Worlds of Design: Gun vs. Sword

Lanchester’s Power [Linear and Square] Laws mean that combat in science fiction RPGs will usually be fundamentally different than combat in fantasy RPGs. Or the designer will have to somehow compensate, as in Star Wars.

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Image by Andrea Wierer from Pixabay

F. W. Lanchester, a polymath, inventor, and co-founder of operations research (a subfield of applied mathematics), examined before and during World War I the effects of melee and firepower in attritional combat. This examination was part of Lanchester’s Power Laws. Here we’re discussing how these differences mean that combat in fantasy RPGs, as compared with science fiction RPGs, will usually be fundamentally different unless the designer somehow compensates, as in Star Wars.

Lanchester calculated that in attritional melee the strength of a force is proportional to its number, because there is no action at a distance (“Lanchester’s Linear Law”). It amounts to a 1 vs. 1 environment. In an era of firepower, where military units can act at a distance, the strength of a force in attritional combat is proportional to the square of its numbers. (Hence, “Lanchester’s Square Law.”)

For example, in a melee of 5 vs 10 (or 5,000 vs 10,000), in the time it takes the 5 to inflict one damage, the 10 will inflict two damage (or 1,000 and 2,000 damage). In a firepower situation, the 5 have a relative strength of 25, while the 10 have a relative strength of 100, or 1 to 4. So in the time it takes the 5 to inflict one damage, the 10 will inflict four.

Thinking in immediately practical terms, imagine a typical sword/axe/club melee in an RPG versus a typical pistol and rifle and grenade fight today, and more in a future of blasters. (Keep in mind, the monsters we often fight are also melee weapons, in effect.) Without the effects of fantasy superheroes, the melee is man-against-man, and even a great swordsman cannot dominate a big melee. In the fight of today or the future, a man with a ranged weapon, especially an automatic weapon or an explosive-projecting weapon, can kill dozens in a short time.

A designer of a science fiction RPG faces a problem; firepower-based combat must be very different from melee combat, and probably less satisfying for the players. What can the author/designer do to solve this problem plausibly?

Star Wars compensates for this with the Jedi and light sabers. An adequately trained Jedi with a light saber can block huge numbers of blaster bolts without fail (even though it’s physically impossible if three shots are on target at the same time). He/she can use their light saber to overcome opposing armor and other factors associated with advanced weapons technology, right down to cutting through steel bulkheads. The more or less artificial scarcity of light sabers assures that few soldiers have these advantages, quite apart from the Jedi’s Force powers. Of course, Star Wars Stormtroopers can’t hit the broad side of a barn, either, nor do they use automatic weapons and explosives much.

In many ways, you can think of melee vs firepower as the difference between knife fights and automatic/semi-automatic gunfights. The movie Starship Troopers just ignores tanks and aircraft in order to provide a more visceral melee-like experience as troops fight monsters at short range and hand-to-hand. “Let’s ignore our invulnerable stuff and only bring a knife to the knife fight.” Duh. I think of E. R. Burroughs’ Barsoom stories, where many melees took place in a land with very long-range rifles and explosive bullets, because of “honor” - it was dishonorable to escalate a swordfight to a gunfight. This is one way that an author or designer can compensate for firepower: just don’t use it (except for ship-to-ship combat).

Back to fantasy. What about archery? Standard archery is much closer to melee than firepower, owing to short range, slow action (crossbows), and ammunition limitations. When English longbowmen dominated battles in the Hundred Years War*, they used a weapon that could be fired rapidly by skilled archers, yet use a large supply of ammunition because England was mobilized to mass produce (and transport) arrows. After the development of muskets, longbows would still have been a better weapon given skilled archers and a massive supply of arrows; but musket ammunition was far more compact and easily produced, and it was far easier to train a man to fire a musket adequately, than to fire a longbow rapidly.

Where fantasy moves into the realms of firepower is magic-users using fireballs, lightning bolts, and similar area effect damage spells. Which may help us understand why spellcasters can be the “ace in the hole” and can dominate a battle. Dragon fire may have similar effects.

