Monday, October 13, 2014

Flails and Hammers

Sweet medicine.
Thank goodness for beer...specifically Fullers Wild River...and the love of one's children. Between these things, I can take a Seahawks home loss to Tony Romo and the dark elves. At least if I'm in Paraguay...if I'd actually been in Seattle (or at the game), I tremble at the thought.

But after a couple-three liters of Fullers and taking care of my sick son, I was able to postpone my numb least till 3:30am when I woke up with a slight rage on. Listening to the analysis of the game on my internet radio this morning (and not drinking beer) that rage is back a bit. But I'm not going to spend this post in needless hammering of my favorite team. I've got hammers to hammer.

We're going to start with flails, though.

It pains me to say this (well, a little), because one of my All-Time Favorite movie is the 1952 film Ivanhoe. Not only is Elizabeth Taylor on display at her most gorgeous (and I'm sure those of the proper persuasion can say the same about Robert Taylor), but the judicial battle scene between Wilfred of Ivanhoe and Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert has got to be my favorite fight scene on celluloid. At least, my favorite that doesn't involve a lightsaber.

[really, I'm trying to think of another one, and I've got nothing]

Our hero Wilfred is armed with a battle axe, but Sir Brian goes into the fight using "mace-and-chain" ...a one-handed flail sometimes referred to as a "morning star" ...and proceeds to put on a clinic with the thing. He still gets beat (he's the bad guy, after all), but most of the (scripted, film) fight is fairly one-sided. And it's neat to watch.

Other than this fight, and the Nazgul flail of Jackson's (non-faithful) adaptation of the Pelennor Fields scene in Return o the King, I really haven't seen an example of one-handed flail use depicted, like, ever. Even in medieval wood-cuts and tapestries, you'll see depictions of the two-handed, adapted farm implement (often in the hands of dudes that look like peasant levies or even "rabble"), but no depictions of the one handed, spike-ball-on-chain weapon. It existed, clearly (there are pieces in museums around the world)...but outside of gaming (video games, RPGs) and the (very occasional) Hollywood flick, you don't see the weapon in action. Makes you wonder how prevalent it really was.

"Ridiculous" too strong a word?
[just by the way, I can write a whole post on the (fictional) battle of Pelennor Fields...and probably will...just not right now]

As I've written before, I'm not a historian...I mean, no more than a guy can be with a laptop and internet access. Living in Paraguay, it's not like I have access to English language books on medieval warfare...hell, I don't even have access to Spanish language books on the subject (Paraguayan subjects of interest in the main would appear to be sex and soccer...not necessarily in that order...and things associated with those interests, like dance clubs and fireworks, seven nights a week).

But, look...even if the one-handed flail was a common or semi-common weapon of the mounted knight, even if the two-handed flail was a common weapon of peasant levies in medieval Europe...even if this was the real deal, these are battlefield weapons. They are weapons that need a lot of room/space to use. Not just to use them at their most effective range (you can't choke up on a chain weapon the way you can half-sword a long blade), but because you don't want to injure your buddies while whipping this thing 'round and 'round. This is NOT a weapon you want to take into the cramped confines of a dungeon, and its no wonder Moldvay left it off the equipment list (the first edition of D&D that did). As was discussed earlier, these are weapons that were "grandfathered in" to OD&D and Holmes Basic from their listing in Chainmail. But Chainmail is a game for mass medieval combat, battlefield combat, with some additional rules for sieges and list combat (duels, jousting) when such arms might have been employed to good effect. In the kindest way possible, what kind of person thinks it's a good idea to take such a weapon into a 10' wide corridor?

So, much as I dig on the flail concept, I've axed 'em from my new heartbreaker.


Here's the deal. Unless you're the Mighty Thor, you don't throw a war hammer. A war hammer is a specialized weapon of war, designed specifically to overcome armor. Like the mace, they don't have to actually penetrate armor to inflict damage, transmitting pain through armor via impact. Unlike the mace, they can't be wielded indiscriminately (you really have to hit with the correct portion of the head to get the maximum effect, whereas a mace has the same contact surface from all angles), but it transmits more force than the mace because of this concentration of power. In game terms, the ease of use plus amount of impact balances between the two weapons (mace and hammer) to the point where they are the same weapon from a (game) mechanical standpoint.

