The Fate of Piracy, Part IV: Statting Ships

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Deciding what “skills” to assign to ships is incumbent upon some understanding of how ships will be used in the narrative of the game. In pirate narratives, whether or not based in fact or fiction, there are some core things that pirate ships “do”: they give chase and flee, they fight (by dealing and taking damage), they weather storms, they carry cargo, they travel.

We’ll use these common situations to determine what stats we need for ships.

Since I like my games gritty, I’ll be using the One-Shift Boxes rule from the Fate Toolkit (this also helps speed fights along!). For ships, I’m going to track Hull damage and Sail damage on separate tracks; the crew will also have a damage (representing numbers/size really) track and a separate morale track.

Barring special rules (which I’ll include later), I’m going to allow the defending player to allocate stress boxes between their Hull, their Sails and their Crew. This will give some longevity to ships while still making every shift of damage received sorely felt, I think.

Ship Aspects
A ship will have three Aspects: a high concept, a trouble, and a crew aspect. For the historical 17th century, we might have a ship with Aspects that look like this:

Converted French Warship
Loose in Stays
Protestant Brethren of the Coast

 Scale
At the outset, I’m convinced that the Scale rules (p. 67 of the Fate Toolkit) need to be used for ships—a four-gun sloop and a 120-gun man-of-war are very different things, even if they both sail the seas.

In the 17th Century, First-Rate through Fourth-Rate ships were “Ships of the Line,” that is, ships that could participate in toe-to-toe battle with the enemy (where the prevailing tactics was to get all of your ships in a single-file bow-to-stern line and sail past the enemy’s similarly-arranged line of ships, trading broadsides until one side or the other became unable or unwilling to continue the fight. By the 18th Century, only ships of the third rate and above were “Ships of the Line;” increases in the number of guns carried and the size of ships meant that fourth-rate ships were too undergunned to participate directly in the battle line.

By that token, in the 17th Century a fifth-rate ship should not be able to stand up to a first-rate ship and have much chance of survival. Remember that a first-rate ship in the 1600’s would have between 90 and 100 cannons, while a fifth-rate would have less than half of that.

If we make unrated ships Scale: 0, and first-rate ships Scale: 6, then a fifth-rate ship attempting to fight a first-rate ship would, according to the Fate Toolkit, take 8 more shifts of damage and deal 8 shifts fewer.

With these things in place, let’s return to our First-Rate versus Fifth-Rate combat. A single successful volley from the First-Rate ship is almost certainly going to cause the Fifth-Rate ship to take at least one consequence, while the fire from the Fifth-Rate ship is likely only to dent the First-Rate ship (I’ll include a minimum of one shift of stress caused no matter the Scale discrepancy, I think).

That’s devastating, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic. Particularly if we’re looking at a Caribbean sort of setting. First, remember, there really weren’t many (if any) ships of Third-Rate or higher deployed to the Caribbean under most circumstances. Second, historically, pirates tended to favor smaller, faster ships for just this reason. Though pirates had to be willing to fight when it came to it, they weren’t soldiers first. They needed enough guns to scare or overpower merchant ships, to be sure, but they needed more speed to make sure that they could catch their prey and evade any military ship that represented a threat to them.

So, I’m going to use this port of the rating system for Scale.

Size
This isn’t the most glamorous of the Skills, nor will it be the most oft used, but there are several purposes for a Size Skill. First, it will determine the additional Stress Boxes for the Hull. Second, it can be used as an attack skill for ramming other ships (not an oft-used tactic in the Age of Sail, and one borne of desperation to be sure, but always an option).

Sailing
Sailing a ship is a complicated business, and certain rigging types are allow for faster sailing with the wind or better sailing against the wind (when “tacking”), but never both. Thus, we could, potentially, break down any sort of “Sailing” skill into a number of subskills that take into account the relative wind direction (and how close to the wind the ship can sail), the raw speed the ship can achieve, and the maneuverability of the ship. Ultimately, though, I don’t think that subdividing the skill is in line with the design philosophy of Fate or helpful to telling good stories—especially when we can handle some of these minor aspects with stunts or, well, Aspects.

Once I’ve got some systems in place, I’ll revisit this to work out details. For now, each ship will have a Sailing Skill.

Cannons
The running broadsides and, worse yet, the raking fire that passes straight from bow to stern, are staples of pirate fiction (and the historical reality that spawned them). In Fate, you’ve got to have a Skill to shoot the enemy with.

Like the Sailing skill, there are a number of components that could factor into the rating of the Cannons skill—the quality of the crew firing them, the size and power of the cannon carried (these could range from three and four pounders up to forty-two pounders) and, of course, the number of cannon carried.

The beauty of the Fate system (one of the beauties, at least) is that, at the end of the day, two ships could both have Cannons +2 for different reasons. Perhaps one has a few large-bore cannon and a crew very-skilled at using them, while the other has many smaller cannon that, together, make an equally-formidable volley. The mechanics only care about the end result or effect without us having to get bogged down in details.

In my mind, the Cannons rating is based primarily upon the number (for its size/Scale) and quality of the guns that it carries, the speed with which they can be fired, and the ability of the crew to effectively use the weapons. Thus, a sloop with Cannons +1 may have six six-pounders, while a brigantine with Cannons +3 may have sixteen eight-pounders—they’re ships of the same Scale (O/Unrated), but the brigantine has a definite advantage in both numbers and power.

Bear in mind the number of men needed to crew a gun: a thirty-six pounder needed 12 gunners, a chief gunner and a powder monkey (a boy to run powder from the ship’s magazine to the gun). Additionally, the heavier the gun, the lower in the ship it needed to be mounted to preserve the ship’s balance in the water.

One example of modifications that could enable faster firing was the gun carriage itself. Apparently, in the 16th century and even for a while into the 17th, the Spanish continued to use two-wheeled gun carriages (with a long wooden “tongue” extending behind them to stabilize them—think of an artillery piece) while the English used four-wheeled carriages. The Spanish guns recoiled less (because of the friction from the carriage), but the English guns could more easily be moved back and reloaded (and moved themselves back with their own recoil), allowing for faster firing.

 The Crew
The heart and soul of a ship is its crew. The Sailing and Cannons skills already incorporate crew skill as a factor in their rank. But, there are things that the crew will do that don’t necessarily involve the ship’s systems, so we need a skill to handle that.

I had first thought to separate out the crew’s abilities into separate skills, but I decided in the end that that kind of granularity was unnecessary, for two reasons: (1) the general competency of the crew is fine to cover most tasks and (2) we can rely on the PC’s skills in leading the crew when differentiation is necessary. This allows us both to keep things relatively simplified and to keep focus on the players.

Bear in mind that the crew’s size is also abstracted into the Crew skill rating, with Scale used to accentuate the difference in size of crews where it truly matters.

Stress and Consequences on board the Ship
I’ve mentioned the Morale Stress track for our ships, but we need several others.

Hull
This stress track will represent the integrity of the ship’s hull and its ability to stay afloat. Its number of stress boxes will be determined by the ship’s Size rating. A ship that takes more Hull damage than it has Stress boxes has been destroyed and is sinking.

Sails
This stress track will represent the integrity of the ship’s sails and rigging; its number of stress boxes will be determined by the ship’s Sailing rating. Being taken out by Sails stress indicates that the ship is adrift and without power.

Crew
This represents the remaining numbers and fighting strength of the men and women aboard the vessel. Its number of stress boxes will be determined by the Fighting rating. Being taken out by Crew stress means that the crew has been injured or killed to such an extent that it can no longer fight as a group or man the ship.

Morale
This stress track follows the general mood and discipline of the crew; it’s number of boxes is determined by the Ship’s Resolve skill. Being taken out by Morale stress means the crew has mutinied against the player characters.

Consequences
I think having the four separate stress tracks is necessary for differentiating the different types of threat (and injury) the ship and its crew will face. However, having separate Consequences for each stress track could quickly prove unwieldy and deleterious to play. So, A ship will have only three Consequence slots that will apply for all of its stress tracks. This means that the players will have to choose very carefully when to use their Consequences to avoid stress to their ship.

The Hold
The Hold is an oddball among the ship’s stats. It’s kind of a stress track, but not really. It’s a track. The Hold represents the amount of space available to the ship (after accounting for guns, crew and basic supplies) for cargo and plunder. A ship may not have more Hold boxes than its Size multiplied by its Scale (count Scale as 1 for Scale: 0 ships), but it may have fewer. I’ll explain how the Hold is used later.

In the next post in the series, I’ll give particular stats for types of ships as well as stunts to modify a ship.

My Favorite RPG Mechanics (That I’d Actually Use)

I’ve made a few attempts in the past to write my own roleplaying game rules, especially to suit my fantasy setting, Avar Narn. While that project is currently on hold while I work on others and I intend to rely mostly on the Fate and Cortex Prime/Plus systems for games in the near future, I’m sure I’ll return to the endeavor eventually.

