What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay: Part VI: Social Context

For the previous post in this series, click here.

In the first scene of Romeo and Juliet, two armed servingmen of the house of Capulet are boasting to one another, demonstrating bravado in their defiance of the Montagues (and their preponderance of sexual innuendo). According to the stage notes they are armed, as we would expect, with sword and buckler.

Sampson attempts to provoke two Montague men by biting his thumb at them. As an aside, it’s worth noting that this was not an offensive gesture in England at the time–but it was in Italy. Since our story is set in “fair Verona,” that makes sense, but it also allowed Shakespeare to avoid fears of censorship by using a gesture that wouldn’t have been offensive to the audience–or those with authority to censor.

An exchange of words is coupled with blows, as Sampson and Gregory (the Capulet men) begin to fight with Abraham and Balthasar. All are armed with sword and buckler. This combination of weapons allowed for a lot of noise and commotion without as much risk.

Remember that I said that the foyning (thrusting) fence had been outlawed in England in 1534? Dueling, disturbing the peace, assault and murder were all already illegal, so the passage of such a law indicates a social anxiety about the increased deadliness of the thrust. With sword and buckler fighting, particularly if there is no thrusting or grappling and a medium distance is engaged, there can be a lot of swinging of weapons against which there is ready defense (both sword and buckler). Indeed, the court records of Tudor England indicate that these “swashbucklers” were known to brawl without significant injury on either side on many occasions. This matches with the servingman’s dispute–he must put on a good show for the honor of his master, but he doesn’t actually want to get killed, so he fights only as aggressively as he must to avoid derision and acquit himself well, expecting his opponents to do the same.

If murder and death had been the actual intent here, the parties would not (as they often did and do in our dramatic example) face each other openly and begin with words and taunts–they would have engaged in ambuscade and trickery.

Let’s return to Shakespeare. Benvolio, a Montague noble, and Tybalt, a Capulet noble, enter just as the fight begins. Benvolio attempts to stop the fray. But Tybalt is a duelist of the newer style (to England at least)–he enters with a rapier. We know this in part because of Mercutio’s later description of him, which matches with Spanish styles of rapier fence (or at least stereotypes about them).

The English master George Silver had great derision in his fight manual for the rapier as un-English–and indeed, it was the popularity of Italian fencing masters in London teaching rapier over other forms of fighting in Elizabeth England (and therefore depriving Silver of business) that underlay much of his scorn. The sword and buckler, on the other hand, was considered the proper (and traditional) servingman’s armaments in England. But Tybalt is no servingman, he is one of the nobles represented by Gregory and Sampson.

So, Tybalt’s entry into the fight is disruptive on three levels–it interjects foreignness into what (despite the Italian setting of the play) is good ‘ole Englishness; represents a condescension of the noble into the sort of brawl whcih should, in line with social expectations, be left to the servingman; and brings a very palpable and socially-recognized increase in the lethality of the fight through the introduction of the rapier. Indeed, his first words to Benvolio are, “What, art thou drawn among these hearless hinds? [and here Tybalt is calling out the lack of true deadly intent in the servingmen fighting with sword and buckler]. Turn thee, Benvolio, look upon thy death.” These stacked transgressions would have singled Tybalt out for a villain in the first moments of his entrance, with no exposition needed. That is brilliant writing.

That kind of context is lost to the modern audience–we lose some great narrative techniques with it. It takes careful worldbuilding and weaving these expectations into a novel (or game) to bring the audience to a position where they’d recognize such a message given with so much “show don’t tell,” but it is possible to reclaim these opportunities. In some sense, the barbarian with the “twenty-pound sword” is a very clumsy way of trying to use something similar (choice of weapons to convey character), but this is too blunt, too dumb, to be a mark of skill in the craft or familiarity with the conceits of historical parallels.

I love Tybalt’s example because it hits so many social contexts about the use of weapons all at once. The classist angle is the easiest of them, as this persists through most or all historical periods when hand-to-hand fighting is the primary method of violence. Early on, the sword itself is the emblem of the higher-class warrior. By the Elizabethan period, the type of sword used serves a similar function. Likewise, the grosse messer I mentioned in the previous post was a lower-class weapon than certain alternatives. But as important in Tybalt’s example is that there is a social stratification about when and how it is appropriate (or conversely, inappropriate) for people of certain social status to fight.

Vincentio Saviolo, one of those Italian rapier masters who had come to London in 1590, included instructions in the rules of dueling in his fighting manual. This code included the point that men of high status ought not duel with men of lower status, because their lower status itself meant that they could not participate in the game of honor that lay behind the code duello. The closest thing I can think of in this context in the RPG world is the D&D conceit that cleric’s cannot use bladed weapons because they cannot “spill blood,” a popular but unverified historical belief based–as far as I can tell–on the fact that Bishop Odo bears a mace rather than a sword in the Bayeux Tapestry. Anyone who’s seen blunt trauma knows that this is a distinction without a difference on its own (blunt trauma’s plenty bloody), not to mention that it’s a pretty poor argument from history even if we’re going to give a lot of play to the potential hypocrisy of medieval clergy. We can do better as gamers and writers.

The nationalist context of the use of weapons in Romeo & Juliet, George Silver’s Paradoxes of Defense, and an adventure pamphlet purporting to tell the story of an English adventurer who participated in the post-Armada attack on Cadiz, was the focus on my master’s thesis.

