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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

Posts: 23

PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 12:19 pm    Post subject: Short Sword vs Long Sword (and Real Life vs Roleplaying)         Reply with quote

Hello. I'm a game designer working on a pen and paper RPG. My goal with the game is to find the best possible balance between realism and simplicity/fun, and right now I'm working on various weapons and the fighting system.

I know very little of real fighting, and a brief look at some threads here has given me a sense of how complicated it is. (Correct me, by the way, if I'm using incorrect terminology). The task before me is to distill the near-infinite varieties of real-life fighting into a relatively few, simple archetypes that the average player can understand - giving them strategic options without overwhelming them.

Any help with that task would be appreciated, although I came here with one specific question: what are the advantages/disadvantages of daggers, short swords, and longswords?

In the simplified game world, I have daggers dealing less damage and being less useful defensively than longswords, but being able to attack faster. The main issue is, why exactly would you use a shortsword? Is there any specific technique that you can use with it that you can't with a dagger or longsword? Or is it just a particular length/weight that some people prefer for personal reasons?
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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

Posts: 23

PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 12:24 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Also, if this is a topic already covered somewhere, I apologize. But a lot of the terminology I see on this forum is new to me and I'm not sure what I'm actually reading about.
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Christopher Gregg

Location: Louisville, KY
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 12:41 pm    Post subject: Shortsword use         Reply with quote

Dear Raymond,

Welcome! I happen to be a big shortsword fan as far as a carry weapon is concerned. Daggers are obviously a very close-up weapon, primarily intendd for stabbing attacks. Longswords are perhaps the best weapon for all-around use, both offensive and defensive, but do present certain limitations due to their length - they're harder to use in very up close situations, half-swording and hilt attacks notwithstanding. A shortsword has some of the longsword's advantages for cutting and thrusting, giving more reach than a dagger and the possibility of effective cuts (depending on the style of shortsword, of course. Also, a shortsword generally weighs less than a longsword, and is easier to carry on your person as a daily wear item (back in the day, mind you). Shortswords are also better when fighting in confined spaces, being more easliy wielded for both thrusting and swinging.

And now for some more informed responses... Wink

Christopher Gregg

'S Rioghal Mo Dhream!
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Dave Smith

Joined: 15 Mar 2007

Posts: 30

PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 12:43 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm going to refrain from any longwinded responses, because there are MANY more people here better suited to answer your questions than I am, but I did want to throw in my 2 cents...

One thing that irks me a bit in DnD is their use of the term longsword (you might be using it correctly, I'm unable to tell based on your post). Their "longswords" are for use with one hand, when in actuality longswords are generally used with 2 hands. It seems the longsword they're referring to is more of an arming sword.

Also, the use of weapons might be situational. In a wide open field the longsword probably has the advantage. In a crowded, low-ceilinged tavern, or in a narrow back alley, the shorter weapons might have the advantage.

As I said, just a couple of my very generic thoughts on the subject. Others will probably give you more worthwhile information.
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Sam N.

Location: Beijing, China
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 1:02 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Actually, apart from being easier to draw and carry, daggers and shorter weapons aren't nearly as good as longer ones.

One thing that games do that is unrealistic is try to make all weapons even when they actually aren't, like trying to make a dagger "even" to a sword.

Truth is in real life all weapons are not equal. A spear will always have advantage over a sword and a sword will always have advantage over a dagger (save for in a few very specific instances).

Also, in real life, the "damage" caused by a sword is about the same to that of a dagger.

The only advantage that a shorter weapon (like a short sword or a dagger) is portability and ease of drawing. However, I think the fact that a dagger is faster is pretty true, the problem is that in real life reach almost always will beat speed (the smaller weapon has to be inhumanly fast and the longer weapon inhumanly slow, which they usually are in games).

My advice is to make it realistic in that the players should be limited in the equipment they carry. For instance, there is no such thing as a spear "holster", they would have to be carried by hand, which would be irritating to do all day in real life. Also, back holsters don't work with weapons longer than around 30" and don't work for resheathing (try to fit a sword into a tiny slot behind your back out of sight).

To answer your question, people generally prefer shorter weapons for portability. But that's just my 2 cents.[/b]
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Simon E.

Location: Sunnyvale, CA
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 1:28 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As for specific techniques that you can use with a short sword --assuming you mean single handed sword-- is that it can be used in conjunction with a shield or buckler. Or dagger, or cloak, or whatever you prefer for your other hand.

