

I don't see how this is so hard to grasp...

Whether you're using a highly abstract system or a highly detailed one makes no difference, unless you're abstract to the point of story-gaming.

Another good reason for preferring abstract combat is just that realism may be something of a fool's errand.

It may be, but as I wrote before here, realism is to be infinitely preferred to not-realism (all other things being equal).

The short version, for the lazy, is that if the system isn't realistic, then the players need to master the system to make sensible choices. The more realistic the system, the more the players can leverage their knowledge of the real world.

For example, in reality, dropping a 25lb 10ft down onton someone's head would probably at the very least stun them, and possibly knock them out cold, maybe even kill them.

In D&D, it would have one of two effects: none, or kill them stone dead. Since that's not what would happen in the real world, a player needs to know the system well enough to understand that even though in the real world X would happen, Y will happen in the game.

I really like the idea of Western Martial Arts but I'm not persuaded that they are entirely realistic; until people start actually fighting to the death using these techniques, and agreeing that if they are injured they will only use medical techniques that were in use in the 14th century, I think that "what happens in a real sword fight" is still a matter of considerable conjecture and will likely remain so.

Sorry, but that's just ignorant. I don't really know what else to say to that.

Your ignorant, uninformed opinion based on literally nothing compared to 30 years of dedicated scholarship and experiment? It's easy to see where the weight of evidence is, and it's not on your side.

I mean, what would you think if I said something like (I seem to recall that your field is philosophy of law, or something related - apologies if it's not), "I really like the idea of the philosophy of law, but I think that scholarship in that field has revealed nothing and that everyone who has ever studied it has completely wasted their time"?

That's literally what you just said about students of historical Western martial arts.

31 August 2013

Hit Points: What the REALLY Are

I previously wrote that hit points don't actually represent anything.

That's true, but it ignores the role they play in the mechanics of the system.

See, it's absurd to think that as a fighter progress in martial arts that they improve only at attacking and not at defending.

The obvious solution is a straight-up Red Queen scenario where every level the Fighter gets +1 Attack and +1 Defense. For whatever reason, D&D didn't do that, and has forever confused people since.

What D&D does is increase your Hit Points as a proxy for your increasing defensive abilities.

To understand this, we have to recall that in Chainmail, one hit equals one kill. Heroes take four hits, and Super Heroes take 8. Notice that it's no harder to hit Heroes - simply harder to kill them (or so it seems).

But is a Hero really any harder to kill than a normal man? Of course not. Sever his spine and he'll die like the rest. What he has is exceptional defensive ability that allows him to turn aside three blows that would have killed a lesser man.

Remember that in 0e, every hit die is a d6, and every damage die is a d6. This means that one die of damage (on average) removes one Hit Die. So your Level 1 mook is dead in one hit, and your Level 4 Hero is dead in 4. Just like Chainmail (but a little more random).

So it's clear that increasing HP is a proxy for increasing Defense (or AC, as D&D calls it), and nothing else. Every Hit Die is really a mulligan representing your increased ability to defend yourself.

How to reconcile this with healing rates and whatnot? You can't. That's because this is a stupid way to do things that causes no end of confusion, and is a prime example of an overloaded mechanic (i.e. HP is both life force and defensive ability).

29 August 2013

The Absurdity of the 1-Minute Round

I was reminded in a discussion on G+ with Noisms that some people still use the 1-minute combat round from 0e and 1e, in favour of the significantly more reasonable 6-10 second round of other editions.

Let me start off by saying I have seen a lot of swordfights, something that can't be said of Gygax and Arneson. Further, I've read a fair bit about medieval combat (I am far from an expert, but again - much more so than Gygax or Arneson).

Let me state it plainly: 1-minute combat rounds are absurd.

I don't think I've ever seen a swordfight that took more than 1 minute to resolve. Allow that people may be more timid with sharp swords in a fight to the death (but then again, they may not - timidity is death in a fight), and let's say 3 minutes at the outside for a 1-on-1 fight with sharp weapons.

Examples of Combat

OD&D says that two 2nd-level fighters with plate and longswords (+1 Attack, ~7hp, AC 3, 2d6-TH using the usual houserule for 2-handed weapons) do an average of .9 damage per round, so the combat will take (on average) about 7-8 rounds to complete.

Nearly 10 minutes of straight combat in full armour just to take out ONE GUY? Nope, sorry. Not buying it.

