Realism in Fantasy RPG Combat?


A lot of people ask what the ARMA's endorsement is, or rather where it comes from. The following article was written by John Clements, ARMA director, after a conversation he and I had recently about RPG combat. This outlines the way "he would do it." The TROS endorsement comes primarily from two things: TROS does all of these things (though not necessarily in the way described below), and it does them in a format that doesn't sacrifice playability. I look forward to hearing your comments about this article in our forum on the Forge.


More About TRoS

What is TROS? (about the game)

Spiritual Attributes, or "What's the Point?"

FAQ (and their answers)

Real time combat? Sort of...

Reviews (is TROS right for you?)


Realism in Fantasy Role Playing Game Combat?

By John Clements

As a practitioner and researcher of Medieval and Renaissance combat skills for over two decades, I am frequently asked about how real historical fighting relates to what's found in fantasy role-playing games. I'm generally asked if a game cannot have considerable realism in its combat system and still be fun. Having been a sometimes avid gamer since my early teens, my reaction is usually surprising to those who ask, as I will typically sigh, then say that the two are incompatible and should not be mixed. My opinion is that RPGs are about having fun and real combat is about brutal violence and survival.

Yet, those times which I have been pressed to offer my views I've also answered that by paying attention to only a few simple ideas, gamers can indeed incorporate considerable realism into their combat without sacrificing a smooth-flowing playable adventure. The results can then be even more exciting.

The problem as I see it is one of realism versus playability. In my opinion, an RPG always has to have an abstract combat system. You don't want it to be too realistic. Real fighting consists of simply far too many factors (physical, psychological, environmental, tactical, etc.) for it to be accurately or realistically recreated in a game. There are a near infinite number of permutations and possible outcomes. Attempting to include all these elements would result in a clunky "simulation" not a quick and fun representation -which is what you want in a game. Trying to incorporate all the aspects of what happens in actual combat in a game would end up with a system too cumbersome to the serve players -not to mention still be open to considerable debate and disagreement as to what really was historically valid or martially effectively anyway.

So, I offer here for gamers some considerations on how realism in RPG combat can be approached based upon my long experience with historical arms and armor and in teaching Medieval and Renaissance fencing. I consider the following 5 simple points key to those elements of historical fighting which can be legitimately worked into a good game in order to enrich its combat system:

1. Armor class - Armor has virtually nothing to do with whether or not you can be hit. What armor does is protect you from injury. After all, when being attacked armor is either is in the way of the blow or it isn't and once struck, either absorbs/deflects some, none, or all of the damage. Thus, whether soft or hard, flexible or rigid, it "absorbs", or more accuracy "deflects" blows. Yes, heavier plate armor can somewhat affect your agility and speed as a target compared to say, being naked, but the encumbrance is far less than is commonly believed.

2. Weapon defense - Every hand-weapon has an inherent defensive capacity, and different weapons confer different degrees of protection. That is, an ability to guard, to ward, and cover the user. A weapon is not just about damage potential. Even its offensive threat is a form of defense. For instance, all things being equal, a man with a halberd is much harder to hit than say, a man with a dagger. A flail for example has less defensive application than does a short-sword. It's all a matter of each weapon's shape, length, weight, and maneuverability. (And by the way, a shield is a weapon, not armor. A weapon you hold, armor you wear.) By considering the defensive value of weapons we in effect double the uniqueness of each and add significantly to the potential choices our characters are able to make in choosing their armaments.

3. Weapon-Armor dynamics - Different weapons do different degrees of damage against hard or soft armors. If this were not so, then would not be so many different weapons designs that were developed. Yet, the degree of difference a weapon does against various armors is not all that profound. It is simply a matter that some are better at slicing or stabbing soft armors, and others are better at crushing, denting, or piecing hard armors. Nothing more. For example, a special anti-armor stabbing sword is great against plate armor, but its thick rigid blade does not cut at all. A wide curved sword slices well against cloth armor but has much less affect when chopping at chain-link (maile) armor. It can really all be reduced to the concept of a +1 to +2, or a -1 to -2. Further, a ranged attack (missile weapon) does not necessarily face the same degree of defense as a melee weapon engaged against an opponent. The missile weapon only seeks a target and thus faces only armor and obstructions; the melee weapon by contrast in order to hit has to be used in active fighting. The two do not necessarily encounter the same degree of defensive capacity from the opponent. The bottom line then, is that if the above is considered there's no real need for more complicated weapon-armor dynamics.

4. Combat skill - A warrior has fighting skill. A non-warrior does not. Once a person learns about how to fight in general and how to use a weapon, regardless of whether or not they have high skill with any particular weapons, they nonetheless know and understand the vital principles and concepts of combat. They have a higher sense of distance, timing, technique, and perception as well as the necessary martial attitude. This, presumably along with physical conditioning, is what defines them as a fighting character. Non-warriors don't work this way. So, virtually any weapon, from a chair to a sickle, can be employed by a warrior without their training with it first. They may not have expertise or mastery of that particular weapon, but whatever it is they can certainly pick it up and reasonably defend themselves using it. Fighting skill is an issue of not just of physical aptitude then, but neuromuscular preparation, i.e., training in understanding core principles. They same applies if caught unarmed. Identical concepts apply between weapons and unarmed fighting even if the warrior doesn't have specific training in unarmed techniques. Skill is what determines whether you can hit or be hit in melee. When it comes to using weapons, you really only have expertise and mastery (say, +1 and +2, for instance) and everything else is just know-how. But if you aren't a warrior, and have a sedentary non-physical nature, then you certainly would be unskilled in fighting (and get for example, a -1 or -2 to any weapon used). The bottom line is that there is "general combat skill" and then there is "weapon-specific skill." The two are distinct but interrelated.

