Basic D&D: On Pikes

Pikes are sort of the inverse of cavalry. (Last considered here.) As we might say -- considering its most advantageous mode -- Pike attack is intrinsic to the enemy's movement. When used on defense, all of the impetus that a charging attacker might generate (preeminently: cavalry) is turned back on the attacker himself.

Quotes to Consider

The use of pikes (in the general sense of extremely long spear-like weapons) went through several long cycles of use historically -- first by the ancient Greek hoplites in their phalanx formation (where the long weapon was called the sarissa), and later by the medieval Swiss and German landsknechts (where the weapon was in fact called a "pike"). Late in the period, pikes were used in various mixed formations, such as pike & halberd, pike & crossbow, pike & shot, etc.

The general consensus seems to be that pikes did a spectacular job on defense, obviously being able to present a dense thicket of points at great distance to the enemy. In particular, the re-discovery of their use in the Middle Ages was specifically in response to the dominance of European heavy cavalry. The disadvantages seemed to be: they needed an exceptional level of drill and discipline to be used as an effective unit (to march, support, and not get tangled up on each other), they were somewhat more difficult to use in an offensive attack, they were particularly vulnerable to loss of cohesion in cases of rough terrain, and they were overall less flexible in their use than other types.

Robin Lane Fox writes this description of the Greek phalanx in his biography Alexander the Great:
Sarissas were to be held erect and on command, the first five ranks were to lower them for the charge and swish them in perfect time from left to right... On the first rapid strides forward, the main enemy fled in panic from the hill-tops, scared by the disciplined drill and the sound of the war-cry. [Alexander the Great, p. 84]
Two classic examples which highlight the weaknesses of pike are the Battles of Pydna and Cynoscephalae, in each case seeing otherwise strong Macedonian phalanx-type units lose out to Roman sword-and-shield bearing legionnaires when they met on rough or confused terrain. C.W.C Oman, in his Art of War in the Middle Ages, refers back to these battles when discussing Swiss pike vs. Spanish sword battles in the 1500's: "the old problem... was once more worked out... Then, as in an earlier age, the wielders of the shorter weapon prevailed." [p. 108]. He then quotes from Machiavelli's Art of War:
When they came to engage, the Swiss pressed so hard on their enemy with their pikes, that they soon opened their ranks; but the Spaniards, under the cover of their bucklers, nimbly rushed in upon them with their swords, and laid about them so furiously, that they made a very great slaughter of the Swiss, and gained a complete victory.
Oman then continues:
The moment a breach had been made in a Macedonian or Swiss phalanx the great length of their spears became their ruin. There was nothing to do but drop them, and in the combat which then ensued troops using the sword alone, and without defensive armor, were at a hopeless disadvantage... Machiavelli was, from his studies in Roman antiquity, the most devoted admirer of the Spanish system, which seemed to bring back the days of the ancient legion. Yet even he conceded that the pike, a weapon which he is on every occasion ready to disparage, must be retained... He could think of no other arm which could resist a charge of cavalry steadily pressed home... [Oman, Art of War in the Middle Ages, p. 110]

Rules from Chainmail

Chainmail has several special rules for pikes in its mass combat section, including this one: "All troops formed in close order, with pole arms, can only suffer frontal melee casualties from troops armed with like weapons. While a Knight armed with a lance could attack a halberd formation, he could not attack a formation of pikes." [CM p. 40: Combat Tables]

However, the man-to-man combat section is almost silent on the issue. On the first turn, troops with long weapons get the first blow, while on later turns the opposite is true. [CM p. 25] This is adjudicated through numerical weapon "classes" in the man-to-man combat tables, higher numbers indicating longer, heavier weapons (1-12, with pikes of course being the maximum).

There is also a fairly complex series of cases for possible parry options and multiple attacks based on differences in weapon class [CM p. 25-26] -- broadly familiar to AD&D players because it formed the basis for similar rules in the DMG vis-a-vis weapon speed factors [DMG p. 66]. No other comment on number of ranks attacking, or any "cooperative" benefit from anyone other than the single person in man-to-man combat, is made in any of these sources.

