What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay: Part IV: Armor

Caveat
As I’ve mentioned, my experience in swordplay is largely limited to unarmored combat. I’ve owned chainmail and some other armor pieces, but not plate armor. Therefore, my knowledge in this area relies far more on scholarship than experience.

Dive Right In
Let’s start off with a gripe of mine: “studded leather.” If you’ve played D&D, you’ve likely had a character use this type of armor at one time or another–if I remember correctly, it’s better than basic leather but not as restrictive as chain. What’s wrong with that?

There’s not really such a thing as “studded leather.” Here’s what happened: Gygax and Arneson, or whoever added this piece of equipment to their games, looked at medieval art and pieces of armor that looked to them like leather with “studs” on it. They didn’t do any more research than this and decided that what they were looking at was some form of reinforced leather armor.

What they were actually looking at was a transitional form of armor between chainmail and plate–the brigandine or “coat of plates.” This form of armor has many smaller metal plates (the size could vary greatly) riveted together and sandwiched between other layers (usually cloth, not leather). The “studs” the game designers saw were the exposed rivets.

Does this matter? Yes! A brigandine or coat of plates is a very different thing than a piece of leather. It is semi-rigid, usually form-fitting (for the coat of plates, the brigandine seems a looser, more one-size-fits-all affair), about as noisy as chainmail (and was sometimes worn in conjunction with mail) and not a great piece of kit for thieves and rangers. As I mentioned in one of the earlier Parts, it was one thing to carry a sword around, and another to wear serious armor and battle gear around. The coat of plates and brigandine advertised a person was expecting, perhaps looking for, trouble.

How much Leather?
It’s a staple of fantasy film (and Renaissance Festival or LARP costumes)–the leather-garbed hero, some of the pieces perhaps hardened into shape (cuirboulli or “boiled leather”). I’ll freely admit that it looks cool, especially considering that much medieval clothing looks comparatively goofy to the modern eye. If you’ve played the Witcher 3, you’ve certainly noticed all the people running around with braies and hose so that they appear to be wearing leggings with a cloth diaper hanging out. Yes, that was a thing.

But how much leather was historically used in armor has evaded answer despite many words spilt on the subject. Again, the problem is a largely scientific one–as an organic material, leather is highly subject to decomposition, making it difficult to analyze usage empirically based on archeological findings.

The art, as our D&D example illustrates, can be difficult to decipher, and we can’t be absolutely positive that any given painting or drawing intends to indicate leather over cloth.

Here’s what we do know:

(1) Leather was sometimes used in the manufacture of armor. The classical Greeks did it, the Romans did it, and the leather “buff coat” saw extensive use during the English Civil War.
(2) Leather has some effectiveness in protecting against cuts. This was the rationale behind the buff coat and is the reason that butchers still wear leather aprons today. You can again find videos on YouTube demonstrating this.
(3) Leather was not commonly used in clothing in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This is not to say that it was never used, but most usages of leather seem to be for gloves, straps and the like. The commonest materials for clothing were wool and linens, with a small amount of cotton used in European clothing and many more materials–silks, velvets, ermine and other furs, etc.–available to the wealthy.
(4) Cloth armor was widely used. Cloth, you say? I do. There were many forms of cloth armor: gambesons, arming coats or jupons, loose-fitting and tight-fitting, some intended to be worn under other armor and some intended to be used alone. Linen armor was usually created by layering and laminating the fabric, sometimes 20 layers or more thick. This created relatively lightweight armor with good resistance to cutting as well as deforming to spread out the force of blunt trauma (particularly if worn under rigid armor). With leather being more expensive than wool and linens (sheep regularly produce more wool and flax can be replanted–leather requires killing an animal) and cloth being close (maybe superior) in effectiveness, it’s very likely that basic economics prevailed over the rule of cool.

If Not Leather, What?
In the early middle ages, you could have any kind of armor you wanted, as long as it was a cloth gambeson or a chainmail hauberk. I’m being overly reductionist, but neither the literature nor the art suggests that there was anything other than those items used commonly.

In the 10th and 11th centuries especially, the literature typically distinguishes between whether someone was wearing mail or not and doesn’t give us much detail beyond that.

An example: in 1066, Harold Godwinson was facing challenges to his position as king of England (which he said was given to him by Edward the Confessor on his deathbed) on two fronts. While waiting for William the Bastard (later the Conqueror, if you must know how the story ends) to finally make his crossing to invade from Normandy, Godwinson received news that Harald Hardrada, the King of Norway and a former mercenary, had landed in the north of England to go “a-viking,” perhaps to make himself king if opportunity presented. After some raids on the coastal villages and clashes with the Mercian aristocracy, Harald Hardrada expected to meet with representatives of the town of York on September 25th at Stamford Bridge to discuss the exchange of hostages and, hopefully, the terms of Harald’s control of York. Because he expected a negotiation, he and most of his men left their mail behind.

Hardrada arrived to find that Godwinson had marched his forces northward with great alacrity, and when Godwinson realized that Hardrada’s men had not brought their mail (and were outnumbered), fighting started to sound better than talking. Despite the fact that, according to the sources, Hardada had taken several levels of Barbarian and activated his Rage ability (okay, the sources say he went berserkergang, but it’s the same thing, right?) he caught an arrow in the neck and was killed, his forces devastated despite valiant resistance.

As an aside, there’s an apocryphal tale in some of the (non-saga) sources that a single huge Norseman was able to hold off the entire English army on Stamford bridge while his fellows retreated to form a shieldwall on the other side. According to the version of the story with which I am most familiar, the English actually had to send archers into the river to shoot up at him from below to kill him. And now, his rage is ended. You only get so many turns.

As metallurgy and technology advanced, there came into being a wide array of various armors. This is not to say that there were not design differences in the earlier period; “double mail” with its rings presumably doubled up for greater protection, is sometimes mentioned, and various patterns of chainmail weaving were employed, so its clear that armorers were innovating in search of incremental advantage even before revolutionary ones came along.

The true transitional period for armor is the 14th century, with many experiments with different types of rigid armor eventually giving way to the “white armor” plate. Some of these experiments included the coat of plates, splint armor, chainmail reinforced with plates in key positions, different styles and cuts of gambeson and arming wear, changes from the blockier and larger helmets of earlier centuries to helmets that deflected blows rather than simply stopping them.

Until the Renaissance and early modern period (depending upon how you define those eras), there were not really professional national armies. There were mercenaries, who were as much professional soldiers as professional brigands, but the economics of their training and equipment is quite different from the armies that develop under Maximilian I and later in the 16th century. For much of the period, a conscripted or volunteer soldier needed to provide his own weapons and equipment, and while the liveried men belonging to the private military of a noble would be provided some kit, the non-aristocracy was seldom given significant armor, it seems.

This resulted in a wide variety of armors used in the late medieval and Renaissance periods, from simple, solitary gambeson to plate armor. If you could afford plate, that’s what you wanted. If you couldn’t, you got the best you could afford.

The “jack chain” (stop snickering you in the back!) is a great example of balancing need with economics. Jack chains are strips of metal, usually attached to a circular plate at the elbow or knee, that could be tied to a soldier’s jack (gambeson). This gave some limited rigid protection to the limbs at relatively low cost.

When considering the variations of armor among non-aristocratic soldiers in this period, I’m often reminded of a saying from my days as a competition shooter–“You run what you brung.”

I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!
Along with the stereotype of twenty-pound swords is a myth about the weight of plate armor and the capabilities of its wearer. No, knights did not need cranes to be put on their horses. Yes, a knight who fell down could pick himself up.

Plate armor designed for combat typically weighed between thirty and fifty pounds, give or take, spread somewhat evenly over the body so that the weight is not especially onerous. Consider that the combat load for the average American soldier is about sixty pounds and its clear that medieval armorers understood enough about balancing armor with the other necessities of combat effectiveness to create something especially effective, not a ridiculous weight that paralyzed combatants. Remember all that movement we talked about in the last Part? Still applies when you’re wearing armor.

We know that plate armor did not significantly effect movement or agility. There are stories of knights performing somersaults and climbing up the undersides of ladders to display acrobatic prowess while armored. Again, you can find some videos on YouTube demonstrating this if you’re not convinced.

Consider also that plate armor was, for the most part and at the height of its design, an improvement in weight over chainmail. A chain hauberk tends to weigh about forty pounds on average.

So all of these mechanics in roleplaying games stating that armor should restrict your mobility and agility don’t really stand up if simulation is the goal. Like carrying any extra weight–when backpacking for instance–the load does require a little extra effort and it’s probably safe to say that it would cause you to accumulate fatigue faster. And yes, it’s fair to say that wearing plate armor makes it more difficult to sneak around. But at the end of the day, wearing plate armor is not the drudgery we tend to think of it as.

For completeness (of information’s) sake, thicker and heavier suits of plate armor were made, usually for tournament fighting, where the extra protection in a combat not intended to be lethal anyway would be welcome. My guess is that this was also viewed the way martial artists and soldiers in the modern era sometimes train–if you use equipment heavier in practice than what you’d actually use “in the field,” you’ll have a much easier time with the field equipment when it comes to it.

The Care and Feeding of Armor
Like swords, armor was not made of stainless steel (which is heavier by density than carbon steel). This means that armor rusts, as can be well attested by museum-goers. Keeping armor from rusting would have been a matter of regular maintenance (i.e. application of oils or waxes), just like it is on modern tools.

But there were some “shortcuts” or techniques used to make armor slower to oxidize (the profound lack of rust monsters also helped). Particularly in the early period, a tabard or other cloth cover was worn over the armor to protect it from the elements, though on a rainy day, this ends up keeping a lot of moisture next to the armor for longer.

There aren’t as many examples that have survived intact, but it is apparent that a fair amount of armor was painted to apply a protective coat, some in elaborate, intricate and even colorful ways.

There is evidence as well that bluing, browning or blackening (controlled oxidation processes) were also sometimes used to protect armor.

Mass Production
The best plate armor is custom-fitted to its wearer and intricately fashioned to be as unobtrusive to a warrior as possible, but as professional soldiers and standing armies developed (for an in-depth view of the changes over these periods, look up debates over the “medieval military revolution”), the state needed to equip more fighters. This requirement was filled by “munitions” armor, the fast and dirty version of a fitted suit.

Munitions armor was often made of iron, not steel, and was made according to a single pattern so that parts were interchangeable for replacement. This resulted in heavier, less comfortable, less effective pieces of armor. But hey, it’s better than nothing if it turns a blade, amiright?

For Writers and Roleplayers
Again, first and foremost, give some thought during worldbuilding to the types of weapons and armor that exist in your world. We talked earlier about differences in weapons (and mentioned armor) between Europe and Japan in their relative medieval periods, so bear in mind that it’s not just the available technologies alone that determines what sees common use.

Look back to the previous Part and think about what locations on the body are likeliest to be struck–experienced fighters, if they have to choose, will likely armor those locations before others (but also bearing in mind that torso strikes tend to be deadlier than (non-arterial) limb strikes given the standard medicine of the period (which may or may not coincide with the available techniques in your setting).

As mentioned before, once you become familiar with the different types and styles of armor in your setting, you can use this to subtly tell a reader (or player) a lot about a character. There’s a great comparison to be had between the young man in a suit of shining new, custom-fitted plate who doesn’t know how to properly grip his longsword standing next to the grizzled veteran, hair flecked with grey, munitions-grade breastplate hanging loosely from his torso, bowed out slightly by his paunch, sword held in one hand, flat of the blade casually resting on his shoulder.

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part III: (The Basics of) How Swordplay Works

Nota Bene: The techniques and conditions described in this part are primarily concerned with unarmored fighting (or at least fighting in anything less than plate armor). This, despite the picture above.

Also, an apology: I’m verbose on good days, but this post is a bit of an infodump. Sorry.

Forget Chivalry
If you believe that medieval and Renaissance swordplay was all about a sense of honor and fair play, check yourself. I spent some time studying krav maga, and the approach of the fechtbuchs to swordplay is similar–the only thing that matters is winning (surviving), so it doesn’t matter how underhanded, unfair or dastardly a technique is if it means you walk away and the other guy doesn’t.

Scholars of the medieval period perennially return to the debate over whether the ideals of chivalry actually ever existed outside of the period’s literature. My personal belief is probably, “yes, it did,” albeit in localized appearances–people who choose to put such ideas before the exigencies and pragmatisms of the day, rare as they must have been (and continue to be).

