Dec 032012
 

Welcome to this, my latest look at historical weapons that make their way into fantasy games. I’m going to say right from the get go, that most of the time I think this particular weapon is portrayed reasonably accurately in the games I’ve seen them in, but there are way more to them than most people realise. Usually they are seen as reasonably easy to use weapons that don’t do a ton of damage and don’t have a minimum strength requirement. This absolutely fine for a very basic crossbow, but that is far from what you can do with this amazing bit of kit.

Take a look at the image to the left there, and you should notice a couple of things which aren’t always obvious in more fantasy themed depictions of the weapon. First, there’s the stirrup at the dangerous end. This was an almost universal component on crossbows, and was used every time the weapon was cocked. It would be placed point down, and the user would put his foot through the stirrup, and then use his entire body’s strength to draw the string back until it locks over the trigger mechanism. It would be near impossible for a regular archer to put this much strength behind each draw of a long bow, and gave the crossbow a rather impressive range.

This was not quick to accomplish though, and as such makes it unusual to see them on an open battlefield. Check out an earlier post to find out what happens when a bunch of Genoese crossbowmen were sent out to fight against British archers without shields to duck behind when cocking their weapons. It is reasons such as this that the weapon was favoured by those inside a castle under siege. With two men cocking and loading, and a third to shoot through the narrow slits in a castle’s outer walls, you could continuously rain bolts down onto the besieging army without ever being in danger of their arrows.

The other noticeable difference in the image above is the winch. This was to be found on weapons with an even larger draw strength. The crossbow was held in much the same way, a foot in the stirrup, but the strength needed to draw it was so great that a winch would need to be used. This made the weapon very popular, as you would not necessarily need to have a strong army to use it. Even young boys, old men, and injured soldiers could wind the winch. The power that such a crossbow looses its bolt with is staggering. Even using the entire body, as mentioned above, would not do as much damage. It’s worth mentioning at this point that games systems that have an accurate amount of damage listed for a crossbow cocked this way are few and far between. One shot from one of these things would almost certainly kill you.

Cock it with a winch, and we get to a whole new level of damage. To fully appreciate it, I would like to draw your attention to a rather wonderful French film called The Brotherhood of the Wolf. Sadly I have been unable to find a video clip of this scene, but the entire thing is worth picking up if you see it anywhere. The scene involves three protagonists preparing for a big show down, using flintlock pistols and throwing axes and what-have-you. Well, two of them are. The third, a young French Noble is quietly winding a winch throughout the scene, as he watches his friends destroy pumpkins arranged on spikes for target practice. When he’s finally ready – and it does take a while – he knocks a bolt, aims and fires. The pumpkin is obliterated, and a marble statue behind it explodes into sharp fragments. Now, I know this is a film, and not to be taken too seriously, but bear that amount of damage in mind when you think about what a crossbow can do in your next game.

I was seriously contemplating giving up a separate article to repeater crossbows, but in the end decided that would be a bit of a waste, as I would just end up going into unnecessary details. The short story is this; repeater crossbows are weak sauce. By necessity, the mechanism that draws back the string is small, simple and light. This means that it just does not have the power to fire a bolt with anything like the strength of a hand-drawn weapon. True, there are huge mechanical devices that break this rule, but siege engines are a topic for another time. No, handheld repeaters are not your friend unless you have few other options. To put it in a bit of context, if a standard – hand cocked – crossbow would do d6 damage, then something that requires the whole of the users upper-body strength to cock would likely do d8-10, with a winch powered weapon doing at least d12: a repeater would be lucky to manage d4.

As always I hope that some of the above was useful to my readers, but feel free to weigh in below with thoughts of your own.

Nov 052012
 

I’ve touched on Warbows and Murder Strikes so far, but this week, we’re going to take a look at something a bit more advanced; gunpowder weapons firing balls of lead. Although these are a lot less prevalent in fantasy RPGs, I do know they exist, as well as in Pirate themed action and adventure games. Feel free to take as much or as little of this advice to apply to your own games, as some of it may be a little too real, and could take away from the fun of it all.