On Number of Ranks Attacking

For the function of pikes, the number of ranks that can reach the enemy and attack seems like a fairly important (perhaps all-important) issue. However, sources such as Chainmail, Original D&D, or the AD&D PHB/DMG do not mention it at any point. OD&D Sup-I says of pikes in a footnote, "these weapons are not usable in dungeons as a general rule due to length" [Sup-I, p. 15], and leaves it at that; likewise, the AD&D DMG says, "Such a weapon [pike] is not usable in dungeon settings, or anywhere else without masses of other pikes to support it." [DMG, p. 66]. In Gygax's Swords & Spells mass combat rules, two ranks of pike attacks are possible [S&S, p. 17]; in Doug Niles' Battlesystem, three attacking ranks are allowed [BS1 p. 14, BS2 p. 40]. Again, the longer weapon always gets first strike opportunity, but no other mechanical benefits.

Compare this to historical sources which state that as many as four or five rows of pikes would have their points ahead of the front line, for use against the enemy. For example, see the Fox quote above regarding Alexander's forces. Or again, Machiavelli:
Although I have told you that six ranks were employed in the Phalanxes of Macedonia at one time, none the less, you have to know that a Swiss Battalion, if it were composed of ten thousand ranks could not employ but four, or at most five, because the pikes are nine arm lengths long and an arm length and a half is occupied by the hands... [Art of War, p. 71]

On the Shock of Mass Pikes

A recurring point among many sources is that a properly-formed pike square is practically unreachable by a foe without an equivalent weapon or some type of special advantage. For example, here's one description of the battle of Pydna:
Paullus [the Roman commander] claimed later that the sight of the phalanx filled him with alarm and amazement. The Romans tried to beat down the enemy pikes or hack off their points, but with little success. Unable to get under the thick bristle of spikes, the Romans used a planned retreat over the rough ground. [Wikipedia: Battle of Pydna]
However, probably the biggest weakness of classic OD&D or AD&D man-to-man combat rules is that they are all explicitly written to be just that: adjudicating one man fighting one other man, exchanging blows each round. Although the man with longer reach is given first blow in the first round, there is no allowance for any of the other, supporting men around him to assist in any way. Also: Even in the case of a "hit" there's no rule to prevent continued forward motion by the attacker and delivery of his attack.

Moreover, even if we assume that a man charging at a pike square runs past 3-5 pike tips (and associated interrupting strikes), the chance for a normal man to hit in D&D is so low, it likely won't keep away an attacker for very long. Consider OD&D 1st level fighters, with the attacker in chain & shield (AC4); the chance for one pike-defender to hit him is only 30% (6 in 20). If the attacker runs past 3 such pike-tips, there's still a 1-in-3 chance that he moves in totally unscathed (0.70^3 = 0.34%)! And if the first charger doesn't manage to make contact, then clearly one of the next few attackers will quickly be among the pikes. That just doesn't seem right.

On 3E Reach

3E D&D makes another design decision that at first blush seems reasonable: To generalize the idea of "reach" advantage, such that anyone who can strike at a distance -- whether pike-armed men or giant monsters -- will function the same mechanically [PHB p. 122].

However, upon further reflection, the two situations are really not comparable. For the pike, the defensive benefit is that it is fixed, pointing straight ahead and still; the enemy can thrust himself on it at any time and the tip will be there to intercept him. But for a large creature like a club-armed giant, blocking an attacker must require a properly-timed swing, presumably in a great swooping arc, and one would think it unlikely that it would be timed quite right against a charging hero.

But since 3E allows both types of defender to get a "free attack" against any approaching attacker, we arrive at a situation where giants -- usually pictured as lumbering and slow (in several senses) -- have the lightning reflexes of a master duelist, always able to snap off a riposte against fighting men running to the attack. This was, in my opinion, a greatly malformed rule -- as was giving giants several attacks per round based on Hit Dice.

Furthermore, 3E defines their interrupting attacks-of-opportunity as technically occurring when a character moves out of a threatened space -- which makes some design sense, as they didn't want a normal sword-vs-sword attack to trigger the action. However, it's greatly counter-intuitive in the case of a defensive pole-weapon, in which you'd think the dangerous stroke comes as you move into the pike-tip zone, and once you are past it you are by definition inside the shaft and unable to be hit.

Finally, the 3E system specifies by default that any defender only gets one such attack-of-opportunity per round (without some special and rarely-taken Feat), such that any follow-up attackers after the first can move in absolutely unimpeded. Again, this makes no sense in the context of a pike, simply being held straight out and forward, such that it is in the path of any onrusher who might approach.

In general, I feel like the 3E decisions on this point are, while initially clever-sounding, in every case exactly the opposite of the correct design choice.