RPG wise, there might be other historically based reasons that you must carry a short sword outside of technique:

-A backup weapon for a main weapon like the polearm (like a landsknecht's use of the katzbalger)
-A backup weapon for an archer
-Blades of a certain length are restricted in certain jurisdictions
-Technology is not advanced enough to create long swords
-Polite society frowns upon carry long swords into public places
-You're riding a horse. It's harder to wield a longsword from a horse.
-You're of a social class that only uses short swords (such as Chinese scholars' association with the jian)

Single handed swords remained in use along with long swords in European history. There's definitely threads in this forum about how they perform against armor, how they perform in dueling vs longswords, and other things. Tactically, you might want to look into how single handed swords are used starting with reading about the sword and buckler work in MS I.33 (do a forum search, there's lots!), as well as looking into how the longsword is used. I think that the general consensus is that fighting with a the long sword has the advantage over a short sword because of the length and leverage. You've got to consider, then, other reasons why someone might use a short sword.
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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 1:58 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Thanks very much - The info so far has been very informative. I suspected that the term longsword was fairly inaccurate, but was unsure what the right term is. In D&D, daggers, short swords and longswords are all just variations on each other (one handed weapons dealing a variable amount of damage). One particular concern I had was whether it even made sense to include a "short sword" (i.e. a medium sized one handed blade) as opposed to a "long sword" (a "large" one handed blade).

The sense I get here is that there's really no such thing as a longsword (or that, at best, it's more like what oldschool D&D called a Bastard Sword, which they described as "one and a half" handed). So I can go ahead and ditch the intermediate weapon.

One thing that makes the conversion to paper hard is that all the math needs to be pretty simple, and there's a limited number of variables I can use to showcase differences. "Portability" is a good one that I hadn't thought of (I was included weapon "weight" but hadn't thought about how easy it was to draw/resheath). I'm not quite sure how to work that into the game but it gives me something to think about.

Is there a web page someone can recommend that includes a list of typical medieval weapons and how long/heavy they are? That'd probably give me a good starting point.

Here are the variables I have to work with so far, if any RPG players out there have any thoughts:

• Attack Bonus (How likely the weapon is to hit)
• Damage (For simplicity's sake I have to pretend the body is composed of an arbitrary number of hit points that can be predictably measured)
• Defense Bonus (How much the weapon can help you from being hit)
• Speed (My current system is that almost all weapons have a base speed of 1 attack per round, but its easier to learn to hit faster with certain weapons.)

• Weight (This is actually hard to make useful. Measuring character encumbrance is one of the most pain-in-the-#$@$ mechanics in RPing. I also have no idea how much weapons realistically way, nor how much an actual trained warrior is expected to be able to handle. Again, if someone knows of a page with typical weights listed, it'd be helpful)

• Reach (Unfortunately, it's not worth dividing the world into anything smaller than 5' x 5' squares, so giving reach only makes sense for really long spears and swords that can actually reach out 5'. Otherwise I have to represent reach in other ways - after reading some responses here, I'm thinking of combining attack bonus and defense bonus into one stat called "Weapon Size." Equally sized weapons would put opponents on equal footing when it comes to reach, whereas someone with a shorter weapon would have a harder time both hitting and defending. Does that make sense?)

Weapon Size could also be used as a penalty for concealment.[/i]
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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

Posts: 23

PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 2:05 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Oh, one more variable that I'm curious how the real world handles: Critical effects (how likely is a weapon to hit a particularly vital organ, and what happens when it does?) Game engines usually handle it pretty simply (double damage or some such.)
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Stephen Hand

Location: Hobart, Australia
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 2:09 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

OK, what do you mean by longsword and what do you mean by shortsword? Historically a longsword was a weapon designed to be used one handed on horseback and two handed on foot - what until the rise of scholarship on the medieval and renaissance arts was typically called a bastard sword (a 16th century term) or a hand and a half sword (a modern term). Historically a shortsword was a 16th/17th century term for a sword that was shorter than a longsword, typically a basket hilted sword which wasn't actually particularly short at all. In more recent times the term shortsword has been used to refer to swords like the Roman gladius.

So, question 1, what do you mean by the terms?