Silver states in his fight manual that he can handily defeat two men armed with rapiers with the good old English quarterstaff, but declines to boast that he can defeat three. The adventurer in the Cadiz pamphlet bests three rapier-armed Spaniards with his quarterstaff in a duel arranged after his capture by the Spanish simply to set up the writer’s argument of English national superiority, it seems.

In the historical Renaissance, there’s a tension in the context of weapon use. For warfare, there will likely be a homogenization where the context of warfare is the same or similar (i.e. all of Europe moved to pike formations, cannons and increasingly lighter cavalry over the period) but choices in minor variations of arms and armor (or those weapons used outside the context of warfare) that are tied to national identity. The Italians and Spanish with their rapiers and the English with their swords and bucklers and quarterstaves are one example.

The point is, use this to develop setting and character. From a mechanical sense, perhaps, fighting is fighting is fighting. But not from a philosophical or social sense–there are rules that shape the who, what, when, where and how of fighting created by people and cultures. And, as we see with the swashbuckler servingmen, not every fight is intended to maim and kill.

I’m gonna have to dig on D&D again (sorry if you’re an enthusiast–from a gaming and narrative perspective, it’s not a bad game, even if I personally have a lot of gripes with it). Let’s look at D&D’s rapier: d6 damage instead of d8 of the “traditional” one-handed sword (still incorrectly called a “longsword”) and the ability to use Dexterity instead of Strength on attack rolls. Wrong on so many levels! All weapons should probably be using Dexterity to hit–or better yet, a system relying more on skill than attributes and levels, and the historical rapier was largely considered to be deadlier than the cut-and-thrust single-hand-sword (all other things being equal–experience shows that this match up is much more about the skill of the participants than anything else, and social perceptions certainly don’t always match with reality). So, we see the rapier in D&D as the weapon of Rogues and other “secondary” fighters rather than a measure of social status and a weapon particularly suited for self-defense, dueling and street-brawling over warfare.

Now, if you’re a GM or player of D&D, it would take a massive set of homebrew rules to replace the D&D conceits with more realistic rules (a trap I regularly fall into, never successfully, before again admitting to myself that the D&D system just isn’t a ruleset I can redeem for the types of games I like to run). But that doesn’t mean you can’t make some easy modifications to how you treat weapons in your setting (in the social context and aside from their mechanics) in a D&D campaign.

If you’re a writer, take these ideas and run–and be thankful you don’t have to tie them to mechanics!

In the last post in this series, I’ll provide some final thoughts and some reading recommendations.

What Writers (and Roleplayers) Need to Know about Swordplay, Part V: Learning the Art

For the previous post in this series, click here.

The sword masters of the early-modern period agree that one must learn the sword by doing and, indeed, this is a precept of many modern WMA groups–reading the fight manuals and seeing their illustrations is one thing, but one cannot truly understand the art and craft of the sword (or any other aspect of medieval/Renaissance hand-to-hand combat) without actually experiencing it, working through the techniques described.

With that in mind, it’s safe to assume that most training in swordplay occurred by direct instruction. The farther we go back in history, the harder it is to determine exactly what that looked like, but we can make some safe assumptions. During most of the medieval period, training in arms was a part of a young nobleman’s education, and it was expected that those who had charge over him, whether he was raised by his own family or placed in the household of another noble house, would provide for such. This likely started as an informal affair and became more formalized during a young man’s time as a squire while that system was in use.

While a few of the fighting manuals show grappling techniques, many do not, and those that do tend to show more advanced techniques of traps, breaks, locks and such. I can’t remember a manual that demonstrates how to throw a punch or how to kick someone. As is the usual assumption when the specifics of a skill are not described when the skill is mentioned in an instructional manual, the common belief is that those people writing the fight manuals took for granted that a person looking to undertake instruction armed combat understood the fundamentals of unarmed combat. We might say something along the lines of, “those young men who didn’t learn how to defend themselves with fists and feet during their childhood lack the constitution and mental preparation necessary to learn the sword.”

From the grappling techniques recorded in fighting manuals, the medievals and their Renaissance successors had a relatively comprehensive grasp of unarmed fighting, retaining some techniques that descended from Roman practice and perhaps even from Greek Pankration as well as formulating techniques specific to the weapons of their own day. As I said before, to a certain extent (and most so with unarmed fighting), the capabilities of the human body and body mechanics being what they are, and people being of generally the same amount of intelligence and insight across geographies and times, unarmed fighting is unarmed fighting, regardless of what little stylistic spins you put on it.

As we also discussed earlier, in the medieval period, both because of the cost of equipment and the nobility’s concerns about peasant revolt, formal training in the sword and those weapons preferred by the nobility were probably restricted to the nobility. But the later the period, the more widespread the availability of swords.

By the 16th century, at least, swords were available and affordable enough that those of the burgeoning middle class could afford them. As mentioned in Part II, owning a sword, and carrying it if you could get away with it, were social signifiers as much as practical, defensive goals.

We have papers and statues affecting the London guild of masters of arms from the 1530’s, and a number of woodcuts from the same century depicting the fechtchules, where those who could pay the dues and commit to the rules of membership could study the arts of war under an acknowledged master. These woodcuts display training in the longsword and quarterstaff, in the grosse messer (the “big knife” single-handed sword; the kriegsmesser or “war knife” is the two-handed variant, of German usage), and to a lesser extent, in other weapons.

Generally, students accepted to a fight school where called “scholars.” After studying for a time and proving adeptness in  the foundational skills, they could progress to “free scholars” and then to “provosts.”