Some Suggested Fixes

In light of the foregoing, we might look for some brand-new rules to add to the relative silence of OD&D and AD&D regarding pike formations. Can multiple ranks attack on defense (or otherwise)? Can multiple files to the side multiply this attack? Should there be a bonus to-hit, possibly from the density effect (less space for the incoming attacker to dodge to the side)? Should a non-fatal hit stop the attacker's forward progress, foiling their attack (really of minor effect, granted the low hit frequency)?

And other concerns quickly arise: Once one attacker rushes in (possibly being felled from the pikes), can other attackers follow in behind, during the same round? Do defenders get multiple interrupting attacks per round, or just one (as is explicit in 3E)? Do pikes drop victims on the ground, or hold them skewered upright (possibly blocking follow-up attackers)? Does a big pile of bodies develop, creating cover?

In my experiments, what I've found is that without some radical modifications to the base D&D rules, in most cases the result is routinely this -- a huge rush of attackers come towards the pikes, a significant number are struck down, but inevitably the attackers are in hand-to-hand combat with the pikes at the end of the very first round.

Open Questions
  1. How many ranks of pikemen can strike offensively (vary by target size)?
  2. How many ranks of pikemen can strike defensively (vary by target size)?
  3. How many ranks of pikemen can "set" for double damage?
  4. Do we allow an attack by pikes to "interrupt" the movement action of an opponent (even by a pikeman not individually the target of the attacker)?
  5. Can pike "interrupt attack" any number of attackers during a turn, or are they limited (say, to 1 as in 3E)?
  6. When used against charging cavalry, can the pikemen all opt to strike against the riders? (Or is it 50/50 riders/horses? Or more likely against the horses?)
  7. Do pikemen get a "formation bonus" to hit defensively due to closely-packed spikes?
  8. Does a strike by a pike vs. an attacker end the attacker's move?
  9. Does a kill by a pike block other attackers moving through the same zone (either by piling up bodies or "skewering" upright)?
  10. Do we need to establish special rules to simulate the organization/formation requirements of properly using pike?
  11. Do we permit heterogeneous formations (pike & halberd, pike & crossbow, pike & shot, etc.)?
  12. If a man drops the pike to use sidearm sword, can he later pick the pike back up?
  13. Do pikes cancel the cavalry rider AC bonus?

(Note: This corrects the garbled draft post I made a week or so back. The first few comments are re-posts of comments made at that time.)


  1. Akhier the dragon hearted said...

    2. 2 with the shorter sized pikes up to 3 or 4 with the longer.

    3. I think the same as my last answer.

    4. This is the reason I would let number 3 be the same as number 2. I believe that it should stop movements and further more the attacks happen in order of closest to the front rank to farthest and when an attack hits the opponent stops dead and no more attacks happen.

    5. Limit it so that a pike can interrupt once but it only uses the interrupt if it actually lands.

    6. I would say no and make it more of a 75% or 66% of horse seeing as its the bigger target.

    7. Their bonus is that the people behind them can defend as well. If they have 3 rank deep formation they basically from the one direction get 3 defenders to a square. I would though give a slight bonus for a group that have trained extensively together.

    8. Of course if the archer is trying to go through the pike wall.

    9. Make the terrain there become increasingly more difficult to move through but not impossible.

    10. Not necessarily because the benefits as I said for number 7 they already get the bonus they want and besides the pikes stopping ability not much else is needed and again a bonus for any kind of formation that has trained extensively together would probably be in order. Just standing some people in rows and giving them pikes though should never give a bonus and should probably limit the number of ranks that could defend to 1 less then normal to a min of 1.

    11. What is the difference between a few ranks of pike with a formation of archers behind them to a formation of a few ranks of pike and a few ranks of archers?

    12. yes but he should take a turn or so to pick it up and set it again.

  2. JDJarvis said...

    1. I'd go with three ranks of pikemen.
    2 four ranks as they can pack in tighter.
    3. the first 4 can"set" for double damage?
    4. Yes, allow an attack by pikes to "interrupt" the movement action of an opponent (even by a pikeman not individually the target of the attacker)as a wall of long pointy steel is hard to ignore.
    5. the number of attackers during a turn that can be interrupted shoudl be limited but it should go up with the density of pikes.
    6. I'd go 50/50.
    7. no.
    8. If the pike wielder is trying to hold off the foe and they hit successfully they check the attackers movement.
    9. The first kill does not block following attackers?
    10. maybe.
    11. Permit heterogeneous formations but they can't have as many ranks.
    12. Only if foes are dead or withdrawn.
    13. Yes, they should as the size advantage is mitigated by the pike.

  3. 1d30 said...