In light of that, I thought it might be interesting to collate and describe some of my favorite mechanics from other rulesets I’ve played. Maybe this gives you some ideas to lift for your own design ambitions. Maybe it turns you on to same games you’ve never played before. Maybe it just gives you a chance to see some mechanics that make think, “oh yeah, that’s one of my favorites, too!”

Without further ado:

Fate Core – Bell Curve Mechanics
I’ve written elsewhere about my fondness for Gaussian distributions in RPG results; it allows players more predictability when planning a course of action and less fickleness of luck. Since I like my games gritty and dangerous, this is almost a necessity.

Fate Core – Aspects
Perhaps the core of Fate Core, Aspects as narrative descriptors with mechanical effects are a great innovation. To a certain extent, this is what we were doing previously with all of our situational modifiers without understanding it–and while limiting them to various canned possibilities.

The true brilliance here is in combining aspects into narrative fact, signalling descriptor, and opportunity to influence outcomes. In other words, what Aspects do is translate mere mechanical modifiers into narrative gold.

Fate Core – The “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule”
Intuitive and adaptable subsystems that use the same core mechanics as the base game? Yes, please! This ability, along with the easy adaptability of aspects and the small list of skills in Fate Core, is what makes Fate Core such a toolkit and endlessly-hackable system. As I wrote about in my advice on tabletop gaming as an adult, this proves maintaining a single rule system for all of your games.

As an added bonus, it allows players to intuitively use new subsystems without the need for learning lots of nuanced rules.

Fate Accelerated – Approaches
As I’ve written on other posts, I love the idea of Approaches over Attributes. When a player uses an approach, he or she is signaling to you the nature of the action and therefore possible consequences and side effects. I think this adds to both sides of the table: for the players, a character’s approaches define more than just aptitude, they include personality, style, perspective and preference; for the GM, the narrative cues provided by Approaches (especially if combined with something like Apocalypse World’s “Discrete Fail Forward” Mechanics, discussed below) take some of the load off of the GM while enriching the story itself.

Dungeons and Dragons 5e – Advantage and Disadvantage
A brilliant alternative to tabulating lots of modifiers to address situational nuance, the Advantage/Disadvantage system in D&D5 is a brilliant streamlining mechanic. I’d love to see it employed effectively in more games. Unfortunately, there’s not much else from D&D that I like in terms of its mechanics.

Gumshoe – Investigation Rules
It seems to me that the Gumshoe rules were designed almost entirely to address a common problem in roleplaying games–how to make sure that players get the clues they need to effectively pursue and complete an investigation without getting stalled (and bored). Simply put, the GM is instructed to allow the PCs to find the necessary clues without having to roll, because a roll where success is necessary to the advancement of plot is not a roll that should be made. This is not to say that a good GM can’t or shouldn’t allow failure to be a thing, or that there’s something wrong where the players’ failure provides an important plot point–both of those can make for great games. But if there’s no contingency plan for what happens if the characters aren’t successful and you give them a chance to be unsuccessful, you’re shooting yourself in the foot as a GM.

Gumshoe manages its task without making skills or character abilities useless. A character may spend points from relevant skills to gain additional clues, further allowing the development of a theory and providing new opportunities for investigation. From a design perspective, this provides baked-in opportunities for each character to shine.

Apocalypse World – Discrete Fail Forward Mechanics
The core mechanic of Apocalypse World strips down the dice roll to its very essence–did you succeed or fail, or (the most common result) did you succeed at a cost? If you’re unfamiliar, “Powered by the Apocalypse” games run like this:

Roll 2d6 + Stat (which is not going to be higher than +3, typically):
-On 6 or less, you fail (and the GM should make a “move”)
-On a 7 through 9, you succeed at a cost (the “move” you’re making may indicate
particular costs, or the GM may need to create one on the fly)
-On a 10+, you get what you want (usually without cost)

This efficiency allows for interesting and quick-running games that support the GM with cues for how the plot should develop. Bear in mind that this is not a degrees of success mechanic (though abilities that grant Hold or other effects on a 12+ could rightly be seen as such). I will say that this can put a lot of pressure on the GM to constantly invent new twists and consequences for the story, but that’s something you can get used to.

Now, I will admit some reluctance regarding the static nature of PbtA difficulty numbers. I have no logical argument for this preference (or lack thereof, I suppose)–the explanation that the moves made by the GM in response to failure or a cost can be adjusted to represent the difficulty of the task makes perfect sense to me. I really do think that’s a brilliant take on RPG difficulties. But, I’m a child of the 80’s and 90’s who cut his teeth on the second and third editions of Shadowrun–the need for scalable difficulty is embedded deep in my bones.

Apocalypse World – Free-Form Combat
Another innovation from the Apocalypse: willful ignorance of initiative and turns. I think the best RPG combats work this way–we jump from character to character like the camera in a film or TV show, spending time where the drama is highest and shifting before anyone gets bored rather than becoming a slave to turn and initiative tracking. The tracking of initiative itself is more drudgery than benefit anyway, and a gaming group with established trust can handle things like holding and triggering actions without the need to maintain a count and do a lot of housekeeping.

Although they’re not running a PbtA game on the show, the HarmonQuest GM uses this style with great effect.

Cypher System – Burning Points
I’m not a big fan of the way the Cypher system plays, but I do love the idea of “burning” points from a pool to gain advantage. In Cypher, points may be spent from a pool to reduce the Difficulty number before rolling the dice.

While I don’t generally like games where characters must “spend” their skill points to be effective (this goes for both Cypher and Gumshoe), I do very much like the idea of characters having resources that must be managed but that can be spent for bonuses. This kind of risk/reward mechanic reinforces the drama in games, while giving those gamist players another mechanical aspect to strategize over. I just think that pools used for this purpose should be separated from the character’s base abilities–health, fatigue, willpower (like the World of Darkness games)–all of these can make good candidates (as can other things) without the necessity of diminishing returns over time for characters being a core mechanic.

I’d also note that the Fate Toolkit has a mod allowing you to spend Stress to do just this. That, I think, is the sweet spot for this kind of mechanic. Blades in the Dark also allows you to spend Stress for similar effects.

Apocalypse World – Play to Find Out
I very much appreciate the idea that the GM is playing to find out what happens as well, rather than chaperoning the players through the branches of a pre-planned adventure. This is where tabletop RPGs excel as a form of entertainment, and especially beat video games–story can develop organically and move in unexpected–and often more satisfying–directions.

This, of course, requires a GM willing and able to extemporize. This is an intimidating prospect, and one that takes practice and thought to do well, I think. But it also removes (for me, at least), some of the stress of having to meticulously plan a game session (and then fearing running it when I inevitably haven’t had the time to do all the planning I intended).

The “narrative sandbox,” which I’ve teased quite a bit now without writing a full post on (I will, I swear!) meshes perfectly with this idea by scaffolding the game with ready-made narrative elements (characters, events, locations, background, etc.) the GM can draw from without having to make things up whole clothe on the spot while maintaining the “anything can happen and you’re character can try anything” magic of RPGs at their best.

Traveler, Burning Wheel, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World RPG (Fuzion), etc. – Lifepaths
A lot of players struggle with creating a detailed background for their characters. A lifepath system gives a player a framework for thinking about her character by detailing familial relationships and important events, the origins of certain skills and abilities, and other life details that bring a character to life narratively at the same time it builds the character mechanically.

There are caveats here. A system that is too simple (Rogue Trader, for instance) doesn’t really satisfy and feels restrictive. A system that will kill your character during chargen (Traveler) will be talked about for years to come, but that’s not a criterion for being good. A system that is too complex (Burning Wheel…maybe) tends to intimidate players more than guide and help them.

There is also the question of whether the lifepath system should be random or each stage and determination should be willingly selected by the player. For games with an “old school” feel, random generation may be a good option. On the other hand, that requires a shared philosophy of gaming between GM and players, and no good GM should hold a player to a character they don’t want to play (so long as not wanting to play that character has a reasonable explanation).

Personally, I’m a fan of splitting the difference, with rewards for selecting a randomly generated result but no penalty for choosing a result instead. Your mileage may vary.

Blades in the Dark – Downtime Systems
I love giving the players the chance to describe what their characters spend their time doing when not adventuring/investigating occult occurrences/engaging in planned criminal conduct/whathaveyou. I like it even more when those choices can have later effects on the narrative.

Blades in the Dark takes this a step further, with chances to indulge a character’s vice to relieve stress, try to acquire equipment for later use, work on a long-term project, train skills or reduce a crew’s Heat. There are enough choices to give variety and enough competing demands on players to make the choices mean something.

