What I’m about to tell you isn’t revolutionary. Others have preached the true word before. I’ve seen hints on Victoria Mixon‘s blog, and I know John Brown did a presentation at a writing conference (don’t go to those links yet; I’m going to explain it better here!). But I have yet to see the truth about “Show, Don’t Tell” collected into a single, clear article. This is my attempt at it.
“Show, Don’t Tell” is one of the most common pieces of writing advice ever given. The thing is, it’s impossible to show in writing, because showing is inherently visual. Showing is physical. Writing is verbal. Writing is telling, and it can’t be anything else. If writing could show, it would be a movie or a play.
Example: If a man says “I love you” to a woman, he is telling. If a man kisses a woman, cooks her favorite meal, and spends time with her, he is showing her that he loves her. He’s not just talking; he’s acting.
Example: If a grandmother explains to her grandkids what Venice looked like last fall, she is telling. If a grandmother takes her grandkids there on vacation so they can see it for themselves, she is showing them. She’s not just talking; she’s physically showing the place to her grandkids.
Words are telling. Action is showing.
In fiction, words are all we have. It’s all telling.
What we mean by showing in writing is that the writing allows the reader to create a strong mental image, as if they were seeing it or experiencing it first-hand. As if they were being shown. As if they were there.
So if writing is all telling, how do we create that sense of verisimilitude and vicarious experience in the reader? How do we show?
There are different kinds of telling, and some are better than others at creating that mental image for the reader. The different kinds of telling vary depending on who you’re talking to, but they tend to boil down to four basic categories:
Exposition is the conveying of factual information. In the greater world of the written word, exposition is exemplified by things like the business report, scientific paper, news story, and encyclopedia article. In fiction, exposition is when you take the time to explain facts about your fictive universe—who’s related to whom, where certain places are within the setting, and how a scientific principle or magical spell works.
Argumentation is the attempt to convince the reader of a point of view. Advertisements, resumes, and letters to the editor are good examples of argumentation. You don’t see much of this in fiction, but authorial commentary generally falls here. The author is attempting to convince you, the reader, to feel or think a certain way by addressing you directly. Fiction can employ argumentation obliquely through the subtle use of theme.
Description is the construction of a visual image of a specific person, place, or thing in the reader’s mind. Description tends to be woven into the other types of telling, especially narration. Poetry often relies heavily on description.
Narration is the relating of a series of events—things that are happening. Narration is the main component of good fiction. Outside of fiction, narration occurs whenever we tell someone about something that happened to us. Biography is largely composed of narration.
Some people add a few more types of telling to the list: summarization, introspection, recollection, sensation, emotion, action, dialogue and transition. I haven’t studied this topic in such depth that I could easily explain to you why some people think these modes should be distinct from the four above. But it seems to me that these secondary categories could pretty easily be defined as a subset or minor variation of one of the primary four categories.
Exposition and argumentation are generally poor at creating visual images and vicarious experience, although they both have their uses. Description and narration are better, but only when used in the right way.
Telling Example: Carl’s sister came over the next day and told him that mom had died that night. He felt an overwhelming sadness wash over him. He would never see his mom again.
Showing Example: Carl had the newspaper laid out on the kitchen counter. He was scanning the headlines when he heard someone coming down the hallway. He looked up and saw his sister stop in the doorway. She had on a faded dress. Her face was hidden in shadow. “Mom died last night,” she said. A hollow feeling spread through Carl’s chest. His hands clutched at the edge of the kitchen counter as if to stop himself from falling. His shoulders heaved as a wracking sob escaped his throat.
The telling example uses a mix of narration and exposition to tell what happened and how the character feels, but it’s too generic. It’s just a summary of what happened to Carl.
The showing example also uses narration, and it’s still telling—it’s just words on the screen. But the manner of the telling allows the reader to easily construct a strong visual image of what’s happening, as if they were sitting in the room watching the scene unfold. The part about the hollow feeling spreading through Carl’s chest, even though it’s not visual, enables vicarious experience by helping the reader imagine the physical sensation the character is experiencing. Conveying action and description this way takes longer than using exposition or summary, so you have to be careful about what you choose to focus on.