In other words, there’s rarely a pure melee or pure firepower skirmish situation in games. Yet the higher you move on the spectrum from tactical to strategic, the more Lanchester’s Linear and Square Laws take effect, even though his mathematics only applied to a specific kind of battle. I have simplified the specific circumstances of the Laws for this short piece. You can get more detail from the Wikipedia article cited above.

I’m sure readers can provide many other examples of ways authors and designers have returned science fiction skirmishes to melee parameters.

*Reference: Bernard Cornwell’s excellent historical novels about the battles of Crecy and Agincourt. The protagonist is an English longbowman.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

jedijon

Explorer
Not sold.

It’s a great topic. Why gun games aren’t sword games. These “laws” suggest that a fighter has to be able to act on all the other participants—range is a good criteria.

As said, arrows and magic have range.

It seems pretty clear that what we’re doing is giving everyone a turn. Not simulating a war.my turn with a pistol is intended to be similar to your turn with a flaming sword...

And really, in a narrative game, is it hard to see why blades vs bullets is a thing?

We’re primed to believe it takes several whacks with a sword to accomplish anything but a well placed bullet is the end.

I guess ultimately it’s more a reason bullets aren’t found in fantasy and every game where they are has some rad tech to keep the fantasy high so we’re not just going Nathan Drake on it.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
We’re primed to believe it takes several whacks with a sword to accomplish anything but a well placed bullet is the end.
I firmly believe that being stabbed through the eye with a rapier will kill me just as quick as a bullet will. The benefit of firearms is that they're quick and easy to use compared to a rapier. But both will kill you with a well-placed hit.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
Was hoping for some reference to the silly business in Warhammer 40k. My son keeps flipping through Visions of Heresy (the art book) and demanding "what's the point of all of these swords and axes?"

On a similar note, most games sidestep the incredible power of military formations, especially for melee purposes, because they would make mincemeat of small units like adventuring groups. The phalanx (for example) was hyper dominant in their terrain for ages because of this factor.

The data is sparser, but I believe there were big differences in wound/fatality rates during the battles when armies switched from largely melee/archery to guns as well (as opposed to mop up afterwards).
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
The data is sparser, but I believe there were big differences in wound/fatality rates during the battles when armies switched from largely melee/archery to guns as well (as opposed to mop up afterwards).
No expert myself, but in conversation with a fellow doing research for a book some years ago, he indicated that artillery (in particular gunpowder artillery) was the big turning point for both casualties and things like PTSD. Humans (at least Western/civilized*) appear to have an instinctive aversion to killing each other that show ups pretty quickly in military training research, but that aversion doesn't seem to kick in for artillerists and bombardiers. (especially true for those who cannot see their victims) Similarly, there's little in our instinctive arsenal to deal with being on the receiving end of massive explosions.

EDIT: *Not trying to be racist or anything, but we don't fully understand the relationship between this kind of attitude and growing up in a "civilized" environment vs. "primitive" environment...or even what particulars might cause such differences. There is some evidence to suggest that things work differently for people in those different circumstances....but its not well understood. Almost all of the military and psychological research in this area has been conducted in the Western or modern world so...this comment represents a limit to our understanding, not the humans in question.
 
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Celebrim

Legend
On a similar note, most games sidestep the incredible power of military formations, especially for melee purposes, because they would make mincemeat of small units like adventuring groups. The phalanx (for example) was hyper dominant in their terrain for ages because of this factor.
In a game like D&D, you can apply rules like shield walls and formations in depth (forming for example a phalanx) to give low level humanoid opponents a bit of ability to stand up to higher level groups at about the time they would otherwise start to be easily slaughtered. However, there is some limit to this, because at about that same time, those same groups start to get abilities like 'fireball' and even if you give formations in a shield wall some protection from attacks of that sort it's still likely that low level humanoids in close formation will at minimum take significant casualties and have that formation disrupted by a fireball.