I have two examples for you from the fighting manuals to allay your sense of chivalry having a place here:

(1) How to Kill a Fallen Enemy: If you’ve watched Kingdom of Heaven or the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies, you’ve seen the move where, after knocking an opponent down, our hero takes his sword, one hand on the grip and one on the quillions (crossbar) and drives the blade downward into his foe’s stomach. It looks badass, I guess, but that’s a good way to risk your opponent stabbing you back before he dies.

The “proper” way to easily dispatch an opponent who you have knocked to the ground is to wait. Once they roll onto all fours to pick themselves up, you chop of their head and thank them for presenting such a clean angle on their neck. Not that they’ll hear it. Far less risk that way.

(2) How to Rob a Peasant: If I remember correctly, this technique–with pictures–is in the Codex Wallerstein. It goes like this: you grab you victim by the neck in your off hand while drawing your dagger. You pinch some of the skin of the victim’s neck between your fingers and slice this with the dagger–not hard, just a nick. You just want the man’s money, not his life, after all. In thinking that you’ve just slit his throat, his hands will go to his neck, conveniently leaving the purses and poaches on his belt free from obstructions. Your dagger’s already out, so it’s hardly anything at all to quickly cut what you want free and walk away before the poor man has realized what’s happened.

All of this is to say that biting, eye gouging, groin strikes, sand throwing and all manner of other nasty trick is fair game in a real fight. At the same time, though, we have the very good fortune of not having to live or die by our swordplay, so maybe think of exercising some restraint when sparring so that your opponent is still your friend after it’s over.

Three Results
There are three primary results in a swordfight, with only one of them positive: (1) you walk away and your opponent dies or is significantly wounded, (2) your opponent kills or significantly kills you and walks away, and (3) you manage to kill or seriously wound each other.

When you think about it that way, the odds are stacked against you from the outset.

Everyone Dies
Even the best fighter makes mistakes, and even an untrained person gets lucky every once in a while. There is no swordfight without risk. Maybe this is obvious to you, but there’s a common assumption, particularly in some roleplaying game mechanics, that a disparity of skill can make a fighter invulnerable in some circumstances. Untrue. Unrealistic, if you care about verisimilitude.

It should be rare that your characters are so self-assured as to not realize that any fight potentially means their death. There are some characters (just as there are some people) too foolish to have this realization, but its best (in my opinion) that it’s clear that that kind of attitude is portrayed as foolishness.

If any of you decides to take up sparring and the practice of western martial arts as a result of reading this series, take this warning: sparring with swords, whether wooden stand-ins or blunt steel, requires trust and control. I have seen more very talented swordsmen and -women injured by someone who did not know what they were doing trying to spar at full speed without the ability to pull a blow they knew was going to correct, or who was too eager and couldn’t wait for their partner to be ready before executing a technique. I got my nose broken that way while sparring once (I left that one out before, didn’t I? It’s crooked to this day.) I’m lucky it wasn’t my eyes–and stupid for not wearing a helmet at that time. In my defense, I was in college, stupid, and there was a machismo endemic to WMA that led us to eschew protective gear for “authenticity” sometimes. Like I said, stupid. If you take up sparring, make sure you wear–at a minimum, a fencing helmet and protective gloves, preferably more than that. Even in practicing techniques at speed and “with intent” protective gear should always be worn.

Parts of a Sword
To understand descriptions of techniques, you need to understand the parts of a sword.

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Traced by User:Stannered; original by Nathan Robinson of myArmoury.com. This SVG image was created by Medium69. Cette image SVG a été créée par Medium69. Please credit this : William Crochot – Derivative of File:Sword Parts.jpg

Our primary focus in the above will be with the blade, and particularly the weak and strong parts of the blade. If, considering that I mentioned earlier that the force of a swing is greatest toward the weapon’s tip, you’re wondering why the base of the blade is called the strong part and the tip the weak, it’s because we’re thinking from a different perspective now. It is easier to push your opponent’s blade (or to resist your blade being pushed) toward the hilt (where the opponent is less able to make use of the lever that your sword is); the opposite is true toward the weapon’s point. We’ll discuss this more in the section on winding and binding, below.

There is a further distinction not depicted in the above, the true (sometimes “long”) and false (alternatively, “short”) edges of the blade. Simply put, if you’re holding the sword out in front of you, the true edge is the one that faces your enemy, while the false edge faces you. Some techniques indicate that the strike should be made with the true edge (which is what someone unfamiliar with the use of a sword would assume is true of all strikes), but others use the false edge. This requires some contortion of the arms but allows for very rapid attacks alternating between the two edges of the blade. This is the time, I feel, to point out that the use of the phrase, “a double-edged sword,” to point out something with both advantages and disadvantages is rather stupid in context. Two edges means I can cut you twice as often. I should also note that a two-handed weapon is necessary to get the most out of the false edge of a blade, because it is the movement of the “off” hand around the sword’s pommel that gives the greatest force to false edge movements–with only one hand on the grip, a false edge attack is as likely to see you lose the weapon as it is to be effective. Someone with greater strength and/or experience than I may have a different opinion, but I saw little use for the false edge when sparring with a one-handed sword.

Timing and Distance
The most fundamental aspects of any hand-to-hand combat, armed or not, are timing and distance. If you cannot accurately judge the distance between yourself and your opponent and combine this with a realistic intuition about your reach, you run a high risk of either overextending yourself or allowing the opponent to slip closer than you are prepared to attack. The important of footwork, in all forms of fighting but especially in swordplay, is largely related to the control of distance and, if possible, to causing your opponent to misjudge intentions and distance by the use of movement.

Likewise, timing is at least as important in swordplay as it is in telling a joke; moreso if you like living, I guess. Some techniques (especially “master strokes”) only work with excruciatingly precise timing. Even without resorting to those high arts of swordplay, there’s always an advantage in attacking when your opponent isn’t expecting it, or being ready to respond in sufficient time to your opponent’s attacking.

If you’ve heard it said in regards to hand-to-hand fighting that “distance is time,” you ought to believe it. The two are inseparable.

Many techniques, at least within the German school of longsword fencing with which I am most familiar, are very specific as to their timing. They fall into three categories: (1) before your opponent takes an action, (2) after your opponent has just completed an action, and (3) while your opponent is acting (that seems to cover all the possibilities, doesn’t it). Whether or not based on conscious analysis or the result of intuitive understanding after many sparring matches or duels, the timing of particular techniques, I believe, has much to do with body-mechanics: timing is based on the amount of time (on average) it would take an opponent to take or complete an action compared to the amount of time needed for the actor to complete his own technique.

Movement
As an arbiter of timing and distance, movement is the foundation of all swordplay (you didn’t think it was your arms, did you?). Here, there are several counter-intuitive aspects of the art. First, because of human physiology and body-mechanics, at least in using a two-handed sword, your reach on an attack extends farther on the later part of the swing than on the earlier part. This means that dodging a blade may be more effective when you dodge in the direction of the attack is coming from (horizontally, not directly into the swing, of course) than away.

Bear in mind also that dodging can be a high-risk, high-reward exercise. The closer you are to the swing of the opponent’s blade without being hit by it, the more you have controlled the distance of the fight. Stepping close to an opponent after he has swung the weapon while pulling your weapon close to you is a very effective way to keep your opponent from being able to protect himself against your next attack (often a thrust).

Ideally, most movement in a swordfight should be at an angle to your opponent, not directly toward or away from him (or her–there were some famous swordswomen and certainly are some very talented women with a blade in modern practice). There are two advantages here: first, it forces your opponent to turn to maintain facing with you. Second, it gives you more control (and increased deceptive ability) in determining distance.

If you’ve watched Olympic fencing, you’ll notice that the fencers are usually on a linear strip. In epee fencing, this strip has a special layer on it, because the epee has a small button on the end that completes a circuit when depressed, allowing for precise scoring of points. The covering of the fencing area prevents false positives with the tip of the epee hits the floor.

As I mentioned above, this is inaccurate as to historical swordplay.

The manuals describe moving in two ways: stepping, which is movement in which your lead leg remains your lead leg (one leg moves and the other follows, essentially) and passing, where either your back leg moves forward to become your lead leg or your lead leg passes backwards, again making the back leg become the lead leg.

Holding the Sword
The first thing you must know about how to grip a two-handed sword is that it is not a baseball bat. You do not lock your hands on it like a vise. As you transition between stances, defenses and strikes, your hands will rotate around the grip as necessary to preserve edge alignment and to ensure maximum force and retention as the weapon swings and rotates. With the two-handed sword, you may even find that your non-dominant hand sometimes pushes the weapon’s pommel like a lever or a gearshift!

There are many stances common between fechtbuchs. In German: Ochs (the ox), Pflug (the Plow), Zornhut (the wrath guard), Vom Tag (from the roof), Auber (the Fool), Wechsel (the “changer”) and those whose German names I can’t remember or never knew: tail and the hanging guard. Those stances where the sword is held away from the center line of the body have variants for the right side and the left side (and indeed, “it works on both sides” is a common note to techniques in the fighting manuals).

There are other more specialized stances less-often used: the Iron Door (open and closed, of course), Unicorn, Long Point, for instance.

The foundation of a swordsperson’s training is in learning these stances and how to gracefully transition between them. You see a little of this in the brief fight between Jaime Lannister and Ned Stark in the Game of Thrones TV show (with Jaime transitioning between ox on the left side and the right side as he “tests” Ned’s stances and footwork).

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so look them up, but I’ll give some descriptions of major stances here (assuming that nothing has changed in interpretation and scholarship since I last seriously studied).

The Plow: when I started my practice of WMA, Plow was treated as holding the sword slightly out in front of you down your centerline, point oriented at about your opponent’s neck. Think the classic “we’re about to fight with lightsabers” pose in the original Star Wars trilogy. This is now referred to sometimes as the “long Plow.” Later, scholars and practitioners decided that it made more sense that your hands were actually pulled back and low to the side of the body, with the blade still pointed at your opponent’s neck, but the tip of the blade not far from about where your face is because pulling your hands back. On your non-dominant side, you actually rotate your grip so that the true edge is facing up, making for easier rising strikes. Your opposite leg (from the side the sword is on) is forward in this stance.

Ox: In the Ox stance, your hands are oriented up near the side of your face, with the blade running parallel to the ground, again aimed about at your opponent’s neck. This is an aggressive stance, quick for the thrust and also for strikes. It transitions easily and quickly to and from the hanging guard stance, and one may change sides in the Ox stance either by thrusting and recovering or using a zwerchau strike (see below). Like Plow, the leg opposite the side your sword is on leads.

Hanging Guard: A defensive stance that nevertheless rapidly transitions into strikes; your hands are held high, above your head and on one side or the other, so that the blade is angled about forty-five degrees from your hands to the ground and about forty-five degrees relative to your opponent’s centerline as it crosses in front of your body. Either leg can lead on either side if I remember correctly.

The Roof: The sword is held over your head, the point at about 45 degrees behind you from the vertical. This is a strong aggressive stance for overhand strikes or quick transition to rising strikes (by moving into the Tail stance). Either foot may lead.

Wrath Guard: Like the Roof, but the sword is held just over your shoulder at the same angle rather than over your head, opposite leg leading. like Plow, when on the non-dominant side, the wrists are rotated so that the false edge points to the foe, making for a fast and powerful rising strike from your non-dominant side.

Tail: In this stance, the sword is held with your hands almost resting on your hip, blade pointed behind and away from you. This stance is primarily used on the dominant side, with a variant stance called Wechsel often substituted on the non-dominant side. Why would you hold your blade behind you? For one, it conceals the length of your blade from easy assessment and so makes a decent starting stance. Additionally, it transitions quickly into Ox and a thrust, allowing you to compensate for the starting point of the blade with an attack that has longer reach than a swing.

The Fool: You’ve been wondering about this one the whole time, haven’t you? There’s some debate about why it’s called the Fool–the swordsman using the stance may look foolish, but the true fool is the one who strikes against this stance, I think. This sword is held in front of the body, like the “long” Plow, but with the tip of the blade pointed toward the ground rather than toward the enemy’s neck. This appears to be a stance of vulnerability to those who don’t know better, even taunting the foe to attack. But the Fool transitions into a nasty rising thrust, or quickly to Tail, Ox or the Hanging Guard and, as it draws the opponent forward, helps with tricks involving management of distance.

Three Wonders
The German masters described the “three wonders” of sword attacks–the cut, the thrust, and “everything else.” That third category typically refers to the “draw cut,” when damage is done not by hacking or swinging at the enemy but by drawing the edge of the blade against them, slicing as it goes by lateral movement.