Blades in the Dark – Progress Clocks
This idea is adapted, but broadened, from Apocalypse World’s “countdown clocks,” used there to track damage. These allow for easy tracking of obstacles, damage, and, yes, timing to an event. They provide simple mechanism for damage tracking and a visual marker of impending doom. I love that.

Cortex Plus/Prime – the Doom Pool
Like Fate Core, Cortex is an eminently hackable system. The system is a hack of the “basic” system wherein, instead of buying and immediately deploying the consequence dice the GM purchases from player rolls they get added to an increasing opposition pool to all tasks undertaken. This is admittedly a pretty clever way of mechanically representing the increased tension and danger as a group moves deeper into a dungeon, fights farther behind enemy lines or ventures nearer to the summoning of that elder thing.

This idea really shines when used as a “Crisis” pool. Instead of a single Doom pool, it’s split up into several smaller pools that each represent a discrete obstacle or threat to the players that must be overcome over time. Using the core mechanics of the Cortex system, players can attempt actions (supported by narrative, of course) to reduce the dice in the Crisis pool until there’re none left, at which point the obstacle has been overcome. If the GM buys dice back from player rolls to continue to fortify and reinforce the various Crisis pools, we get a back-and-forth struggle that can provide the entire basis for a narrative.

13th Age has a related mechanic to the Doom pool in its “escalation die.” The longer a fight lasts, the deadlier it gets. I tend to think that that’s realistic–or at worst a great narrative conceit–that should be used in more games, and not just for its propensity to speed up combat.

Torchbearer – Explicit Rules for Conflicts and Combat Where the Goal Isn’t “Kill Everything”
Most RPGs view combat as the time when everything else has failed and it’s time to kill and destroy everything. Sometimes that is the point of a combat, but things are often a bit more nuanced than that. Sometimes, the goal is to drive the enemy away without necessarily killing him, or to hold ground and delay the enemy, or to complete some secondary objective before the enemy does, or simply to escape alive.

While you don’t need mechanics to tell you the above, or even necessarily to model the situations I’ve described specifically, mechanics are often a cue as to what a game as about. So, when Torchbearer includes rules for “Capture,” “Drive Off,” and “Flee/Pursue”  in addition to “Kill,” it’s a signal that this game might be harder on PCs than say, D&D. Sometimes you’ll have to settle for less than completely overrunning your enemy, and you might want to think about clever options before brute ones.

And, to be fair, a number of the things I’ve mentioned don’t need mechanics to implement them–fail forward is a philosophy that can be applied to any game, and the Gumshoe approach to investigations needs no mechanics to be applied to another rule system. But the point is that these systems make a point of these ideas, not just setting them apart from other games but also pushing the industry forward for future games.

The Burning Wheel – Bloody Versus
Luke Crane’s The Burning Wheel is a thing of art from a design perspective–but in my mind, it’s a work of art more than an accessible roleplaying game. I know, there are plenty of people who have run successful campaigns with the system, and I freely admit I’m jealous of Luke Crane’s design genius. But there’s just so much there that I know I couldn’t convince my gaming friends to learn the system, nor do I have confidence that I can hold in mind at once all of its various parts to successfully run it. Every part of The Burning Wheel is well designed; the gestalt is just too much for me.

Actually, I do have one gripe with the system–the mechanic of scripting melee combat under the “standard” rules. Under this mechanic (assuming I completely remember correctly), each participant in a combat privately scripts three actions in sequence. Then, the scripts are revealed and the results worked out. This is time consuming, kind of annoying, and not very realistic–hand-to-hand fighting is a back-and-forth of action and reaction, of judging and decoding cues from the opponent’s body position and stance. Nothing happens in a vacuum or blind.

One the other hand, The Burning Wheel also gives us the “Bloody Versus” option. Bloody Versus streamlines an attack round into two rolls. Each of the two combatants divides his dice pool into attack and defense and then each attack pool is rolled against the corresponding defense pool. Overall, there are three potential results–one side hits, both sides hit, neither side hits. We don’t worry overmuch about positioning, timing, etc.; this is all abstracted into the single roll. It’s fast and relatively decisive–especially given The Burning Wheel’s steep death spiral.

I think there’s a lot to be said for roleplaying games that, at least upon occasion, treat a combat like most other tasks: we make a single roll and determine the results. This isn’t always appropriate, of course, and we have to make some consequential determinations as to whether such a test can kill a PC or not (I’d strongly recommend against that), but it does help us to readjust focus so that combat as a game aspect is more on par with all of the other typical aspects–exploration, intrigue, clever plans, sneaking around, etc.

WFRP 3rd Edition
As Fantasy Flight Games’ first release using its custom dice system (which would be followed by their Star Wars offering and now channeled into their generic GeneSys System), the 3rd Edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay rubbed a lot of people the wrong way–it completely redesigned the system and moved away from the percentile-based combination of “old school” and 80’s gritty realism that people loved.

FFG dove in headfirst, though, doing some fascinating work in combining board game elements with the RPG basis (in a far more successful combination than D&D 4e’s combination of MMO-style mechanics with RPG elements, in my opinion). Although the many tokens and character cards ultimately proved annoying and and more fiddly than helpful. Still, I applaud the creative experimentation, and I liked a lot of the innovations it made, with the dice providing cues that helped me narrate some of the most frantic combat scenes I ever have.

By far my favorite of these innovations, however, was stances. You could take a neutral stance, using the dice your stats gave you, or you could move so many spaces into a “reckless” stance (with more successes marked on the dice along with more negative effects compared to the “standard” dice) or a “cautious” stance, converting attribute dice into green dice marked with more side benefits (“boons”) but also more symbols indicating that the action required more time.

The custom dice made the ease of using stances possible, but the ability to incorporate a risk/reward dynamic into standard dice rolling by having a character adopt an aggressive or conservative stance is a really cool idea. In some of my own design experiments, I’ve come up with a few ways to implement the idea with standard core mechanics (dice pools in particular), but certainly not as smoothly as in WFRP3.

Conclusion
Okay, as usual, what I’d intended to be some brief notes turned into another verbose commentary, so let’s hang it up there for now. I hope some of you managed to stay with me all the way through, and I hope some of you found some mechanics and ideas you weren’t already familiar with.

Leave some comments–I’d love to hear what your favorite TTPRG mechanics are (and the games they’re from)!

 

 

 

The Fate of Piracy, Part III: About Ships in the Age of Sail

For the previous post in this series, click here.

We’ll begin our foray into rules for ships and sailing in Fate games by addressing some of the historical difficulties of easy classification of types of ships in the Age of Sail. Hopefully, this gives you a sense of just how hard it is to create easy categories or “classes” of ships to profile.

Let’s start with the understanding that ships in this Fate hack will make full use of the “Fate Fractal” or “Bronze Rule.” Ships will be statted as characters, with skills, stunts (representing upgrades or modifications) and aspects (representing unique qualities, history, reputation, etc.). Some stats will come from the ship design itself, others will come from the crew that (wo)mans it. I’m not sure exactly on the interplay between those two facets, but that’s a subject for a later post in the series.

The English Rating System
The English (and later British) Rating system for warships goes back to the reign of Henry VIII, where it was initially related to the number of guns on a ship (or, at times to the ship’s tonnage), though the categories were not the “rates” that would come into later being. Instead, ships were classified as Royal, Great, Middling or Small. By 1626, a ranking system came into being, though this seems to have been tied to the pay of the sailors on board rather than to the size or number of guns of the vessel.

By 1660, the word “rate” had replace the word “rank” and vessels began to be measured by the number of carriage guns (that is, excluding swivel guns) carried on board. The ratings vary over time, particularly as designers were able to cram more weapons onto ships, but a generalization goes as follows:

  •             First Rate: 100 guns, usually over 2,000 tons BM (see below about “Builder’s               Measure”)
  •            Second Rate: 90-98 guns, about 2,000 tons BM
  •            Third Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 60-80 guns
  •            Fourth Rate: Ships with two gun-decks and 50-60 guns, about 1,000 tons BM
  •            Fifth Rate: Ships with single gun-decks sporting 32-40 guns, running 700 to                  1450 tons BM
  •            Sixth Rate: Ships with 22-28 guns, and 450-550 tons BM

The rating system was designed primarily, it seems, to determine which ships could stand “in the line” of battle under the naval tactics of the time and which could not.

Most of the ships in the Caribbean were unrated ships smaller than anything above. A few pirates, like Blackbeard and his Queen Anne’s Revenge (which, having been captured by Teach in 1717 is relatively late in the period) could have classified as fifth-rate ships, but I’m not aware of any privateering or pirate vessels that were larger. Bear in mind also that only military ships were given a true rating, so ships that could have been classified on this list wouldn’t necessarily have been.

This was partly a matter of expense—warships are expensive to build and staff (a First Rate ship could have 750 people aboard!) and the Caribbean is rough on ships—it purportedly has the highest concentration of wood-eating ship-worms in the world and the lifespan of a quality hull in Caribbean waters was only about 10 years!

