RPG and Character Design – Combat Styles

A recent request was for a look at two-weapon fighting techniques.

For that, it’s best to start with some basics. This article addresses the biomechanics behind designing practical melee weapons – but the basic melee styles for humans (and, by extension, humanoids) really haven’t changed a lot since Homo became Sapiens. Well-designed melee weapons allow the user to apply all the strength and speed of which he or she is capable – which is why the classic rule of combat is that the choice of weapons matters far less than the abilities of the combatants.

So what are those basic styles? You’ve got to fall back on something when evasion fails.

  • You can skip artificial weapons entirely, relying entirely on improvised weapons or even your bare hands and feet. This has a really major advantage; it’s extremely hard to keep you away from everything you could use to fight with without crippling you in advance.

On the other hand, there is a reason why actual combatants have always used especially-designed and crafted weapons if they possibly can, well-balanced tools if they can’t get actual weapons, and improvised weapons if they can’t get well-balanced tools, in preference to their hands and feet. Almost anything is better than hands and feet – although improvised weapons still aren’t very good. Yes, unarmed martial arts training will help – but, all else being equal, a man with a blade and three months of training in using it is almost certainly going to beat out a martial artist with years of training. When it comes to “successful unarmed armies”, the cupboard of history – vast as it is – is virtually bare.

And no, Ghandi doesn’t count. Just think what Attila the Hun, the Romans, or Stalin would have done to him.

  • You can use a two-handed weapon. That gives you two points to apply force to it, providing better control, increased speed of use and recovery, and allowing the use of a heavier weapon – which increases the damage it can inflict. Spears, staves, polearms, baseball bats, and a huge array of other weapons and tools are used this way.

This is a pretty good option. It’s not a particularly defensive style, even if you’ve got good armor, and so it isn’t favored by the highly trained and experienced. After all, you generally don’t get to be highly trained and experienced if you take more risks than you must when it comes to fighting – and no one’s ever found a better general combat survival strategy than “let other people take as many of the risks as possible”. Two-handed weapons are, however, relatively easily taught – and will often let the user draw on their prior experience with common tools and implements. That’s why a mob of minimally-trained peasants can really ruin your day. They may not be experienced fighters, but they have plenty of practice in using axes, sledgehammers, staves, pruning hooks, pitchforks, and similar implements.

  • You can use a one-handed weapon and nothing in your other hand. This offers a rather subtle bonus when using midrange weapons; it encourages the user to fight standing sat an angle to an opponent – slightly reducing an opponents target areas while somewhat improving the user’s ability to balance, lunge in and out, and focus. Closer in, it leaves one hand free to grab or strike.

Unfortunately, this comes at a rather high price; one arm is either out of action or – at a minimum – far less threatening. As noted earlier, weapons exist because it’s rather difficult to do serious damage with your bare hands. This particular style is only common where the usual weapons have medium-to-long range, are piercing, require minimal muscle power, and are not opposed by much in the way of defenses. That way a single accurate hit to the body or head is often decisive, but an off-target hit is relatively harmless. You only trade half your offensive power for a modest boost on your defense when a half-strength offense is enough.

You see this with unarmored fighters with epees, foils, light pistols, and knives – weapons small and light enough to be fully controlled with one hand, which penetrate easily to vital organs with a thrust in the right place, are relatively harmless on a grazing hit, and which are usually used by civilians fighting as individuals or in small groups. This is why soldiers and policemen, who usually have better weapons, come in groups, and – at least throughout much of history – often have effective armor, generally aren’t seen fighting this way.

  • You can use a one-handed weapon and a defensive item – whether that item is a cloak wrapped around an arm (not a very good choice, but still far better than nothing), a parrying dagger or sai, a buckler, or a larger shield – with the other hand. There are a lot of options here, and they all have their advantages. A smaller and lighter item is easier to see past, easier to carry around, and easier to move quickly. A larger item offers more coverage, can absorb more of an impact due to it’s greater mass, and can provide some coverage against ranged attacks. In military and heavy-combat situations, larger, heavier, items – such as shields – tended to be preferred. In areas where organized combat was not expected, smaller items tended to be preferred – leading to the conclusion that smaller items are generally less effective, but that larger ones are far more awkward to haul around.

There are several things that make a defensive item easier to manage than a true second weapon. Two are probably most important – the fact that the repertoire of movements needed to interpose an item between it’s user and an attack is far less complicated than those involved in the full use of a weapon and the fact that such items take advantage of an ancient set of reflexes. After all, the ancient logic of survival is hardwired into the brain – and you can handle a damaged, or even missing, arm far better than you can handle an injury to a vital organ.