Swings: The two-handed sword is most commonly swung in one of eight directions–overhanded or “falling” from the right or left, aimed at shoulders or neck, “rising” from below on right or left to the legs or torso, straight up (not terribly common except to create distance) or straight down (at the head), or horizontally. Horizontal attacks are usually made (at least in the German system) at the head or upper body using the horizontal zwerchau, which, when employed from The Roof, the Wrath Guard or the Hanging Guard looks like a helicopter blade sort of motion, especially when several are executed in rapid succession. You can see lots of these used in the lightsaber fight between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker in Episode 3 of the Star Wars films.

Thrusting: This doesn’t need much explanation, right? It’s the simplest of all instructions with the sword: “stick ’em with the pointy end.” It does bear mention, though, that the lunge, in which the lead leg is rapidly moved forward in a long extension dragging the following leg, does not appear to have been used until systems of rapier fighting. My own interpretation is that the ability to cut as an alternative to repeated thrusting made the over-extension less useful as it later became.

Draw Cutting: In my experience, draw cutting is opportunistic more than anticipated. It’s a technique best used when footwork brings you in close proximity to one another, to counter an attempt to grapple or when leaving a grapple that was not determinative of the fight.

Other Strikes: Yes, the pommel is a not-infrequent weapon, and the quillions, the flat of the blade, fists, headbutts and feet also represent valid attacks as opportunity presents. Even with the two-handed weapon, having a dagger at hand to be drawn in the midst of a grapple can be a “lifesaver”–or at least an analogue thereto in sparring.

The masters agree that aggression is to be desired over defensiveness–when the opponent is struggling to not get hit, he’s less likely to be striking back (but there are plenty of techniques, like the master strokes, that are both attack and defense, or where one quickly follows the other).

The key to successful attacks, when not simply a matter of sneaky tricks with timing and distance (which are common, mind you), is a flurry of blows rapidly alternating between strike zones. We have diagrams (the later the Renaissance, the more mathematical fencing theory attempted to become) and images of students in fechtschules (to be discussed later) practicing against targets split into quarters to be quickly attacked with strikes alternating both target quarter and whether the true or false edge is used.

Defend Thyself!
The first thing that you need to know about defending against a sword strike with your own sword in the western/European system of fighting is that you block an incoming strike with the flat of your blade. For God’s sake, do not block with the edge!

There are myriad reasons for this; videlicet: (1) Banging edge against edge ruins the blades of both weapons. This is a valued possession, one you rely on with your life–you don’t want to ruin it without necessity. (2) Physics: If you block with the flat side of your blade, there is more area with which the opponent’s edge makes contact, decreasing the pressure exerted by the strike. (3) If you were to block with the edge of your sword–assuming that the swords don’t fuse together as they both deform so that, like idiots, one of you has to put his foot on the other and push so that you can separate them again–the edge of your sword is pointed at the enemy’s blade and must be withdrawn before you can use it. On the other hand, if you block properly with the flat of the blade, the edge is still free and, conveniently, probably pointed at your opponent. With a simple rotation, you may be able to counterattack.

It is also possible to catch the blade of a strike with your quillions. This type of block usually involves violently pushing your hilt toward the incoming strike, catching the opponent’s blade high so that you can then use a falling strike with the false edge. It is also used as an entry to grappling and/or a disarm attempt.

Static blocks are not the only way, not necessarily even the best way, to stop an enemy attack with your blade. Sometimes, it is more effective to swing your weapon into your opponents, knocking it out of its path. Combined with movement, this can delay your opponent’s follow-up enough to create an opening for a counterattack or to create time and distance. I often found that, when using a one-handed sword against an opponent with a two-handed sword (assuming I did not have a shield or parrying dagger), this was necessary to deflect attacks; static blocks would result in the longsword blowing through my defense despite my interposed weapon. When used preemptively against an opponent’s blade, this is called a “beat” (in modern parlance). It is possible, but I’m not entirely sure, that the verb “to ward” is intended in the parlance of the time to indicate a moving block rather than a static one.

It is, of course, also possible to stop an attack with another attack. This is particularly true of counterattacks to the wrist and forearm, where the connecting attack cuts (literally) against the force of your opponent’s strike as well as potentially reducing its range and changing its direction. The “stop-thrust” still used in sport fencing (although in modern epee practice, this is likelier targeted for the top of the opponent’s sword hand or arm into the pocket of the elbow) and constitutes an example of this as an alternative to cutting.

With the right distance and timing, it is also possible to catch your opponent’s wrist, arm, or even the grip of his sword if there’s space enough and to stop the attack with your hand. If this is done with one hand while simultaneously readying the sword for an attack (usually a thrust), it can be a fight-ending maneuver. Again, high risk, high reward. One of my favorite variants (because of its impressiveness if it could be pulled off) of this is, upon the opponent’s initiation of an overhand strike, to grip your own longsword in the half-sword grip and use it almost like a stick to catch the opponent under his wrists before his swing gains much momentum. If you’re fast and aggressive enough (and tall enough!), you can even push the sort back over the opponent’s head and behind his back, at which point you’ve probably disarmed him (or he’s let go his sword preemptively and you find yourself grappling). Conversely, the awkwardest of positions is when you and your opponent have each grabbed each other’s sword or dominant hand and you’re thus connected and both probably moving your arms ridiculously in the manner of rowers to try and shake each other off for a moment before one or both of you realizes you should be trying something different.

Master Strokes
Master strokes are strikes that simultaneously defend the user of the technique while counterattacking, usually based upon the principle of physics that two objects cannot occupy the same physical space simultaneously. The master stroke works against a very particular strike and must be executed with precision and perfect timing–usually just after the opponent has begun the strike to which the master stroke is a defense.

Winding and Binding
The practice of “winding and binding” is the collection of techniques and moves once the blades have made contact and stay in contact–either because one fighter is intentionally attempting to enter this kind of contest, or because the two fighters have both executed maneuvers that put them in this situation for more than a split-second.

Unlike the movies, (think the Princess Bride) this is not the point at which the fighters push meaninglessly against one another like rugby players and trade witty banter. Winding and binding is far too fast, complex, and delicate for that. At any given point once the blades have come into contact, you have what are essentially two options: withdraw your blade from contact to ready another blow or push against your opponent’s blade to gain advantage. It’s the latter that is truly winding and binding. But this is a game of geometries and vector physics, not of brute strength. While winding, you are not pushing your blade directly into your enemy’s; that would be too simple. You are instead trying to angle your blade, maintaining contact between the strong part of your blade and the weak part of your opponent’s to have dominance in the pushing (it’s rarely about physical strength) while maneuvering the point of your sword for a thrust or the edge for a draw cut. If you push too far too fast, your opponent will simply withdraw from contact and strike at you–perhaps before you can recover to defend. Likewise, if you choose to withdraw with your enemy’s blade in too advantageous a position, he’ll simply stab or cut you while you’re drawing your own blade back to strike. It’s a three-dimensional tug-of-war with many possible outcomes. It’s fascinating to watch, frustrating and exhilarating to participate in, and quite difficult to get good at.

A note: provided that your opponent hasn’t done it first, it may be appropriate here to turn the edge of your blade into your opponent’s sword (provided that this doesn’t put you edge against edge). Again, it’s a matter of reducing surface area over which force is applied to increase pressure in pushing against the opponent.

How Important is Strength?
Outside of grappling, not very (in my experience). Physical conditioning, stamina, agility and dexterity are all more important in the fight, and it takes a very large disparity in strength between combatants before an appreciable difference is noted. A more skilled combatant through understanding of body mechanics and good technique can negate any advantage enjoyed by a stronger but less skilled opponent.

Height is a greater advantage than strength in my experience, for several reasons. Under most circumstances, the taller fighter has superior reach, putting his opponent at disadvantage. That’s multiplied by the fact that the taller fighter probably uses a longer sword as well–it was generally agreed by fencing masters that a longsword of proper size for its wielder ought to have its pommel reach comfortably into your armpit with point on the ground. This increased reach combined with an advantage in the taller person regarding leverage makes height a significant factor.

Back when I was heavily involved in ARMA, there were two people in a nearby study-group, a skilled man and an equally skilled and tough-as-nails woman, who had very unfortunate relative heights–on multiple occasions, she had her thumb broken by him while sparring, likely a function of the angle of the strike on her hand influenced by the height difference. This occurred once during a public demonstration, so she simply switched to a single-handed sword in her off-hand rather than a longsword and continued sparring. Told you she was tough-as-nails.

Put Altogether, What is it Like?
My experience as a practitioner of western martial arts, and not a historical reenactor, is limited to one-on-one duels and small skirmishes (no battle lines, no shield walls, etc.).

In these instances, swordplay is marvelously fast and typically graceful, with pitiable exceptions when someone takes a bad step and bites it before making contact, fumbles their weapon, etc. Usually there is a flow to combat that begins with footwork, maneuvering, changing stances and the like to size up and/or psych-out an opponent while gauging distance followed by a flurry of blows, blocks and counterstrikes exchanged over two or three seconds, sometimes longer. If the engagement hasn’t gone to winding and binding or grappling by the end of it, and neither party has been injured, the fighters will disengage and start the process over again. But, like any fight, this dilates and contracts, with sometimes long spaces between attacks and sometimes just time enough for a breath before the combatants reengage. Usually, though, someone has been struck a significant blow in a matter of seconds. These drawn-out swordfights in films are beautiful to watch, and certainly dramatic, but don’t represent what experiences has told me is the average length of a fight with swords–short.

Hit Locations and Injuries
The commonest locations struck by blows (based on my experience sparring) are the head, hands and forearms. If you’re designing a roleplaying game that uses hit locations, consider that the standard distribution used by most games doesn’t reflect reality. On the other hand, getting one-shotted in the head all of the time (or even a third of the time) won’t make for happy players, so some liberties probably ought to be taken.

If you want to understand (as best as we can morally, ethically and legally) the potential severity of sword wounds, look into the archaeology of the Battle of Visby in 1361 (excavations were done in 1928). There were multiple instances where a single blow managed to cut through both of a combatant’s legs. There are also multiple instances where a body was discovered to have a significant, but not necessarily mortal wound (to a limb) as well as a fatal head wound. It is likely that the attacker first injured the other combatant with and initial strike and, when the defender was stunned and in shock and pain from the that strike, the attacker took the opportunity to strike a fatal blow.

Again, there’s no easy translation of this information to a roleplaying game, where being hit once meaning almost certain death is not going to be particularly fun. In “traditional” fiction, this information can add verisimilitude.

Asymmetric Warfare (or at least uneven odds)
Fighting one person is difficult enough; holding off several attackers at once–all of you armed with swords–is especially daunting.

The good news is that only about three attackers can simultaneously attack a single defender without risking a high probability of accidentally striking one another, presuming that they’re using cutting weapons that must be swung; you can fit a lot more people in if all they’re doing is stabbing.

The bad news is that that’s still two other people ready to hack at you while you’re focused on their friend. Since most of us do not have superhuman speed, we have to rely on footwork and maneuver to try to counteract the advantage held by multiple attackers. Specifically, the single combatant should be constantly moving so that she keeps one of her three counterparts between herself and the other two, a sort of “human shield.” With continued maneuver, a skilled combatant can, for a time at least, limit the fight to one attacker at a time. Nevertheless, this is not foolproof, you still have to defend yourself from that one attacker right in front of you, and it’s quite tiring.

Conclusion
There really is no substitute for seeing swordplay by skilled practitioners if you want to understand the speed and elegance of historical fencing. Nor is there for studying the fight manuals and working through the techniques–even if very slowly and with a simple dowel rod from Home Depot.

Nevertheless, I hope that I’ve conveyed the deep complexity of the art of the sword in this Part of the series; it really is so much more than swinging a chunk of metal. It should be in your games and your stories as well. Even if you’re playing a ruleset that, by and large, doesn’t account for all of these factors (and, from a design perspective, most games probably shouldn’t), an understanding of the mechanics of fencing will allow you to narrate much more exciting combats. If you’re a writer of conventional fiction, hopefully this illustrates to you the wide range of ways in which you can show, not tell, the martial skill (or lack thereof!) of your characters.

In the next Part, we’ll talk about armor. I think I’ll squeeze in a post on some of the social and cultural aspects of learning swordplay in the early modern period, and we’ll finish up with the promised reading list and recommendations.

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part II: Swords

For the introduction to this series, click here.

We ought to start with the Queen of Battle, oughtn’t we? By this, I mean the sword, of course.