Unfortunately, fiction pundits have created their own vocabulary for these things, and “showing” is firmly ensconced as something that’s both real and possible in fiction. So you’ll hear writing experts talking about exposition, narration, telling, and showing in different ways than I’ve explained them here. (Go and read the link to Victoria Mixon’s blog now if you want. She’s a smart editor, but I feel like she gets lost in the expert jargon—despite her claims to the contrary—and stops being clear almost right away.)
In fiction, showing means the judicious use of rich, visual detail and concrete, physical action to help the reader construct a visual image of a scene and imagine what it would be like to have that experience. As if they were being shown. As if they were there.4 comments
A common piece of writing advice is to not use adverbs. We’re told that they’re weak, that we should find strong verbs instead. As with all writing advice, this one is situational. Some would-be writing gurus with good intentions take a situational piece of advice and try to make it seem universal. A writer for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog recently advised writers that deleting all adverbs and adverbial phrases would result in a piece of writing that means exactly the same thing while being easier to read.
But the “no adverbs” advice has been laid to rest by Geoffrey Pullum, a professor who writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article titled Being an Adverb. Says Pullum:
“Applying this adverb-erasing recommendation across the board would be disastrous, in random ways. In some cases it would cause a spectacular change of sense: the slogan of the British department-store chain John Lewis, Never Knowingly Undersold, would become Undersold. Quite often it would yield vapid slop with the wrong meaning: Defusing a bomb must be done carefully would become Defusing a bomb must be done; The dog had been brutally treated would become The dog had been treated. Sometimes it would create outright ungrammaticality: a carefully worded letter would become *a worded letter.”
“The truth is that nothing as mechanical as abandoning adverbs (or certain subclasses of adverbs) is going to uniformly improve your prose. . . . Like the familiar advice to avoid passive clauses, it is never followed by the people who recommend following it.”
“The writers they admire never follow it either. And I don’t mean just that fine writing with adverbs is possible; I mean that all fine writing in English has adverbs (just open any work of literature you respect and start reading).”
As usual, there’s a grain of truth in this piece of advice. There are undoubtedly extraneous adverbs that can be cut to make your writing tighter and better. Just don’t go overboard. Sometimes a good adverb is exactly what you need.2 comments
I was glad when a friend asked me to write about roleplaying games (RPGs) for kids, because it’s something I’ve put a fair amount of thought into, and I relished the excuse to look into it a bit more. I started playing tabletop RPGs when I was about 11 years old and never stopped. I definitely intend to introduce my kids to the hobby one day. Two of my brothers have already started roleplaying with their older kids.
Luckily, the market for roleplaying games is really healthy. RPG design and theory have expanded drastically in the past 20 years or so, and the number of options out there is truly staggering. There are tons of RPGs designed just for kids—way more than I had initially suspected before writing this post. Many of them are very inexpensive or even free. I haven’t tried any of them (yet), and there are just too many for me to make specific recommendations. But down below I’ll give an overview and list some pages where you can go to find one that’s just right for your kids.
Before picking one and diving right in, there are a few things you’ll want to consider before introducing your kids to roleplaying games.
Violence and Monsters
Consider your kid’s maturity level with regard to violence and scary situations. RPGs originated with war gaming, and many RPGs are tied closely to fantasy adventure stories, so combat plays a big role in most games. A lot of RPGs designed for kids do a good job of downplaying such violence and focusing on other types of conflict and gaming challenges, so you have plenty of choices in that regard. For example, in one game each kid plays a fuzzy stuffed animal character, and when opponents are defeated, they simply go to sleep. Even in some more mature games, violence is abstracted to “hit points”—a simple numerical value that indicates character death upon reaching zero. The level of realism in these games is rather like cartoon violence, where every blow just bounces off until the last one.
