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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.

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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Supporter
The upshot of the system is that character's DON'T do the same damage no matter what weapon they use.

Correction: The upshot is that some characters may, depending on situation, have more opportunities to do damage.

Because, let's face it, generally speaking, the "swordsman running 400 yards over open terrain while the gunner plugs away at them" is a boogeyman that doesn't happen in practice with enough frequency to be a meaningful issue. RPGS are small-group tactical combat, often with lines of sight severely restricted, because large open fields don't make the scenario particularly entertaining.

If I recall correctly, the game in question worked in "zones", and the ability for anyone to hit things decreased rapidly with the number of zones of separation. A guy just standing there with a gun was unlikely to hit you. An opponent who had set up with all the appropriate aspects to tag to make a sniper shot (like, Hidden, with Good SIght Lines, and a Sniper Rifle with Scope) could be dangerous, but that's expensive to make in terms of in-game resources - and useless if the target didn't come via the right route.

In practice, then - combat was with things in your own zone with occasional shots into the next for ranged attackers. The dude with the gun cold hit at range, but probably found the weapon useless or destroyed if they tried to use it for defense when the melee character got to them. Rifles don't like being chopped in half much.
 

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Celebrim

Legend
Because, let's face it, generally speaking, the "swordsman running 400 yards over open terrain while the gunner plugs away at them" is a boogeyman that doesn't happen in practice with enough frequency to be a meaningful issue. RPGS are small-group tactical combat, often with lines of sight severely restricted, because large open fields don't make the scenario particularly entertaining.

If I recall correctly, the game in question worked in "zones", and the ability for anyone to hit things decreased rapidly with the number of zones of separation. A guy just standing there with a gun was unlikely to hit you. An opponent who had set up with all the appropriate aspects to tag to make a sniper shot (like, Hidden, with Good SIght Lines, and a Sniper Rifle with Scope) could be dangerous, but that's expensive to make in terms of in-game resources - and useless if the target didn't come via the right route.

Which gets right back on topic with lew's post and my response to it - RPGs typically rout around the problem of Lanchester's Laws by unconsciously or consciously constructing the game such that the long lines of sight that are normal in reality are non-existent in the game world, thereby creating parity between melee and missile weapons that generally doesn't match reality. They do this in fact even in cases where the rules don't punish a player for using cover, concealment, and a ranged weapon, much less in cases like FATE that you are talking about.

In practice, then - combat was with things in your own zone with occasional shots into the next for ranged attackers. The dude with the gun cold hit at range, but probably found the weapon useless or destroyed if they tried to use it for defense when the melee character got to them. Rifles don't like being chopped in half much.

Except historical experience tells us that a rifle or shotgun with a bayonet on it, being essentially a short but effective pole arm, tends to out perform a sword in close combat and the only reason that they stopped issuing bayonets (and bayonet lugged combat shotguns for that matter) is that experience showed that the number of times the enemy was actually able to close into hand to hand combat successfully was so low as to hardly be worth worrying about. Even in close combat the majority of casualties turned out to be from bullets, and the major impact of that bit of sharpened steel tended to be psychological. And in cases where it was no deterrence, say last ditch charges by Japanese Samurai during WWII, there was still far more shooting the enemy at point blank range than parrying and stabbing with the bayonet effective though that proved to be when needed. Rifles are extraordinarily hard to chop in half, even for a berserk Samurai with a katana.

And the Claymore mine pretty much ended the human wave attack as a tactic.

So again, even by the FATE rules with an M1 Garand, I'm advantaged in pretty much all cases over just having a sword.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
So again, even by the FATE rules with an M1 Garand, I'm advantaged in pretty much all cases over just having a sword.

You are, and that advantage is using a different skill than the sword guy (usually) and being able to attack outside of your own zone (some weapons should probably allow two zones away). So, now you've attacked sword guy before he's in your zone, and you can still attack him in your zone next round. So, that's two attacks compared to his one attack. That is functionally the default advantage in FATE, which tends to operate on Action Movie Logic so beyond that there isn't an advantage per se.

I also don't think attritional combat is particularly effective at the small scale as described in the OP. Five combatants versus ten combatants with ranged weapons could very well be a toss up if the five are highly trained special forces types in the vein of the SAS or similar, while the ten are green troops or some kind of informal militia.

The five spec-ops are going to be better co-ordinated, have a much higher on target hit rate, and likely have better equipment. The ten untrained guys are going to have second rate equipment, minimal training in co-ordinating their tactics, and probably not have particularly good aim. All those five guys have to do is take five of the other guys out of the fight without taking any casualties themselves (which isn't unreasonable) and suddenly things are even on a man to man basis.

If we ramp that up to 25 vs 50, or 500 vs 1000 then attritional combat can start to work. In theory to make it equal man to man the 25 only have to cause one casualty each, but that means that none of the 25 can be a casualty in turn.
 
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Derren

Hero
Imo what affects the gun vs sword debate the most is the HP system a RPG uses. The more tank like characters are, the less sense do guns make. Thats why D20 Games have always struggled with them.

No matter the HP, melee combat generally stays the same. Two combatants meet, one stabs the other until he dies and the winner moves on. This generally stays the same with lots of HP, only that there are several cimbat rounds until one of them dies.

