Energy swords: a shopping guide

In the aftermath of a vicious polemic on a new design of lightsabers, I would like to guide in the rich market of energy bladed one handed melee weapons. The name of the weapon of the Jedi is trademarked, so it comes as no surprise that it does not show up in any RPG, with the exception of licensed Star Wars games. Still, being such an iconic ingredient of certain Space Opera settings, it was introduced in many sci-fi RPGs under names such as “laser sword”, “force sword” or, most often, “energy sword”. Since the model of such imaginary weapons is so obvious, it is interesting to compare the treatment they receive in each game. It is a Star Wars fact that lightsabers, while at a disadvantage for being melee weapons in an age of (ultra-tech) missile weapons, were very powerful. In spite of looking and being wielded much like a sword (more precisely, a one-and-a-hand sword like a katana or a longsword), they are portrayed as capable of feats that no steel word could ever achieve: they cut with ease through any material, including steel and high-tech plastic armour, they sever limbs as they were butter, they can parry energy beams.

The first stat to consider is sheer damage. The games differ greatly in this respect. GURPS and Star Wars D6 are alike in setting the damage roughly equal to the damage of a medium calibre energy gun: that is, much higher than traditional melee weapons, but not the highest among personal weapons (GURPS has 8d6, and Star Wars has 4d6). The difference is that GURPS straightforwardly implements the movie feats above by adding an “armour divisor” of 5: this means that the damage reduction value of any armour or material was to be divided by a factor of 5 when attacked by an energy sword. From this, together with GURPS rules on incapacitation, it follows that most objects will be cut and limbs will be severed effortlessly. Star Wars D6, on the other hand, leaves it at that. In the economy of the game, though, it makes a difference that Jedi character can learn to use their Force powers to enhance both their skill with the sword and the damage it makes. So high powered Jedi characters can end up inflicting damages well beyond even the most powerful beam rifles (15d, 20d). It is not obvious how canonical this mechanic actually is: the movies clearly hint at the fact that Force training was needed to learn the skill of sword fighting, but there is no evidence that the sheer damage inflicted was improved. In game terms, though, this mechanic helped in making Jedi characters, which started very weak, extremely appealing once their Force abilities had significantly improved. If I understand correctly, the very popular Star Wars Saga Edition did something comparable: the base damage was among the lowest, but could be improved with feats gained upon leveling up and other bonuses. Strangely enough, these included a strength bonus, while the whole point of energy swords seems to be that they cut regardless of the kinetic force applied. GURPS reflects this by setting a fixed damage for energy swords while making the damage of ordinary melee weapons depend on a character’s strength. Savage Worlds borrows from GURPS the notion of an Armour Reduction: energy swords ignore all but the strongest high-tech armour. They inflict a damage, though, only moderately higher than steel swords. Basic Role Playing (AKA ‘the Golden Book’) is a good compromise: armour values are halved against energy swords, and its damage is roughly double than the damage of a katana. Interestingly, it sides with Saga in applying strength bonuses to energy swords.

The ability to parry (and redirect) beam shots is explicitly dealt with in GURPS and in Star Wars games. Quite rightly, all these games assume that such skill requires Force training and/or martial art training: in Star Wars D6, one specific Force ability must be learned, in Star Wars Saga it is a talent (Deflect) that must be learned, in GURPS it requires both the advantage Weapon Master, and other requisites including some sort of sixth sense or ESP power.

All considered, the games do their best to mimic the movies without unbalancing the game with a be-all and end-all weapon. In fact, in most games the weapon seems to be there for flavour rather than a smart tactical option. It is perhaps not surprising that the game that concedes the most on the spectacular side is the original Star Wars D6, which, I read on the web, has often been criticized for its overpowered Jedis. Do I need to say it? Back in the day, we loved it.

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