Other games are targeted towards adults or kids with a higher tolerance for violence. Some kids deal just fine with violence in RPGs. After all, it is in the imagination. I personally started out with a rather violent RPG called Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP). Tolkien’s Middle Earth can be a rather violent place, and the game reflected that. There were damage tables that describe severed limbs, blood, crushed skulls, and all manner of physical harm. I started playing that game at 11 years old and still remember the first fight my first character got into. I was playing a dwarf, and we came across a nasty orc. I decided to have my dwarf use his war hammer to hit the orc, and thanks to a lucky roll on MERP’s detailed injury tables, my dwarf ended up shattering the orc’s kneecap. I thought it was awesome, and since then I’ve always preferred RPGs with more realistic and gritty combat.
However, even if you choose a game with such violence in the mechanics, you don’t have to focus on the gory descriptions or even use them at all. It’s all up to you—that’s one of the great things about roleplaying games. You don’t need to feel tied to the rules; you can change them at any time, for any reason, if it increases your enjoyment of the game. If the level of violence described in the game doesn’t make you comfortable, you can change the way you describe it to your kids. Gloss over the violent aspects of the game or make it more cartoony. You may also want to avoid having humans as bad guys and instead focus on monsters. If your game has monsters, you may want to avoid monsters that are too scary. This is one thing that will keep my waiting until my kids are older.
Some games probably aren’t appropriate at all. Horror, post-apocalyptic, or cyberpunk games will have themes that may be too mature. Stick to animals and cartoon-like games for younger kids and heroic fantasy, space opera, or superheroes for older kids. When choosing an adventure for your kids to explore, maybe steer away from a storyline where the characters have to perform a series of assassinations to start a guild war, and instead focus on a plot where the characters have to defeat goblins to reach a magic sword or something along those lines.
The original roleplaying games, and many modern RPGs, relied a lot on dice, numerical scores, and math formulas to mediate the outcome of actions within the game. Some modern games do away with a lot of that math and instead use other mechanisms, such as a bartering system, to decide how the story goes. But most still rely on math to one degree or another. This can be a challenge for some kids. Their idea of fun isn’t crunching a bunch of numbers or looking up a bunch of charts.
Luckily, there are a lot of games designed for younger kids who haven’t mastered basic math skills yet. Some games are designed for kids as young as 5 or 6 years old.
Kids generally aren’t interested in making sure all of the rules are being followed exactly right and all the formulas are being followed perfectly. If you spend too long looking up rules or figuring out results, they won’t have fun.
One way to solve this problem is to choose a game that you already know really well—one you’ve played enough to know the rules without looking them up, or make them up if you need to. If you aren’t familiar enough with any RPGs that are appropriate for your kids, there are lots of games that are quite simple to learn and perfect for kids with shorter attention spans (see below).
Expect your kids to want to do outrageous things. If they want to do something that doesn’t fit into the rule systems of the game or that you’re not sure how to handle, just roll with it. Let the kids have fun! That’s the whole point, right? Just make sure they have a blast—otherwise they won’t want to keep playing.
I had this experience with one of my nephews. He chafed at the restrictions and ended up bored by his first game. Luckily my brother knew that all the kid needed was a little more freedom to do whatever cool stuff he came up with in his head. Their games end up being much more free form and narrative, without a lot of attention to the rules. He loves it.
Ease Them Into It
There’s nothing more natural than roleplaying to kids. That’s exactly how many of them play all day long without even thinking about it. My two little girls love to pretend they’re ponies or cats or princesses. The only unfamiliar part of roleplaying games is the idea that while you can try just about anything, you still have to roll dice and follow certain rules to figure out the actual results of your intended actions. So it can help to ease kids into the hobby. There are a few ways of doing this.
Kids will have more fun with a game that has elements they are familiar with. There are lots of games based on popular books, movies, and TV shows. The setting of Middle Earth had a great draw for me when I was a kid (and still does). Your kids may be into a specific setting, like Star Wars or Redwall. There are tons of games to choose from—just about any genre you can think of. Younger kids tend to enjoy games where they can pretend to be animals, especially mice. Other kids will enjoy anything where they get to play a pirate. Picking a game that focuses on a setting you know your kids already enjoy will make it that much more fun for them.
