Combat Roleplay: The Stuff of Warfare.
A Guide Analyzing What Characteristics Build the Most Effective, Realistic Fighters.
Hello, and welcome to another guide regarding Combat within Roleplay!
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So no doubt we all have our favorite heroes who fight on valiantly and defeat their foes in the field of combat. Beowulf, William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart, Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, Hannibal Bacca, Hercules, Conan the Cimmerian, Aragorn, Wonderwoman, Black Cat, Link, Jin and Mugen, Hinata Hyuuga, and all of those others. They're all amazing fighters (at least at some point), and are no doubt a terrifying force to be reckonned with.
Why is this? Though there may be some physiological requirements, it is perhaps safe to say that good fighters aren't born, but that they are made. Where can we find these qualities, and how do we give them to our characters whom are intended to take up roles in the warrior profession? Whelp, that's a fairly broad question to ask there, friend.
Through the guide, I'll outline some of the qualities that are realistic for fighter characters, based on what we can infer about historical warriors, and traits that I think are important to address in terms of a personal fighting ability. I will start with the fighting spirit and battle instinct, the next is what is often succinctly referred to as 'discipline', another important feature of a fighter is their equipment and what that means for what they do, and lastly we'll touch upon what levels of physique or physical qualities are desired - or required - for a fighter!
We'll tackle these topics in stride, and I'll draw inspiration from all over the place. Let's fling some tropes and concepts onto the wall to see what sticks!
Fighting Spirit: Rage, Calmness, Fury, Focus, Luck?
The thing that can be concrete and fluid at the same time, wild and orderly both.
Syrio Forel versus Sandor Clegane. The First-Sword of Braavos versus The Hound.
How were both great, when they both felt and fought entirely differently?
I open this section with a comparison from A Song of Ice and Fire, also known as Game of Thrones on TV, with the idea of Syrio Forel and Sandor Clegane. Sure, we're lead to believe that both died, and both did so pretty pathetically - maybe. But, for their times, they were both amazing fighters. The Hound was a feared, ruthless 'knight' in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Syrio Forel was the First-Sword of the Sea-Lord of Braavos across the Narrow Sea. Both had reputation, both were names known.
Still, they had entirely different ways of fighting, and even more than that - approached the thought of fighting vastly differently. Syrio was all about focus, using the eyes to see the truth, then to think, then to act. Eyes, mind, body. The Hound was a big, mean, nasty son of a gun that was happy to smash people and felt that was all there was to it. His thoughts on hearing about Syrio Forel. "He died, because Meryn Trant had armor, and a big fucking sword!" Sure, if that was true (of that we will not discuss here), it makes sense. In an armored fight, Syrio's weaponry was out of place, as perhaps was his style of fighting - but we will talk about that a little later in this guide. What matters is, is that both were inspired, ferocious, and talented swordsmen, believing the exact opposite - behaving the exact opposite in fact - to each other. Yet, they achieved almost identical results.
Rage brought Conan the Barbarian. his bloodiest battle frenzies. Courage carried Link, Hero of Time, through countless perils to slay the King of Evil in his own castle in personal combat. Righteous fury stole into Beowulf's heart, driving him to slay the monster Grendal and later a dragon. Love and resolve prompted Hinata Hyuuga to throw herself into desperate combat with a figure of previously unparalleled power, accepting the outcome as she knew it to be.
In the end, to summarize the point easily with little more rambling, the fighting spirit takes many forms. Many reasons prompt people to stand and fight, to take the ultimate manifestation of conflict into their own hands. People might engage in a fight with knowledge of tactical advantage, situational awareness, treacherous machinations, but these do not prompt the fight - nor inspire an active stand in conflict. Those actions actively suggest avoiding a fight. Why fight someone up front, when you can stab them in the back, or knock them unconscious, or have them surrounded, or lost in the wilderness? Combat is not easy, nor is it forgiving, so the spirit to stand in fight is something that comes from deep motivation. While not every person will have this who happens to get into a fight, the best fighters - the people who resolve to stand and fight with premeditation - seem to pretty much always have this quality. The fighting spirit.