Another factor was the need for versatility in ships for the Caribbean—trade was more often more important than fighting, so cargo space and speed were more desirable than lots of guns and men to crew them. The galleons of the late sixteenth century and seventeenth century could be relatively-easily adapted between trading roles and more confrontational ones. And, like “frigate” and “pinnace” below, “galleon” itself originally referred to a style of design, not a size, with small galleons of a few hundred tons to the Manila galleons of 2,000 tons or more. Even in the late 16th century, the Portuguese had a ship nicknamed Botafogo, which was at least 1,000 tons and carried a staggering 336 cannons.

Sizing Ships Up
Modern ships are measured by the tonnage of water they displace, but this was not so for ships of the seventeenth century, which were measured by tons burthen (or burden if you want to get out of Middle English and into modern), which represented the amount of cargo a ship could carry.

To make things more confusing, the burthen tonnage of a ship was calculated by a formula called the “Builder’s Measure” (hence the “BM” above) rather than the reality of the design of holds and space.

The Builder’s Measure in 1678 used the following formula:

Tonnage Formula

So, a ship like the Little Unicorn (captured by the British from the Dutch in 1665 or 1666), which had a length of 72 ft, a beam and a beam of 22 ft would, by the 1678 Builder’s Measure, have a tonnage burthen of 185.19 tons. This was classified as a fifth-rate ship of despite its size and small number of guns. The British converted it into a fireship.

Names and Classification
The naming of ship types in the seventeenth century is less than helpful. The word “pinnace” was used to describe both a “ship’s boat” powered by oars or a single small sail to tend the larger ships in a group by ferrying people, messages and goods between them and to describe ships around 100 tons burthen with two or three square-rigged masts.

Likewise, the word “frigate” first denoted a hull design (long, low and sleek for speed) rather than a specific ship type, resulting in “light frigates,” “frigates,” “heavy frigates” and “grand frigates” without clear distinctions (because, when important, reference was more likely to be made to tonnage or to rating).

This was not an age of mass production, and shipbuilders were constantly experimenting with designs to find an edge. The names for classifications of ships could rely as much on the arrangement of the sails and number of masts of the ship (the “sail-plan”) as its raw size or other factors. For instance:

A sloop was a single-masted, fore-and-aft rigged ship. Having a single mast limited the size, but you could still find a wide array of sloop sizes.

A ketch had two fore-and-aft rigged masts.

The brig had two square-rigged masts with headsails.

The brigantine, however, had one square-rigged mast and a hybrid-rigged main mast (also with headsails).

The snow had headsails, two square-rigged masts and a smaller “snow-mast.”

The barque had two or more square-rigged masts and headsails with a fore-and-aft-rigged aftmost (that’s “rearmost” for you landlubbers!) mast.

Fully-rigged ships had three (later they could have more) square-rigged sails.

So, what do you call a frigate-hulled ship with a brigantine sail-plan? Your guess is as good as mine, and the primary sources from the period don’t make it seem like much concern was given to precise appellations for ship categories (notice that the “galleon” and the “fluyt,” common ships for the period, are missing from the above category).

Remember the problem with the word “rapier” in the series on swordsmanship? Yep, it’s kind of like that.

Variance within a “Class”
If confusion among classifications isn’t bad enough, let’s talk about the variations within a particular “type” of ship.

For instance, the Spanish Armada of 1588 had 22 galleons in its fleet, with some as large as 1,000 tons and some as small as 250 tons. If proportions are maintained, that means some ships were four times as large as others—yet they were all galleons. In later periods, the Manila galleons could easily reach 2,000 tons.

As mentioned about, frigates are another example of wide variance. In the 17th century, frigates tended to denote full- (square-)rigged ships, because square rigging is the fastest sail plan (at least with the wind to your back). They could have one or two gun decks, likely meaning a range of 18 and about 300 tons to 40 guns and 750 or 1,000 tons.

Later, the “great” or “heavy” frigates would be created by taking a larger ship and cutting down the fore- and aftcastles to make a lighter, leaner, ship with a single monolithic topdeck instead of one having raised areas at the front and back. This was called razée, from the French “razed” or “shaved,” though you’ll sometimes see this described in English (particularly in the 16th century) as “race-decked.” I much prefer that styling than the sometimes used razéed, the orthography and pronunciation of which gives me fits (It should be pronounced like “rah-zayd,” which in turn would be more accurately spelled razé-ed or razée-d. Y’know, it’s a mess either way).

Conclusions about Ship Classifications
For a game, if we’re going to stat out various types of ships, it is very helpful if we create some categories that are a little less flexible than the seeming free-for-fall historically used. Yes, that’s arbitrary, but accuracy must sometimes give way to expedience. For those of you who, like me, grew up playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! before it was in color, you’ll remember that that game used fairly distinct categories for its ship types. I don’t know about you, but that never spoiled my fun.

What’s important, at the end of the day, is determining what kind of ship stats are necessary and useful.

Trivia: If you’re used to the image of the captain at the ship’s wheel, understand that that’s a relatively late addition to the period we’re looking at. Based on archeological finds, we know that the ship’s wheel was in used at least by 1703.

Before that, ships were sailed by a tiller. Some ships, particularly those intended for war, might have their tiller below decks where it was protected or even have two, one on the topdeck and one below decks.

For the next post in the series, click here.

The Fate of Piracy, Part II: About Piracy

For the first post in this series, click here.

I feel like it is necessary for me to talk generally (and hopefully briefly) about historical piracy.

Morality
Obviously, piracy is an immoral thing. At best, it’s bullying and theft. At worst, there’s torture, murder, betrayal, sexual assault and many other crimes. Modern media has given us a whitewashed version of piracy, with lovable ne’er-do-wells like Jack Sparrow and depictions of gentlemanly pirate captains who mind their manners while robbing you. Maybe there was some of that, but far more often, I think, the lines of moral behavior were crossed with abandon or simply ignored altogether. There’s a reason pirates were called hostis humani generis (enemies of mankind).

This is not to tell you how to run a pirate game. There’s no reason you can’t run a lighter-hearted sort of game a la Pirates of the Caribbean and, if you’ve got young people playing, that’s probably much safer fare. You know me, though—I’m much more interested in games with the feel of Black Sails, where even the “good guys” are morally questionable at best. This is a discussion to have as a group while deciding on then particulars of the setting your players will pirate in (is that a word? Can you “pirate?”). Along the same lines, circumscribing those aspects of pirate reality that are uncomfortable to treat and determining how to handle them or whether to leave them out altogether is, I think, an especially important consideration in a topic and setting so fraught with the worst humanity has to offer.

Pirates and Privateers
Though, as a practical matter, the distinction between pirates and privateers was often a legal technicality or a matter of perspective, it’s important to know the difference.

A privateer receives a “letter of marque and reprisal” from a sponsoring nation, essentially making the bearer a private soldier in service of his country (funny to think how “modern” an idea of military privatization seems to us despite our own history). With that letter, the privateer and his ships are authorized to attack the ships and ports of those nations with whom the sponsor is at war, taking prizes and plunder, which is split between sponsor and privateers. Bear in mind, that in the early modern period, standing professional armies were only slowly becoming a thing, so the engaging of privateers provided an avenue for governments to quickly deploy wartime assets at little or no cost to itself.

A pirate does not have authorization to engage in the seizure of ships or towns from any country—they are brigands and outlaws. Still, many pirates had some scruples about their selection of prey, refusing to attack ships of their own nationality (though that’s a fraught issue, as we’ll see below) even when they were not authorized by that nation to conduct operations.

As the history of piracy bears out, the line sometimes—maybe often—blurred between privateer and pirate. Those who might have been considered pirates were sometimes given letters of marque when they were viewed as useful to their home nation; this could even happen retroactively to the captain’s activities! On the other hand, privateers would turn pirate, for a number of reasons. Sometimes the prey was scarce and the crew grew desperate, electing to go after any ship they might take. Other times, the sponsoring nation would leave privateers in the lurch when political conditions changed and/or treaties were signed.

Wars of Religion
I don’t think it can be understated how important the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries was in the rise of privateering and piracy. The war between England and Spain that included both the Spanish Armada of 1588 (and the other armada attempts) and the “singing of the king’s beard”—and really all of Sir Francis Drake’s roving—found its core cause in the conflict between a Protestant Queen Elizabeth and a Catholic Phillip II of Spain. This is also the time of the English Civil War (which one might argue was more political than religious, but the primary sources reveal a strong belief in the close association between Catholicism and absolute monarchy, to say nothing of the Puritan influence on the Roundheads), the time of the Eighty Years’ War between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Netherlands, the Thirty Years’ War and, at the beginning of the 18th century, the War of the Spanish Succession, itself about the balance of power between both rival royal houses and the Christianities to which they were aligned.

