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.


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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio


No flips for you!
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.
That a leader of an infantry unit should be concentrating on using thier weapon directly contradicts army training field manuals and journal duscussions on military tactics during WWII. These clearly state that it's the exceptional situation where a leader -- officer, NCO, or private -- should be using their weapon rather than controlling the maneuver and fire of the unit.

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I give the name "Cobretti effect" to the broken balance power in the TTRPGs when the it becomes a survival horror or a "duck hunt" if there are firearms. In the movie Cobra Briditte Nielsen's character couldn't face the night slasher, but only to hide and run away, but Sylvester Stallone with weapons and ammo could kill all the cult of the new dawn.

This is a true headache to create the ultimate universal d20 system, and I could bet Hasbro wants a Modern 2.0. to play their franchises as Transformers or G.I.Joe.

I wonder about the solution may be a special system of XPs reward, like the monster templates, but for "extra help".


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

The issue behind Lancaster's Power Law is one of the reasons Sci-Fi RPGs occupy such a small niche in the RPG world,and those that are fairly familiar tend to be Science Fantasy where you have very traditional Fantasy tropes given a superficially far future veneer - say Star Wars, Warhammer 40k, or to even some extent Star Trek.

I've said it before, but it's very hard to do epic fantasy gaming in any setting where the technology of the setting strongly favors attack over defense. This precludes then settings where you have artillery, machine guns, or even really just rifles. Once you start bringing modern weaponry into the fray, and modern conceptions of battles you have to either willingly suspend a tremendous amount of disbelief, or else you have to accept that your character is and always will be a mook who can die randomly from some farmer or bandit with a musket whom he couldn't even look in the eye.

Take the hit point. I have always asserted along with Gygax, that the hit point is an abstract combination of resistance to wounds and some metaphysical resistance that allows you to avoid being seriously wounded. The hit point well mimics any sort of movie or story where the heroes get wounded, but the wounds they suffer are "just a flesh wound" and never seem to slow them down except momentarily. It is a narrative device that works well with a fortune in the middle mechanic where you can compare the damage taken to the sort of being that took it, and the hit point total of that creature, and describe the wound in a proportional manner. Hence, 10 damage to 10th level character is just a scratch, but potentially a deep or even fatal stab to a 1st level character. The difference in the wound size is explained by the 10th level characters ability to avoid such a wound (at the last moment) through something where the something isn't really important and can also be narrative constructed.

This works fine (famously) until you run into a situation that doesn't easily fit into Fortune in the Middle, but instead seems to fit into Fortune in the End, where we aren't trying to find out what happened in as FitM, but rather are trying to resolve what happened. The classic examples of this are falling 400' and immersion in acid. In both of these cases, we know already what happened and it would seem like we'd want the system to resolve the result of that - Fortune in the End. The person has already fallen, now tell me the damage. In a normal situation with a sword swing, you can wait to narrate how deeply the sword struck once you get a chance to compare damage to remaining hit points, and it's easy to make up something about how the cut was just a scratch or the blow was glancing or whatever. And if you do that, the rest of the system falls into place and is at least plausible. Against a sword, a guy could parry, block, or dodge and evade most of the blow. It feels reasonable for the more skillful hero to win those fights, because wielding a sword feels like one of those things where you could if you were good protect yourself from similar weapons.

Until you get to that falling damage problem. Not saying that there aren't ways around it, but the testimony to how problematic it is is just how often it has come up and how much wordage has been used trying to deal with it.

Well, a modern or sci-fi world where you have 155mm artillery, .50 caliber bullets, and assault rifles tends to produce those conceptually 'Fortune at the End' situations much much more often than fantasy. Grenade blows up 5 feet away, it feels like we need to resolve this and not find out what happens. You get shot by a guy with a submachine gun, it feels like we need to resolve this and not find out what happens. And so forth. And that does a lot to take away the hit point mechanic, and with it the wonderful ablative plot protection and character continuity that it provides.

Which means that you need a science fiction setting with powered battle armor and personal force screens to return to that world of armored knights that can shrug off or mostly shrug off attacks. And then you start having to deal with the other problems Sci-Fi gives you.

Some have suggested to do fire fights right you need to do suppression fire, cover, concealment, and all that sort of thing. But there are two huge problems with any attempt to do that. First, that suggests an attempt at realism, and the more you attempt realism the more Fortune at the End problems you are going to have where the expectation of resolution is that the PC just got their head blown off or their guts shredded or one of their legs just parted from their body at high velocity. And the other problem is that meeting engagements with modern weaponry often start at distances of 400-500 yards, so if you want to model them at a yard or 5' to the inch, you are going to find you need a battle mat the size of an empty two car garage or else do this all theater of the mind which means all your realism about terrain and cover is now a bit pointless.

