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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.

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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

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.
You did notice that the setting is a sort of Dark Ages? There was a technological pinnacle long before, but contemporary technology barely reached that of the 20th century (and it wasn't too consistent about it, either).

Really, it was a bit like old-school or 5e D&D with magic items and artifacts floating around that you couldn't make or buy yourself.

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?
Gundam, maybe? (I know BattleTech started as a RoboTech rip-off, but RoboTech was lousy with guided missiles, swarms of them crawling around the screen - kinda artsy, really.) There was a throwaway detail in Gundam, that everyone used some kind of exotic (Google: "Minovsky ") particle to bork guidance systems, so combat was all direct fire and HTH with mecha - except for the jedi-rip-off new-types who guided their weapons ('funnels') psionically. (more zealous fans of the anime can correct any mistakes I made there)

I guess that's an example of the convolutions sci-fi or science-fantasy can go through to work some excitement, drama, & heroism (and cool visuals) into combat, instead of just "firing Anihilizer at optimal range of 300 light-minutes... sensors indicate target reduced to free quarks... acquiring next target..." poof oops, it appears our heroes have been reduced to free quarks, themselves, episode 2 will introduce some new characters...
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
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.
Star Trek the original series is probably the most realistic: a big artillery system (spacecraft), and sidearms. Everything else, like tanks, will go away due to their logistical footprint being too large to justify their use. This is what happened to the horse, excellent all terrain mobility, but their supply chain from the farm to the battlefield is too large. Similar to the discussion of small arms, the various rifles and their calibers of ammunition; what gets lost in the conversation is the fact that militaries spend a thousand times the amount of money on the ammunition, rather than the weapons that fire them.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
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? :D

It really does jar me completely out of the game.

As I was reading your first sentence, my first thought was Battletech as well. But not for the same reasons (even though your reasons are perfectly sound). My big beef is robots in general. Legs? Are you serious? You're gonna build this giant and expensive robot of war and give it vulnerable things like legs?

But they are cool. Super cool. In a fantasy sci-fi game, I am all for suspense of disbelief if the concept is cool enough ;)
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Star Trek the original series is probably the most realistic: a big artillery system (spacecraft), and sidearms. Everything else, like tanks, will go away due to their logistical footprint being too large to justify their use. This is what happened to the horse, excellent all terrain mobility, but their supply chain from the farm to the battlefield is too large.
While I totally agree that logistics is a crucial driver of military choices, the horse lasted in transport and logistics through World War II. Really only the US and British armies were fully mechanized. Many German divisions were horse-drawn through the entire war. The last cavalry charge of the US Army happened in the Siege of Bataan. While they're portrayed as being idiots thanks to German propaganda, the Polish cavalry were effective during the German invasion, using the mobility provided by the horse but fighting as dismounted infantry. The Soviet army wasn't fully mechanized until the 1960s.

Similar to the discussion of small arms, the various rifles and their calibers of ammunition; what gets lost in the conversation is the fact that militaries spend a thousand times the amount of money on the ammunition, rather than the weapons that fire them.
This is very true. Many decisions are made due to supply chain issues (among other reasons) that have nothing to do with the weapon itself and there are numerous examples of this. It's a very overlooked issue in a lot of discussions.
 

Hussar

Legend
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.
Well, there is THAT. :D

But, when the technology is worse than modern day technology, and there's no real reason for it (it's not like they don't have computers), then it's painfully obvious.
 

Hussar

Legend
Star Trek the original series is probably the most realistic: a big artillery system (spacecraft), and sidearms. Everything else, like tanks, will go away due to their logistical footprint being too large to justify their use. This is what happened to the horse, excellent all terrain mobility, but their supply chain from the farm to the battlefield is too large. Similar to the discussion of small arms, the various rifles and their calibers of ammunition; what gets lost in the conversation is the fact that militaries spend a thousand times the amount of money on the ammunition, rather than the weapons that fire them.
Well, it's kind of interesting isn't it? TOS gets something of a pass because so many of the things we take for granted now weren't really invented then and the writers can't really be faulted for not thinking about it.

But, from today's perspective? Landing parties that wear absolutely no body armor of any kind? No drones? And, given the frequency of unarmed combat, you'd think they'd at the very least carry some kind of taser. :D

I always thought Andromeda, as schlockey as it was, was at least making a decent attempt to spackle over the holes. The ship has on board security measures like gun emplacements. The sensors are so good that the ship can detect the extra weight of a boarding party and locate them. Total control over gravity plating to immobilize intruders. On and on.
 

S'mon

Legend
Well, it's kind of interesting isn't it? TOS gets something of a pass because so many of the things we take for granted now weren't really invented then and the writers can't really be faulted for not thinking about it.
TOS Starfleet does have some stuff that got lost later, like mortars! For some reason TV/film SF tends to really dislike indirect-fire weapons.