The Disciplined Soldier.
Do undisciplined barbarians work better than disciplined barbarians?
Also known as the word most likely to upset Dominator046 based on connotation baggage.
Most often, when you think of a disciplined soldier, you immediately get the image of a modern soldier, or an ancient Roman. With this, you would be correct. Imagining that ONLY these two things fit the bill is where you would be incorrect, and where my dissatisfaction with the word discipline comes into play. I wish there was a better word, but there really isn't. It fully conveys the meaning, but unfortunately, with centuries of baggage that has given a meaning that now implies a certain connotation. It is the same way with the word Barbarian. Too often it's been used as a word painting the image of a cave-man that the true meaning sometimes gets lost under the myre of connotation.
By all rights of definition, you COULD have a disciplined barbarian. If I successfully read your mind, I will say that such is proof of my issue. A barbarian is someone of a foreign culture, of someone whose values or upbringing is not your own. Typically it implies a level of superiority / ethnocentrism for your own culture. As such, DISCIPLINE is - well - what we know discipline to be, taught behaviors to fit in with a given activity or societal function.
By these two definitions, it's entirely possible to have Disciplined Barbarians - perhaps even people who are outright thought of as savages. I will also paint the picture, that disciplined savages are indefinitely more valuable than undisciplined savages. Think of your children, or your relative's children! If that's not evidence enough, let's take it to history.
Let us look to the truest example of disciplined fighting men showing the value of their military force. Julius Caesar. A man who forged the beginnings of a vast empire that would serve to enlighten humanity for over a thousand years. His highly disciplined force, and others like it in the late antiquity, were the mainstays of the day. Undisciplined soldiery were barely able to put up contest against them. AND, I would wager, that forces often described as 'undisciplined' who actually were able to give such forces as Julius Caesar a run for their money, were disciplined to at least some degree.
The foremost example of this would be the ruler of Gaul, Vercingetorix, who was able to ally the tribes of Gaul under his banner - and effectively lead them. Unlike other leaders who had preceded him, and in the vein of some others, he effectively had to discipline them to some degree. He had to train their behaviors to be functional in military campaigns against the Romans. And, IT WORKED. He disciplined his 'barbarians,' and they put the boot to Caesar in battles almost outright. Julius Caesar had to beat them with a raw show of industrious force of his manpower. Building a massive wall around their encampment, to then starve them out and butcher them. Perhaps Julius Caesar had the more disciplined force, perhaps better disciplined in the right way, perhaps it didn't matter - as it was a matter of an industrious imperial state versus a much smaller, less developed one.
Many other situations show this to be true. The Battle of Hastings. Waterloo. Many others. Does this discredit our heroes, such as Conan the Barbarian and or Hercules? Well, perhaps not, depending on how we look at the words.
The main evil is the connotation of discipline, and what I hope to have successfully outlined by this point. Discipline is not a simple black and white, yes or no, 0% or 100% factor. There are various levels of discipline, and you can be disciplined to behave in various ways. I would argue that the legendary enraged barbarian is not an undisciplined rube who knows nothing about anything. In fact, the opposite. I'd say he's probably one of the most disciplined men for personal combat you could hope to find. Maybe not very well suited to massed combat, or soldiering under a Lord - but in a personal fight against someone else - or another group - he'd probably be the most rigid and ready of all your fighting folk. Such is one way that I interpret Hercules, but even Conan - legendary savage - I would say is more disciplined than that (at least, going by the books Robert E. Howard wrote.)
So, discipline is vastly important in fighting, and is one of the most effective traits for a warrior. I would argue it is perhaps the single most valuable trait to an organized military force. Effective leadership with effective men serving in rank, a Lion leading Lions as it were, seem to be unanimous in history as forces ready to shape the world. For this, I would cite none greater than Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Emperor Constantine.
The Equipment of a Fighter
Why wear armor when I can just dodge, and you can get killed in the armor anyways? Right? ...Right?
Sun Tzu said that a warrior should not have a favorite weapon, and perhaps this is true.