    1.How many ranks of pikemen can strike offensively (vary by target size)?
    It all depends on how close the enemy gets. A pikeman in the front rank has maybe a 20' pike, which means it extends 15' ahead. The next row back has a pike that extends to 10' from the front because he's 5' farther back. The third rank attacks only creatures entering the square immediately adjacent the front rank, that is, range 5' from the front of the unit. So I'd say 3 ranks can attack, but the first rank attacks first and the next after it and so forth. Someone with a 15' lance (extending 10' from the horse, assuming the rider is in the front half) could be attacked by the first row of pikes, then there is some question of whether he attacks before the middle rank because they both have similar reach. And of course he would be able to attack only the front rank unless he charged in farther!

    In a fantasy setting, pikes farther to the rear may keep their pikes elevated to guard against jumpers and fliers.

    2.How many ranks of pikemen can strike defensively (vary by target size)?
    As above. I don't see a reason to change how many can reach the enemy.

    3.How many ranks of pikemen can "set" for double damage?

    4.Do we allow an attack by pikes to "interrupt" the movement action of an opponent (even by a pikeman not individually the target of the attacker)?
    Yes, but only on a held action (set vs. charge) where the enemy moves on his turn and it's not your turn. It makes no sense to halt an enemy's movement on YOUR turn, because the enemy doesn't move on your turn.

    5.Can pike "interrupt attack" any number of attackers during a turn, or are they limited (say, to 1 as in 3E)?
    He can interrupt one per attack he has held (that is, any held attack that he hits with will halt movement).

  4. 1d30 said...

    6.When used against charging cavalry, can the pikemen all opt to strike against the riders? (Or is it 50/50 riders/horses? Or more likely against the horses?)
    They choose. With a mass of men I would suggest a d10 roll to determine the number of 10% of the pike attacks that hit horses. Trained pikemen can modify that roll by one point per level one way or the other, as a mass of men.

    7.Do pikemen get a "formation bonus" to hit defensively due to closely-packed spikes?
    They should, but honestly I think the extra chances to hit make up for lack of it. SOMEONE will hit, right?

    8.Does a strike by a pike vs. an attacker end the attacker's move?
    Yes, as above earlier.

    9.Does a kill by a pike block other attackers moving through the same zone (either by piling up bodies or "skewering" upright)?
    No, unless you want to get complicated. In that case, a slain charging opponent either shatters or drags down the slaying pike so that pikeman must revert to a backup (roll item save to destroy, surviving pikes can be worked free in 1 round). In general, I like to say that 3 Meium bodies or a Large body takes up a whole 5' space, blocking it and providing cover.

    10.Do we need to establish special rules to simulate the organization/formation requirements of properly using pike?
    Probably. I think in a dungeon this is taken care of in the obvious difficulties of turning around with a 20' pike. A double-headed version sounds interesting to remedy this. In a unit we need turning rules anyway, and pikemen should conform. Open-formation pikemen should be less effective as per rules for other open-formation units.

    11.Do we permit heterogeneous formations (pike & halberd, pike & crossbow, pike & shot, etc.)?
    Heck yes. A "switch-forward" maneuver for when the pikemen have broken many of their pikes, or rear defense by swordsmen, can be taken care of by separating them into different units. But I see no reason not to have some crossbowmen in the rear half of the pike unit. Remember that the unit can only be so large based on command radius or arbitrary unit size limit, and in a pike attack the crossbowmen wouldn't be able to fire over the pikemen's heads.

    12.If a man drops the pike to use sidearm sword, can he later pick the pike back up?
    Yes, if the unit hasn't moved. I'd put a "down pike" counter next to each unit of pikes. If the unit moves, remove all down pike counters. Assume they are trampled in the general melee if the pikemen move away.

    13.Do pikes cancel the cavalry rider AC bonus?
    Pike use should cancel all cavalry benefits. Any height benefit is lost, as is distraction by the horse. The mass and speed are used against them because the pike reverses it.

  5. I used to play pikes with a couple of house rules. We played on a 5' square grid so any reference to squares is 5'. Pikes could attack 2 or 3 squares out but not the square in front of them. Pikemen could stand 2 to a square instead of the normal 1, but could only move 1 square per turn while in this formation. Standard dungeon corrior formation for pike units was a sword and shield man up front backed two rows of two pike men. This gave 5 attacks on the monster (or PCs) in front of the sword and shield man. My character used to carry a folding pike 15' long which broke down in 5' section. Much easier to schep through 10' tall corridors, and just perfect for touching things you wouldn't touch with a 10' pole.

    P.S. for those of you playing the edition which must not be named throw in threatening reach 3 on top of the other rules.

