Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Broadsword is Your Friend

I like swords. All manner of Freudian symbolism aside, picking up a truly lethal piece of fighting steel and holding it in your hand, it fires the imagination. I've got a small collection of half a dozen good quality sword reproductions, each based on actual patterns or museum pieces (so no Kit Rae-designed Bloodblade IV or whatever). These weapons, and a number of others I have handled over the years, range in culture and time period from Medieval China to Renaissance Europe, but they all have one thing in common - once you take one in hand, your mind is no longer where you are at that moment - you're defending a castle rampart, or charging a Viking shield wall, or dueling it out on the rocking deck of a pirate ship.

There are a lot of myths and mis-conceptions about swords floating around in games. Now, by and large, this doesn't have all that much of an effect on the game, and for some games and genres, it chould be entirely appropriate to imagine your hero's broadsword as a monstrous five-foot long slab of sharpened steel weighing twenty pounds. If that's the sort of fantastical aesthetic you're going for in your game and no one has a problem with it, have at it.

But it's when this absurdity begins to populate real-life understandings of Medieval and Renaissance weaponry that I start to get annoyed. When you see a broadsword noted in an equipment list as weighing eight pounds and someone tries to defend that by saying real swords weighed that much, it makes me want to scream. If you want a broadsword in your RPG to weigh that much, fine. If you want it to weigh that much because you think it's the truth, that's when you need an education.

And here's where to start learning.

ARMA is not without its critics, and on some issues I don't agree with them 100%, but my arguments are with some of their doctrines and attitudes, not with their research. ARMA Director John Clements has led the charge when it comes to rediscovering the martial heritage of European swords and sword technique, and both his passion and dedication to learning all he can about this great legacy are without peer. Actually joining and participating in ARMA research is not for the faint of heart, but their website is a treasure trove of resources that gamers can dig into if some real fact-finding is in order.

Case in point: "What Did Historical Swords Weigh?" is by far the best jumping-off point, since the sword weight myth definitely the most prevalent and breaking it is the most important step down the road to understanding actual historical sword technique. This notion that even accurate reproduction blades are somehow "wrong" for various reasons (my favorite being "the steel in the blades was forged differently back then", as if a different amount of carbon in the blade is going to double the weight of a sword...) is laughable when you have actual period weapons available to measure and weigh. Here's another article on the weight of the biggest historical fighting blades, showing that even these monsters aren't as huge and ungainly as might be imagined.

As a momentary aside, I am fortunate enough to live a close driving distance to The Higgins Armory Museum, containing one of the biggest collections of arms and armor in the country. Walking through the halls of armor and weapons, looking at the various authentic Medieval and Renaissance swords, axes, and polearms, you can clearly see how relatively light and slim a lot of these weapons are. If you live anywhere in or around the Northeast and happen to be passing through Massachussets, make time to swing by and check the place out.

Misconceptions of Swords & Swordplay is another nice little article which tries to lay down why Clements and his researchers do what they do. It points out some areas where common myths about swordplay originate, and why he feels this needs to be corrected. He's a little fanatical about his mission, but I can't blame him for it - the level of ignorance that is not only accepted, but argued time and time again as true, is a little shocking.

Some other essays worth reading through...

Katana vs. Rapier, the age old nerd quandary.

European Knight vs. Japanese Samurai, the other age old nerd quandary.

Parrying With A Cutting Sword, the scoop on one of the more visual swordfighting myths, followed by by another edge-on-edge misconception article. And a look at what happens when such parries are carried through.

For gamers who like to put a lot of tactical thinking into their battle sequences, this article is a good place for inspiration.

This one is particularly fitting to this blog, but also comes in handy when planning out equipment lists and an understanding of the nomenclature of weapons in your campaign world.

Hopefully this selection of articles will be interesting to the reader and inspire further reading. Here's a link to their main articles and essays page.


Max said...

Fascinating. This is getting bookmarked till I can spend more time reading these articles!

My own pet peeve is with some of the double weapons in 3e, the dire flail and two bladed sword in particular. The latter doesn't make sense to me except perhaps as a naginata-style pole arm. The former doesn't seem functional at all unless one were spinning in place with the weapon held over head. Am I missing something?

trollsmyth said...

Nope. Both weapons are absolutely ridiculous. ;)

Though I live in Texas, I have not had the joy of going to any ARMA events or classes. My roommate from college, however, did get to take classes with them (back when they were called HAKA or something like it) and he had a blast. I do have Clements' Renaissance and Medieval Swordsmanship books, and while both, as good scholarly works often do, pose more questions than they answer, they're both intriguing reads.

For my own Fantasy homebrew RPG, I'm trying to take as much of this sort of thing into consideration as possible, by doing things like allowing flails to bypass shields and other fun stuff.

Thanks for all the links! There are articles here I haven't read yet.

- Brian

Brian Murphy said...

Great post. I'm also a Massachusetts resident and somehow I've managed to never make it out to the Higgins Armory. I'm going to try and correct that this summer.

One topic I'd like to see you tackle is the effectiveness of armor, particularly the proof of latter-day full plate. It gets a bit ridiculous watching films like Braveheart (with their pretense of historic accuracy) in which swords are capable of shearing clear through armored limbs with little effort.

Badelaire said...

HIggins is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to check out their website, because sometimes they'll have demonstrations or lecture series' that are especially worthwhile.

As for the armor question, it's definitely something I love to talk about. All too often in movies and such, armor seemingly provides no protection at all (like the scene in Braveheart where WW hacks through that guy's armored leg like he's lopping the head off a dandelion.

People wear armor for a reason - it kept you alive. Maybe a suit of mail won't stop a full-blown spear thrust from a strong man, but it can turn a glancing blow or stop a mostly-spent arrow, and it might change a chopping slash that would have opened your innards into just a nasty blow that leaves a bruise for a month.

Oddly enough, one movie that depicts the protective value of plate rather well is John Boorman's Excalibur. Despite the historical innacuracies in that movie (to which I say "who cares, it's cool looking and has an awesome score, so shut the hell up"), one thing that looks really good is the way a strong man in plate had to be literally battered to the ground by axes, swords, and maces before he could easily be killed. Swords and axes aren't just shearing through well-forged plate like cardboard, they're bashing and cracking it and leaving rents and dents and tears in the iron, bruising and breaking the body within until the victim is crippled and can be slain as they lay there helpless and exhausted.

All right, enough for now...I'll need to work on another Arms & Armor posting soonish!

trollsmyth said...

Yeah, I love the fights in "Excalibur". They're wonderfully atmospheric, and that armour is both very evocative and yet looks completely usable.

- Brian