Doing so required “playing the prize,” a public demonstration of skill through sparring matches with other members of the school as well as (potentially) the school’s master and even potentially visiting masters (though this was usually reserved for someone seeking the title of master himself–according to Parisian law of the period, he would need at least three other masters to certify his skill with multiple weapons).

A raised platform for visibility was an expectation for the event, and the person playing his prize might be expected to provide beer or other drink for his schoolmates (for the afterparty, I guess), so we are again returned to the linkage of social status (or at least wealth) with attendance at these schools.

Bear in mind that, in England at least, “foyning” (thrusting) was made illegal (I’ll pick this up in the next post) in 1534. Sparring was conducted with bated (i.e. blunted) steel; some amount of injury was expected. The crowds, though, were also used to executions as a form of public entertainment (ultraviolent films had not yet been produced, after all), and it seems that there was a ready audience who wanted to see the blood flow. Remember that armed fights are usually over very quickly, and if the exhibition, as it was intended to be, consisted of controlled action emphasizing finding the opening with discipline and technique enough to pull the strike when it was clear that it would have connected, then there was room to add more blood to the show.

I don’t have the documentary evidence to back this up, but I’ve heard more than one historian say that (an as a folk etymology it makes sense) the organizers of such exhibitions arranged for pugilism to warm up the audience–unarmed fighting lasting longer and being a bit bloodier when conducted with bare or lightly-padded fists and actual intent. Over time, the pugilism aspect became more and more of the focus, hence our modern reference to boxing as “prizefighting.” Remember, the scholars, free scholars and provosts were “playing the prize.”

The 16th century also saw the burgeoning field of science applied to the sword, particularly math and geometry. Indeed, Mercutio describes Tybalt (in Romeo and Juliet) as “More than prince of cats, I can tell you. O, he is the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance and proportion; rests me his minim rest, one, two, and the third in your bosom: the very butcher of a silk button, a duelist, a duelist; a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado! The punto reverso! The hai!” (Act 2, Scene 4). It was in particular the Spanish who made comparisons (in the rapier fight) with dancing–the importance of precision of time and distance, with careful footwork. For more information on this aspect of the science of arms, see Sydney Anglo’s book, The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe, which includes both frontispieces showing the fencing master/author as mathematician and scientist (bearing compass and other tools of the trade) and images parodying the overuse of mathematical principles as the major focus of fencing instruction (there is one in particular of a dwarf farting, with the wind from his buttocks parsed out into geometrical diagram).

I want to emphasize, again, that despite the prevalence of the written fight manuals in this period, the bulk of real instruction took place through personal relationships, whether or not commercialized. The richest employed private instructors, while the middle class sought the public instruction available through the guilds and schools run by masters of defense. Without a practice partner and the opportunity to work through precise (and sometimes complex and counter-intuitive) maneuvers, it is difficult to do more than properly practice stances, movement between them, basic cutting technique and blocking technique when working solo.

Let’s conclude this part by bringing it to the writer’s craft and the gamer’s table. If you have a martially-skilled character, how did he learn, and how did that affect him. Was his teacher patient or demanding? Was his instruction in solitary practice between single student and instructor, or as part of a group whether in military drill (which, as we have mentioned, would have focused more on formation and movement than the techniques of individual combat) or fight school. In a group, what were the rivalries, tough lessons and embarrassments, not to mention successes, that shape how the character thinks about fighting now?

For the D&D (and other fantasy game) players, what about a fighter whose purpose in adventuring is not the righting of wrongs or the accumulation of wealth, but the gathering of practical fighting experience in multiple weapons to undergird his dream of establishing a fight school? Unfortunately, D&D’s approach to weapons is almost entirely gamist, without much in the way to distinguish when a dagger is a better weapon than a halberd, or that its the skill of the arm much more often than the weapon itself that causes the grievous injury, but I digress.

On that note, think about what the experienced swordsman actually thinks about fighting. The assumption in D&D and its many sister games is that the fighter is expected to jump into the fight, to push the party into combat encounters. But the person who knows how fragile life is in hand-to-hand combat, that even the lucky unskilled peasant can kill a well-trained knight, probably doesn’t rush to fight when there are alternatives. And almost certainly avoids doing so fairly when he has the option of seeking advantage. Yes, there will be some for whom ideology overtakes all practical concerns, but that should be far from the norm (and when it is, it’s all the more believable when it does occur).

For the next post in the series, click here.


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

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.

Continue to the next post in the series by clicking here.

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.


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.

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.

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.”

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.

Learning from Game of Thrones

[SPOILER ALERT: This post presupposes familiarity the sweep of the Game of Thrones TV series, with a focus on the final season. If you’re sensitive to having narrative spoiled for you and haven’t watched everything yet, don’t read.]

It would be hardly original of me to spend a post simply lamenting this last season of Game of Thrones, despite my desire to do so. Instead, I’m going to spend some time pointing out what I think are some lessons to be learnt by aspiring writers (in any medium) from the recent failures of the show.

To preface that though, I need to exhibit some due humility. The greatest lesson to be taken from the recent episodes is that good writing is difficult, no matter who you are. It is, as with so many things, far easier to criticize than to create. D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, and the other writers who contributed throughout the show’s run, have managed to create for widespread public consumption. At this point, I have not. I feel it’s only appropriate to bear that in mind and take what I have to say with a pinch of salt as we continue (though ultimately, I hope that the weight of my arguments, rather than the status of the people involved, carries the day in this discussion).

