The Western Way of War

by Volker Bach

" . . . then the Batavian auxiliaries began putting in their well-aimed sword thrusts, striking with their shield bosses, cutting up faces . . . "
Tacitus, Agricola 36, 2

" . . . first their quarters, then their wardes, blowes, thrusts, and breaking of thrusts, then their closes and gripes, striking with the hilts, Daggers, Bucklers, Wrastlings, striking with the foote or knee in the Coddes . . . "
George Silver, The Paradoxes of Defense

There are few GMs running fantasy campaigns who have not, at some point, been irked by the question: "Can I play a samurai?" That is, of course, because samurai (or ninjas, or Shao Lin monks, or just about every mysterious Asian fighter) are trained in the martial arts, while knights, longbowmen, legionaries, and bravos merely have some unconnected, unrelated and usually comparatively ineffective weapon skills. That this very widespread misconception is adopted wholesale by most roleplaying games does nothing to dispel it. The usual solutions are either to enforce (against the wishes of the players) running the campaign on a strictly western line, or populating the fantasy middle ages (or, for that matter, the historical medieval period) with wandering ninjas, outcast ronin, and enslaved Chinese fighter monks. A third option is to flesh out the fighting abilities of those legionaries, knights and Vikings with what we know of Europe's native Martial Arts tradition. It won't (and shouldn't) make them the equals of high-kicking cinematic Shao Lin monks, but it helps to close the "coolness gap" yawning between East and West in these matters.

The biggest problem facing enterprising GMs is that, while books and roleplaying supplements on Asian martial arts abound, the Western traditions that came before Renaissance fencing are obscure and little understood. Little or nothing of them survives to this day, and the written and pictorial sources are rare, full of gaps, and hard to interpret. The largely academic work done on the matter translates badly into roleplaying. However, it is possible, with some handwaving and a lot of educated guesswork, to put together a picture of western martial training.

The differences are obvious at first glance. Europe's martial arts tradition is mostly armed, using empty-hand techniques only to supplement weapon strikes. It is also utilitarian, almost completely lacking the mystique of the Oriental schools. There were no meditative or mystical elements in its swordplay, no religious significance in its kicks and grapples, and accordingly, tales of cinematic feats were few and far between. This does not mean that there was no sophistication, though. Whereever we get glimpses of them, combat styles were complex and refined, often including highly specialized and difficult moves as a matter of course. Any GM looking to include Martial Arts rules in his campaign will find them easily the equal of the more popular Eastern styles.

The descriptions of styles in this article are largely conjectural, with a lot of guesswork to fill in gaps. The decision whether to call an unarmed technique Brawling or Karate, Wrestling or Judo has been made conservatively. GMs should feel free to upgrade them whenever they feel it appropriate, generally tinker with the styles, and create personal and period varieties. We know these existed, though it is impossible to tell from the sources what they were like. The article also concentrates exclusively on combat styles used in war. 'Civilian' styles must have existed, but unfortunately we have no information about them after AD 300.

New Maneuvers

Hook (Hard)   

Defaults to Polearm-2, Axe/Mace-2, Two-Handed Sword-2 or Two-Handed Axe/Mace-2
Prerequisite: Polearm, Axe/Mace, Two-Handed Axe/Mace or Two-Handed Sword
Cannot exceed prerequisite skill level

This attack can be used with every weapon that has a hook or hooked beak (halberds, picks, bearded axes, bills, daggeraxes, poleaxes and various exotic polearms fall into this category). A specialised form of the Maneuver is also used with the quillons of two-handed swords gripped by the ricasso. The attacker uses the hook to catch the target's limb, weapon or shield (the attack must be specifically targeted to one of these. Hit Location penalties apply).

A Hook attempt can be dodged, parried, or blocked. However, since the Hook does not depend on getting through armor, the PD of all armor is reduced by 2 for purposes of defending against this attack. After a successful Hook, the attacker pulls his weapon to put the target off balance. This pull happens on the same turn, immediately after the attack. If the weapon's hook is sharp this may cause some cutting damage in the process (GM's call. The amount should not exceed thr-1 even for the largest weapons). Armor protects fully. Other effects depend on what is hooked.

