Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lumpers and Splitters

There are two kinds of people in the world . . . [insert joke here].

Simulating real-world activities in a game often requires some measure of abstraction - a die roll to see if you can stab your foe with a sword, or to climb a trellis to a balcony. Just how abstract is necessary and desirable is a source of near constant debate among gamers. One element of creating an abstraction of a real-world process or action is deciding how complex the abstraction needs to be, balancing the want of detail for the need of playability. Each abstraction, then, involves trade-offs, and many of these trade-offs come from lumping or splitting like things into a single unifying rule or many separate rules.

On the one hand, you have a game designer like Gary Gygax, who in OD&D wrote that all weapons did 1d6 damage, lumping together everything from a crossbow to a dagger to a sword to a polearm. On the other hand, you have a game designer like . . . Gary Gygax, who in 1e AD&D famously included twenty different polearms in the core rules of the game, each with its own rules for determining how effective it is against different types of armor, how fast it is to use in combat, and the different ranges of damage done.

Another old school example of splitting and lumping is the difference between firearms in Top Secret and Boot Hill. The core rules for Top Secret include thirty-one distinct firearms, from the Colt M1911 and Browning Hi-Power to the AKM and M-16; the Top Secret Companion added another thirty, while articles in Dragon lavished attention on Uzi variants and the weapons of Heckler & Koch. Each gun has its own projectile weapon value based on a variety of characteristics. Contrast TS's approach with that of Boot Hill, which has thirteen basic firearm types - single-action revolver, double-action revolver, fast-draw revolver, rifle, carbine, &c. In BH, a SAR6 - a six-shot single-action revolver - can represent everything from a Colt Peacemaker to a Smith & Wesson Schofield to a Remington Model 1875.

There's utility in both approaches, of course, but as much as I enjoy comparing the effectiveness of various polearms versus plate armor on the weapon versus armor type table or deciding which is more my agent's style, the Walther PPK or the Beretta Bantam, I find myself leaning more toward lumping when it comes to weaponry in roleplaying games. Once I was comfortable with describing a CBR - cap-and-ball revolver - as 'a greasy Colt Single Action Army' or a R15 as 'a gleaming brass-plated Henry rifle' when I was running Boot Hill, I grew to appreciate the versatility and relative simplicity of the approach. For me, when it comes to the rules of the game, ease of play trumps evocative flavor - the latter I will add to the mix myself.

Like Boot Hill and firearms, Flashing Blades takes a spare approach to swords. There are six basic types of swords in FB: longswords, rapiers, foils, sabers, cutlasses, and two-handed swords. "Longsword" and "foil" can be a bit confusing, as both are anachronisms as used in the rules - longswords, which are closer to two-handed swords in FB, for the most part fell out of use in the 16th century, while foils are the 18th century descendants of the smallsword.

Adding flavor to the swords of Flashing Blades begins with identifying some of the different swords that each of the five represent.

FB WeaponReal-world Examples
LongswordBasket-hilted broadsword, side-sword, pallasch, schiavona, Walloon sword, mortuary sword
RapierRapier, Pappelheimer rapier, cup-hilt rapier
SaberSabre, szlaba, kilij, Schnäpf
CutlassCutlass, hanger
Two-handed SwordDoppelhänder, estoc, claymore

'Basket-hilted broadsword' is the correct name for what FB labels a "longsword." The side-sword is an Italian blade, later called spada da lato, developed from the Spanish espada ropera in the late 16th century but still popular among soldiers. The pallasch is the Hungarian broadsword, popular in the Empire, while the schiavona is its Italian counterpart, taking its name from the Dalmatian guards - Schiavoni - who served the doges of Venice. The Walloon sword is a Dutch weapon while the mortuary sword is the English Civil War-ear name for the broadsword - the style of sword used to execute Charles I, many royalists would have an image of the late king on the pommel or hilt.

The Pappelheimer rapier has a distinctive guard from the more-or-less standard swept-hilt rapier, developed in Germany; the cup-hilt rapier is popular among the Spanish.

The smallsword is a mid- to late-seventeenth century development - in my own campaign, set in the 1620s, this would be more properly considered simply a small rapier - but for simplicity's sake, I go ahead and call it a smallsword anyway, replacing Mark Pettigrew's anachronism with my own.

The szlaba, kilij, and Schnäpf are Polish, Turkish, and Swiss sabers, respectively.

The hanger is a hunting sword, with a heavy, slightly curved blade, used for performing the coup de grâce on a wounded animal.

The Swiss and German Doppelhänder, later known as the Zweihänder, descended from the medieval longsword. The French estoc, is a proper longsword, and may be used one- or two-handed. The claymore is the Scottish two-handed sword, which is not to be confused with the basket-hilted broadsword also called a claymore.

I actually had a gamer tell me once that his group was too busy playing for fluff. Fortunately, I've never experienced anyone like that across the table from me - most players seem to prefer, 'the Spaniard with the cup-hilt rapier of shining Toledo steel' to 'the guy with the sword,' so I make the effort to build out from the rules to a more evocative description. That said, I don't really need the rulebook to do it for me - 'no flowers, by request.'


  1. Having now played a much wider variety of games developed in the mid-70s through the mid-80s this "season to taste" approach is much more appealing to me than it was when I was younger.

    1. It also goes to things like D&D classes - there are those who believe that without stuff likes feats, skills, themes, and prestige classes, 'all [class] are the same,' whereas my experience is very different.