Weights and Measures
Let’s get the most glaring error out of the way first: swords were not heavy, nor were they clumsy. You will still even hear some historians claiming that swords weighed 20 pounds or more; this is hogwash.

If you’re able, do a quick test. Get your beefiest friend and a weighlifting barbell (the big one, for benchpressing). These typically weight 15 to 20 pounds. Ask your meatloaf friend (without calling him that) to try to swing the barbell like a sword. Stand back and prepare to laugh. The results should be slow, clumsy and obviously ridiculous.

The average one-handed sword (an “arming sword”) of the medieval and Renaissance periods likely weighs between one-and-a-half pounds and three pounds. The average two-handed sword (what is properly called a “longsword” by the way) usually weighs between two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half pounds, give or take. If you’ve taken some time to watch videos on YouTube, now maybe you’ll understand how they’re able to move so fast and so agilely–we’ll return to this.

Where did we get the idea that swords are so heavy? Bad scholars is the likeliest reason. The heaviest swords actually used of which I’m aware are the zweihanders (the “true twohanders”) use by the Landsknecht mercenaries. These could weigh between six and eight pounds and could be six feet from tip to pommel.

First, it’s important to know that this was a very specialized weapon (see my next point below). By the early 16th century, when this weapon came to use, Europe had (debatedly, at least) undergone a “military revolution.” Gone were the shieldwalls and rough battle lines of the medieval period, replaced by professional or semi-professional soldiers who spent more time drilling in formations and maneuvers than their manual-of-arms for their weapons. The standard was the use of large pike formations protecting musketeers or archers (the Spanish “tercio” is a prime example of this). With their (very) long pikes and the ability to maneuver and angle their weapons together, a pike formation proved a very difficult formation to assault.

The zweihander was one tactical response to this problem. If you look at the weapon, you’ll see a long grip followed by the crossguard and a typically long-and-blunt ricasso (the base of the blade coming from the crossguard). Some examples had this section wrapped in leather and/or topped by parierhaken (parrying hooks). The design will help you to understand the use.

Gripped as a sword, with both hands on the hilt, the weapon could deliver powerful swings, excellent for knocking pike spearpoints out of the way, or potentially even cutting them off (there is not agreement about this).

Once you’re inside the length of the pike, it becomes mostly useless to its user. The pikeman would need to drop his pike and draw whatever shorter weapon he had to hand. The user of the zweihander, however, only had to position his off hand on the ricasso and he suddenly had a weapon that performed more like a short spear than a heavy sword. Advantage dopplesoldner (as these men were called). By gripping the blade with itself with one hand, the dopplesoldner could even simply push pikes up and hold them out of the way while his compatriots slid into the pike formation to do the dirty work.

This was dangerous work, especially so, and dopplesoldners (literally “double soldier”) were probably called that because they received double pay.

Over time, as the tactics of warfare continued to evolve, the zweihander became less and less useful. It retained, however, some significance as a symbol of certain military units, and versions that were intended only to be carried in parade were created. Without care given to weight and balance as is done with a useful sword, these became quite heavy. When antiquarians of the 19th century rediscovered them, they assumed that the parade swords they’d found were actual weapons of war and marveled at the strength necessary to wield them.

If you’d like to take a more scientific approach, let’s look to physics. Force exerted equals mass times acceleration, where acceleration is measured in units squared. So, all other things being equal, you get more force, comparatively, with a lighter weapon swung faster than a heavier weapon swung slower. Medieval minds may not have had the equation, but they were smart enough to look at the evidence and draw a conclusion. Add to this the fact that you have to actually hit your target to do any damage and the usefulness of a faster weapon becomes doubly apparent.

A Sword is a Tool
Like all weapons, a sword is a tool, albeit one with a macabre purpose. Understanding that goes a great distance to understand swordplay, I think. Two particularly important parts: First, force (pressure, really) applied increases diametrically to the area over which it is applied. This is the entire purpose of a blade–the edge reduces the area over which force is applied, focusing and increasing it over a small space. This is why all bladed weapons are useful–they increase the force applied to the target, hopefully sheering and cutting through it.

Second, a sword is a lever, again a tool to amplify the force exerted by the user. This amplification increases the longer the length of the lever, making the cutting area near the tip of the sword the most dangerous area (it also accelerates fastest).

This covers the most basic design purposes behind the weapon, but there is much more. Tools are often improved incrementally over time, and we see that with swords in the historical record, from early bronze weapons to the carbon steel of the medieval and Renaissance sword or with the addition of a hilt capable of blocking an enemy blade.

Some tools are generic, able to perform multiple tasks passably, but not excelling anywhere. Others are specialized, becoming more effective at limited tasks to the detriment of other capabilities. Bear in mind that at all points of human history, there is also an “arms race” between the capabilities of weapons to cause injury and the capabilities of armor to stop injury.

Swords evolved over time in relation to the armor available. Just two examples: the two-handed sword did not become a common weapon until the advent of more-effective armors–the transitional period of the 14th century as we see progress toward true plate mail: brigandine “coats of plates,” the addition of plates to protect joints and limbs, etc. When one could more reasonably rely on one’s armor to stop a blow, a shield became a less necessary item (as we’ll discuss later, a shield should really be thought of as a weapon, not armor), freeing a hand for a longer, weightier weapon, which in turn provided more advantage against that same armor than a one-handed sword.

The second example: as plate armor became more common, a different approach was necessary to the design of swords. Cutting is typically ineffective against plate armor; this is partially a matter of its rigidity and resistance to cutting, but also a matter of its design–plate armor is designed to deflect a blow, directing the force of the attack in a way less harmful to the wearer, rather than to simply stop the blow. The result of this were blades with more acute points. Much fighting in plate armor, at least with swords, results in grappling, with the combatants grabbing the blade of their sword with one hand (called “half-swording, and yes, this can be done without injury”) and aiming to maneuver the point of the weapon through the gaps between plates. Harnessfechten is truly terrifying stuff, with the end results as often as not being achieved through grappling itself (the breaking of limbs as such) or through close work at the half-sword or with the dagger.

Swords also changed as firearms altered the types and amount of armor worn, becoming lighter and developing (though not solely) into the rapier and later smallsword. Both of these, the rapier and smallsword, are excellent examples of the very-specialized sword; we’ll discuss rapiers in detail shortly.

What does this mean for the writer and/or roleplayer (especially a GM)? If you’re describing a sword, or determining what kinds of swords are likely to be found in your setting, you’d be well-advised to do some research into sword typology and the types of swords that existed at various time periods, so think about relationship between relative historical equivalents and–especially–what kind of armor is available and how that would affect sword designs and styles. There’s not necessarily a need to make mechanical distinctions between variant sword types in the gaming realm, though you certainly can if you lean heavily simulationist (or gamist, I suppose), but it will help to visualize the setting.

There are some other storytelling opportunities here–if yours is a setting with ancient and magical weapons and armor (like most games of D&D, for instance), think about how that ancient weapon may differ in appearance and design from the ones made in the setting’s present. Do ancient swords of power look more like 9th-century viking swords rather than the more acutely pointed 15th-century style swords used by most people? Would the sword be less effective against “modern” armor (whatever that may be in your setting) except for the magic within it?

A side note here–as in our own historical record, the development of sword types was not solely a linear progression. Multiple sword designs competed with one another, or performed different functions, in the same period. Changes in sword morphology did not occur simultaneously over all geographic locales, and the evolution of any weapon involves some amount of discovery, forgetting, uneven development or acceptance, throwbacks, etc.

Like any invention, the discovery of the technology itself is far from the only factor involved in the “success” or acceptance of the technology. Cost, societal and cultural views, changing needs, and many other factors may cause some technologies never to be fully realized despite the fact that they perform better than alternatives.

Additionally, because weapons are tools, context is important. The comparison of European swords and Japanese swords during their respective feudal periods provides a good example. The katana is not an inherently “better” weapon than the European longsword; of course the reverse is also true. The two weapons developed in, and made sense in, different contexts.

While I’m not as well-read in Asian history as I am in western history, my understanding is that the katana’s design is a very specific response to several factors in Japan. Primary among these was the reduced availability of quality materials from which to produce reliable, weapons-grade steel. Two conditions flowed from this: plate armor did not developed or see broad usage in Japan as it did in Europe, so the importance of acutely-pointed weapons that could be used against enemies in a wide range of armors (including that “white metal” plate armor) did not exist in the same way in Japan as in Europe–the needs to be fulfilled by the weapon were different. Likewise, the resources available with which to make weapons in Japan necessitated different techniques in sword-forging, and the katana (and its variants, which are similarly diverse as European weapons, I believe) represented the best balance of effective weapon and (relative) ease of manufacture. Some exquisite weapons were made in both locales. Both, I’m sure, also saw a number of subpar weapons created because of lack of skill, the demands of semi-mass production, the corner-cutting of greedy manufacturers, or the penny-pinching of those who commissioned the weapons.

Making Swords was Difficult
The medieval and Renaissance periods did not have access to modern metallurgy. The field of chemistry was in its infancy, and though the understanding of metals and their properties certainly improved over the centuries in question, smithing metal was art and science during the medieval and early modern periods.

A sword is made of carbon steel, which is iron fused with carbon to create an alloy with the desired properties. If you’re at your local Renaissance Faire and someone is trying to sell you a sword made out of stainless steel, it is a cheap display piece. If that’s what you want it for, no worries. But if you want something you could actually swing, test cut with, or safely use for WMA, you need carbon steel.

Those physical properties change based on the amount of carbon in the steel and the properties required of good swords are quite specific. The sword needs to be able to take and hold a good edge (which I understand is something of a metallurgic “sweet” spot). It needs to be hard, but not brittle, and the blade needs to be able to flex rather than to be perfectly rigid. There are some variations on these needs based on the sword design, of course, but those facts are generally true.

Here’s the problem: early modern smiths had no way to accurately gauge the carbon content of steel. They had to learn an intuition for the right amount of carbon, and smiths developed, even before our time period, techniques for controlling carbon content (relatively if not exactly). One such technique was to create the billet for the sword from individual layers of iron and carbon-containing metallic strips, heating them together and combining them to get a steel with a semi-controlled carbon content; this is called “pattern welding”. Viking swords were commonly made this way, with the pattern of the mixed steel visible in the blade or fuller when acid etching revealed the “serpent in the blade” as it was called.

By the Tudor period, other techniques were available for increasing carbon content in steel but, admittedly, I don’t remember the specifics well enough to describe them now.

The important thing to note is that making swords required special knowledge and skill–this is not something a blacksmith would do. Basic economic theory tells us that, the more specialized knowledge and skill a product requires, the lower the supply and higher the price commanded by the commodity. This is true of swords. While it’s very difficult to determine the actual costs of swords at various levels of quality or design, I would note that, in many of the medieval laws requiring the ownership of certain arms and armor, the weapon required of most men was a spear, not a sword.

We also have some evidence of out-of-date styles of sword continuing to see use despite the changes in the “modern” design of the weapons. This likely indicates, and there is some corroborating evidence in the historical record, that swords might be passed down in a family as heirlooms because of the value they had and relative difficulty of acquiring a newer weapon. Sometimes the blade was kept and the weapon’s fittings were changed.

On the other hand, there is much evidence of schools of swordplay becoming available to the (paying) public by the 16th century–we have a number of woodcuts showing training in just such a setting. This means that, for the burgeoning middle class, the acquisition of swords and time and money enough to learn their use was not out of reach. While swords were not nearly as common as they are often portrayed, neither were they rare.

To analogize to the modern period, I think we be well served by thinking about military-style rifles. A lot of them are made by governments for warfare, and they don’t simply disappear once the war is over. An AR-15 in the United States might run $500 for a very basic model and into the thousands of dollars. According to CNN, 40% of Americans do not have $400 available to them in the event of an emergency, so at least 40% of people probably couldn’t come up with the money to purchase such a weapon without taking on serious financial risk. I would imagine for another fair percentage, the acquisition could be made only if saved for over time, financed or the budget stretched. Bear in mind that credit did not work the way it does in modern times during the medieval and Renaissance periods (which is not to say that there was no lending or borrowing of money or other extensions of credit, but the ease of access to credit was far lower). And of course, there are some people who could afford to arm an entire town or county.

So, in writing or roleplaying, think about the social status and wealth of a character when determining whether that person owns a sword. Most peasants and desperate folk won’t–they’re more likely to use something simpler, less expensive and easier to acquire–a spear, and ax, a knife, etc. As we’ll discuss shortly, using a sword is not easy and requires significant training, so most peasants wouldn’t have had sufficient free time (or resources) to sufficiently study swordplay, even if they could acquire a sword.