Another way to ease kids into it is to pick a boardgame with roleplaying elements. Descent is a good example for slightly older kids. I’ve also heard good things about Mice and Mystics.
Look for Other Good Advice
I got a lot of the above advice from other sites. There is a lot of good information out there. Try starting with these articles. I really recommend reading them, because they offer different perspectives and recommend some games that I didn’t list below. A quick Google search on the subject will reveal even more articles and good resources.
- Teaching Kids to Roleplay is Only Natural by Ken Denmead on Wired.com. Good article broken down into age groups with advice and suggested games.
- RPGs for Kids by Edmund Metheny and Sophie Legacé. Some brief words of advice followed by a long list of games with fairly detailed descriptions.
- Roleplaying Games for Kids by John H. Kim. This is a list of games and other articles with very brief descriptions. There is a section on free RPGs for kids.
- Role-Playing Games and Kids by Katrina Middelburg-Creswell. Katrina runs an RPG club for teenagers and has lots of good advice for that age group.
- Introductory RPGs for Kids by Dan Repperger of the podcast Fear the Boot. A short list of kid-friendly games.
The Big List of Games
I have only played one or two of these, and read through a couple more. Several of them are based on old versions of Dungeons and Dragons. I hesitated to list them at first. I’ve played a few more modern versions of the game, and don’t feel they were especially conducive to gaming with younger kids due to their complexity. However, they can be good for teenagers, and if you are already into D&D, they can be a good choice for just that reason. The games will be easy for you to run, and your kids will sense your enjoyment of the game.
So, what do I recommend? My own kids are still pretty young, with the oldest being 7 and still pretty sensitive to violence. I would probably start out with rpgKids or Hero Kids RPG for my 7-year-old and Fuzzy Heroes for my two girls (ages 4 and 5)—see links below. For slightly older kids, I think Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies looks like a blast, as does Project Ninja Panda Taco and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. As kids get into their teenage years, they can probably play just about any game out there, depending on their interests. I’m especially looking forward to introducing my kids to Mouse Guard due to its setting and interesting narrative elements, as well as the new The One Ring game because it does such a great job of evoking the feel of Middle Earth.
I had wanted to do more with this section, but alas, I have a newborn baby on my hands, and this post has already been sitting here 75% finished for two months. I hope you find this helpful.
- Labyrinth Lord (free, based on old-school D&D circa 1981)
- Swords and Wizardry (free, based on old-school D&D circa 1979)
- OSRIC (free, based on 1st ed. D&D using the Open Gaming License)
- Tunnels and Trolls (free, simplified clone of original D&D)
- Pathfinder Beginner Box ($35 printed box set, based on D&D 3.5, probably better for teenagers)
- PDQ (free, core game for other paid games from Atomic Sock Monkey)
- PDQ# (free, modified version of PDQ optimized for swashbuckling campaigns)
- Swashbucklers of the 7 Skies ($15 PDF, based on PDQ#, pirates with super powers)
- Zorcerer of Zo ($15 PDF, based on PDQ, fast paced fairy tale stories)
- Dragon Age ($29.95, printed book based on video game, simple system but art and thematic elements may be for teenage kids)
- Mouse Guard ($20 PDF, simplified version of Burning Wheel, based on the comic books, kids play mice, looks fun for adults, too)
- rpgKids ($2.99 PDF download, ages 4 and up)
- Faery’s Tale Deluxe ($19.95 printed book, fairy tale game)
- Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple ($10 PDF, $25 print + PDF, lighthearted game about kid monks trying to solve problems)
- Happy Birthday Robot ($10 PDF, $25 print + PDF, imaginative storytelling game)
- Cat ($5 PDF, simple game where each kid plays a cat protecting humans from things people can’t see)
- Meddling Kids ($6 PDF, simple Scooby-Doo themed game for kids 7 and up)
- Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying System (free from Lulu.com, very simple RPG suitable for both kids and adults, any genre)
- Hero Kids RPG ($6 PDF, fantasy game for kids aged 4 to 10, comes with premade characters and an adventure)
- Project Ninja Panda Taco ($12 PDF, a game about masterminds and their minions trying to take over the world)
- Fuzzy Heroes ($11, I think in print, kids play stuffed animals)
- Mice and Mystics ($50-60, board game, characters play humans who have been turned into mice and must traverse the castle to save the kingdom)
- Descent ($30-50, board game, characters delve into a dungeon, fight monsters, and find treasure)
What about you? Are you planning to introduce tabletop roleplaying to your kids? What games have you tried, and what are you looking forward to trying with your kids?6 comments
Is the traditional method of making katanas better than using modern steel? Here’s the answer from modern expert sword maker Walter Sorrels.