Because these weapons are far from common, and most fantasy games prefer to stick closer to a late medieval time frame, if they do show up, most people don’t actually know too much about them. Lets start with some basics then. Loading the weapon – and for this I am assuming that the barrel has not been rifled - takes a professional soldier whom has been drilled extensively, roughly twenty seconds. Feel free to work out how many combat rounds that is, and then decide you probably don’t care that much for realism in this subject. I don’t blame you, but if you are going to shorten that time, don’t make it too silly. Allow for well trained characters to take feats or advantages to reduce this some. Just remember, what the character is doing is dangerous, and rushing leads to mistakes, which could lead to severe trauma and death.

The reason for this is that you will setting off a small explosion in a narrow space very close indeed to your face. Even when it works fine, expect to have a soot blackened face, with pock marked scars from the black powder in the priming pan. Also, be very careful with the ramrod: grip it with finger tips and not a fist. If you get an accidental ignition, life’s easier with shorter fingers than no hand.

Once loaded, the gun is usually fired immediately. This is because the ball will not be lodged firmly in the barrel, and holding the gun pointed vaguely downwards could allow it to roll out. Even too much jostling before firing will dislodge the shot and mean that it will not receive the full force of the explosion, exiting the barrel at sub-optimal velocity. There are ways round this, but they are not risk free. You could force a lump of drying mud or clay down the barrel to hold the shot and powder in place. If it’s too dry, it will have little effect, coming loose just as easily; too wet and you run the risk of getting the powder damp and causing a misfire and a blockage. This will destroy the weapon, and do considerable damage to its wielder.

When fired, an Indian Long Pattern musket or pistol was horrifically inaccurate. At the battle of Waterloo alone, based on rounds fired, less than 5% hit their target. The pistols were only accurate at incredibly short ranges: typical duels at twenty paces were called off with honour satisfied if three rounds were fired by each participant and none hit. This happened more than you would think. In battle, the muskets were only effective in volley fire, and even then, only at close range. Holding fire “’til you see the whites of their eyes” was very good advice, as firing early was a great way to waste powder and shot. the reason for this was the shot was a lot smaller than the barrel, and when fired would have plenty of room to rattle along inside it before coming out in the vague direction it was pointed.

The way around this was to rifle the barrel. You know that great of James Bond as seen down the barrel of a gun, that looks like a camera? The lines you see are the rifling. This is done to put a spin on the round, making it travel in a straighter line through the air. To be truly effective however, the round needs to fit the barrel much tighter. Before advances in weapon design and the invention of cartridge shots, the way to do this was to wrap the ball in leather. The grooves would grip the material, spinning the round as it left the barrel, drastically increasing accuracy and allowing for sharp shooters.

If you plan on playing a character who uses a black powder weapon, I would strongly suggest you find a rifle rather than a musket. It makes you significantly more effective without forcing you to join in the volley fire. In realistic terms, the disadvantage of this was a longer reload time, as the shot would have to be forced down the barrel because of the firmer fit. For the sake of fun, this can easily be ignored though. Since these weapons would be hand made, the basic weapon would certainly be a musket, and a rifle would be a master-crafted affair.

If you’re the GM it might also be an idea to assume that your player characters armed with firearms know how to maintain them. Keeping track of how often they strip the weapon to clear powder from the touch holes, how regularly the change the flint to ensure a spark, and how clean they keep the grooves of the burning leather that sticks inside them.

One final note now, on bayonets. They are usually socket mounted, meaning they can be taken on and off in a few seconds by someone with experience, and act similar to spears in close combat. Their added benefit is that they can be wielded as knives, with the longer bayonets used on rifles closer in length to a short sword. If you have an entire unit equipped with these weapons, they could all fix bayonet and form square, holding them pointed outwards like a very pointy wall. Although effectively stalling them, and making it harder to load and fire, no horse, no matter how experienced its rider, will willingly charge at the square.