But switch the exact same fight to 6-10 second combat rounds, and everything makes sense. Now those 7-8 rounds is more like 1 minute of combat in armour - totally doable, and in line with what I would expect in real life.

Examples of Movement

There's also movement to consider. With a 1-minute combat round, your top movement speed should be something on the order of 500-750 feet (jogging or running) or 250 feet for basic walking.

What we actually see in 0e is a standard move for an armoured man of 12'/round, or a max of 24'/round (as it says you can move at double speed during pursuit/flight situations, so presumably this is running).

Well, I'd say Gary didn't own a sliderule, as that running pace is the stately speed of .44 km/h - about one-tenth of normal walking speed (edit: originally said half, for no apparent reason). That's for running, remember. Normal walking speed for an armoured man is one-twentieth normal walking speed. (edit: corrected similar math mistake).

I've written elsewhere (here and here) about this, so this is really only a brief recap. Suffice to say that if you're using 1-minute combat rounds, the movement speeds are just absolutely laughable.


1-minute combat rounds don't match up with real combat durations, and make the math for movement speeds absolutely ridiculous.

Both of these problems are solved by moving to a ~6-10-second combat round.

24 August 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Longsword

In many ways, the longsword is very similar to the arming sword. It's a little longer, and a little heavier, but it actually performs rather differently.


Your basic longsword is about 4 feet long and about 3 lbs in weight. Longswords are built either for unarmoured or armoured combat, or built to make a compromise between the two.

Longswords built for armoured combat have a stiff blade, aggressively pointed. This is to facilitate the powerful thrusts required to defeat armour. The last few inches will be very sharp. Designs differ, but there will often be some provision for grasping the blade with your off-hand (this is known as "half-swording") - either the whole blade will be sharp save for a hand-sized portion in the middle of the last third, or only the tip will be sharp. Some longswords designed for armoured combat will have the quillons sharpened to points, to allow devastating quillon punches and mortschlags (more on that later).

An armoured man holding his sword in "half-sword".

Longswords built for unarmoured combat will have a more flexible blade, sharp all the way down. It may not be quite as aggressively pointed.

I'd like to clarify that the "unsharpened" portions are not totally dull, they're just not nearly as sharp as the rest of the sword.


The longsword, despite being a weapon of status, was not typically the primary battlefield weapon of armoured men, who typically preferred spears or poleaxes. The longsword was primarily a sidearm or a self-defence weapon.

Much like the arming sword, the cuts are delivered by pushing the balance point forward not with big swinging arm movements - . The big difference with a two-handed sword is that you do a "lever" action with your two hands, moving your right hand forward and your left hand back to snap the tip forward faster and more powerfully.


While half-swording (illustrated above) is possible with an arming sword, the extra 8" of blade (the other 4" of increased length over an arming sword is in the handle) really does make half-swording a longsword more viable.

Half-swording basically turns your sword into a small spear, and many of the spear plays are possible with the half-sword. It provides a powerful defence that can easily transition into a powerful thrust, and because it gets you in close, it puts you in a great position to enter and get into grappling.

Both Fiore and Vadi say, "the sword is an axe". While this statement is rather cryptic alone, by looking to the German tradition, we see a technique called the "mortschlag", or "murder-blow".

From historicalfencing.com - a mortschlag delivered to the vulnerable back of the shoulder.

The mortschlag involves grasping the blade with both hands, and swinging the sword exactly like an axe or mace. Ringeck advises that mortschlags be delivered to the foot, the hand or arm, or to the back of the hip or shoulder. Tallhoffer (I think - I know some of my readers are better versed in the German tradition than I am, and will surely correct me) describes used the crossguard to hook and disarm from  mortschlag.

The other side of the comment "the sword is an axe" is, in my opinion, that the sword and the axe share, amongst the knightly weapons, that is equally capable of thrusts and blows.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the sword can be used as an extra lever in holds, locks, or disarms. The point of the half-sword can be slipped between the arm and the sword and twisted for a disarm. If you can get behind your opponent, the sword can be held against their throat with a hand on the blade and one on the handle for a choke-out, severe neck wound, or a throw. When applying certain keys, the sword can be used to help lock up the arm and provide additional leverage for a break or throw.


In defence the longsword is used much like arming sword except at the half-sword, so that's what I'll discuss here.

Much like the spear, the half-sword can be used to knock a blow or thrust aside and immediately counter with a thrust of your own, or blow right through into a pommel/quillon strike.