  6. Generally, I think skirmish scale shouldn’t bother with pike rules. Those are best left to a higher scale, which you should switch to when appropriate.

    That said, though, it seems to me that the dungeon environment actually would provide opportunities for good use of pikes. It seems like choke points, such as narrow corridors, would be even more favorable to the pike than a phalanx. Though I haven’t decided on the best way to handle that.

    I also wonder a lot about the practice of allowing dungeoneers in a second rank to make attacks past the front rank with pole weapons. I guess I can see pikes getting an initial attack as the foes close. It seems like shorter pole weapons, though, wouldn’t have an easy time with it. And in any case, once melee is engaged, it seems like the second rank would have a hard time attacking and would hinder the efforts of the front rank combatants if they did.

  7. You've done a great job outlining the various things to consider when adding Pikes to a game! The only thing I've read about Pikes that you didn't cover was how en masse they can provide cover to troops formations behind vertical pikes from archers.

    D&D combat has it's strengths and weaknesses. The strength is that the basic version is easy for people to grasp and can be resolved fairly quickly. The weak points are that it's based on naval combat and doesn't model medieval combat very well except in a very abstract way. The more detail you try to add, the more obvious it wasn't built for this. The more complexity you add the more you take away from it's one strength as well. So the ideal is little added complexity for more "realism" in the combat system.

    I haven't read anything to suggest that heavy armour effectively countered a Pike formation, I imagine that since even if the Pikes didn't puncture heavy plate they would still stop the advance. So I don't think prevent attackers getting past the pikes based on to-hit rolls (which are based on Armor Class) works. If you were doing that you might consider AC9 (or 8 since a shield *would* make a difference) to determine whether or not the attacker is stopped and their actual AC to determine whether they lose hit points. That's starting to feel a bit cumbersome though… so what about something simple like:

    * You can't advance into a Pike formation unless they are on uneven ground or the Pikemen lose a Morale check.
    * If the Pike formation becomes disorderly (see above) you can make a saving throw vs Petrification to move past the Pikes.
    * * If you fail your save you lose your attack for the round and they can all attack you.
    * * If you make your save they can't attack you with their Pikes anymore for this melee.

  8. I haven't answered all of your questions yet, because some may require more thought, or may refer to a level of detail in mass combat I just don't care about. But I gave a little thought to the phalanx some time ago, and later expanded *and* simplified those ideas into a "semi-mass combat" system. As far as ranks go, I just figured I'd make a call based on weapon length, but otherwise keep the answers to your first three open questions the same. I figure it's usually 3 or 4 ranks.

    For simulating group maneuvers, I'd use the d6 roll mentioned in the command control section of the naval melee rules in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures: 4 or less means the men hear the commander's orders. So, for a pike square, each group maneuver requires a d6 roll of 4 or less to complete the maneuver; a 5 or 6 means the square has become disorganized and needs to take a turn to regroup.

  9. Oh, and expanding on that "command control" idea and using the Liber Zero situation roll mechanics I derived from that and similar d6 rolls in the LBBs, I guess I'd only let an opposing force move into/overrrun a pike square if they rolled a 2 or less, with a +1 difficulty added to the roll for every rank of the pike square *if* they make a defensive maneuver.

  10. Dammit! I thought this post was going to be about pikes in basic (i.e B/X) D&D! Shoot!

  11. Hey JB -- Sorry for the confusion; it's true my "basic D&D" articles refer to core concepts shared by different editions of classic D&D. :)

  12. Stuart, you've got some good points there. I have seen the idea that the raised-pike formation helps scatter arrows flying through the airspace (I couldn't figure how to work that into the blog post, nor how much I want to adjudicate that in D&D play). Interesting comment that D&D fights are "based on naval combat"!

    As far as "heavy armor" goes, the primary thing I see in the source material is how much difference a shield makes. (Stuff like Oman p. 109, "... it is certain that when a light shield is added to the swordsman's equipment, he at once obtains the ascendancy. The buckler serves to turn aside the spear point...") Many would probably agree that shields are under-valued in D&D -- but I don't have the desire to redefine the whole AC category system.

  13. Oh, and personally I agree with the consensus that about 3 ranks attacking with pikes is about right. For a lot of reasons more than that would seem questionable: such as (a) continuity with classic D&D/BS, (b) how exactly would all those arms and poles fit in a restricted space, (c) some number would be aimed higher up, possibly hitting riders but not footmen, (d) simple mechanical desire to avoid rolling too many dice.