Friday, July 31, 2009

S&S Indeed


Swords & Sorcery ain't got nuthin' on Spears & Spells! OK, yeah that's a stretch. What about Spears & Shields?

Swords seem to have captured the genre with a muscular grip of thick Hyborian sinews, but Spears should be just as important, if not more so, than Swords. I fully understand that Swords are widely considered the pinnacle of hand-to-hand melee technology. It's just that by the time the Sword actually took the title of undisputed champion, by way of the long sword, firearms were but a few generations away.

Compare that to the oft disregarded Spear. The reign of the Spear was far, far longer in the greater history of warfare. In the truest example of fiction/fantasy influence, D&D coughed up the crown to Swords. In OD&D Swords account for 1 out of every 5 Magic Items discovered. Spears? A paltry 1 out of every 200 Magic Items. Something's amiss here.

Also, consider the Shield in not just OD&D, but all editions. Shields improve Armor Class by one. Really? OK, I can live with that in the greater scheme of things, but Shields are realistically much more valuable in hand-to-hand combat.

Perhaps the Sword is the more romantic of the two. Perhaps the image of knights in shining armor is likewise more evocative of the fantasy genre which D&D embraces. The fact is, take a Spear & Shield and you're good to go melee wise, armor be damned.

Would it be heresy to make the unjustifiably disregarded Spear the predominant weapon in a campaign? Would it be blasphemous to make the disrespected Shield the basis of one's true Armor Class in a similarly conceived unconventional campaign? I think not, and I believe that such notions are both historically and logically sound.

So there you have it. The Spear reigns over all melee weapons, and the Shield is the backbone of any defensively-minded Fighting Man in said campaign.

The Spear is useful with one hand or two, as an effective deterrent to charges, tactically due to reach and usefulness in cramped confines, and further as a crude missile weapon. Nothing really needs to be said about the Shield; it is clearly as important as armor, regardless of whether one is clad in scale, chain or plate mail. That D&D made the Shield as effective as leather armor is laughable.

The Spear & Shield campaign replaces magical and sometimes intelligent Swords with Spears. It also rearranges the AC rules as detailed below:

No armor: 9
Leather: 8
Chain: 7
Plate: 6, reduces Move by 3
Shield: -3 AC
Large Shield: -4 AC, reduces Move by 3

Just thinking out loud. Carry on, but give the Spear and Shield their due or I'll get all Spartan on your Barbarian scum hides.

~Sham

22 comments:

shimrod said...

Having fought with and against shields and spears in various LARPs, you'll get no argument from me. Much better to block/deflect/misdirect an enemy blow with your little mobile wall than to take it on your armor. And reach is key. That said, once you do get in close, swords tend to make a mess of spear-wielders. The long sword is a very nice balance of reach and flexibility (cutting/slashing/thrusting), and IMO does deserve its preeminence as the queen of battle. That said, spears deserve more love than they get. I’ve seen people propose that reach play a bigger role in first strike initiative in combat, and I do like the idea.

Steve Zieser said...

This is one of the things that I've liked out of the new Hackmaster Basic book: the importance of shields to that combat system. I like your idea to bring them more prominence in D&D.

Superhero Necromancer said...

This is one of the (many) things that The Fantasy Trip does well. The spear and shield combo is respectable, and the spear itself is generally a good all purpose weapon. If you're interested in how other old school games take on the issue, it's a useful point of reference.

Will Douglas said...

The problem is that the sword is the weapon of the upper class. The spear is a peasant weapon. (Although add a horse and you have a lance, another upper class weapon...)

Sure there were a lot more spears used, because there were a lot more peasants fighting than nobility. And peasants wouldn't be able to afford to have their spears enchanted.

On the other hand, the Spartans are a good historical referent. I'd like to see what you do with this, campaign-wise.

Also, when it comes to swords, look a the Romans. The short sword in D&D never got the love it deserved, either.

Verification word: inglyari. You know that's going to be a character's name, some day.

JB said...

I couldn’t agree with you more, Sham. I am a HUGE spear fan. Even in the medieval Japanese “sword culture” spears occupied a respected niche…I’d have to look at my books but I think the order in descending rank was: #1 Bow, #2 Spear, #3 Sword.

