Friday, October 18, 2019

Friday Figures: Testing 5-foot Squares


A couple weeks back, a few different people (thank you!) sent me the link to the Dutch martial-arts HEMA group HVN's testing of combat with swords and daggers in current D&D-canonical 5-foot wide squares.

Very cool stuff, so glad they could share this with us. The main critique they have coming away from the test is that the squares are kind of a bit on the small side -- they find themselves standing mostly on the back end of the squares, and say that there isn't enough room to use the swords in thrusting style (so: cutting and hewing only).

And that's an interesting take, because my question for many years has mostly been whether the 5-foot size is maybe too large to be realistic. (Whenever I find myself on a tiled floor I look around and gauge whether 5 feet seems like a reasonable for combat space or not.) That's probably some bias resulting from Gygax's assertion that 3 fighting men per 10 feet should be the default (OD&D Vol-2 p. 12, AD&D 1E DMG p. 10). Really comforting to know that the 5-foot size is within the bounds of reasonability.

Videos on HVN's Imgur page here.


Don't forget: Live chat this Sunday on Wandering DMs: Paul & I have special guest D.H. Boggs, applied researcher in RPG history, on the show to discuss Blackmoor, Dave Arneson's play style, mechanics visible and hidden from players and other Twin Cities topics! 1 PM ET. 

 

20 comments:

  1. I want to say Gygax's three men per ten feet is a "close order" situation, like how the Greek phalanxes or Roman legions would fight, using spears and short swords with shields overlapping, whereas what we usually picture in heroic fantasy is more of a free-wheeling one-on-one sort of duel.

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    1. Yeah, I agree, I think that's part of it. The fact that the 5' spacing is also better synchs with miniatures in use tells me they really missed something at the outset.

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    2. I've just finished reading "Gladius: The Roman Short Sword" by M.C. Bishop, and it says that the conception of Roman fighting as being a close-order thing is something that doesn't match up with period sources. Apparently, Romans would approach combat in close order, but when they entered the fight they would sort of stand apart, to a distance of 3 feet from each other. Here's a period description that's quoted in that book:

      "Now in the case of the Romans also each soldier with his arms occupies a space of three feet [89cm] in breadth, but as in their mode of fighting each man must move separately, as he has to cover his person with his long shield, turning to meet each expected blow, and as he uses his sword both for cutting and thrusting it is obvious that a looser order is required, and each man must be at a distance of at least three feet from the man next him in the same rank and those in front of and behind him, if they are to be of proper use. (Polybius 18.30.6–8)"

      So, if Polybius was a D&D player, he'd not be able to fit 3 Romans in ten feet in terms of how they actually fought.

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    3. Thanks for that, very interesting. The other thing I note is the "he uses his sword for both cutting and thrusting". I was just watching a video where a professor and movie arms maker both rip apart Gladiator for showing slashing cuts, which they claim is impossible because the gladius didn't have a cutting edge, which I found really hard to believe. https://youtu.be/awioL9P8RPw?t=6m44s

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    4. I mean they're professors and maybe they know something I don't, because I've read just one book on this subject. [I do study military history for a graduate degree, but a totally different period.] Bishop - whose book I have open on my other screen - quotes a variety of sources and suggests that training in the Roman ranks focused on cutting or thrusting differently in different eras. However, the gladius was always capable of cutting in terms of the fact that the edges were sharp, and there's archaeological finds of bodies that have been quite viciously chopped up with it.

      "Whether the gladius was a stabbing or a cutting weapon is therefore probably far too binary a way of reviewing the matter. The short sword could always, from its first adoption right through to its abandonment in favour of the spatha, be used to both cut and stab. Over time, preferences, fashions and even training may have shifted the emphasis one way or the other within (and outside) the Roman Army, but the fact remained: the gladius was as good at stabbing as it was at chopping."

      "Excavations at the Spanish sites of Cerro de la Cruz (150–125 BC) and Valencia (75 BC) have borne out
      Livy’s account, with skeletons at both sites showing clear evidence of the brutal attacks to which the victims had been subjected, including limbs hacked off. They are all-too-obviously evidence of the sword having been
      used for cutting blows."