To summarize, katana blades made from modern steel have superior performance. They are harder and keep a sharper edge. They are also cheaper. The primary advantage of the traditional technique is that the folding process allows you to use lower-quality steel. Historical Japanese bladesmiths used the folding method because it was the only way they could make a good blade with the low-quality steel that was available to them. The other advantage is that the folding process makes an interesting and beautiful blade.No comments
Some time ago, I posted the cover art for the ebook editions of The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. For the sake of comparison, here is the art for the US hardback editions. All of these covers were done by Darrell K. Sweet except for the last book, A Memory of Light, which was done by Michael Whelan.
Click each image to see a larger version.
Prequel — New Spring cover art
1. The Eye of the World — outside cover art
The Eye of the World — inside front cover art
2. The Great Hunt cover art
3. The Dragon Reborn cover art
4. The Shadow Rising cover art
5. The Fires of Heaven cover art
6. Lord of Chaos cover art
7. A Crown of Swords cover art
8. Path of Daggers cover art
9. Winter’s Heart cover art
10. Crossroads of Twilight cover art
11. Knife of Dreams cover art
12. The Gathering Storm cover art
13. The Towers of Midnight cover art
14. A Memory of Light — Darrell K. Sweet unfinished concept art
Mr. Sweet passed away before finishing the cover.
A Memory of Light cover art — Michael Whelan5 comments
Some time ago I posted images of the covers to all the Wheel of Time ebooks. Here are the covers of the Dutch print versions.
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt
The Dragon Reborn
The Shadow Rising
The Fires of Heaven
Lord of Chaos
A Crown of Swords
Path of Daggers
Crossroads of Twilight
Knife of Dreams
The Gathering Storm
The Towers of Midnight
I think they are well done, and I know some people like them a lot . . . but personally, I’m not fond of them. They’re definitely atmospheric, but they are too generic for my taste. I wouldn’t even guess they were fantasy novels if I didn’t already know.
What do you think? Better or worse than the English ebook covers?1 comment
I have some pretty strong ideas on how damage ought to be handled in a roleplaying game. But rather than complaining about how boring and unrealistic hit points are, I’ll simply present my current thinking on how I’m going to implement damage in my own game.
I am an unabashed violence monger (well, I might be slightly abashed depending on who I’m talking to), and I love the thrill of a good fight scene. I love knowing all the details of a strike in combat. When it’s my own character getting hit, I want to know exactly what happened to him so that I can imagine how he’s going to deal with it and where the scar will be. When it’s my character dealing out the hurt, I want to know exactly what he did so that I can picture how awesome he is. I want to be able to picture it all in my mind as if it were a movie.
But I also know that every increase in detail comes with a corresponding increase in how long it takes to play out the combat, and that often detracts from the excitement. In order to keep combat fast-paced and exciting, I’ve decided that the result of an attack roll should always translate directly into damage. There should be no extra rolling. The degree by which you succeed on the attack roll determines exactly how much damage you will do.
