Friday, October 17, 2014

No Such Thing As "Normal" (Part 2)

[continued from here]

I know I said I wouldn't be examining the PHB in this series but guess what: I lied. I wanted to look at the dimensions of a short sword to figure out what exactly the hell it is. Because there's really no such thing as a "short sword" proper. There are swords that are shorter in length than others...but as swords have a variation of...oh, say, 24" (blade length) up to the monstrous two-hander...well, suffice is to say there's no such thing as "normal," either.

While I'm not a historian, I am something of a sword fanatic. I've studied swords, I own lots of books on swords, I like looking at swords in museums (and have done so all over the world), I fenced and read about/studied fencing for a number of years, I own real (non-replica) swords. Swords are my bag, baby. And for a geeky number-crunching, categorizing, pigeon-holin' dude like myself, swords are maddening, because for the most part they don't fall into hard and fast categories.

The easiest way to look at swords is to see them for what they properly are: the weaponized evolution of knife (and cutting/slicing) technology. Nothing beats a spear for poking, and its hard to argue against an axe for chopping. But the sword is a versatile weapon that can be used to harm folks in a variety of ways, including chopping, poking, slashing, and bashing. They're quick and maneuverable, and yet they're long enough to keep shorter, faster weapons at a good distance. Even though various "types" of swords are specialized for different types of combat (rapiers versus gladius versus broadsword versus saber) in general a sword is still a sword and two swords of different types are still more similar to each other (in how they are wielded) than they are to other weapons. A scimitar and an estoc are quite different, but they are much closer to each other than either is to a pike or mace.

[you can quibble but...well, you can quibble; leave it at that]

Hence, we find in Chainmail only a single entry called "sword" that falls into that intermediate scale between maces/picks and the flail weapons. The two-hander, used and wielded much like a big, edgy pole arm is a few more rungs up the ladder (between halberd and lance), but there's no "short sword, long sword, broad sword, bastard sword, blah-blah-blah." Everything not a dagger or a zwiehander is a sword. Period.

So what the hell is a "short sword?" Because we need to answer that before we get to the even more strange "normal sword."

The PHB has all their weights in GP and their way off real world weights (due to representing "bulk" not just poundage, I suppose), so we can't really rely on that. Length may be a better clue: the short sword is listed as "circa two feet," and with no other info to go on, one assumes this is overall weapon length (like the 6' two-hander), making the short sword only slightly longer than the dagger.  Considering 4-5" for a one-handed hilt, that leaves us room for a 19" blade, smaller than even the ancient Greek xiphos or (most) examples of the Roman gladius. It's barely bigger than a seax, which is really considered a knife, not a sword.

Here's something I was told by a guy who is a historian, as well as a real-life blacksmith, who does quite a bit of sword-work for Ren-fairs: in the olden days, if you were using a sword to fight, it would probably break...and sooner the more you used it. Battle is as hard on equipment (if not harder) than it is on people, and people heal. What's more, swords were fairly expensive weapons, so when your sword broke, you didn't just throw it away. Instead you took it to a smith who'd file it down for you into a shorter blade. This process would repeat when the blade would (inevitably) break again, and then you'd have the thing filed down into a largish knife called a dagger (or dirk, though that's a Scottish term). Could the "short sword" entry on the extensive AD&D weapon list be a stab (pardon the pun) at trying to be comprehensive in including these broken/mended weapons? Perhaps. Though it's maybe just as likely that Gygax wanted a weapon that would be the standard "broadsword equivalent" for shorties like gnomes and halflings.

In fact, if the latter is the case then Moldvay's normal swords becomes a bit easier to swallow: "short swords" are for halflings (and perhaps dwarves) while "normal swords" are for normal-sized folks (like humans and elves). Now, that actually makes some sense (and would also explain why a dwarf would choose to use a battle axe, as such a weapon would become their best melee damage option with regard to variable weapon damage).

But I still dislike the term "normal sword." Not only because there's no such thing as a "normal" sword but because, if you really want to categorize blades, there IS an easy way one could (somewhat) distinguish between them. And that way is to divide them into longswords and one-handed (short) swords, in addition to the two-hander group.

The longsword is "long" (the largest a bit more than 4' in total length, though that's not all blade), but what distinguishes the longsword is a hilt (with a grip of around 7-9") designed to allow two-handed use...despite the weapon being light enough to wield one-handed. This two-handed use was a crucial development (as was a forte...the base of the blade...that allowed easy gripping), in order to make the weapon more effective against the stronger armor being fielded on the battlefield. Along with more typical "anti-armor" weapons (the pick, the mace, etc.) the longsword became the knightly weapon of the late middle ages. It's ability to be used one or two handed (the former when riding or with a shield) just added to the versatility of the already versatile sword, and it would be a mainstay until armor started falling into disuse altogether (with the rise of gunpowder) and one-handed, dueling-style weapons became more the norm.

But D&D is a game of dudes (and dudettes) in armor, right? We don't need basket-hilted blades when we're wearing plate armor.

Longsword and arming sword...not that "short."
With the rise of the longsword, the old one-handed the Viking broadsword or knightly arming sword...are (were?) sometimes called "shortswords" but that's only in comparison to a longsword. The blade length of an arming sword (a typical "sidearm" in the age of the knight) is 30"...nearly a foot longer than the Gygaxian short sword of the PHB. 11" is a lot of distance...that will poke out the back of a person with a good thrust, and gives a lot longer slicing edge to "draw" in a slash. Despite lacking the armor piercing qualities of a longsword, these one-handed blades are plenty good weapons; you just need to be a bit more careful with your distance (because you're dealing with an opponent at closer range).