I hope some of the above was useful to you, and please remember that all of the above is optional, and if you would rather ignore it, I take no offense at all. I’m just happy to get any chance to use my History degree…

Sep 242012
 

There has been talk on a few of the blogs I follow – and even in a forum thread or two - about the feasibility of using anything like a long sword in a dungeon environment. There are ways to make a hand-and-a-half sword, or even a two handed sword, still a viable weapon for a fight in an enclosed space. This week we are talking about the Murder Strike.

The image above shows this move in action. As you can see, the sword is pretty long, but held half way down the blade, so that the arc needed to swing is reduced. Now, some of you out there may be wondering why there’s any point swinging the sword in such a way, instead of using the blade. To answer this, first we need to understand how a medieval war-hammer actually works. If you’re thinking Mjölnir, you’re a little bit out. No, the war 

hammer that would be used by footmen against knights in armour is a little bit more like this–>. Note the sharpened back end of the weapon. Now, I have been lucky enough to see what such a weapon, correctly forged, can do to a steel chest plate. Trust me on this, the two large holes where the spike punched several inches through the metal to where the ribs would be were very worrying indeed. 

The cross guards on medieval long swords – the bits that stopped an attacking blade sliding down your own and slicing your fingers off – were often molded into points. This was not purely for decorative purposes, as you can imagine when performing the murder strike. This would be performed as a two handed strike, so imagine the force with which the cross guard would hit the armour of your opponent. Even if you were unlucky, and didn’t get the clean hit needed to punch a large hole in the metal, and the flesh beneath, you would still have a chance to knock them back, maybe even off their feet.

If you scroll back up to the top image, you will notice that not only is the man performing the murder strike gripping his sword blade with open hands, but the poor chap on the receiving end is also grasping his blade when defending. This is another interesting aspect of medieval sword fighting. The blades, although when swung with enough force could do massive damage were rarely, if ever, honed to razor sharpness. There were at least two reasons for this, the first being that it was unnecessary. The amount of pressure over a surface required to cut flesh was easily taken care off without needing an razor edged blade when a sword was swung with enough force. It was also a waste to try and keep the blade that sharp, as after a few swings at another blade, or maybe the armour of your opponent, the edge would quickly dull.

This does give you edge in a close quarters fight with limited room to swing or use a shield, as it allows the defender to hold the blade firmly to parry and block blows with much greater ease than if the sword was held in one hand. If the user is proficient enough, this defensive stance an also allow a quick and deadly riposte. Don’t forget that the Romans perfected a method of sword fighting that used the point of the sword to great effect. When using a long sword in a closed space, use your off hand to hold the blade as you would when using to block, and if you turn aside a blow, drive the point of your sword forward, the accuracy you gain from holding the blade in both hands means a high chance of hitting a gap in your opponent’s armour with a good deal of force.

I hope some of the above has been useful for you all, and if you have any tips of your own, please share below.

Aug 202012
 

Last week I did a bit of writing on how one can improve the scare factor when running a horror game, and thought I would continue the train of thought a bit further in that direction by looking at a great place to take your players if you want them to fear for their lives; an abandoned mine. For this to be effective, you game world first has to include a society that would mine, and for sake of ease all the information presented here will be based on real world post-mechanisation mining, as this is something I know a little bit about after interning one summer at the English National Coal-mining Museum.

There are hazards by the bucket load once you start working underground, even more so when you’re hundreds of feet below the surface. So many in fact, that I doubt I will even have to touch on some of the supernatural shenanigans that had my players stiff with fright last time I took them down a mine. A huge threat to consider, since it’s a slow creeping death, is oxygen supply. That far underground, there’s nothing producing oxygen (we’ll get to the other gases in a bit), so the characters will need to carry their own – in back pack respirators – or make absolutely certain that the ventilation in the mine is working. Although the GM can ask for an easy repair roll to get the fans turning, the fun comes with all the doors that need to be the correct combination of open and closed to keep the air going where the adventurers need to be. This can be a great little puzzle, and if they get it wrong, the first time they’ll notice their mistake is when they start getting light headed, far away from the daylight. There may be a point when you decide to knock realism on the head here; it would be almost impossible to change the doors from inside the mine, and totally impossible to move them by hand. Vacuums are created when dealing with the air pressure necessary to keep fresh air pumping that far and that deep, and if a player gets caught between a door that wants to close and the door’s frame (due to another door getting destroyed for instance) they will be crushed to death or have limbs severed in seconds. Fun, huh?