Show Don’t Tell

It’s one of the commonly-touted pieces of advice given to writers. Don’t use boring exposition when you can just as easily let the audience get the necessary information from context or from being immersed in the setting and story. Don’t explain the inner thoughts of the characters when we can understand them just as well by how the characters act and speak.

This is especially true of visual media–which is why Industrial Lights & Magic and Weta Workshop have been able to do such wonderful things for defining setting in films and TV, why concept art is such an important aspect of designing for those media (and even for the written word)!

So, for me, Game of Thrones’ after-the-show talks with the showrunners pointed out a key problem. When you have to explain what you were trying to get at in an episode after the episode, you haven’t written the episode well enough to stand on its own. When you smugly assume that everyone got exactly what you’re talking about while watching, you’re adding insult to injury.

This is largely a result of rushing the storytelling. Without time enough to lay all of the necessary groundwork to explain events and occurrences within the show, you’re going to have to either let the audience create their own explanations or hand the explanations to them elsewhere. The lesson here: make sure you’re taking the right amount of time to show what you need to show so that you don’t have to tell later.

To be clear, this is a general rule, and general rules can always be broken in good writing–if done well and only when appropriate. It is possible to have key events happen “off stage” and describe them later or to play with the relation of key information in other ways, but these decisions must be made carefully and deliberately. My recommendation is to start with a “more is more” approach when writing and then employ a “less is more” approach when editing. It’s easier (I think) to lay it all out and refine by cutting out the dross than to realize your narrative isn’t complete and then struggle to fill in gaps–I’ve been there!

Here are some specific examples from Season 8 of this being an issue: the tactics employed at the Battle of Winterfell, Daenerys’ suddden change in the attack on King’s Landing. This lesson could just as easily be called “Timing is everything,” or “Don’t Rush” (the latter of which is probably the cause of most of Season 8’s mistakes).

Reversals of Expectations: There’s a right way and a wrong way.

The showrunners made a great deal out of “defying audience expectations” in Season 8. Defying audience expectations is a key technique in good narrative, but there’s more nuance to it than that. The technique, properly employed, has two parts: (1) give the audience a twist that they don’t see coming AND (2) set up the narrative so that, in retrospect, that twist feels somehow inevitable.

This is not a game of “gotcha!” Good writers do not play with twists and surprises simply because its something to do. Good writers use twists to increase tension, remind us that, like life itself, the unexpected (but often foreseeable) occurs in narrative, to create drama.

A good surprise must satisfy multiple demands in addition to the two basics mentioned above. The twist must follow the internal consistency of the setting–it should defy expectations of plot, but not of the personality and character of the actors or the rules (spoken or unspoken) of the setting itself. It must have sufficient groundwork laid in the story; without this the “twist” feels random and unmoored from the themes and scope of the rest of the narrative.

In “gritty” fiction, there will be times when bad fortune or ill luck interjects itself into the story, times when both readers and characters are left wondering “is there a meaning to all of this, or is everything that happens just random?” But those types of events only work when explained by coincidence and happenstance–they must truly be strokes of bad luck. When we’re talking about the choices made by characters, there must be believable motivation and a way for the character to justify the action–even if we don’t agree with the logic or morality of that justification.

The example that undoubtedly comes to mind here, as above, is Daenerys’ sudden decision to kill everyone in King’s Landing. There is some building-up of her story arc in the early narrative (following Martin) that Dany might not be the great savior everyone hopes that she will be. She is a harsh mistress to the Masters of the cities of Slaver’s Bay, willing to commit atrocities in the name of “justice.” But this moral ambiguity (strongly based in the character of historical figures in similar situations) is not the same as the desire for justice slipping into a desire for power and control to implement that justice. That story arc certainly works (it is the rationale behind Morgoth and especially Sauron in Tolkien’s world), but we need a solid background for such a morally-repugnant act as mass murder of innocents. We are given the groundwork for her eventual “fall” into a person willing to use harsh means to achieve her idealistic ends, but not for her to do what she did. This lack of laying the proper foundation for her sudden change leaves it feeling like, as some commenters put it, “a betrayal of her character.” This leads us to the next point.

Internal Consistency versus Authorial Fiat

For me, the greatest issue I took with Season 8, the thing that left such a bad taste in my mouth, was my belief that the showrunners decided what would happen and then shoehorned in all of the details to get them to those decisions. Euron’s sudden (and nonsensical) appearance before an undefended Targaryen fleet and ability to quickly slay a dragon compared with his powerlessness before one remaining dragon at King’s Landing is only one exemplar here. Having Arya kill the Night King (which had been “decided early on”) is another. And just about all of Episode 6.

One of the great joys of writing (in my mind, though I hear this with some frequency from other writers) is when a story takes on a life of its own. What you thought would happen in your story gets suddenly left behind because of the momentum the story has accrued, the logic of the setting, the narrative and the characters within it. We find ourselves mid-sentence, suddenly inspired (in as true a sense as that word can be used) with the thought, “That’s not what happens, this character would do X instead! Which means Y needs to change!” All of sudden, you’re going somewhere better than you were originally headed, somewhere truly rewarding to write and to for your audience to read or see.

This is the result of a dialectic that forms between the moving parts of the story. The narrative, the dramatic tensiveness of the story, the themes and motifs, the characters involved and the conditions established by the setting; the gestalt of these elements becomes something that lives and breathes, something greater than the mere sum of its parts.

Pigeonholing the plot forces it to become stilted, forced and (worst of all) didactic. Dead and mechanical. This is, in part, the difficulty with story “formulae.” There are narrative structures that provide a general framework for certain types of genres or stories, but following the formula with nothing else results in something unsatisfactory.