As with the other sections, these are guidelines to think about, choices that must be made after reasonable consideration, not strict rules to be slavishly followed. Some societies or cultures by their nature will have a higher focus on producing weapons and putting them into the hands of the populace. Switzerland’s famous status as a “neutral” nation is not simply a matter of its refusal to intervene in the affairs of foreign nations, but also the fact that mandatory military service and weapons training (members of the military store their weapons at home!) means a nightmare for any would-be invader.

You Couldn’t Just Wear a Sword Anywhere
The systems of law enforcement and public safety were not so clearly defined, structured or regulated as they are now, but they became moreso over the medieval period and into the Renaissance. As we discussed above, because a sword was not the commonest or most affordable of commodities, it was also a status symbol–as social mobility increased somewhat after the Black Death and especially into the Renaissance (though still nothing like modern social mobility), more and more people wanted to show off their success by the wearing of one.

As is ever the case, those who held power didn’t want to share power or prestige with others and made concerted efforts to hold the lower classes down. One of these efforts was the creation of sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws were concerned with how a person could and could not dress based upon their social status and wealth–you had to have a certain annual income to be legally able to wear ermine (a popular type of fur), for instance. This also extended to the wearing of weapons.

More than that, though, wealthy aristocrats had good cause to fear the peasantry–they largely enjoyed their wealth and status on the backs of those less fortunate, as the German Bundschuh movements and frequency of peasant revolts (England in 1340, 1381 and 1450, France in 1358 and 1382, Friuli in 1511, the German Peasants’ War in 1525-26, just to name a few) attest. The aristocracy didn’t really want their peasants to be well-armed.

But the simple matter of public safety was also a concern, and Machiavelli’s view that “an armed society is a polite society” was certainly not held by all. We know that the wearing of weapons was specifically permitted for travelers and pilgrims of the lower classes (because of the threat of brigandry and banditry, of course)

Many towns and cities had restrictions on the length of a blade that could carried inside its limits, though the specifics varied widely by time and place and exceptions seem to have almost always existed based on social class or social function.

This is to say that, contrary to common D&D tropes, at least, people (at least by the Renaissance) didn’t often walk around in full armor and festooned with weaponry–that made people nervous and attracted attention. People were restricted from the wearing of weapons in certain settings, and even social norms played a role as well.

Bear in mind that different levels of armedness were permissible in various situations. Wearing a dagger or knife was rarely forbidden, and it was common for the nobility to wear a sword (though more commonly of a lighter “civilian” design such as an “espada de ropa” or rapier) in social settings where combat was not expected. The wearing of armor in particular (when not in an official capacity requiring it) advertised that you were looking for trouble.

The types of weapons–even swords–carried also varied by social status. I’ll give an example about what certain weapons communicated later by looking at the gang fight scene at the beginning of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For now, I’ll just give this example–in late medieval and early-modern England, the retainers of a nobleman who were commoners but who were allowed to carry weapons by virtue of their service in the nobleman’s retinue were most commonly armed with a simple single-handed sword and a buckler. They were commonly referred to as “sword-and-buckler” men and the term “swashbuckler” derives from the practice of letting one’s buckler (hung from the belt) clash against one’s (sheathed) sword as one walked, advertising armedness with a good dash of bravado. For various reasons, but among them armed clashes between groups of retainers, laws restricting the size and makeup of liveried retainers were a common feature of this period. That they were issued with such frequency most likely indicates trouble in enforcing them–or at least a high level of concern with the problem.

And if good fiction is any indication, there’s a lot of good drama to be had when a character is caught without his armor or the weapon he’d prefer to use to defend himself. I’m certainly of the mind that this should be pursued in both “conventional” fiction and roleplaying–don’t let your characters carry an arsenal whenever and wherever they feel like it!

Using a Sword is Difficult
We’ll talk about the actual features of swordplay in the next Part, but for now, let me expound briefly on why swords are difficult to use.

A sword is not a club. That seems obvious, but think about the fact that the edge must actually contact the target for a sword to maximize its effect. Not only that, but the edge must contact the target at an appropriate angle to have an optimal effect. “Edge control” is one of the first difficult tasks faced by a student of the sword.

Then there’s the whole “not-cutting-yourself” thing. You want power and acceleration behind each swing of the blade, but you also need to control the blade after it has missed, struck its target, or been deflected. While moving. While trying not to be hit by your enemy. I have seen or heard of injuries requiring emergency medical attention and stitches during test-cuttings. If you’re not familiar, a “test cutting” is the practice of cutting a stationary object with a sharp blade. You’ll find many videos of test cuttings performed on water bottles and rolled tatami mats. I have attended and participated in test cuttings on animal carcasses (if it matters to you, the animal was not killed for the purpose of the test cutting–and certainly not during it!–so this was a matter of making the most of the carcass. If you are offended by this, I certainly understand, and there’s a perfectly reasonable question and conversation to be had there).  These are the most controlled environments in the use of a sword that you could hope to have–and yet people still manage to hurt themselves. Factor in all the fighting stuff and you have some serious concerns.

The body mechanics of the movement of the sword, whether the transition between one “guard” or manner of holding the sword ready for use, the transition from one attack to another, or from attack to defense and vice versa, are not always intuitive until you build muscle memory. The options for how to respond to any given blade contact are myriad. You can move, you can grapple your opponent, you can act “on the bind” by pressing your blade against theirs, you can counterattack; and all of these approaches have a number of decisions to make within them. Without getting too far into the “how” of swordplay in this Part (already very long!), let’s take a brief look at the questions involved in choosing to grapple: where will you grip the opponent? Where will you move as you close to grapple and how will your orient your body to theirs? In what directions will you apply force as you grapple? What is your goal: to disarm, to break a limb, to buffet the enemy with fists and elbows, to throw them or trip them? As with all hand-to-hand martial arts, it takes time and practice to understand the theory behind these choices, more to develop the skill to implement them, and even more to be capable of making and implementing split-second decisions about these techniques in the heat of combat. Add a blade, which is dangerous to both you and your opponent, and it becomes clear, I think, that a blade is more difficult to use than a club (though many of the same techniques can be employed, really).

The idea that a character will pick up a sword and suddenly be effective with it (at least against a capable opponent) is dubious at best. Keep this in mind when structuring narrative.

What is a Rapier and How is it Different?
As one of the easiest examples of how widely swords can differ in their morphology and function, let’s look at the rapier versus other types of sword.

As an introductory note, it must be stated that research about the rapier is somewhat difficult, as the usage of language in historical sources do not make the strict categorical distinction between rapier and other types of swords as modern scholars and WMA enthusiasts tend to. This is partially a result of the fact that the rapier evolved over a fairly long period, with a number of very different designs and approaches during that period.

As the fighting manuals consider them, rapiers are swords (very) heavily focused on the thrust over the cut (though some treatises do make use of cutting techniques). Modern scholars debate whether those swords called “rapiers” that are alluded to as also cutting should truly be referred to as rapiers (under modern categorization) or should be placed in the same category as “cut-and-thrust” swords or in the more ambiguous category of “sword-rapiers.”

The rapier developed starting in the early 16th century and continued to see significant use into the 17th, when it began to be supplanted by the smallword (a lighter, shorter variant, essentially).

Generally, a rapier has several distinguishing features. First, it is a one-handed sword. Second, a thinner blade than other sword types, with that blade often being more rigid than other sword types (to strengthen the thrusting ability of the blade while sacrificing some of the blade flex that is useful to “winding and binding” with the blade (see the next Part). Third, rapier blades tend to be quite long, and longer as their development continues. Fourth, rapiers have increasingly complex hilts (over the course of their development), starting with simple rings built into the crossguard so that the index finger may be wrapped over the crossguard (next to the sword’s ricasso). This allows greater control over the thrust, while again sacrificing some authority in cutting. Ricasso rings and complex hilts were not only used for rapiers, however; the “cut-and-thrust” blades (as modern scholars call them) that have wider blades (often acutely pointed) that favor the thrust but still allow for strong cutting). This style of gripping the blade is still emulated in certain grips for modern fencing epees.

The most “extreme” rapier designs had hexagonal or octagonal blade cross-sections, almost like a piece of sharpened rebar (albeit much better balanced). These weapons were clearly designed only to thrust; their cross-sections did not allow for holding an edge.

While a “standard” rapier design is difficult or impossible to pin down, their function is not. As a lighter weapon (compared to other swords), the rapier was easier and more comfortable to carry (provided that the length was not absurd). The use of the thrust allows for a greater maintenance of distance from the opponent as well obviating the need to draw the weapon away from the opponent to prepare a swing. The downside of this is that resorting only to the thrust makes it very difficult to hold multiple attackers at bay at once (already a very difficult thing). But the lack of a need to swing proved especially useful in the often-cramped streets and alleys of Renaissance cities, where there may not have been room to swing a cutting sword at all.

Despite being a thrusting weapon, the rapier does not appear to have been effective or intended to be used against an opponent in armor. Against an unarmored opponent, however, the weapon is truly deadly–in one of the aforementioned test-cuttings I attended, I witnessed a (quality) replica rapier lightly tossed underhanded into a slab of deer meat to the hilt. As we’ll see later on, the reputation of the weapon in its contemporary time (at least in England) was that it was especially deadly compared to other weapons.

Combine the effectiveness of the weapon in urban settings and the convenience of carrying it with it’s lack of effectiveness in group combat (bear in mind that in the press of battle you may not have room to pull back a weapon for a thrust and, in a strange opposite of the alley, a cutting weapon may prove more useful), and you have a weapon very well suited to daily self-defense and to the duel, but not to military purposes.

In the next Part, we’ll talk a look at how swords are actually used. After that, we’ll look at medieval/Renaissance armor and some common misconceptions held by roleplaying games and some fantasy writers. I’ll conclude with a sort of bibliography, including books for further reading and even some roleplaying games that really get swordplay “right.”

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part I: Introduction and Sources

I’m far from the first person to pick up this subject, but I continue to hear so many mistakes made about medieval and Renaissance weapons, armor and combat that I feel that the subject merits continued treatment.

To begin, let me set out my bona fides: My undergraduate degree is a B.A. in History, focusing on Medieval and Renaissance History, my senior thesis was written on Henry VIII’s use of Arthurian Legend as propaganda and included research at the British Library and National Archives. My master’s degree is in English, focusing again on medieval and Renaissance literature; my master’s thesis was about the use of particular weapons and fighting styles in Shakespeare’s works, 16th century English fighting manuals and adventure pamphlets as a method of establishing identity, particularly national identity.

I was a sport fencer in high school (which hardly counts for anything in this field, unfortunately, except in the rudiments of all hand-to-hand combat: distance, timing and footwork) and spent my college years as a member (and later study-group leader) of the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts (ARMA), having broken a rib and an eardrum in separate sparring engagements during that time (no, I did not get stabbed in the ear). Though I did not continue my affiliation with them after I left my original study group, I have continued to practice and develop my skills as a swordsman, off and on. I have experience sparring at full contact with padded weapons carefully designed to emulate the weight and balance of actual swords, with wooden “wasters” and with blunted steel. I’ve studied and worked through Ringeck, Talhoffer, Fiori dei Liberi, Silver, Swetnam and others, including some sword-and-buckler work in the I.33 and some rapier work with Agrippa, Di Grassi and Saviolo. My primary experience (in practice) is in the two-handed longsword, single-handed swords of the “cut-and-thrust” variety (mostly with dagger or a free secondary hand), the rapier (again with dagger or free hand), and grappling/dagger work. I have used a shield sometimes, mostly a buckler, and all of my experience is in the realm of “blossfechten,” that is, fighting without (plate) armor. I’ve seen a number of demonstrations of fighting in plate (harnessfechten) and understand the theory, but have no direct experience there.

The subject of “medieval and Renaissance martial arts,” “historical European martial arts,” (HEMA) or “Western martial arts”  (WMA) has become an increasing interest in Western culture over the past thirty years, though I’d still venture to say that the subject, as both research field and martial art form, remains in the early stages of reconstruction.

If you want to see what swordplay looks like, I recommend you go to YouTube and look for clips under the search terms in the preceding paragraph, with particular attention to some of the European competition clips. Each year, it seems, there are more competitions, the “sport” becomes more like other sports (with organizations, sponsors, etc.), and the competitors seem to have greater skill. This will give you some perspective on the topics we’ll cover in this series.

How did we get to a point where, after such a far remove from the times when these weapons were actually employed, we can begin to understand and reconstruct their usage?