As mentioned, there’s plenty of other gases down there. Stuff that could lead to suffocation or massive fireballs of death. I’ve found it’s best to be fair to your players when it comes to this, as just walking down the wrong passage could be death in a matter in a seconds from suffocation. Be fair, but don’t feel the need to go too easy on them. If they’re going down a mine, they should be warning signs everywhere about the gases they could encounter, so if they choose not to take precautions, that’s their own problem. What they should expect to find are Davy Lamps. These are handy bits of kit that contain a small flame that can be watched to show differences in oxygen levels or the presence of fire damp etc., that they will want to keep a very close eye on. There are more high tech ways of doing this these days, but we are talking very recent inventions, and they’re far from quick to learn to use, or to use when you’re down a mine. Best left in the hands of professionals really.

Now that the characters are down there, and breathing safely; they’re still far from safe. As mentioned, flammable gas is a big risk. Nothing that could cause a spark was allowed down into a mine at the pit head. The miners were very careful about this indeed, but would your players be? If they have guns, then letting them off just once could be the death of them. A horribly painful, drawn out death. Firearms aren’t the only source of sparks though, so keep a close eye on the characters, and watch what they’ve brought down below. And don’t feel like you have to TPK for one slip up; if the group are spread in a line, only one needs to feel the full lick of flame, and even that doesn’t need to be fatal. One would think that it happening once would be enough to make sure that they’re considerably more careful in future. This next bit probably goes without saying, but fire needs oxygen to burn, and since that’s already a problem in a mine, just imagine what could happen if a lot of it gets quickly burnt away?

Fire brings us neatly onto another huge problem; collapse. Even in modern mines with pneumatic roof supports, the sheer amount of rock being moved can bring down miles of tunnels in one collapse. In an abandoned mine, the risk is even greater, as the supports will have been left without any maintenance for as long at the mine has been left empty. The older the mine, the more likely that it’ll come down when disturbed, and this can be all kinds of fun and terror. Once again, don’t kill the lot of them – unless you’re bored – but have them stuck behind the rubble. This becomes an interesting survival situation as air, water, and food all become very important. Don’t get too worried about the Chilean miners and having the players down there for months; there should always be a secondary draft that will allow the characters to get out. This will mean walking the entire way back up on a one third incline, once they’ve found a way to it of course.

Now, I also had some fun with ghosts when I subjected my players to a Victorian era mine, so feel free to add in anything you like to these little snippets, and if you want to get an idea of just what it’s like down there, find a mining museum that offers underground tours, and wait for the bit when they tell everyone to turn their lights off…

Aug 172012
 

I know that a lot of the people who read this blog will be doing those things, and if at GenCon won’t really have the time to digest anything huge at the moment blog-wise. The people who aren’t there at the moment though, who may not be too fussed about D&D next themselves (I know I’m not the only one; I tried to get a play test group together out of my local gaming society, and had only two volunteers out of a possible 25 players) might be in the mood for something that has nothing to do with either. Presented for you then is inspiration. Inspiration in the form of an article I came across on the BBC news site a couple of days ago that had my mind going into overdrive, thinking about what I could do with this information. So I present for you here, China’s ghost towns and phantom malls.

I hope that like me, it gives you some inspiration, and if it does, feel free to sound off below and share them with anyone else not lucky enough to be at GenCon.

Jul 302012
 

After watching the British Archery team go out in the first round of the Olympics, it made me realise just how much we have fallen in the world rankings in the last seven hundred years. So, presented here are my thoughts on the bowman in a role playing game. Enjoy.