In my opinion, every strike that actually hits ought to have a concrete and dramatic impact on the fight. No successful blow should come without consequences. To keep things from getting bogged down, I envision four basic levels of damage that matter in the thick of a fight:
- Glancing Blows. These are scratches and minor bruises, the type of stuff you don’t even feel in the rush of combat. They’re like the scratch that appears on Arwen’s cheek in The Fellowship of the Ring movie when she’s fleeing the Ringwraiths. It’s just enough to let you know that what you’re doing is dangerous. The fact that you took a scratch instead of getting killed serves to remind you of your badassness and your potentially imminent death at the same time.
- Minor Wounds. These are strikes that cause enough pain and damage to impair you, but won’t necessarily end the fight. They’ll probably cause a fairly high but momentary penalty due to the shock of getting your flesh torn up, then fade into a minor penalty after that. We don’t need to know the specifics; whether it’s a torn ligament, a damaged muscle, or a severed vein doesn’t really matter because those details don’t necessarily have a direct impact on the fight. All you know is that you got hit, and it hurts. Your doctor will figure out exactly what’s damaged and how to fix you up later. For now, you’ve got to fight through the pain and take out your opponent soon or else your pain penalties will eventually result in your demise. Minor wounds will comprise a fairly large range of possible results but will all have fairly similar and fairly low penalties.
- Critical Wounds. This kind of wound doesn’t kill right away all on its own, but it’s essentially a fight finisher. A severed hand, a stab to the gut, or a shattered femur will put you into instant shock so that even if you keep hold of your weapon, you’re not likely to be able to do much with it. If your opponent is merciful and pauses to let you recover from the initial shock, you’ve probably got just one difficult shot left to strike back. Otherwise, you’ve lost, although you might live to fight another day if you have a good healer nearby.
- Death Blows. Some blows spell instant or near-instant death—decapitation, crushed skull, pierced lung. These are the kind of possibility that should keep you afraid of every combat you decide to enter. Unless you vastly outmatch your opponent, you’d better tread carefully. What might have been a glancing blow last time could just as easily have been a death blow if you hadn’t chosen your defense with care.
When appropriate, the exact results of the blow will be looked up on a wound chart. Glancing blows are incidental and don’t need to be looked up at all. The GM or the player can decide where the little scar will be, if they care. Minor wounds only need to be looked up after the fight is over, when the healer is examining the wound. The specifics only matter for the purposes of recovery. Critical wounds and death blows are both fight finishers and should be looked up right away unless the receiving character is unimportant cannon fodder. Since death blows mean that you’re dealing with a death scene, it ought to be imbued with an appropriate level of detail and drama. We need to know exactly what happened.
Wound charts should be detailed and specific to the type of attack being made (slashing, impaling, or crushing). Wounds are also dependent on the location being struck. In my system you will always choose the body part you’re aiming for, and the charts will need to reflect that. Such charts can be found in the excellent book Trauma by Claus Bernich or in the appendices to The Riddle of Steel (identical charts have been reused in the TROS derivative Blade of the Iron Throne).
In my system, each wound is unique and gets recorded on your character sheet separately. Wounds will have three primary characteristics: (1) a pain rating that gives a penalty to all actions involving the wounded location; (2) a blood loss rating that can result in death after a certain amount of time if left untreated; (3) unique effects that depend on the individual location (blindness, internal bleeding, concussion, loss of function). I have been thinking a lot about the role of healers in the game, as well (if I even have them). Detailed wounds could enable healing magic that’s more involved than simply healing hit points and could make things a lot more fun and interesting for people who want to play healers.
Since attack location is important, it also becomes important to keep track of what kind of armor you are wearing. A steel breastplate won’t protect you against attacks to the leg. This kind of detail can add a little extra work, but most of it occurs beforehand and is recorded on the character sheet before the fight begins. But keeping track of armor also adds an extra dimension of strategy to a fight, since you can target your enemy’s weak spots, and you have to be extra careful to protect your own.
What’s your opinion?7 comments
My posts on speed archery have been very popular and continue to get a lot of traffic. So I’ve been digging into it more and trying to find more resources for those of you who are interested in the topic. If you haven’t seen them already, check out my first three posts in this series. I’ll link to them at the bottom of this post.