OKAY, a pseudo-medieval, non-gunpowder, non-battlefield setting that works combat in the abstract (i.e. is not as detailed as the system found in The Riddle of Steel RPG), I would definitely want to limit weapons to three basic categories: the one-handed sword, the one/two-handed (long) sword, and the 6' long monster that can only be used with two-hands. For me, everything from typical "earthly" fantasy...even across different real world sword cultures...can fall into one of these three categories, regardless of length, curve, edge, tang, guard, whatever. All that stuff is just extraneous "dressing" or "color" for how the weapon works in the game.

If you really want to model specific types of swords and how they maneuver differently, I'd strongly recommend picking up a copy of TROS instead.


  1. I totally agree with you here. The more I read and learn about historical weapons the more I come to like more generic categories for weapons. For swords, I use just two categories: one handed and two handed swords. For things like longswords I tell the player to use the one handed category when wielding it one handed and the two handed category when wielding it two handed.

    Since I decided upon two categories over three I am curious to see what you do with them. It might give me a reason to introduce a longsword category back into the game.

  2. @ Monk:

    Just curious: do you have a "mini-sword" option for smaller PCs in your game?

    1. Honestly, I hadn't really thought of it since I know my players usually don't play smaller races.

      That said, for bladed weapons, probably not. Figuring that most one-handed swords are about half-your height (~3ft long compared to a ~6ft person) and two-handed swords are about your height, than I think daggers and one-handed swords would work fine for small creatures. Assuming they are in the 3ft - 4ft range, than most daggers (+ kukris, kris knives, etc), which are in the 15 inch to 20 inch range, should do just fine for wielding one handed, and one-handed blades would work as two-handed weapons.

      The question becomes, do we provide stats for "smaller" size weapons of all types? Do we include a small-sized mace and warhammer? What about spears and polearms? To me it almost seems like a campaign question. Do the smaller races make their own properly sized versions of the weapons we know and use or do they just use whatever human weapons they can find and wield?

  3. I'm with monk - one handed and two handed is enough for me.

    Can't agree enough with simplifying weapons mechanically; at the level of abstraction in D&D, it's absurd to differentiate as radically as every edition since original has.

    1. I should point out, though, that zweihanders are out of the time frame I'm gaming, so longswords are as big as I go.

      And I don't run little races, so I don't need to worry about that!

    2. Sorta with you on the little people. I'll let others play 'em if they want, but I prefer a humanocentric feel and don't have any problem leaving them without an equivalent weapon (kinda sick of the artificial symmetry in D&D altogether). Helps to emphasize that their differences

  4. Whoa hold the phone, just because I'm wearing plate doesn't mean I don't want a type of basket hilt I mean look at this guy:
    [img src=]
    it is fantasy roleplaying after all.

  5. Part of my curiosity for seeing what you come up with is that you are making some significant changes to the way weapon damage and combat work. So some of the ideas that I may have initially discarded might work great for you and your new system. Oh the curiosity! We want to see what you have next!

  6. @ Monk: might have to wait till Monday for the next installment I'm afraid. Weekends are busy.
    : (

  7. In the 1e PHB, longswords are one-handed weapons. The bastard sword is the blade you can wield with one or two hands. (Default stats for two hands, revert to longsword stats for one-handed use.)

    1. @ Brian:

      Oh, yeah. I know. We always treated the PHB "long sword" as a rapier-type weapon, back in the day. But a longsword proper is (historically) a 1-2 handed blade, close to 4' in length.

  8. "mythical" flail weapons? What does that mean?

    Anyway yes, spot on about swords, and really I think it makes the most sense to consider the same categories for most weapon types. -- a light throwable weapon, a one-hander, a larger 'bastard', and a great (always two-handed) weapon.
    knife - sword - long sword - great sword
    francisca/hatchet - axe - battle axe - great axe
    club - mace - [big mace?] - maul
    maybe pole weapons break this a bit, as I can see javelins or darts as the small/throwing weapon, and polearms or pikes as the great weapon, but all spears are probably 'bastard' weapons (one or two handed use possible)
    You really need to stretch this to make flails work though, since they generally seem to be one handed horesman's weapons or two-handed peasant weapons.
    Though I suppose any hafted weapon can admit two handed use...

  9. Perhaps it's just because of my facination with Japan, but my interpretation of the longsword, shortsword, and greatsword (as d20 calls the main swords) distinctions is based on the katana, wakizashi, and (n)odachi, complete with measurements in shaku (approx. one foot). Also, while still using silly DnD terminology, fifth's swords are only of three types (as you suggest): one handed, either/or, and two handed.

    1. @ Levi:

      The wakizashi is still much larger than the PHB short sword, having a 24" blade and a substantially longer hilt than the medieval arming sword.

      That being said, if I was running a campaign based on feudal Japan, I would certainly interpret the three Japanese blades as these three sword types.

      [yes, I've seen 5E does the same...5E also makes the battle axe "versatile" I believe. And I think I note this in another post]

  10. There are still some swords exist in this world which has larger length as compared to Long sword also known as Bastard sword from game of thrones.