Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Red Sonja (and Swords)

So besides Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor, the other thing I picked up over the weekend was Volume 1 of Red Sonja, the latest re-boot of the Marvel Comics heroine from their Dynamite imprint. I don’t buy many comics these days (trade paperback or otherwise), and lately I’ve mainly purchased them for “research” purposes (i.e. because the story somehow pertains to a game I’m designing). Heck, I think the last one I bought was Xenozoic Tales when I was first tinkering with the idea of a “dinosaur game;” and that was…when? August or September of last year (2011)? Oh, yeah…I picked up a collection of The War That Time Forgot (again, for the dinosaur game) back in September, too.

So, yeah, once every 10-12 months I might pick up a comic book, so the fact that I pick up Red Sonja should say something. Mainly that I am and have been a huge fan of Red Sonja. Back in the waaay back past I owned the first half dozen or so issues of her original Marvel series, and I had several of the later issues of the original series as well (after artists started drawing her with more clothes than the chainmail bikini). Red Sonja was one of my favorite titles to pick up, though once I actually got into my “collecting phase” (which wasn’t till high school and didn’t last all that long) her regular series had been cancelled. Many of her comics I picked up at Ye Old Used Book Store in Missoula, Montana. And as with many of those comics I read them many, many times with great enjoyment.

Now unlike other boys of the 12-14 year old range that may have collected or enjoyed the “She-Devil with a Sword,” my interest in Red Sonja had absolutely zero to do with her usual state of undress, nor her voluptuous body. Really. Comic book “titillation” has never done anything for me, no matter how sexy or how risqué. It doesn’t; it hasn’t. I was never “turned on” by Vallejo art, either, for what that’s worth (or any other chainmail bikini-type artistic imitators)…which may make me weird by the standards of male gamers, but I came to grips with MY weirdness a long time ago. I design RPGs for fun, folks: I’m strange.

So then what made me such a huge Red Sonja fan as a young pre-teen? Simple: I wanted to see her kill shit with a sword. Red Sonja was badass, man…and if I’m guilty of any vice with regards to the red-haired temptress it’s the average American male’s addiction to visual violence and action. I guess you could call it “sword porn.”

Sure, there were several Conan titles I collected on occasion, including Conan the King and the beautifully drawn, black and white, Savage Sword of Conan. But you know what? Conan was never as badass as Sonja. For all his toughness, Conan has always been based on the Howard character, and Howard was a man of his time: 1930s gentleman/chauvinist. Which made Conan into a character that was capable of gullibility or soft-heartedness, especially with regard to the “fairer sex” or other defenseless, innocents. It’s something that always felt dated and a bit out of place in the lawless, ancient “Hyborian Age” tales.

Red Sonja had no such softness. She killed EVERYone, without compunction. Oh, she could be merciful, and championed the weak, but she never got taken in by a pretty face. In the new graphic novel I just picked up, she only hesitates a moment before butchering a pack of knife-wielding children (demon-spawn children, we learn, but still…). Sonja had a particular idealistic code she held herself, too, different from Conan’s “lusty gusto for life.” She was a much more “non-nonsense” slayer. And that’s what made her and interesting character and (for me) a better comic to read.

Because it reminded me much more of D&D and my D&D games. It still had weirdness and monsters and the supernatural and perilous danger. But for the most part, I don’t think the Red Sonja stories were based on anything in particular (as opposed to, say, Savage Sword which was based directly on Howard stories). I mean, I realize the character is based on Howard’s Sonya of Rogatino (though to me the She-Devil personality is much more reminiscent of Howard’s Dark Agnes), but the stories are spun from whole cloth as much as I can tell. And they (the stories) could and can serve as a great inspiration for D&D adventures. I know because I’ve used ‘em for such in the past, more than once.

The new Red Sonja is pretty darn good, though I was never a huge fan of the chainmail bikini (I mean, the artwork is great, but I always enjoyed the more “clothed” style of the later-day Marvel issues). However, the artwork IS top notch and the story is better than passable, and a couple days after reading the book, I kept catching myself thinking back on it as if I’d watched a FILM rather than reading a trade paperback. Which is different from pretty much any other comic book I’ve ever read.

