Yikes

[This post is adapted from activity at the Patreon.]

It would be nice to consider rapier fighting. If by “nice” you mean skilled murder with horrible, terrible instruments uniquely designed for exactly that. I’m thinking mainly about civilian violence and including off-hand instruments including other weapons, bucklers, and improvised defenses.

Seriously, these things are nightmarish. Putting aside almost all later-period literary treatment and certainly theater and cinema, and looking instead at the contemporary literature, the historical events, and the manuals, I’d rather be in a gunfight. Arguably, one of the reasons that most 20th-century pop culture abandoned interest in this kind of combat, or substituted for it with entirely different stage techniques, is that it can’t be simulated for entertainment – even faking it is too dangerous.

[Side note for modern fencers: full credit to this activity as a modern martial sport and art, and I note that the sport side is quite high on the list for personal risk to the combatants. Again, though, let’s stay focused on the historical events and practices.]

How about the role-playing? For many reasons, the rapier is often included in weapons options but almost as often excluded as a serious one. Gamers love big thick solid long … swords, and no weapons-in-role-playing discussion is complete without someone getting loud about manly Milius mayhem vs. mincing pointy needlework.

There are exceptions. I’d like to gather some of your thoughts on games which are designed more closely to what these things are and how they’re used. Obviously Flashing Blades and Lace & Steel should get a new scrutiny and culture of play, but there are others I’m sure. The Riddle of Steel technically counts, and as it happens ARMA and similar groups do study urban-style rapier combat, but unsurprisingly everyone playing that game or involved in those groups is really more interested in longsword and zweihander battlefield stuff. One of my favorites was Swashbuckler, which our group discovered to be remarkably fun and dramatic – and ruthlessly decisive – in these terms.

Turning to what really matters, the experience of play, two lines of inquiry seem sensible.

  • Combat design without specific weapons reference, but which you think is easily turned toward or focused upon specific aspects of rapier fighting
  • Rapier-specific rules which you think include some sense of what fighting with them is like

Thoughts about potential rules or ideas are certainly welcome as well.

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Discussion at the Patreon included the games Stormbringer (original version), Lace & Steel, En Garde!, Ecryme (latest version), and Bushido. We also recalled some old Forge discussion about fighting rules which presumed successful strikes, so that the dice only concerned degrees of successful defense.

  • Noah: Game thoughts to come, but first — I actually had the pleasure of practicing the fundamentals of rapier combat with Richard Marsden, a rapier fighter well respected in the HEMA community, at the Phoenix Society of Historical Swordsmanship last year. To add my agreement to your thoughts, Ron, it is hard to overstate how swift and decisive the weapon is once a fighter has attained a minimum of competency. I think this is another reason this kind of combat doesn’t show up in film too often (though Ridley Scott’s The Duelists is a wonderful exception). A fighter could train for years only to end their career bleeding out in some stinking Florentine alley because they were out-chessed in a brutal, 1.5-second-long exchange.
  • Me: The literature and the adaptations never quite, it seems to me, provide the context of when and why people did this. It was clearly a feature of urban life for centuries, and not limited to the high court. But how much, and why, and who did it? Cellini’s autobiography gets closest for me but I would like a better and broader view.
  • JC: Here was a statistic I ran across from a 17th Century document about extra-judicial (illegal) dueling. In France, a third of duels were called off. Of the duels that happened – half of them ended in death! The ones that didn’t end in death were both wounded, or the participants “got satisfaction” after a few moves within a fight (unwilling to kill). Not to mention that duels could devolve into skirmishes since the Duellists brought seconds, thirds, fourths, etc…along. AND that’s only with duels, not robbery or murders (though the line between a duel and murder is non-existent).
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One response to “Yikes”

  1. Those are the Swordfight rules from Te Deum pour un Massacre.

    I translated the rules for swordfight from French to see if it’s worth of examination. It’s a game during the historical period of the war of religions following St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France. Characters are made through choices in a lifepath and every social classes and profession of the period may be played. The focus of the game is historical accuracy.