If a weapon is caught, the attacker may attempt to disarm the target. Roll a Quick Contest between the attacker's Hook and the defender's Weapon Skill or Retain Weapon Maneuver. If the attacker wins, the target is disarmed. If the defender wins he retains his weapon, but an unbalanced weapon is unready the following turn. Swords, knives and similar weapons without protrusions to catch onto can not be hooked. If a shield is hooked the attacker can pull it aside. Roll a Quick Contest between the attacker's Hook and the defender's Shield Skill. If the attacker wins, the shield becomes unready. The defender is prevented from blocking and loses the benefit of its PD until he can re-ready it.

If a limb or the neck is hooked, the attacker may pull the defender off balance. Roll a Contest of ST between the attacker and defender (the attacker is at -1 if he uses one hand only, +1 for a weapon with Reach 2, +2 for one with Reach 3. A mounted defender may substitute his Riding Skill for ST). If the weapon does damage to an unprotected location, the defender needs to make a Will Roll to force himself to resist the pull (+2 for Combat Reflexes, +4 for High Pain Threshold). If the attacker wins the Contest of ST, the defender is pulled off balance and can not use any attacks or Active Defenses the following round. If he wins by more than 2, the defender falls down. If the defender wins he keeps his balance and can act normally.

Mounted Shooting (Hard)   

Defaults to any Ranged Weapon Skill-4
Cannot exceed prerequisite skill level; must specialize

In addition to the bow, cavalrymen can learn to competently use almost any ranged weapon while mounted. Javelins and darts were commonly used from horseback in Antiquity, crossbows in the late Middle Ages, and carbines and pistols in the modern world. This Maneuver represents such training. It reduces the penalty for shooting from a moving horse for other weapons in exactly the same manner that Horse Archery does for the Bow Skill.

Mounting Vault (Average)   

Defaults to Riding-3, Jumping Acrobatics or Equestrian Acrobatics
Prerequisite: Riding

Before the introduction of the stirrup most riders were used to mounting their horses either with help from a comrade or by using a stepping stone. Cavalrymen, and anyone else who depended on speed and versatility, were trained to vault into the saddle. For an unencumbered man to jump on a standing horse with a 3-hex running start is at Riding-3. Add the rider's Encumbrance and the horse's Move, if any, to the Penalty. Rome's elite cavalrymen were able to leap onto a trotting horse in full armor.

Attempting to vault onto a horse is tricky. On a failure, roll vs. DX immediately. On a success the rider is left standing beside the horse looking stupid. On a failure he falls to the ground. A critical failure results in a fall and spooks the horse.

Swim with Mount (Average)   

Defaults to Riding-4
Prerequisite: Riding
Cannot exceed prerequisite skill level

This Maneuver represents the ability to control a horse in the water. The Celtic and Germanic tribes of Northwestern Europe were masters of this art, and many Roman cavalrymen were trained specifically in it. A roll has to be made when entering the water and every time the rider tries to change direction or do anything other than just sit still. Obviously, the horse has to be trained to do this as well. The best horsemen were supposedly able to throw javelins, shoot bows and engage in swordfights while their mounts were swimming. Even less able cavalrymen using this Maneuver will be able to cross rivers, lakes and inlets without putting aside their armor and shield and emerge on the opposite bank fully battle-ready.

Twirling Javelin (Hard)   

Defaults to Spear Throwing -2
Prerequisite: Spear Throwing
Cannot exceed prerequisite skill level

It is possible to throw a balanced javelin so that it flies end over end, like a throwing axe, rather than in a straight line. This allows the thrower to send the spear around an enemy's shield but requires a good eye for range to make sure the weapon doesn't impact sideways, or butt forward. A twirling javelin reduces the effective PD of a shield by 2 for all Active Defenses. However, it is less accurate (Acc 1) and has less range (1/2 Dam: ST, Max: ST x 1 1/2) than a regularly thrown javelin. The Twirling Javelin Maneuver was taught to Roman cavalrymen to fight shield-bearing warriors in close formation. It is impressive to look at, but not much use beyond this narrow specialty.