One thing I've noticed over the years about dungeon design is it almost invariably exists to give the PC party a vast advantage over their foes. Most dungeons you'll see are anti-fortresses designed to make it impossible for the inhabitants to defend themselves from the attacks of a small group of commandos such as the PCs, and in the context of the article to overturn Lanchester's Power Laws. Specifically, dungeons are designed to make reinforcement difficult, to allow large forces to be defeated in detail by spreading out defending forces piecemeal, to make retreat by an attacking force easy, and to force all engagements to occur at close range such that generally melee can be reached in the first moment of battle.

The most egregious examples for me are Gygax's 'Giants' series, where the PC's have basically no chance of winning except for the fact that their foes occupy anti-fortresses designed to render them vulnerable. Where these giants only to keep a good watch and sally forth to meet their foes, the PC's would have no chance against the massed might of boulder throwing giants. Instead, the logic of the anti-fortress is that it is easily infiltrated, that reinforcements don't readily occur, and that the defending forces are divided up into bite sized morsels that can be readily destroyed. There are lots of things on the maps of this sort listed as 'guard rooms', but they are more like anti-guard rooms.

Most players and PC's I think seldom have to experience Lanchester's power laws, because I think encounters with masses of missile armed foes at greater than melee range are rare to nonexistent.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Humans (at least Western/civilized) have an instinctive aversion to killing each other that show ups pretty quickly in military training research, but that aversion doesn't seem to kick in for artillerists and bombardiers. (especially true for those who cannot see their victims) Similarly, there's little in our instinctive arsenal to deal with being on the receiving end of massive explosions.
SLA Marshall's work is highly controversial in part because no evidence exists that the raw data his book was supposedly based on actually exists. He has records of interviewing soldiers for example, but no records of asking questions that could be used to back his claims regarding the reluctance of soldiers to fire their weapon in anger, much less the answers to those questions. Much of the research purporting to show this instinctive aversion has similar problems, and the whole idea seems to fly in the face of the historical record which is filled with massacres of many sorts. So the question then becomes is there an aversion to killing that may or may not be cultural, or is there a cultural aversion to believing that we are the sort of species that enjoys or at least has little instinctive aversion to committing homicide.

For my part, I think Marshall and the like completely misinterpret the data. Humans don't have a particular aversion to homicide, but they do have a deep and instinctive aversion to facing violence directed against them. What Marshall interprets as a fear of killing is in fact a fear of being exposed to death. Soldiers fail to effectively engage the enemy because they fear being engaged in response. This theory - unlike Marshall's - fits the larger data with respect to human warfare. IMO, in its natural state, human warfare consists of three phases which are observable not only in all human warfare, but in warfare engaged in by our close relatives the chimps and the bonobos.

Those phases are the meeting phase, where the two sides take stock of each other and make relatively ineffectual threats toward each other at long range. In all stone age warfare this tends to consist of chanting, singing, yelling threats, and tossing spears at each other at beyond their effective range. The purpose of the meeting phase is primarily to work the combatants up into an emotional state where they can overcome their fear. The second phase is the charge, where one or both sides partially overcome their fear and then attack more closely. In this phase, only a small percentage of combatants on both sides have truly overcome their fear. Most are still terrified into relative inaction, but out of fear of appearing shameful to the comrades that they can see attacking, advance ineffectually toward the enemy. Finally, the third phase of battle is the slaughter where most of the killing actually takes place. The slaughter occurs when one side or the other loses its nerve, and attempts to disengage from the battle. This exhilarates the side which hasn't lost its nerve and at the same time reduces the ability of the now losing side to resist. With most of the danger now removed from the equation, the side that perceives it is winning now joins the attack altogether and the participants freed from their fear, now experience a surge of pleasure at killing their hated enemy, relishing in the slaughter in ways that will seem very bizarre and uncomfortable - especially to people who've been told that humans have an instinctive reluctance to kill.