On the other hand, HP fundamentally alter the way ranged weapons/guns are used. The entire point of those weapons is to kill someone from far away, but except for maybe 1st level this win't happen. The enemy will always reach you unless you have a meat shield, you will always need several shots to kill one guy and you always need to plan around melee combat.

The more advanced the gun is, the more obvious this difference between "reality" (or what people expect from reality) and the game becomes.
If you want guns you need to throw away the HP system first.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
Imo what affects the gun vs sword debate the most is the HP system a RPG uses. The more tank like characters are, the less sense do guns make. Thats why D20 Games have always struggled with them.

No matter the HP, melee combat generally stays the same. Two combatants meet, one stabs the other until he dies and the winner moves on. This generally stays the same with lots of HP, only that there are several cimbat rounds until one of them dies.

On the other hand, HP fundamentally alter the way ranged weapons/guns are used. The entire point of those weapons is to kill someone from far away, but except for maybe 1st level this win't happen. The enemy will always reach you unless you have a meat shield, you will always need several shots to kill one guy and you always need to plan around melee combat.

The more advanced the gun is, the more obvious this difference between "reality" (or what people expect from reality) and the game becomes.
If you want guns you need to throw away the HP system first.

I think has to do with genre conventions, HP by itself works fine from the standpoint of a game. There are plenty of real people that have been shot dozens of times and kept fighting. If nothing else Badass of the Week should prove that.

From a genre standpoint if we're playing say spaghetti westerns or a Dirty Dozen kind of game when I shoot nameless black hat #37 or that stinking gestapo rat he falls over dead. When the El Gaucho Maximo or Oberstleutnant Frizt Krankelrauter shoots at my character I expect maybe to withstand a round or two of that. But, that's a genre convention rather than anything inherent to the way guns work.

That said, if we want to encourage certain behaviors in game, like hiding behind cover, and not running around in the open like crazy person, we can keep HP the way they are. We just have to add a few rules that encourage the players to do what we want, no critical hits while in cover, standing in the open gets a free shot from every enemy in range, all kinds of things can work and still use HP as they are.
 

Celebrim

Legend
If you want guns you need to throw away the HP system first.

I don't really think you do. However, I do think that the more you are dealing with something like a bullet, which flies too fast to be reacted to, the less easy it is to swallow the explanation that the character is dodging at the last minute and thus only being nicked by the attack. At some point if you mix guns and classic D&D style hit point system, it just feels like the hits should be more random and if more random then more lethal instead of concentrated around the edge of the target as they would be in D&D.

However, if hit points are small relative to the size of damage - as in say CoC potentially - then this problem goes away. One or two bullets is enough to drop or kill anyone most of the time, and people's sense that bullets should be more random and hit more solidly most of the time is not violated.
 

Morrus

Well, that was fun
Staff member
Imo what affects the gun vs sword debate the most is the HP system a RPG uses. The more tank like characters are, the less sense do guns make. Thats why D20 Games have always struggled with them.

No matter the HP, melee combat generally stays the same. Two combatants meet, one stabs the other until he dies and the winner moves on. This generally stays the same with lots of HP, only that there are several cimbat rounds until one of them dies.

On the other hand, HP fundamentally alter the way ranged weapons/guns are used. The entire point of those weapons is to kill someone from far away, but except for maybe 1st level this win't happen. The enemy will always reach you unless you have a meat shield, you will always need several shots to kill one guy and you always need to plan around melee combat.

The more advanced the gun is, the more obvious this difference between "reality" (or what people expect from reality) and the game becomes.
If you want guns you need to throw away the HP system first.

It makes no difference. Being stabbed with a sword or shot with a gun. Both involve metal entering your body and kiling you. Requiring that bullets hitting you kills you with one shot and swords stabbing you do not is peculiar, at best. The range is irrelevant to the hit points; it's merely revelant to the ease of delivering the damage.
 

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.
That's only true if the enemies are blind to the way that their world works. Otherwise, the first two Klingons get counter-stabbed, and the rest of them pull out their disruptors when they realize that melee is counter-productive.
 

Tony Vargas

Legend
I'm not sure where this aversion to kill idea comes from, exactly.
Empathy?

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.

I wonder if early D&D's outsized influence on the hobby hasn't had something to do with the issue. By the time I started in '80, it seemed like there was a clear narrative about guns being bad in D&D, with the corresponding expectation that they must be something terribly overpowered.

Could it have been that guns were originally considered 'bad' in D&D, merely for being anachronistic and contrary to genre, not overpowered? But, the general gaming community has a perception that guns to be 'realistically' put into D&D, must be wands o' insta-death?
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
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?

RPGs aren't necessarily narrative. They had a narrative streak to them but the wargame origins of D&D are pretty evident. Many modern games are much more explicitly narrative than D&D has really ever been and have game mechanical structures that support that. 5E has a few toes dipped in the water for that but only toes.


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

Unfortunately much of what we "know" about weapons comes from Hollywood tropes.


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.

In some cases we're talking genre boundaries. "Fantasy" stayed away from guns. I also think it's kind of challenging to balance realistic pre-modern firearms in an RPG, at least if one wants to enforce reloading time. While they were effective battlefield weapons for lots of reasons, they really weren't on a personal level. A musket was essentially a platoon-scale weapon (as indeed were most crossbows).
 

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