Today I bring you several interesting videos demonstrating techniques from Native Americans, ancient Turkey, and more from Russia.
This fellow has figured out how the Native Americans likely held and nocked their arrows quickly and quietly. He doesn’t do a full-speed demonstration, but he shows it slowly and clearly. It looks intriguing. Check it out.
This fellow describes his recreation of ancient Turkish archery. His method is very similar to the Hungarian archer I linked to in part two of this series. He gets off a shot every 3 seconds.
Here is another video about Turkish archery. It’s got a lot of fluff, but around the 3 minute mark he does demonstrate several interesting techniques, including a method for holding two extra arrows in the hand while shooting. Another interesting technique allows him to hold his sword in the hand while shooting, so he can quickly attack with his sword afterward. The video also brings up the use of thumb rings, which is another topic I’d like to delve into.
More speed shooting from Russia:
If you haven’t seen my other posts, check them out:
- Part One — Two videos of fast archery techniques from Russia
- Part Two — Two videos of Lars Andersen demonstrating his incredibly fast shooting and one of Lajos Kassai showing ancient Hun archery
- Part Three — Methods for quickly spanning or cocking a crossbow
Does medieval plate armor slow you down and make you easier to hit in melee combat? On the face of it, you’d definitely think so. But the truth of it is that plate armor was designed to allow freedom of movement and weighed less than the gear of a modern soldier or firefighter. That’s about all I’m going to say for now. There are a ton of great resources on this topic online, so I’m just going to point out a few of them.
This article from Dirk H. Breiding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art debunks a number of myths regarding ancient armor, including the idea that plate armor made the wearer immobile. He also points out that not all plate armor was too expensive for common folk. That’s something I hadn’t realized before. But as with everything, there were different levels of quality and cost.
This video shows that full plate allows one to stand up from a fall with relative ease. Mr. Loades does a controlled fall off a running horse and gets back up while wearing plate armor. Although to be honest, he does look a little awkward as he stands up.
This next video is fairly low quality, but does an excellent job showing the range of movement and speed that are possible while wearing a suit of plate armor. I’d hate to face this guy’s whirling sword.
Here’s a French video showing some guys in full plate armor doing various things like climbing up and down ladders, getting up from prone positions, doing jumping jacks, and demonstrating some cool half-swording techniques.
Of course, that doesn’t mean plate was like wearing your birthday suit. All that armor still weighs 50 to 70 pounds, some of which is weighing down your arms and legs. Some scientists actually did a study to see how much effort it takes to wear plate armor while running on a treadmill. Unsurprisingly, it’s harder than wearing no armor at all—about twice as difficult in terms of total energy expenditure. It was also harder than wearing the same amount of weight in a backpack. The plates on the arms and legs requires your muscles to work harder to move around.
How would we model this in a roleplaying game?
It seems to me that plate armor wouldn’t make one any easier to hit, as long as you have the minimum strength required to move your arms and legs. You would get tired faster, for sure. I remember seeing a video from the historian Mike Loades that showed some guys fighting in full plate armor. They got tired really fast. I can’t find that video now. But in my experience, most fights don’t last long enough for that to be a factor. You might want to start factoring it in after a full minute of intense fighting, if the combat lasted that long.
Plate armor does have other vulnerabilities. It takes a long time to put on, and you can’t do it on your own. If you’re wakened in the middle of the night, you’re stuck without your armor. Plate armor is also vulnerable to piercing weapons like poll axes. Half-swording techniques let you use a sword like a giant spike to pierce armor. Arrows? Not so much. Plate armor that’s properly formed, hardened, and tempered is practically invulnerable to arrows.13 comments
I’ve been thinking a lot about combat systems for roleplaying games, enough that I’ve decided to start a series of blog posts about it. I think everybody who has run a table-top RPG as game master is secretly working on designing their own game, and I’m no exception. I’ve been working on mine off and on for years. Some of my very early blog readers might remember some of the ideas I posted way back when.
