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

For the previous post in this series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the previous post in this series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the next post in the series, click here.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what we do know:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the introduction to this series, click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Expeditions in the Western Wilderness

The first of the two novels I’m currently working on—and the one I think I’ll write first, as it is in its nature the narratively simpler of the two (though I wouldn’t call it narratively simple)—is about an expedition into the Wilderness of the West in Avar Narn (I’m going to ask you in advance to forgive the seeming randomness of some of my capitalization—I blame this on too much time studying texts written before orthography, punctuation and capitalization were standardized). I thought I’d share some information about the background of the novel to see if anyone would like to offer feedback.

These notes are tentative and potentially subject to change.

The Background

Long ago, the Aenyr people came to the known world from the West (legend says from an island). The Aenyr were powerful thaumaturges and magi; this power made their dominance over the peoples of the Avar all but assured. They founded great cities of wondrous artifice and thaumaturgical genius, but their ascendency was built on the backs of enslaved humans. The Aenyr Empire expanded as far as the Altaenin island in the Central Sea before internal conflict and abuse of their sorcerous powers caused civil war, rebellion and eventually collapse. The Aenyr retreated from the Avar for over a thousand years. Though they have returned in small numbers more recently, they are no longer the masters of thaumaturgy they once were, no longer interested in dominating the Avar (at least most of them are not), and they have forgotten most if not all of the secret knowledges they had once discovered.

When the Aenyr abandoned the Avar (a story for another time), they left their magnificent cities to rot and crumble. Farther east, many of the current great cities (each of the Seven Sisters, like Ilessa, for instance) are built upon the ruins and remains of those ancient dwellings. In the West, though, these cities—some of the greatest built by the Aenyr—were abandoned fully by civilized folk.

But there is much coin to be made in the realm of thaumaturgical advancements and Artificial devices (those powered by arcane energies). While some research to innovate on their own, the Artificer Houses, the universities, and those looking to make a name for themselves (or just put coin in their pouches) look to these forgotten places to rediscover secrets of the past—to monetize them.


From the town of Elderyn, venture companies form to search the Wilderness of the West for ancient ruins to be looted for their knowledge (and gold).

The town started small but has grown to great proportions to harbor the trade that spawned it. Once merely a last stop before the Wild, now Elderyn caters to the every need of venturers and expeditions. Tradesmen and craftsman make the weapons and tools for surviving the Wild; brothels and taverns provide respite from the weariness of travel and adventure for those who return successful.

At the edge of the Western Wild, Elderyn is beyond the reach of the lordlings who rule elsewhere. A Governor rules Elderyn, one elected by a combination of the town’s landowners, “registered” members of venture companies and expedition patrons. The Governor’s primary role is providing some rule of law for the business of expeditions bound for Aenyr ruins—a buffer against the might of the Artificer Houses, cheats and swindlers. Of course, the Governor himself is amenable to the occasional bribe, and skullduggery remains the status quo except for the vilest of offenses. Petty crimes—minor thievery, murder and the like—are handled by popular justice.

Venture Companies

The men and women of venture companies are no shining heroes—they are a desperate lot who find themselves unfit—by history or by inclination—for life in civilization. They are cutthroats, murderers and oddballs willing or forced by circumstance to risk their lives for gold and glory. Mercenaries, thugs, thieves and assassins, many came to Elderyn to avoid their deserved justice.

And these are just the type of people that sponsors of expeditions west want in their employ—rough men and women who have few qualms about doing what it takes to return from the Wild with something to show for themselves.

The typical arrangement between an expedition patron and a venture company is a contractual one—the Governor’s foremost role is to enforce these contracts once written. The customary arrangement is that the patron is entitled to all discoveries of written goods and Artifice, for which the company will be compensated at a rate determined by a neutral appraiser. Valuable objects that are not significant vehicles of lost knowledge are loot kept by the company—after they are studied and logged by the group’s scholars.

Venture companies are no small affair. A company needs wilderness scouts and trackers; barber-surgeons to tend to the inevitable injury and disease; scholars and scribes to understand and document any finds; cartographers to preserve the way for the company’s future expeditions; thaumaturges to protect the company and assist in finding valuable ruins; handlers for the expedition’s pack animals, etc.

To somewhat reduce the number of people required for an expedition (and thus increase each company member’s share), there is an “everyone works, everyone fights” mentality. No one in the company is dedicated to only one task, no one is exempt from the heavy labor required in the field, and no one may refuse to fight when necessary.

