# 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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#### Imaculata

##### Hero
Interesting note, the Vietnameze often refer to the Vietnam War as the American War... and rightly so.

#### S'mon

##### Legend
Interesting note, the Vietnameze often refer to the Vietnam War as the American War... and rightly so.
Calling it the Vietnam War would only result in

"Er, which one?!"

Even 'War of National Liberation', well they fought (and won) quite a few!

#### Imaculata

##### Hero
When you get into so many wars, that you tend to name them after whichever country you attacked this time...

#### S'mon

##### Legend
When you get into so many wars, that you tend to name them after whichever country you attacked this time...
It's normal to name war after the enemy or the location, eg The Peloponnesian War (I'm sure the Spartans called it the Athenian War) or the Boer War (I'm sure the Boers called it the British War or similar).

##### Heretic of The Seventh Circle
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.
This is why damage isn’t based on weapons in my system. There is interplay between weapon types and armor types, but nearly all damage rolls are a simple 1d10.

#### S'mon

##### Legend
> 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. <<
Even this isn't really true - people are much more likely to survive being stabbed through the eye than being shot through the eye, especially by a high velocity round that will explode the brain.

#### Hussar

##### Legend
And, there's another point to remember. Instead of eye, let's use heart. It's REALLY hard to stab someone in the heart. All those pesky bones in the way and, even if you do manage to get between those, that heart is a very dense muscle. It takes a considerable amount of force to puncture a heart to the point where you kill someone.

Most people who get stabbed die of blood loss.

OTOH, if I'm using a high powered rifle, and I hit you dead center in the chest, I'm going to shatter your ribs, perforate the heart with the shards and probably blow a fairly large exit wound right out the other side. Sure, it doesn't throw you backwards, but, it will kill you PDQ.

Yes, you can cut someone's head off with a sword. It IS possible. Just incredibly difficult and, outside of ideal circumstances (as in an execution) virtually impossible. Again, a hit with a high powered rifle to the head or neck is likely going to be fatal unless treated in short order.

And, again, this is ignoring things like SF weapons where you have a beam weapon that comes with an AI auto aiming system capable of friend/foe recognition and reflexes that make humans seem like sloths. It's not like weapons get less effective over time.

#### S'mon

##### Legend
Really my takeaway is that melee weapons are much much much less immediately lethal IRL than in fiction; guns are only much less lethal.

Like Hussar says, nowadays death from stab wounds is mostly from blood loss and takes several minutes; indeed people often fight on a while before dropping. In Ye Olden Days the main killers were (a) infection and (b) post-battle execution.

#### Hussar

##### Legend
Moving away from the whole gun/sword thing for a moment, one of the bits that always kind of turns me off from SF gaming is when the technology of our futuristic setting isn't even as good as what we have now. Battletech, as much as I love it, is a prime example. Hrm, we're in the 30th century (or later), we have giant robots powered by cold fusion reactors, but, we're also firing dumb rockets? WTF? We have hand held guided missiles now and have had them for quite some time. Unguided missile systems? Weapons that are so inaccurate in the game that you might as well be using harsh language? It totally breaks my suspension of disbelief.

Put it another way. Life expectancy after contact for a modern tank crew is measured in seconds. There's a very, very good reason for that. You don't miss very often (laser guidance systems in modern tanks are very good) and typically the sabot round you're using to reach out and touch an enemy armored vehicle has a pretty close to flat trajectory and a velocity that is insane.

Add a thousand years of weapons development and I'm shooting dumb rockets and my battlemech has zero guidance systems? What do people think this is? Star Wars?

It really does jar me completely out of the game.

#### S'mon

##### Legend
A lot of tech has seen historical ups and downs - architecture and engineering are prime examples, but also mathematics and other sciences. However weapons tech is the one thing that pretty much always progresses, dark age or golden age alike!

#### Sacrosanct

##### Legend
Even this isn't really true - people are much more likely to survive being stabbed through the eye than being shot through the eye, especially by a high velocity round that will explode the brain.
Again, you seem to be doing what lots of people do in this conversation: hold a double standard when comparing guns vs melee. You compare being stabbed in the eye, but are comparing high velocity rounds that will explode in the brain (firstly, rounds don't explode. Closest thing is a frangible round, but that doesn't explode either, but breaks apart. ) If you're going to use high velocity rounds, then the equivalent melee is being stabbed in the eye with a two handed sword.

Regardless if it's a bullet, dagger, or sword, getting hit in the eye isn't fatal (we have a sitting congressman who lost an eye to an IED). If any of those enter your brain, you're chances of living are way down. One isn't worse than the other.

@Hussar , it's a bit disingenuous to say guns are more lethal because you get hit in the chest and your heart. firstly, because you need a pretty powerful round to do that, so again, you'd have to compare to a larger weapon like a battle axe or heavy sword (which to anyone who has ever watched Forged in Fire, are more than capable of penetrating the chest). Secondly, you're picking a highly selective area. By that logic, I can say swords are more deadly than guns, because many people have survived a direct shot in the throat by a gun (my great uncle was shot with by a 30-06 in the throat in a hunting accident and survived), but if you get a direct hit in the throat by a battle axe, your chances are survival are much less because if the bullet encounters little resistance, it does a pass through. An axe or sword blade does not.