Now, there...I’ve said my piece on Red Sonja (except to say that I saw the Red Sonja movie in the theater when in was released…it was PG-13 and I was 13 and by God I was going to see Red Sonja…and was subsequently disappointed. Not just by the cheesy, spring-loaded decapitations, but mainly by the poorly cast lead who A) was not a very good actress, and B) looked NOTHING like the Red Sonja of the comic books. And I say this as a kid who LOVED The Golden Child at the same age…I was not a kid of hugely discerning tastes!). *ahem!* Now let me put my game designer goggles on for a moment to point out something that stood out bright and clear to me in the latest Red Sonja comic:

Where’s the shield?

Here’s a character who’s a fighter-type. Sure she doesn’t wear armor (no, her outfit does NOT count as “half-chain”), relying instead on agility, sword-play, and sheer berserk fury…but why not use a shield? She occasionally makes use of an off-hand weapon, but she’s no Moonglum or Drizzle the Drow. What’s the deal?

Well, besides being a stylistic choice of the artists, one can see that having a free off-hand gives Sonja a degree of versatility and control she wouldn’t have otherwise…the ability to one-hand OR two-hand her blade as the need arises within the moment of combat.

With a little thought, I realized this isn’t quite as uncommon as it might appear. For example, I’m still watching those Game of Throne episodes on the DVD and one often sees a character wielding only a single blade sans shield, and using it to good measure. Same holds true for a number of films that feature the use of a long blade, from more recent films (like Conan and John Carter) to historical movies featuring crusaders in armor.

Now I’ll admit my sword training is limited to fencing, not broadsword. But I know that historically one of the strengths of the long blade was its versatility. Sometimes you WANTED to put that second hand on the hilt (or even grip the forte of the blade with your off-hand gauntlet) in order to put extra “oomph” into a blow, especially when facing a foe in stout armor and wanting to drive the point home (literally).

Wearing a shield provides you additional DEFENSE, but limits your versatility on OFFENSE, reducing you to chopping or one-handed slashes or clumsy (with a long blade) one-handed thrusts. And isn’t the best defense (at times) a good offense?

Nice as “sword and board” sounds, a simpler weapon…like an axe or mace or short bladed gladius…works better with the shield because the offensive action with the simple weapon is already limited based on its capability. You don’t lose anything (or not much) by carrying a shield with such a weapon. Carrying a shield with a LONG sword, though, you gain defense at the cost of some of your offensive technique…or so it appears to me.

But perhaps I’m completely ignorant. I will say that all the long blade “slashing demonstrations” I’ve seen on YouTube…whether with a broadsword or a katana…have been done with a two-handed grip. And since my fantasy games tend to be more cinematic or literary (or comic book inspired), this is something I want to take into consideration and model within the game.

Which, of course, flies in the face of all the D&D rules I’m familiar with. Right now, you have three choices for sword wielders:

- Sword and board (er, “shield”)
- Two-handed sword
- Dual wielding (sword plus off-hand weapon)

No one just uses a sword by itself. At least, not in the game. But in film and television and comics and literature? Characters use a sword all by its lonesome ALL THE TIME.

I have an idea how to do this with D&D Mine. For B/X? Well, off the top of my head I’d say:

“Fighters who choose to wield a normal sword with two hands receive a +2 bonus to attack rolls.”

[NOTE: that’s fighters only, not thieves, though some DMs might apply it to elves and/or dwarves as well]

That’s actually a pretty hefty bonus for B/X (the equivalent of giving the character +3 levels of experience). Maybe +1 would be enough (need to play-test it)…but I know a lot of people think shields should be “more useful” in D&D than a simple +1 bonus to armor class. If you choose to give a +2 bonus to AC for shields instead of +1 then the attack bonus for using a normal sword with two hands should definitely be +2 to compensate.

Of course, I’d probably ONLY to do this when using the standard B/X rule “all weapons do D6 damage.” If you use variable weapon damage, you might want to consider the following instead:

“Normal swords do only D6 damage (instead of D8) if the character wields a shield or 2nd weapon in her off-hand.”