The Catholic faith of the Spanish gave cover enough for raiding their significant wealth in the Caribbean, and many of the sea rovers presented themselves as good Protestant soldiers raiding the ports and ships of the Spanish in support for the “One True Faith.” The most well-known privateers and pirates, at least in the 17th century, tended to be Protestant English or Dutch, from the Sea Beggars to Sir Henry Morgan. Whether the roving captains really believed themselves to be “good Protestant soldiers” or just found the idea to be a good excuse we’ll never truly know—the Christianity of the time, no matter the specific denomination, made easy room for slavery and violence, despite the core messages of the Gospels.

Freedom at Sea
The sea rovers came from many nationalities and walks of life, and the crews of the privateering and piratical vessels of the time were probably some of the most diverse collections of peoples anywhere in the world for the period.

One of the major draws to those who would become crew members was the difference from life at sea under a merchant captain or in naval military service. In the latter situation, the captain’s word was law and, knowing what I do about human nature, I believe it when both the primary sources and the secondary histories describe that tyrannical captaincy was somewhat common.

Things were different aboard a freebooting vessel. Yes, the captain had sole command in times of immediate danger—combat, the chasing of prey or evasion of the authorities, storms at sea, etc. But the captain himself was usually elected by the crew, and when there was no immediate threat, (most of) the crew got a vote in choosing their course of action. This simultaneously hindered some of the great expeditions from achieving much success, but also meant a type of democratic freedom unavailable elsewhere in the world, especially for those not born into the upper class.

A roving venture began with the adoption of a Code. This was viewed as a contractual agreement freely entered into by all who signed and could be both morally and ethically enforced against them if they broke it. The Code determined who would be leading (on ships or as admiral), what the split of plunder would be (and, while the shipowners—often the captains—received extra for the use of their vessel and specialists where given an extra partial share for their much-needed skills, the split tended toward equality more than disparity).

Now, all of this democracy is well and good in theory, but let’s also not think it was more idealistic and free from coercion than it was. The owner of a ship in an expedition had great leverage over his fellows—if they didn’t elect him captain, he might simply decide to take his toys and go home. Further, maintaining a captaincy was not simply about holding the justified admiration of the men; it was about getting results. A captain without the skill for finding and securing plunder, or simply with a bad run of luck, would quickly find himself at odds with his men.

Those are enough general points for now. If you want to delve into the details and specifics of piratical life, use the bibliography in the first post—to which I will soon add some primary sources for you, though in short look for the journals or publications of Alexander Esquemelin, William Dampier, Basil Ringrose, Bartholomew Sharp and Lionel Wafer. Take Esquemelin especially with a grain of salt—he seems to have hated Henry Morgan and his descriptions of events often conflict with other (more plausible) sources. I also highly recommend the Pirate History Podcast for distilling this information into entertaining and informative episodes.

Trivia: William Dampier, in addition to being a privateer, was an accomplished navigator and naturalist. He’s credited with bringing a slew of words into the English language, including “chopsticks,” “avocado,” and “barbecue.” His work describing the flora and fauna of the places he frequented, as well as the details of indigenous peoples he met (among them the Mosquito and Kuna peoples) proved extremely influential and valuable. His work on wind and water currents, especially, provided a foundation used by naval navigators for centuries.

Post-Run Thoughts on Shadowrun 6th Edition

A ways back, when I did my set of posts on Shadowrun characters, I promised that I’d be doing a system review in the near future. I’m not sure that this qualifies, formally speaking, as a review, but I am going to share what I think about the system after having run a few sessions now.

As you might have gathered, I was excited about the 6th Edition system when it first appeared. I like the idea of Edge as something more like Fate points and, in theory, that it supplants the need for the endless lists of modifiers in previous editions of Shadowrun. I was much more forgiving than most about other complaints about the system–and particularly the problems with the first printing of the rulebook. A lot of that, really, is likely due to the fact that I got my copy in PDF, which had already been updated with errata by the time I read it, coupled with the fact that my familiarity with Shadowrun lead me to naturally assume things that were not originally included in the rulebook–things like how much Essence you start with.

Character creation is more or less what you remember being from 3rd, 4th or 5th editions with the Priority System and some amount of Karma to round things out (IIRC, more Karma than was standard in previous editions. I have developed some gripes with character creation and advancement, though.

First, I’ve noticed what I think are some balance issues in the Priority Table. Because spells cheap in Karma cost and the Adjustment Points granted by the Metatype selection on the Priority can be used to increase your Magic reason, there’s actually very little reason to choose the higher-tier selections for Magic use compared to selecting a lower tier, using your adjustment points to increase Magic, your Karma to buy some extra spells, and having more Skill and Attribute Points.

Second, I personally think that there’s too much of a gap between the tiers for Skills and Attributes–I’m not sure that you can really create a viable character if you chose Priority E for skills or Attributes.

With the amount of Karma available at chargen, it also strikes me that Physical Adepts may be more powerful than characters augged for a similar role. As an Adept, you can take three levels of Initiation, take extra Power Points at each level, and start with nine Power Points.

These balance issues would likely be resolved by using an entirely Karma-based character creation system with some limits on how much Karma can be spent where and how.

But that leads to another issue–Attributes and Skills cost the same amount of Karma to increase, and the value of some Attributes over others doesn’t necessarily give parity. Agility, for instance, applies to a lot more skills than most of the other Attributes. And, given that raising an Attribute–any Attribute, I think–increases your effective rating in more than one skill, this is problematic.

Character generation is one thing, and the more I look at it, the more the shiny new facade falls away, revealing cracks in the plaster underneath. The more damning issue, though, is that while the new use of Edge is a great idea in theory, it doesn’t really simplify things in play very well.

Now, instead of tracking lots of little modifiers, I have to track different pools of Edge, make sure I’m distributing Edge (as appropriate, without sufficient guidance from the rulebook), make sure my players are tracking and spending Edge, and keep in mind all of the different basic Edge spends and special Edge actions available. The worst part though, is how unnatural the system feels in play. With Fate or Cortex Plus/Prime, the economy and use of points is relatively straightforward and intuitive after a short time playing. Here, though, I’m supposed to hand out Edge points when using a dice pool modifier feels more appropriate and then use those Edge points at a later time–when it may not really feel appropriate or connected. Worse, I’m not sure it really simplifies much. Sure, I don’t need to track how many rounds were fired in the last turn to calculate a recoil modifier for this turn, but a simplification of the amount and types of modifiers or the use of an advantage/disadvantage system would do much more with less.

There are other places where the attempt at a more narrative approach to Shadowrun feels less than fully-realized. Spells are a huge example here. SR6 attempts to simplify spells somewhat by adding some variables that can be applied to spells rather than required the choice of a Force Level (such as expanding AoE or adding additional damage). But that system could be used to require so many fewer spells and give sorcerers so much more flexibility and the opportunity is lost. A few examples: (1) allow the caster to modify the base spell to touch or area of effect and eliminate the need for different spells with the same general effect but different minor parameters; (2) allow the caster to modify Illusion spells to affect technology rather than having two separate spells; (3) Allow the caster to add on the additional Heal spell effects rather than making her use spell selections for six different minor variations.

This is the second time recently I’ve come across a system that I think I like on reading but don’t in practice–the previous being the new edition of 7th Sea, where I find the core mechanic more limiting and cumbersome than freeing. I guess that that means that designers are taking more risks to push mechanics in new directions than has perhaps been the case in the past, but with mixed results for major titles. I see some influence from Dogs in the Vineyard in 7th Sea, the former being a game I love from a design perspective but would probably never run. But, as a smaller title, the price of admission easily covers exposure to the innovative mechanic, whereas the greatly heightened production value of 7th Sea means a much higher buy-in. That’s a discussion for a different time.

In running the past few sessions of Shadowrun, I’ve admittedly been ignoring much of the RAW, using dice pool modifiers when it seems more appropriate, simplifying hacking rolls, etc. I don’t think that, as a GM and within the art of running a game, that there’s anything wrong with that so long as what’s being done is consistent and allows the character stats to have comparable effect on results as they would using RAW. But that’s not a good sign in terms of game design, and I’m finding myself sorely tempted to go back to Fate or Cortex to run the game. Alas, I can foresee the groans from my players at the lost time in learning and going through SR6 chargen only to change to a simpler system a few games in, so I’m not sure I’ll try to make that sale.

Without getting overly technical or formal in reviewing the system, what I’m finding is (for me personally, your style of running games may achieve a completely different result) that the system is encumbering my running of the game more than facilitating it, giving me too many mechanics when I want fewer, and not enough when I could use a little more. As much as I’d like to continue liking the SR6 system, at the end of the day, I’m not sure that there’s a worse conclusion I can come to.

