Inspirational Readings: The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe

[This post is the first of a series of reviews of books that might be interesting to GMs who like researching the real world in order to make their game worlds more plausible / lively / poignant / whatever. My suggestion is: stay as academic as you can afford. Read history books, above all. I know what you might be thinking: But if my campaign is not set in any real world historical setting, why should I bother? Well, I can see your point. But I think that having reliable, reasonably detailed information on real world events is a good starting point in any case: one thing is saying “my fantasy setting is, you know, feudal”, another thing is reading some medieval history in order to familiarize yourself with what feudalism really was, as opposed to what Hollywood made us think it was.]

Sydney Anglo (2000) The Martial Arts of Renaissance Europe. Yale University Press.

This book might be a real eye opener for many readers. For most gamers, I assume. That must have especially been the case when it came out in 2000. The book makes it clear, and then details with scholarly attitude and a bit of humour, that from the XIII century onward Europe has seen a flourishing of martial art systems, both armed and unarmed. They involved wrestling, dagger fighting, and weapons such as the longsword (one-and-a-half hand sword), the sword and buckler, the rapier (modern Italian spada a striscia), a range of pole weapons, and finally the smallsword before moving to the XIX century, out of the focus of this book. They have been developed, taught and transmitted in different languages, in different social milieus and with different economic arrangements. They were no less sophisticated than anything we find in the East Asian martial arts.

If you (like me and most of us) only know Agrippa, Capoferro, Thibault from The Princess Bride, prepare yourself to learn quite a bit about their works, as well as the art of earlier masters such as (in inverse chronological order) Di Grassi, Marozzo, Fiore de’i Liberi, the Lichtenauer school and even the anonymous author of MS I.33, the earliest swordfighting treatise in the Western world.

The book has just the right amount of martial detail to give you an informed idea of the technical content of each treatise. The author, being a respected Tudor England historian, focuses on textual transmission, culture, and social customs. And yet, this is no vague, broad social historical survey. It tells about weapons, their prescribed use and the debates about the respective merits of each combat system, about the etiquette of duels and chivalric tournaments, about the purported battlefield applications of this or that martial art, about the (often bad) reputations of fencing masters. All this is pure gold for premodern campaigns, be they set on Earth or not.

What is really crucial about this book is that unlike most books on Historical European Martial Arts published in the last twenty years, it is a scholarly work. It is not the most accomplished on the practical, fencing side (I am not even sure the author is a fencer himself), but it is the best documented and most closely sourced. Sadly enough, the author’s standards drop dramatically when he strays off his path and ventures outside his field of expertise. The few, sparse references to Japanese martial arts cite as only sources two popular books with hardly any primary source to speak of: that explains some hints of katana worship in a book otherwise cautious and level headed.


Katana Fetishism in RPGs: Three Offenders

Pop culture has a fetish for katanas. Apparently, they are just cooler than other swords and, perhaps, any other weapon as well. If it were just an aesthetic thing, it would be no big deal. But a mix of third hand accounts by Western authors, B-movies, anime and whatnot seems to have encouraged some very specific factoids about katanas that just do not stand up to serious scrutiny. Matt Easton addressed a fair number of these in a fortunate series of videos, which I heartily recommend. When it comes to RPGs, the following assumptions seem to be widespread: (a) katanas are the supreme cutting devices: they can cut through anything, including (obviously) any form of body armour, solid wood, steel, concrete; (b) in the hands of a proficient fighter, they are exceptionally agile weapons: they can be used to attack by drawing from the scabbard with few if any chances of defense, they can be used to parry all sorts of (melee and ranged) attacks; (c) they are virtually indestructible: only another (better forged) katana can break a katana blade. I will focus on whether katanas are depicted as inherently superior to all other swords, and on whether they are granted any exceptional feat unavailable to other weapons.