Here, though, my suspicion is that the problem was more a matter of fan-service and a slavish devotion to defying expectations than rote adherence to fantasy-story formulae.

One of the things that made the Song of Ice and Fire books, and the Game of Thrones TV show so popular, so gripping for the audience, was that it pulled more from medieval chronicle than fantasy yarn for its structure. The story is about the world and the group of characters as a whole in a way that is bigger than any of the constituent characters, that survives the misfortunate end of any one (or more) of them. This left no character safe, allowed for real surprises that contradicted expectations of narrative structure rather than expectations based on the internal logic of the harsh, unforgiving setting and culture(s) in which the story takes place. The internal logic, then, drives the defiance of expectations instead of resisting forced twists of expectations inserted into the plot by the author’s whim.

In fantasy in particular, internal consistency is the golden rule. In settings where magic is real, where dragons may soar in the skies and burn down the enemies of a proud queen, we are required to suspend disbelief. Of course. But we can manage that suspension of disbelief only when there is a reward for doing so and the obstacles that might prevent us are removed from our path. Magic is a wonder to behold in the truest sense, but it fizzles and dies when it appears that the magic in a setting does not follow certain rules or structure (even if we don’t fully understand those rules or that structure). If the magic is simply a convenient plot device that conforms like water to whatever shape the author needs or desires, then it fails to carry wonder or drama. Drama constitutes the ultimate reward for the suspension of disbelief–allow yourself to play in world with different rules from our own and the stories you find there will satisfy, amaze, entertain and tell us truths about our own world, even if it is very different. But without internal consistency, there can be little meaning. Without meaning, narrative is nonsense.

Season 8 lacked this internal consistency on many levels. From the small, like the much-discussed “teleportation” around Westeros, to the glaring, like battles being predetermined by plot rather than by the forces and characters that participated in them.

But the greatest issue I took with Season 8 in its (lack of) internal consistency was the ending. To me, the sudden appearance of the nobility of Westeros to decide, “Yay! Constitutional monarchy from now on!” seemed far too after-school special for me. For a story where peoples’ personalities, desires and miredness in a culture of vengeance and violence long proved the driving factor, you need far more of an internal story arc for a sudden commitment to peaceful resolution of issues to be believable. They would have to reject their entire culture to do so, rather than rationalizing how the culture is correct all along (what much more frequently happens in real life). I can see such a decision for Tyrion and for Jon. But for Sansa and Arya, I do not. And why Yara Greyjoy and the new Prince of Dorne wouldn’t likewise declare independence, I cannot say.

In short, I just don’t think that the narrative satisfactorily supports the actions taken by the ad-hoc council of Westerosi nobles in the final episode.

When a Narrative Fails Your Narrative

Why did putting Bran on the throne fall flat in the final episode? Tyrion gave an impassioned speech about how stories are what bind people together and create meaning (something with which I wholeheartedly agree as aspiring fantasy author and aspiring existential Christian theologian) and then made an argument about the power of Brandon’s story.

Wait, what? You lost me there. What was the power of Brandon’s story? Yes, it started strong, and he did do some amazing things–crossing north of the Wall, becoming the Three-Eyed Raven (whatever the hell that means), surviving his long fall from the tower at Winterfell. But, given his role in Season 8, I’m not sure that any of that mattered. He played relatively no role at the Battle of Winterfell (at least that we mortals could see), the narrative of his role as Three-Eyed Raven was left impotent and undeveloped at the end of the series, and of those with decision-making authority in Westeros, few had any direct experience with a Three-Eyed Raven, the White Walkers or the Battle of Winterfell. To them, the whole thing is just a made-up story by the North.

For narrative to be effective, we must be able to use it to find or create meaning. Bran’s story is too jumbled a mess without a climax or denouement for us to be able to piece much meaning out of it. In fact, we’re left wondering if it meant anything at all.

Since the idea to put him on the throne relies on the meaning of his story, the act of crowning him itself becomes meaningless; we can find no internally-consisted basis for supporting making him king (other than that he can’t father children) and no meta-narrative logic for the event either. This is exacerbated by the fact that Bran earlier tells us that he doesn’t consider himself to be Bran anymore. Without continuity of character, narrative loses meaning.

Thus, the finale fails because it relies on a sub-narrative that has failed. It is a common trope for fantasy fiction to use other stories (often legends) from the setting’s past to convey meanings and themes for the main narrative (Tolkien does this, Martin himself does, Rothfuss does as a major plot device in The Kingkiller Chronicles); writers looking to follow suit need to make sure that any “story-within-a-story” they use itself satisfies the necessities of good storytelling, or one is only heaping narrative failure upon narrative failure. The effect, I think, is exponential, not linear.

What the Audience Wants and What the Audience Needs

Several of my friends who are avid fans of the show and the books, before the final episode, expressed their feelings about the uncertain ending in terms of “what they could live with.” This was often contrasted with both their hopes for what would happen and their expectations of what would happen.

There’s been much talk (even by myself) about the showrunners performing “fan-service” in this season, whether through the “plot armor” of certain characters or the tidy wrapping up of certain narratives.

The claim that the showrunners made plot choices in order to please the audience has set me thinking about these types of choices on several fronts. On the one hand, GoT rose to prominence in part directly because of G.R.R. Martin’s seeming refusal to do any “fan-service.” That communicates to me that there is a gulf between what readers want from a story and what they need to feel satisfied by the story.