There are museum pieces and archeological records of course, which give us much of our information on actual weights and designs of swords, armor and other weapons. The Royal Armouries in Leeds, England has, as far as I’m aware, one of the very best collections of early modern armaments anywhere in the world. Bear in mind though, that we find far fewer pristine examples of items than we do pitted and degraded examples, this being more the case the farther in time we look back.

For the technical aspects of medieval arms and armor, I would refer the student to begin with the works of Ewart Oakeshott, with the caveat that his interpretations are not the final say in the matter, that even he was unsure about some of his classifications, and that there has been much debate and revision of his ideas since.

We also have art and literature but, as we’ll see, the interpretation of these alone can sometimes lead to misunderstandings (that continue to defy correction)!

For the actual reconstruction of the martial “arts” of the medieval and early modern periods, we have written instructions, what are generally referred to as the “fechtbuchs.” The earliest of which I’m aware is the Royal Armouries’ I.33 sword and buckler manuscript, probably written sometime around the turn of the 13th century to the 14th.

We continue to see handcrafted manuals, but the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in 1439 led to the “mass-” production of printed manuals as well. These texts were put down by masters of arms, those teachers of the craft who had earned sufficient fame and demonstrated sufficient skill, both as instruction manual and as advertisement, probably. A list of Western martial arts manuals may be found (on Wikipedia) here.

In the modern age, groups like ARMA and many others–local schools like any Eastern martial arts dojo are popping up in U.S. cities all the time–take these manuals, translate them into English (or, more likely, purchase translated copies), and then work through the examples and instructions within to figure out what is intended and what actually works. Many of the fechtbuchs are illustrated, though there’s often some debate over whether the pictures accurately reflect what is referenced in the text. If modern artists’ renderings of concept firearms are any indication, some artists understood what they were depicting well enough to be accurate, but many, perhaps most, did not.

The amount of scholarly attention to this field grows a little year-by-year, but it is still (as far as I’m aware) the focus of only a small handful of professors and professional scholars. The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe remains one of the best scholarly surveys of historical fighting manuals available; it is approaching its twentieth anniversary.

If you get on Amazon, you can now find instructional manuals like those for any martial art, the authors having purportedly gone through earlier texts to recreate the skills and portray them in modern language and pictures.

As a person writing or roleplaying in a setting with swords and armor, should you feel compelled to join some reenactment group or martial arts collective participating in the HEMA/WMA world? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have the experience. In this series, though, I’m going to try to cover the essentials of what you need to know so that you’re at least not making any glaring errors.

To continue to the next Part in this Series, click here.

Some Thoughts on Writing: Plotting and Pantsing

There is no One True Way to write; anyone who tells you there is is a fool and/or trying to sell you something.

That said, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on writing fiction, particularly on plotting and “pantsing,” in this post. Maybe it will be useful for someone. Maybe someone will disagree with me in the comments and that will be useful for someone.

To me, writing fiction is really two things inextricably bound together. The first is storytelling, by which I mean the structural aspects of the craft: story structure and flow (and therefore “plot”), pacing, character creation and motivation and all of the building blocks of the a story. The second is style, the actual selection of words, grammar, syntax, etc. The storytelling never becomes a story without the application of words; but the words themselves never amount to anything without a structure and purpose to them.

Both of these things are always difficult and often frustrating. I’ll liken this to exams in law school: those people who weren’t nervous about the test didn’t understand how much there was to know in that field and just how complex its operations were. You could only be blasé about it through ignorance. Perhaps there is someone in this wide world who is naturally, innately and intuitively creative and powerfully-minded enough that this doesn’t apply to them, but I doubt it.

In my writing of late, both those projects that have ultimately “failed,” or at least not come to immediate fruition, and those that I have “finished” in a relatively complete form or on which I continue working, I’ve noticed that most of my instances of “writer’s block” occur because of the intersection of the two elements of writing fiction. I hang up when I’m in the middle of a sentence and the plot has brought me to the necessity of naming a new character. I struggle when I rewrite the same damn sentence over and over because I’m trying to make it sound right and figure out where the story is going next. In short, writer’s block ambushes me when I’m pantsing, trying to split attention between both necessary aspects of the craft.

So, I have moved to a more “structured” approach to writing, one that finds good analogy perhaps in other, more tangible art forms. In painting, you don’t put paint to canvas until you’ve done sketches to create the basics of the image or prepared the canvas. Working on story structure is like that, with the actual writing of it the painting, of course.

My approach has thus become one of meticulous plotting before beginning the actual writing. I start with the broad strokes, major plot points and characters, then parsing out into scenes, then plotting out each scene. While sometimes tedious and certainly time-consuming, it allows me to make my adjustments to structure and plot lines, to make sure callbacks, foreshadowing, etc. are all properly placed and linked, and to develop or edit side plots before doing so will cause me to do a lot of re-writing. Once all of this is done, the focus can shift almost entirely to the craft and style of the writing, since everything else will already be signposted.

This is not to say that pantsing has no value, either in general or to me. Pantsing can be a great way to get the creative juices going, and it’s how I ended up with the basis of the novel I’m currently working on–pantsing a short story became 20,000 words to provide the core plot of a larger, more complex story.

But much of the skill of storytelling lies in making sure that there is a place for everything, everything is in its place, and all the pieces fit together seamlessly. Story structure and plotting are the writer’s carpentry; it makes sense here to measure twice and cut once just as it does with lumber–so far as that analogy can be pushed, at least.

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit both while working on my in-progress novel and while reading Joe Abercrombie’s stuff (I’ve just started Best Served Cold right after concluding the First Law trilogy). It’s been apparent to me that, while much of the punch comes from Abercrombie’s style of writing, the combination of that with masterful structure and plotting is what makes his novels so enjoyable.

An admission: I’m writing this in procrastination of working on the novel itself. It’s perhaps best I turn to that now.

Faith, Fiction, Fatherhood…and Frostgrave?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve recently decided to take a break from video-gaming and devote more time to my “analog” hobbies. It’s now been roughly six weeks since I’ve played a video game and, honestly, I don’t think I miss it as much as I expected to.

The novel I’m working on is progressing slowly but steadily, and I seem to be on schedule to have a finished draft by the end of the year.

But what else has filled my time? I’ve been finishing up Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series, so expect an overall review on that in the near future. As I mentioned in a recent post on gaming as an adult, I’ve been building a hyperlinked database (in OneNote) of characters, locations, events and other goodies to drop players into for future Shadowrun campaigns conducted in the style of a “narrative hexcrawl” (if you’ll bear with me on the liberal use of the term).

With the remainder of my time not spent on the above, or working, or caring for children, I’ve been returning to a long-running, off-and-on-again love affair: miniature gaming. It started around when I was twelve; my dad brought me back some Warhammer Fantasy miniatures from a business trip to London. I was hooked. I remember fondly spending a lot of time in a partially-finished room of the house he used for his model railroading set-ups, listening to the radio and painting miniatures. That was were I discovered my favorite band (Live) and probably much of the rest of the 90’s music I still enjoy so much (it was the 90’s, after all).

I never actually played Warhammer Fantasy. But I spent hours in middle school and high school playing (and arguing over) Warhammer 40k, Necromunda, Mordheim and Warhammer Quest with my best friends. I worked on a lot of miniatures in college, but never seemed to get in an actual game. Off and on, I’d paint and sell minis, get “out” of the hobby and then return again–there are many people on Ebay and Bartertown that got some great deals out of my indecisiveness. After finishing (law) school, I played Warmachine for a while, then Infinity, then Malifaux. I enjoyed all of them (probably Infinity most of all), but the focus on synergies over tactics in both Warmachine and Malifaux left me unsatisfied at the end of the day.

After a few years away from minis games (and a false start with the new Necromunda), I decided to get into Frostgrave. I’ve found that I prefer skirmish level games, love campaigns where characters can gain XP and improve (how I miss Mordheim!), and kitbashing plastic kits is perhaps my favorite part of the hobby side of miniatures games. I also wanted a game where I could, without spending a small fortune, have enough minis to invite my friends to play without having to first convince them to buy into a game. This all pointed to Frostgrave.

I don’t do anything half-assed, and my approach to miniature games is no exception. I cannot bring myself to play games with unpainted figures and really prefer to have some nice terrain to fight over, too. Fortunately, I’ve collected a modest set of skills to accommodate both preferences over the years.

I began (after collecting all of the PDFs available for Frostgrave) by buying up a collection of plastic minis to build from. I picked up the Frostgrave Soldiers, Soldiers II (the women soldiers), Barbarians, Cultists and two boxes of the newer plastic Wizards. On top of that I added Fireforge Foot Sergeants and Foot Knights as well as a box of Oathmark humans. I had a set of Perry War of the Roses Miniatures from the small set of things I hadn’t gotten rid of the last time I got “out” of minis gaming, and I look forward to acquiring more Perry medievals for three reasons: (1) they’re beautiful minis; (2) they’re pretty good for historical accuracy; (3) while many others have used them for Game of Thrones minis (search Google for “To Westeros with Captain Blood” for the best example, in my opinion), they strike me as perfect for a Witcher minis game (y’know, once I’ve built and painted all the Frostgrave minis, and bestiary monsters, and terrain to complete a good collection).

I started by kitbashing and painting a few random soldiers: a knight here, a few thugs there, a marksman. This is the knight, the first of the minis I’ve painted in a long while:

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After a few of these, a thought occurred to me: what if I do a warband that seems to go together rather than a bunch of ragtag outcasts, a group of models with some unity in their clothing and colors. After all, I’ve got thirty Oathmark bodies and plenty of stuff to mix them with.

I’d decided my first warband would be a Sigilist, so I built my wizard and his apprentice (the header photo) and sixteen of their closest companions: thugs, an apothecary, archers, a marksman, a thief, a treasure hunter, a tunnel fighter, etc. I finished painting them today.

The bases still need some detailing (my model snow and foliage tufts are on the way), but they’re otherwise finished. Not the best painting I’ve ever done, but not bad for shaking the dust off after so long.

Of course, after I finished painting these guys was when I looked at how I might assemble them into a starting warband and realized I’m probably at least one thug short for what I should have (and there are a few other soldier “classes” I don’t have represented yet), so I started building some more to accompany them even before my brushes were dry.

I had planned from the beginning, however, for a captain. I wanted my captain to have mail armor, though, and the Oathmark humans, well, don’t. Frostgrave makes a distinction between no armor, leather armor and chainmail armor (the latest game by McCullough, Rangers of Shadow Deep, uses “light armor” and “heavy” armor, which, for a game that encourages you to use whatever minis you want, should probably have been the distinction in Frostgrave as well). Technically speaking, what the Oathmark soldiers are wearing is what D&D (and therefore many fantasy games) calls “studded leather.” This categorization is based upon a misunderstanding of armor depicted in art, where the “studs” that make the leather “studded” are actually rivets holding together small metal plates between a front and back (both probably of cloth, not leather) forming what is called a “brigandine.” This type of armor is probably closer to chainmail in its effectiveness. But, I figure most of those poor souls I can convince to play a minis game with me don’t also want to hear my pedantry about medieval arms and armor–the above is just the tip of the iceberg.

All of that is to say that I decided to go with the conceit that the armor on the Oathmark minis is “leather” armor. Actually, there’s a lot of dispute about just how much leather was used in armors, historically, but…see what I mean about the pedantry?

The point is that I needed a model with mail but wanted one that would still fit with the clothing of the rest of the soldiers. I sucked it up and decided to venture into a new skill, one I’ve actually wanted to pick up as a hobbyist for a long time–sculpting in “green stuff” (kneadatite) for the conversion of minis. So, I started with an Oathmark body and set to work.

Once I’d done the mail for the mini, I couldn’t help but also try a fur cloak. They’ve come out well, but I have a few minor details to sculpt before the mini gets some primer and a proper coat of paint.

As I said, I don’t really tolerate a minis game without some passable terrain as well. The below is my first humble piece, not quite finished (the ladder needs painting and it also needs snowy details). I’m mostly happy with it, but I’ve since learned some techniques to put some more color into the stonework, which is what this piece is currently lacking.

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And that’s it for now, but the work continues. My Proxxon foam cutter just arrived today and I’ve drawn up some templates for the main building in the Silent Tower scenario, so I’m itching to put it to work.

So here we are, with a new (sub-section) of the blog, wherein I’ll post some more my work toward getting an entire table worth of terrain and a slew of minis to go with it, hopefully followed by some tales of battles fought by–as my wife calls them–“tiny minions of dice death.”