In spite of tantalising glimpses through Egyptian frescos, Assyrian reliefs and Syrian pottery we do not know enough to reconstruct the martial arts of the ancient Orient. Certainly these old and often warlike civilisations had sophisticated fighting techniques to teach to their warriors, though, and GMs wanting to speculate need not stick to the 'primitive' mode. However, our first glimpses of a recognisable fighting system in surviving sources comes from Greece and Rome.

In the Greek city states of the Classical age, every citizen was a soldier and martial skills were widespread and considered essential to a well-rounded upbringing. Even long after the citizen armies of the Classical polis had been abandoned, military training was part of a proper education for every male Hellene. For most, this meant little more than the basics of handling shield and spear and a degree of physical conditioning at the public gymnasion, but dedicated practitioners went farther than that. eachers of the hoplomachia (lit. 'armed combat') as well as the empty-hand sports of boxing, wrestling and pankration, offered their services to eager youths. Their status was disputed, some thinking them essential to a city's military strength while others regarded them as dangerous men of doubtful morals. Indeed, some philosophers agued that this kind of training was detrimental to a soldier since it taught him how to defend himself rather than rely on his comrades in the firm battle line.



Hoplomachoi led with their heavy round shields (PD 3, 15 lbs), often held out at an angle in front of the body or even horizontally, with the rim pointed at the opponent. Attacks were often led by shield bashes and executed with the spear, targeting unarmored locations. Fighters were trained to use the pointed butt spike aggressively when an occasion presented itself. Some used slashing broadswords as secondary weapons, but shortswords were more common. All were trained to grapple and stab with their swords or butt spikes in close combat.

Primary Skills: Shield; Spear; Wrestling
Secondary Skills: Boxing or Brawling; Broadsword or Shortsword; Running
Maneuvers: Close Combat (Broadsword or Shortsword); Hit Location (Spear); Lunge (Spear); Spinning Strike (Spear)
Cinematic Skills: Immoveable Stance
Cinematic Maneuvers: Enhanced Block

The Roman legionaries, starting out with the Greek tradition, developed a distinctive fighting style of their own. We can get a reasonably accurate picture of this armatura from the sources for the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, when the Roman army was placed on a professional footing and the troops received thorough training. The basic forms were similar for legionaries, auxiliaries and marines, though the various arms emphasised different weapons. In many cities the young men of the upper and middle classes also took instruction in military combat styles as a matter of pride. The armatura was taught by professional instructors, sometimes brought in from gladiatorial schools. Roman soldiers positively prided themselves of their knowledge of dirty tricks, and any number of unsporting Maneuvers could reasonably be added to the style.



Roman soldiers were trained to lead with their shields carried on the long arm and used aggressively to bash or shove the enemy. They attacked with the sword around the sides, preferring the stab to the cut so as not to expose themselves. Auxiliaries also used a stabbing spear. Close combat techniques were less emphasised.

Primary Skills: Broadsword (for auxiliaries) or Shortsword (for legionaries), Hiking; Shield; Spear (for auxiliaries) or Spear Throwing (for legionaries)
Secondary Skills: Brawling; Knife; Spear Throwing (for auxiliaries) or Spear (for legionaries); Wrestling
Optional Skills: Axe/Mace; Bow; Riding (horse); Sling; Swimming
Maneuvers: Feint (Broadsword or Shortsword); Hit Location (Broadsword or Shortsword); Retain Weapon (Broadsword or Shortsword)
Cinematic Skills or Maneuvers: The Roman legions were a prosaic bunch, and few legendary feats of arms are reported. However, given the great store Roman writers put by the stamina and bravery of their troops, several levels of Extra Fatigue and Fearlessness as well as the Immoveable Stance Skill seem appropriate. Power Blow (shortsword), Enhanced Block and Kiai (the barritus battlecry) also fit the mix.

