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.

1280px-Sword_parts-en.svg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the introduction to this series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith, Fiction, Fatherhood…and Frostgrave?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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