From this block, you can turn your sword to the right, simultaneously displacing your opponents sword and directing your point at his face or neck, or come to a grapple as we see below.

Once you've blocked or parried at the half-sword, you're going to be very close to your opponent, and many defences in armour revolve around grappling. A man in armour is extremely well-protected, and throwing him to the ground is a great way to neutralize that advantage. Working at the half-sword facilitates this.

Coming to an arm lock - the opponent can be forced to the ground from here. If they strongly resist the throw, their arm will break.

From here, you can throw your opponent to the ground by pushing back on his head with the tip of your sword. Obviously, if he doesn't have good neck protection, he'll be severely injured even before he hits the ground.

A possible follow-on from the first half-sword defense I showed - push forward and slip the sword behind the neck, then use that powerful grip to hurl the opponent face-first into the ground.

21 August 2013

Spells and Steel: Goal Updates

Comments by Jhandar reminded me to revisit my design document and look at how my thoughts have changed. This is largely for my reference, and to clarify my thoughts, but Jhandar has indicated that he (and presumably others of my readers) are interested in the process by which my design is growing and developing.

 My original design document for Spells and Steel can be found here:

Text in italics below is quoted from the original design document.

Goals of the Combat System:

  • Simple and Fast
  • Verisimilitude:
    • Weapon Functions
    • Realities of Combat and Damage
  • Stats and Attributes with Clear Meanings
  • Battlemat Optional
  • Bonus: Easy to Drop Into B/X D&D as a Replacement System
 Keeping combat simple and fast is a constant struggle. It's always so tempting to introduce just one more die roll, or one more die type. This is probably the most important design goal, though, so it bears keeping it first in the list.

My existing combat system has - for me at least - the air of verisimilitude. It currently models weapon functions rather well (in my opinion), and the reality of damage is currently undergoing a rather serious overhaul in light of my recent reading in SPADA II.

Stats and attributes with clear meanings have been achieved. By this I mean - combat stat represents one part of the fight. Attack represents your ability to land a blow. Defense is your ability to avoid being hit. Armour is your ability to be hit but not hurt. Etc, etc.

Contrast this with D&D, where Armour Class is a blend of hard-to-hit and hard-to-hurt, and hit points are a blend of luck, stamina, skill, defensive ability... It makes it hard to make quick judgements based on attributes that are so muddled.
 Combat does not require a battlemat, so that has been achieved. I don't think I've ever had less fun than running 3e battles on a battlemat. I avoid them like the plague. Diagrams? Even minis? Sure, sometimes. But the rigidity and bizarreness that comes with the 5' grid is anathema to me.

Since combat relies on Attack (analogous to improving to-hit tables), Defense (analogous to armour class), and Armour (simply reducing damage rolls), and since all of those depend on class, level, and equipment (all concepts in B/X) it can be pretty easily dropped in as a replacement system.
Goals of the Leveling System:
  • Balanced Feats
  • Meaningful Choices
  • Customizable Characters
  • Minimize Min-Maxing, Maximize Flavour
  • Believable Power Curve
I've chosen to abandon most of these goals. I'm no longer interested in characters that can be customized through mechanics - down that path lies the bugaboos of "balance" and "spotlight" and all that tired crap.

Most of this has to do with my desire for a system that can get character creation done fast and get the game going very quickly. It's far easier to say, "You can pick between Fighter, Burglar, and Magician. Fighters are trained soldiers or men-at-arms. Burglars are sort of like a cross between Oliver Twist and a Ninja. Magicians use real magic to create illusions and warp reality."

I don't have to list feats. Character creation is, "Roll stats. Pick class. Buy equipment." It takes all of about 5 minutes, and most of that is buying equipment.

I'm also moving away from feats and customization because of my desire to eliminate min-maxing, power gaming, and agonizing over efficient feat selections.

Lastly, I've realized that feats do the exact opposite of what they're supposed to do, and rest on a dangerous supposition. The short version is that feats limit what you can do by implicity proscribing that isn't in a feat or class power you can have - essentially, a feat system rests on a foundation of impotence. You can't do anything unless you have a feat for it. I want a permissive system where the default assumption is that you can do something unless there's some specific reason why you can't.

Goals of the Magic system:
  • Simple or Non-existant Resource Management (no memorization, no mana)
  • Make it Weird (no fireball or magic missile - more illusions, compulsions, trickery)
  • Balanced with Combat-focused Characters
  • Bonus: Easy to Drop Into B/X D&D as a Replacement System
I'm tolerably happy with the magic system I have as it stands. There's still some tweaking to do, mostly with the casting check difficulties for spells. I can't pretend this is anything novel, but it's working for me.