As I’ve hinted at in other posts, I’m really not a fan of D&D, because it doesn’t lend itself to the types and styles of games I like to play. But it’s well-loved because, despite its relative complexity (and I think it’s fair to say it’s really middle of the road as far as that goes), it supports a certain type of gameplay and approach. I’d argue that the OSR has so much support for exactly the same reason, though that approach is somewhat different from D&D 5e and at least partially stoked by nostalgia.

Shadowrun remains one of my favorite RPG settings, so I’ll probably continue to buy the books to keep up with setting material, but that doesn’t mean I’ll feel great about doing so.

Can I make SR6 work for a long campaign? Yes; yes I can. Will I feel like I’m fighting with the system all the way through? Probably.

 

 

FFF & Frostgrave Continues

When not trying to get some writing in–on my slowly-developing novel or on the blog–or preparing my impending Shadowrun campaign, I’ve been steadily working away at more stuff for Frostgrave.

Without further ado, here’s my second warband all painted up, an elementalist and his retinue:

As you can see, this one is largely Fireforge historical miniatures, with some kitbashing from the Oathmark humans and some Frostgrave plastics. Some of the miniatures have Renedra textured bases, which I’m pretty happy with, but some were assembled and based before I had the bases (or started this warband) and so there’s a little bit of a hodgepodge. As you see, I’ve added some foliage tufts and snow paste to these bases (as well as the first warband) for extra effect.

(It’s really bugging me that I can’t figure out exactly what my snow paste is made of. It’s definitely a spackle base, with some sort of glitter and maybe a gloss medium added. If I can parse it out, I can make my own much more cheaply, which would be nice!)

This warband does not have as wide an array of specialist soldiers than the first one–I figured the elementalist would want to focus on combative soldiers bringing the pain over utilitarian ones.

I’ve gone back and forth in my head about how strongly to color-code my warbands (I’ve inadvertantly got Christmas colors going now, it seems). I often like the rag-tag look for its thematic nature (reinforcing the expendability of soldiers), but there’s a great convenience (both in the efficiency of painting and in recognizing minis on the table) to matched soldiers.

After the first color-coded warband I’d finished, I actually had started to do some rag-tag soldiers. But, after painting about ten or so, I realized that they rather handily fit into some color-coded groups: browns for my barbarians, purples and blacks for my cultists, etc. So, I think I’m sticking to color-coding for now.

One of the reasons I picked Frostgrave to get back into minis gaming (other than the setting and style of the game, which are both right up my alley) is the relative ease of having enough miniatures myself to invite friends to partake in the fun of the game without having to talk them into purchasing and painting a bunch of minis for themselves. Having over the last decade talked friends into Warmahordes, Infinity and Malifaux, I decided I’d better front the cost of the game myself and not have to persuade anyone to spend anything if I want to best maintain my relationships. Of course, I’m not stopping anyone who wants to join in with their own warband!

My Proxxon hot wire cutter came in a few weeks ago as well. I almost immediately jury-rigged some jigs (one for cutting circles and one for “ripping” styrofoam to adjust its thickness) based off of the very nice ones done by GeBoom at Shifting Lands. I’ll definitely want to invest in their jigs eventually (and there’s a lot of other cool stuff, like their window templates, I’ll want to add to my order), but I was excited to just get things going. Maybe too excited with the number of styrofoam rings that ended up on my study table. I’m still making a lot of mistakes and learning a lot with each task or operation, but so far I do have one pretty decent (and multi-leveled!) round tower for the Silent Tower scenario (as well as just generally useful terrain).

I’ve got a larger square tower in the works and a number of cut foamcore and insulation foam pieces that need texturing before I glue them to bases for more general ruined terrain.

I can’t say enough good things about the Proxxon. It’s just an amazing tool. I think I’d love it even more with the Shifting Lands add-ons, but I’m able to do a lot of stuff with the base unit and the two jigs I put together with a nail, leftover 1/8″ hardboard and some wood glue.

I’d focused on terrain for a short while before I went back to painting minis, which is where I’m feeling the current pull. It’s all got to get done eventually; I’ll post more pics as things develop.

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.

 

FFF’s Guide to 6th Edition Shadowrun Characters, Part IV: Specific Build Advice

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Mystic Adepts

After being overpowered in the previous edition, mystic adepts have been returned to the role that suits them (and the rest of the rules) best—jacks of (many) trades, masters of none.

If you fall into the trap of trying to match the physical adept on one side or the full mage on the other (or, God forbid, both!), you’re going to spend a lot of time pouring over minute build details and never be satisfied. Don’t do it!

There are a few ways to build very effective mystic adepts, in my opinion, but the focus will always be on flexibility of approach rather than raw power. Right off the bat, don’t spend many resources on combat spells—with a Magic below 6, your damage output isn’t going to be worth the Drain. Stick to old-fashioned (or, more likely, new-fangled) firearms for dealing your damage.

Some sample character ideas:

  • The Stealthy Face – Particularly if you’re able to work with your GM to port over some of the adept abilities from 5th edition (Facial Sculpt, Melanin Control, Etc.) and you focus your spells on the Illusion and Detection categories (again, even more helpful if you’re able to port over the broader range of spells from previous editions), you can build a very solid character with a primary focus on social interaction or stealth and the other role in a secondary position. In my mind, this is the best role for a mystic adept, because good tradecraft is as much about unpredictability of approach and strong improvisational skills as anything else. The mystic adept gives you options, and that’s what a good spy needs.
  • The Arcane Defender – I’m not convinced that the mystic adept is better suited to this role than a full mage or physical adept, but this approach does seem fun to play. Take a specialization in Counterspelling, a high Conjuring skill, the Astral Perception power and other Adept Powers that will help you to bring the pain to enemy spirits.
  • The Asymmetrical Warrior – Again, perhaps not as powerful, straight-up, as a street samurai or physical adept, but if you can play cleverly, you can achieve things that neither of those archetypes can touch. For this approach, I would take only the Sorcery skill of the magical skills, with a specialization in Illusion. Take your spells from the illusion category and focus your Adept powers on combat-related powers. I’m of the opinion that you’re better off enhancing firearms abilities than hand-to-hand ones, but you can do just fine with either (or both, if you don’t mind the long haul of initiation to fully realize your character). Your focus here is on misdirection, ambushes, hit-and-runs and keeping your enemy off-balance. This is a great build if you’re new to a group that already has one or more pure-combat characters, or if you’re starting a new campaign with other players who want to focus their characters on combat—you can tee up a lot of things for them to knock out of the park.
  • The Wheelman – This one’s perhaps a little of a stretch, but follow me here. You use your Adept powers for Increased Reflexes and improving your Reaction and Piloting skill. You choose spells that constitute “dirty tricks” to use against other drivers. As always, you won’t have the raw power of the dedicated Rigger, but a Rigger can’t suddenly blind another driver or throw up a Physical Barrier behind himself!

Physical Adept

There are a lot of ways to build an interesting and effective Physical Adept, particularly once you port over the old adept abilities from SR5 (or wait for the new expansion books to come out). If you’re wondering, it took me less than 2 hours to sufficiently modify the adept powers from the old Street Grimoire to be used with SR6.

When you’re looking at the full gamut of abilities available to adepts, it can be a little daunting. If your GM will let you port over the Adept Ways into SR6 Qualities (also easy to do), then that can help you to think about your build.

The easiest thing to do, though (and which may always be the case), is to think about the two or three roles you want your character to be able to serve in and pick your abilities accordingly. Earlier, I talked about a Face needing some good defensive skills since he’s usually at the forefront of an ambush or sideways negotiation. The PhysAd is a great way to accomplish this, taking some socially-oriented powers (Voice Control, etc.) and supplementing with Mystic Armor and Improved Reflexes.

In modern close-combat doctrine using small-unit tactics, the SOP when confronted by an enemy at hand-to-hand range is not to engage him in hand-to-hand combat if avoidable—it’s to drop out of the way so your teammates can engage the target with their firearms. The PhysAd powers mentioned above take that approach—you’re focusing on surviving and getting out of the way so your supporting team members can fill the air with lead rather than trying to take out the targets single-handedly. You’re likely going to be outnumbered as well as being the primary target; unless you’ve got a mass of Edge ready to go, lay off the heroics.

As a former competitive shooter in tactical pistol, I love the idea of the Gunslinger Adept, especially since the John Wick films give us an excellent idea of what a Gunslinger Adept in action would be. Augmented characters may be able to scrape in more abilities for this role at character creation, but the PhsyAd arguably has more staying power in the long term. The other thing to bear in mind is that the PhysAd’s abilities are harder to detect before they’re used—no cyberware to be detected by a scanner, and abilities that make it possible to kill three men with a pencil. A pencil!

But it’s easy to fall into the belief that PhysAds should all be Wuxia kung-fu masters or action-hero gunslingers. With the full range of adept abilities from previous editions ported in, you can play a natural savant whose intelligence and insight makes him the consummate mastermind for the rest of the team, or many, many other options.