Pre-Review: Shadowrun 6th Edition (Beginner’s Box)

In this short review, I’m going to focus mainly on changes in the Sixth Edition of Shadowrun (as they are explained in the Beginner’s Box) to earlier additions. I’ll do a full review when I get my grubby hands on the main rulebook in early-to-mid-August with the rest of the plebs.

The info on the tin says that the Sixth Edition is a “streamlined” version of Shadowrun, and the Quick-Start rules in the Beginner’s Box bear this out. Those familiar with Shadowrun will see much carried over from previous editions: rolls are generally Attribute + Skill to form a dice pool of d6s, 5s and 6s are “hits” which are compared to the Threshold in a simple test or the hits generated by the opposing person/object in an opposed test. Rolling more 1s than half the dice pool remains a “glitch,” and something bad happens.

The first change you’ll encounter in the new rules (in their simplified form in the Quick-Start) is how Edge is used. Each character still has an Edge attribute and starts each scene with a number of Edge points equal to the attribute. In contrast to earlier editions, Edge flows much more freely now and is expected to be spent more like the Plot Points of Fate. Mechanical effects can be chosen by spending between 1 and 5 Edge points, and the expenditure of 5 Edge points, with GM permission, can even be used to “Create a Special Effect,” much giving the player agency to add a new fact, event, or trait to the scene at hand–essentially an interposition into the narrative itself (again, much like Fate).

This new Edge system, at least based upon the Quick-Start, seems designed to take the place of large lists of modifiers to rolls seen in earlier editions. Edge is awarded when one character is on the better end of a large discrepancy between Attack and Defense Ratings, when the situation gives the character an advantage over others (low-light vision in a darkened room, for instance), or when the GM awards Edge for good roleplaying decisions (based on the wording it’s unclear whether they mean this as a “reward” for playing the character well or for creativity in approaching problems or both). The Quick-Start does not include any lists of modifiers to combat rolls (recoil, lighting, distance, etc.), giving the impression that Edge is to be awarded in lieu of having to track lots of numbers. If this bears out in the full ruleset, I think that this is an excellent idea, basically (in my mind, at least) taking a cue from more narratively-focused systems to streamline the mechanics.

Another big change I appreciate (if I’m reading the rules correctly) is to how initiative enhancement works. In previous editions, those characters with Adept Powers, Wired Reflexes or the like took additional turns in a Combat Round, meaning that they essentially were multiple times faster in all aspects than unaugmented characters. This created an impression that characters intended to have a lead roll in combat situations had to have initiative enhancement. The Quick-Start rules give everyone a single turn in a Combat Round. A character gets one Major Action, one Minor Action, and an additional Minor Action for each Initiative Die the character has. So, most characters will have one Major Action and two Minor Actions per turn, with (if the numbers for initiative enhancement translate) at most five Minor Actions. Four Minor Actions may be exchanged for an additional Major Action. This means that the most augmented characters will (at extensive cost in nuyen and Essence, presumably) be able to make two attacks in a turn at a maximum. This is a much better balance (in my opinion), make characters without augmentation much more viable in combat, and is probably how I’d run things even if the Core Book changes this.

Attacks remain opposed rolls similar to previous editions. The “Soak” roll following a defender losing the opposed roll remains as well, and I wish we’d seen some additional streamlining here by using a flat deduction from damage.

Although the Quick-Start rules contain no modifiers for recoil (or recoil compensation)–and I don’t expect the Core Book to either if I’m understanding the design philosophy correctly, it does retain Fire Modes–Single Shots, Semi-Auto (two rounds fired) and Bursts. A Single Shot does not modify the base rules, while Semi-Auto trades dice from the Attack Rating (for determining Edge, not from the Attack Roll) for additional damage and Burst Fire allows you to do the same or to split your pool between two targets (as if you’d fired at both in Semi-Auto). This maintains tactical options without resort to the dizzying amount of potential modifiers we Shadowrunners are used to.

Matrix and Rigging rules are, necessarily, simplified in the Quick-Start, but the Matrix rules look like they have become much more task-focused rather than the complexity of placing marks and then resorting to all other manner of shenanigans to achieve effects. GOD is still in control (of the Matrix). The result is a simplified system allowing a more seemless move back-and-forth between meatspace team members and deckers/hackers/technomancers. Shadowrun has needed this approach for a very long time, though it remains possible that the Core Book complexifies things and mucks it all up.

Riggers get two pages of rules, mostly some quick notes about which Attributes to use when “jumped-in” and some brief vehicle rules. The attention to “Meters per Combat Round” for vehicle distance seems a relic of former rulesets entirely unnecessary to this approach, but your mileage may vary.

Only sorcery is treated in the Magic rules here; the rules seem to have been streamlined here as well. The greater part of spell mechanics are now determined by the category of spell (retaining the standard categories of Combat, Detection, Illusion, Health and Manipulation), with individual spells now differing in smaller details (area of effect, target type, etc.). Drain remains a separate roll from casting (which again, I would have preferred to see streamlined out).

So far, so good–while I have some nitpicks and places I’ll likely houserule to further streamline (and it’s likely that I’ll want to use this ruleset), I think the design philosophy has by and large gone in the right direction.

What remains to be seen, of course, is the complexity of character creation, particularly in how augmentations (cybernetic, bioware or adept powers) and resources such as nuyen and contacts are worked out. Based on the weapons and decks described by the Quick-Start, the customization options for gear have been simplified in favor of ease of use, and the Edge system also seems to indicate that the details of what certain augmentations do will be left to the provision of Edge rather than factoring in tons of modifiers. I’d very much like to see character creation that no longer takes hours to do correctly. While I must admit that I find character creation in earlier Shadowrun editions an amusing exercise for its own sake, for actually running games a much-abbreviated design process is a must.

My understanding is that we’re about two weeks out from the release of the Core Rulebook, so expect a full review shortly after that!

A Short(ish) Note on Rolling Dice (in RPGs)

This morning, I’m re-reading through the Sixth World Beginner’s Box for Shadowrun 6th Edition to write a short review as a prelude to a full review when the core book releases. As I’m reading through, comparing to other roleplaying games, and thinking about the mechanics and systems that make our games run, a thought occurs to me.

We need a paradigm shift on dice rolling. For some of you, particularly those who play more narratively-styled games, this is likely already part of your repertoire, and a number of games that have been out for quite some time make a point of this explicitly, or at least imply it heavily. Others may say, “yeah, that’s not necessarily in the rules, but it’s the heart of ‘Old School’ gaming.” But I think that the approach I’m about to describe (wait for it!) should apply to all roleplaying games, because it’s fundamental and universal to the way stories are told.

Dice should only be rolled with the result increases drama and drives the story forward. Seems simple, right? But if it’s so simple, why do games keep using a different formulation, one that goes something like this: “Easy, mundane or routine tasks do not require a roll. Complex or more difficult actions do.”

If you want to lean heavy on the simulationist side of the GNS theory (and if that’s what’s fun for you, I’m not going to say you’re doing it wrong!), then this formulation does make some sense.

But from the standpoint of telling a story–even if aspects of that story are governed by intricate and complex systems to govern outcomes–the difficulty of a task is not the standard by which we should determine whether to pick up the dice. Novels and short stories often compress into tiny fractions of the narrative those tasks which, while difficult, are necessary to the story but not terribly interesting to focus on. Perhaps the epitome of this approach is the oft-maligned (and oftener-used) “montage” of film fame. The training or preparation depicted in the montage is crucial to understanding where the narrative goes next (or explaining why it goes where it goes), but it’s not where we want to spend our time. Rocky immediately comes to mind, right? All that training that the eponymous character does provides context and justification for everything that comes after, but if the film had two hours of watching Stallone work out as “character development,” many of us would never make it to the story’s climax.

Dice rolling should be treated similarly, and the best example I can give in practice is the Gumshoe system and its treatment of investigation. In an investigation adventure arc, the discovery of the clues to move the plot forward is essential and integral to the success of the story (unless the investigation is a side-story which will turn up again whether or not the characters are successful). Therefore, the characters must succeed at discovering the crucial facts, though it’s just fine if they don’t discover all of the available clues.

If you predicate the discovery of clues on successful dice rolls placing difficulty as the first concern, you get a realistic approach to be sure–but plenty of mysteries are never solved, and that’s just not interesting in a roleplaying game when the mystery serves as the main plot! So, as Gumshoe suggests, don’t roll the dice–just give the players the core clues in ways that match the particular characters’ skills and backgrounds. Sure, you can let them roll (or, as in Gumshoe, let them spend character resources) to gather additional helpful but non-essential clues, but we don’t want to hide the narrative ball (as it were) or put our foot on it to stop it altogether.

This goes well beyond investigation, though, and applies to all types of actions and scenes. Do the characters need to scale that castle wall–no matter how difficult–for the next central plot point to occur? Then success cannot be predicated on a roll of the dice, and the GM shouldn’t put himself in the situation where s/he must fudge the roll or the story hits an impasse.

There are plenty of narrative ways to keep these challenges interesting to the players (and GM), and we can return to the montage for one example. In our scaling the castle wall, maybe the characters need some manner of assistance to do it, so it’s not about a roll of the dice but the proper preparation. This may be as simple as having the players come up with a feasible strategy and concomitant preparation and having that influence the description of the ascent. The obstacle could simply require the expenditure of some character resource (to represent the difficulty) without being predicated on a dice roll. Or, you could make them do the legwork of the preparation as dedicated scenes in the adventure (if interesting), and have these subtasks involve dice-rolling, so long as the last feasible strategy available to the characters automatically succeeds (otherwise you’ve just move the same problem to a different location in the narrative).

Whether in the GM’s section of an RPG book, or in the growing number of books about the craft of GMing, it’s an axiom that a good GM will give each character (and therefore player) a chance to “shine” and take center-stage in the narrative for a bit of awesomeness. If there’s a challenging task in the characters’ way that must be successfully resolved, consider dictating that one of your player characters is able to accomplish it readily because of particular skills, backgrounds, or other character traits that make the character especially suited to success.

You could also use the “failure at a cost” principle on rolls that must succeed to drive the story forward. Rolling the dice isn’t about the success of the roll, but about the severity of the cost of that success. See the Powered by the Apocalypse games for an example of this principle writ mechanically. Like Gumshoe, though, the principle can be applied to any roleplaying game whether or not codified in the mechanics.

My key concern in this rant (which is already longer than I’d originally intended) is to decide when to roll the dice based on when doing so pushes the players toward the edge of their seats, not the objective/realistic difficulty of a task at hand. Choosing when to roll the dice is like zooming in the camera–you’re telling the players, “here’s where the story gets interesting.” Always make good on that promise!

There’s a corollary to that–always have a back-up plan when you roll the dice. If you’ve asked your players to roll, there ought to be an interesting result no matter how the dice fall. If there’s not, consider avoiding the roll altogether and simply dictating the interesting result.

At this point, if you’re working out in your head some criticism about player agency, let me address you specifically (I’m tempted to put a random name here in hopes of blowing the mind of some fortuitous reader, but I’ll not). Player agency is not an absolute in a roleplaying game (just as it’s not in real life); it ebbs and flows and is often a “negotiation” between player and GM. Sometimes the characters have more ability (and therefore agency) to freely respond to a situation than others. And the dice are not the only mechanism of player agency–far from it. On top of those points, most players intuitively understand the idea that their character’s agency changes from scene to scene and will accept that without complaint. Problems arise when (the lack of) player agency gets pushed beyond the breaking point and players feel “railroaded” or as (unwilling) participants in a story told solely by the GM. There is a great distance between dictating the occasional outcome without resort to the dice and reaching this point. If you’re basing dice rolls on drama anyway, you’re going to blow past the dictated results to focus on the times when the players have the greatest amount of agency in the story (and thus drama is at its peak). That’s the whole point.

I’m going back to my reread of the Beginner’s Box to hopefully get my pre-review up this morning as well. Rant over.

(Roleplaying) Gaming as an Adult

With kids in the house again, I’m reminded of how precious little time I often have for some of my favorite pursuits–reading, writing and games of all types. The change in lifestyle has brought about for me a new opportunity (or perhaps mandate is a better word) to consider my priorities (for both life and leisure) and develop some strategies to meet those priorities.