Professional training from antiquity to the present day is all about overcoming and manipulating the behavior of your fighting force so that it can both skip that meeting phase and go straight to the charge and thereby attempt to demoralize a less disciplined force, and otherwise manipulate the opposing force with advanced tactics like feigned retreats that cause opponents to lose their discipline.

Artillery enters into this only in the sense that unlike a hand thrown spear which has limited range and can be seen coming and dodged, artillery in the meeting phase really is extremely effective and lethal. The US military for example attempts to manipulate the simian battlespace by pinning a less disciplined opponent mentally into the meeting phase, and then having done so bringing overwhelming force against the static positions of the enemy.
 
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Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
For my part, I think Marshall and the like completely misinterpret the data. Humans don't have a particular aversion to homicide, but they do have a deep and instinctive aversion to facing violence directed against them. What Marshall interprets as a fear of killing is in fact a fear of being exposed to death.
An ancedotal bit - I was talking to a not-closely related relative at a family gathering who was in the armed forces at the time and had been deployed overseas. He mentioned that boot camp teaches them how to attack, but doesn't teach them how to kill people. That not being able to pull the trigger and kill a human in their sights was a big problem.

Take it for what it's worth, but it's the only bit I've personally experienced one either side of the question.
 

Imaculata

Adventurer
A designer of a science fiction RPG faces a problem; firepower-based combat must be very different from melee combat, and probably less satisfying for the players.
I don't accept this whole premise. Why would it need to be very different? And why must it probably be less satisfying for the players?

I don't see much of a difference at all between melee weapons versus guns in an RPG. The only minor difference I see, is in battle tactics (taking cover and reloading becomes more important) and damage (presuming guns do a lot more damage than swords, which need not even be the case).

I also find it strange to mention Star Wars as a possible solution to what ever design issue you are suggesting exists here. Star Wars and its jedi are a system that is fundamentally broken for an RPG. Because jedi are supposed to be rare, yet they are also very powerful. So you are going to run into the 'all jedi or no jedi' problem. Any player who plays a jedi is going to be way more powerful than any of the other players who are not playing jedi. Such a power difference between pc's is simply not desirable in any RPG in my opinion, so you either run the game with every player playing a jedi, or you have no jedi at all. You also run into this issue with confrontations between Sith and the players. Good luck trying to stage an epic fight between a jedi and a Sith, because nothing is stopping the non-jedi players from simply focusing all their blaster fire on the one Sith that is so eager to have a one-on-one lightsaber fight.

In my experience with running a 3.5 pirate campaign, and playing in a D20 scifi campaign, battles that involve guns are MORE exciting than classic D&D melee fights, not less. There are higher damage numbers, so combat is more deadly, and there is more focus on positioning, cover, line of sight, visibility and reload time. Throw in a truck load of scifi gadgets, such as personal forcefields, EMP grenades, sniping, and homing ammunition that fires around a corner, and you have combat that is way more exciting than any standard melee in D&D.
 
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John Dallman

Explorer
I got interested enough to buy and read Marshall's Men Against Fire. It's a horrible book to base any planning or game design on because it is so muddled. It presents itself as being based on extensive research with clear results, yet it does not describe those results with any clarity. It has patches of what seem like good sense, sometimes on the same page as utter nonsense. I suspect that many of the people who were supposed to have read it gave up after a couple of chapters, and just generalised the ideas from the first part of the book.

In those first few chapters, Marshall describes one scenario clearly. I think this is the only time he does so. It's worth describing.

A green infantry company is making an unsupported frontal attack on an opponent who is well dug in and concealed. The company advances some distance, then comes under effective fire. The men go to ground, as they must. And then nobody takes charge. Nobody starts calling orders or asking questions; the troops are not given orders, reminders or any encouragement. About 25% use their weapons.

Actually, that seems a fairly good performance, under the circumstances, by the men but a terrible one by the NCOs and officers. I seem to be working across a cultural familiarity gap here, because Marshall explicitly says it is not the job of squad leaders to get their men organised.