My thoughts on RPG design have changed quite a bit since then. My primary influence in the beginning was MERP (Middle-Earth Roleplaying), also called Rolemaster Lite by some, which is now out of print. MERP and especially Rolemaster have a lot of things I like, namely the detailed critical wound charts and the unique damage possibilities for each weapon and armor combination, but I’ve since run across a number of other games that have drastically changed my opinion of how my ideal game would work.
The Riddle of Steel (TROS) revolutionized my view of how RPG combat can work, with the idea of defenders being able to choose their own defensive maneuvers and actually roll for them at the same time as their attacker. There’s a lot more, though:
- the idea of having a whole pool of dice that you have to ration between attack and defense
- historically-based combat maneuvers each with unique effects
- the idea that initiative simply means you’re currently attacking, and two people could easily attack and kill each other simultaneously if they’re not careful
- no abstract hit points; instead, concrete wounds and pain levels are used
- getting bonuses to your attacks when you’re fighting for something your character believes in
- the idea that if you want your character to be good at combat, you actually can be—you aren’t forced to start out as a level 1 weakling
Unfortunately, The Riddle of Steel is out of print. Fortunately, there are another couple of games based on TROS that use many of the same mechanics. One is Blade of the Iron Throne, which seeks to provide games in the sword and sorcery genre. It’s available as a free PDF download. Another is Song of Steel, a game of historical military drama, which is still in development.
Codex Martialis approaches combat in a very similar manner to The Riddle of Steel, but with significant differences due in part to its reliance on the d20 system framework. Codex Martialis has an increased emphasis on differentiating weapons and their fighting styles, so weapons get bonuses when used at the range they were designed for. Other things I like:
- historically-based “feats” allow you to customize your fighting style based on your chosen weapon
- certain defense rolls grant you automatic counterattacks, making combat much more dynamic
- some rolls results in a “bind,” the meeting of weapon-on-weapon that can trigger special offensive and defensive maneuvers
- armor acts as damage reduction
- hit points are capped
- critical hits don’t require an additional roll to see if they actually happen
- crits can deal even more extra damage when using an attack that your weapon was designed for.
I’ve also run across a few games that I definitely don’t want to emulate, and I’m grateful for those, too. Burning Wheel is an awesome game in many respects. I love its brilliant lifepath character generation, and it relies on dice pools and character motivations much like TROS. But I absolutely loathe the core mechanic of its combat system—you have to choose your actions in groups of three, and once chosen they’re locked in, making it impossible to react to changing circumstances. It adds an interesting level of uncertainty and danger to combat, but it breaks my suspension of disbelief beyond recovery.
I really enjoy the feat system of Pathfinder and the d20 system, because it’s fun to watch your character improve and gain new abilities throughout the game. But some feats are pretty silly (Deafening Criticals, anyone?). I also dislike its turn-based combat resolution. Pathfinder and D&D 3.5 aren’t the only games to feature turn-based combat, but they are the primary ones to have invented a bunch of nonsensical mechanics around it (attacks of opportunity, frozen statue syndrome when it’s not your turn, etc.). There’s more that frustrates me about the d20 system: ridiculously high hit point levels and the strange rationalization that being getting hit by an attack doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve actually been hurt or even struck until the one that reduces you to 0 hit points, the silly idea of having to rememorize spells every day, the outrageous inflation of gold currency . . . the list goes on.
And I have yet to come across a game that makes archery actually interesting, not to mention even remotely realistic.
Of course, my gaming experience isn’t really that extensive. There are games I feel I should probably play. For example, I’ve never played GURPS, but the little I’ve heard about it makes me think I would like some of its mechanics. But I’ve read dozens of game manuals, scouring their combat rules for something that excites or intrigues me, only to be disappointed time and time again with a mundane reliance on hit points, initiative rolls, turn taking, frozen statue syndrome, generic weapons, and so forth.
So I’ve been working on my own combat system that combines all of my favorite mechanics without making it too complicated. I’ll be sharing some of my ideas on the blog in the future.
What are your pet peeves about RPG combat, and what are your must-have mechanics?5 comments