You can blur the distinction a bit by putting spikes on a shield, or threatening a strike with a parrying dagger, or some such, but such tactics are always secondary. If they’re not, you’re actually using two one-handed weapons.

  • You can use two one-handed weapons. This gives up power and control in favor of the ability to hit more often and threaten attack from multiple angles at the same time. That can be pretty hard for opponents to deal with. Unfortunately, the price of that falls on the central nervous system; humans tend to be weaker and clumsier with their off hand and often find it hard enough to keep track of one opponent and weapon in combat. That’s why two-weapon styles like Escrima or Florentine Fencing are relatively rare and specialized things. It takes a lot of skill and practice to fight well with two weapons – far more than it takes to fight effectively with one. In fact, sometimes using two weapons is simply an intimidation tactic; it says “I’m either very good or more than a bit crazy – and, either way, getting in close is going to be bloody dangerous”.

Wait you say? What about all those sword-and-dagger folks?

Those are fairly simple too; in most of those situations, the dagger is primarily defensive – often carried and used because bringing an actual shield or wearing armor says “I’m here to start a fight” rather than “I am ready to defend myself”. Even more importantly, throughout most of history, a personal knife was a pretty fundamental tool, piece of cutlery, and utility item – just like a Swiss Army Knife today.

Swiss Army Knives make dandy weights for your fist too, but they’re still tools, and only really get used as weapons as a last resort. The same goes for those Japanese iron parrying fans and a lot of other disguised semi-weapons.

Now that’s about it. You can mount blades or spikes on your wrists, or elbows, or head, or even put snap-out weapons in your shoes. You can make belt-buckles which fire bullets, gun-daggers, and powders to throw into your enemies eyes. You can do all kinds of things – and you can be sure that people have tried hundreds of things that you haven’t thought of in ten thousand years of searching for combat advantages. Here’s the secret to evaluating that sort of thing; if it didn’t wind up in common use historically, you can be pretty sure that it didn’t actually work very well.

The same applies to most “dirty tricks” and “low blows”. If they worked well, they’d be standard tactics. Scruples have never stopped the use of effective tactics and weapons; there were attempts to issue religious prohibitions against early firearms; and you can guess how well THAT worked. “Dirty tricks” are despised because they almost never work – which means that when a strong opponent loses to a weaker, but lucky, opponent, he or she can salve wounded pride (if not wounded body) by blaming the loss on a “Dirty Trick”. It’s a lot easier to claim a “moral victory” by blaming your loss on your opponent “cheating” than it is to say “I was overconfident!” or “I fouled up!” or “They were so lucky that God must have been on their side!”.

Blaming witchcraft and curses was popular once too, but nowadays it simply makes people think that you’re crazy – which is no help at all.

You might be able to make something weird work with magic or psychic powers or some such, but magic can make it possible to incinerate your enemies with a few words of heated sarcasm; without knowing what kind of magic works in a setting, there’s not much point in trying to discuss it.

Overall, while you can surprise an opponent once in awhile with this sort of thing, you can’t rely on it – which is why it’s best to save the weird tricks for a last resort.

So what’s best?

In reality? A good diplomat. Failing that, a really good general who can maneuver the enemy into surrendering without a fight. Failing that, outranging them with missile weapons in a position where they’re pinned down. Failing that, a strongly fortified position to hold. Failing that…

Oh. You meant if and when it finally comes down to a melee.

  • Well, no successful army in history has ever fielded a bunch of unarmed melee fighters.
  • You won’t find many winning armies who trained their front-line troops to use two weapons at once either. That style seems to be a special-niche thing throughout most of history.
  • You will find a fair number of two-handed weapon users. A lot of them are spear and pole-arm troops, such as peasant levies or the medieval Swiss. Horsemen occasionally went for this option as well, since it helped them take advantage of the extra height and speed the horse provided – and it was hard for them to turn to use a shield properly anyway.
  • You’ll find a quite a lot of one-handed-weapon-and-shield types, including the early Greeks, Aztecs, American Indians, Polynesian Islanders, Roman Legionaries, Norsemen, and more.
  • You won’t find ANYBODY training armies to use spiked elbows or similar nonsense.

Of course, we’re talking about RPG’s – with characters who are better than everyone else, and often have fantastic powers. RPG Characters can usually fight effectively any way they please; it’s simply a matter of fitting the character build to the desired style.

Next time on this topic, I’ll see about doing that, and building some of those speciality fighters in Eclipse.