5. Initiative & choice - The standard mechanism for determining who attacks first in most games is an initiative roll modified by a character's weapon speed and personal agility or reflexes. The problem is fighting does not really work this way. Speed and timing are different things. Any attack can only occur in one of three times: either before, during, or after the adversary attacks. Just because you have the opportunity to attack first doesn't mean you have to or should want to. The faster fighter instead of striking first can often delay and attack just as the opponent moves so as to counter-time their action and thereby deliver a more effective blow. Or the faster fighter can choose to delay his action and strike just after the opponent has, voiding and counter-striking in one action by taking advantage of the opening afterward. This decision making occurs instantly in fighting and is why fights involve not just overwhelming the opponent with blows, but also pausing, feinting, shifting, and juxtaposition for advantage. Further, a weapon's "speed", or rather its maneuverability as it relates to weight, is a factor in its ability to hit, not whether it gets in the first attack.

Notice nowhere in these suggested 5 key points have I addressed anything about game mechanics or weapon and armor statistics. That's not my concern. I leave that up to the inventive game designers and their respective players. With regard to hit points, I am also not concerned. In real life we really only have "one" hit point and if we lose it we're gone. But, clearly, people of different builds and body sizes and even temperaments can withstand varying ranges of physical trauma more so than others. But in a game, for playability we again need abstraction and thus, virtually any system of accounting for hit points is acceptable.

Some gamemasters like to rely on a chart or table to answer every possible combat situation and incorporate rules down to a science specific for every kind of specific action or attack called. To me, this is an overly technical approach that considerably distorts realism instead of helping it. Things like dodging, parrying, deflecting, closing-in, grappling, disarming, tripping, etc., are not specialized "skills" or feats that one fighter has and another doesn't, they are foundational aspects of fighting itself. Fighting with weapons is not just simple parry and riposte. In my opinion, the role of the gamemaster is to narrate and describe combat action and results as by interpreting the die rolls and modifiers along with the scene. For example, if a player says something like, "I want to stab at that orc just as he raises his axe to chop at me, so I'm grabbing my pommel with my other hand for strength and aim and I'm shoving my sword right into his exposed armpit to sever his major arteries!" To this enthusiastic effort the gamemaster might just respond, "Yeah, ok, just roll the dice" and then follow the numbers to decide if there was any hit and damage. The gamemaster could also try searching for a rule and table covering high-outside double-hand arm thrusts aimed at the underarm when employed with a bastard sword against maile armor. Or, after looking at the results of the roll and the damage the gamemaster could simply reply with something along the lines of, "Ok, great, as the orc lifts his arm to hack at you head, you make your move and your sword point jams deep into his unarm splintering some links of his maile armor and finding the meat of his orcish hide and muscle…but his forward motion disrupts your timing and aim a little bit and the stab only just wounds him!" The tension is sustained, the excitement is allowed to express itself, and realism is embraced.

But arguably, very few individuals, even among the community of historical fencing enthusiasts and Renaissance martial artists, have sufficient experience in the subject of historical combat to do this kind of interpretive combat narration -or at least to do it entertainingly for their players. Many lack realistic knowledge of the true characteristic and attributes of genuine historical arms and armor, as well as the actual wounding effects of real weapons on flesh, let alone understanding something of the nature of personal armed combat. And for that matter they really shouldn't be expected to know either in order to run a good adventure.

Yet, there are some basic fundamental truths about historical fighting and the use of arms and armor that I feel can, and should, be addressed within the combat of serious RPGs. Many game combat-systems or specific rules in them are founded upon certain core assumptions regarding arms and fighting that I believe are just plain wrong -and in some cases downright absurd. But while we want to avoid futile attempts to create a "simulation" of personal combat in a game, I am strongly convinced gamers can still utilize a large degree of historical source material on fighting to enrich their gaming experience. To use an analogy, consider Tolkien. J. R. R. Tolkein's writings are exceptional and surely the pinnacle of fantasy literature. Why? Because in creating his world and stories Tolkien grounded himself in the reality of historical folklore, mythology, and real languages. He didn't sit down and make it all up from scratch. He relied on an incredible wealth of existing materials from which to draw upon. The results speak for themselves. The same needs to be done in RPG combat. And it is here that we have numerous existing, though little known, resources from historical European martial arts to rely on (see for examples).

Personally, like many I've tried my hand at making my own fantasy role-playing game combat system once or twice in the past. Sometimes I wanted a way whereby I could make my "to hit" roll and my "damage" roll one and the same. Other times I wanted to be able to do it in two separate rolls so I might rely on those wonderful polyhedral dice for the variety of different weapons and monsters (gotta love those Pythagorean solids!). But in each design I always tried to include the above 5 points in order to approximate a desired feel of realism without sacrificing the necessary feel of a good game. The results were both fun and rewarding.

*Note: This essay was revised on 7/12/03 for clarity of some of John's Points.

About the author:

John Clements is one of Americaís leading instructors and foremost practitioner-researchers of Renaissance martial arts. He has studied the subject for over twenty-three years and researched and taught on it in six countries. John is director of ARMA, the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts ( and is the author of, Renaissance Swordsmanship: The Illustrated use of Rapiers and Cut & Thrust Swords, and Medieval Swordsmanship: Illustrated Techniques and Methods, both from Paladin Press. He writes and teaches on historical fencing full time in Houston, Texas and occasionally consults for the gaming industry.

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