Some expected occupations among the company are lacking. No company brings a member on to be a cook, though a venturer who can prepare tasty meals rarely lacks for employment. Unlike mercenary companies, which venture companies superficially resemble, no camp followers are brought on expedition. Company members are expected to satisfy such needs “catch as catch can,” though such issues are not infrequently the causes of jealousies and fights between company members.

The average size of the venture company is sixty souls.

A venture company is perhaps one of the most egalitarian organizations in the Avar. Members are judged on merit, not on gender or appearance—remember that they’re all outcasts together. Women are as valuable as men if they pull their own weight. As important, venture companies are democratic—they elect their captain and vote on major decisions. Only when the company is in crisis or under direct threat is the rule of the captain absolute and infallible.

Despite the possibility of new elections at any time the company is not threatened, most captains maintain their positions solidly, resting on the reputation of past successes and trust built in the crucible of conflict.

The Great Game

Thaumaturgical know-how and the secrets of Artifice are perhaps the most valuable commodities in the Avar at present, so it should be no surprise that those involved in expeditions to discover lost secrets in Aenyr ruins are willing to resort to unsavory ends to increase their profit margins.

In the Wild, the only rule of law is the steel you bring with you; armed and violent conflicts between rival venture companies are not uncommon when one has made a discovery. Some companies—under patronage or not—attempt to make their fortune by following other companies and poaching their finds by force. If discovered, such companies face harsh retribution from the Governor and the security forces of Elderyn (undoubtedly supplemented by angry fellow venturers). Few, though, leave witnesses to their crimes.

Espionage also is a constant threat. A company’s maps and experience are its prized possessions in securing patronage for ventures West, and rare is the company wealthy (or foresighted) enough to be able to fund its own expedition. Both the theft of company secrets and espionage are punished in almost unthinkable ways. Yet, the lure of gold still outweighs such deterrents for some.

As might be suspected, the Artificer Houses are the most to be feared when it comes to poaching and espionage. Though they can fund the best equipped and supplied venture companies, they are always looking for ways to maximize profits while minimizing costs, and any opportunity to limit knowledge of Artifice to their own makers has a value of its own. Their airships allow them to send men into the Wild to steal another company’s find with alacrity, though the ancient wards of Aenyr cities make them impossible to spot from the air and the limitations of such craft make them unfit to deliver whole expeditions into the great wilderness, they are useful for suddenly overtaking an unwary venture company that’s made a find—the House men delivered by airship may then appropriate the slain company’s equipment to bring back their treasures to Elderyn.

What does it all mean? 

The idea for a novel based in this commerce is manifold. Some of these ideas arose out of the worldbuilding for Avar Narn itself—the commerce in Artifice is fundamental to many of the setting’s inherent conflicts.

But I’ve also always wanted to write a more modern take on the classic fantasy quest. Here, hard and desperate men and women are cogs in a machine of commerce—not valiant heroes saving the world. Though there is much wonder in the Wild, the life of an adventurer is more commonly one of suffering, labor and boredom punctuated by moments of terror. At its heart, I just love fantasy fiction that is gritty and “realistic.”

Don’t mistake my stated goals here for pure cynicism. Classic fantasy quests are morally instructive tales—look to the Grail Quest, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. But I believe that both moral instruction and fantasy that are more mature are able to provide morality and ethics in a more complicated world—one of pragmatism and expedience, ambiguity in righteousness, competing needs. A world in some ways more like our own. I think that the novel (still without a working title) based on these ideas has a chance of doing just that. We shall see.

The Aenyr Language

What follows is some of the work I’ve done (plus notes) on the language of the Aenyr people.

As a preparatory note, I’ll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for description of phonemes but will later shift to other symbols (with a guide) to depict how I intend to write the language within stories in Avar Narn. The language will have its own alphabet, but currently does not.

I’ve been using a combination of Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit and my own linguistic research to inform the choices made below. I highly recommend the book. I have a few similar ones on my shelf, but his is the one I usually start and end with.

A little bit of introduction–the language of the Aenyr is an ancient one, seldom used in the Avar except in remaining place names and its influence on subsequent languages (such as the Altaenin tongue). As I post more about the history of the Avar and of the Aenyr people, you’ll see this fleshed out.

To begin, I needed to decide on the sound of the language. I found the following quotation on the Wikipedia page for “cellar-door”: “it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with vowel nuclei–the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.”