But I'll be damned if he'd take a dagger before he took a spear out to war.
Sword in hand, the warrior, armored or not, dashes into the fray to see glorious justice achieved.
This is an incredibly detailed and nuanced topic, with so much that almost any point could be argued, debated, and a true conclusion is likely to be impossible. Still, it is invariably important to bring up, as there are a number of points which are necessary to talk about when portraying a fighting man who is dedicated to fighting. Though there are many types of fighting men, there are some things worth knowing and understanding off the bat - for the point of realism.
Armor worked. There's just no two ways about it. Armor that was worn by people in history had to be effective, or they wouldn't have worn it. Arguments against armor largely come down to fallacies that are born of personal preference, inexperience, or presumption. In a way, it can be connected to what I call the Protagonist Fight Fallacy, where you assume that your actions will be so awesome, or effective, or impressive that your opponent will not have the capacity to react to what you're doing. I highlight this in my previous guide, "Combat Roleplay: Actions, Interaction, and Time-Scaling." In a similar way, people seem to treat armor as 'well, since there's a gap, I'll just hit them there and they'll die.'
Not really, hot-shot. If you're both in relatively equal armor, that's one thing. But, if you're a trained fighter, you'll know that those weak-spots are the only places you can be hurt - so you'll spend your time protecting those and not others. While it's true you can't be perfectly protected at all times, you can go a long way to securing your defense - especially against a less-armored opponent. They have more vulnerable targets than you do, so those targets are bound to come up more frequently.
Having said that, it is true that too much armor can be a hindrance in some situations. If you wanted perfect safety, you would be sitting in a castle sipping tea. You have to assume the risks necessary to be effective enough to fight as your needs suggest. A fighting man on foot needs to run, be attentive to what's going on around him, be able to get over obstacles, needs to be able to breath and keep up his stamina. A fighting man on horseback might not need as much visibility and mobility, but they will still need some - especially if they become dismounted. Archers need to use their fingers, and need to maximize the effectivenes of their weapons against armor. As I said earlier, you can't protect all of your target zones, so while roleplaying, it's useful to remember that someone could catch you of guard, especially if you're not defending a certain place at the right time.
But, that's armor, in general, how about specific armor?
I personally like to group armor into five categories, instead of the typical three of most RPGs (and the heinous two of some modern RPGs.) These would be cloth, light, medium, heavy, and full.
Cloth armor I would liken to clothing, or specialized garments that serve as a basic layer of clothing, go over basic clothing, or both. These would be your tunics, your doublets, your arming garments that serve to point further armor, and perhaps some light padded armor that could pass for common attire - rough neighborhood outfits or winter clothes.
Light armor I liken to a step above clothing that can help keep you safe from more distinct assault. These would be your typical arming coats, some of your rawhide armor, other pieces of kit that aren't entirely rigid but could pass as stiff enough. Your light, wide-ringed, mail shirts would fit here. Perhaps even so far as your boiled-leather helmets or basic metal skullcaps, vambraces, and other things of certain thinness.
Medium armor I liken to a point where we start to see armor that is serious in its defensive capabilities, and some rigid elements start to come into place. Your serious mail hauberks would come into play here, along with nasal helmets, some inclusions of lamellar and other similar pieces. Perhaps also rigid shoulder protection, inclusions for rondels at the armpits, maybe some splinted or plated mail, things like that. You could also see brigandine split between here and heavy armor, based upon its stylus.
Heavy armor is where we get into the real business of armor, and pretty much the best of what you'd expect a fighting man on foot to wear into battle against other men in typical scenarios. You'd see your coat of plates, brigandines, and your high-end plated-mail armors come out at the bottom end. These would keep progressing to breastplates and perhaps some segmented cuirasses. Your serious helmets: bascinets, the more liberal great bascinets, sallets, certain great helmets.