My Xbox One X developed an issue about six weeks ago–the HDMI out port has blown, meaning I can run the system if I stream it through my computer (which is a poor substitute) or otherwise not at all. It’s currently sitting in parts on my study table, waiting for me to receive the new HDMI port, finish desoldering the old port, and hopefully complete the repair without having damaged anything else on the motherboard. I’ve learned a lot about soldering in this effort, which is cool (I like learning and improving skills, not matter how tangential to everyday life), but I’m not yet sure of the cost. Given my past history with DIY electronics repairs, I may well have completely botched the whole thing.

Regardless, the break from my Xbox (between its state of disrepair and the kiddos taking up most of my time) has been an unexpected but welcome change. Even if I fix the Xbox (and I hope I do!), I’m looking forward to devoting more of my free time to analog gaming for a while–roleplaying games and (one of my first loves) miniatures games.

Writing is still the priority, and though the children have drastically slowed the rate of progress on my pending novel, I am still finding small bits of time where (for lack of distractions and sufficient energy and focus) I’m able to push things along ever so incrementally. My goal is still to have the first draft of the novel finished by the end of the year; the goal remains a seemingly reasonable one.

That brings me to my leisure activities. While I love writing and feel compelled to do it, it’s not always a leisurely thing. Sometimes I hit that magic “flow” state and the rhythm of it becomes intoxicating, sometimes I write that magically-worded sentence that causes me to glow with pride, sometimes I discover something new about my narrative that gives me an indescribable joy of creating something with a hint of life in it. Most of the time though, writing is work, and hard work at that. In some ways, then, it’s like running for me. While I sometimes enjoy running, I usually don’t. I do enjoy having run. I like writing a lot more, but it is often a difficult thing.

So, my writing remains a priority along with work, family and other obligations. But I need to look elsewhere for those times to recharge my creative batteries and replenish my energy while bleeding off some stress.

But, as all adults, and especially those with young children, time for other things is rare indeed. Gone are the days when I could call up a few friends on short notice for an all-weekend or all-night roleplaying session. Gone are the days when I got home from school at 3:00, finished homework in an hour, and had all the rest of the day to play videogames and paint miniatures.

Multiply that problem by however many other adults you have in your gaming group, and getting everyone together for a game at one time seems Herculean.

There’s no panacea to this ailment of course; it’s just a fact of life. But I have thought of some things (none of which are shocking or new, but I’ll tell you how I’m using them) to make my leisure goals a little more attainable. These ideas are specifically focused on “pen and paper” roleplaying games.

(1) Online Gaming

I don’t mean for video games, as I’m focusing on “analog” games here. About a year ago, I ran an online game for some Methodist pastor friends of mine (which arose out of the Israel trip, believe it or not). It lasted for a few months and played relatively smoothly. There are a lot of virtual tabletop programs out there, and we used (for a time) Roll20. It’s an excellent program, with many great features, but I’m of a mind just to use Skype or a different video-conference platform to run games.

A few reasons for this: First, as I’ll state below, I think running games of a more narrative style makes a lot more sense for the time-strapped gamer. Second, it became an extra time-burden for me to try to learn the systems that make Roll20 run smoothly in addition to all the other gaming-planning I had to do for the game. The KISS principle seems to work for my adult-oriented gaming schedule. No, that phrase isn’t the right one. You know what I mean.

I’m looking simply to recreate the feel of sitting at the table together as simply and authentically as possible. I think a lot of “set pieces” and battlemaps and miniatures focus a roleplaying game on the wrong things (as I prefer to play, not objectively–there’s no “one true way” to play an RPG, and that’s one of the wonderful things about them), so I don’t really need most of the features that Roll20 has to offer. If I can email or fileshare handouts easily enough, and if I really need to visually display something I can manipulate in realtime, I can set up an extra device to put a camera specifically on that.\

The online venue doesn’t fully substitute for all sitting down at the same table, but it does make things much easier in terms of scheduling everyone or being able to game with friends across large geographic distances.

(2) Pick a Ruleset

We all know that there’s a learning curve with any new roleplaying game, and even a “relearning” curve when returning to games that you haven’t played in a while. The fewer rulesets you can manage in your gaming group, the more you cut down on this learning curve and keep it easy to jump into a game with little preparation.

There are some rulesets that lend themselves to (relatively easy) adaptation across settings and genres–those of you who read regularly (or as regularly as I write!) know that I’m a big proponent of Fate and Cortex Plus/Prime.

But the Fifth Edition D&D rules are being constantly tweaked to be used in different genres and settings, so if that’s your bag (or GURPS or anything else for that matter), no reason not to use one of those.

The point is to find efficiency in consistency. The fewer rulesets to jump between, the faster character generation is and the faster gameplay goes.  That said, specific rulesets built for certain games are often better at evoking the mood for that setting (The One Ring comes to mind), so there’s a balancing act to consider here.

(3) Run Narrative-Focused Games

Quite simply, narrative-focused games run more intuitively (in my opinion) and keep the action focused on the story over the mechanics. I have a strong personal bias in this direction, admittedly, and if I want to focus on detailed tactical combat, I’ll play a video game or a miniatures game.

Games like Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime, the Powered by the Apocalypse games and the Forged in the Dark games have enough “crunch” to structure gameplay and create consequences for failure and success based on more than mere GM fiat, and I think they’re easier to run spontaneously (certainly at least the Apocalypse games were designed with that in mind).

What I don’t want to do is spend lots of time balancing “encounters,” looking up charts and carefully choosing enemies from lists with large stat blocks. That can be a fun exercise, but it’s not were I want to spend my personal gaming budget.

(4) Personal Setting Books, OneNote and “Emergent Gameplay”

This one is part well-trod ground and part personal eccentricity. For me, though I don’t think this is a necessary consequence, this goes hand-in-hand with running more narratively-focused games.

I’m not by most definitions an “old school” gamer. I cut my teeth on West End Star Wars, Shadowrun Second Edition and Vampire: The Masquerade (and its sister games). But I’ve always like the idea of the sandbox game and the hexcrawl.

My tack here is to adapt the mechanically-focused idea of the “old school” hexcrawl to a narrative focus. By that, I mean the creation of a narrative sandbox rather than a “physical” one. Instead of filling in hexes on a map and developing random generators for what players might find in that hex, I’m working on building the practical setting to run a game in–collections of NPCs and their relationships, important location descriptions, events and conflicts underway.

Right now I’m working on building a setting for Houston in the Shadowrun universe. I can do this a little bit at a time–do a quick write-up for an NPC who could be a contact here, fill out organizational charts of the important criminal organizations and local megacorp executives, etc. Since I can do one thing at a time, or even jot some notes down to return to and flesh out later, I can fit this kind of work easily into small opportunities to write. The more I develop, the more links between characters, events and locations that naturally develop, bringing the world alive.

This allows for emergent gameplay. You can drop the characters into the setting and you have all of the elements you need to organically respond to the actions they take and the direction they lead the narrative.

This makes the work persistent, as I can do this for each of the settings I know I’m likely to want to run in the future. I can start a Shadowrun game with what I’ve got in my “setting database,” add to it both as a result of play and in my free moments away from the table, and whether that game fizzles and dies, I’ve got the background material ready to go to run a fresh game immediately or later without going back to square one with a campaign idea. Efficiency is key here.

A setting can sit for a very long time and, when the urge to run that setting returns, it’s ready for you at a moment’s notice. You can even have your gaming group build characters in advance for various settings and you can play “pick up” games with very little prep-time. This takes a lot of the GM stress out of gaming and helps me be excited to run games and to enjoy them to the fullest when I do.

As an added bonus, this kind of writing seems lower risk to me than writing for Avar Narn, so when I’m feeling “stuck” in my “more serious” writing or just needing to get my creative juices flowing, I’ve got ready prompts to turn to where the work I do will be useful elsewhere.

You can also use these setting portfolios like gaming scrapbooks–see a character idea or an interesting location that would work for one of your settings (whether in an official book for the game or as a riff off of something you experience in the quotidian)–and you can create an entry for it, import text or inspirational pictures, etc.

This system can easily translate to a setting bible for your own fictional universes as well.

I prefer OneNote for this kind of work. It’s inexpensive, it’s relatively intuitive, and it has a lot of hypertextuality which allows me to link my work easily and access it effectively at the gaming table. I can save my OneNote notebooks to the cloud and have them both securely backed-up and easily accessible over multiple devices.

Conclusion

So there you have it, a few of my thoughts on managing to keep playing RPGs as a busy adult.

As I mentioned, I’m also trying to get back into miniatures games (and Frostgrave in particular; I’ll have to post on this separately). Strategies for this are more difficult–I try to do some modeling of both terrain and miniatures when the kiddos are sleeping and I’m not yet to the point of being ready to play games!

Mushin no shin

Mushin no shin. It translates literally to “mind without mind, ” but this fails to capture the nuance of it. Mushin, for short, might best be described as a state of being dispassionate, freeing oneself from all mental and emotional attachment so that one may respond rather than react.

Mushin has a happy home in Zen and other meditative practices, which makes perfect sense. I first encountered it in my martial studies, where it comprises part of Bushido, the way of the warrior. There, mushin is a state of detachedness from ego that allows one to act without fear, to focus on the technique of combat rather than the result. “He who seeks to save his own life” and all. Or, as Mad Max would have it, “Fear is the mindkiller.”

During my days as a concealed handgun instructor, I advocated for mushin, for a number of reasons. First, as the samurai well knew, it is an effective combat mindset for those who achieve it. Second, in civilian uses of deadly force in self-defense, strict adherence to the law is a necessity. Many infractions of the law occur out of a fear response–the civilian produces his weapon before he is justified in doing so, or she fires it without sufficient objective indication (what the law in Texas would call “reasonableness”) of imminent harm to authorize the application of deadly force.

At the time, though, mushin interested me at least as much for its applicability at conflict de-escalation as during the escalation of hostilities. Most of the conflict de-escalation techniques I have been taught, or have personally taught, require stepping back from one’s ego to manage the situation logically and persuasively instead of as a matter of preserving sense of identity and saving face. Now, I am even more interested in that aspect of mushin.

Especially as a parent. Much of the discipline of children is done from a place of anger or frustration. This is understandable–children can be both anger-inducing and frustrating. But being understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. I’m not casting aspersions; I’m just as guilty, and I’ve tried to be introspective, realistic and candid in my own failings and unnecessary power struggles in that regard.

I’ve harped on TBRI before, and this seems an opportunity to do so again. Without calling it that, TBRI incorporates the same principle as mushin into its approach to parenting–if you can’t center yourself and can’t remove your own emotions from the situation, you can’t effectively parent. You are reacting, not responding. And, yes, sometimes parenting feels like the attack-parry-riposte of the duel.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you know that I have a strong sense of self and identity–and I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I work on the assumption that the uniqueness of my personality (what we might call the “writer’s voice” if we want to be formal about it) is interesting enough to keep my audience coming back.

But I also know that I’m at my best as a parent when I put all of that aside. When I focus on my child’s needs, both in the short-term meeting of needs and in the long-term development of character, I develop parenting strategies that do more than momentarily relieve my own frustrations–I build trust and relationship just as I am redirecting, correcting, of flat-out dodging certain behaviors. That’s love, both practically- and theologically-speaking.

It’s a strange thing to think that love sometimes happens best when given from a place of detachment and dispassion, but the strangeness of that comes from a society that tells us that love is a feeling, a fleeting emotion whose high we must chase continually. While we can’t–and shouldn’t–deny the emotional aspects of our relationships, we cannot roll them into intent and behavior and pretend that the mess that results is one monolithic thing. Sometimes love is a choice, and we are called to pursue it even when we don’t feel like it. When we choose to be loving to another when it doesn’t come easy is when that love is most powerful, when it is self-sacrificial.

But there’s a trap here as well, and we shouldn’t get it twisted–we humans have emotional needs that must be fulfilled by our relationships for them to be healthy, positive, and functional. For those persons with whom we intend to travel large swathes of our lives, we ought to like them as well as love them. We ought to feel that emotional pull as well as the conscious desire to seek their good first.

But, as I’ve said, children are often infuriating, even as we also feel loving emotions toward them. But to raise them up in the world, our parenting must be about them and their needs, not about our personal weaknesses or psychological quirks and desires.

We must become like samurai, dispassionate and able to see the situation for what it really is, to–as objectively as is humanly possible–look down the skeins of time for the far-reaching consequences of our own behavior. We must be unattached to emotional needs and distant from fear of particular results so that we may employ the techniques we know to be beneficial, healthy and effective.

Because, while parenting may sometimes be a fight, it’s not one comprised of strikes and parries, of throws and joint locks. It’s not even a fight between us and our children (though we often feel that it is). We have met the enemy, and it is us.