When I was a kid I was, of course, a sword snob. I think that most fantasy games plays to this…mmm, “less mature” sensibility. I disagree. One of the MAIN reasons I put together my “variable weapon damage by class” tables was to give some love to the spear and the warhammer, both of which are now the equal of a sword (they’re all one-handed weapons). And as you pointed out, the spear is a lot more versatile.

Two things to consider regarding prevalence of magic swords over magic spears: durability and magical symbolism. Regarding the first: in a “D&D world” there may have been ages of magical spears before the invention of the sword (depending on the role of elves and dwarves in forging a la Tolkien) but many may have splintered in battle before the “present Age.” The few that survive would be powerful, un-breakable rune weapons (Gungnir and the like).

Regarding magic symbology, think of who’s doing the enchanting and for whom. Ritual magic has often equated the sword or knife with the mind…both have the ability to “cut” through obstacles and represent man’s intellect (because of the skill needed to forge a functional sword unlike a sharp stick). Will’s comment is also worth considering: for whom are magicians enchanting weapons? Who has the money to pay them? Quite possibly nobles with their swords.

Another (practical) consideration is the portability of the sword. A magical blade can be worn strapped to the side or the back, making it much more difficult to pilfer than the spear, which must be set down when resting or at table. A person would have a much easier time of walking off with a magic spear than a sword at rest.

As to shields: I agree with your sentiments, but D&D is what it is. Armor class works in a particular way, and is not JUST ability to protect oneself (i.e. prevent others from hitting you) but also ability to absorb damage when hit (the role of armor). In its abstract way, it may not model well what shields do, but it models something. As such it promotes a certain type of play and doesn’t put too much disadvantage on, say, two-handed weapon users.

On the other hand, a magical shield can GREATLY increase a character’s AC.

Matthew James Stanham said...

This all seems a little bit wild to me; the spear/shield/sword/dagger combination has always been the foundation of close combat from ancient through medieval times until the development of plate armour, which more strongly necessitated the use of two handed weapons (which were present even up until that point).

Frankly, if the shield is underrated at −1 AC, then how much more is body armour underrated? Helmets, greeves, bracers? One of the most common reported wounds to a shield armed combatant are supposedly leg wounds.

It is somewhat odd that swords should have such a high chance of being the magical weapon found if you are rating these things on degree of use, but... spears and shields were far more disposable weapons than swords, and the "magic sword" is a reflection of mythological significance.

Personally, I am fairly eve handed about magical weapon distribution, but I do not find the way things are set up to be ill fitting.

Chris said...

As Will noted above, swords got, and still get, the fanboi factor because they're the only weapon exclusively designed for war. They're thus a status symbol and class identifier ("armigerous classes") in and of themselves.

As for shields and spears not getting the respect they deserve. The right mechanical incentives, howsoever simple, will fix that... (*cough* "What Price Glory" *cough*)

Matthew Slepin said...

One of the things I like about OD&D and the like is that weapons are, essentially, colour. A spear works pretty much the same as a sword as an axe.

I have considered giving a slight reach modifier though. Something like the spear-wielder gets a +1 or 2 when facing someone with a shorter weapon BUT if the shorter weapon hits, he is inside the reach and now he gets the bonus. Something like that.

However, if you make spears more common, that's probably a reason to keep the magical sword: more distinctive.

Andreas Davour said...

I wont say anything about (O)D&D, but in games which are less abstract a spear and a shield should be potent. I'm not sure it's easy to make D&D very "realistic" without retooling it quite a lot, though.

Brian Murphy said...

Agreed completely about shields. For all of Gygax's extensive knowledge about medieval arms and armor (and he knew far more than I about polearms and such), I believe shields are sorely undervauled in D&D.

I look at it this way: Shields and leather armor are the same mechanically, adding 1 to your armor class. Now, which would you rather have interposing an axe-blow or a spear-thrust--a suit of supple leather, even boiled leather, or a wooden shield, reinforced with an iron rim and boss?

An easy mechanical solution is to give shields a +2 to AC, +3 for large, which would also be more realistic. This would also even up the sword-and-board fighters against two-handed weapon wielders.

Sham aka Dave said...

Great comments. This is more or less a food for thought post. Mechanically speaking I take greater issue with the lack of importance of the shield in D&D, but on the other hand I do enjoy the AC 9-2 coded model of OD&D.