Full armor is the beastly stuff that you see used for martial use, and some just outright tournament use - but may also be nice for using against monsters in fantasy worlds. These would be your true great bascinets, your best great helms, your serious plated armor that threatens to close almost all - if not all - of your gaps. Your frog-mouthed helmets. The things that would be too encumbering to wear on a battlefield on foot, but perhaps as cavalry, or perhaps as the tank against some abhorrent monster. If your setting has guns, and bullet-proof armor, I'd suggest lumping most of that up here.
But what about weapons?
Weapons are a serious issue, but perhaps somewhat simpler. It's in our best interest here to keep it short, so I think I have a good way to do that. There are several purposes weapons are used for, and it can do pretty well to sort them out by that standard.
Simple weapons are weapons of convenience, easiness, can be multipurpose, and often are among the smallest weapons. These could be your traditional knives, your sticks and clubs, perhaps going all the way to your quarterstaves. Quarterstaves can be a bit serious though, given their size and reach. It can either be the best of the simple weapons, or the worst of the polearms. It's kind of torn between the two.
Self-defense weapons are easy to carry, can often be worn around without too much issue, and typically don't come off as disturbing to see in any public venue - certain status requirements nonwithstanding. These would be your typical swords, your more weaponized daggers, more devoted bludgeoning instruments, bucklers, such of all. These likely function as side arms in serious conflict, which would lump axes, hammers, maces, and such into this group as well - even though they weren't as often carried for self defense. You could probably tuck your typical hunting bow or light crossbow in this range. If your setting has guns, specifically pistol-like sidearms, this is where they'd go.
In between Self-defense and the next category, we have some wiggle room. I don't often categorize these, but we can call them 'tough guy' weapons. Typically you don't carry these around, often either keeping them around in case of trouble, or taking them out to go start trouble. These could be your viking long-axes, your more vicious longswords, your quarter-staves of some specific fighting intent, certain armored-fighting swords. They could also be those maces, axes, hammers, or bludgeoning objects from before - in some cases. They might be some of your middling range shields. They may also be certain javelins, projectile weapons, or such like. You might have a serious bow that could do some damage here too, but nothing too out of the way.
Battlefield weapons are the serious, heavy duty weapons that are intended to kill their target and do it efficiently. These are the most lethal weapons you can typically get your hands on, and typically are the primary weapon of a soldier. These could be any polearm, spears, halberds, glaives, bills, pollaxes, and such of the like. They could also be a large shield, which could technically make your typical sword a primary weapon (though the credit should really go to the large shield.) These are also where your heavy crossbows would go, your siege crossbows, and your outright war bows - such as the longbow of England or the Mongolian recurve bow. If your setting has guns, I'd put your seirous ones down here.
That's a broad overview of the massive topic of weapons and armor. Seriously, I could go on forever about this stuff, I mean it. I might have to in the future. But for now, take this as a basic starting point. Your fighter, depending on how they fight, the fights they get into, and what situations they find themselves - will want different levels of weapons and armor. That being said, if they're out of their element, something else may be more advantageous than what they have.
Fighting Men: What are you made of?
Women too, oddly enough.
What factors make the best fighting men? Well, this section won't be too hard, but - I think it's worth going into with some detail.
There are different baselines for different levels of activity. You can't fight with a weapon you can't adequately wield. So, you need to be strong enough to wield the weapon in your hands. Beyond that, muscular strength isn't a huge benefit in and of itself for outright weapon fighting. There's a caveat to that I'll get back to in a little bit. Weapons serve as an equalizer, and while physical advantages will be valuable in a fight, the weapons serve to bring that conflict to more even footing. As they say, "Colt made all men equal."
Though, being fit enough to fight might be an issue. If you're going to get into a fistfight at the local tavern, or defend yourself in a back alley from a mugger, you don't need too much stamina to get through one fight if you don't need to push too hard. BUT, as the activities get more involved, you have more involved. The typical system of stamina is not always entirely reliable. You have your basic aerobic stamina, how well you breath and remain oxygenated, but this also runs off of your long term bodily fatigue - and your muscular endurance. Both of these will need to be more substantial as your fights get more drastic, from small skirmishes in city streets or roadsides, up to full blown battlefields. Additionally, wearing armor wears down on both of these, so that needs to be taken into account when performing these activities.
