28 December 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Stick

Even more venerable than the spear, the stick is almost certainly the first weapon used by humanity. Only the stone is possibly older.

But, much like the spear, the stick suffers nothing in usefulness for its advanced age.

Master George Silver, writing ~1600, was of the opinion that the stick (the quarterstaff, in his case, a monstrous 8' ash shaft) was the "best weapon against all manner of weapons".


The form of the stick varies perhaps the most amongst weapons. In its simplest form, it is simply a section of tree branch, perhaps two feet in length.

At its most advanced, we have the English quarterstaff (also known as the short staff), 6-8' in length, with steel or iron caps on the ends.

Other variations are the long staff, 12' in length; the walking stick (an exemplar being the Irish shillelagh), 2-3' in length with a weighted handle; and shorter staffs such as the 4' stick used in Jogo do Pau.

So, there is a great deal of variation in the stick - probably more than any other weapon.

Luckily for us, each type of stick weapon is similar to another weapon we've already discussed. The quarter staff is very similar to the spear. The shillelagh is similar to a mace. Short staffs are like inferior swords. The long staff is like the pike (which I have not discussed, as it is only relevant to formation combat). So, we can simply treat the differences between each type of stick and its closest relative.


The Quarterstaff

The quarterstaff is superficially similar to the spear, and there are similarities in their fighting techniques. However, the quarterstaff is typically somewhat longer than the spear, and it is typically gripper near the back end (as opposed to the more typical "half-staff" grip used on the spear, similar to the "half-sword" grip on the longsword).

The primary attack of the staff is the thrust, and for those doubting the power of a thrust from a staff, imagine a punch with more than double the power behind it being concentrated down to a steel or hardwood disk half the size of a fist. It's clear that a blow from a staff can be easily four or more times harder than a punch - easily enough to KO someone, collapse their windpipe, stun them, or rob them of their balance.

The staff can also strike, whipping the end quickly to hit the head, using the hips to generate power. The longer the staff, the more powerful the strike (but also the more power needed to generate the strike). The staff can perform all of the strikes the swords can - downwards, upwards (useful for groin shots), and side-to-side.

George Silver recommends using a combination, especially against a swordsman, as he finds that a swordsman has trouble defending against a thrust followed quickly by a strike (or vice versa).

The Shillelagh

A shillelagh is basically a big mace.

The Shorter Sticks

The main thing to remember when dealing with short sticks (2-4') is that, while they may be used much like swords, their capability for wounding is much less, and more attention needs to be paid to the continuation of the fight after a blow, as one blow will almost certainly never end the fight.

Silver is a big fan of the quarterstaff, and he is of the opinion that a man with a staff could best two equal opponents armed with swords, due to the massive reach advantage.

As with all weapons, an important part of staff fighting is grappling, perhaps even more so with stick weapons, as they lack the sharp parts that discourage the opponent from grabbing the end of the weapon. If the opponent grabs your staff and you can't get it back, you need to be immediately prepared to close to the grapple or flee. Or draw another weapon, although now your opponent has your staff, which is likely to be superior to anything else you are carrying!

26 December 2013

Castle Cost Calculator

I have linked the Excel file for calculating the cost of building castles in the sidebar for easy reference.

In case you missed it, I wrote a paper for Burgs and Bailiffs volume 2 on how to calculate the labour and materials used to build your dream castle.

The Excel file will allow you to type in the wall volume of the castle, and it will spit out the number of man-days needed to build it, how much cropland you'll need to feed all those labourers (or how much you need to pay them to buy their own food), and how much raw materials you'll need.

8 December 2013

Talking about Initiative Again

Initiative is floating around the blogosphere again. As far as I'm concerned, it's a closed matter.

Initiative belongs with alignment and the one-minute round in the dustbin of D&D history.

I've written previously about the futility of an alignment system, and how I run combat here:


I've never seen a convincing explanation for why initiative is required. I'd like to deal with some of the reasons people think you should have an initiative system, and debunk them.

It allows for additional depth in character building - you can build a character with the advantage of always winning initiative!

First off, I decry the whole notion of "Character Building", but we'll leave that aside. This argument is typically seen from proponents of "board-game" systems like 3e/Pathfinder or 4e.

The real fallacy here is that having a fast initiative is somehow an advantage. As I've shown before, after the first round, initiative order is largely irrelevant, the turn cycle becoming cyclical with no well-defined start or end point. If you're re-rolling initiative every round, it becomes even more arbitrary.

Additionally, due to artifacts of a turn-based system, it can actually be a disadvantage to act first in certain situations.

It adds excitement to combat.