      Now, there's been some controversy - even in Roman times - on whether using the gladius to strike with the edge is a good idea in terms of training and practicality, and Romans apparently did often tend to recommend thrusting over cutting, but it wasn't impossible to cut with the sword, and sometimes people did cut with it. It seems to me - and again I'm not an expert in Ancient Roman stuff - that the fact that there are numerous period sources that describe cutting, that the swords come sharpened along their edges, and combined with the fact we literally have skeletons of folks who have been cut (probably) with those swords, suggests that it was at least possible to cut with them.

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    5. I think I am understanding the video differently - they're saying it's primarily a stabbing sword, and as a soldier he would have trained primarily to stab (possibly differently from how gladiators might have trained). This might be true, depending on the era.

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    6. Thanks so much for Bishop quote, I think those are invaluable!

      I think with the video I'm responding to the multiple times they refer to the gladius as not sharp. At 9:25 they say that a slashing decapitation wouldn't be possible: "First of all, the gladius was probably not sharp enough to actually be able to do that".

      As a side note, I'm reminded of some time I read about Napoleanic efforts to train officers to stab with their swords and finding that no matter how much they trained, in the heat of battle the instinct to slash with them would take over anyway (wish I could track down where I saw or heard that).

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  2. As I noted a while back, inspired by HEMA-inspired blog Spells and Steel, it may be most realistic for swords' length combat to take place with a 5' distance in between squares.

    http://rolesrules.blogspot.com/2013/06/blog-shout-out-spells-and-steel.html

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  3. 5' squares feels like one of those compromise situations.
    The videos show that it is likely too small a space to fight with swords, but seems really large for other fighting arrangments or compared to the size of a miniature.
    Do we take the 5' square to be an absolute location? Or should we think of it more as an abstraction, that the character/ figure's actions will center around that space?
    Plus, how much big swinging can you do when you factor in the theoretical dungeon walls and low ceilings?
    I always thought a 5' square was too big and would like to have seen 1yard/meter become the standard, but after seeing these videos, I will take 5' as "good enough" to get the job done.

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    1. Great observations, and I'm right in the same camp at this point.

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  4. This suggests AD&D's 10' melee range with "quantum" positioning within that space was the right call

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    1. It was. Realistically up to 20' is just heartbeats away for melee combat.

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    2. I'm compelled to point out that the rule in AD&D was actually that each person/figure took up 3⅓ feet of space (AD&D DMG p. 10) -- consistent with the OD&D 3-abreast in 10' rule.

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    3. Dan: I think the rule Trent is referring to is from the AD&D PHB section on surprise.

      "Distance of 10' or less can usually be closed and an attack made in 1 segment."

      And again in the DMG section on closing to striking distance.

      "This action is typically taken when the opponent is over 1" distant but not a long distance away."

      Both implying that if the opponent is 10' or less distant, that is considered to be melee attack range. I might be forgetting other references, either more or less explicit, as well.

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    4. Great point. Thanks for reminding me about that!

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  5. Interestingly, the rod or perch (unit of length) is 16 and a half feet long. It was named after a weapon of the same length. If we assume that a wielder kept about one third of the perch behind his forward hand for leverage and as a counterweight, the reach of the perch extends roughly ten foot past that, compatible with the distances given here. On the other hand, a perch is far too long to use effectively against a target that's only five feet away. I've known that for a while, though I'm surprised to see that the same thing might be true of fighting with swords as well.

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    1. Oh geez, I love that. Do you have a reference for that use of rod/perch as a weapon? I've never heard that before and now I really want to know more.

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    2. That's odd - what I learned was that the perch was carried forward from an ancient Roman measure, and various regions had their own customary perches which might be 15 feet or 21 feet or whatever. Then the rod was introduced by statute in medieval England to replace the various perches with a single standardized unit. I had never heard of an association with a weapon, but Wikipedia claims that when pike lengths were standardized (presumably for the English or Scottish since it's an Imperial unit) they were set at one rod.

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