I also quite like the spell list I've been developing. One of my main inspirations for making my own game system was Paolo Greco's Adventure Fantasy Game and its long list of interesting and novel spells. I've also tried to create spells that feel like they have some history, and some life before and outside the game.

The system I have can be fairly easily dropped into a B/X game - casters simply get as many casting dice as they have levels.

Goals Overall:
  • Believability / Verisimilitude
  • Harsh, Gritty Flavour
  • Easy to Learn and Play
  • Fun!
  • Able to Take Players from Adventurers to Lords
  • Historically Reasonable Pricing and Economy
Believability and verisimilitude is an ongoing quest as I learn more and turn up more info on my research. My recent reading (that prompted me to write Mortal Wounds and the Double-Kill) in SPADA II about the incredible resilience of the human body has lead me to reconsider many of my assumptions surrounding believability, verisimilitude, and the harsh, gritty flavour I want.

As the system is still in flux, it's hard to say if it's easy to learn, but ongoing playtests show things running pretty smoothly, and people are having fun.

In order to truly claim to be able to take players from mooks to moguls, a mass battle system and a domain holding system are required. Work has begun on those, but it is still in a very preliminary stage. I'm optimistic that I'll be able to create the elusive mass battle system that's as simple and fun as B/X combat.

Research into historical pricing is ongoing. I'm taking a rather different tack than Alexis did on that. Whereas he has created a truly remarkable system that models trade in a pretty complex and interesting way, I'm attempting to find historical references for commodities c. 1400, adjust prices I can find that are for near that era, and estimate prices based on costs of their materials and the price of labour at the time.

Make no mistake - I am truly in awe of the work Alexis has done on his trade system. If you haven't read his posts on Tao of D&D about his trade system, do so now (link for the lazy to the tag "trade" on his blog: http://tao-dnd.blogspot.ca/search/label/Trade). It's just that for my purpose, and for the purposes of anyone picking up a roleplaying book, I think getting a good foundation in the form of a basic price list will be more useful "out of the box", so to speak.

I like knowing that there's some historical grounding to my prices, and then, from that solid foundation, I can adjust prices accordingly for regions with dearths or surpluses of certain commodities.

20 August 2013

Latest Burgs & Bailiffs now out, including my article "The Cost of Castles"

The latest issue of Burgs & Bailiffs just came out - a lot of great stuff in there, including an article by yours truly!

Based on my historical research, I generalized the cost of building a castle into a generic format usable in any RPG system.

You can find the latest Burgs & Bailiffs HERE.

I also wrote a handy-dandy spreadsheet calculator to figure the costs out for you - you can find that HERE.

Stay tuned for some follow-up posts on castles in the coming weeks, including some case studies.

19 August 2013

The Long Road to Better DMing

Noisms recently wrote a post, the gist of which was to extol the virtues of practical experience as a GM over mere technical knowledge. It can be found here.

I would tend to agree with that, but I think an even more important consideration is being overlooked.

Noisms asks the question, "who is the better DM - the person who has only been trained in the rules or the person who knows the rules but has 10 years' experience at the table?" He and I agree that it will likely be the person with more experience.

But an even more important question is this, "who is the better DM - the person whose total knowledge of the world and humanity comes from daytime television and trashy novels, or the person with a rich social life who is well-read in both great literature and non-fiction?" I think the answer is obvious.

But so often gamers seem to think that the game begins with prep and ends when the last hit point is expended (Alexis at Tao of D&D is a notable exception - he has often written on the importance of being a well-rounded, well-educated human to gaming, and that is one of the reasons why I have so much respect for him). So often the importance of being a good human being is ignored.

Without an understanding of politics, economics, geography, physics, meteorology, sociology, military science, etc. etc., it is very difficult to run a convincing game world. Without extensive experience of varied social interaction and without exposure to the depths of humanity present in literature, it is very difficult to run convincing NPCs (or PCs, for that matter).

One of my favourite quotes - it was said regarding musicianship, but can be applied equally well to playing D&D - is "Remember that sitting under a tree is also good for your playing." It was a reminder that beyond the technical and the practical is the human, and D&D is nothing if not a game that is deeply human.

So, get out there - read Dostoyevsky. Watch Kubrick. Experience Rodin, Mondrian, Matisse. Fall in love, argue passionately, make and lose friends.