OK, as to how they differ in effect, the biggest difference is range. A dagger can inflict just as fatal a wound as a sword or spear (most of my copies of original daggers have blades 10-14" (25-35cm) long. In simple terms there are three ranges, basically polearm range, sword range and close range (dagger and grappling range). At polearm range the polearm can attack while the other weapons can't. At sword range the polearm is limited in what you can do with it (not as limited as some would think - you have the butt end and a useful range of wrestling moves using the pole as a leverage device). The sword is obviously great at this range, but the dagger isstill unable to hit. In close the polearm is still disadvantaged. The sword is too (though again, not as much as one might expect) and the dagger is king. Close fighting with swords and polearms is basically wrestling with a big lever arm; in the case of a sword, one that has a spike on one end and a heavy club on the other. Dagger fighting is basically wrestling with a lightning fast, lethal strike.

As others have said, all weapons are not created equal. Given room to use them, polearms trump swords or daggers. If I had to fight for my life with a dagger against a polearm I would make sure my will was in order. Any half way decent fighter will never let me get close enough. With swords it's still not great. Shields even up the picture, but according to period masters and my personal experience, the polearm still has the edge (though probably not enough to give either the edge in gaming terms). Armour also evens things up a lot as you can afford to get hit. The typical gaming convention of hit points is perhaps the most unrealistic aspect. It doesn't matter how good you are, being hit with a sword is probably going to incapacitate you. That's why people wore armour if they could, because being good doesn't help you against people outside of your field of vision. In melees it's the guy who runs up behind you, or the spearman two over in the third rank who nails you.

People carried shorter weapons, like arming swords strapped to their belt, or daggers in battle because the range can close, especially if there's a lot of people raging around. Sometimes you have no way to bring that pike or bow into play - and then the sword comes out. People carried swords and daggers in civilian life because polearms are a nuisance to carry and mark you out as someone looking for trouble. Walking down a city street in the middle ages with a polearm would be like walking down a city street today with a rifle. Dangerous and inappropriate. Swords were so favoured because they are the longest weapons that can usefully be carried in everyday life, they are still useful at close range and they are extremely versatile in attack and defence. They're the perfect intermediate weapon.

I hope this helps.


Stephen Hand
Editor, Spada, Spada II
Author of English Swordsmanship, Medieval Sword and Shield

Stoccata School of Defence
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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

Posts: 23

PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 2:23 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Steve, that was incredibly helpful. I may be rethinking the entire combat system around your "Pole-Arm Range, Sword Range, Close Range" thing.

I think I covered the "what I meant by the terms" thing in the previous post, which I probably posted while you were composing your own reply.

I've been giving some thought to hit points. When all is said and done they're probably a necessary evil, but a while back I was watching Star Wars (yeah, hyper realistic combat, I know) but thought about how an entire lightsaber fight would go without anyone landing a blow, but as soon as they did it was over. (Or someone lost a hand and the dynamic of the fight changed completely). Perhaps reworking the system so that most "damage" is not damage to the body directly but rather fatigue damage that makes it easier for someone to land a single, incapacitating blow.
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Randall Pleasant

Location: Flower Mound, Texas
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 3:06 pm    Post subject: Re: Short Sword vs Long Sword (and Real Life vs Roleplaying)         Reply with quote


You might want to check out the game The Riddle of Steel from Driftwood Publishing. The game was developed by Jake Norwood, the assistant director of ARMA and a Senior Free Scholar in ARMA (ie he is an extremely good swordsment and martial artist). I have heard (haven't played it myself) that the game has the relative damage of weapons worked out really well.

Ran Pleasant
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Elling Polden

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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 3:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Ah... the joys of RPG nerdishness...
What you want is to keep your weapons quite generic, and simple. A RPG system can't really capture the details of combat, so it's better to leave them out of the game, but included them in the design; Realistic balancing, swift and easy rules.

Historically, a sword was a sword. Of it was longer than average, it was a long sword. A short sword is, well, a short sword.
So, it might bee a good idea to just have stats for (one handed, 2-3 foot bladed) swords, and leave the finer distinctions to pure description.
This leaves you with daggers, swords, and Longswords, with a posibility to add twohanders, though these might as well be pooled with the short pole weapons.

"this [fight] looks curious, almost like a game. See, they are looking around them before they fall, to find a dry spot to fall on, or they are falling on their shields. Can you see blood on their cloths and weapons? No. This must be trickery."
-Reidar Sendeman, from King Sverre's Saga, 1201
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Anders Backlund

Location: Sweden
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 4:27 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Small tip, for starters: try not to make it too realistic. Games are about escapism, after all. And when you get right down to it, realism isn't much fun. Wink

Sam N. wrote:
Also, back holsters don't work with weapons longer than around 30"

Actually, while 30" sounds like a decent average, I think this is relative to a few factors:

-How big the person in question is. (Specifically. how long his or her arms are.)
-The shape of the sword. (Curved blades are easier to draw from your back then straight ones.) and
-Whether or not the sheath is actually designed for back drawing.