I’ve spent a lot of time on ways to build a PhysAd without a whole lot of practical advice, so let me shift gears a little. There is no reason not to have a Magic of 6 with a Physical Adept. In fact, you should strongly consider spending your Karma for the first level of initiation (11 Karma) and increasing your Magic to 7 from the get-go (35 Karma). That extra point of powers is probably the best expenditure of your “freeform” character creation points.

I recommend the following Priority array for Adepts: A- Skills, B – Attributes, C – Metatype, D – Magic, E – Resources. If you don’t spend any of your Metatype points on “standard” attributes, you still end up with Magic 6 and Edge 5. You’ll be pressed for equipment, but you won’t need augmentations, so the most expensive aspect is out of the way anyhow, and you can focus the rewards from your first few runs on correcting this deficiency with better Fake SINs, more weapons, and a vehicle, if desired. If it works with your Qualities, I highly recommend the Aptitude Positive Quality with this arrangement, for reasons previously discussed.

Magic-Users

The first thing I’ll say about building a Magic-using character is: expect to be frustrated by how much you’ll feel like you need to stretch your character resources. That’s normal and part of the cost of playing a wizkid—full mages and shamans are supposed to be relatively rare, remember.

If you’re going to play an aspected mage, I recommend focusing on Conjuring over Sorcery. My natural inclination (for no discernible reason, mind you) is Sorcery, but Conjuring gives you much more flexibility with how you use your magic and requires fewer starting resources. And, I’ve seen far more memorable things done in-game with conjuration than with sorcery. In my upcoming game, I’ve added additional spell modifications and collapsed spells with multiple versions into a single, modifiable spell to bring Sorcery into better parity with Conjuring, but your GM might not do this.

If you’re playing a full mage, bear in mind that spells are one of the cheapest things to purchase with Karma. I recommend you prioritize your skills, attributes and metatype over your beginning magic rating. Again, with Priority C in metatype and Priority D in Magic, you can still have a full mage with a starting Magic of 6. You’ll only start with 2 spells before spending Karma, but if you devote all of your Karma to additional spells, that’s the best bang-for-your-nuyen you can get for Karma expenditures at character creation and you can still come out with 14 spells. If your GM has ported over spells from previous additions and collapsed spells in the same manner I have, you’ll end up with a lot of flexible mojo options. Even if they haven’t, 14 spells and Conjuring will give you a lot of options.

As your character progresses, Karma will be the thing you need most and, typically at least, Nuyen will be the thing you need least (though you’ll still need a fair amount). You’ll have foci to bond, initiation to…initiate, more spells to buy, etc. In terms of cash, you’ll need to maintain and improve your lodge, buy reagents and pay for your focus habit (whether creating yourself or purchasing).

If you are using the rules-as-written, I would avoid devoting too many resources to Artificing—the rules make it possible to lose Essence on an Artificing test that does not allow the expenditure of Edge! That’s not a risk worth taking for the average magic user and, if taken to be a fact about how magic works in the Sixth World, most Artificers should, statistically speaking, burn out after a while at their profession. That means two things: (1) only aspected magic-users unfortunate enough to only have skill in Enchanting are likely to be Artificers and, (2) under basic economic theory, this rarity and the risk of focus creation means foci should be extremely expensive. But, if using RAW without thinking too hard about the logic behind it, just buy your damn foci and be done with it.

I’m either going to ignore this rule altogether or at least allow Edge expenditure on this test for purposes of avoiding critical glitches. Even then, only high Edge characters should engage in Artificing.

An aside: As it stands, the Karma cost to increase Attributes is the same as it is to increase Skills. I think that this is likely an intentional design decision related to the consolidation of Skills that happened in this edition. Part of me, though, wonders if it is a typo or design mistake. Particularly with Agility being linked to so many different Skills, you’d think the cost to raise it would be higher, though if you make the cost to raise each Attribute different, you open up a whole can of worms in conflict with the design approach of the whole ruleset. It would take some statistical analysis far more complex than I am able (or care) to do to make a real determination of whether the benefits from each Attribute (and the benefits of Attributes compared to Skills) really supports the Karma costs given in the core rules. I imagine that this will be a point of contention for some gamers looking for reasons not to like the new edition (and, if that’s how they feel, I won’t begrudge them sticking to 5th edition, but my gameplay approach finds a lot more desirable in the new edition, thank you very much). Regardless, having made a lot of 6th edition characters in preparation for writing this guide (and because I’m the kind of nerd who finds that to be a fun exercise in and of itself), I don’t see a drastic effect on play from the Karma distribution.

It does mean, however, that you’re generally better off with higher Skills than higher Attributes at character creation, though the many demands for character resources at chargen will not always allow you to take this approach. To get the fullest use of your magical ability, there are four skills you need: Astral, Sorcery, Conjuring and Enchanting. If you’re strapped for points, I recommend dropping or reducing Enchanting first. You’ve probably gathered that I prefer characters (both mine and my players’) to have some basic competency in most aspects of being human (like social skills—I am loathe to play a street samurai with a Charisma of 2 and no social skills, leaving your only option in conflict the most instinctive of human reactions: fight, flight or freeze). So, think about having some points to spend on skills like Con, Influence, Stealth, Athletics or defensive skills as well as your magical skills.

It is harder, though far from impossible, for full mojo-makers to cover beyond their primary role because of the many resources that must be devoted to magical ability. I recommend one of two approaches here: pick one backup role and focus on it or use those character resources available as a backstop, not focusing on excelling in a secondary role but trying to limit your vulnerability when caught in situations outside your forte by having two or three points in a number of non-magical skills. As I mentioned before, specializations can be used to stretch points as necessary.

The Focused Concentration Quality was powerful in the previous edition, as it helped to resist Drain. The 6th edition version, allowing spell maintenance without penalty, is even moreso. It’s not a cheap Quality—technically you could achieve a similar (and actually more powerful but more expensive and less flexible) effect by spending Karma on Level 1 Initiation and taking the Quickening metamagic for one less Karma, but a Sustaining Focus will cost you almost twice as much Karma (between paying for the purchase of it and the Karma to bond it).

You’ve got a lot to spend your Karma on already, but if you can afford a level or two of initiation, I think that’s well worth it.

Riggers and Deckers

I must admit that I don’t build or play these types of characters as often as I do others, so take my thoughts here with a little more suspicion than in the other categories—and accept my apologies that my thoughts are not as deep and detailed as they are elsewhere.

Even more, perhaps, than Street Samurai and other highly-augged characters (and for similar reasons) Riggers and Deckers need a lot of Nuyen to be viable and the “buy once, cry once” axiom especially applies.

My opinion, if you’re running a Decker, is to take Priority A for Resources and buy the best cyberdeck and cyberjack you possibly can, making all other expenditures secondary. Who cares if you have to sleep on the street, VR is comfortable everywhere, amiright? Of course there’s the strong possibility of being shanked for your gear while you’re zoned out, but what’s the cyberpunk lifestyle without a little risk?

You’ll need a fair amount of skills, so that’s the best candidate for Priority B. Priority E, obvs, should be Mundane, with your choice of how you assign C and D. Karma will likely need to be spent on shoring up both Skills and Attributes.

Riggers have it just as tough, or tougher. You may not need a cyberdeck, but you probably still need a cyberjack for its protective qualities, and you’re not a Rigger without a control rig. You’ll need Piloting (duh), Engineering and Electronics, so you’ve already got a few important skills to think about. On the other hand, the Rigger is the character most insulated from other types of interactions, so your need to put lots of points into other skills for contingencies is somewhat reduced. But, if you have a GM like me, who’s read and taken John Wick’s (the 7th Sea John Wick, not the “bang bang” John Wick—unless they’re actually the same person) Play Dirty books to heart and who’s going to make sure you at least occasionally have to deal in meatspace, better to be safe than sorry.

A variety of drones will allow you to fulfill combat roles as well as surveillance and operational security with some ease, and your various viewpoints to the area of operations may put you in a good position to advise and direct team tactics.

Again, you’ll probably need Priority A to go to Resources, with Priority E at Mundane. I’d recommend prioritizing Attributes over Skills on this build for the secondary effects that you’ll get from your Attributes (Initiative, resisting biofeedback, Condition Monitor boxes, etc.)—with the understanding that a lot of your Karma is going to go to shoring up your skills (and some may still go to Resources!).

A few practical notes for your Rigger character:

  1. Your team will expect you to be the driver, so you should probably have a ground vehicle large enough to transport them all.
  2. Your team will expect you to be the mechanic and tech guy/girl for non-Matrix stuff (and maybe even for Matrix stuff!). You’ll have the Engineering skill by default (at least you should), but think about putting resources into kits and facilities as possible.
  3. Your role as driver and drone-manager will often mean your teammates see you as an overall logistics person. You might choose your Contacts accordingly.

