Monday, March 15, 2010

Armed Combat

I have had some experience messing about with blunted weapons as a mediaeval re-enactor. I do not claim, by any means, to be an expert on the topic. There are a growing number of people dedicated to recreating European martial arts from original manuscripts and making interesting discoveries. I am not one of these people but I do have some experience and understanding of the dynamics of armed combat (or the simulation of such). Drawing from this experience I am able to make some assertions with confidence and better interpret the insights of others with far more experience than me regarding mediaeval armed combat.

When I was younger I thought D&D's armed combat was rubbish and had no resemblance to what real armed combat was about. I believed a lot of nonsense about two-headed battleaxes and extremely heavy swords, horned helmets and knights who couldn't get up when they fell over because of the weight of their armour.

In actual fact D&D, whether by accident or design, gets a lot of stuff right.

Armour class is a good example. I used to favour systems in which armour acts to reduce damage. In actual fact, armour tends to be tremendously effective at resisting blows. Plate armour is effectively sword-proof, it is virtually impossible to chop through it. Mail is also astonishingly difficult to chop through and, when combined as it usually is with a padded garment, resists arrows exceptionally well. The upshotof all this is that mediaeval warriors avoided striking at the armoured bits of their foes, it tended to be a fairly ineffective tactic, instead, blows were aimed at unarmoured parts of their foe and at chinks in the armour. Armour was effectively bypassed, rather than penetrated. I'm generalising here to an extent because some weapons and some blows could penetrate armour but as a general rule, armour makes you more difficult to hit rather than reducing the damage you sustain.

Hit Points is another conceit that I thought were terribly inaccurate. When I discovered games with body levels and wound penalties and critical hits I thought they were far more realistic and more fun. In fact, it is surprising how well hit points simulate reality. People tend to be okay, or at least functioning, even with terrible wounds, or they collapse and cannot do anything. In times of high adrenalin like deadly combat, human beings tend to ignore wounds. Individuals do not fight on from their knees, they fight on pure adrenalin or go down. Hit points make sense.

The one thing about the BECMI rules set that I do not like and will not use is the idea that two handed weapons are slow and therefore strike at the end of the round. A hangover from AD&D's weapon speed, it is precisely the opposite of what should happen. Real weapons were never slow. Reach is a very important factor in armed combat, weapons were not put on the end of long sticks for nothing. In a re-enactment simulated comabt situation (admittedly with a lot of safety regulations impairing the realism of the action but sufficiently realistic to investigate certain dynamics) attacking an individual or group of individuals armed with spears or other polearms (when you don't have one yourself and are armed with a sword and shield) requires you to parry, dodge, or otherwise defend against the pole weapons in order to close on your enemy. They get to attack first, every time.

My house rule answer to this is: In the first round of combat two handed weapons win initiative against one-handed weapons i.e. they strike in a different phase. Spears, used one-handed, count as two-handed weapons for the purpose of this rule. This is essentially just an inversion of the old BECMI rule.

This rule should make spears a more palatable option. They were, after all, the most common weapon on the mediaeval battlefield. And they were common for a reason.

Subsequent rounds of combat could mix things up a little more, a wise ruling in this case might be that, once a two-handed weapon wielder misses or is struck they lose their reach advantage.

In especially close combat, very short weapons gain the advantage. I would rule that once a short sword/dagger wielder strikes an opponent they are able to get in close and automatically win intiative in the next round.

This seems like it is getting too complicated, I am inclined to ignore the extras and just allow two-handed weapons a first-round-only automatic initiative win.

Similar rules should apply to larger-than-man-size monsters. I would rule that large monsters go in the same initiative phase as two-handed weapons.

I like the idea that this will encourage people to use not only spears, but all manner of polearms, the beautiful, deadly flowers of the mediaeval and renaissance battlefield. I could see how this might discourage shield use, I am thus inclined to increase shield's protective bonus to +2 instead of +1. I think this would be appropriate as shields are really a tremendous boon on the field and act to deflect more than 5-10% of potential wounds.


  1. The issue of long vs. short weapons seems to me an excellent way of using 3.5ed "attacks of opportunity" to inject realism into weapons choice. e.g. the pole-arm wielder gets an attack of opportunity every round until the person with the shorter weapon chooses to forego an attack, make some kind of combat manoeuvre, and close range; at which point the shorter weapon gets the attack of opportunity.

    It always struck me as silly that anyone would choose a polearm in d&d, since you lose the shield benefit but don't gain the 2-handed sword damage. Your system gives at least some justification for diversifying weapon choice.

  2. I would disagree with armour making you harder to hit, and the reason for that is the implement of armour piercing weapons. The most notable being firearms, but in a fantasy world there are a lot of things that do not have historical parallels.

    For example, I run plate armour as having a damage reduction of 10 versus slashing weapons. A sword will not harm someone barring very high strength (impact damage) or a critical hit (hitting a gap in the armour).

    In a world of human VS human combat (ie historical) it would be far simpler to model this as "armour makes you harder to hit", the problem being most campaigns feature a large amount of combat where such is not the only (or even only common) example of combat.

    When a dragon slashes at platemail it is not a case of deflecting the blow. The 80 tonne ball of supernatural muscle that slams into the armouring does not involve deflecting the blow, it goes right through. The armour is actually counter productive, if the character had worn no armour at all they would be safer as they could dodge that little bit easier (well made armour isn't THAT big of a burden, up until it takes a supernatural blow that bends a hinge.)

    The other option is attacks that count touching armour being equal to penetrating. A cattleprod (or magical equivalent with lightning zapping through a staff) is also fairly common.

    In a historical game the distinction of avoiding being hit versus ignoring the effect of the impact aren't worth the extra hassle. But in a fantasy game they come up frequently.