The sword is an ode to the strife of mankind.

"This doesn't look easy... but I bet it is!"
-Homer Simpson.
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Bryce Felperin

Location: San Jose, CA
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 4:55 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

As both a student of longswords and a gamer I also have a few cents to put forth for this topic. :-)

My experience in sword fighting is that the winner is the one who has the best skill, kept his head and didn't get fatigued first.

The main difference as I see it between a longsword wielded in two hands and a shorter sword wielded in one, no matter the type, is that longswords in two hands employ physics for their power (when you pull the pommel) and shorter, one handed swords need more muscle effort for their cuts.

When thrusting at your optimum range the longer weapon usually wins in my experience, so I would take a longsword in combat for this reason as well. If both are unarmored in a fight, a longsword would most probably lose to a good rapier fencer.

Generally, a more skilled opponent can, to some extent, offset weapon length. However in my experience this is not true when grossly outclassed in length, by say a longsword versus longer pole-arm such as a pike.

The above points are my observations while sparring. Your mileage may vary. :-)
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Jesse Eaton

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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 5:13 pm    Post subject: Are you using a d20 system?         Reply with quote

If you are, then I can send you my stats. I have several versions. I also have a White Wolf version. I also use the three ranges as was mentioned previously and I use three size/weight categories ie light, medium, and heavy. It isn't really the most realistic system, but it's simple enough to be easily used and is balanced so that light weapons have advantages that heavy weapons lack and vice versus. I've been fighting in SCA rapier, lights, and some heavies as well as ARMA, some escrima, free form shinai and other styles. Add to this that I've been gamming and making my own systems since the 80's, I think I have a good idea as to what is both realistic and workable in an RPG.

As far as combat is concerned, most sytems work on a strike vs parry/dodge/shield block model, but anyone familiar with the historical fechtbuchs will tell you that most combat functions on strike vs counter strike. This is the way I would suggest going.
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Andrew Knecht

Location: South Dakota
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 5:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I know less about this than pretty much everyone on this thread, but I'll throw in my two cents anyways:

Daggers: Low damage, but better point control means a better chance of hitting a vital organ or a gap in armor, hence a larger critical threat range.

Short swords: One hand use allows for a shield/buckler/ some kind of defensive weapon in the off-hand. Average damage, average critical range.

Longswords (Bastard swords, hand and a half swords, whatever): Two handed use, gives decent defense, (not as good as a shield) Higher damage than a short sword, but lower critical threat range. And perhaps higher critical damage.

Basically, the smaller the weapon, the lower the damage, but the higher critical threat. And vice versa.
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K. Larson

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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 7:08 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

One thing that hasn't been mentioned overmuch in the previous posts is the issue of defensive complementarity with armour.

Longswords (blades of 1.5-2 handed use) really took off in popularity once effective plate armour started to show up. Prior to the dawn of plate armour, you see more arming swords (aka short swords) with a shield of some type in the other hand. Basically, if you're only covered in flexible maille (aka chainmail) you really want some sort of rigid defense. If you're wearing plate armour then you don't need a rigid shield quite so badly (because you're wearing one) and you're more likely to select the longsword.

In gaming terms, perhaps swords are given low defense ratings, while a short sword is allowed to be used with a shield or buckler to boost defense. Longswordsmen would just have to eat the penalty or wear better armour. Swords, like pistols, are excessively admired defensive weapons, anything that requires you to get THAT close to a similarly equipped adversary isn't a safe choice in weaponry.

In storytelling terms, if your characters are plunging into glorious battle clad in gleaming armour, then a longsword makes a great sidearm. On the other hand, if your characters are going to be traveling long distances, socializing in a variety of circumstances, and suffering sudden ambush or skirmishes, then a shortsword, light armour, and buckler is the order of the day.

Assuming equal skill with both, I'd rather face a foe with short blade, buckler, in my pajamas than just a longsword.

FYI, the buckler is a small iron shield (8-16 inch diameter) gripped in the fist rather than strapped to the arm. Often hung over the sword hilt and carried on the belt. More info available here:[/b]
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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 9:32 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I need to go to sleep soon, but a few quick remarks:

If you are, then I can send you my stats.

I'm not sure exactly what the original statement you're responding to is. In any case if you sent whatever's been working for you, that'd be useful.