I used the quotation as something of a guide in selecting phonemes for the Aenyr language. Following Tolkien, I first looked at Welsh and Finnish, but I also looked to Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and a few other Earth languages in the process.

First, I satisfied the guidepost of the above-written quote by adding the liquids: /r/, /l/, /ɹ/, /ʎ/ and the nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɳ/ (the latter two being influenced by Sanskrit). I added in the other consonants mostly based on some of the words that I already had that I’d decided came from the Aenyr language. The same with the vowels.

Aenyri Phonography

Here’s where, for me at least, things got interesting. I had made a decision (mostly for ease of vocabulary building) to use the agglutinative aspect of Finnish (suffixes may be added to a noun core by standardized rules to create a number of other nouns). I had also decided long ago the meaning of “Avar Narn,” Aenyr words approximating the “the world reborn.”

So, it was time to engage in a little reverse engineering–I needed to make those words mean what I wanted them to mean, and this provided the start of the language.

Before I get too far into this, a note on (current) pronunciation. Here is a little chart of my current pronunciation notes for vowels:

Aenyr Vowel Sounds

Our starting place, with some pronunciation guidance: Ävär Närn.

I took “är” as the core word and made “Äv-“, “n-” and “-n” prefixes and suffixes in agglutinative style.

To get where I needed to go, I decided that “är” means “to be born, to come into being.”

“Äv-“, then, became a prefix to create a noun from a verb, specifically a noun meaning “the place where [verb] happens.” This gives us “Ävär” = “birthplace.”

“n-” then became a prefix for a verb equivalent to English “re-“, while “-n” became a suffix to form a past participle/adjective, making “Närn” = “reborn, resurrected.”

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes, and adding some more, yielded the following list:

n-           “to do again”, “re-”                                                                   När = “to be reborn”
-n            to create past participle/adjective from infinitive           Ärn = “born”
-tälё       “an agent, one who does [verb]”                                          Ärtälё = lit. “birther,
Närtälё = “necromancer”,
-ёnyn     creates adjective from verb                                                  Ärёnyn = “fertile, arable,                                                                                                                      productive”
-vё         creates noun meaning a master of the verb                       Ärvё = “midwife” or
-tön        “without, lacking”                                                                    Ärtön = “unborn,
Ärtälёtön = “motherless”,
-ys         an instrument or tool used with the verb                          Ärys = “birthing chair”
-yr         a (general) collection or group                                              Aenyr = “the Aen people”
Äryr = “the born, the
Ärtälyr = “mothers
-ёn        to pluralize a noun                                                                  Ärtälёn = “(the) mothers”

That’s a lot of mileage from two original words! There’s a lot to be continued here (declension of nouns, verb conjugation, grammar, regular/irregular words, etc.) and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that will have to be corrected, but I feel like it’s a good start.

Here’s one particular issue I’m trying to wrap my head around: I’ve already used some words with vowel clusters in them (“Aenyr”, for one) where the vowels elide together (that should have a long “a” sound at the beginning) and others (“Ellembaё”) where the vowels are pronounced separately. Not sure what I’m going to do here, but there are a few possibilities: it may be that the orthography of the language solves the problem (when written in its own script the “Ae” is a single letter corresponding to the “(aɪ)” phoneme) or it may be that I have to go back and start respelling that word to fit in with a coherent pronunciation scheme for readers.

I don’t intend to go so far as to create complete working languages–I have neither time nor skill for that. Instead, the languages of Avar Narn will be used to create names for places, people and things with consistency and immersion.

Avar Narn: An Introduction to Magic

In this post, I want to talk about the place of magic in fiction in general and in my own fantasy setting, Avar Narn, in particular.

First, the general. What does magic represent in fiction? Many things are possible: a convenient plot device or deus ex machina; the power of words (ref. Earthsea and Dresden Files for examples); a dualistic or non-material worldview; the power of the mind and/or will; and, quite simply, the fantastic.

When I studied medieval and renaissance literature at the University of Texas for my master’s degree, one of my areas of interest was in cultural ideas and constructs about magic and the occult. While the age of serious witch-hunting was later than the period on which I focused, there were nevertheless plenty of opportunities for the study of both folk beliefs and scholarly beliefs in the efficacy of magic. One of my favorite books on the subject is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas convincingly argues that people increasingly turned to folk magic as the Reformation deprived them of Catholic apotropaic rituals and  miraculous healings that had formed a key part of their worldview served fundamental psychological needs.