We can all recognize that there are stories that don’t end happily, either in general or for our most-beloved characters, that nevertheless remain truly satisfying and meaningful narratives for us, ones that we return to time and again.

So, should giving the audience what they want (or, to be more accurate, what we think they want) be a consideration for the writer? There is no simple answer to this question. The idealistic writer (like myself, I suppose) might argue that crafting a good story–which is not the same as a story that gives the audience exactly what it wants–is more important than satisfying tastes. On the other hand, the publishing industry has much to say about finding the right “market” for a book, and knowing what kind of stories will or won’t sell. For the person who needs or wants to make a living as an author, playing to those needs may be a necessity. Even if income isn’t a concern, there’s still something to be said for what the audience organically finds meaningful as opposed to what the author seeks to impose as the meaning and value of the story.

I just want to point out this tension as something that the final season of Game of Thrones might help us think about, not something for which I have any answers, easy or otherwise. When the final books in the series are released (if that ever happens), maybe there will be some fertile ground for exploration of these ideas. Of course, the intent of the various creative minds on all sides of this collection of narratives may remain forever too opaque for us to glean any true understanding of the delicate relationship between author, craft and audience.


I, as many of you I suspect, was left profoundly unsatisfied with the ending of a story I’ve spent years being attached to by the final season of Game of Thrones, and my frustration is further stoked by the knowledge that the showrunners could have had more episodes to finish things the right way instead of rushing to a capricious and arbitrary ending.

That said, the failures of the season (not to mention the great successes of previous seasons) provide many lessons for we would-be authors.

What do you think?


Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.


In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!



Introduction to Dark Inheritance (A Warhammer 40k Wrath & Glory Campaign)

(This is the 4th of seventeen posts remaining in my 200 for 200 goal. If you enjoy what I do on this blog, please share and get your friends to follow!)

I have obliquely referenced that I am working on a large-scale campaign for the new Warhammer 40k Roleplaying Game, Wrath & Glory, that I have titled Dark Inheritance. The depth and breadth of this campaign have made it the focus of my writing time lately and, while it’s still far from finished, I’m ready to share at least a summary of the campaign (safe for both GMs and players) with you. Here it is:

Campaign Summary

“The year is 12.M42. In the time since the Great Rift, the Rogue Trader captain Eckhardt Gerard Sigismund Immelshelder has operated his ship, the Righteous Obstinance, in a multitude of schemes to generate wealth and power. He is quite secretive, but often whispered about in gossip throughout the Gilead System. Rumors abound that he and his crew have been able to navigate the Warp despite the lack of the Astronomicon’s light, even successfully penetrating the Cicatrix Maleficarum and returning safely. Of course, there is no proof of any of this.

What is known is that Immelshelder has developed significant interests, business and otherwise, throughout the Gilead system. To what end is again the subject of many whispers but little substance. He is the distant relative of a noble family on Gilead Prime and the last of his own family.

One of the players will play the eldest child of the noble family on Gilead related to Immelshelder. The other players’ characters will represent other members of the noble household, retainers, or allies and confidants of the aforementioned noble character. When the campaign begins, the characters are gathered celebrating a reunion–members of the Astra Militarum are home on leave, those friends who have ventured to other planets in the Gilead system have returned to visit Gilead Prime, and the noble household has gathered its closest allies and its honored retainers.

But this party is interrupted by the sudden appearance of Inquisitor Amarkine Dolorosa, who bears strange tidings. Immelshelder and his closest companions have been assassinated. As a friend of Immelshelder and a person of power and stature within the Gilead System, Dolorosa has taken it upon herself to settle the Rogue Trader’s affairs. Therefore, she comes with both gifts and commands. Immelshelder’s will grants the Righteous Obstinance, his Warrant of Trade, and all of his other assets to the eldest child of the noble family. This character had met Immelshelder a handful of times but did not know him well. Dolorosa promises she’ll provide what assistance she can to see the noble scion settles into the life of a Rogue Trader as easily as possible.

In confidence, she explains that she also expects the newly-minted Rogue Trader’s help in finding and bringing Immelshelder’s killers to justice. Even with allies like the other player characters, can the young noble survive being thrown into the shark pool of Gilead politics and the web of allies and enemies that lead to Immelshelder’s demise? If they survive, will they bring Immelshelder’s killers to justice? How many ‘favors’ will Amarkine Dolorosa expect as fair exchange for her assistance?”

Additional Info for the Campaign

Dark Inheritance has been structured into three acts, with each part composed of numerous adventures playable in nearly any order (as the characters pursue various leads and clues to the final revelations and conclusions of each Act and, ultimately, the campaign). At present, I anticipate that each act will require ten or more gaming sessions (of 2 to 3 hours each) to complete.

Also included are subplots that can play out over the course of all three Acts as the GM sees fit (and as make sense given the actions of the characters in various places). It is my intention that the Campaign provide months, if not a year, of Wrath & Glory gaming.

Some Notes on Writing the Campaign (and Microsoft OneNote)

I’m using OneNote (for the first time), to write and organize the campaign. In the past, I’ve used Lone Wolf Development’s Realm Works to organize campaign materials, but I’m finding OneNote to be more intuitive and much more efficient. Yes, Realm Works has additional features and functionality over OneNote specific to the needs of the RPG campaign-writer, but–in all honesty–I’m not going to spend the time to learn all of the details of that functionality. For me, OneNote’s ability to allow me to focus on the writing, with just enough tools for organization and hypertextuality to order everything for maximum efficiency, provides exactly what I need.