With that, normal swords don’t achieve the “be-all, end-all” default melee weapon status they currently receive…you have to sacrifice some armor class to get that awesome D8 damage. However, I personally consider “offensive versatility” better modeled by “bonus to attack roll” than by “extra damage.” You’ll have to decide how YOU prefer to model it in your game world.

How you decide to model the rules for a chainmail bikini, on the other hand, is a subject for an entirely different post.
; )


  1. Dynamite isn't a Marvel imprint, it's a completely separate company. Marvel lost the rights to the REH-based characters years ago.

  2. @ Knightsky: Which goes to show how closely I follow the comic book industry these days (i.e. not very closely!).

    : )

  3. You were talking about Blackmoor, in the early version of that game a high level fighter got harder to hit as he gained levels. You would compare the attacker's level with the defender's to see the chance to hit (in a manner similar to WFB). Armor provided a saving throw to avoid the damage. I say this because a rule system like this makes a fast moving unarmored character significantly more viable. When armor + shield is a characters only protection, the character are almost forced to armor up as much as possible, which includes shields.

  4. For all his toughness, Conan has always been based on the Howard character, and Howard was a man of his time: 1930s gentleman/chauvinist. Which made Conan into a character that was capable of gullibility or soft-heartedness, especially with regard to the “fairer sex” or other defenseless, innocents. It’s something that always felt dated and a bit out of place in the lawless, ancient “Hyborian Age” tales.

    I completely disagree here: Conan is very rarely gullible in regards to women, in fact I can only recall one or two instances where he is taken in, and in both, it's because the woman was scheming and cunning, not because Conan was an idiot.

    If Conan was ever soft to a woman, it's because that particular woman needed soft treatment, not because of some "fairer sex" stuff. Conan fully expected Princess Yasmela to strap on armour for a battle in "Black Colossus"; he has great respect for strong leaders like Yasmina and Belit. If he was gullible or overtly gentlemanly in the comics, chances are it's a creation of the comics themselves.

    Conan's kindness to the innocent is something that marks him as apart from the civilized, and best illustrated here:

    "I know what it is to be penniless in a Hyborian land. Now in my country sometimes there are famines; but people are hungry only when there's no food in the land at all. But in civilized countries I've seen people sick of gluttony while others were starving. Aye, I've seen men fall and die of hunger against the walls of shops and storehouses crammed with food. Sometimes I was hungry, too, but then I took what I wanted at sword's-point. But you can't do that. So you take these rubies. You can sell them and buy a castle, and slaves and fine clothes, and with them it won't be hard to get a husband, because civilized men all desire wives with these possessions."

  5. in the complete fighters handbook you got +1 or +2 ac if you specialized in "one-handed" combat stance.

    can' remember exactly "why" you did, can dig the book out later today.

    no idea if that did any good (at least i don't remember anyone i knew ever using this rule :)), just wanted to point out that it has already been done in rpgs.

  6. Chain Mail bikini? I used to allow the Charisma modifier as AC bonus if a woman was wearing one (cumulative with Dexterity.) It worked like a charm :)

  7. Yep, I definitely remember the 2nd edition Fighter's splatbook having a "1-hander" style proficiency. I think you could choose to have +1 bonus to offense or defense. I can't remember their explanation of how it supposedly worked I think you used the off hand to push, pull, & punch at the opponent or doubled up on the blade for a little extra "umph".

  8. Hey, gave you a shout out over at Red Sonja, She-Devil with a Sword.


    Will comment more here later!

  9. With regard to lack of shield use in pop culture fantasy offerings, I think there's some perception that a hero type doesn't need the big hunk of wood hanging from his/her arm to be safe in a fight. There might just be a worry on the part of creators that the use of a shield somehow diminishes the heroic feel of a character. The hero doesn't need to cower behind a shield. No, they are lucky, skilled, and nimble enough to fight circles around the villains!

  10. @Drance. Good point. Yet we see Conan use armour/shields/whatever when he has a chance.

  11. In my current game, I have indeed made the B/X “normal” sword do d6 single-handed and d8 two-handed.

  12. i don't think you understand how shields are used, they are at least as important in attack as defense. Shield relevant part starts 5 mins in.