The following tips and advice are all based on widely perceived historical fact, so feel free to use them, whilst I take some pleasure in using my History& Heritage degree for the first time since graduating over a year ago. The aim of this blog is to make being a ranged combatant in any medieval like setting a bit more interesting than standing at the back loosing arrows while staying out of trouble.

First let us consider one of the finest examples of a bowman from the medieval period, the English warbow user. This isn’t idle speculation, or a sense of national pride (why should I be proud of something I had nothing o do with, just because it was done by people born within a certain geographical proximity?), but is actually true. It wasn’t naturally the case though, it was actually a law that made the common Englishman so proficient. All males of a certain age were required to practice for several hours a week, giving them the barrel chested build one needs when trying to pull a big ass longbow. And I mean big. Taller than a man kind of big. One point of note is that they weren’t trained to hit targets as much as you would think. Ignore Robin Hood and the archery butts with round targets; that was very much what the better bred shot at whenever they lowered themselves to take part in this activity. No, what they were trained to do was pick a range and land an arrow in it. At the time this was key because they would be firing in volley and wanting to concentrate the arrows as much as was possible. Since most archers in roleplaying games aren’t loosing arrows with 200 hundred of their mates, we shan’t spend any longer talking about that.

Lets get to the good stuff. Why use a warbow instead of a crossbow? Sure, a crossbow is a devastating weapon, designed to work well over long distances, without losing much of its stopping power. It was also designed to be used from withing a castle shooting out, with a small team of men to cock and load it. For a quick reason as to why you shouldn’t rely on them out in the open, just look at what happened at the battle of Crecy. The rain plays merry hell with a bow string, and a warbow can be unstrung when required, with the string coiled up and put under a hat. It’s not exactly easy to re-string in a hurry – even the men who used them all the time and were built like oxen couldn’t do it that quickly – but a combat round or two is well worth it if you don’t want your arrows to fall very short indeed. If anything did go wrong with the bow, or for that matter the string or arrows, don’t fret. Due to the nature of using a bow, it should be safe to assume you know how to repair, replace or just make new bits, provided you have access to basic resources. If your GM disagrees, I’ll have a word.

On top of the basics, most bowmen would also carry around molds for arrow heads, and know how to melt down and reform metal to make new ones. This fact isn’t probably that important, unless you’re playing with a GM who likes to punish careless archers for missing their targets and instead sending arrows over the horizon. No, the thing to take advantage of here, is the type of molds you should expect to have:

Regular. Nothing too special about these, but just remember that they’re all barbed. Only way to get them out is to push them through. Nasty right? It gets better. If you’re going to be loosing more than a couple of arrows, take them out of your quiver or satchel and put a decent handful point down into the ground. Not only will this be quicker to grab them, but also give the arrowhead a nice coating of dirt. Just in case they survive the shot, the infected wound will kill them. This works for all arrow types by the way.

Bodkin. Armour piercing. Don’t get too cocky though, you’ll need to have your target within fifty feet and hit straight on. If you do though, they punch through a breast plate and right into the person wearing it.

Broadhead. Mainly used as a horse stopper, as most other arrows don’t do that much damage to the half ton of muscle that is a war horse.

To make it easier to swap arrow heads, and more of a pain to get them out of wound, they’re not stuck fast to the shaft. Simply spit down the join, then push it on to the arrow with a twist to keep it as secure as it needs to be. A simple twist and pull will take it off again meaning you can change arrow heads in a hurry if you need to.

And one final point; never rely on just your bow. Have a short sword or long dagger about you too. Sometimes an arrow will drop a chap, but not finish him off, and if they’re still wearing armour, you want something that get into the gaps between the plates (armpits are the best if you can get nice and close). And of course it wouldn’t kill you to get the blade of your weapon nice and dirty too, just to make sure it will kill the bugger you’re sticking it into.

I hope you all have some fun with that, and please feel free to show off about the cool stuff you’ve done with a bow in your own game. Next time, we discuss crossbows, and ask why they’re never as deadly in games as they are in real life.