Body armour - well in 1968 it hadn't seen much use in several hundred years, except for fixed-emplacement machinegunners. It seemed a reasonable assumption that offence would continue to outstrip defence. Logically the away teams should be wearing encounter suits vs wildlife & pathogens, but the phaser/disruptor tech makes armour of limited use vs peer competitors.
 

MGibster

Explorer
Well, there is THAT. :D

But, when the technology is worse than modern day technology, and there's no real reason for it (it's not like they don't have computers), then it's painfully obvious.
Sometimes I think that has to do with practicality more than anything else. For games like Battletech and even Warhammer 40k, many of the weapons have very limited range based on the scale of the map and the miniatures being used. In WH40k a Space Marine, who is roughly the size of a human, armed with a bolt rifle has a maximum range of 24" (I think) which would translate to less than 50 yards at scale. We all recognize that as a ridiculously short range for a rifle in real life. Battletech is in a similar boat. You can't have weapons with more realistic range without messing with the scale of the game. Either maps would have to get huge or the miniatures need to be much smaller.
 

Sacrosanct

Slayer of Keraptis
Well, it's kind of interesting isn't it? TOS gets something of a pass because so many of the things we take for granted now weren't really invented then and the writers can't really be faulted for not thinking about it.

But, from today's perspective? Landing parties that wear absolutely no body armor of any kind? No drones? And, given the frequency of unarmed combat, you'd think they'd at the very least carry some kind of taser. :D

I always thought Andromeda, as schlockey as it was, was at least making a decent attempt to spackle over the holes. The ship has on board security measures like gun emplacements. The sensors are so good that the ship can detect the extra weight of a boarding party and locate them. Total control over gravity plating to immobilize intruders. On and on.
Pretty much every sci-fi movie is like that though, right? Big panels of buttons and lights from oversized panels from the sixties, to small green text only terminal screens from the 70s to wireframe 3D images from the 80s, etc. current movies and TV always get really dated when rewatching in the future lol. At least the Star Wars had hologram chess...
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
But they are cool. Super cool. In a fantasy sci-fi game, I am all for suspense of disbelief if the concept is cool enough ;)
I've never been a fan of mecha so for me, "cool concept" has always been elusive. Weirdly, I don't mind things like that in fantasy and I do love me some clockpunk.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Well, there is THAT. :D

But, when the technology is worse than modern day technology, and there's no real reason for it (it's not like they don't have computers), then it's painfully obvious.
Well, yeah. So what? If the genre mix doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. If you're expecting something modeling reality rather than genre, you're going to be out of luck.

But I think you're also skating on another problem that comes up - when specialized player knowledge exceeds the game designers' or GM's knowledge. You see it a lot when a game includes something relatively abstract - like a weapon's qualities, AC, or even lumping every equine into a monster stat block called "Horse". Some player with a modicum of more specialized knowledge pipes up with "That's not realistic" and proposes house rules to model their understanding of reality and end up making it too hard to deal with and/or useless.
My favorite example of this was back in the 2e days when people circulated netbooks of house rule ideas. Someone with too many brain cycles on hand took what would be a fairly simple single proficiency, Heraldry, and blew it up in a multiple proficiency nightmare of specialization because they knew someone proficient in heraldry would have to have a foot in lots of other knowledges and skills and made the logical leap they needed to basically be fully proficient in each one. It was unwieldy and pointlessly nitpicky. The game was better served by a broader abstraction that allowed a character to have a useful bit of skill without forcing them to have dissertations in multiple fields (a bit like Profession skills in 3e/PF as well).

Yeah, based on your (and many other peoples') knowledge of technology, the game may be lagging. Does it really matter? If it does, don't play it. If you still want to play it, you have to acknowledge that abstractions in ways that support the style and genre make the game playable.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Sometimes I think that has to do with practicality more than anything else. <..> You can't have weapons with more realistic range without messing with the scale of the game. Either maps would have to get huge or the miniatures need to be much smaller.
4E had this with the range of weapons as well.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
TOS Starfleet does have some stuff that got lost later, like mortars! For some reason TV/film SF tends to really dislike indirect-fire weapons.
It doesn't film well I think.

Body armour - well in 1968 it hadn't seen much use in several hundred years, except for fixed-emplacement machinegunners.
Not totally. At that point helmets had been well-established in the military. Flak jackets were issued in both Korea and Vietnam and were widely used. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that it doesn't film well. A bunch of guys in green or tan helmets and body armor end up looking all the same. Think of how difficult the characters in a more realistically staged war movie like Black Hawk Down are.

This is why an armored suit type show would really need to have a clear distinguishing mark, like color or heraldry, or something, but even then, it denies the film some of the most emotionally relevant information, the facial expressions. A lot of sci fi computer games have the characters armored up, but often allow helmets to be off so you can tell which character is which. This is despite the fact that it's clearly more realistic to be helmeted.