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.

Frankly, my standard operating procedure is at least 2 enemy NPCs per PC. (I can go into why if you want.) But yes, that frequently can lead to a lot of die rolling.

The new Star Trek Adventures game has an interesting asymmetry to range vs. melee combat which is I think designed not to be realistic, but rather to justify genre expectations of a tv show where choreographed fights scenes were way cheaper to produce than animated raygun special effects. Ranged attacks follow the typical roll to hit, roll for damage paradigm. Melee attacks are opposed by the target, and if the target scores higher, then the attacker takes damage. So a really good melee combatant's opportunity to do damage is proportional to the number of attackers they face, whereas the ranged fighter can usually only shoot at one target a round.

The Doctor Who Adventures in Time & Space game addressed this problem pretty brilliantly with an initiative system that emulated what you see on the tv show. Talkers go first, followed by runners, then doers (push the red button) and then finally fighting/shooting.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
The Doctor Who Adventures in Time & Space game addressed this problem pretty brilliantly with an initiative system that emulated what you see on the tv show. Talkers go first, followed by runners, then doers (push the red button) and then finally fighting/shooting.
That distinguishes talking vs fighting, not swords vs guns.

And now the sci-fi has to add the fight with remote-control drones, and swarns of mini-drones. And lots of videogames are suggesting new ideas for shootings in a sci-fi game.

In fantasy TTRPGs there is a "race arms" between PCs and DM, tricks in the fight gunslingers vs spellcasters. A gun is powerful, but it can't work against some magic tricks, for example illusory magic for smoke walls, watering gunpowder, summoning swarns, or constructs as walking turret shields. Some DMs could create bulletproof monsters, not only undead, but also constructs, aberrations from the far realm, some oozes, or shapesifter feys (with regenation powers).

Usually the PCs are the gunfighters against unnarmed monsters, like the husks from Fortnite: save the world, but sometimes the PCs are primitive tribemen, like the ewoks from the return of the jedi, or the na`vi from Pandora in James Cameron's Avatar, being invaded by aliens with high-tech, like in "the war of the worlds". For gameplay effect the players aren't true fighters, but avoiding walking shooter traps.

This matter is worse in superheroes TTRPGs where some PCs are martial artists (Batman, Iron Fist, Daredevil...) but others are Rambo-clones (Punisher, Deadshot, Deathstorke, Red Hood...)


The Doctor Who Adventures in Time & Space game addressed this problem pretty brilliantly with an initiative system that emulated what you see on the tv show. Talkers go first, followed by runners, then doers (push the red button) and then finally fighting/shooting.

While that is a brilliant analysis of genre and excellent matching of mechanics to verisimilitude of setting, the ridiculousness of that initiative order is one of the reasons I've never been able to get into Doctor Who.


Mod Squad
Staff member
This matter is worse in superheroes TTRPGs where some PCs are martial artists (Batman, Iron Fist, Daredevil...) but others are Rambo-clones (Punisher, Deadshot, Deathstorke, Red Hood...)

Deathstorke - he brings a baby, and a long range sniper rifle.

In super hero stories things are easier - it is all super, so you don't have to worry about realism so much.

I recall a FATE variant or two in which the difference between a gun and a sword was only in the narrative, with no mechanical difference except in what you could reasonably assert you could do with it. The character did the same damage no matter what weapon they used.


I recall a FATE variant or two in which the difference between a gun and a sword was only in the narrative, with no mechanical difference except in what you could reasonably assert you could do with it. The character did the same damage no matter what weapon they used.

Yes, but if that is reasonable then a massive mechanical difference exists between a gun and a sword. I can reasonably assert that I can hit something from 400 yards away with a battle rifle or hunting rifle, and that I can attack at least a half dozen times in the time it requires for the guy with the sword to cover that distance. Likewise, if I have a M20 Bazooka, I can reasonably assert that I can destroy a light armored vehicle with it. But I can't reasonably assert that if I have only a sword. Or if i have a grenade, I can reasonably assert that I can attack everyone in a small room at once in a literal flash, but you would have a much harder time convincing me you could reasonably do that with a sword sans some sort of superpower.

The upshot of the system is that character's DON'T do the same damage no matter what weapon they use. Instead, they've left the differences up to GM fiat.

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