Thursday, January 20, 2022

"The Use of Medieval Weaponry," D&D, and GURPS

I was given this book for Christmas. To be fair, I asked for it as I'd heard the author interviewed on a podcast and it sounded interesting.

The Use of Medieval Weaponry by Eric Lowe.

It's basically a primer on the weapons commonly discussed in the existing, written records of martial arts instructors of the time. It's by a HEMA instructor - that's Historical European Martial Arts, called WMA or Western Martial Arts previously. Overall, a good book, and if you're interested in non-gaming weapon use written by a former (?) gamer, it's a good read.

It's the gamer part I want to talk about here.

"The real genesis of this project is in games. When I was a teenager, my friends and I played a lot of tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. We were storytellers, and we crafted long-form collaborative storytelling experiences that spanned years of real-time, full of intrigue, emotions, and derring-do."
- p. 2

Eric Lowe doesn't mention again the games he played . . . but I'd be surprised if they were not all D&D-based games.

So much of the back-references to games sound very, very D&D.

"When I was young, I was under the impression that shields were rather useless [. . . ] as I could plainly see from my roleplaying games, they offered very little in the way of actual protection (about as good as light armor, so I thought). Why anybody would give up a two-handed weapon just to wield a shield was quite beyond me."
- p. 71

No armor + shield is AC 9 in AD&D, AC 8 in D&D . . . the same as the lightest of armors.

Meanwhile, he quotes Domingo Luis Godinho, the fencing master, as saying, "It is queen."

GURPS pretty much feels that way, too. Shields are so effective defensively that Man-to-Man originally made Block Shield/3 instead of Shield/2, because they were too effective (see the Q&A in Roleplayer #1). But that effectiveness is accurate. They don't necessary work the way in game they might in reality (restricting a lot more targets than just the shield arm and shield hand), but they're a game-changer for defense. You don't give up a two-handed weapon to take a shield, you give up a shield to take a two-handed weapon. GURPS Martial Arts and GURPS Low-Tech had to sweeten the deal for two-handed weapons to make them even a reasonable choice in the face of shields behind available.

So I'd wager real money Eric Lowe isn't also talking about his GURPS days.

Given a choice between light armor and a shield in GURPS, I know my players - and I - would choose the shield.

"[ . . . ] spears hit very hard and very fast [. . . ] this surprises non-fencers [. . .] Perhaps, like me, they grew up with games telling them that swords and axes do more damage than spears."
- p. 182-3

Again, D&D or D&D-like likely here. Spears do 1d6/1d8 in AD&D, 1d6 in D&D. Longswords do 1d8/1d12, hand axes 1d6/1d4 and battle axes 1d8/1d8.

In GURPS, though, a spear in two hands does thr+3/impaling. It takes a bastard sword in two hands, a greatsword, or a longsword in two hands to do thr+3/impaling. It's on par when used one-handed, but that's also the case if you take a second hand off of a spear in reality. It loses a lot - probably more than the +1, honestly.

It doesn't do as much raw damage as a full swing by any of those weapons, for sure, but its wounding potential is much higher given an unarmored opponent or lightly armored target location.

This isn't to say GURPS is perfect - it's not - but it is clear that it's not the game he's comparing things to. GURPS Martial Arts allows you to do more of the actual historical stuff than Basic Set allows, but still doesn't quite get the rhythms and nuances of swordfighting as discussed in this book or the original sources. Still, it's interesting how your expectations of real martial arts can be shaped by the rules of the fantasy one you played. I don't think a GURPS native would think spears stab less well than a sword or a shield isn't worth its weight.


  1. One of the things that sold GURPS to me in high school was its depiction of a knight. I went through a phase where I was obsessed with them and I wanted to understand them. In D&D, you just took the best armor you could, and I still don't know how mounted combat works in GURPS. In WFRPG it was a bit better. But when I tried GURPS, it felt like I was seeing an accurate rendition of how knights would actually work. It's an impression I get again and again when I play GURPS (like the one time a player charged at a pike formation and said "I get hit how many times? I'm not even close to them!"). I think the "realism" of GURPS is often overstated. But it IS there, and it is most definitely a selling point.

    Great post!

    1. I should do a post on mounted combat - I think it's not hard once you get it.

      And you're right - it's a game before it is realistic, but it's a lot closer to reality than a lot of games in my experience.


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