Technomancers

This will be short and sweet: I haven’t yet read the 6th edition rules for Technomancers and I haven’t tried to build a Technomancer character yet. Those of you who want to play one are on your own for the time being.

Street Samurai

First, if you’re going to play this kind of character, a true Street Sam, do the character justice. Read some books about Bushido (A Book of Five Rings, Hagakure, etc.), watch Ghost Dog, etc. Don’t play a stereotype of a modern samurai, play a nuanced, believable warrior of the cyberpunk streets who believes that, while the technology and context of warfare has changed somewhat, the morality and ethics of the warrior should not have.

With that out of the way, there are several ways to build Street Sams, and none of them is wrong. You can play a generalist, buying those augs that seem interesting to you and hopefully constructing an augmentation gestalt that is more than its individual parts.

Or, you can specialize. Here, I tend to think of the old D20 Modern classes as a rough guide—you can be Tough, Fast, or Strong. You could focus on Smart or Charismatic, but they don’t so much fall into this category.

There are some augmentations I think are givens (for any augged character, really). Platelet Factories are cheap, both in Essence and Nuyen, and provide what is essentially three points of Body in resisting Physical damage. Second is the Sleep Regulator—this may not have a hugely obvious mechanical effect, but shadowrunners work odd hours and jobs that don’t exactly allow for regular sleep breaks. It’s also cheap in terms of Essence and Nuyen. As a third, I usually recommend cybereyes and cyberears before other augmentations. If your GM understands small-unit tactics and you expect to be up against trained security/law-enforcement/military forces, you should expect to see (and perhaps use) a lot of Stun (i.e. flashbang) grenades, making Damper and Flare-Compensation almost essential.

As a side note, it’s always bugged me that Damper isn’t included in the Audio Enhancements for earbuds and other non-aug audio devices—I’ve added it in as an option for my game.

If you’re going to do much shooting (and, if you’re a Street Sam, odds are good) then a Smartlink, and Vision Magnification are almost essential as well—as are low-light and thermographic vision for target identification. I imagine the spatial recognizer performing much like those red flashes at the corner of your screen when someone off-screen is shooting at you in a video game, giving you cues as to which way to turn to locate an attacking enemy. That’s not its only use, but being able to pinpoint the location of a sniper after he fires a few shots is a tactical gamechanger.

It’s tempting to take cyberlimbs for the “cool” factor; I get that. But I honestly thing they’re too expensive for the return in most cases and should be taken mostly under two circumstances—(1) it makes narrative sense for the character (she lost a limb sometime in the past), or (2) you’re going to install a cyberweapon. Just bear in mind that it’s not always an advantage to have a weapon you can’t leave behind in certain situations. Yes, it may be concealed, but corporations and shadow-actors are typically smart enough to keep scanners. Also, at least in my take on the Shadowrun world, expect for opponents to get Edge against you in high-society social situations if you’re rocking obvious cyberlimbs, you poor SoB who couldn’t afford to make his hand look like normal. I tend to think that there are far better augs before cyberlimbs to give you bang for buck. As a counterargument, though, Kristin Ortega’s cyberarm in the Netflix Altered Carbon is pretty badass. A Sam considering a focus on raw strength should consider muscle enhancers first, but paired cyberlimbs may be a viable option.

If you’re going to focus on close-combat, wired reflexes and other Reaction enhancers are a must. You need to avoid being shot while closing for that katana strike, after all. Other augs should focus on increasing strength and hand-to-hand damage.

Sams focusing on toughness (and I think you get a lot of bang-for-your-buck here, though its not as flashy as other approaches) can take Orthoskin, Bone Density or Bone Lacing enhancements, the Quick Healing Quality, Damage Compensators (and perhaps be a troll—actually, though the super-tough combatant who just refuses to go down is also a sort of metaphorical troll, I suppose).

Sams who want to truly focus on speed above all else are going to spend the majority of their resources (Nuyen and Essence) on the highest end of Wired Reflexes and Reaction Enhancers (compatible while wireless-enabled).

If your Street Samurai is going to be your team’s main combatant, then I would take a more generalist approach to your Skills (and therefore available fighting styles). Based on my experience in both martial arts and firearms training (with no combat experience to speak of, for which I’m thankful), I’m a believer that anyone who is going to carry or use a firearm also needs to be skilled in close-combat (unarmed at least) to deal with in-your-face situations and weapon retention.

If you’ve got multiple combat-focused characters in your team, you may want to think about specializing a little bit. Specialize in pistols and unarmed combat for a sort of John Wick combatant, or think about a focus in long-range weapons for a support-sniper role (which, honestly may be better suited to a non-Street Sam character who won’t need as many augs).

Note that the Specializations under Firearms in SR6 are extremely confused, having edges rougher than a mole that needs a biopsy—what’s the difference between “Rifles” and “Longarms” for instance? I recommend changing the specializations to match weapon types specifically—Pistols, SMGs, Shotguns, Assault Rifles, Semi-Auto Rifles (or something similar). Just check with your GM when choosing specializations here.

You’ll also want to take a thoughtful approach to your arsenal. It’s common for Street Sams to spend a lot of Nuyen on guns (and hand-to-hand weapons), and there’s nothing wrong with that, but do it with a purpose. You can only carry and use so many guns at once, and various permissive/non-permissive environments and run objectives are going to call for different approaches.

One of the main foci (in my mind) is having a set of weapons for covert work and a different set for overt combat. With covert weapons, suppressors are a must and concealment should be a concern. With overt weapons, you want mods that are not compatible with your covert weapons (like gas vent) to increase weapon effectiveness when you can maximize it without having to worry about balancing other concerns. The Ares Light Fire 75 has the best suppressor (at -3 to detection over the usual -2), but the Ares Viper Slivergun is a more powerful pistol with an integrated suppressor for improved concealment. The Ares Predator VI (which now competes with the Savalette Guardian for when you need a pistol that just does work) is an excellent choice for an overt weapon—especially when you add gas vent and a quick-draw holster.

I tend to recommend that you have both covert and overt pistols and one weapon in every other category; when building my own characters I tend to take a suppressed SMG like the HK-227, an overt assault rifle and shotgun (don’t get me started on silencing shotguns) and a covert long rifle.

Don’t forget less-lethal options—particularly if you’re focused on close-combat, your character is going to take point on those “Capture” missions. Tasers, stick-n-shock, the Super-squirt and other options should be considered.

It’s a Shadowrun trope for a Troll to lug around an assault cannon or minigun, but this honestly doesn’t make much sense to me. For one, this is a good way to make sure your opponents send an attack helicopter and a tank to respond to you. Two, collateral damage is a thing, guys. Unless you have a mission that specifically needs a launcher or autocannon, leave it at home.

Also, don’t forget grenades.

Other Characters
This is a very broad category that will include a lot of characters (in some ways, characters who don’t fall into a category above automatically fall into this category), so I’m going to treat it fairly generally.

If you’re not falling into one of the other categories, I recommend you prioritize Skills and Attributes above all else. Set Priority E to mundane and use C and D for Resources and Metatype, depending on how augged you’d like to be. See above under the Street Samurai heading for my personal “must-have augs.” Your mileage may vary.

The best thing about making this kind of character is that it becomes about the character’s background and narrative more than the mechanical or meta-game concerns. This is where you find some of the most interesting characters: those whom circumstances have recently forced into the shadowrunning life and who will struggle to turn their previous experiences into effective skills and knowledge for the professional criminal. Betrayed sararimen, disgruntled Lone Star officers, bored trust-fund kids, people who’ve never known a legitimate SIN and more can all be found in this category; when they’re played well, they’re a joy both to the player and to the GM—they truly fit into the “play to find out” approach of modern narrative games. Desperation and being ground down by oppressive and unjust societal systems is far more cyberpunk than any amount of chrome.

Honestly, the best advice I have for these kinds of characters is just to build them based on who they were before they became a shadowrunner, and have fun turning the narrative details into Attributes, Skills and Qualities. With VR games and instructional options, every character really has an excuse to have any Skill, so don’t be afraid to put some points into those skills that are necessary to shadowrunning at character creation, even if the character has never fired a gun in real life before. But if that’s the case, roleplay through the drama of that first firefight where life is actually on the line—there’s so much good stuff there, and an appreciative GM may throw some Karma your way for adding so much to the story. I sure would.

Conclusion

This post has not covered, and cannot cover, the very many types of characters you could build (which is a feature of the system, not a bug). Thinking back, the Shadowrun character creation system is probably a very large part against my bias against class-based and leveled systems (though I intellectually understand their great value for establishing genre tropes and significantly easing the character creation and leveling systems).

In the next post, we’ll look at the most important part of character creation: the character that isn’t represented by numbers on a page.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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