In my own studies, what occurred to me in the study of real-world attitudes toward magic in the medieval and early modern periods was that magic represented a threat to traditional forms of power. Qabbalistic and Hermetic systems of magic represented the belief that “knowledge is power” stripped down to its barest form, challenging ideas of power through land ownership, military might and birthright. This aspect of beliefs in supernatural powers fascinated me and has undoubtedly informed in part my own approach to magic in Avar Narn.

I do not intend to spend much time talking about how to build a magic “system” for fictional settings–there are plenty of well-written articles, blog posts and other resources on this subject. Instead, I want to examine why a setting might have magic at all.

As you know, good magic systems have a cost associated with them–think of the blood magic of A Song of Ice and Fire or the sanity-sapping occult knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. Thus, integral to a magic system is dramatic conflict of a type recognizable to any reader–what price are we willing to pay to get what we want? There are few conflicts more visceral or primal than that. In fact, we might consider that conflict to be a core part of any conflict whatsoever.

If willingness to pay the cost of magic is an archetypal dramatic conflict, the ability to pay the cost is also a prime ground for the kinds of conflict that drives stories–think of the destruction of the One Ring or the quest for the Grail. When certain conditions or materials are required for the successful use of magic, this itself can be a primary plot around which to build a story. This, I think is more commonly used in role-playing games than novels, but has a place in both.

In addition to providing ready conflicts to write about, magic tells us something (often much) about the nature of the setting. Magic with a high cost usually results in dark fantasy (think the Warhammer Fantasy universe, for instance), while magic with a low cost might become what we’d call “epic” or “high fantasy” but (in my opinion) more often looks more like a superhero story. In at least most cases, a magic system alone is insufficient to readily categorize the genre of a story (to the extent that such categories are really helpful anyway), but it is nevertheless a great contributor to the atmosphere of a setting. Where magic is rare a reader will take note when it occurs; when plentiful it will have far-reaching effects on economics, politics and the like. If your magic system doesn’t influence the way your world works in some way, it will feel “stuck-on” or compartmentalized and that does not contribute to the willing suspension of disbelief.

What is more interesting to me about what magic tells us about a setting is that the definition of magic is, essentially, a cosmological task. The why, what, how, when and where of magic tells you something about how the very fabric–the “reality”–of a setting works. Magic as a latent force to be manipulated and studied scientifically is quite different from a mysterious magic that cannot be fully understood and is used only tenuously.

With these thoughts in mind, let me tell you about “magic” in Avar Narn.

First, I try to avoid using the word “magic” within the setting. For semiotic ease, I don’t mind talking about that aspect of the system as “magic,” but the characters in the world don’t think of it with that word–it’s got too much fantasy baggage. Instead, the force of magic in Avar Narn is usually referred to metaphorically as “the Power” and its use as “the Gift” or “the Art.” Likewise, Avar Narn stories do not talk about “spells,” they speak instead of “workings.”

Is this a cheap trick? Is an elf by any other name still really an elf? More important, do readers balk when your story has stereotypical elves but you call them something else? I don’t know the answer for sure, but I definitely see this risk here. So, does playing games with the nomenclature of magic hurt or help in the long-run? I’ve made my choice and I’ll live with the consequences.

With all of that in mind, here’s some description of magic in Avar Narn:

Meaning: All of the details of the arcane in Avar Narn flow from the meaning I’ve set for this aspect of the setting. Magic, in this world, is about the power of the will writ large–the ways in which we use our freedom of will for good or for evil (or, as is more often the case in Avar Narn, some gray area quite in-between). Not just the details about how the arcane works, but the very history of its use show how mortals typically twist the good gifts they’ve been give to selfish and self-destructive purposes.

Source: The Power, the source of arcane workings of any sort in Avar Narn, is the stuff of Creation itself, raw possibility that The One (or whichever divine power a person happens to believe in) has made available to some.

Availability: Not everyone has access to the Power, and even among those who do the ability to shape the Power into an actual working is limited for most. Why this is the case is a mystery to scholars–to a certain extent, differences in the effectiveness of practitioners can be explained by the thoroughness of their studies and discipline. Nevertheless, the question of why some have the Gift at all and others do not remains open. Some say that those who wield the Gift have returned to this world in a higher state of being after gaining some modicum of enlightenment in past lives, but the tendency of so many practitioners to fall to corruption through their use of the Power undercuts this idea. Regardless, I’m not willing to explicitly explain this–nor do I need to, as having multiple theories and no concrete answer feels more realistic.