    Translation from French are approximatives. The game uses a very precise terminology (note “Dexterity” or “Might” for instance, but I’m not a professional translator).
    Attribute determines a dice type and skills give a bonus to the roll. Skills are related to attributes.
    I’ll use the following terminology: dice type can be bumped (you have D10 in Might, but you bump your dice so you roll a D12 now), or lowered (you have D10 but you will roll a D8).

    The game uses initiative:
    • Highest initiative declares his action.
    • Actions are resolved from the lowest to the highest initiative.
    • Equality means both opponents choose their actions without knowing each other’s.
    One turn lasts 10 seconds.
    Multiple actions are possible: Move, intimidate, give an order, attack and parade for swordfight, offensive or defensive action for anything not including swordfight, etc.

    Note: swordfight is a special case of fight. Jean Lafitte fights with a rapier against Henry Leblanc who has a club. Jean will attack and parry in the same roll/turn, while Henry can only attack or defend with his club.

    Jean Lafitte : Excellent Dexterity (D12), Swordfight +1
    Henry Leblanc : Good Dexterity (D10), Dodge+2. Correct Might (D8), Combat +1.

    Size matters. A club is Medium, as is the Rapier (weirdly). If Henry had a only a dagger against Jean’s rapier, Henry’s dice type would lower.

    Swordfight is rolled with Dexterity. Jean rolls a d12 (he is Excellent in Dexterity) and adds his swordfight skill of +1. He rolls a 9. His result is 9+1 = 10.

    Fighting with a club is rolled with Might. Henry has a d8 (he is Correct in Might) if he defends with his club and has the skill “combat” at 1. Odds are not in his favor. A defender has to options : parry (with Might) or dodge (with Dexterity). Henry is Good in Dexterity (D10) and has Dodge at 2, so he will go for that. He rolls a 3. His result is 3+2 = 5.

    Location matters. The GM choses according to the logic of the fiction, but the text suggests that the head, the chest and the arms are more exposed. If uncertain, the GM can roll on a hit location. He basically rolls a D20 without modifier. Striking specific location reduces the amount of damage – so Jean hits Henry’s face, there is no reduction to damage, but if he hits Henry’s right hand, a -2 modifier will be applied to damage.
    A player can aim at a specific location. If he does, he his dice type lowers.

    Damages are rolled. For swordfight, (Weapon Damage + a bonus related to the Might attribute) minus (Armor + Endurance skill + Location modifier). The Rapier and another weapon looking like a rapier and called the Verdun, only used as a thrusting weapon. They have a damage of 1D10. Other weapons with 1D10 are: the Warhammer, and the pike. The only weapon superior in damage is the Pertuizane (Partisan in English). Let’s say Jean rolled a 6 with his d20, apply is Might bonus of +1, and hits Henry’s hand (-2). The damage result is 5.
    Once we know the damage, we have to consult a table to know the effect:
    •-3 & lower : nothing
    •-2 to 0 : a cut. Must be washed in 12 hours or may get infected.
    •1-2 : a wound. Cumulative malus of 1 due to pain and fatigue. Must be washed in 12 hours or may get infected.
    •3-4 : a serious wound. Cumulative malus of 2 due to pain and fatigue. Must be washed and must be treated by a surgeon in the 12 hours. May get infected.
    •5-6 : an atrocious wound. Mortal wound: vital organ touched, hemorrhage, bones broken, … not necessary unconscious but out of combat. Must be washed and must be treated by a surgeon in the 12 hours or the victim will die.
    •7+ : direct death.
    There are additional effects related to the location: being hit in the arm wearing the weapon means dropping it, etc.

    It’s not finished. If Jean’s dice roll for the attack is at least the double of Henry’s defense, it’s critical hit. Jean rolled 10 and Henry rolled 5. It’s the double, so we bump the damage effect. Henry is dead.

    Also, the attributes determine a number of actions by turn of combat. With his Excellent Dexterity, Jean has 3 actions by turn. With his Good Dexterity, Henry has 3 actions too.

    Those actions are played once by once until one has none. Similar to Bushido.

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