I’ve done the full circuit in terms of hobby gaming. In addition to all the usual suspects, I’ve also dipped my toes into LARP and, at one point, spent some time involved with living history and battle re-enactment. If you think you’ve seen more oddballs than you can stomach at gaming nights across the country, they’re nothing compared with some of the nutters that living history attracts. Not to mention the prospect of camping with them, medieval style and no mod cons, for a weekend or longer.
But one thing I did totally get out of re-enactment was learning how to fight with melee weapons, properly. None of the rubber LARP rubbish where you furiously try and rain short blows down on a fake orc with a wobbly sword as many times as you can before he gets a shield up, but serious, physical combat with realistic heavy steel weapons (blunt, of course) and no-holds barred effort, resulting in blows that’ll send chunks flying out of your wooden shield while you cower behind it. It teaches you an awful lot about how people actually would have fought with these sorts of weapons. And it’s nothing like you imagine it to be.
For starters it’s utterly exhausting. Even with a relatively light weapon and no armour you can only keep it up for perhaps ten minutes, and that’s if you’re physically fit. Add a suit of chain mail and a decent sized sword and you can halve that, or less. The scenes you’re used to seeing of combat in films and books are ridiculously prolonged, and the protagonists rarely seem out of breath: in reality one of the combatants would have died of exertion long before being skewered on a blade. And for another thing the only time melee fighting looks anything like it does in the movies is when all the people fighting have swords. Swords are neat things that can stab and slice, chop and parry, swing and feint. Most other weapons have only one mode of operation: axes chop, spears stab and maces swipe. That’s all they do. They do them very effectively, and they’re just as good for killing people as a sword is, just a lot less interesting to watch.
Another thing that came as a shock was the discovery that this stuff is in no way choreographed. Whenever I'd watched displays in the past I had always assumed the fight scenes were pre-rehearsed to a large extent as I couldn't imagine there would be any other safe way to do it. The answer is that you're taught to fight safely: first of all with a blunt dagger, a weapon too small to do serious damage (unless you poke someone in the eye, which I almost did when I was learning). Blows aimed at the head are not allowed, and you're taught to "pull" the blow - to watch if it's about to hit flesh and to take all the force out of it in the moment before it connects. It's not that hard once you've practised it for a while, although mistakes are still common. Bumps and bruises are par for the course, and the occasional more serious injury does happen. I once caught a blow across the fingers so hard that the compression split the skin on one finger from top to bottom. And when that had healed, I went out and got some chain-mail gloves, and carried on.
But the most surprising thing I learned about it is how much of hand-to-hand fighting is about distance. Yes, strength, speed, skill, stamina and all the things that gaming has taught you are important about fighting play a vital part, but whenever the fight involves protagonists with weapons of different sizes, the actual form of the battle is totally dictated by length and reach. It’s obvious when you think about it. Imagine a man with a sword fighting a man with a spear. As the two square off, to start with the swordsman simply has no chance at all to land a blow on the spearman. His weapon is too short: as they close, the spear point will be placed between them, and the spear wielder will do his very best to make sure it stays that way. As long as the distance between them remains the length of a spear shaft, the sword blade physically cannot reach the spearman to harm him. However, if the swordsman can find a way past the point, suddenly the roles are reversed: the spearman cannot harm the sword-weilder because the sharp end of his weapon is somewhere past his opponents’ back. He’s now totally at the mercy of the sword unless he can find a way to retreat and re-impose that advantage of distance.
Distance can be psychological as well as physical, and it’s no less effective. As a gamer, you might be a bit worried about facing down someone with a two-handed axe because it has a big damage dice, but that’s nothing compared with the worry you feel when you’re faced with the prospect of getting to grips with a six-foot beaded lunatic swinging a ten-pound axe that’s bigger than you are for all he’s worth. And that’s even when you’re armed with the knowledge that the axe is blunt, it’s all for show and he’s not really trying to kill you. Even then, it’s a tough ask to make your legs move in the right direction. In theory, it’s easy to kill someone with a war axe: it’s an unwieldy, cumbersome weapon and the time you have between blows when he’s vulnerable are easily enough for a skilled warrior to dart in a drive a wedge of steel through his middle, but psychologically, forcing yourself to get that close to something that terrifying is a whole different ball game.
So whenever two fighters with weapons of different lengths meet, distance totally dictates the battle. And what determines the winner nearly all of the time is whether the fighter with the shorter weapon can find a way to close the distance before the longer weapon wounds him. It’s worst for people with really short weapons such as daggers and hand axes fighting against weapons that are longer, but still one-handed like a sword: even if they make it past the point, the defender still has a shield to protect themselves with whilst they back off.
Speaking of which, another point that’s often done down in games is the essentially of shields. A shield is the ultimate blocking device - you maneuver it to where you need it to be, and a well-sized shield is light enough to be mobile whilst large enough to require a minimum of skill to block with effectively. Although enormous shields can be useful too: I once met a re-enactor who made his own gigantic shields to cower under and he was terribly difficult to beat, as he would just stand behind his shield and wait for an opening in your defences before striking. Games make nowhere near enough of shields: the paltry +1 to armour class they gave you in D&D was so idiotic that it looked stupid even before I knew from practical experience just how stupid it was.
The point of this lengthy rant is not simply one of interest at the fact that melee combat turned out to work rather differently to the way I’d always imagined from fiction and from games, but to illustrate how totally and utterly wrong most games that attempt to describe such violence get it. And when I say “most” I may well mean “all”: I, personally, have never come across a game system that comes close. Even games that have involved, convoluted, non-random, narrative systems such as that presented by Magic Realm fall woefully short of the mark.
Do we care? Especially given that we’ve devoted a fair number of column inches lately to discussing how it’s not actually particularly important (or even possible) for games to provide even a vague approximation of reality. Not really. The knowledge that everything is wrong rarely intrudes into my enjoyment of the occasional game of tactical sword-age warfare. Rather I’m more thinking about it as a fertile area of possibly unexplored design space. After all, if someone can write an interesting and engaging game about the split-second intricacies of gunfighting such as Gunslinger, why not one along the same lines involving melee combat? Why not throw in a healthy dose of fantasy as well? I doubt there are many people here who would disagree that a Gunslinger like game would be instantly improved by the additions of orcs and dragons.