Difficulty: Magic in Avar Narn is difficult to perform properly, even under the most favorable of conditions. Scholars of the arcane believe that this is because the natural state of Creation resists mortal attempts to reshape it through the Power of raw possibility–the more radically a desired effect differs from expectations of natural law and causation, the more difficult it is to achieve.

This means that magic is more often subtle than flashy, more often a component of a larger undertaking rather than a replacement for mundane action. Yes, truly fantastic effects are possible, but often they are simply achievable through other means. Magi with the right training and preparation may make for devastating battlefield artillery, but cannon are cheaper and easier to replace. It is the flexibility of arcane workings that makes magi a force to be reckoned with more than the Art’s raw force.

The Cost: Like any good magic system, the use of the Power is fraught with costs–some minor, some significant. At perhaps the most minor level, the use of the Power is fatiguing on mind and body–sometimes to the point of lasting physical injury. As important, controlling the Power to form a working is difficult at best, and uncontrolled raw possibility bleeding into the world is anything but safe. Not only do practitioners have to worry about losing control of their intended working, but even successful workings may have unintended side effects. Even without immediate side effects, small amounts of the Power bleed into the world from even the most tightly-controlled workings. This is called Flux. If Flux accumulates before it naturally dissipates, it can cause random and unlikely events to occur. From this comes the stories of a magus’s presence spoiling milk or turning candles blue; this reality has done much to generate fear and persecution of practitioners over time.

Additionally, there is what I’m currently calling “the Practitioner’s Dialectic.” The Dialectic is the observation that the emotional and mental state of a practitioner when performing a working will affect the nature of the working, and the types of workings wrought will subtly influence the mind and emotions of the practitioner. One who uses the Power for malicious ends may find himself corrupted into a “natural” state of maliciousness, even if the first steps down such a path were intended to ultimately be for good. In other words, practitioners who use the Power under the idea that the end justifies the means often find that the means become the end. Remember, the use of the Art is symbolic of the use of free will writ large, and the use of free will is recursive–every choice we make sets us on a new path and changes or affirms (if ever so slightly) who we are.

These costs are known in the Avar as the “Fourfold Curse” of the Art–the risk of physical injury, the difficulty of controlling workings and their side effects, Flux and the Practitioner’s Dialectic. In Avar Narn, magic is capable of truly wondrous and miraculous things (although its use is not so wanton or commonplace as, say, a Dungeons & Dragons setting), but the narrative conflict of magic is whether it is worth the cost.

The Practices: There are five Practices of magic in Avar Narn–at least according to the widely used Ealthen system of categorization. These are:

Sorceries: Sorceries are brute force workings, the quick summoning of the Power combined with a raw exertion of the will. They do not create long-lasting effects, are relatively weak compared to other Practices and are messy in application. On the other hand, they are the fastest possible applications of the Power and some individuals (known as “Sorcerers” and “Sorceresses”) are able to wield sorceries without formal training. Other Practitioners view Sorcerers as especially dangerous given their unpredictability and the heightened influence of the Practitioner’s Dialectic on sorceries.

Thaumaturgies: Thaumaturgies are what most people think of when they think of “spells.” A thaumaturgy is the careful formation of the Power into an intended effect. This requires time, focus and skill–thaumaturgies typically employ incantations, hand gestures and at least a whole minute to complete. Rather than simply directing the Power with the will as in a sorcery, a thaumaturgy involves creating mental structures and sequences of thoughts to deliberately and cautiously create a desired effect. These effects are typically relatively short-lived; while noticeably more powerful than sorceries, the wonders created by thaumaturgies often pale in comparison to the power of ritual workings.

Ritual: The most powerful and lasting “immediate” effects are achieved through rituals. Rituals make use of arcane diagrams and occult sympathies to create the structure for a working (rather than requiring the practitioner to form everything in her mind). It takes time to set up a ritual–a magic circle is necessary and the items and ingredients for such an undertaking are usually not readily available. Further, the Flux of a ritual working adheres to the place of the working rather than the worker–this has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the most important aspect of ritual workings is that their effects may be created so as to be longer-lasting, persisting for days, weeks or months. Powering such persistence can be quite costly, however, and any effect meant to be permanent–such a Fleshcrafting–requires permanent sacrifice of some sort or another.