Point being, is that there is no significant difference between a melee strike and bullet strike in general when comparing all weapons and all hit locations. Therefore, like @Morrus and I have been saying, there is no real compelling reason to have much higher damage ratings for guns than swords. Every argument so far to do that seems to hold on to that double standard above

#### S'mon

##### Legend
Again, you seem to be doing what lots of people do in this conversation: hold a double standard when comparing guns vs melee. You compare being stabbed in the eye, but are comparing high velocity rounds that will explode in the brain (firstly, rounds don't explode. Closest thing is a frangible round, but that doesn't explode either, but breaks apart. )
No, nothing to do with explosive rounds. The electrostatic shock from a high velocity rifle or MG round makes a brain-filled skull behave like a water bottle or tin can filled with beans - it explodes.

It is possible that a bullet goes in the eye and out through the temple and causes brain damage but is not fatal. But typically either it's a high velocity round that explodes the brain (or at least tumbles through with a fatal wound track & exit wound), or a low velocity round tumbles around in the brain cavity with equally fatal results. Low velocity pistol-caliber rounds hitting the skull from outside quite often deflect off non-fatally, though.

Low velocity impacts from swords, spikes, spears etc piercing the skull are quite different from bullets, they slide through the brain matter and they cause brain damage but are surprisingly often not fatal.

#### Morrus

##### Well, that was fun
Staff member
Low velocity impacts from swords, spikes, spears etc are quite different, they slide through the brain matter and they cause brain damage but are surprisingly often not fatal.
I have it on good authority that decapitations are 100% fatal. Swords are totally deadly. They're just harder to use.

#### Sacrosanct

##### Legend
No, nothing to do with explosive rounds. The electrostatic shock from a high velocity rifle or MG round makes a brain-filled skull behave like a water bottle or tin can filled with beans - it explodes.
No, they don't. I think you need to do some ballistics research. A high velocity round (I'm assuming you mean like 7.92 or 7.62 since you mentioned MG) will go through your skull completely. It will not bounce or explode. Low velocity rounds (like a .22) may bounce around. But not high velocity. I don't have my home PC here, or I'd show you a photo of penetrating power of various rounds when I did testing. A 5.56 round will go through 1/4" thick steel plate cleanly. It will not bounce in the skull. You're repeating these hollywood myths I'm taking about.

#### S'mon

##### Legend
I have it on good authority that decapitations are 100% fatal. Swords are totally deadly. They're just harder to use.
You said stabbed in the eye, not decapitated.

Slashing attacks can be either more or less deadly than piercing attacks. It depends on context.

Edit: Seen some amazing tales of railway workers walking around with iron spikes through their skulls from spiking machine accidents - skull punctured with a lot more force than any human could exert.

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#### S'mon

##### Legend
No, they don't. I think you need to do some ballistics research. A high velocity round (I'm assuming you mean like 7.92 or 7.62 since you mentioned MG) will go through your skull completely. It will not bounce or explode. I don't have my home PC here, or I'd show you a photo of penetrating power of various rounds when I did testing. A 5.56 round will go through 1/4" thick steel plate cleanly. It will not bounce in the skull. You're repeating these hollywood myths I'm taking about.
You must have misread me - I was talking about low velocity rounds like .22LR bouncing. I talked separately about what happens when a high velocity round hits a skull. It's the material in the skull cavity that is exploded by the hydrostatic shock, the bullet itself goes through (intact) and makes a big exit hole.

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##### Explorer
That distinguishes talking vs fighting, not swords vs guns.
It shows how you can use initiative to affect things. A better example is Call of Cthulhu - old editions had guns firing before melee or movement. Not sure about more current versions.

#### Sacrosanct

##### Legend
"Firearms should do way more damage because have you seen what a rifle round does to a watermelon?"
"Ever heard of Gallagher?"

#### Beleriphon

##### Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
<bunch of stuff that corrects my understanding>

—me, a veteran who used an A1 in basic, was issued an A2 for years, and have fired hundreds of thousands of rounds in dozens of weapons of both 5.56 and 7.62 caliber. (And others, like .50 cal, 9mm, .38, .40 cal, 40mm grenade, and others, but that’s a different topic)
I guess knowing really is half the battle.

#### billd91

##### Hobbit on Quest
Add a thousand years of weapons development and I'm shooting dumb rockets and my battlemech has zero guidance systems? What do people think this is? Star Wars?

It really does jar me completely out of the game.
Honestly? Your first mistake was even starting to think that mecha would be a good idea that wouldn't be dominated by something more compact and low-tech like a tank.

The point of the games isn't to really be technologically authentic - stylish is more the idea. Just like the debate between guns and swords in the first place. You set your style, genre, content, and rules follow from there.