GURPS 3e did not include the katana in its core book. The weapon was, nevertheless, included in many supplements, most importantly Low Tech and Martial Arts. On the damage side, the game does not do anything dramatic: compared to its closest analogue, the thrusting bastard sword, the katana inflicts one more point of damage when used to cut and one point less when used to thrust. If one must think of this bastard sword as one of those acutely pointed longswords, it seems to make sense. But when it comes to other aspects, the fetish rears its ugly head. Low Tech, like the core book, states that a bastard sword can only by used one-handed with two severe penalties: it becomes unready after a swing attack and after a parry. Katanas have no such penalties, because, we are told, they are exquisitely well balanced. Martial Arts makes things worse by granting an entirely ad hoc defense bonus to skilled katana wielders: while in GURPS 3e the Parry value equals 1/2 of your weapon skill, a katana can parry at 2/3 of your skill, provided that you use it two-handed. It is hard to say whether this unfair advantage stems from katana fetishism or merely the will to assimilate katanas to fencing weapons (other privileged weapons in rules-as-written). Hilariously, this bonus was inherited by GURPS World War II: so players, do not even think of attacking a Japanese officer in close combat! Luckily, GURPS 4e openly reformed its ways and took katanas and (one hand and a half) longsword on the same level.

For a meaningful comparison in oWoD, you must peek into the old, nearly forgotten Combat supplement. Published at a time when (Asian) martial arts  had become fashionable in RPGs, the book seems to mimic GURPS or HERO in giving martial artists cool maneuvers in order to make them better than anybody else in combat or, at least, more interesting to play. I will disregard this, and focus on the weapon stats. In this system weapons are differentiated by a number of parameters, namely Initiative, Accuracy and Damage. We are told that a bastard sword has a +4 Damage modifier, and and +0 otherwise. A katana, on the other hand, has +1 Initiative, +1 Accuracy and +3 Damage. Again, katanas are so exquisitively balanced that etc.

But those were the Nineties. Let us jump back to the present day. Savage Worlds, as we all know, is fun, fast and furious. So why care about verisimilitude? That would be slow, boring and, you know, non-furious. So the author decided to give katanas (a) a higher average damage than any other sword and (b) an Armour Piercing value of 2 against all kinds of armour, something that no other melee weapon has in the rules-as-written. I have not extensively playtested the rules, but it seems reasonable to expect that katanas are going to wound armoured opponents that other swords or pole weapons would not affect. This makes the katana by far the most attractive melee weapon in the game. Interestingly, this was so over the top that at least two licensed Savage Worlds settings discarded the Armour Piercing feat: not only the pseudo-historical Solomon Kane did it so, but even the chambara inspired Iron Dynasty did the same. It seems that katanas cutting through steel like butter are not to everybody’s liking, these days.

Rolemaster Did It Before It Was Cool

[My most read posts are about arms and armour in Tolkien. To keep your interest alive, I though I might write more about it, but since you have got enough of Tolkien, today it is just arms and armour!]

Everybody knows that: old Rolemaster is a dinosaur of a system. It is Chartmaster: it had one or more charts for everything, that were printed with plenty of typos, missing references and whatnot. It had too many options, it was unnecessarily cumbersome etc. Yeah, but was it a bad system? Far from it. In fact, it did pretty fine a couple of things that most games neglect to do, even today.

The most peculiar bit of Rolemaster is also the most opaque: the attack charts. Not the criticals, that everybody remembers  for the gory effects and the occasional joke, but the charts that give the damage inflicted by a given weapon. Here is one:


First, many weapons can offend in more than one way: a sword, for instance, can be either used to cut or to thrust. The two maneuvers inflict different sorts of wounds, of course. With the  notable exception of GURPS, no major system takes this fact into account. Recently, Runequest 6 incorporated at least a hint of it, by including both Bleeding and Impale among the special effects available to a character wielding a sword. Rolemaster already did so, and did it very well. If you take the attack chart for any cut and thrust weapon, you will find that they include both slashing criticals and puncture criticals: the game assume that the weapon will be used sometimes to cut and sometimes to thrust, even though the choice is random. 

Second, the attack charts are obviously written by somebody who is aware of the fundamental truth that (by and large) you cannot cut through armour, let alone mail or plate armour. To somebody wearing plates, most damage becomes blunt trauma. It took decades for GURPS to acknowledge this fact (today, you find it stated in an optional rule in Low Tech), and the unusually naturalistic combat systems of Riddle of Steel / Blade of the Iron Throne state it clearly. But Rolemaster knew that thirty years ago! Look at the damage results for cutting weapons, and pay attention to the columns 19 and 20, regarding heavy armour. You will see that the vast majority of criticals are K, that is, crushing criticals: a sword affects a heavily armoured target just like a club would. The occasional slashing or puncture critical can still be razionalized by seeing it as the result of a hit to an an unarmoured body part (the hit location is random anyway) or to a chink in the armour.

All in all, not bad for a system nobody wants to play anymore.