Swords in Role-Playing Games

I’m in the middle of rewriting my rpg from top to bottom, so I went a bit nuts and did a lot of research on swords. I discovered, after many years of role-playing, that rpgs indiscriminately mix weapons from different historical eras. The historical era shapes the weapon, which is after all a tool that is designed to do a specific job. That job changes over time. The Short sword, Kukri, and Cutlass (Falchion) are all sword types that were common in Greek times, when metallurgy would not allow larger swords to be terribly effective. During the Crusades, a backsword was useful when paired with a shield, but after 1300, there aren’t many of those around as gunpowder started making an appearance in Europe. As guns get better, there’s a shift to plate armor for the wealthy and longswords come into use because the point can find the openings in armor and the longsword has multiple ways it can be used for in-close combat. Rapiers are a civilian weapon, not really strong enough for military applications but great against unarmored foes. But rpgs lose those nuances and just mash all those together, so players just take the biggest weapon in the weapon list, the one with the most damage. My system probably won’t show that difference either, as it is too complicated for easy play and it’s not what players are interested in. Instead, I’ll use weapon sets associated with backgrounds (like RQII) to ensure that players (at least initially) take appropriate weapons. With that, let me share with you the classification I came up with…

About Swords

Functionally, swords differ by material (bronze, iron, steel), length, and curve. In the descriptions below, the names chosen for these weapons are the best-known, not the earliest or medieval-appropriate names. Three types of swords were found in the ancient world, all relatively short. The Short Sword was an effective cut and thrust weapon. The Falchion was an early cavalry weapon, curved so it did not stick into the target, and end-heavy to aid cutting. The Kukri was like the Falchion, but with a recurved blade that could function as an axe. As materials improved, blades became longer, but of course, adding a curve to a weapon meant improving cutting ability and reducing reach. Reach was more important against unarmored foes and when using the point, while cutting ability was more important on horseback or when chopping or slicing. With the development of plate armor, the thrust became more useful than the cut for infantry.

Short Sword: Short (50-60 cm.) 1H double-edged weapon, used since ancient times. An infantry weapon or auxiliary weapon for archer or artillerist. Includes Xyphos, Gladius.

Cutlass: Short 1H single-edged curved blade, end-heavy for chopping. An early cavalry weapon, later superseded by the Saber. Like the Kukri, it was also a tool during peacetime. Includes Makhaira, Machete, Dao, Coutelas, Cutlass, Conyers, Falchion.

Kukri: Short (up to 65 cm.) 1H single-edged recurved blade. An infantry weapon halfway between an axe and a Falchion. Well-adapted to jungle use. Includes Kopis, Falcata, Kukri, Yatagan, Khopesh.

Saber: Short (60-73 cm), light curved 1H blade. Used by cavalry because of light weight and its cutting ability without getting stuck in the target. Other types are Shamshir, Kilij, Talwar, Scimitar, Uchigatama, Szabla, Katana.

Horse-killing sword: Long (90-120, up to 150 cm.) 2H curved blade, used by infantry against cavalry. Includes Nodachi, Ōdachi, Miao Dao, Zhanmadao, Messer.

Backsword: Medium (60-85 cm.) 1H double-edged straight sword. A light thrusting weapon, used for civilian duels. It was also less expensive than the longsword, so it might be more common among less wealthy fighters, or fighters who used a shield. Includes Jian, Small Sword.

Broadsword: A long (93 cm.) 1H single-edged straight sword. A weapon of the heavy cavalry after 1625. Includes Basket-hilted Sword, Claymore, Schiavoni, Schläger, Thorpe Falchion.

Longsword: A long (90-110 cm, up to 132 cm) 2H double-edge straight sword. An infantry weapon for use against plate armor, against which the point was more useful than the edge. Includes Bastard Sword, Hand-and-a-Half Sword, Estoc, Arming Sword, Side-sword, Claymore.

Rapier: Long (100 cm. or more) slender 1H sword, primarily for thrusting. Includes Spada, Espada, Épée, Spadroon.

Great Sword: Long (150 cm., up to 180 cm.) 2H straight sword. Includes Zweihänder, Two-Handed Sword.

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About lostdelights

An old gamer flying his freak flag, I've been playing table-top role-playing games since 1978. I've been building my own system (Journeyman) since 1981.
This entry was posted in Advice to Beginners, Heroic Fantasy, Journeyman, Medieval life, Runequest, Thoughts. Bookmark the permalink.

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