Thoughts on Swords

“I whip out my trusty type XII-A sword and chop off the orc’s head!” – nobody, in any game, ever, and for good reason

The question came up over at the Adventures Dark and Deep forums, as to whether I would be making the selection of swords available in the game more historically accurate (that is, reflecting more modern scholarship from the last 40 years that was unavailable to Gygax when he first designed the game), in the same way that I did with armor types/classes.

It’s certainly something that I have given (and continue to give) a lot of thought to. In the original AD&D, there are essentially six types of swords available:

  • Bastard (10 lbs, speed 6, 2-8/2-16 damage, 4 1/2′ long, 4+’ required, pretty neutral across all armor types, but when used one-handed acts like a long sword)
  • Broad (7 1/2 lbs, speed 5, 2-8/2-7 damage, 3 1/2′ long, 4′ required, poor against armor, better against unarmored)
  • Long (6 lbs, speed 5, 1-8/1-12 damage, 3 1/2′ long, 3′ required, neutral against most armor, but poor against the heaviest and good against unarmored opponents)
  • Short (3 1/2 lbs, speed 3, 1-6/1-8 damage, 2′ long, 1′ required, poor against heavy armor, good against unarmored opponents)
  • Two-handed (25 lbs, speed 10, 1-10/3-18 damage, 6′ long, 6′ required, good against everything)
  • Scimitar (4 lbs, speed 4, 1-8/1-8 damage, 3′ long, 2′ required, poor against armor, better against unarmored opponents)

These general notes tell us a few things. The swords that are the heaviest do the most damage, but this isn’t a straight progression; there are exceptions that buck the trend. Lighter swords are quicker. Short swords and scimitars are made for stabbing rather than slicing, because they don’t need all that much room to use side-by-side (which puzzles me in the example of the scimitar, which a lifetime of Sinbad movies tells me is used in broad cutting strokes). None of the swords listed is specifically good against a heavily armored opponent.

History presents us with quite a few more than six choices, when it comes to swords. In fact, historians have at least 22 basic types (many with various sub-types) that are measured along what is called the Wheeler/Oakeshott typology (depending on how old the sword is; Oakeshott picks up after the Viking era). The typology concerns itself with a few things that would have a real effect in game terms:

  • Blade length
  • Is the blade tip pointed or round (that indicates it’s made to slash or stab)
  • Does the blade itself taper, or is it straight (some swords were made specifically to puncture armor; a blade that is tapered all the way from the hilt to the tip is their hallmark)
  • How long is the hilt (that indicates whether it’s used with one, two, or sometimes two hands)
  • Blade width (that points towards weight, which in turn influences weapon speed)

One of the problems, of course, is that the terminology isn’t universally consistent. One place says that “broad swords” came into use in the 16th century and all have basket hilts. Another source places them in the 13th century with cross-hilts.

My instincts tell me that a revamping of sword types is called for. After all, if “banded mail” can be done away with and replaced with a more historically accurate nomenclature, then so too can the “bastard sword”. On the other hand, this isn’t trying to be a 100% accurate depiction of Late Medieval Europe, and I certainly don’t want to change the “feel” of the original too much as I make alterations to it in various places.

So where do you stand? Accuracy or ease of play? Verisimilitude or the 40-year-old traditions of the game?

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

17 thoughts on “Thoughts on Swords

  1. One of the reason that swords have been so ever-present throughout history is that they are extremely versatile, and design changes can render new ones effective where old ones were not. In this sense, summing up swords in too small an envelope doesn't do them justice.

    That said, I think 6-8 sword types could easily represent swords quite adequately within the scope of AD&D-styled rules, meaning the current 6 types of swords could, with some retooling, still be sufficient. To change them so they are a little more historically relevant doesn't necessarily make things more complicated.

    I say go for change! But don't just give us the Oakshott typography. Distill it a bit, please.

  2. Said before, will say again, the terminology already used perfectly brings to mind the varied and broad categories of sword. I know, roughly, the range of both looks and, more importantly, feels of each particular kind of sword.

    If the change of defining terms of sword isn't accompanied by a solid and lengthy description of what the types are I really see no point in doing it. That said, if you're going to do lengthy descriptions anyway, it would be just as simple to apply definition to the categories already existing and keep confusion down to a minimum.

  3. I don't care for historical accuracy when I can have a pet dragon burn my enemies to cinders. HOWEVER, I am a fan of internal consistency so if armor is updated weapons should be as well.

  4. I agree that Brandon that 6–8 is a nice range — enough variation to make it interesting, but not so much to make it unwieldy. Beyond that, it gets difficult to really define what the differences are, especially if/when a campaign wants to add non-European blades to the mix.

  5. Nothing so complex as the full Wheeler/Oakeshott typology, but fixing weights, at least, should probably happen. A distillation of the full typology into about 5-8 weapon types (and I note that blade curvature is not covered in the characteristics you list, nor is one edge vs. two edges) would probably be best.

  6. I have always been a fan of historical accuracy but too me d&d can be like a simulation of a historical world in which myth and legend are true.

    Where as many videos games have a system of sword, better sword, better sword. I want too have a combination of interesting choices that matter and maybe even a bit of education.