If you want to play great games, live great lives.

16 August 2013

On Realism - Realistic vs. Detailed

A recent comment by reader LS brought this to the forefront of my mind. The relevant bit is:

"I'm very strongly of the opinion that designing towards realism is generally a bad idea."

I disagree, but I think that might be because we disagree about what we mean by realism. In my experience, most attempts at "realism" are really attempts at detail. And detail is not really necessary for realism - in fact, it tends to create less realistic results, and tends to bog the game down.

LS - please don't think I'm taking you to task with this! I think this is a common thought in RPG design, and I think I'll show here that we're actually not far from the same page. If not, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

I think that elegance and simplicity is more or less a given in game design (although the popularity of 3e through 5e kinda disprove that... sigh...). Given an elegant, simple, fast-playing system, why wouldn't you want it to be realistic?

3e is a perfect example of a detailed, unrealistic system. With its millions of rules for everything from basket weaving to whether you can take a single step in a combat situation (yes, if you haven't played 3e, combat is managed down to the individual step - the mind boggles), 3e is so far from being realistic it is, in my opinion, unplayable. Detailed? Absolutely, incredibly detailed. Realistic? Not so much.
In fact, despite being way more complicated than the 0e or BECMI combat system, and significantly slower, the 3e system is actually LESS realistic.

For example, in BECMI or 0e, there's no formal system for combat maneuvers.

Because of that, the DM is free to adjudicate combat maneuvers realistically, using their life experience and understanding of the intricacies of the current situation. 3e says, "Well, you don't have the Shield Bash feat, so - despite being a skilled warrior, who, realistically, would be totally capable of punching someone while holding a shield - you can't do that."

Neither realistic, nor fun, but the feat system does add a lot of meaningless details.

I like reductio ad absurdum, so let's analyze the notion of realism in games through that tool.

Let's imagine a game system that is totally unrealistic. Hitting people with swords makes flowers grow. Shouting makes your arms longer. Standing still makes the moon get closer to the Earth. Jumping increases monetary inflation in China, and causes a collapse in housing prices in Chartres.

In short, it's totally impossible, as a player, to predict what effect your actions will have on the world. You can't make any informed choices, and therefore the game is no fun. You're just flailing about.

Now let's look at the contrary scenario - the DM is some kind of hyper-computer that has an atom-perfect simulation of the game world. Everything action has perfectly realistic results (realistic as defined by the game world - there can still be magic and dragons and stuff). All outcomes are computed instantly and relayed back to the player.

In this scenario, all of the character's life experience will be useful. They can make informed choices without worrying about the "rules", because their actions will have the same effect they would have in the real world. They simply need to role-play - the ruleset, despite being totally realistic, just gets out of the way and lets them play.

And this is the crux of why I think realism in RPGs is worth pursuing. A perfectly realistic RPG requires no system mastery, as everything simply functions in-game as it would in the real world. The players need know nothing of the game mechanics in order to make informed choices about character actions.

Now, obviously, we're not hyper-computers with worlds inside us, but that doesn't mean we can't strive for the ideal of a fast-playing game system with realistic results.

Also, keep in mind that what's "realistic" changes with the assumptions of the world. If your world has fireballs, that's fine - that's not "unrealistic". But if everything else is the same, and you can't use a fireball to start a forest fire in a tinder dry stand of trees, that's unrealistic.

We don't need reams of skills, rules for movement in combat, attacks of opportunity, etc. etc. etc. for a system to be realistic. Those are mechanics, those are details.

What we need to focus on is results. Calibrating the system for speed and accuracy.

What we need is a system where a peasant with a sword will be slaughtered by a trained swordsman. Where falling 40 feet puts you in serious danger. Where getting stabbed in the kidney is a serious problem, whether you're level 1 or 20. Where the player can drive a team of horses because they grew up on a farm, not because they have "Animal Handling +4". Where the players can leverage their decades of life experience.

Realism is plausibility, it's verisimilitude, it's internal consistency.

Realism is good.

15 August 2013

The Irrelevance of Initiative

Since combat is an ongoing cycle with everyone acting, the idea that people are acting in order in combat rounds is kind of arbitrary. After a full cycle, the beginning and end of the cycle cannot be determined, and therefore being "higher" or "lower" in initiative order is meaningless.