I doubt I'd ever actually make Spears quite on the same level as Swords. Will makes a great point in regard to the peasant vs nobility scheme, and the fact that time and effort enchanting would not normally be spent on a peasant arm.

What I failed to mention was that this campaign would be a bronze age type setting, where quite frankly the technology for longer swords was beyond the means of most historically relevant civilizations (with the Chinese offering some notable exceptions). Iron changed everything, of course.

Furthermore, I'm also a huge fan of the short, stabbing Gladius type Sword. I dunno, I suppose I have a bronze age lean to my fantasy imaginings. I should check out Mazes & Minotaurs again soon!

Trust me, I have tried in the past to make a satisfactory "piece by piece" AC system, using chest piece, greaves, bracers, helmet, shield and so forth. I think such a set up suffers from bloat rapidly, especially when magic items are introduced.

Chris: And thanks for mentioning WPG. Small optional rules packets that address such concerns are the logical home for such ideas.

Matthew Slepin said...

Dave said:
I have tried in the past to make a satisfactory "piece by piece" AC system, using chest piece, greaves, bracers, helmet, shield and so forth. I think such a set up suffers from bloat rapidly, especially when magic items are introduced.

First time I recall seeing that was Oriental Adventures. It's a paininthe arse.

I mean: it's too fiddly for me. :)

Matthew James Stanham said...

Mechanically speaking I take greater issue with the lack of importance of the shield in D&D, but on the other hand I do enjoy the AC 9-2 coded model of OD&D.

Bear in mind that in D&D a character is assumed to be defending himself whether shielded or not. A shield gives you different defence options, but when you consider that mail armour only reduces you chances of being hit by 20-25% a shield at 5% is a reasonable abstraction.

I doubt I'd ever actually make Spears quite on the same level as Swords. Will makes a great point in regard to the peasant vs nobility scheme, and the fact that time and effort enchanting would not normally be spent on a peasant arm.

It is not really a peasant/spear versus noble/sword thing, that is not historically attested. The spear was important to any soldier fighting on foot, to the extent that at the Battle of the Standard knights deployed on foot cut down their lances to serve as spears. The sword was an expensive weapon for a long while, and though it eventually became less expensive, its mystique relates to its expense.

What I failed to mention was that this campaign would be a bronze age type setting, where quite frankly the technology for longer swords was beyond the means of most historically relevant civilizations (with the Chinese offering some notable exceptions). Iron changed everything, of course.

Depends on how long, really. The short sword was favoured for the sort of close press fighting, but longer swords turn up from time to time, particularly for cavalry.

Furthermore, I'm also a huge fan of the short, stabbing Gladius type Sword. I dunno, I suppose I have a bronze age lean to my fantasy imaginings. I should check out Mazes & Minotaurs again soon!

The gladius was a cut and thrust sword; its reputation as primarily a thrusting blade is unfounded, mainly relying on a passage from Vegetius, where he says that the Romans preferred the thrust over the cut. Livy, however, gives us a rather different impression:

"Philip's men had been accustomed to fighting with Greeks and Illyrians and had only seen wounds inflicted by javelins and arrows and in rare instances by lances. But when they saw bodies dismembered with the Spanish sword [gladius hispaniensis], arms cut off from the shoulder, heads struck off from the trunk, bowels exposed and other horrible wounds, they recognised the style of weapon and the kind of man against whom they had to fight, and a shudder of horror ran through the ranks." [Livy 31.34].

Trust me, I have tried in the past to make a satisfactory "piece by piece" AC system, using chest piece, greaves, bracers, helmet, shield and so forth. I think such a set up suffers from bloat rapidly, especially when magic items are introduced.

In my opinion, the mistake people usually make in piece by piece systems is that they try to stack instead of overlap. A character with a mail hauberk on has AC 5 on the torso, if he fails to wear suitable limb and head protection it should be reduced. Wearing better armour on the head and limbs gives no benefit, since a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.

Andreas Davour said...

I'd strongly suggest you swap to armor as damage reduction if you want to go down this road. D&D is abstract and partly non-sensical. Changing that means changing a lot.

tussock said...

To be historically representative, you want lightly armoured people using big shields, and folk in later plate armours not bothering.