I tend to write fiction with what I’m going to call the “accretion approach.” What I mean by this is that I begin with the barest ideas for a story: Dark Inheritance started as a combination of a Rogue Trader-type game with an idea for using a Warhammer voidship to tell haunted-house, sins-of-father type story influenced by games like The Room Series, the old Alone in the Dark games, Darkest Dungeon and numerous other tales (Lovecraft and the gothic horror of Clark Ashton Smith among others) and films (The Skeleton Key comes to mind). From that basis, I begin to add on more ideas and details–some that flow directly from the premise and others that at first seem discordant. After the basics of each new idea are added, I must go through and modify other concepts of the story (characters, plot devices and points, etc.) to account for the new material. Often, ripple effects from these changes beget the next set of ideas that get incorporated, until the basic story begins to take full narrative shape and the details come more and more into focus. OneNote has proved a godsend in as a tool for this approach.

For some fiction writing (particularly the novel I’m working on), I very much like Literature & Latte’s Scrivener program. In some ways, though, OneNote is a stripped down version of this (without functionality such as auto-compiling scenes and chapters, etc.) and I wonder if, for me, a more minimalistic approach might actually be better.

For Dark Inheritance, OneNote allows you to export the “binder” as just that–a PDF of linked pages in a binder sort of format. Unless I find something more efficient than that, Dark Inheritance will eventually appear for the public’s use in such a format.

I am preparing in the new year (as at least Act I becomes fully playable) to playtest the campaign with at least two different groups. If you’d like to help me with playtesting, please send me a message–I could certainly use the help and feedback!


Types of Evil (or at Least Antagonists)

This post could just about as easily be a theological one, but since I’ve come to these ideas in working on Avar Narn, I figured they’re better suited to being addressed to the writers out there–anyone who wants to extrapolate into the realms of spirituality and morality is welcome of course.

As an opening, let me first say that it is difficult to write an “evil” character, whether major antagonist or supporting character. It’s difficult because few things in the world are black and white, so a character that isn’t nuanced in his/her morality isn’t believable in stories that intend to maintain verisimilitude. On an obviously allegorical, mythological or moralistic tale, there’s a lot more leeway for capital “E” evil characters. But that has its own bag of tropes and expectations tht I’m not going to address here.

Instead, I’m going to try to put together a few general categories of character types we might describe as “evil.” I think we (myself included) are quick to use terms like “bad guys” when we mean “antagonist” in the more literary criticism sense of the term. That’s probably something we should all be careful of. That said, on to some gross oversimplification that I hope will nevertheless prove useful:

(1) Capital “E” Evil
This is the character who just wants to watch the world burn, who enjoys inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake, who exists to malign and misuse everything around him for the sake of just that.

As such, this should also be the rarest kind of evil in fiction, becuase it’s the hardest kind to get right. I think that there are two subtypes to be thought of here.

The first is cosmic evil–that kind of supernatural evil that is unknowable in its reasoning or motivation. Think Lovecraftian horror. We sidestep the major problem here by positing that we just can’t understand this evil. It just is. Particularly in fantasy, we can often get away with this, but it requires special suspension of disbelief or extra worldbuilding to swing. Even then, we’ve created a de facto villain that is really only interesting in an existential sense.

The second type is the corrupted individual. What we need, I think, to make this work is a believable backstory. Nobody begins that way, so we need an explanation as to what suffering the person has gone through to mold him into this type character.

This runs two ancillary risks, however. The first is that in describing said backstory, we humanize the character to the point that he no longer really fits into the Capital “E” Evil category. The second is that we turn our story into an analysis of the nature of evil. That can be an enthralling type of tale, particularly if the “evil” character is the protaganist of the story.

(2) Mistaken Beliefs
This subgroup belongs to those characters who honestly believe that they are doing the right thing while they commit atrocities the rest of us would find blatantly evil.

There are plenty of real-life examples to draw upon here to make the argument concisely. Take the Islamic State for example. Adherents to this would-be theocracy believe that they are practicing true Islam while murdering the innocent. This is an extreme case that can be attributed to any radical/fundamentalist religious group–Christians who kill doctors who perform abortions, for example. If you truly believe that God (or gods) demanded it and that makes it right, it’s easy to justify your actions.

Next, think of the person gripped by psychosis such that they are driven by an irrational belief that they cannot bring themselves to disavow. This is a particularly moving type of antagonist because they are driven by an affliction and not by their own agency–we can’t actually morally blame those who aren’t in control of themselves. This gives us a good opportunity to explore our “hero’s” approach to evil–is she only interested in ending threats or is she interested in redemption? What does she do when that redemption isn’t something she can achieve.

There are plenty of “lower magnitude” mistaken beliefs that make interesting villains. Les Miserables’ Javier is an excellent example–a man so overcommitted to his idea of “justice” that he cannot allow himself any mercy. This type of extremism in belief is all around us–just listen to how some people think we should fight the “War on Terror” or what we should do to criminals.

We can also extend this to what in the law we would consider a “mistake of fact.” When the antagonist believes that the protaganist is a villain who must be stopped, for instance. Yes, the antagonist’s belief is untrue, but if it were true would we think of the antagonist as a “good guy?”

A brief aside here: what if the protaganist is acting immorally? Watching a character spiral out of control is heck of a dramatic ride, and testing a character’s willingness to act as he says he believes is a classic conflict to explore.

Mistaken identity (along with the particular of being falsely accused) is one of the great archetypal plots, one which fits directly into the mistake of fact.