Since they should be near their men, and know them well, it seems to me (and it's traditional British doctrine) that the NCOs, who have some experience, have the primary job under these circumstances of getting the men organised, encouraging the ones who are new to this and scared, and telling the ones who haven't figured it out where to shoot. With that done, the squad leader needs to shout to his platoon commander, with word of losses and what's being done.

But Marshall reckons the squad NCO should not be doing any of this, but should be concentrating on using his personal weapon. If that's the case, why has he been given his leadership position?

Marshall stresses the job of the company commander in getting all of these things to happen, while also worrying about his flanks and rear communications. He's not a superman. He can't control all of his men individually. He needs to use the chain of command. Yet Marshall seems to ignore this.

Marshall makes a kind of sense as a reaction to a problem that the US Army was suffering during WWII. Because it had been expanded so quickly, it had a serious shortage of NCOs who were experienced. New infantry units thus could not use NCO-based organisation, because the NCOs of the time weren't capable of doing that job. The culture of the US Army stressed confidence and its own superiority. It reckoned before Operation Torch that its newly-raised units were superior to experienced German ones.

Under those circumstances, the actual performance of the Army required an explanation. Telling the high command that it was a result of human nature would have been far more acceptable than acknowledging it was an effect of over-rapid expansion.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
I don't accept this whole premise. Why would it need to be very different? And why must it probably be less satisfying for the players?

I don't see much of a difference at all between melee weapons versus guns in an RPG. The only minor difference I see, is in battle tactics (taking cover and reloading becomes more important) and damage (presuming guns do a lot more damage than swords, which need not even be the case).
The design of combat space is pretty different and tends towards larger environments the more "modern" or "sci-fi" gear is available.

I think it is worth mentioning that designing dungeons that players find "fun" and motivating is pretty easy. See the anti-fortress discussion of Celebrim above. As DM Against the Giants bothers the hell out of me b/c it makes no sense. But my group of players had a great time.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
A designer of a science fiction RPG faces a problem; firepower-based combat must be very different from melee combat, and probably less satisfying for the players. What can the author/designer do to solve this problem plausibly?
Well it's a good thing @Morrus found his way into the thread. Insights, sir?

@Celebrim, that sounds spot-on. How does it apply to fantasy and sci-fi RPGs, though? ;)

The issue, though, sounds like a wargaming problem to me. I'm not going to keep track of any enemy NPCs in excess of twice the number of PCs (in a fantasy or sci-fi RPG). The excess NPCs just become setting/environment at that point.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Classic Traveller is very much war game "fire and movement" which does seem to be less than satisfying for many players. When they try to just charge into a situation, their character dies in a hail of gunfire, and often they don't understand why that happens. However, Marc W Miller is a Vietnam veteran, so I suppose he intended it that way, to be accurate for what people knew of combat in 1977.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Well it's a good thing @Morrus found his way into the thread. Insights, sir?
For me - and note D&D does not accomodate this well - for firearms and the like you need to incorporate cover, positioning, overwatches, and so on. Give it some elements of a chess game as combatants try to outmaneuver each other. I strongly dislike attempts to give firearms ridiculous amounts of damage; they shouldn't be much different from a sword. A solid hit from either will finish you in real life; in a game it'll probably graze you or whatever until the shot/blow which takes you down.

That's just my preference though. Other people will feel differently, which is fine.
 

DWChancellor

Kobold Enthusiast
A solid hit from either will finish you in real life; in a game it'll probably graze you or whatever until the shot/blow which takes you down.

That's just my preference though. Other people will feel differently, which is fine.
This gets to flavoring HP. Players always like the think of HP as literal "health" like the Doom guy's picture getting wounded as it runs out. Then you use bandages, and hey presto, no more bleeding wounds!

I'm with Morrus, I much prefer the 5E style of HP as "stamina" where you are running down and getting sloppier. A high level character is more alert, has better instincts, and superior situational awareness to avoid being genuinely injured. This is why you heal to full with resting.