An example. Consider this initiative order:

Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1

Now, look at how the initiative for a 5-round combat looks:

Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1
Orc #1
Orc #2
Ogre #1

For the bulk of the combat, there's literally no way to know if Bill is going first, or Ogre #1, or Wilma, or Phil. Each person just goes after the previous one. If you allow actions to change your initiative order (i.e. "held" actions), then the whole concept becomes even more meaningless.

On top of that, going first is not necessarily an advantage, due to the artifacts of a turn-based system.

Consider Wilma and Bill, both Level 1 Fighters with 3HP and d6 damage weapons. Their movement is 30' (for the purposes of the example).

If they start 35' apart, the person who goes "first" is actually at a serious disadvantage - if they move up at all, the other will be able to then move up on their turn and strike them. If the blow connects, the odds are even that it will kill them, and the fight will be over.

This is why I prefer to do things this way:

I describe the beginning of the action of each opponent (i.e. Orc #1 is moving towards Bill, Orc #2 is moving towards Jane, and the Ogre is preparing to throw a rock).

Then the players say what they intend to do:

Bill: I'm going to draw my sword and fight Orc #1.
Wilma: I'm going to help Bill.
Steve: I'll cast Figface on the Ogre.
Jane: I'm going to flip the table to block Orc #2's advance, and look for my Horn of Fury in my pack.
Phil: I'll defend Jane while she looks for the Horn.

Then we just go around in whatever order is convenient (typically clockwise) and adjudicate the results, with the idea in mind that this is all happening simultaneously.

I don't find that it's any harder to do things that way than it is with an initiative system, it's a lot more satisfying, as the players get to make informed choices based on a hint of what the enemies are going to do, and it avoids all the weird artifacts of a turn-based system.

This system is similar to some strategy games on the market, such as TacOps 4 - there are "order phases" where the game is paused and players issue orders, and then "battle phases" where the game runs in real-time for, say, 1 minute of game time (during which time orders can't be changed or given).

14 August 2013


The very talented Paolo Greco (of Adventure Fantasy Game fame - if you haven't checked it out, you owe it to yourself to get a copy - it's worth it for the reams of original spells alone, but it also features a wonderfully simple and effective combat-slash-skill system) is putting together a new issue of Burgs and Bailiffs, and I'm going to have an article in it!

It's going to be about calculating the costs of building your dream castle based on historical records. You'll be able to find out how much stone, wood, nails, sand, etc. it's going to take, how long it's going to take to build it, and how many guys you're going to need toiling a way (spoiler alert - it's a LOT).

Probably one of my favourite parts of D&D from when I was a kid was fantasizing about building castles - I must have spent hours poring over the castle cost charts in the old Basic/Expert/Companion books. I've been meaning for some time to do some research into what kind of resources it would really take to make the castles I've dreamed of, and I have to thank Paolo for getting my butt in gear and checking over my facts and figures.

So, look for the next installment of Burgs and Bailiffs soon, and if you haven't, check out the first Burgs and Bailiffs, and Adventure Fantasy Game:




31 July 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Arming Sword


The "Arming Sword" is what I think most people think of (incorrectly) as a "longsword" or a "broadsword". The arming sword is the classic "knightly" sword of the High Middle Ages - a one-handed, cruciform, double-edged cut-and-thrust weapon with wide quillons and a heavy pommel.

Typically would be about 3' long, and about 2-2.5 lbs. Balance point is a few inches along the blade from the guard.

A typical arming sword with scabbard, displaying the main features of a typical arming sword - tapered double-edged blade, straight quillons, heavy metal pommel. This sword is a replica of a typical Crusades-Era sword from Valiant Armoury, but arming swords around 1400 were substantially the same. Link to the Valiant Armoury page: http://www.valiant-armoury.com/catalog/txt_CF408.html

Some of these have been dispelled before, but it bears repeating. One of the main myths around swords is that they were heavy - this is not so. An arming sword would weigh a little over 2lbs - no more than 2.5lbs.

They were not the dull, heavy, metal clubs some people seem to think they were - the arming sword is nimble and sharp.  Now, the sword wouldn't be sharp like a razor blade is sharp - more like a chisel, but still sharp enough to easily cut an arm or leg off, decapitate someone - even cut them right in half. I'll have some caveats to this in my longsword article.

This is more of a general combat misconception, but sword combat doesn't take place at punching distance - two people aren't going to stand 4 feet apart bashing away at each other. Much of the fight will be at more like 10 feet, with a lot of fluid forward and back movement as the fight progresses.