The cavalrymen of the Roman Empire combined the martial traditions of the various subject peoples into a composite, highly effective fighting style that blended standoff engagements (every cavalryman had to be proficient with either the javelin or the bow) with hand-to-hand techniques. It survived through much of the Dark Ages. More heavily armored, carrying a longer spear and less reliant on the shield, the cavalrymen of Byzantium and Dark Age Europe used a similar style. Byzantine cavalrymen were trained with the bow while Western ones usually used the javelin. A historical 'Knight of King Arthur' would be trained in the armatura equestris.


13/-- POINTS

The horsemen of the Roman Empire faced the enemy with their shield side, protected by a medium shield of light construction wielded in a mobile blocking style. Some were trained as mounted archers (slipping the shield behind their back on a sling rather than abandoning it altogether), but the majority used the spear and javelin as their main arms. Thrusting broadswords similar to those used by the auxiliaries were worn and competently handled by all Roman cavalrymen. (Some cavalrymen were recruited from the infantry and already were fully trained in the armatura).

Primary Skills: Bow [2] or Spear Throwing; Broadsword; Riding (Horse); Shield; Spear
Secondary Skills: Knife; Swimming; Wrestling
Optional Skills: Axe/Mace; Brawling; Fast Draw (Arrow or Javelin)
Maneuvers: Direct Mount; Fighting While Mounted (Spear); Fighting While Mounted (Broadsword); Hit Location (Spear); Horse Archery or Mounted Shooting (Javelin); Mounting Vault; Swim with Mount; Twirling Javelin (javelineers only)
Cinematic Skills and Maneuvers: No cinematic Skills or Maneuvers other than incredibly high levels of skill with their ranged weapons are reported of Roman cavalrymen (one of them left an epitaph commemorating how he shot an arrow into the air, then split it in two with a second before it hit the ground, while on the back of a swimming horse in the middle of the Danube!). Some units were specifically trained to cross bodies of water with their mounts in formation.

The Middle Ages

To historians of the martial arts the proverbial Dark Ages extend from AD 400 right up to AD 1300. Some texts and paintings offer rare glimpses of combat techniques that reasonably could (and probably did) combine into a coherent whole, but before the turn of the fourteenth century this material is scarce. However, the very sophistication of the martial techniques that come to light after this date point to a highly developed earlier tradition. It is not unreasonable to suppose that the fighting men of barbarian and medieval Europe kept their battle edge finely honed.

The warriors of Migration Era Europe (c. AD 450-800), including the Vikings, practiced a style we know only in outline. It was partly born from Germanic traditions and partly developed from Late Roman military training but unique in its style. Traditionally, strength was the most admired attribute in a warrior, though speed and dexterity counted for a lot in practice. The most common main weapon was the spear, with many warriors carrying several light ones for throwing and a heavier thrusting weapon for close-quarter fighting. Wealthier men used heavy broadswords geared primarily towards slashing blows, with axes and large fighting knives (Shortsword Skill) still commonly used in battle. Large, light wooden shields were carried by almost everyone, but armor was rarer than in preceding periods. The shields were flimsy by Roman or Greek standards and quickly disintegrated in battle, but they were well suited for this fluid, mobile foot combat style.


10/18 POINTS

Warriors trained in this school led with their light shields, actively blocking incoming blows and missiles. The shields were quickly destroyed in battle until only the iron boss remained, which was used as a weapon of defense and offense in the left hand (this may be the origin of the sword-and-buckler play that became a style in its own right in later medieval Europe). Parrying with the weapon was only the last line of defense. The main weapons of attack were the spear and axe or (if they owned one) the sword. Very strong men sometimes specialised in the two-handed axe after c. 1000.