Alchemy: Alchemy is the use of occult sympathies, proto-science and the Art to store effects in consumable items. This allows the practitioner to pay the cost of a working in advance and to delay the use of the working until situationally appropriate. Alchemical effects are typically on par in power with sorceries or thaumaturgies but not rituals.

Artifice: Artifice is the set of closely-guarded secrets that involve using the Power as a source of energy for driving mechanical creations. The practice requires magical skill, engineering talent, competency in alchemy and many other esoteric knowledges to perform. Artifice plays an important historical, social and economic role in the Avar, as you’ll see in upcoming stories.

This really only scratches the surface of the details of arcane power in Avar Narn–I’ve found working on magic within the setting deeply fascinating and rewarding so it has developed what I hope is dramatic nuance and complexity that properly limits the effectiveness of magic while making it capable of wondrous things in ways that will be narratively exciting. More to come, on the subject, I’m sure.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part V: Development of a Community

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Having spent some time looking at high-level issues for the course of this sci-fi setting, I’m now going to shift gears in this post and “zoom in” to create one of the lower-tiered communities I’ve vaguely described before.

This community will be one that, because of its value systems, largely stands alone from the tiered system entirely, as those communities with extreme ideologies, experimental societies or strong adherence to values of self-sufficiency tend to do.

This community starts with a social movement that arose just as body augmentation began to become a regular part of society. While all augmentations—including cybernetics and bio-engineered prostheses—caused a deepening in the already-wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the pinnacle of this technologically-based fracturing occurred with high-level genetic manipulation.

Those who could afford to have themselves or their children genegineered, as the neologism went, created individuals who were smarter, more attractive, more physically capable, and less susceptible to disease and injury than “baseline” humans, perpetuating the regime of dominance they already enjoyed through social influence and wealth.

The community we’re concerned with developed as a backlash and form of social resistance to the so-called genobles. This began in traditional punk fashion: the incorporation of alternative political ideologies—anarchist, socialist and otherwise—with other value systems and a look that set them apart from “mainstream” society. The loose community of like-minded individuals challenged the “perfected human” ideal through their own forms of body modification and augmentation. Members of the community sought to outdo one another with extensive and grotesque physical forms that questioned the meaning of humanity and brought attention to their cause. They styled themselves Revoltists, both because of their revolt against mainstream values and because of their practice of adopting revolting physical forms.

As society evolved toward the tier system, so did the Revoltist movement. Anarchist ideology became dominant among members, and a system of meaning crept into the physical forms adopted by adherents. Eventually, the scientists involved with the Revoltist movement created genetic templates for different physiognomies, further standardizing the various “looks” of Revoltists. The technologies of body augmentation had become less expensive and more affordable as the decades passed, further enabling the consolidation of the movement.

During this time, the Revoltists co-opted parts of the Otherkin community (some of whom had used body augmentation to create bodies that matched the creatures they believed they really were; this nevertheless caused a schism in the Otherkin community) and decided that the use of faery mythology provided a symbolism readily-adaptable to their ideologies. Revoltists began to create themselves as elves, goblins, trolls, and all other manner of creature connected with the various faery mythologies of the world, with each different physiology representing certain sub-ideologies, arguments or schools of thought within the collective.

Following the faery paradigm, the Revoltists divided themselves into a Seelie Court and Unseelie Court, with the Seelie Court representing collectivist anarchists and the Unseelie Court representing individualist anarchists. Further subcategories—trouping faeries and solitary faeries, seasonal “courts” and other constructs borrowed from faery mythology—provided further categories for belief systems within the larger whole of Revoltist anarchy.

Eventually, the group began to refer to themselves as the Fae, dropping the Revoltist moniker altogether. As humanity established colonies on other worlds, the Fae participated by establishing their own communities, though the majority of the organization elected to make their home in a massive flotilla of ships, often referred to as the “Faery Fleet.”

The problem with genetic modification is that—without intervention—you pass to your children the traits you’ve chosen for yourself. The latest generation of the Fae have many members who are Fae in appearance only—they do not subscribe to the values and ideologies on which their community was founded, leading many of them to leave the Faery Fleet or other Faery colonies to find a place where they can feel that they belong. Some undergo the genetic modification to return to more human physiologies, but a great many take their look with them, a reminder of where they came from even if it is not a place they can remain. This new diaspora has resulted in a sort of “manufactured racism,” as members of the Fae who attempt to reincorporate into “mainstream” societies still represent the other, physically, socially and ideologically.