AC Type
9 None.
8 Cloth.
7 Leather.
6 Scale (etc).
5 Mail.
4 Splint (etc).
3 Plate.
2 Field plate.

-4 Shield.
-3 Heater.
-2 Target.
-1 Buckle.

But armour and shield limited to a best of AC 2. Gets you accurate combos, good ancient shield walls, good field plate and two handed sword or polearm users.

For things like ancient Greek armours, make a greaves, helm, and shield set at AC 4.

Magic shields might lower the minimum while magic armours lower the AC (+5 plate is AC -2, while a +5 buckle has a minimum of -3 so gets its -1 modifier).


Spear just needs first strike.

Sham aka Dave said...

Some nice comments and good ideas here, Gents. As I said, it was just food for thought. I'd like to see Shields play a bigger role in my games, and stealing Brian's Shields Shall Be Splintered house rule is always a good start.

I enjoy the OD&D AC 9-2 scheme too much to alter it, and Shields are still much more valuable than simply 5% protection when added onto existing armor. If one has AC 3, and one's foe has a 25% chance to hit (16 or higher), adding a Shield and lowering to AC 2 (17 or higher needed) effectively provides a 20% increase in AC. This has diminishing returns against higher HD foes, but as the only D&D "add on" to AC, it is effective to a point.

As to the Gladius, the term is somewhat misleading. The Roman short sword, to be more specific. The Romans ruled during the Iron Age, and I was quite frankly mixing the Greeks with the Romans when talking about the importance of the spear, and the rarity of longer Bronze Age swords during that earlier era (hence the mention of Mazes & Minotaurs).

Another aspect of the spear which everyone failed to mention was that the sword is much more durable; spear shafts would splinter and break rather easily in the press of phalanx style combat.

Here's a dump of more Gladius quotes that provide way too much information but might be of interest to clarify the usage of the term:

A short stabbing sword with a blade between 20-24"(50-60cm) long and about 2 inches (5cm) wide, with an unguarded hilt. The gladius allowed Roman legionnaires to fight side by side with shields taking the blows of the longer swords of their enemies.

Stabbing was a very efficient technique, as stabbing wounds, especially in the abdominal area, were almost always deadly. Though the primary infantry attack was thrusting at stomach height, they were trained to take any advantage, such as slashing at kneecaps beneath the shield wall.

Despite the gladius being designed for thrusting at the enemy from behind the protection of the shield, all types of gladius appear to have been suitable for slashing and chopping motions.

The term Gladius (Latin for Sword, plural Gladii) often applies to various Roman swords, but in general the modern understanding of the term is that of the iconic Roman short sword that “conquered the world”, the armor piercing Maintz Gladius with its shorter, wider blade and long, sharp point. The fact of the matter is that the Romans employed techniques and weaponry suited to their particular enemies at the time, including short chopping Falcatas designed to easily split both shields and helmets, and the shorter-pointed Pompeii Gladius suited for slashing through unarmored barbarian hordes.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Despite the gladius being designed for thrusting at the enemy from behind the protection of the shield, all types of gladius appear to have been suitable for slashing and chopping motions.

Ha, ha. That is a mangled edit of a sentence I wrote for Wikipedia several years back when a group of us revised the entry with actual references. It is amazing how these things change over time if you do not watch them!

However, Polybius and Livy are referring to the Roman sword of the second century BC, whilst Vegetius is writing in the third or fourth century AD and referring to technique, not sword. He uses gladius generally for sword, and spatha and semi-spatha when referring to different sized blades. In any case, he never puts any emphasis on the length of the blade being a factor in the efficiency of stabbing (and that is a long, long debate), even thought the spatha had by his time become predominant in the military.

In the early principate, the gladius seems to have been shorter than at any other time, but quite why is anybody's guess. This is one of my favourite subjects, the comments section probably is not a good place to discuss it at any length. To be clear, there is no evidence of any sort that links the short Roman sword with a preference for stabbing, it is a modern myth.

Sham aka Dave said...

Matthew: Point (no pun intended) taken! You kind Sir know your swords and boards! :-)

The notion that the thrust was not the primary purpose of those short swords will take a while to sink in with me, but I definitely defer to your knowledge!

Thanks for setting me straight and clarifying these details. I wonder if some of the myth arises from early friezes and stylistic renderings that often showed the legions pressing in with a rigid "about to stab" pose. I can see such things clearly in my memory.

