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A magazine of all-new swords & sorcery fiction in the classic pulp style!
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By the Sword: Adding Realism to Sword & Sorcery Combat

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Our Next Essay

It's our great pleasure to keep sharing these essays with you. Everyone here is interested in the same thing - great storytelling - and the magazine and these essays are all aspects of a shared interest.

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Today we provide the next installment in our suite of essays. Let's talk more about what combat is really like...

By the Sword: Adding Realism to Sword & Sorcery Combat

By Aeryn Rudel

Melee combat is a staple of the sword-and-sorcery genre, but it’s fair to say the way it’s often portrayed doesn’t bear much resemblance to real medieval or renaissance combat. If you wanted to write melee combat more realistically, how would you go about doing it? Dealing with these three issues is a good place to start.

1) Fewer instant kills. In fantasy fiction and movies, it’s not uncommon to see the bad guy take a single blow from the hero’s sword and fall down stone dead. While sticking someone with a sword is probably going to kill them eventually, instant death is unlikely unless you inflict a catastrophic wound (harder than it sounds). That means even a mortal blow leaves the bad guy enough time to do some real damage. It’s why historical fencing arts like HEMA teach continued defensive measures after a telling blow is struck.

The fix: Your hero should absolutely kill the bad guys in a single blow now and then. I mean, she’s the hero, right? That said, a scene where your hero strikes a mortal blow and continues to defend herself as the bad guy slowly bleeds out can go a long way to banishing the notion of the instant kill.

2) Armor works. Yep, and so well that everyone’s favorite fantasy weapon, the sword, doesn’t stand a chance at defeating good armor unless used in very specific ways. Blades can’t generally cut through metal, so someone in chain mail or plate armor was pretty well protected from sword blows. Armor was so good that a bunch of specialized weapons developed to defeat it, mostly polearms that punctured or crushed armor (and the person beneath it) rather than cutting through it.

The fix: Easy, make sure the armor you put on your heroes and bad guys isn’t just costume. People wore armor for a very good reason (it kept them alive), so show it working from time to time. 

3) Give them a hand . . . and maybe some fingers. Lots of folks think the only way to win a sword fight is to chop the other guy’s head off, run him through, or spill his intestines. Sure, those are all effective, but there’s a whole bunch of body parts that are easier to hit and nearly as debilitating to lose. Hands and fingers top this list. If you can hit your opponent’s hand or wrist with a weapon like a longsword, he’s probably gonna lose fingers, maybe even the hand. In other words, you can remove the bad guy’s ability to wield his weapon effectively with one stroke that likely didn’t put you at much risk. 

The fix: Inexperienced swordsmen often push their hands out too far when attacking and defending (he says, counting the bruises on his hands and wrists). Let your hero surprise that low-level mook with a blow that shows he’s got the skill and speed for a little hand sniping.

It goes without saying that everything here should be taken as advice on writing melee combat in a very specific way. It is not the ONLY way to write melee combat nor is it the BEST way to write melee combat. It’s a stylistic choice, and if it suits you, awesome. If it doesn’t suit you, also awesome. And, yes, I’ve broken every one of these rules in my own writing (plus a bunch more) for various reasons, with “cuz its cool” being at the top of the list.

If you enjoyed this article, there’s more like it on my blog at www.rejectomancy.com under the Fightin’ Fiction category.

Chris Basler, Norbert Franz, and 7 more people like this update.

Comments

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    1. Todd Stephens
      Superbacker
      on

      Nice essay, and thanks for the link to your blog. I always enjoy adding something worthwhile to my RSS feed list. I’ve been reading through a lot of RPG books of late, particularly games/settings that describe themselves as “sword and sorcery”. One I stumbled across recently – that is still in the developmental/beta phase – called “Sword & Scoundrel” tries to make combat a little more realistic in similar ways to what you’ve written here. In fact, the chapter on Armor starts with the line, “Despite the way it is often portrayed, armor is very good at its job”. In game mechanics for instance, metal armor like plate or mail converts any slicing damage (say, from a sword) to blunt damage, representing the sheer velocity of the impact despite the blade not being able to pierce the metal armor. More rigid armors like boiled leather completely negate a portion of blunt damage as the material absorbs the blow (though the armor itself likely took damage in the process and won’t be as effective the second time).

      Anyway, bit of a tangent there. It just popped into my head after reading your essay.