In gaming terms, perhaps swords are given low defense ratings, while a short sword is allowed to be used with a shield or buckler to boost defense.

This actually brings up another issue I've had, which is how exactly to make shields work. I've been having armor just work as a form of damage reduction (i.e. if you hit a guy for 15 damage, the first 6 of it would be dealt to the armor). I know realistically different armors should respond differently to different forms of attacks, but that's a level of complexity I don't think could ever be worth it.

But for shields, whether it absorbs damage or deflects blows or whatever would depend entirely on how you're using it. I think I had official rules at some point that might or might not have made sense, but none of my players ever opted to use a shield so it never became relevant.

A thought that just occurred to me is that readying a shield (or weapon) to block an incoming blow would count as an action, just as attacking would. If you have a shield and sword, trying to use both at the same time would produce some kind of two-handed penalty. (I haven't read the sword/buckler article yet, dunno if that had info that'd help here. I'll get to that sometime tomorrow).

weapon length discussion <snip>

Perhaps a good solution is to have weapons fall into "close," "medium" and "long" range, and whenever a character attacks a character with a longer weapon, they incur an attack of opporunity.[/quote]
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James R.Fox

Location: Youngstowm,Ohio
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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 9:35 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Raymond-The best way to learn is to talk to the guys back in the day who did stake their lives on these things.If you cant't channel, there are two good ways. First secure a copy of "Chronicles of the Crusades" translated and edited by M.R.B. Shaw,and read Seur de Joinvilles Life of St Louis".De Joinville fought is a number of battles,The best for your purposes is a blow by blow descrption of how he was ambushed by two turk mercenaries after the formal battle of Mansourah turned into a cut-throat free for all in the streets of Mansourah, as medieval cavalry battles had a habit of doing.The first turk charged him from behind and speared him in the back so hard that the spear burst his mail, stopped on his arming coat ,and pressed him against hes saddle bow and made him drop his spear.A second turk then charged to spear him in the face He couldn't reach his longsword, which he wore hung from his saddle due to it's length, so he Drew His Arming Sword, which was on his belt,deflected the first guy's spear and killed his horse. He then drew his longsword and charged the second turk, Using His Longsword like a spear and killed him, and them rode back killed the first turk and recovered his arming swird. Arming swords have blade 22' to 26"and are as a rule wide at the hilt for cutting an taper sharply to a thrusting point good for stabbing the joints in armour. A good, and very lovely, example is unclassified sword no 4 in Mr Oakshott's Records of the Medieval Sword. Just seeing the real thing will help visualize what it can and cannot do. . This is an arming sword that has seen alot uf use in it's day, Using a longsword like a spear means placing the hilt against your shoulder ang charging. I can't find my only illustration offhand, but as de Joinville said it saved him and I know it was taught as a regular move in fighting on horseback with lomgswords.Secondly, go on-line to the Association Of Renniassance Martial Arts site. They have a whole set of profusely illstrated swordfighting manuals, from 1300-1600, including most if mot all of the german masters and many of the Italian. The illustrations are fabulous, and the translations are very clear, Learnig what knights were really taught on how to save their a-- from swordfighting to wrestling to dirty tricks should certainly tell you alot., and hopefully you can avoid the stupid crap you see in most games,not to mention Hollywood. Pax Vobiscum
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Raymond Arnold

Joined: 04 Mar 2008

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PostPosted: Tue 04 Mar, 2008 11:31 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Re: James - thanks for the suggestions. I know that doing real justice to this will take more research than I can do in the immediate future, but I'll look through those links as I find the time and take what I can from them.

I've been thinking about how to handle the hit points issue. I'm beginning to feel strongly that there should some kind of status that wears down like hit points but which represents something more along the lines of physical exhaustion or a loss of poise. The problem is that simply calling it "stamina" implies than anything you do should make you tired and use it up, and that sort of bookkeeping is more complex than a pen/paper game can handle.

Poise actually might be a good word, but the flavor of it sounds a bit too specific. Whatever it is, mechanically it should be something that can stack right on top of normal hit points. (You exchange attacks until one of your <Insert appropriate word here> runs out, and then you start actually wounding the person.) This grants the flexibility of one set of hit points I can justify regenerating quickly after combat is over (as well a non-magical-healer person regaining in the middle of combat) while retaining the realism of "one or two blows should really finish someone off."

Did the above rant make sense? Can anyone think of an appropriate word?

Poise? Endurance? Stamina?
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