A misconception I saw in a comment on another one of my posts was that you could wait for a sword swing to "go by", then rush in. This is not possible, as sword swings do not "go by". The finishing position of a sword strike that doesn't connect is with the point out in front of you, directed at your opponents neck or head.

Even if the sword did "go by", the nimbleness of a sword means that your rush would simply end with you having an arm cut off or being impaled.


The European cruciform sword is one of the most versatile weapons out there. It has cutting edges on both sides, and is straight and pointed for powerful thrusts. The quillons and pommel can be used to punch and strike - some swords even have sharpened quillons for more powerful quillon punches. In a pinch, it can even be used two-handed with one hand on the pommel, although it won't have the power of a true two-handed weapon, due to the limited leverage the off-hand will have.

The arming sword can be used with a shield or buckler (as detailed in MS I.33, the earliest known European martial arts manual) or alone (perhaps more common in a self-defense situation, described in Fiore's works).

I.33 does a good job of illustrating the way you fight with sword and buckler - keeping the two together, moving them as one weapon, using the buckler to cover your sword arm as you attack. You still are mainly using your sword to defend yourself - the buckler is there to help. I'll write more about shield combat when I get to shields. Suffice to say at this point that 1 point to Defense is undervaluing shields significantly.

Using the sword by itself opens the possibility of grappling with your off-hand - after you or your opponent make a successful cover, you may have an opportunity to grab the pommel of their sword, lock up their arm in a key or a bind, or even get really close and throw them to the ground.

Successful attacks with the sword are seeking to place a thrust in the head or neck, or less optimally in the chest (as the ribs are much harder to get through). With cuts, you can strike a near-vertical stroke down, looking to hit the head, or the base of the neck. Horizontal strokes can be aimed at the head, neck, or arms (preferably the sword arm, as chopping that off will instantly win the fight).

Rising strikes are typically aimed at the hand or arm, as their reach and power is less (and it doesn't take much force to lop off a finger), but they can easily be turned into a thrust at the end.


Defences with the sword are ideally seeking to displace the opponent's blade and make a strike or thrust at the same time. In the broadest sense, same counters same. A downward blow from the right shoulder will deflect a downward blow from the right shoulder. A thrust to the face counters a thrust to the face. If this was all there is to it, swordfighting would be a piece of cake - obviously, there are many other options.

Fiore describes a "universal defence" using the sword in one hand - stand with your right side to the enemy, sword down and back pointing past your left foot. Against any sword attack, you can step offline and cut into the attack, deflecting it and positioning yourself in a great place for a counterstroke. Interestingly enough, the starting position for this is basically leaning away from your opponent with your sword in its scabbard.

If a defence ends up with the swords bound (i.e. stopped edge-to-edge), you have a number of options - wind your sword around theirs and strike, grab their hand or arm with your off-hand to control their sword and strike, disarm them, slam them in the face with your pommel or quillon, a kick in the knee or groin...

28 July 2013

Mortal Wounds and the Double-kill

I read an absolutely fascinating paper recently in SPADA 2, by Richard Swinney and Scott Crawford. It addresses the realities of how long people can live and continue fighting after suffering catastrophic injuries.

The conclusion of the authors is that the human body is significantly tougher than is commonly thought. To whit, they address a few common scenarios, and give a typical case history of a victim.

These include arm amputation, serious head injury with brain involvement, abdominal and thoracic wounds with complete penetration, severed arteries, and pain tolerance for massive lacerations.

In every case, the authors find that the victim of these serious injuries would generally not be immediately incapacitated, and would likely be able to make - at the very least - a few desperate attacks on their wounder, likely ending the fight in a double kill.

They cite that it was common, during the dueling craze in France around 1600, that both duelists would be badly wounded or killed in the fight, or that one would be killed and the other badly wounded.

Some of the more noteworthy case studies they present I will gloss here briefly. The authors stress that these cases are TYPICAL, and not exceptions to the rule. In their research and practice (one of the authors is a military/emergency physician), people are routinely able to continue functioning at or near full capacity for minutes or hours after receiving what would seem like an incapacitating wound.

A man whose arm was severed in a log splitter shut off the machine and fetched his wife. They fashioned a tourniquet for his arm, and drove to the hospital (they did NOT see the need to call an ambulance). Along the way, they stopped to pick up coffee.

A man whose skull was pierced by a hammer, driving bone into the brain, was in complete possession of his senses, and fully capable of fighting - the only effect was he couldn't speak. He could read and write fluently, and had full motor control, and was thinking clearly.