Okay okay, some gamey-business going on, but it makes sense. It also makes balancing "damage" of modern weapons versus melee since it isn't the 1:1 physical effect of being bashed.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
I'm with Morrus, I much prefer the 5E style of HP as "stamina" where you are running down and getting sloppier. A high level character is more alert, has better instincts, and superior situational awareness to avoid being genuinely injured. This is why you heal to full with resting.

Okay okay, some gamey-business going on, but it makes sense. It also makes balancing "damage" of modern weapons versus melee since it isn't the 1:1 physical effect of being bashed.
That wasn't my position at all (not that I disagree).

What I meant was that being skewered with a sword through the eye doesn't do any less damage to you than being shot in the same place. Both are fatal. Getting beheaded with an axe is not less damaging than being shot in the leg with a revolver. The benefit of the gun is that it makes it much easier to deliver that damage.
 
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Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
An ancedotal bit - I was talking to a not-closely related relative at a family gathering who was in the armed forces at the time and had been deployed overseas. He mentioned that boot camp teaches them how to attack, but doesn't teach them how to kill people. That not being able to pull the trigger and kill a human in their sights was a big problem.

Take it for what it's worth, but it's the only bit I've personally experienced one either side of the question.
No offense to your relative, but they are mistaken. We were taught, extensively, how to kill. not just a focus on center mass with firearms, but even with unarmed combat training it was around disabling/killing your opponent as quickly as possible.

Also, on a related note, I'm not sure where this aversion to kill idea comes from, exactly. I mean, I can see it if you're shooting at someone who is just standing there and/or doesn't know you're shooting them. But in a firefight? I'm here to tell you there is no general hesitation to shoot back. In chaotic situations like that, you rely on training and muscle memory, and don't devote time to morality of what it means to shoot another person. Additionally, this aversion effect is probably lessened because you're also drilled to dehumanize your opponent. They aren't really people. They are the enemy, worth less than you. Not men or women, but any racist name you can think of; animals out to kill you first.


Well it's a good thing @Morrus found his way into the thread. Insights, sir?

@Celebrim, that sounds spot-on. How does it apply to fantasy and sci-fi RPGs, though? ;)

The issue, though, sounds like a wargaming problem to me. I'm not going to keep track of any enemy NPCs in excess of twice the number of PCs (in a fantasy or sci-fi RPG). The excess NPCs just become setting/environment at that point.
I'm not Morrus obviously, but I have designed several games, including sci-fi games. For games that are almost exclusively firearms (or derivative thereof), there are some changes I've done, but mostly to account for range and rof (affecting speed of combat rounds). I've done systems that have focused on more realistic scenarios to account for ballistics, etc, but I'll be honest. That overloads the system with formulas and math, and that's just not fun for most people. Therefore, IME, you can easily handle a sci fi system the same as you do a fantasy system.

As Morrus said upthread, there's this myth we have as gamers to make guns more lethal by comparison than swords, and that's not really as true as people assume. We look at what a 9mm FMJ round does to a clay block and compare that damage to the damage of driving a knife inside it and make that assumption. Fair, but a bit misplaced. There are people who have survived two dozen knife wounds, and people who have survived over a dozen bullet wounds. And there are people who died from one knife wound and people who have died from one bullet wound. There are so many factors, it's just easier to treat them pretty close to the same (just assign a reasonable damage value of the weapon).
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
As Morrus said upthread, there's this myth we have as gamers to make guns more lethal by comparison than swords, and that's not really as true as people assume. We look at what a 9mm FMJ round does to a clay block and compare that damage to the damage of driving a knife inside it and make that assumption. Fair, but a bit misplaced. There are people who have survived two dozen knife wounds, and people who have survived over a dozen bullet wounds. And there are people who died from one knife wound and people who have died from one bullet wound. There are so many factors, it's just easier to treat them pretty close to the same (just assign a reasonable damage value of the weapon).
Indeed. Anne Boleyn would argue it's pretty easy to die from one sword blow! :)
 

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