Primary Skills: Brawling; Shield; Spear; Spear Throwing; one of Axe/Mace, Broadsword, or Shortsword
Secondary Skills: Bow; Buckler; Two-Handed Axe/Mace; Wrestling
Optional Skills: Axe Throwing; Knife; Riding (Horse); Swimming
Maneuvers: Close Combat (Sword or Axe/Mace); Hit Location (Spear); Hook (Axe); Kicking; Off-Hand Weapon Training (Sword or Axe/Mace)
Cinematic Skills: Kiai; Power Blow (Sword or Axe/Mace)
Cinematic Maneuvers: Enhanced Block

With the rise of the knights (milites) in the 10th to 12th centuries, mounted combat techniques come once again into focus in the sources. Aristocratic fighting men were trained from an early age, and standards were high (Hrabanus Maurus wrote that a boy not trained to be a fighter from age 12 would never be up to scratch). Foot combat, while still taught, was no longer emphasised, to the point where the mounted warrior was thought the only true warrior.


12/14 POINTS

The early knights relied heavily on their large round or kite-shaped shields to protect themselves. They led with the shield side both on foot and mounted, attacking with long spears one-handed. Their broadswords, status symbols and main weapons in man-to-man combat, were used mostly to deliver overarm slashing blows. Stirrups were common and the spear was occasionally seen couched under the right arm, though their saddles did not yet give the support needed for a true 'couched lance' attack and overarm blows, stabs and throws were equally familiar attack modes.

Primary Skills: Broadsword; Riding (Horse) [2]; Shield; Spear; Wrestling
Secondary Skills: Axe/Mace; Brawling; Knife; Spear Throwing
Optional Skills: Animal Handling; Bow; Swimming; Throwing
Maneuvers: Direct Mount; Fighting while Mounted (Broadsword); Fighting while Mounted (Spear); Hit Location (Spear); Mounting Vault; Retain Weapon (Spear)
Cinematic Skills: Power Blow (Spear); Kiai
Cinematic Maneuvers: None are specifically mentioned, but Enhanced Block would be in character.

In the 12th century a slightly different style of combat was developed that remained common in outline well into the 14th century. This is the more stereotypical 'knight' in a long hauberk and mail chausses, a coat of plates on his torso and a fully enclosed great helm, all in bright heraldic colors. Around this time the 'couched lance' style became the knight's trademark attack to the exclusion of most other uses. Horsemanship was still all-important and training had to begin at an early age to gain proficiency.


11/12 POINTS

Knights of the high middle ages were still skilled in multirole combat, but the emphasis was much more on horsemanship and the use of the lance. They led with the right, often discarding the shield altogether, and increasingly avoided dismounting. Their style of swordsmanship began to favor the stab over the slash (this is a good place to implement the Primacy of the Point Optional Rule from SWp. 23), and parrying became more important as shields shrank. Swords in the period were made longer, and fighters began to develop the habit of gripping them with two hands for extra power (+1 damage).

Primary Skills: Axe/Mace; Broadsword; Lance; Riding (horse) [2]; Wrestling
Secondary Skills: Bow or Crossbow; Brawling; Buckler; Knife; Shield
Optional Skills: Animal Handling; Climbing; Spear
Maneuvers: Direct Mount; Fighting While Mounted (Axe/Mace); Fighting While Mounted (Broadsword); Hit Location (Lance); Tip Slash (Lance)
Cinematic Skills: Power Blow (Broadsword)
Cinematic Maneuvers: None are mentioned, but Enhanced Parry and Enhanced Block are both defensible.

Into the Renaissance

Rare manuscripts and notes by chroniclers and poets afford us a glimpse of the martial arts as practised in Europe after 1300. The whole topic is too wide to be included in this article in full, but as many of the texts deal with combat practised by the knightly classes they can be used to piece together a view of what a knight's combat training looked like at the time.

(Editor's note: A fuller treatment of the various weapon styles taught in Europe between 1250 and 1500 will be found in the companion article "Vechten unde Schirmen," appearing next month.)

In the later 14th and 15th centuries the picture of knightly combat changed drastically. Highly developed armor and the relative uselessness of the lance against disciplined infantry forced knights to abandon their cherished heavy cavalry role in favor of a more versatile training in foot and mounted combat. Great emphasis was placed on agility and speed in heavy armor as a man's survival increasingly depended on his ability to parry or dodge incoming blows - shields were almost completely abandoned. The free left hand could now lend extra force to blows and aid parries and trick strokes in the two-handed weapon techniques that became a regular feature of martial training at the time. Knights adopted the thrusting bastard sword and poleaxe as their principal weapons, developing mastery of both into refined arts.