    Also when it comes to in-accuracy like scimitars are used for stabbing that has, for me, ended up as time wasted as my group ponder if that is right and if we need to make a house rule change.

    I think there is a way that you can make the swords feel more real and maybe even diverse without taking away from the feel of them game.

    I don't know how many categories of swords you would want though.

    Normally I would recommend or ask for a much more specific approach such as having gladius, baselard,kriss and tanto but I know that might not work for what your doing.

  7. Scimtars are used in slashing strokes, but they are lighter than longswords for example, and tend to be faster as result. They don't need as much weight behind them, because the curve gives a greater cutting surface area at the point of impact than a purely straight sword.

  8. Ease of play. And remember, trying to keep up with the latest scholarship can lead to headaches, as the new historical discovery of today is the 'gee, did people really think that?' of tomorrow.

  9. My two CP: As appealing (tempting?) as verisimilitude and accuracy with historical weapons and armor is (and don't get me wrong – it *is* pretty cool), they always seem out of place or overkill when you still have an abstract system like hit points.

  10. My brother & I have given this afair amount of thought and read up on the topic a fair amount and I keep coming to the conclusion that most meaningful (in terms of making historical sense AND being playable) are to divide up swords into light and heavy; and then short, long, and great, so 2×3=six types.
    Short=one handed
    great=two handed
    light=handy and good for parrying

    short & light=scimitar,most short swords, AD&D "long swords"
    long & light=katana,tapered war ("bastard") sword, flissa
    great & light = no dachi?
    short & heavy = falchion, recurved swords,
    long & heavy = khanda, claymore
    great & heavy = zweihander

    A lot of fine distinctions are lost but not too much IMO.

  11. I was thinking, really the only thing that might bother is if you don't avoid the whole 'swords are used like armour-piercing cleavers' thing. So long as you're down with that, I suspect that whatever you do will probably be fine.

    I'm still using long/broad/short swords though. 😀

  12. Should have mentioned — heavy weapons get a +1 to hit vs armored foes; light weapons win ties on initiative; we still use lengths and space required.

    Also, the short/long/great can be applied to clubs, axes, polearmes as well (javlein/spear/polearme ; hand axe/battle axe/great axe, mace/morningstar/maul, etc.). Tom tends to use the AD&D "Weapon speed" do define light vs heavy (5 breing the dividingl ine) and theo nly exceptions are picks (still heavy since they are armor piercing) and maybe one or two others I can't quite recall.

  13. I tend towards simplicity. Since I'm using OD&D/Holmes Basic as my starting point, I was basically just having "sword" and "two-handed sword". Having said that, though, "short sword" does make sense, and a case can be made to distinguish shorter and lighter swords that are used two handed, such as the typical late Middle Ages "Sword of War" vs. the Landsknecht "Bidenhaender" type.

    Whatever schema be used, best make it consistent throughout. One of the AD&D 1E flaws was that Gygax went to ridiculous lengths to highlight basically trivial distinctions between the myriad pole arms that existed in the Middle Ages, and yet had far fewer types for other weapon categories.

    So going back to the above, I have for pole arms the "spear", "poll axe", and "halberd". "Poll Axe" covers a wide range of the weapons that Gygax made separate. These make for pretty good broad categories.

    For a more accurate break down, though, I would recommend the following:

    1. Short Sword – covers the Roman gladius, some Medieval types (like the sword of Henry V), and pretty much anything from the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. Good for close quarters work and tight formations; at a slight disadvantage in looser formations vs longer weapons.

    2. Arming Sword – I hesitate to use the term "Long Sword" as that properly refers to the two handed "Epee de Guerre" and similar arms. Covers a wide range, including Iron Age La Tene Celtic, Roman spathae, Anglo Saxon and Viking swords, and, of course, any dedicated one handed sword with a blade length of ~30" or a bit more. Good overall weapon when used with a shield. About 2.5 to 3 lbs on average (some earlier weapons can be 2 lbs or even a bit less)

    3. War Sword. Intended for two handed use, with a yard long blade and longer grip. About 3.5 lbs. This includes the various war weapons of the late Middle Ages (c. 1250 AD and later) and into the Renaissance. I would tend to include the Scottish "claymore" in this category, though it is on the heavy end of the range. Very versatile – period "Fechtbuecher" (i.e. fighting manuals) show many techniques, some of which seem utterly bizarre by modern standards, but were in fact much used. For example, one can grab hold of the blade and either (a) strike with the pommel, emulating a mace; (b) strike with the crossguard, emulating a warhammer spike; or (c) reach behind an opponent's knee with the cross and pull his leg out from underneath him. Literally every part of the war sword had an offensive purpose. One cannot think solely in terms of point and edge. A lot of skill went into the use of these swords.

    4. Great Sword. The landsknecht weapon used by "Double Soldiers" to knock pikes aside and break up pike squares. Probably not as effective as it looked, especially given the limited time span they were in use (about a century give or take) though the extended ricasso with secondary "parrying hooks" gives one a lot of leverage, and can make this a much more agile sword than one might expect for its size. It should be pointed out that no modern reproductions exist today that do justice to the originals (unlike for the above types). They lack the distal tapering to balance correctly, so our knowledge is rather limited on this type.

Comments are closed.