Personally, I don't find this, but I suppose that's a matter of opinion. I find it's an arbitrary and unrealistic rule that leads to thinking about the game rather than the game world. Personally, I try to make things as fast, fluid, and realistic as possible so that the game is always about the game world rather than the game rules.

It allows you to differentiate between weapons.

I suppose this is true, but it's not particularly realistic at the level of abstraction present in D&D. Over the course of a 10-second round, there's a lot of movement, and it's just totally irrelevant that you can make two or three quick, light slashes with a knife in the time it takes to make a full swing with a poleaxe.

And there are better ways to differentiate weapons - namely by function.

It allows you to differentiate characters.

Again, I suppose this is true, but not really realistic. I find it hard to believe that over a ten-second round, someone could be so much faster than someone else that they could consistently move first every time.

And since initiative order doesn't actually matter (or make sense), it's a distinction without a difference - it's a false differentiation.

It's more realistic.

This is just absurd. Again, at the level of abstraction in D&D, there's no meaningful "first" actor in a round. Ten seconds is just so long and so much can happen in a fight in that time, that a you-go I-go turn system is patently ridiculous from a realism perspective.

As a necessary component of a you-go-I-go turn system, there's nothing realistic about initiative.

3 December 2013

Real-world Weapons: The Poleaxe

The poleaxe (aka pollaxe, polax, poll-axe, pole-axe, pole-hammer, two-handed warhammer) was one of the most popular weapons of the high middle ages. Combining the virtues of the warhammer, axe, and short spear, it was a versatile weapon designed primarily for defeating plate armour.

A hammer/axe poleaxe and a hammer/backspike poleaxe.

The classic poleaxe, to my mind, is a six-foot square hardwood shaft with a hammerhead, backspike, topspike, buttspike, and sidespikes.

There are a few variations on the poleaxe, all of which revolve around the head. All will have some variation of axehead, hammerhead, and backspike. It could be axehead/hammerhead, hammerhead/backspike, or axehead/backspike. All have a long heavy-duty spike on the top, and a short spike on the bottom. Most will have a short, round hand-guard a foot or two below the head, and most will have short spikes on either side of the head.

One of the main differentiating features between the poleaxe and the very similar halberd are the langets on the sides (the metal strips running down from the head in the pictures above). A halberd head is typically forged out of a single piece, and attacked to the shaft like a spearhead via a tube and pin. The langets made the end of the weapon significantly stronger and more durable. They were part of the modular forged design of the poleaxe - each piece of the head was forged separately, which allowed a stronger construction than a single piece stretched and flattened out.

A poleaxe with an axehead would also have a smaller blade than a halberd, the better to defeat armour.

Similar Weapons

The halberd, lucerne hammer, and bec de corbin are all pretty much the same weapon as the poleaxe. The differences are basically just in head design - halberds always have axeheads and backspikes, lucerne hammers and bec de corbins always have hammerheads and backspikes.

For game purposes, I believe it's totally reasonable to treat all of the "complex" poleweapons as poleaxes - glaives, voulges, bills, partisans - all of those wacky stick/blade combos Gygax loved so much. Yes, they're all different, and all have different fighting styles, but there are distinct similarities that set them apart as a category.


The complex polearms, as exemplified by the poleaxe, are generally good for both utterly devastating two-handed swings and powerful thrusts. For an idea of the force involved, imagine smashing a melon with a baseball bat. Now imagine the baseball bat is twice as long and has a metal hammer head on the end.

The poleaxe can easily pulp the skull of an unarmoured man, the axehead can sever limbs, and the topspike can easily force its way between the links of chain mail. The topspike even has a chance of piercing through a breastplate.

The guards and actions of the poleaxe are something of a hybrid between the longsword and the spear. Its use is also something of a hybrid of the two, the main difference from the longsword being the extended reach and the ability to trap the opponent's weapon with the complex head. The main difference with the spear is the equal focus on striking and thrusting.

This guard is shared by the longsword, poleaxe, and major league baseball. Fiore calls it the "Guard of the Woman" (Posta di Donna). Much like a baseball player, the master is prepared to swing the axe around with a hip rotation, imparting devastating speed and power to the axehead.


As the poleaxe is typically used by a fully armoured man against another fully armoured man, grappling is integral to defense, as even with a poleaxe it's not always easy to down a man in full plate harness. It's not uncommon for two combatants with poleaxes to get their axeheads tangled on the ground and abandon their poleaxes and switch to their daggers or to attempting a throw.

A combination axe/grappling play. The scholar (on the left) has obtained a key (a type of arm hold) on his opponent, immobilizing him for a counterstrike.

Otherwise, much like with offense, poleaxe defenses can be similar to spear or longsword plays, either seeking to knock the opponent's weapon offline and thrust, or to beat aside and land a strike.