A man whose skull was split open by a halberd stroke (right into the centre of his brain) not only wasn't killed outright, but walked two hundred yards to the physician who dressed his wounds. He died only after some days, but was able to move about, speak, and was in possession of his senses up until his death.

There were two cases of people being pierced completely through the belly with a sword - in one case, the victim removed the sword himself (and was fine after extensive medical treatment - this was in the 1500s) and the other, the victim did not seek medical attention for some hours after the wound, as it did not seem serious to him (this was contemporary).


It's really, really hard to kill someone stone dead in a single cut. The effect of this is that double-kills are actually a very common scenario in unarmoured combat.

I'll be following up on this post with what this might mean for gaming in the next couple of posts.

30 June 2013

Real-World Weapons: The Axe and Mace


I must admit, I am significantly less familiar with the short unbalanced weapons than I am with, say, the sword and spear. Additionally, there are no period texts detailing the use of the mace or the short axe. Dagger, sword, spear, poleaxe, yes - axe and mace, no. So much of what we can say about these weapons is speculative.

What we can do is look at surviving specimens and accurate reproductions to get a sense of what the weapons were like, physically.


A standard European mace. This is likely a little out-of-period for me, likely c. 1450-1500, but is substantially similar to earlier models. Image courtesy of Nazanian and Wikimedia Commons.
Replica battleaxe, based on an archeological find in Norway. Reasonably typical of battleaxes in general. Photo from myArmoury.com, axe by Arms & Armour.

First off, these weapons are shorter than I had previously thought - one handed maces don't seem to vary much from the 24" mark. They're also lighter than I had thought - rarely more than 3 lbs, and often only 2 lbs - sometimes less. The same goes for axes, although they tend to be a little smaller and lighter still!

The balance point ranges from the middle of the weapon to a little past the middle (i.e. closer to the head). It looks like the balance point would be further, but there you are.

This all contributes to making maces and axes significantly handier in combat than you might expect.

Mace - Description

The difference between a mace and a club is subtle. To my mind, the defining features of the mace are two-fold: all-metal construction, and the use of flanges or knobs on the head.

Length: 20-30"
Weight: 2lb
Balance point: 2/3 up from butt end.

Mace Variation - Morning Star

The morning star is simply a mace with spikes instead of knobs or flanges, especially if there is one larger spike at the very top for thrusting.

Axe Description

Military axes had very small, thin, light heads compared to woodcutting axes or hatchets. The head would also often have a cut-out between the blade and haft, allowing for the axe to be used for hooking, and reducing weight while maximizing cutting area.

Weight: 1-2lb

Axe Variation - Military Pick / Warhammer

A military pick or warhammer are basically just piercing or bludgeoning versions of the axe. Some axes even incorporate a pick on their back end, and most warhammers have a hammer side and a pick side. Otherwise, they are very similar to an axe. 


It seems to be a common misconception that maces and axes were big, heavy things that dealt damage through their weight and brute force. The reality is that they were usually smaller and lighter than swords, and relied as much on the speed of the swing as on their unbalanced weight distribution.


Archaeological evidence shows that people killed by axe blows were typically struck from above, leading me to believe that fendente (i.e. overhead strikes) were more typically used with these weapons than mezzane (strikes parallel with the ground). Logically, this makes sense - gravity would be pulling the heavy head of the weapon down, lending more force to the blow for free.

The other common injury with axes seen is leg injuries. This is likely because axes were used with shields - two fighters with shields apparently find opportunities to hook the axe under the opponent's shield. Later treatises of the sword don't describe leg strikes - they focus on attacks to the head, neck, and weapon arm.


A dagger play that might be usable with an axe. From the Pissani-Dossi MS of Fiore Dei Liberi's manual.

Two more dagger plays that might work with an axe or mace. From the Paris Manuscript by Fiore Dei Liberi.

If using an axe or mace with your other hand empty, you could possibly do some dagger/baton defences with the shaft. The problem immediately apparent in adapting these plays is that axes - while they can thrust - are not suited for the devastating thrusts to the vitals that daggers are capable of.

It may be possible to do some of the sword defences, but the short shaft and lack of guard would limit your options there. While handier than you'd think, an axe or mace is not going to be a great option for your only defensive weapon.

Except in urgent situations, typically an axe or mace would be used with a shield. This makes up for the lack of agility compared with a sword - at least compared to a sword without a shield.