So, a fit fighter strong enough to wield their weapon is pretty good! Anything else? Well, to be crass, you do have to be mentally efficient enough to handle the fight. Intelligence is a great aid in the fight, to be absolutely sure - but it too has limits when the other fields are deficient. Your deftness and coordination are worth having a handle on, and good eyesight is very helpful in that regard - but not always an issue. I do some fighting without my glasses due to fairly obvious reasons, and I will say - I lose a bit in my longer range accuracy, and how fast I parry. That being said, I'm effectively blind in one eye without my glasses, so take that for what you will.
But, I'm sure you've heard tons of debates about height making a difference, and weight classes in fighting, and divisions between biological sexes being necessary in sports. So, what do I think?
I'm a short fighter. Not very short, but a bit below average for a guy. So, I've been there. I've sparred with guys who are tall, who have these super long legs and arms, over a foot taller than me guys doing Italian rapier where they measure lunges by meters. Yeah, I've been there.
Doesn't bug me.
Yeah, in some fights, they have that advantage, especially in certain systems - if you give them that fight. They do have some reach advantage, but - largely, its mechanical benefits are minimal. The weapons need to remain in certain proportions to be effective, so unless my opponent is The Mountain that Rides, the proportions won't be too terribly set off. Meaning, if we're using similar weapons, my sword and theirs will put each other in danger. They might have easier access to my torso than I do theirs, but I have the same access to their arm, and I have greater ability to close when they over-commit. The advantage is slight, other advantages - namely skill, the most important decider most often - typically outweigh this. THOUGH, I will say, the shorter your weapons become, the more pronounced the height advantage will be. It goes from practically non-existant with longer swords, to being a contributing factor with fighting daggers, to being a noticable advantage in a purely unarmed fight.
And, I personally think biological sex divisions are incessant. I know women fighters who do so excellently. There's no real differential effect that a fighter's sex has between two similarly built people.
BUT, this is where we will get to a point of contention. I feel like weight is a very beneficial aspect in a fight, assuming that weight comes from complimentary features - physique, stature, etc. I may be short, but I am in fairly good shape (I'm putting on weight right now due to unhealthy university eating practices - sadly), and my weight is above the typical everyman of my height. I feel this makes up for it, that and the fact that I keep mobile. While mobility is the effective dissuasion of a height advantage in fighting with weapons with a decent amount of length, I feel the only counter to weight is in your weapon's ability to kill the target from a distance - so, mechanical range.
This is why I say that being strong only matters up to the point at which you can effectively use your weapon. As, yes, in an unarmored fight, if you can put that weapon to use effectively, and disable your opponent rightly, their innate strength will be of little concern.
HOWEVER, in a fight where your opponent cannot be so quickly ended from so clean a position. Say with dagger, or in a fight with shields or armor, a much stronger and heavier opponent will be an immediate danger to a lighter one. Their grappling attempts will be serious, as will be their ability to resist yours. They will be able to direct your actions, and perhaps even your position. It's these situations, specifically in unarmed pugilism, grappling, and heavily armored fighting, where weight becomes a serious issue. While in armored fighting, you could kill your opponent outright with your pollaxe or warhammer, it likely will take some struggle before this occurs.
So, in a situation where it is either a man or woman, weight will give a noticeable advantage to their fighting - if that is how they are to handle themselves regularly. Height is more negligible. A person's sex is completely unnecessary in the decision.
Of course, there are numbers upon numbers of varying physical measurements one could take of people to determine a contribution to combat. Largely, the golden rule is, skill is the most important, but other factors do come into play, and can turn some fights. Try to play these with respect to your opponents.
And so again we have come to the end of another combat guide! This one's been a labor of love, trying to find a topic that will allow branching off into other topics. It's been a good one though, and I am curious what will be the next subject. Feel free to suggest one below, or just wait and see what comes.
As always, I look forward to the future with all of you roleplayers out there!
Farewell, peers and masters!