It seemed a reasonable assumption that offence would continue to outstrip defence. Logically the away teams should be wearing encounter suits vs wildlife & pathogens, but the phaser/disruptor tech makes armour of limited use vs peer competitors.
The thing I always find unbelievable about away teams is the lack of environmental protection. Of course, a good armored spacesuit would be nice protection against both many physical threats (like good old fashioned getting banged up by falls and abrasions) and pathogens.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Well, it's kind of interesting isn't it? TOS gets something of a pass because so many of the things we take for granted now weren't really invented then and the writers can't really be faulted for not thinking about it.

But, from today's perspective? Landing parties that wear absolutely no body armor of any kind? No drones? And, given the frequency of unarmed combat, you'd think they'd at the very least carry some kind of taser. :D

I always thought Andromeda, as schlockey as it was, was at least making a decent attempt to spackle over the holes. The ship has on board security measures like gun emplacements. The sensors are so good that the ship can detect the extra weight of a boarding party and locate them. Total control over gravity plating to immobilize intruders. On and on.
These things are all reasonably easy to add, details mostly. Body Armor and Drones might not be effective against Phasers and Disruptors, but OK; Enviro suits could be like the Space X space suits. Still 99% of the budget gets absorbed in spacecraft. Logistical supply chains that stretch from different star systems, one gets around to million dollar bullets eventually, so a lot of weapons might not be the best, but merely good enough.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Well, yeah. So what? If the genre mix doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. If you're expecting something modeling reality rather than genre, you're going to be out of luck.
True, although sometimes the designers just don't do a good job. There are plenty of examples of abstractions that don't work out.

But I think you're also skating on another problem that comes up - when specialized player knowledge exceeds the game designers' or GM's knowledge. You see it a lot when a game includes something relatively abstract - like a weapon's qualities, AC, or even lumping every equine into a monster stat block called "Horse". Some player with a modicum of more specialized knowledge pipes up with "That's not realistic" and proposes house rules to model their understanding of reality and end up making it too hard to deal with and/or useless.
Yes, this is very true. Abstraction is an essential part of a good design.

IMO it's more important for skills to be relevant and useful, which is one reason I'm not very happy with the 5E skill system (such as it is). What actual use does a skill like Medicine have, for example? Almost none unless the DM gives one and even then the Healer feat totally owns it and doesn't require the Medicine skill. 4E had skill powers, which were a nice addition to the game, so being proficient in a skill actually mattered.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
TOS Starfleet does have some stuff that got lost later, like mortars! For some reason TV/film SF tends to really dislike indirect-fire weapons.
FIlm/TV SF is visual media about characters interacting with the world. Indirect fire is about them indirectly interacting with things - in visual media, breaking the line of sigh breaks the ability to show the relationship and interaction between the character and the target.

Like, if a character plants a bomb, and runs to a distance... they still usually frame it so you see the character and the explosion in the same frame, even though there's generally no real reason for there to be a line of sight. Same basic idea.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
FIlm/TV SF is visual media about characters interacting with the world.
Right and that's why armor and helmets are also crummy in film---they obscure the actor, make the characters hard to tell apart visually, and deny the filmmaker and actor one of the most important tools of emotional expression, namely the face and body. Facelessness usually ratchets up anxiety, which is why things like medical face masks are so anxiety inducing. However, this undermines the humanity of the characters to the viewer.

Of course there are heroes like Master Chief whose identity is essentially "faceless mech" but recall that Halo is an FPS, so you're not really looking at Master Chief much. The facelessness also makes for a good "this could me me" aspect that's helpful to an FPS.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Right and that's why armor and helmets are also crummy in film---they obscure the actor, make the characters hard to tell apart visually, and deny the filmmaker and actor one of the most important tools of emotional expression, namely the face and body.
I remember reading a film exec on the subject, that if the star was in a full face helmet, they might as well be nobody, and they don't pay the stars to act like nobodies. So things like Urban's Dredd will be very rare, only to make a point.
 

LuisCarlos17f

Explorer
This makes me remember the classic controversy realism vs gameplay in the shooter videogames. I play Fortnite: save the world, sometimes with a ninja against gunmen, and the heroes with a melee weapon against soldiers is epic in the fiction, but imposible in a real life, and most of videogames. I remember a gif about Assasin's Creed III. In the expectation there is a cinematic where the hero charges against a squad, and in the gameplay it was practically a useless sacrifice.

We have to admit it: martial artist from Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters or Street Fighters couldn't defeat shooters from Overwatch, Quake Arena, Team Fortress, Battleborn or Paladins: Champions of the Realm.

* Other matter is RPGs where firearms are crafted manually, not by machines in factories, because it is a post-apocalypse setting. Here guns and ammo are luxury used only in emergencies.

* In a fantasy world mini arcanetech motors could be used to reload crossbows. And I say it again, DM could use "bulletproof" creatures (undead, constructs, trolls or werebeasts).

* Sometimes I imagine a setting where there is a confrontation between warmages (3.5 D&D class) and gunslingers(Pathfinder). How would be the balance of power?
 

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