And neither one is made for throwing. Yes, there is a sporting event called the "hammer throw;" it is one of those ridiculous strong-man type games invented by the Scots where you sling a cannonball attached to a chain (see "caber throwing" for tossing trees after you're out of cannon shot). It has no relation to the war hammer.

In Chainmail, there are only three weapons that can be thrown: the axe, spear, and javelin (though I find no stats for the latter weapon). The spear has been a throwing weapon since antiquity, the hand axe...well, in certain Nordic traditions it's been around for a few hundred years, too, depending on which History Channel show you're watching. These weapons are presumably the only ones meant to be thrown in OD&D (since I can't find any "ranges" for missile weapons in my LBBs, I imagine the designers meant players to use Chainmail for ranges, even when using the Alternative Combat System). By Holmes Basic, this has been expanded to include thrown daggers (a staple of sword & sorcery literature), and these three weapons- daggers, hand axes, and spears - are the only thrown weapons listed as missiles.

[carries through to Moldvay Basic as well]

The idea of a thrown hammer is confined to magical weapons, and here we see the inspiration is clearly Thor and his hammer Mjolnir. Magic war hammers in OD&D "can be hurled in the same manner as axes" (there are specific ranges given for throwing magic axes), and here also we see the advent of the "dwarf thrower" hammer (is that supposed to be a pun?). Are there magic hammers in Chainmail? In the section on Magic Weapons we have only this line:
"Enscorcelled arms are of two kinds, enchanted arrows and magical swords, although Odin's spear and Thor's hammer are properly in the general category."
Gungnir and Mjolnir are thus the models for non-sword weapons, and its interesting that other than magic swords, the only magic weapons that can reach +3 enchantment (in OD&D and B/X) are the spear and the war hammer...especially considering that the war hammer isn't even on the Basic Weapons list until Moldvay!

Anhoo, no more. Cool as it is to model your character after Thor, war hammers and picks aren't throwing weapons, and I'm tired of this particular brand of crazy. War hammers are strictly melee weapons, and no different (mechanically speaking) from maces.

Hammer throw or flail attack? You decide!


  1. I have a crazy theory that there were throwing hammers in the ancient world that were only for throwing...not melee. Completely unrelated to the later melee weapon. Thor’s hammer was one of those. (It seems like the earliest myths only talk about him throwing it.) And the sport comes from them too. Probably not true, but I’m going with it.

  2. discus was a weapon - viking axe came from franks - if thrown en masse they bounce like crazy off people in armours - im disaponted if game doesnt have mix of spear types - darts, javelins, pilums, etc

  3. @ Konsu:

    Javelins are present in the (Cook) Expert set of B/X, though I'm not sure how much modeling of "spear-like" weapons really needs to be done for a subterranean environment (how far can you really throw one?).

    There are plenty if cool/interesting weapons from across history and different cultures...hey, where are shuriken and punch daggers and atlatl and kusari-gamas and blowguns and throwing torcs in B/X? Where are the scimitars and rapiers and sword-breakers?

    I just prefer a smaller, more concise range of weaponry rather than a kitchen sink approach. However, I recognize not everyone does and I can dig it.

    Hell, I was always a big fan of the triple-bladed sword from the film, The Sword & The do you model THAT in B/X?
    ; )

    1. Scimitars and rapeirs are still swords. The tiplebladed rocketsword of that bad film is a magic sword. Punch daggers are daggers in BX.

    2. @ JD:

      Yep. That's the next post.
      : )

  4. Yeah. There really isn’t much to differentiate weapons in B/X. Price, encumbrance, needs two hands or not, ranged/melee/both, and optionally damage. So, I’m good with just reskinning a small set of base weapons to cover everything. It’s either that or add a bunch of complications to give more differentiation.

    1. @ Robert:

      Of course, that is exactly what I'm doing!
      : )

  5. There's a good reason you seldom see flails in film fights, they are dangerous to the user and everyone near them until the user is really skilled.
    Most actors and stuntmen will never have enough fight training to make it safe. Nunchucks are flails and throughut the 80's I got to see plenty of folks crack temseves in the head or face with one. The chain mac. From kill bill is an actual martial arts weapon and the two hand grip on the chain offers a lot more control then one would have with more standard flails but it would be a terrible dungeon weapon.

    1. @ JD:

      Makes this fight scene in Ivanhoe all the more impressive...though they probably used a rubber ball and added the sound FX in post-production.
      : )