(3) The End Justifies the Means
This is a commonly-used type of antagonist, perhaps because it’s so relatable. The constant moral choice that faces all of us in life is whether we’ll sacrifice our values to get what we’re after. The only difference here is one of scale. For the sake of drama, the means to achieve the end must be dire–the determination of life and death, or the fates of many. For what profiteth it for a man to gain the world but lose his soul?

One of my favorite examples of this type of evil is the Operative from Serenity. The Operative is a man who accepts that he does evil things, but he is sincere in the belief that it will bring about a better galaxy (which perhaps makes him fall under (2) as well). In fact, he views his sins as a form of sacrifice–he does the unspeakable so that others don’t have to. There is a sort of nobility to his principles, even if they are ultimately wrong. And, for those of you who prefer your characters to wear capes rather than swords, Batman isn’t far off here, either. In fact, I’d say that Batman and the Operative have far more in common than we should be comfortable with if we’re going to call one “hero” and the other “villain.”

Speaking of Batman, most vigilantes fit into this category. Because we love it when the bad guys get theirs, even when they get it in a way that requires a sacrifice of our values, this can be a popular protagonist as well–think of the Punisher.

I would wager that most of our favorite anti-heroes fall into this category as well–it’s their beliefs and the willingness to risk for those beliefs that make them heroes, but the way they go about pursuing the fulfillment of those beliefs that adds the “anti-.”

(4) Honor and Identity
This is perhaps a subcategory of “Mistaken Beliefs,” but it’s a significant-enough subtype that it deserves its own treatment.

People do evil things in the name of maintaining honor all the time. As a student of history–and particularly the medieval and Renaissance periods, the first examples that pop into my mind are the duel and the vendetta. I’ve recently read a book called Mad Blood Stirring: Vendetta and Factions in Friuli in the Renaissance, which reinforces the connection for me. But Renaissance Italy is not the only honor culture known for the tit-for-tat systemic murder that defines vendetta–the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind in slightly more recent history.

And, of course, we could discuss “honor killings” in certain Middle Eastern or South Asian cultures (though, to be fair, the Napoleonic Code also permitted a husband to kill an unfaithful wife and her lover, and even in American law a murder is often considered manslaughter when a husband kills his spouse after finding her “in flagrante delicto.”)

Honor cultures and actions taken under the justification of defending one’s honor are typically about maintaining a sense of identity–either one of purity or of strength (or perhaps both). The ideology of the honor culture says that if one does not maintain honor, one will be viewed as weak and will be taken advantage of by the rest of the culture.

And defending one’s sense of identity is a strong motivator, one that can create fascinating internal conflict, because it can be the conflict between internal belief and external pressures of society. For instance, “I believe that I should show mercy, but my culture tells me that I am not a man if I do not take vengeance.” Powerful stuff.

Honor, of course, is not the only identity-related factor that can lead a character to become “evil” or antagonistic. The need to belong to something greater than oneself is a fundamental human motivation, on that can lead to similar conflict between the will of the individual and the will of the group. Is there a story about gangs that doesn’t include this plotline? What about cults and religions (which takes us back to (2))?

(5) Cross-Purposes and Limited Resources
I don’t have to explain that characters don’t have to possess malicious intent to be antagonists. The world has a habit of pitting humans against each other by its very nature–or at least tempting us to work against instead of with one another.

The core of successful narrative is conflict, and all it takes is characters who want things that are opposed (or even better, mutually-exclusive) to create such.

This suits certain types of stories especially well–the noir and anything else that might be considered “gritty” immediately come to mind. The story doesn’t need to be one of moralistic pedantry, though one must be careful not to let ambivelence about morality become relativism (at least I’m going to moralize on that point).

The Game of Thrones novels come to mind, as does Abercrombie’s First Law books. The political intrigue inherent to both puts POV characters at odds with one another, certainly giving us occasional “villains,” but not as a central theme of the stories.

But this type of conflict does not just suit the morally-ambiguous; it plays well to analysis of morality. I’m going to turn here to my favorite atheist philosopher (and one of my favorite storytellers), Joss Whedon. He’s been quoted as saying, “If nothing we do matters, the only thing that matters is what we do.” As an existentialist theologian, this freedom to create meaning when meaning is not thrust upon us is a core concept to me (but not one we’ll discuss here). Likewise, when the there’s no clear “good and evil,” we must judge the morality of the characters by the choices that they make. This can, of course, be easily combined with all but (1) above.

The conflict within a character of wanting to do the right thing, but perhaps being unwilling to pay the cost to do so, is a conflict we can all relate to. I’m inclined to argue that there is nothing in the craft of fiction so real as this. If you want your writing to have that air of verisimilitude, readers will suspend disbelief for a lot of things when the characters seem lifelike and complex to them. That’s not an excuse to write fiction that is sloppy except for the characters.

That, I think, is why I’m personally drawn to “gritty” stories. They’re rich with meaning.

(6) Inanimate Evil

I include this mostly as a footnote becuase it needs little explanation. This is the classic “(wo)man versus nature” story, where an uncaring and unresponsive natural force (i.e. the elements) forces a struggle for the protagonist to survive.


This list is, of course, not exhaustive. Each category has subcategories and nuances to be explored (and isn’t that one of the great joys of writing?). More general categories could be appended to this. When I think of them, I’ll post an update. I’m also inclined to write more about creating the types of characters that fit into (5), or at least stories of ambivalent morality–that is, dispassion on the part of the narration about moral judgment, leaving such a task to the reader. For now, this seems sufficient.