One things for sure, the sword is a better hand to hand weapon than the spear. This is a fact I need to remember when waxing poetically about the spear. The spear has some advantages in very specific circumstances.

Surely there was a time though that the spear ruled and the sword was very rare (perhaps early bronze age).

Matthew James Stanham said...

The notion that the thrust was not the primary purpose of those short swords will take a while to sink in with me, but I definitely defer to your knowledge!

It is an interesting subject; I imagine that in the close press of Roman hand to hand fighting a thrust would be more likely than a chop, requiring less energy and exposing the soldier to less danger. The "Pompeii" pattern is said to have suggested a late first century AD refinement in battle tactics to emphasise the thrust, but it is a speculative comparison with the Mainz and Fulham types [i.e. their form suggests that they were better suited to the cut than the Pompeii]. However, the actual sword itself is obviously designed for both cut and thrust.

Thanks for setting me straight and clarifying these details. I wonder if some of the myth arises from early friezes and stylistic renderings that often showed the legions pressing in with a rigid "about to stab" pose. I can see such things clearly in my memory.

Such imagery exists side by side with the "heroic blow". Trajan's column is a good resource for this, and you can see the whole thing sketched here: Trajan's Column, but there are other images showing Romans about to give an overhead blow with a short sword. The "myth" of "short sword = stabbing" is no doubt a result of a reading of Vegetius, and Dionysius also says something similar. Tactics and equipment change over the centuries, but the sources rarely discuss the nitty gritty of technique.

One things for sure, the sword is a better hand to hand weapon than the spear. This is a fact I need to remember when waxing poetically about the spear. The spear has some advantages in very specific circumstances.

Surely there was a time though that the spear ruled and the sword was very rare (perhaps early bronze age)
.

Spears are great primary weapons, and next to the bow are probably the most common battlefield weapon from ancient times until the late middle ages. But once the enemy is past them and determinedly trying to get into your lines, its hand to hand, and you need a side arm that can be used in close quarters. The poorest soldiers would have made do with knives, daggers, and clubs. The bottom line is that it's not "spear or sword?", but "spear and sword (and dagger too if you can afford it)".

Interestingly, the Spartans apparently used very short swords for a time, almost daggers, and there are ancient examples of "stabbing swords", which have triangular blades, such as the parazonium.

Best place for this sort of discussion is RomanArmyTalk, which is a forum catering to academics and enthusiastic amateurs. A good collection of archaeological images can be viewed here: Roman Military Equipment.

Anyway, enough blabbing from me!

Sham aka Dave said...

Thanks much, Matthew! I've bookmarked both links in my Inspirational Stuff D&D file.

Was the short Spartan sword the Xiphos which influenced the Roman Pugio and (short) Gladius?

If I recall I think that the Romans used their own version of the Greek Xiphos before the Sword of Spain you mentioned earlier was adopted.

And you're right about the full kit for a proper soldier; Spear, Sword, Dagger (or variations thereof), and sometimes even Darts!

I'm altogether fascinated with Roman military history, and I always have been since I toured many Roman ruins as a wee lad in England back in the 70s.

There's just something about the image of a Roman Square or Phalanx with soldiers working as a tight unit. Scutum, Pilum, Gladius, Pugio and Plumbatas at the ready.

Almost tank-like for the time, with a response to almost anything...except Guerilla tactics, but that's another story.

The Romans developed strategies for each situation over time, an approach which became lost on many modern military powers after the fall of Rome.

Matthew James Stanham said...

Was the short Spartan sword the Xiphos which influenced the Roman Pugio and (short) Gladius?

It was an unusually short sword, shorter even than the sort of blades that fall under the term xiphos. I do not recall whether it had a name, to be honest.

If I recall I think that the Romans used their own version of the Greek Xiphos before the Sword of Spain you mentioned earlier was adopted.

Quite likely; the Romans fought like the Greeks for quite some time and their military reforms a relatively late development.

I'm altogether fascinated with Roman military history, and I always have been since I toured many Roman ruins as a wee lad in England back in the 70s.

Yes, me too. One of the reasons I chose to study ancient and medieval history when I went to university.

Felipe Budinich said...

Point taken, and written down for my reworking of the fighting man