15/-- POINTS

Late medieval knights faced their opponent squarely or leading with the left. They discarded the shield in favor of two-handed weapons, favoring the 6-7' poleaxe with thrusting spikes on either end. This was held by a centered grip like a staff, diagonally in front of the body for better parrying ability. The bastard sword was often handled in a similar fashion, concentrating on defense. (GMs may want to consider allowing the Improved Parry Maneuver for Two-Handed Sword). Refined grappling techniques and a repertoire of knife moves to complement them rounded out their foot combat training. On horseback they were limited almost completely to their role as lancefighters, though they trained with the bastard sword for single combat against cavalry and infantry. Maces and picks were widely carried as secondary weapons for their armor-piercing ability.

Primary Skills: Axe/Mace; Lance; Polearm; Riding (Horse); Staff; Two-Handed Sword; Judo
Secondary Skills: Brawling; Broadsword; Knife
Optional Skills: Animal Handling; Spear
Maneuvers: Close Combat (Knife); Counterattack (2-Hd. Sword); Direct Mount; Fighting While Mounted (2-Hd. Sword); Hit Location (2-Hd. Sword); Hook (Polearm); Spinning Strike (Polearm); Sweep (Polearm)
Cinematic Skills and Maneuvers: the emphasis on parrying ability by contemporary instructors makes Enhanced Parry credible.

The Horsemen of Islam

The fighting style of the early Muslim armies is still shrouded in mystery, around the 13th century we begin to get a picture of the training Islamic elite mounted fighters received. In defiance of a long-standing myth Islamic horsemen wore armor, often more than their Christian opponents. However, their training and tactics fitted them better to the role of light cavalry. Their reliance on the bow prevented them from using large shields and furthered the development of a two-handed lancefighting style more like the Roman tradition than the Frankish. They were also very fond of exotic weapons such as fire siphons, naphtha grenades and crossbows that could shoot primitive molotov cocktails! Contemporary with the knights, a class of professional warrior emerged in the Islamic world that developed this style to a fine art. It is from the Mamluks of Egypt, soldiers purchased on the slave markets and trained from childhood, that training manuals detailing the furusiyya (combat horsemanship) survive. Keep in mind, though, that not all Islamic warriors were trained to such exacting specifications.


15/23 POINTS

Practitioners of furusiyya were trained in a fast-paced, fluid style of combat keeping their distance from their enemies and engaging them only on ground of their choosing. Mounted, they alternated between showering the enemy with arrows and swooping in for a devastating lance attack. Their swordsmanship emphasised the cutting stroke and some of them used an intriguingly cinematic two-sword style.

Primary Skills: Bow; Broadsword; Riding (Horse) [2]; Spear
Secondary Skills: Axe/Mace; Fast-Draw (Arrow); Knife; Lance; Shield; Wrestling
Optional Skills: Brawling; Crossbow; Equestrian Acrobatics; Fire Siphon; Throwing
Maneuvers: Attack and Fly Out; Fighting While Mounted (Spear) [2]; Fighting While Mounted (Broadsword); Hit Location (Spear); Hit Location (Broadsword); Horse Archery; Mounting Vault; Off-Hand Weapon Training (Broadsword)
Cinematic Skills: Zen Archery would be appropriate, though the flavor is very different from the meditative Kyudo.
Cinematic Maneuvers: Dual Weapon Attack (Broadsword); Enhanced Parry

Further Reading

Unfortunately, most books on the subject are in German or French. There are some useful sources available in English, though. A good start, and within financial reach of most roleplayers, are the lavishly illustrated military history books by Osprey Books. To pursue the matter further, you may want to look at these books:

* * *

Thanks to Michael Hornbostel, andi jones, Nigel McCarthy-Eigenmann, David P. Summers, Johannes Trimmel and the Saturday Bunch for playtesting and comments.

Article publication date: March 9, 2001

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